The fourth stop on our Big Fat Greek Summer Vacation was the island of Crete! We were very excited to visit Crete because we had featured it as a destination in our “We Leave Someday” blog posts and now, we get to post about it on “We Leave Today”! Here are 10 tips to help you plan a trip to Crete.
1. Why choose Crete:
Crete is one of 226 inhabited islands in Greece and also the largest. About 260 kms long and 56 kms wide (at its widest point), Crete is known for its diverse landscape from rugged mountain ranges, cypress forests, coves, and beaches. For us, Crete offered the most varied experience based on how we like to travel: there were hotels where we could redeem Marriott points and there are many things to do that don’t revolve around having to take guided tours.
2. When to visit:
Crete, like other European destinations, is very popular with tourists in the summer months. As Greece was open for tourism in summer 2021 and had health protocols for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, it was busy but not as busy as pre-pandemic seasons. Initially, were planning to visit in late May/early June but had to move our trip to late August/early September due to travel restrictions.
Despite how busy it was, we enjoyed our visit because Crete is so large and when you have your own car, you can get away from the crowds. We also found the weather to be quite pleasant; it was sunny and warm most days other than one with scattered rain/high winds during the morning.
When we go back, we will try to go after September 15th but before the end of October to get the best weather and to enjoy the island when it is less crowded after kids go back to school. Another option is to go in mid-May or early June but the sea is still cold then if you plan to swim and enjoy the beach.
3. How much time to spend:
Initially, we planned to only spend 7 days in Crete but ended up staying for 11 days. It is very rare for us to spend so much time in one place but we could have easily spent an entire month in Crete based on all the things we did not get to do. During our 11 days, we spent 7 days in the Chania area on the west side of Crete and then 4 days in Agios Nikolaos on the east side of Crete.
There are lots of factors involved in deciding how much time to spend in Crete but our recommendation is to spend at least 5 days in either the Chania or Heraklion area.
4. Where to stay:
You should try to figure out what you want to do in Crete before you choose which area of the island to stay. Below is a list of common things people want to do when visiting Crete and suggestions on which area to stay based on not driving more than 1.5 hours away from where you are staying.
- Balos Beach: west side of Crete
- Elafonissi Beach: west side of Crete
- Wine and olive oil tasting: west and east side of Crete as there are options near Chania and Heraklion
- Knossos Palace: east side of Crete near Heraklion
- Spinalonga Island: east side of Crete
- Arkadi Monastery: about 1.5 hours away from both Chania and Heraklion
- Heraklion Archaeological Museum: east side of Crete
- Samaria Gorge: west side of Crete
We found things to enjoy in all the major towns/cities we visited and cannot pick a favorite. Here is some general information:
- Chania: Known for its Venetian harbor and is probably the most visited. People say it is less authentic but we found the areas away from the tourist areas nice too. Chania has a great dining scene and the old town is very interesting to explore and learn about history.
- Rethymno: Some people recommending staying in Rethymno as it is the middle point between Chania and Heraklion and it is a charming village. We did enjoy being in Rethymno during our visit but found there were limited accommodations based on our personal preferences and driving/parking in the town was very difficult due to how busy it is. It is a very popular place for those staying at the all-inclusive resorts on the coast to visit for the day.
- Heraklion: Heraklion is known for being a lively city due to the student population here. It is less known for its architecture but worth a visit. We had lunch one day and took the ferry to Santorini from the port one day. We are not sure if we would stay in Heraklion though as it does lack some of that charm found in Chania, Rethymno and Agios Nikolaos.
- Agios Nikolaos: Agios Nikolaos is a picturesque town popular with local and international tourists alike. It is set around Voulousmeni Lake in the middle and many bars and restaurants surround it. Despite the touristy aspect of Agios Nikolaos, it is a place where people live and enjoy being out and about.
If possible, we recommend diving up your stay in 2 areas like we did. We also explored on the way to the east side of Crete during the journey to save time. For us, Chania and Agios Nikolaos were our favorites of the larger towns.
Here are reviews of the places we stayed:
- Review: The Theodore Boutique Hotel, Chania, Crete
- Review: Domes Zeen, a Luxury Collection Resort in Chania Crete
- Review: The Island Concept Boutique Hotel, Agios Nikolaos, Crete
5. Getting Around:
Crete is very large and the most convenient way to get around is by renting a car. This will also give you the freedom to explore freely and create your own itinerary.
We also found it much easier to drive in Crete than we did in Mykonos and Corfu due to the roads and have gotten used to driving in Greece. In Crete, the roads are larger; there is a highway that goes from east to west. There are still very narrow roads, hairpin turns, and spots with no guardrails but overall it was manageable and enjoyable to drive here.
We do recommend avoiding Seitan Limania, a hidden cove beach on Crete. The road is very steep with many switchbacks and no guardrails for a portion of it; many rental cars were struggling.
A few driving specific tips:
- Passing: If you want to let someone pass you, drive partially on the shoulder and others will do the same for you to let you pass.
- Speed Limits: Signs for speed limits are few and far between but it’s 50 km/h in cities and villages (you’ll go much slower than that in some villages!)) and 90 km/h on the highway. Google Maps was very accurate at pointing out where the speed cams are you’ll notice the speed limit drops dramatically in these spots.
- Goats and Sheep: Many of the goats and sheep have bells so driver with your windows open to hear them better. If they end up on the road, just honk to get them out of the way!
- International Driver’s Licence: Unless you hold a driver’s licence from a country recognzed by Greece, you will need an International Driver’s Licence. We made sure to get our International Drivers License from our local BCAA (British Columbia Automobile Association) prior to our departure but you can also get one online too (NOTE: we have not used this service but fellow travelers have recommended it). Some people do not get an international drivers license in Greece even if it is the law but since it’s easy and cheap to get the license, not worth the risk of getting caught and paying a fine.
6. Cash VS Credit Card:
We heard that many places only accept cash and so we prepared accordingly. Most of the restaurants accepted credit card but the tip is paid in cash and so you need to have small change for tips. We just found it easier to pay with cash and round up to leave tips.
7. ATMS- Withdrawing Cash:
The best rate we found for ATMs is at Europbank. We were not charged %’s above the regular conversion rate or high surcharges. We also avoided accepting the Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) which is a ripoff. Make sure to say “no” twice going through the prompts.
8. Business Names in Greek VS English:
You may find a business name in English on TripAdvisor but their sign will be in Greek. If using Google Maps to find businesses, the names will often be in Greek only. This can be a little confusing and so using street and satellite view can help you find what you are looking for!
9. Try Cretan Food:
We really enjoyed eating at local tavernas and trying Cretan specialties, like “dakos”. Dakos is a Cretan meze made with a bread rusk topped with chopped tomatoes, cheese, olives, and herbs (think bruschetta but way more flavorful!). A Cretan salad is similar to a Greek salad but has soft cheese and rusks in it. Some restaurants like Matzenta Kuzina Del Sol in Chania use Cretan ingredients to create Mexican-inspired food. We are currently working on our eating guide to give you more ideas about where to eat to sample the best Crete has to offer.
10. Try Cretan Wine:
Crete wine-making has been a tradition for 4,000 years (according to Culture Trip) and Crete is the 2nd largest wine region in Greece. You can plan to visit wineries as part of a tour or by making arrangements yourself in advance for a self-guided tour. Some wineries like Manousakis have restaurants on-site where you can enjoy a meal paired with their wines.
Our visit to Crete was the highlight of our trip to Greece and we really want to go back! It truly is a unique place where time feels like it passes differently; it is so easy to disconnect from everything and immerse yourself in life here. “Filoxenia”, Cretan hospitality is everywhere and you will be so impressed by it!
Do you have any recommendations or tips to add? Have you been to Crete? If yes, what was the highlight of your trip?