There are so many unique experiences to fill your days in Crete, Greece. From getting lost in the back alleys of port towns to hiking gorges, exploring bright blue lagoons or simply relaxing on a pink sand beach.
Below we’ve compiled a list of things you can’t miss when visiting this beautiful Greek island, however, what you can actually fit in, all depends on how long you have. Some of these day trips are 12-hour expeditions, so choose carefully based on your schedule. See here for a guide on where to stay, how long you need & how to get around.
No matter what you choose to do, if anything at all, you’re in for a fun holiday.
Top Tours in Crete
If organized tours are your thing, check out these top recommended tours from GetMyGuide:
1. Explore Chania Town
Chania Town is the second largest city in Crete and it is absolutely stunning. The old town is full of cute apartments with balconies overlooking the harbour and small back alleys to get lost in. Cretan street music fills the air, as local fisherman go about their daily routines. Souvenir, arts-and-crafts shops are scattered throughout the streets and the walls, adorned with plants & bright flowers. We felt the atmosphere of Chania resembled similar to that of the small villages in Italy.
We came back to Chania a couple of times during our stay and thoroughly enjoyed strolling around the harbour. The light at different times of the day changed the appearance of the town entirely. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants. Although many of them are touristy, they don’t lack quality. Two of our favourites were Arismari Cretan Creative Cuisine located right on the waterfront and To Xani, hidden away in one of the back alleys. Both of them were extremely delicious and we highly recommend them!
2. Hike Samaria Gorge
The Samaria Gorge is the longest gorge in Europe and is situated in the National park of Samaria, in the White Mountains of West Crete. The hike starts near the town of Omalos at 1230m, before you reach the refreshing shores of Agia Roumeli. The hike inside the national park itself is 13km but you’ll still walk (or crawl) another 3 km before you reach the sea. Although we are not avid hikers, we do enjoy the outdoors and with a working set of legs, there wasn’t any reason not to tackle this challenge. Nearly every tour agency and hotel offer a transport package to get there, more on that below.
Our day started off cold and windy and the trails below us were steep. All you could see were forests of trees, rocks and stones, stones and more stones. The beginning of the trail, lasting for 2km, was the windiest & steepest, but handrails were present and donkeys and mules passed by, should anyone have needed help. We walked down, down & down for the majority of the trail with less than a handful of small inclines. I for once looked forward to an uphill climb… and that says something 😉
Throughout the gorge, there are multiple rest stops where you can fill up your water, use the ‘restroom’ or simply rest those legs. The scenery and shapes of the mountains change the further you descended and the gorge became narrower with multiple photo stops happening alongside the rocky terrain. The only ‘easy’ path is at the southern end of the National Park where you’ll find flat roads with no stones or stairs however it is the hottest part of the walk, with little to no shade.
It took us 6 hours from top to bottom with many stops for photos, toilet breaks and our packed lunch along the way. We’d definitely earned a swim and we were grateful the water awaiting us was as perfect as we expected.
I wish we could admit our legs were fine afterwards, but that would be a lie. Neither of us could walk for 2 days and our calves, hamstrings and glutes & even abs (did we even use our abs!?) had no idea what hit them.
How to get to the Samaria Gorge
- We strongly recommend taking an organised tour. It is the most direct, least stressful way. They will pick you up from your hotel early (5:30/6:00 am) and you’ll return by 8/9:00 pm. It is a very long day but it was worth it. Tours can be booked online at many of the booking agencies or in any of the towns. It is the second most visited attraction in Crete (2nd to Balos Lagoon) so there will be no shortage of companies offering their services. The price ranges from 25-35€ depending on the company and your pick up location.
- Driving yourself is out of the question unless you want to walk back up the gorge. I mean, by all means, if that’s what you’re into… but no thank you!
- If saving a few euros is important, you can take public transport. Catch the public bus from Chania to Omalos (check the KTEL website for recent schedules and rates), hike the gorge then catch the ferry from Agia Roumeli to Chora Sfakion (check the Anendyk ferry website for schedules and rates), and then take the public bus from Chora Sfakion back to Chania. This won’t save you time and you’ll be on the same ferry as the guided tours will be.
- Regardless of how you get there, there is a €5 entry for the National Park Entrance and €10 for the ferry to return.
Tips for hiking the gorge
- Don’t overload with water bottles, there are many stations to fill it up along the way.
- Whilst it is cold at the beginning of the hike, you won’t need your jackets an hour into the walk. Avoid bringing them so you don’t have to carry it the rest of the way.
- Wear plenty of sunscreen it was boiling hot in the middle of the day. About 3 hours of the walk is uncovered.
- Bring a lot of food especially if you’re like Jacob. There is no food available inside the National Park.
- If you have bad knees or are pregnant, I would reconsider taking this hike.
- Wear proper shoes and socks (you’d be surprised what people wear).
- The park is only open in the summer months from May – October
- Walk at your own pace, if you came with a tour, you aren’t expected to stay with the busload, at all. Take your time!
- Always look at where you are going. It takes only a split second of not paying attention to trip on a stone to fall and hurt yourself. I think we rolled our ankles at least twice.
- Don’t try and Snapchat and walk. It won’t end well.
- Keep the tickets you get at the beginning, you’ll have to hand one over when you exit the park.
3. Cruise to Gramvousa Island & Balos Lagoon
Before arriving at Balos Lagoon, we stopped at the amazing island of Gramvousa. Perched high on the hill is a very impressive Venetian castle that was built on top of the rock. The castle was built way back in 1579 and 1584 during Venetian rule over Crete to defend the island from the Ottoman Turks. It took us about 15-20 minutes to walk to the top but once we reached the top (with the 700 other people!) it was absolutely breathtaking and felt like someone was holding a postcard right in front of our faces.
We only stayed at Gramvousa for just over an hour before we headed to Balos Lagoon; about 15 minutes away on the ferry. Balos is located 56km north-west of Chania and 17km north-west of Kissamos and is formed between the Cape Gramvousa and the small Cape Tigani (which means frying pan in Greek). There’s no surprise that Balos is famous for its turquoise waters, wild natural beauty, pink sand and astonishing scenery.
Although slightly overtaken, yet again, by tourists (including us!), it was impossible not to appreciate the natural beauty of this lagoon in front of us. Portions of the lagoon were extremely shallow at times which was perfect for wading around (or doing handstands) and across the other side of the sand, the ocean became deeper, which is perfect for snorkelling.
Spending the day at Balos was spectacular and one of those times you just have to stop, stare and take it all in. Truly breathtaking.
How to get to Gramvousa Island & Balos Lagoon
The only way you can reach Gramvousa Island is by ferry with a combined tour to Balos Lagoon. There are no “guides” needed for this journey, just transportation.
- Take an organised tour from Chania (or your location). The tour includes pick up and drop off + the ferry – Cost €35-50 (depending on your pick up location)
- If you have a car you can drive yourself to the port in Kissamoss to take the ferry and return to the same port in the afternoon – €27 (ferry ticket)
- It is possible to reach Balos island alone without going to Gramvousa, but you’ll need to find a car rental company that will allow you to drive the very rocky road down to the beach, along with a 2km walk down the steep cliff to the beach. This is quite uncommon and not very pleasant (so we’ve heard).
Tips for visiting Balos
- Bring water, lunch and snacks with you. They sell food on the boat but come prepared for higher costs and low quality.
- Pay attention to when the boat is leaving the island, they don’t tell you, you have to look on the departure board as you leave the ferry.
- If you want to view Balos from above, allow at least 45 minutes to get up and down the path.
- Listen out for happy hour on the way home… 2 for 1 beer OR 2 for 1 ice cream, any ice cream. Yes, this is a very important tip.
4. See a Pink Sand Beach, Elafonissi
Elafonissi Beach is located in south-west Crete, 72km from Chania. It is hands-down one of the nicest beaches we’ve ever been to, but it is also one of the most visited on the island, so you can imagine the overflow of people took away from some of the beauty. How it would have been nice to have the whole place to ourselves ;).
What makes Elafonissi so stunning was the little sand islands that form, the turquoise water which at some point creates a very shallow lagoon and more importantly, what the beach is most famous for; the perfect white sand that often brings a pinkish touch due to all the crushed shells from sea activity. The water here reminded us of the water in the Bahamas, it was so clear, almost transparent.
Note: It is illegal to remove the pink sand!
There were plenty of places to lay your towel, rent a sunbed/umbrella or discover the little sandy bays around the rocks. Although they had a few little snack bars, we recommend bringing your own lunch for the day. The beach also had volleyball nets, bathrooms and changing rooms.
How to get to Elafonisis Beach
- Take a tour with one of the many tour agencies in the town. They will pick you up from your hotel and drop you back at the end of the day. Cost 18-22€ depending on which company you go with.
- Drive yourself (2 hours from Chania). This is the day we decided to tackle on our own and to be honest, we’re glad we did. It was really fun driving through the small towns and mountains to get there, it was very straightforward in terms of directions, however, the roads were very windy and quite narrow at times so do be careful. We stopped on the way home at a roadside stall to sample some classic Cretan delights and walked away with the nicest honey we’ve ever had.
5. Visit Archaeological Site, Knossos
If you are into archaeological sites, Knossos is one of the most visited on the island. Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and is considered Europe’s oldest city. The palace is a maze of workrooms, living spaces, and store rooms close to a central square. The site is most visited when staying in Heraklion (5 km away) but can be visited via a tour from other parts of the island.
6. Simply Relax
With all this running around, you still have to find time to relax on your vacation. Don’t spend your whole trip sightseeing out the window of a tour bus or car rental. Take a day or 2, to chill out on one of the many beaches Crete has to offer.
Not satisfied with these options? See what Lonely Planet has to say!
Yet again, our European summer has come to a close. We took full advantage of the sun this year, spending the majority of our time on the beach in Barcelona, Croatia and Greece. By the time this post goes out, we would have changed scenery and are currently navigating the streets and mountains of Nepal. Excuse us if we are MIA for some time, finding working WiFi is not as guaranteed as it is in Europe… Uh oh!
Top Tours in Crete
If organized tours are your thing, check out these top recommended tours from GetMyGuide:
Married Days Survived; 531
More on Crete Greece
Click through on the pictures below for two more detailed guides on Crete and Cretan Cuisine. Also see Rental Center Crete for great deals on renting cars in Crete.