The best things to do on Crete include hiking the longest gorge in Europe, seeing the remains of vast Minoan Palaces like Knossos, Phaistos and Malia, relaxing in pretty waterfront towns such as Chania, Rethymnon and Sitia, spending a day or more in Iraklion with its marvellous Archaeological Museum, and seeing religious sites like the haunting Arkadi Monastery and the beautiful frescoes in the church of the Panagia Kera. And that's without even mentioning the beaches!
Here in alphabetical order is our list of the best things to do on Crete:
Aquaworld Aquarium and Reptile Rescue Centre
This lovely place in Hersonissos is an absolute delight. The animals here have all been rescued in some way, and are lovingly cared for by the owners. See the giant python, Dmitri the octopus (who can open a jar to get his lunch), the blind but contented sea turtle, and much more. Don’t just take our word for it. Read the rave reviews on TripAdvisor.
The Arkadi Monastery
It's a lovely drive up a twisty mountain road to get to one of the island's most important monasteries. In 1866 hundreds of Cretans were killed here by occupying Turkish forces, including many Cretan resistance fighters, and it has become a symbol of the islanders' struggle for independence. Don't miss the ossuary, where skulls and bones of those who died are preserved.
For more information on the history of the monastery, with maps, videos, and visitor information, see our separate page on the Arkadi Monastery.
Agios (or Ayios) Nikolaos is one of the prettiest towns on Crete, renowned for its twin harbours. It is therefore very busy too, and the crowds can detract from the enjoyment of it, but it's well worth seeing. It also has a good Archaeological Museum, and a little Folklore Museum, but its main appeal is the town itself. Visit our page on Agios Nikolaos.
Chania, Crete's second-largest city, is many people's favourite place on Crete, and we'd find it hard to disagree. It has a really beautiful Venetian harbour, which is the perfect place for a drink or a meal especially in the evening when it bustles with people. The town has good shopping, several excellent museums, and some of the nicest hotels and best restaurants on the island. See our separate page about Chania.
Gortina (or Gortys) was a Greco-Roman city and the ruins, although small, sprawl pleasantly over fields and olive groves making it a lovely spot to explore. The 6th-century church of Ayios Titos is one of the main ruins, and nearby in what is thought to have been the agora, or market, is a truly unique find. Carved in about 500BC on huge stone blocks is what was the first Code of Law to have been written down in Europe. See our separate page for more information about Gortina.
The ruins at Gournia are interesting because they are of an ordinary working Minoan town, not one of the great palaces. The ruins are from about 1500BC and it's really fascinating to walk among them and discover the houses and workshops. get to the top of the site for a good over-view, and when you do it remember that Gournia was originally four times as big as what you see in front of you. The rest has not yet been uncovered.
Try to spend at least a day in Iraklion, Crete's capital, or preferably a few days. It's a lively city with plenty of things to do, including the Archaeological Museum, its Venetian harbour, the Historical Museum, the Icon Museum, several interesting old churches, and plenty of good restaurants too.
The Minoan Palace at Knossos is the biggest attraction on Crete, and well worth at least half a day of your time. There were once over 1,200 rooms here, and some of them have been recreated to give an impression of the scale and grandeur of the palace. The first palace was built here in about 2000BC, but that was destroyed in an earthquake 300 years later. Then an even greater palace was built, but that too was destroyed in 1450BC, possibly by the eruption of the volcano on Santorini, causing a huge tidal wave.
Malia Palace is Crete's third-largest Minoan Palace. It was built in about 1900BC, destroyed in an earthquake then rebuilt in about 1650BC. Its remains with a reddish tinge to the stone make a great place to wander around, and because it's usually less crowded you have more time to make sense of the ruins. See our separate page on Malia.
This little Byzantine church is one of the most famous on Crete, known for its 14th- and 15th-century frescoes. They seem to cover every inch of the walls, and make a great impact when you first walk into the church.
The ruins of the Minoan Palace at Phaistos (or Faistos) are just as enjoyable, if not more so, than the more famous ruins at Knossos. They're set on a hill overlooking a plain and the site is usually nowhere near as crowded as Knossos. Enjoy the central courtyard, royal apartments, the grand staircase, and the place where the famous Phaistos Disc was uncovered in 1903. This small disc was made in about 1700-1600BC and no-one has ever worked out what it's spiralling series of pictograms are meant to be, though there are several theories.
See our separate page for more information on Phaistos.
Crete's third-largest town has a busy modern side to it but also a great beach and a lovely little port area. It also has a huge Venetian fortress from the 1570s, thought to be the biggest ever built, a good Archaeological Museum, a Historical and Folk Art Museum, and some smart hotels and restaurants.
The Samaria Gorge
Photo by Mike Gerrard
Walking the Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe, is definitely one of the best things to do on Crete, and the most exhilarating. The scenery is spectacular, and while it's hot and tiring to cover the 18kms (11.25 miles), it can be done by anyone who's reasonably fit. In fact it can get over-crowded in the summer, but nothing takes away from the sense of achievement when you reach the Libyan Sea at the southern end, having started from high up in the White Mountains. See our separate page with much more information on the Samaria Gorge, and our own account of Hiking the Samaria Gorge. You might also be interested in reading our account of Hiking in Southwest Crete.
This north-coast town is more visited by Greeks than foreign tourists and so maintains a laid-back and still-Greek feel to it. It has a lovely waterfront area with some very good eating places, and has an Archaeological Museum and a Folk Museum too. The drive to it along the coast from Ayios Nikolaos is one of the most beautiful drives on Crete.
So there you have our personal list of the Best Things to Do on Crete, but it's hard to choose as there are just so many great things to see and do on this island.
The Stilianou Winery near Knossos on Crete uses only Cretan grape varieties, with every bottle numbered, and aims for quality rather than quantity.
Visiting Santorini wineries is a popular activity on this Greek island in the Cyclades, whose volcanic soil provides a distinctive terroir.
Life as a waiter on Zakynthos tells what it was like for travel writer Mike Gerrard to work in a Greek restaurant, the Mantalena in Alykanas, and see behind the scenes in a Greek family taverna.