Crete is the largest Greek island and an awesome vacation destination, a Greek island for older couples, as well as for younger ones. It is one of the Greek islands that have airports. Whatever your travel style, your passions and your budget, you’ll find something to love about Crete. This travel guide shares information on how to get to Crete, where to stay, how to get around on the island, how many days to spend and how to plan your trip.
For itineraries and details on specific objectives, please follow the links in this guide. For a synopsis of the main Greek islands groups, check out the previous link.
One week in Crete is the minimum time you need to scratch the surface of this place, where history meets modern life, where weeds on the roadside are romantic and colorful, and food is fresh and delicious. The remains of the Minoan civilization are scattered across the entire island.
My first encounter with Crete took place one very early morning. I reached the island coming by sea on a night ferry from Athens to Heraklion.
The morning sun casting its warm light on the yellowish stone walls of the Koules Fortress won my heart forever. I irremediably fell in love with Crete, the place where I was supposed to spend all the rest of my life in. Even though life took me away from this island, I’ve always found pleasure in coming back to Crete, even for a short visit.
Contents of Crete Travel Guide for 2023
- Is Crete a Country or Part of Greece?
- How To Get to Crete?
- Renting a Car in Crete
- Driving in Crete
- When To Visit Crete?
- How Many Days Would You Need To Visit Crete?
- Where To Stay on Crete?
Is Crete a Country or Part of Greece?
Crete is part of Greece since 1913. Between 1898 and 1913 Crete was an autonomous country. Before 1898, for about two centuries, Crete belonged to the Ottoman Empire. For four centuries before the Ottoman occupation, Crete belonged to Venice.
The history of Crete goes back to the prehistoric age. Radiocarbon dating shows that Crete was inhabited about 130,000 years ago. If you thought that the Minoan Empire remains were amazingly old (dating back from 3000 BC – 1200 BC), you’d need to reconsider your thinking. According to some sources, the Minoan empire disappeared as a consequence of a major volcanic eruption on Santorini that triggered a tsunami which destroyed almost all buildings on the north coast of Crete. Even though there were survivors, the Minoans were never able to recover from this catastrophe.
How To Get to Crete?
There are two ways to travel to Crete: by air and by sea.
Getting to Crete by Air
There are two international airports on Crete: Nikos Kazantakis in Heraklion (HER) and Ioannis Daskalogiannis in Chania (CHQ). These airports receive multiple flights per day, both from Athens and from other cities in Europe. When choosing your airport, you should take into account your desired Crete itinerary. If you want to visit Chania Town and the western part of Crete, you’ll be better off taking a flight to Chania. If you’d like to explore the eastern part of this Greek island, you’d be better off landing in Heraklion. I’d recommend that you take a road trip across Crete to cover as much as possible. If this is what you want to do, then it matters less which airport you choose to land on.
Getting to Crete by Ferry from Athens
Ferries to Crete depart from Piraeus. There are two lines that operate on this route: Minoan Lines (journey duration between 9h 30min and 9h 50min) and Anek Superfast (journey duration 9 hours). On Fridays there’s also an Aegeon Pelagos boat, but the journey takes almost 17 hours, so I wouldn’t take it into account when planning my trip to Crete.
If you choose to travel by night, you’ll board on the ferry by 9pm and you’ll arrive to Heraklion early in the morning. I recommend you to book a cabin or at least a berth is a shared cabin. The cheapest ferry tickets are for deck passengers and they don’t entitle you to a specific seat. You’ll see people sleeping on three or even four seats, people sleeping on the floors and people sleeping on the couches. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to sleep on a couch, but you’ll arrive to Crete way too tired to do anything the first day.
Getting to Crete by Ferry from Santorini
There are several ferries per day from Santorini (Thira) to Heraklion. The journey takes less than two hours. If you want to plan an island hoping trip, this is the way to ensure you visit both Santorini and Crete. You can make Crete your final destination in Greece and then fly back home from Heraklion.
Renting a Car in Crete
It takes more than five hours of driving from the far west to the far east of the island. Although there is a public bus service, it isn’t convenient for exploring multiple places in one day. The best way to see Crete is to rent a car. If you can’t drive, you’ll want to check some organized tours.
I recommend AutoRentals Crete. I’m neither affiliated with them nor do I make any money if you use them. I just had a positive experience with them during my last trip to Crete, in June 2021. You can book your car online and have it wait for you at the airport or wherever else you want on Crete. Their cars are new and in great condition and they come with full insurance without no excess, no mileage limit, free second driver and free baby seat, if needed.
Another car rental company I’ve used and was pleased with was Arkadi, in Rethymno. They also deliver their cars wherever you want on the island.
Driving in Crete
Driving in Crete is on the right side of the road. In northern Crete there’s a national road that connects the main towns, Chania, Rethymno and Heraklion. This excellent asphalt road stretches along the coast from Kissamos to Sitia and it is currently undergoing modernization works.
The speed limit on the 90 National Road (also known as VOAK) is 90km/h. Part of this road has already been modernized, so it is now a four lanes highway with median separation and emergency lane.
The roads that cross the mountains are an entirely different thing. Narrow, steep and windy, they can easily give you thrills, particularly if you aren’t an experienced driver. You don’t need to worry, though, because everyone drives carefully on those roads.
When To Visit Crete?
The best time to visit Crete is between mid-May and late October. If you want to avoid the crowds, don’t go to Crete in July or August. Late fall can also be good, as the sea temperature is still perfect for swimming. Here are historical weather data for Crete.
As you’ll see, summer in Crete starts on May 1st and it ends on November 1st. During the peak season, even remote beaches are crowded, not to mention that popular spots such as Elafonissi, Falassarna, Matala, Chania Town, Knossos and Heraklion are chocked-full of tourists.
How Many Days Would You Need To Visit Crete?
Crete is the largest Greek island and the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean area. You’d need more than five hours to drive along the northern coast from one end to the other, as the length of the island is 260km. The width varies between 12km and 60km.
There’s no way you can drive around Crete. Also, there are places you can only access by boat. The minimum number of days you need to visit Crete is five. However, for a more extensive itinerary that would cover all major objectives, you may want to spend two weeks on the island. This also depends on the time of year you visit Crete. From September to May you get less daylight time than during June – August.
If you’re willing to move across the island as you explore the different regions you’ll cover more than if you were to pick one base location and drive back and forth everyday.
Where To Stay on Crete?
From west to east, Crete is separated into four prefectures: Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Lassithi. As the island is long and narrow, the best way to explore it is to move from place to place. Get four-five days in the west (Kissamos, Chania or Kalyves), then move toward the central area (Rethymno, Agia Galini, Plakias, Matala), and end your trip somewhere in the east (Sitia or Ierapetra).
Accommodation in Chania
Chania, on the north coast of Crete is a charming town and a great place to stay to explore the northwestern and western areas of the island. By getting accommodation in or near Chania Town, you’ll be close to lots of beautiful places to see such as Seitan Limania, Marathi Beach, Agia Marina Beach, Kissamos, Balos, Gravmousa, Falassarna Beach, Elafonissi Beach, Menies Beach, the Omalos Plateau, Samaria Gorge, Imbros Gorge, and the Old Center of Chania with the Venetian Harbor and the lighthouse.
Here are a few of the best Chania beaches to add to your bucket list.
For a beach vacation combined with day trips across Western Crete, I recommend Cretan Dream Royal, a hotel in Stalos, a short walk away from the blue flag awarded beach of Agia Marina. Click here to choose your dates and to see photos, client reviews and room rates at the price of today, [todaysdate].
Here’s a guide to Chania Old Town, with lots of fresh photos and information.
Tours & Things to Do in Chania
Here’s a selection of tours you may want to explore for planning purposes. By clicking the following links, you’ll get to see the latest prices for the tours and also book your spot online.
Accommodation in Rethymno (Rethymnon)
Rethymno, also on the north coast of Crete, is another romantic town, ideal for exploring the middle region and the southwestern coast of the island. You’ll be close to Kournas Lake, the mountain village of Spili, Agia Galini, Matala, Plakias, and Frangokastello.
The prefecture of Rethymno is the best choice of accommodation for exploring the main cities of Crete and many of the most important objectives without moving from place to place. Furthermore, Rethymno Town is charming, so you’ll have the opportunity to stroll its narrow streets by evening.
My top accommodation recommendation in the prefecture of Rethymno is Argiri Apartments & Suits, in Kavros, Georgioupolis. Located at 20 minutes’ drive from Rethymno Town and 40 minutes’ drive from Chania Town, Argiri Apartments & Suits is a great place to set as your base camp for exploring Western Crete.
Heraklion and the Palace of Knossos are about two hours of driving away.
Should you prefer to find accommodation somewhere in the southern part of Rethymno prefecture, you can check out Glaros in Agia Galini, here.
Tours & Things to Do in Rethymno
Accommodation in Heraklion
Heraklion, also spelled Heraklio, Iraklio, Irakleio or Iraklion, is the capital city of Crete and also the name of one of the four administrative-territorial units of the island. Heraklion can be a great place to stay on Crete if you want to visit Knossos, Cretaquarium, the southeastern coast and the coastal area between Heraklion and Agios Nikolaos.
I’ve only spent one night in Heraklion on the occasion of coming to Crete by ferry. If I were to spend more days in Heraklio Town, I’d check out Lato Boutique Hotel, here. It is very close to the port, it has very nice views (and I think that was the hotel I slept that night in 10 years ago).
Accommodation in Lasithi
Lasithi is best for exploring the far east of Crete. Ierapetra is the largest town in this prefecture and the only town on the southern coast of Crete. Ierapetra is the starting point of boat trips to Chrisi Island. Sitia, a small town on the northern coast, boasts its own airport, hosting a few flights to and from Athens, as well as flights to a few other islands.
During the high season, charter flights may land in Sitia. This is an area I’m still to visit. I’m currently doing research on the best hotels in Sitia and Ierapetra. I’ll update this article as soon as I have news. For now, here’s a link to the search results for Lasithi on Booking.com. Most probably, the summer of 2023 will find me in Ierapetra.