Greece’s largest island, Crete, can be intimidating for those traveling there if they do not plan ahead. These 7 days in Crete itinerary will help you plan your trip. It will include where to stay, things to do, and more!
This post is from Gabi Ancarola at The Tiny Book. She lives on Crete and is an absolute expert on the place!
What to Know Before Traveling to Crete
The island of Crete, the biggest island in Greece, is located in the southern area of the Mediterranean and is bordered on the North by the Sea of Crete and by the Libyan Sea to its South.
The island has a somewhat oblong shape and it’s divided into four different regions.
Navigating the whole island, from west to east can take up to 5 hours, depending on the kind of transport you choose.
The total distance between the two opposite coasts is 260 km (161 miles) while its width ranges from 60 km (37 miles) at its widest point to 11 km (7 miles) at its narrowest.
Covering an area of more than 8300 square kilometers (5157 miles), Crete remains large and is one of the best places to visit in Greece. To really be able to explore the whole territory, you would need years!
Not even the locals know every corner of the island. For that reason, if you want to visit Crete and your time is limited, the best thing you can do is plan your itinerary very carefully, taking care of as many details as possible to make the most of your time in Crete.
Nevertheless, the island is not as easy to explore as you might think. The backbone of Crete is a series of different mountain ranges that can raise up to over 2400 meters, dividing the island into two well different areas.
The northern coast of Crete is well developed and more touristic, with a good National Road that crosses the island from the extreme west in the region of Chania to the easternmost point in the Lasithi region.
The southern coast of Crete, on the other hand, is rugged and quite inaccessible and drops abruptly into the pristine Libyan sea.
Wilder and underpopulated, South Crete is a fascinating part of the island, home to the most unspoiled beaches and authentic villages.
Such an extensive territory is explored much better if you rent a car and drive around with a good map or GPS device. As a matter of fact, public buses could be a great option to tour Crete if you’re just focusing on visiting the cities along the north coast.
To discover the most authentic face of the Greek Island, you will definitely need a vehicle of your own as buses do not reach every point in the South.
Renting a Car in Crete
This Crete itinerary touches upon places that are best explored with a rental car.
While we do list as many tours and organized day trips as possible, having a car will allow you to visit Crete at your leisure and own pace.
You can check the Rental Center Crete for affordable options for your trip.
This Itinerary for Crete
This itinerary focuses on two different regions, Chania and Heraklion, home to the capital of Crete. It also takes you briefly to the region of Rethymnon, to get a quick impression of the area.
For those with some more time available, it will be possible to find a few ideas to venture into the fourth region of Crete named Lasithi.
There’s a lot to see on the island and there are hundreds of interesting facts about Crete worth discovering before your trip. So let’s waste no more time and let’s get ready for the trip to Crete!
Here is a short summary of what to expect from this week in Crete itinerary:
- Day 1: Chania (stay in Chania)
- Day 2: Elafonisi Pink Sand Beach (stay in Chania)
- Day 3: Balos Beach and Lagoon (stay in Chania)
- Day 4: Morning in Chania and move east (stay in Rethymnon or make your way to Heraklion)
- Day 5: The Minoans (stay in Heraklion)
- Day 6: Crete Wine (stay in Heraklion)
- Day 7: South Heraklion (stay in Heraklion)
- Tips for extra days in Crete
Day 1: Chania Old Town
Taking a whole day to discover the city of Chania is one of the wisest things to do. Focus on the alleys of the Old Town and explore the Venetian port, the Egyptian Lighthouse, the Turkish quarter, and the Jewish neighborhood.
As you can see, Crete has had a travailed past.
With a strategic location at the crossroads of the commercial routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe, and in the center of the Mediterranean, every important civilization dominating the area had the ambition to conquer and rule over Crete.
The Venetians managed to do so for over 400 hundred years, while the Ottoman Empire ruled on Crete for more than 260 years.
The island was also part of the Byzantine Empire for two distinct and long periods and was conquered by the Romans, by the Saracens from Spain, and by the Power of the Axis during WWII.
The South of Crete was a cove of pirates and hideaway for mercenaries for long periods too. The island was not even part of Greece until 1913.
All these reflect in the spirit and the landscape of every city, but it’s more evident in Chania’s Old Town.
There are at least three distinct districts that you can explore and starting from the Venetian part of town is a good idea.
The region known as Topanas used to be the Catholic part of town where the rulers from Venice established and built aristocratic mansions and beautiful churches between 1253 and 1645.
The cobblestoned alleys and the colorful passages of Topanas are a delight to walk and discover. The area is now the place where the most exclusive boutique hotels have opened their doors restoring the impressive Venetian palazzi in the district.
As you walk your way along the Venetian area, you will be able to discover the hidden district of Zudecca, which hosted one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Mediterranean, the Romaniote Jewish, who lived in Chania until the Nazis occupied the island in 1941 and their fate was deportation to the German concentration camps.
In Zudecca, look for Etz Hayyim, the oldest and only standing synagogue on the island, restored about twenty years ago and now open to the public.
Not far from the Jewish quarter, you can visit the Mosque of the Janissaries, right at the seafront of Chania’s Venetian port. The building is a simple construction with an imposing roof made of several cupolas.
The mosque was, in fact, built on the foundations of a former Venetian church when the Turks conquered the city of Chania.
It’s one of Chania’s most distinctive landmarks and it now functions as an exhibition center for artists and craftsmen.
The Ottoman Empire ruled on the island between 1645 and 1898, leaving behind a collection of moments and traditions that are still a witness of Chania’s past.
Right opposite the mosque, another Chania landmark is the so-called Egyptian Lighthouse. Although it was built by the Venetians, the lighthouse was heavily damaged and lacked maintenance for centuries.
It was not until the years when the Egyptians established in Chania, between 1831 and 1841, that the lighthouse was restored, acquiring clear characteristics with a Muslim minaret.
Finally, spend the rest of the day visiting the Turkish quarter. This area of Chania, also known as Splantzia, remains one of the most authentic corners in town.
Less castigated by mass tourism, it’s still possible to walk along the traditional streets of Splantzia, a maze of tiny alleys, passages, and hidden patios, where locals still live today.
In fact, you won’t find souvenir shops or many fancy hotels in the area, but you’ll be able to take in a truly authentic atmosphere.
Chania Travel Tips and Practical Information
The area known as Neoria, or the Arsenals (opposite the sea where yachts dock) is lined with restaurants that you can stop at for lunch.
These are a better option for lunch while the Chania restaurants along the Venetian port are better for dinner.
Discover Chania’s most authentic flavors by having a traditional Cretan lunch at the Public Market called the Agora.
Inside the market, you can discover the most authentic ingredients of the Cretan diet: extra virgin olive oil, honey, herbs, spices, cheese, and a wide variety of wild greens.
Choose one of the few home-style eateries at the market and discover the tastes of Crete.
Chania Hotel Options
The westernmost region of Chania is a great place to start your trip and slowly move along the center of the island. I advise staying in Chania for at least 4 days of this itinerary.
Here are some top-rated hotels in Chania that you’ll want to consider booking, regardless of your budget:
Day 2: Elafonisi
One of the gems in the Chania region is the unique pink sand beach of Elafonisi, located about 70 kilometers south of Chania, on the coast of the Libyan Sea.
You can either visit Elafonisi by booking an organized tour, which is quite convenient if you’re not driving, or you can drive all the way south, passing through the imposing Topolia Gorge on the way.
The trip lasts about one hour and a half and it’s a full-immersion experience in the fantastic mountainous landscape of Crete.
The high peaks of the White Mountains hide unique fauna and flora native to the island and are worth discovering. Some examples are the wild Cretan goat or the Lammergeier or the bearded vulture.
As you approach Elafonisi, the landscape changes. The small, almost uninhabited village receives hundreds of tourists every year, eager to discover the magnificent coast of Elafonisi.
Technically an islet, Elafonisi remains one of the widest beaches on Crete, with pristine turquoise waters, shallow and often warm.
The beach, famous for the pink shade of the sand, forms a shallow lagoon with the islet, safe and ideal for those traveling with kids to Crete.
Elafonisi Beach is well-organized, so it’s possible to rent an umbrella and sunbeds. There are also a few beach bars and a taverna where it’s possible to have cold drinks and snacks.
So, there’s no need to pack a lunch but what you do need to do is get there as early as possible in order to avoid the crowds and make the most of your day.
Day 3: Balos Beach and Lagoon
Devote the second day to visiting another gem in the Chania region, the fantastic Balos Beach. It is located at the end of the Gramvousa Peninsula on the extreme west coast of the island.
Balos is a unique, exuberant scenario made of exotic colors that deeply contrast the harsh mountains and bare terrain in the area.
To reach Balos, you can easily drive from Chania to Kissamos, a trip that takes about an hour, and then venture into an off-road driving experience for the last portion of the trip until you get to the parking lot in Balos.
Once there, the journey’s not over! To get to the actual beach, it’s necessary to hike down the mountain for about twenty minutes. It’s indeed a thrilling experience, but those not driving, or with mobility issues, will be much better off traveling to Balos by boat.
Balos daily cruises depart from the small port of Kissamos and also take you to visit the small island of Imeri Gramvousa right before visiting the beach. Tickets can be bought online and it’s certainly better if you book in advance.
Click below for the Balos Beach excursion that fits you best:
- Full-day boat tour to Balos Beach
- Gramvousa and Balos Beach day trip from Chania
- Gramvousa and Balos Beach day trip from Rethymnon
Day 4: Last Day Visiting Chania + Moving East
On your last day in Chania, it’s a good idea to wake up early and head to Bougatsa Iordanis for breakfast. This old, traditional pastry shop, a few steps from the Public Market, has been crafting bougatsa since 1924 and it’s a must-visit place in Chania!
Bougatsa is one of the traditional dishes you must try on Crete. It’s a pastry made of phyllo dough, filled with local goat cheese, and topped with cinnamon and sugar.
It’s one of the most delicious treats you can eat in Crete, and it’s a good idea to pair it with a cup of Greek coffee.
Once breakfast has been taken care of, get on the road, and start moving east.
Our first stop is the beautiful city of Rethymnon, the capital of the region with the same name. It is a place worth visiting and discovering at a slower pace if you had more time on Crete.
Our visit to Rethymnon is a day trip as we make our way to the capital of Crete. Rethymnon is located about 50 minutes from Chania, also on the northern coast, and between the regions of Chania and Heraklion
It’s possible to drive to Rethymnon if you’re touring the island by car, but you can also get there by bus. Chania’s Central Bus Station is about 800 meters from Iordanis Bougatsa, and if you’re not lugging several bags, it’s a pleasant walk to the station.
Buses to Rethymnon depart hourly and the ticket is under 9 Euros.
Day Trip to Rethymnon Itinerary
You will either likely arrive at Rethymnon’s Terminal Bus Station by bus or perhaps by car because you will probably park in the area. The parking lot near the station is easy to access and parking spots are not hard to find.
Make your way along the sea until you reach the Venetian Fortress, known as the Fortezza, just a few minutes from the station.
The impressive castle facing the sea is well worth a visit and an opportunity to discover. You can learn a lot about the pirate attacks that happened there throughout the centuries.
The city of Rethymnon was also a key center both during the Venetian and the Turkish rules of the island, therefore, some of the buildings you will see during your visit keep the characteristic traits of both cultures.
When comparing Rethymnon to Chania, it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of describing the town as a smaller sample of Crete’s westernmost city. Both have a Venetian harbor, an Egyptian lighthouse, and Venetian buildings with Turkish facades.
However, Rethymnon has a character of its own which makes it a place that has not so much in common with Chania.
Probably the cultural pole of Crete, Rethymnon is home to an important university that gives the city a young spirit most of the year. Students from all over Greece move to Rethymnon to study Philosophy, Social Sciences, and Education.
The city also has a series of interesting museums, such as the Archaeological Museum, the Palaeontology Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Crete.
Choose one of them according to your interests, and spend some time exploring the past of the island.
A stroll in the pedestrian area of Rethymnon will help you discover the remains of Morosini Fountain in the central square of the old town.
You will also see the nearby Loggia, a magnificent Renaissance building that now functions as an art gallery and a shop with reproductions of pieces from Rethymnon’s museums.
The skyline of Rethymnon comes alive under the imposing shade of the Fortezza and the remaining minarets of Neratzes Mosque, today an important music school, and the minaret of Valide Sultana Mosque, close to Porta Guora, the main gate to the old town.
Rethymnon Travel Tips – Practical Information
Since you just have mere hours to visit the city, go for a quick lunch and keep moving around.
You can have the tastiest gyro wrap (Greece’s most popular street food) in town at Souvlaki Nikos, on Arkadi Street.
If you prefer to sit and enjoy a savory but cheap meal, head to Kokkinos, at the end of the pedestrian seafront promenade. To get back to the bus station, walk along the sea and you will be there in about half an hour.
If you fall in love with Rethymnon and want to spend the night in town, we understand!
For those on a budget, check the property Archipelagos, with a great pool, and a terrace with top views of the city.
If, instead, you decide to reach Heraklion on the same night, get back on the road early enough to enjoy the sun setting as you drive the coastal road of Crete.
Once in the city, go for dinner at the central Eleftheria Square and check in early at your hotel; the next day is packed with things to do and see.
Heraklion Hotel Options
While I haven’t had the best of luck staying in Heraklion in the past, I do think it makes for a great base for the second part of this itinerary. I advise staying in Heraklion for at least 3 days of this itinerary.
Here are some top-rated hotels in Heraklion that you’ll want to consider booking, regardless of your budget:
- Infinity City Boutique Hotel
- Chanion One Suites
- Raise the Heraklion Project
- Studio 21
- So Young Hostel (budget)
- Intra Muros Hostel (budget)
Day 5: The Minoans (Palace of Knossos)
Wake up early, dress the right way, and set to explore one of the most impressive archaeological sites on the island and in all of Greece. It is second only to the Acropolis in Athens when it comes to popularity!
The Minoan Palace of Knossos is located only 11 kilometers from the center of Heraklion and it’s the main reason why people visit the capital of Crete, though it shouldn’t be the only one.
To reach the site, you can take bus number 2 at the old bus station (opposite the sea). The ride is about 15 minutes and the ticket is only €2. The bus will leave you right in front of the archaeological site so it’s quite a convenient way to get there.
Once at the site, you can either buy a ticket (€15), hire a private guide at the entrance (prices vary), choose to tour the site joining a group (€10), or book a guided tour in advance for a much better and customized experience.
The site is quite controversial yet extremely interesting and is the most important Minoan Palace on the island. It was reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans and a group of archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th century.
Evans’ works are based on his own deductions and interpretation of mythology and the history of the Minoan civilization, which created much controversy in the scientific community.
Yet, it remains a magnificent depiction of Crete’s Minoans who lived and prospered on the island even before the Bronze Age.
To visit Knossos Palace, you need at least 2 hours. The place is usually very hot as it is exposed to the sun.
Remember to carry a hat, apply sunscreen, and have a bottle of water with you. Avoid wearing flip-flops and choose a comfortable model of walking shoes.
After the visit, it’s a good idea to stop for a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice in any of the bars across the street and then go back to the city to spend some time at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
The visit will prove the extra piece of the puzzle to better understand the Minoans and to learn about their complex and advanced lifestyle.
In addition, it allows you to admire the magnificent objects found in different archaeological sites, including refined jewelry, vases, sculptures, weapons, and much more.
Spend the rest of the afternoon walking in Heraklion’s city center. Make some time to visit the Church of Agios Titos and sit for a traditional glass of iced coffee at Liontaria, or Lion’s Square.
It is not only the center of Heraklion’s movida, but it is also the place where one of the landmarks in town, Morosini Fountain, is located.
A fontana with Venetian origins, Morosini Fountain was built back in 1628 with the purpose of providing drinking water to the city.
The water reached the fountain through an underground aqueduct that ran for more than 15 kilometers all the way down Mount Giouktas, near the village of Archanes in the south of the region.
Through a complex mechanism of altitude differences, the water would naturally flow all the way to the mouths of the lions.
It’s this area where local people gather to enjoy conversation, coffee, and quick snacks on a daily basis. If you’re a foodie at heart, take the bougatsa test.
Head to Kirkor in the center of the square and try their own bougatsa.
Compare it to the one you had in Chania and let us know which one you liked best! Kirkor has been crafting the sweet since 1921 and here it can be topped with crushed nuts, warm honey, and even ice cream!
Day 6: Learn About Crete Wine
Embark on a degustation journey by venturing to the wine region of Heraklion, one of the most important wine production areas in Greece. It is home to more than fifteen wineries, most of them open to the public. They offer all kinds of wine sampling and food pairing experiences.
You can either go for an organized tour or simply navigate the area by yourself. In any case, it will be an unforgettable experience.
Once in the area, you can explore the traditional mountain villages of Crete such as the beautiful Archanes, where you can splurge on an authentic Cretan lunch and discover the fantastic and healthy traits of the Cretan cuisine.
Late in the afternoon and once back in Heraklion, go for a walk along the old port of Heraklion and pay a visit to Koules Fortress. The building dates back to the 16th century and was built by the Republic of Venice.
The imposing defensive walls facing the sea are a sight not to be missed. When accessing the fortress, remember to check the remains of Saint Mark’s Lion carved in the stone.
The building is open to the public from 8:30 am to 7 pm in summer and from 8:30 am to 3 pm in winter. On Mondays, the fortress is closed. It costs €2 to visit Koules.
Day 7: Visit Matala in Southern Heraklion
It’s a good idea to spend the last day in the Heraklion region visiting the southern coast. Drive all the way south to the village of Matala to visit one of the most popular beaches on Crete.
Matala Beach made its way to stardom during the 1960s when a group of anti-conformist hippies moved to the island to live in the ancient caves that stand on one of the sides of the Bay of Matala.
These ancient caves are thought to be thousands of years old and are still open to visitors to explore and offer unique views of the underlying bay.
The village of Matala has also retained some of that hippie character. Colorful shops and streets, carved trees, and a whole different vibe are part of Matala’s scene and it is the perfect place to end your Crete adventure.
More Than a Week on Crete?
If you wish to keep going east once you’ve explored Heraklion, and if your timing allows, you can either drive or jump on any of the daily buses departing from Heraklion Central Bus Station to Agios Nikolaos, the capital of Lasithi.
The trip lasts about 1.5 hours and the ticket is around €10.
Things to Do in Lasithi
This is a short and quick guide, listing the most remarkable places to visit in Lasithi.
Agios Nikolaos is a small, but beautiful town located facing the calm waters of Mirabello Bay. The highlight in town is the small Lake Voulismeni, connected to the sea.
The Lake, as locals call it, is a favorite meeting place for visitors and Cretans alike.
The fortified island of Spinalonga, a unique archaeological site in the Bay of Elounda is just minutes from Agios Nikolaos. The island is known for being Greece’s most important leper colony during part of the twentieth century.
A boat trip to Spinalonga ranges from 10 € to 15 €, but there are also daily cruises departing from Agios Nikolaos (about 30€). There’s an entrance fee of 8 € that’s paid on the island. Alternatively, you can take a pre-arranged boat tour there.
The Lasithi Plateau is another top place to visit in East Crete. The Lasithi Plateau is a tranquil region immersed in the magnificent landscape of the Dikti Mountains.
The plateau stands at about 850 m above sea level which makes it one of the few residential areas at such a high altitude in the Mediterranean.
Eighteen different small villages surround the plateau and at the foot of the mountains, a 23-kilometer circuit connects every village and makes one of the most majestic drives in Crete.
Crete Travel Tips
How to Get to Crete
When you travel to Crete, chances are that you land either in Chania or Heraklion. If you want to follow this itinerary and start your trip from Chania, several buses depart from Heraklion to Chania on a daily basis.
The ticket price from Heraklion to Crete is €15.10. The trip lasts about 3 hours. If you choose to drive, the driving time is 2 hours.
Best Time to Visit Crete
The best time to visit Crete, no matter which region you choose, is during the shoulder season (May and September are the best months).
During this time, everything is less crowded! The prices are also far more affordable and it is not nearly as hot as the summer months on Crete.
Best Crete Tours
We mentioned quite a few tours of Crete above. There are several amazing day trips from Heraklion and Chania that are worth throwing on your itinerary for Crete. Here are some of our recommended tours:
- Beautiful boat tour to Balos Lagoon
- Full day Samaria Gorge Trek from Chania
- Day trip to Elafonisi Beach from Chania
- Full day trip to Santorini from Heraklion
- Knossos Palace Skip-the-line with a guided walking tour
- Gramvousa Island and Balos Lagoon day trip from Chania (or from Rethymnon)
- Morning sailing trip from Heraklion to Dia Island
Adventure Tours in Crete
If you’re an adventurous soul and want to do something a bit more active in Greece, we suggest the following tours from our trusted partner, Manawa. These active tours in Crete will offer a nice mix-up from the historical tours and boat excursions!
- Parasailing over Heraklion
- Canyoning Portela Gorge from Heraklion
- Scuba Diving near Heraklion
- Quad Excursions near Rethymnon
Gabi Ancarola is a translator and travel journalist living in Crete. She regularly writes about the island for Greek Reporter, Greek TV, and the Huffington Post. She has also published a book about travel on the Greek Islands and works in the local hospitality industry as a travel consultant and gastronomic guide.
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