Is Crete worth visiting is a question travelers to Greece often ask when planning a trip. It is the largest of the Greek Islands with multiple beautiful beaches and a rugged, mountainous interior, with 30 summits above 6,000 feet. The island is popular with European tourists, especially from Britain on the western end of the island, as well as several other northern European countries.
We visited Crete in 2022 as chaperones for our high school’s students on a 10-day trip to Greece through EF Tours. We spent three nights in Crete: two in Heraklion and one in Chania.
Read more about school travel with EF Tours.
To put it simply, we loved Crete. We had an excellent time on the island. We really enjoyed both of the cities we stayed in and are looking forward to returning.
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Exploring Heraklion, the Largest City in Crete
We started our visit to Crete in the largest city, Heraklion (also spelled Iraklion). Located in the middle of the island on the north side, Heraklion is home to Knossos’s ruins. This city is known as the oldest city in Europe.
Heraklion, like the rest of Crete, has a rich history of different cultures which claimed the island for their own. At various times, the island was ruled by the Arabs, the Byzantine Empire, the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire. Finally, in 1913, the island became part of Greece.
With such a storied history, it is no wonder the island has a variety of architecture, including Venetian fountains, Ottoman minarets and mosques, and Byzantine-style churches.
The city center of Heraklion is incredibly walkable, with a rather pleasant town square. There are plenty of shops and restaurants. If nothing else, we really enjoyed just walking among the Cretans out for an evening stroll with their families. We love that aspect of small southern European cities.
While you are there, be sure to walk out to the Venetian fortress in the harbor. It was especially cool at night.
Heraklion makes a great base for exploring the eastern side of Crete as well as the ruins of Knossos.
The Ruins of Knossos and the Heraklion Archeological Museum
Located a few miles south of Heraklion, the ruins of Knossos date back to 7000 BCE when Neolithic man settled in the area, as well as much of Crete. By 2000 BCE, the Minoan civilization had built a palace at the site.
Minoan civilization thrived for centuries on sea trade throughout the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Knossos is also the mythological home of King Minos. It was Minos who had Daedalus construct the labyrinth to house the Minotaur, the king’s half bull, half man son. It was Daedalus who crafted wings so he and his son, Icarus, could escape Crete.
The ruins are extensive and are more than worth your time. Plan on spending two-three hours touring the ruins, marveling at the extensive stonework and frescoes. After touring the ruins, be sure to head back to Heraklion to tour the Heraklion Archeological Museum which contains the most complete collection of relics from Knossos and Minoan Culture.
The museum’s collections contain all sorts of artifacts, from frescoes to gold and ivory artwork to large burial vases. One of the really cool things about Minoan Culture is the labrys, a double axe, which served as a religious symbol for the Minoans.
A Day Trip to Spinalonga
Spinalonga is located on the east side of Crete along the northern coast. This island sits at the entrance to the harbor of Elounda. From the earliest years of habitation, this island was fortified to protect the port from pirates and other hostile raiders.
The Venetians, who ruled the area, built an impressive fortress on the island consisting of multiple rings of fortifications allowing the fortress to not only completely control the entrance to the harbor but also resist attack from the surrounding hillsides on either side of the channel. This fortress became one of the most important in the Mediterranean Sea.
Later, the island was used as a refuge for Ottoman Turk families during the Cretan Revolt. The last Turks left the island in 1903 when it was converted into a leper colony. Spinalonga was the longest-lasting leper colony in Europe (1903-1957) and one of the few which has survived.
Now, you can tour the island, seeing both the remains of the fortress and the leper colony. Boats to the island run every 30 minutes from the town of Elounda.
Elounda itself is a neat town with plenty of shops and restaurants and beautiful, if rocky, beaches. After our tour of the island, we enjoyed lunch at Pyr-Ola right across from the water and then spent the afternoon swimming before heading back to Heraklion.
Where to Stay in Heraklion
Since we were on a school trip organized by EF Tours, we did not really have a choice in where we stayed. That said, the Castello City Hotel was a good hotel and worth the money for the stay.
We found the hotel comfortable and the views from the Fifth Floor lounge (where breakfast is served) were outstanding. In terms of location, it is right outside the city walls and an easy 20-minute walk to the city center.
While we would stay here again, depending on the price, we would also make a point to look closer to the city center as well.
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Stops in Western Crete: Rethymno and Episkopi Beach
A Morning in Rethymno
On our way to Chania, we stopped at the town of Rethymno for a tour of the town and time to explore.
This town dates back to the Minoan civilization but was not truly developed until the Venetians created a way station for ships traveling between Heraklion and Chania.
What makes Rethymno such an interesting stop is the extraordinarily well-preserved old town, a network of winding, narrow streets with plenty of cool shops and cafes. You will find excellent examples of Venetian architecture throughout the city, including one of the most intact coastal fortresses in all of Crete.
Rethymno is also home to the last phyllo pastry master in Greece, Yiorgos Hatziparaskos. In a simple home, this elderly man continues to make kataifi, a nut-filled pastry smothered in a honey syrup.
You can watch him as he takes the flour dough and spreads it incredibly thin on two massive tables, tossing it into air and forming a thin bubble with it. Be sure to pick up a tin of his amazing treats.
Truly, this small town is incredibly walkable, with plenty of cool things to see and do. While we only had the morning in this town, I would certainly plan on staying for a day or two to really see and experience it… or longer and really relax away from the hustle and bustle of the larger towns of Heraklion and Chania.
Lunch at Episkopi Beach
At the recommendation of our bus driver, our tour stopped at Episkopi Beach, which has several small hotels and restaurants right along the beach. We ended up eating at Sirocco’s Seaside Bar Restaurant.
One of the drawbacks of chaperoning student travel, especially on this trip, was many of our meals were served by hotel restaurants or otherwise planned by the tour. This was a bit of a different experience than we were used to compared to the tour of Italy we chaperoned back in 2017. While the food was good, we did not feel we truly got to experience authentic Greek cooking all that often.
That changed when we got here. I cannot speak highly enough of our experience here. We feasted on fresh food right on the beach and it was easily the best meal we had while we were in Greece, much less Crete. The food was incredibly fresh, with delectable flavors all around.
Afterward, as a customer of the restaurant, we were afforded the use of the sun beds out on the beach for free (there is normally a fee). We could relax, stick our feet in the water and generally enjoy being at the beach for a while before traveling on to Chania.
This is one stop I would not miss on your trip to Crete.
A Night in Chania
We only spent one night in Chania, which is in western Crete, but it certainly deserves a lot more. The old town of Chania is larger than both Rethymno and Heraklion, making for an extensive shopping experience. There are also plenty of restaurants and cafes scattered throughout the old town and along the harbor.
After dinner, we spent the night wandering the town, just enjoying the nightlife of a European town. It is such a different experience than we get in the States in most cities.
Since our flight was a bit later in the afternoon, we also had time in the morning to spend exploring some of the other sites that we missed the night before. I walked out to the old lighthouse and generally walked around the town while Bonnie and our friends Kellie and Jamie went to the fish spa to allow the fish to clean the dead skin off their feet.
Chania is much more touristy than Heraklion but it also makes for a more pressured environment. As you walk the streets of the town, there are plenty of folks out trying to get you to come to their shops, their restaurants, etc. While we find this in every touristy town, it felt more prevalent in Chania.
Still, we really enjoyed the town and do not feel like our brief stay was anywhere close to long enough. We would love to return and spend a few days really exploring the town, enjoying the food and traipsing out to the surrounding countryside.
Where to Stay in Chania
We stayed just outside old town in a nice, modern hotel, the Arkadi Hotel. While our rooms were typically small European hotel rooms, they were comfortable.
The real advantage of this hotel was how close it is to the harbor. It was an easy walk across the street and down the hill to the waterfront and old town. While we liked the hotel itself, Bonnie was not a fan at all of the shower, which was very small and had a slow drain. Still, it was a nice enough hotel.
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Final Thoughts on Visting Crete
The short answer to the question “Is Crete worth visiting?” is an undoubted yes!
While our trip to Greece was only 10 days long and we only spent three of them in Crete, we had a blast on the island and we (the chaperones) were already mentally planning a return to the island to spend a lot more time.
The Cretan people were incredibly friendly, we had an excellent time exploring what we could as chaperones on a student trip and there’s so much more to see on the island. We could have easily spent all 10 days exploring the island and not run out of cool stuff to see and do.
So, while Santorini and Mykonos get all the attention on social media, Crete should definitely be part of your plans when visiting Greece.
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