01 of 08
Greece Map Showing the Location of Crete--and Why You Should Go
Why Go to Crete?
Crete is my favorite Greek Island. It's packed with rural charm, famous archaeological sites, seaside towns with fabulous seafood, caves of historic significance and more.
Our little guided tour will take you on a walk through the deep and inspiring Samaria Gorge, a visit to the best of many archaeological sites in Greece, a walk in the countryside with a stop at the famous cave where Zeus was said to have been born, and you'll spend a bit of time in the cities.
The amazing thing is that all of this is available to do on inexpensive public transportation. There's really no need to rent a car and drive on Crete's narrow and winding roads, an enormous bus can do it better--and often cheaper.
How To Get to Crete
Most people get to Crete by Ferry. You can take a ferry from Piraeus (the port of Athens) directly to Crete. It takes about 9 hours on standard, lumbering but romantic ferries--but around 6 hours on the newer ferries. The ferries are timed to arrive early in the morning to Crete, so you can save the cost of a hotel by sleeping on one. Get there early, as the place can get confusing and complicated with all the motor traffic arriving. Allow for some flexibility in your sailing, ferries can be canceled in case of very bad weather.
You can choose ferries that land in Heraklion, Chania, or Rethumno. The boat to Chania actually lands in Souda port, a short way from Chania. Ferry lines serving Crete are Minoan, ANEK, and SuperFast.
Crete is also served by three airports. Heraklion is served by Nikos Kazantzakis Airport, Chania is served by Chania Airport, also known as the "K. Daskalogiannis" airport, and the new and smaller Sitia Airport.
How Long Should I Spend in Crete?
The short answer is a week or more. Crete is Europe's slow lane, and there's a whole lot to see. It's also pretty far from anywhere else, and you don't want to take 4 hours to get to a place you're only planning on staying for two days.
When is the Best Time to Go to Crete?
Summers are full of tourists, and the paths are narrow. Opt for the off-season, but not too far off or you'll find fewer ferries and ways to get around. For weather and historic climate charts for the capital city Heraklion or Iraklion, read on, or skip ahead by using the links below (mousing over them to see the titles).Continue to 2 of 8 below.
02 of 08
Heraklion, Greece historic average temperatures
The chart shows the historic average temperatures for the capital of Crete, Heraklion.
As you can see, the summer temperatures are quite warm (remember these are average temperatures) and the lows are quite pleasant, if not downright hot. If you avoid July and August, you'll have cooler temperatures at night, which I always feel makes it quite a bit more pleasant. By May the high temperatures are getting quite comfortable, and the fall temperatures don't taper off much, so I recommend September and October, and May and the first half of June as ideal.
Next we'll look at the average rainfall in Crete, from the station in Heraklion.Continue to 3 of 8 below.
03 of 08
Heraklion Average Rainfall Chart | Crete Weather and Climate
Here you can see the average rainfall that hits Heraklion on the northern coast of Crete. It's a typical Mediterranean climate, with relatively wet winters and dry summers. In this case it isn't expected to rain at all in July and August.Continue to 4 of 8 below.
04 of 08
About Crete | Map and General Information on Crete
The small map of Crete above shows you the shape of the island. The larger towns are all on the north coast, the blue lines indicate the numerous ferries that depart for Pireus, the port of Athens, and other island groups. We'll zoom into the map later.
Crete History and Essentials
Crete is the largest of the Greek Islands and was the center of the Minoan civilization from around 2700 to 1420 BC. It is 160 miles (260 km) across, west to east, and 37 miles wide at its widest point. The palace of Knossos, south of the capital Heraklion, was the first European palace, according to Wikipedia.
Heraklion is the largest city, with over 100,000 inhabitants. Second in size is Chania with just over 50,000.
One of the things that makes Crete a compelling destination is the variety of cultures who have occupied the island. A short list: Minoans, Mycenaeans, Romans, Byzantines, Emirate of Crete (Iberian Muslms), Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire.
A visit to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion will give you a good idea of what was going on here. Go before you visit Knossos.
Next, we'll explore the western third of Crete, which hosts one of Europe's best walks, the walk down the Samaria Gorge.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
05 of 08
Map of western Crete showing the towns of Chania and the Samaria Gorge
Chania is probably my favorite of Crete's larger towns. I remember eating seafood in many of the restaurants near the harbor with considerable fondness. If you like food, of course, you can exercise so that you can consume more of it--and a walk down through the Samaria Gorge, especially in the offseason, is a way to do get that exercise.
Walking the Samaria Gorge
The Samaria Gorge is a narrow north-south trending gorge that ends a couple of km short of the small seaside village of Agia Roumeli. The gorge is within the National Park of Samaria, in the White Mountains. There is a trail through the gorge, open to the public at the beginning of May or so, depending on the weather. The walking distance of the trail is 16 km (to Agia Roumeli, with restaurants and a ferry). In summer there can be 3000 folks wanting to walk the narrow gorge. The first tourist buses arrive at 7:30, so an early start is recommended for walkers who like a bit of solitude along the way.
Generally, most folks on a budget take a one hour KTEL bus ride from Chania to Omalos, located on the map above, walking the 2km to the trail head, walking the gorge and ending at Agia Roumeli, where you can get a ferry to Chora Sfakion (Sfakion on the map) and a connecting bus back to Chiana.
You can also take an organized tour to the Samaria Gorge from other cities in Crete.
Wear stout shoes as the path, while very well maintained is rocky. The first couple of kilometers is a fairly steep downhill. Carry a water bottle; there are springs along the way you can fill it from.
Western Crete Travel ResourcesContinue to 6 of 8 below.
06 of 08
Central and Western Crete Map - Knossos, Lassithi Plateau, and Cities
Central Crete is rich in archaeological sites and isolated rural areas like the fertile Lasithi plateau, resources of which which have been used throughout history and prehistory. Here we present some of Crete's best sites and another interesting walk you can take, the Lasithi Plateau loop.
Getting to Knossos
From Crete's capital, Heraklion, the Minoan palace of Knossos is a few kilometers away by bus number 2 (from the port or Plateia Eleftherios). Travel agencies offer day trips to Knossos as well. If you're driving, take the road to Archanes our of Heraklion.
Beware that the palace is quite ruined, and the "resoration" by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900 is a bit of a fantasy, but the sprawling complex is still fascinating.
Buy a combination ticket and visit the Museum in Heraklion to get an understanding of the material culture of the Minoans.
Phaistos - Palace of King Radamanthys
Phaistos is perhaps a more evocative set of palace ruins than Knossos, the hilltop setting certainly is. According to deTraci Regula:
It is associated in legend with King Radamanthys, who may have been the first "Minos" of legend, known for his wisdom, fairness, and prowess at sea. But even this may be a later overlay over another, earlier, civilization. Phaistos is also associated with some of the legends we usually assign to Knossos - Pasiphae and her encounter with the bull were said to have occurred on the plains near here, not at Knossos, where the countryside is not as favorable for the herding of cattle. An ancient quarry a few miles away has tunnels extending for miles, and until recently was marked as the site of the labyrinth on maps of Crete."~ Phaistos
What You'll See at Phaistos
You'll see two palaces, called the old and new palaces, built of ashlar blocks on different terraces. Inside are royal quarters, storerooms and workshops. There are also Minoan settlements on sites called Chalara and Aghia Photeini.
You can also visit Gortys, 17 km away from Phaistos, where it is said that Zeus made love to Europa under the plane tree. This is probably not allowed today unless you're a god...
Phaistos is 62 km south of Heraklion. Regular public transportation is available from Iraklion and Rethimnon. Travel agencies in Heraklion also offer day trips.
Remains from Phaistos--the most famous called the Phaistós Disk--are found in the Heraklion museum.
The Lassithi Plateau
I was first attracted to the Lassithi Plateau after seeing pictures of an idyllic landscape brimming with Greek cloth-sailed windmills powering irrigation pumps. Alas, there is electricity, and these windmills are no more, except for a few preserved ones for the show. But the plateau is still worth visiting, and it's still agricultural, ringed by small villages alive with the Greek spirit--and an interesting cave.
The best way to reach the Lassithi Plateau by car is by the road from Neapoli, an interesting market town in itself. There are buses from Heraklion (lines), the bus that stops in Malia and Neapoli goes on to Agios Nikolaos (timetable with prices).
We enjoyed walking the ring road around the plateau, which is an oval trending east-west, 11 kilometers by 6, an area of 25 square kilometers that's quite recognizable in satellite photos. The walk is one of our favorite walks of Europe. There are 20 or so evocative and picturesque villages to visit.
On a winding path west of Phychro is Dikteon Andron, the cave where Zeus was said to have been born. (or rather Rhea hid baby Zeus from his father Cronos to get raised there by a nymph). If you go by yourself, bring a flashlight, candles, or a torch. People have used the cave as a place of worship through the ages.
More: Lively Lassithi
Mallia is both a modern city with a big bar and nightlife scene and an ancient Minoan palace, said to have been ruled over by Sarpedon, one of the three sons of Zeus by his captured bride Europa. See: Mallia - Party Town on Crete.Continue to 7 of 8 below.
07 of 08
Where to Stay
If you want to get a hotel in advance, then you might want to consider heading to Heraklion where there are lots of hotels, priced from 30 Euros up. See Venere's user-rated Heraklion Hotels (book direct) see what's available.
Apartments and Villas
Crete has a number of options for places to stay, many along the waterfront--places you can walk to a beach from. HomeAway lists over 800 vacation rentals on Crete, from cottages and apartments to historic villas, many quite reasonably priced.
For example, the Mirtos View Apartment Rental (book direct) has a number of small apartments for 2 to 4 people within walking distance of the sea and the 18 family-run taverns that line the seashore. You'll spend less than $100 per day for 2 people. They'll rent you mountain bikes, or help you rent a car to get you there.
This is the way I would enjoy Crete.Continue to 8 of 8 below.
08 of 08
Crete: Final Words on a Fabulous Island
I first visited Crete in 1986. Two of us spent less than 9 dollars staying on the Lassithi Plateau: hotel, three meals, dinner with wine. Prices have gone up, as have the number of tourists. Crete has been found.
Still, if you go in the off season, you'll likely have a fine time. The island is undoubtedly the most interesting of Greek isles for the history-minded and for walkers. The system of bus transportation is still going strong, prices are moderate, and you can get ferried to the island and get around on public transport without worrying about renting a car. If you take day trips offered by travel agents in the city you're staying in, you'll ride in air conditioned comfort in big buses. You can do as we did, just go to the island and hit the hotspots without much planning ahead. Footloose travel, the best kind, especially in Greece.
Our Greece Travel site has more on Crete, including Nude Beaches and Resorts, and information on a ildflower tour of Crete.
I hope you've enjoyed these Crete highlights. These cover but a few of the big attractions on the island. You'll find more of your own, I'm sure.