Welcome to our ultimate Crete travel guide, where we share the very best places to visit in Crete. Being such a huge island with aspects of many of the other Greek islands, there’s no shortage of amazing things to do here. From east to west and north to south, we’ve assembled the must-see destinations, and a few off-the-beaten-track favourites.
From picture-perfect beaches and lagoons, to scenic lakes and ancient ruins, the attractions on offer are diverse and the best places to visit in Crete are completely free. We recommend renting a car for freedom; however, you’ll also find tours to many of the places we’ve featured on our list.
Get ready to plan the ultimate trip with our list of the best things to do in Crete!
Balos and Gramvousa
No trip to Crete would be complete without a boat trip! Hop on the ferry from Kissamos port, where it’ll then take just over an hour to reach the stunning Balos Lagoon. Balos is known to be the most photographed beach in Crete, famous for its crystal blue waters and wild natural beauty. You can wade through the warm salt water of the lagoon, where you’ll see the little fish swimming past, or grab a sun lounger and enjoy relaxation with a view.
The next stop on the boat tour is Gramvousa, which is a small island that’s located few miles north of Balos, around 10 minutes away by boat.
The highlight of Gramvousa is its Venetian fortress and turquoise blue water. There’s also an old shipwreck in the middle of the bay, providing some excellent photo opportunities and a popular snorkelling spot. You can take the 20-minute hike up the hill to see Gramvousa fortress, or kick back and relax on the beach below.
Chania Old Town
Out of all of the traditional towns in Crete, Chania was our favourite. Historically, many tourists choose to stay in the Heraklion area to the east, but Chania is quickly becoming the new hotspot for those that want a taste of Cretan history and a much more charming destination. The main attraction here is the picturesque Venetian Harbour that dates back to the 1300’s. It’s surrounded by a fortress, towering lighthouse and a promenade of colourful shops and restaurants.
Within town, you then have a collection of narrow streets, where locals and tourists meet and there’s a real upbeat atmosphere. Walk around the indoor market, marvel at the old buildings and stop by a corner café for a drink. It’s Chania’s wonderful architecture that makes it one of the best places to visit in Crete, and the beauty of a stop here is simply walking around looking at the sites.
Elafonissi is hands down one of the best beaches in Crete, if not the whole of Greece. Famous for its pink sand that glistens in the sunlight, Elafonissi is a collection of beautiful white sand beaches, all surrounding a central lagoon. It sits to the south-western most point of the island, and whilst it can be a long drive to get there from most tourist towns, it’s well worth taking the trip.
Relax on the palm sun loungers, take a dip in the warm lagoon, which is only around 1m deep, or go for a walk and explore the stunning scenery. As you can see from our drone shot below, Elafonissi is quite a unique beach formation and it feels much unlike the other coastal regions of Crete. To get to Elafonissi Beach, you can either rent a car and drive there yourself, or join a tour.
Check out our Elafonissi Beach guide here to help you plan your daytrip.
Agia Triada Tzagaroli Monastery
You can’t visit Crete without stopping by one of its magnificent monasteries, and Agia Triada Tzagaroli Monastery is one of the most picturesque. It’s located a short drive from Chania airport to the north-east of town. A mountain-top location and countryside scenery set the scene for this Greek Orthadox Monastery, which was built in the 17th century.
Take a moment to marvel at the grand entrance and then walk up the steps into the heart of the monastery. Inside, you’ll find flower decorated corridors, intricate terracotta architecture and plenty of turrets, viewpoints and archways. Its rich history is apparent throughout the building and grounds and it’ll entertain you for at least an hour or so. We found Agia Triada, also known as Holy Trinity, to be one of the most visually stunning monasteries in Crete.
Arkadi Monastery is also excellent, and is the preferred monastery to visit if you’re staying further to the east of Crete.
A short drive down the road from Agia Triada Monastery, you have the hidden beach cove of Seitan Limania. This hugely popular but tiny slither of beach has made a name for itself, solely because of the unique beach scenery on offer. A canyon cove has formed between two rock faces, creating a stunning beach and natural cove where you can swim.
The water is a soft turquoise colour and is the perfect place to relax in the hot Greek sun. You’ll need a car to get here, and the winding road down is challenging, but it’s well worth the visit. It’s one of the best places to visit in Crete if you like remote beaches and unusual coastal scenery.
A slightly off-the-beaten-track best place to visit in Crete is the vast Lake Kournas. Situated between Chania and Rethymon, the Lake is surrounded by mountain scenery on one side, with farmlands on the opposite shore. Turquoise water meets sandy shore and it provides the setting for some of the best nature scenery that Crete has to offer.
We recommend visiting on a morning whilst it’s nice and quiet. Go for a long walk around the lake and then embark on a boat trip. The top thing to do here is to rent a pedal boat and explore Lake Kournas away from the shore. It’s a peaceful way to see the area and is very relaxing. You may even see some small sea turtles swimming underneath the boat, so it’s best to visit on a sunny day, where visibility is clear. In addition to the lake, there are a number of small local restaurants, gift shops and nature trails.
Crete has many gorges, located deep within its mountains. However, not all of its gorges are equal, or as breath-taking. Samaria Gorge is the most well known gorge on the island, attracting hikers and walkers from afar. Positioned to the south of Chania near the Pakhnes mountain range, Samaria is a vast and towering valley with tall rock faces on either side.
As one of the best places to visit in Crete for adventure, it boasts picture-perfect scenery for a hike and has routes for all levels of hiking ability, from beginner to advanced. Cross small water streams, trek through forest terrain and down the sides of the mountain in a half day hike. We recommend visiting on a morning whilst it’s still cool, as temperatures can make the walk unbearable in the afternoon sun.
Loutro is a somewhat mystical place to visit in Crete. You’ll find it on the very south of the island, surrounded by mountains and cliffsides. The only way to get there is by boat, which adds to its allure for tourists. You can take a private or group ferry boat from the nearby towns for a full day of exploring this scenic coastal town. You may even love it so much that you’ll want to book into a hotel!
A turquoise lagoon is the backdrop for the rows of quaint white buildings in town. The only thing to do here is eat, drink and go for a long walk by the promenade. But that’s all you need! The best thing about any visit to Loutro is simply gazing at its beautiful cove scenery. You may also want to go for a swim! If you’re venturing to Crete’s south coast, add Loutro to the top of your list.
Matala Beach has a reputation of being one of the best beaches in Crete. Popular in the 70’s as a laid-back hippie retreat, Matala has retained its relaxed and friendly atmosphere, with people flocking to the south of the island to relax on its sands every summer. The golden beach meets turquoise waves crashing at the shore, providing a post-card picture view that you won’t forget.
In addition to the beach, you’ll find a number of caves that have been decorated with paintings, tributes and shrines. The south coast is a much quieter part of the island to visit, and whilst Matala Beach is no secret, it often has far fewer crowds than other top Crete beaches.
Rethymo is a historic beach town that’s positioned in the centre of Crete, to the north of the island. Its central location and wide variety of tourist amenities makes it a great place to stay, but it’s also worth visiting for a day trip. It boasts a long beach and promenade that’s full of bars, cafes, restaurants and sun loungers.
A short walk along from the beach, you then have a colourful marina of boats, with many boat trips heading out to tour the coastline. Finally, and the highlight of any visit, is the old town centre of Rethymo. Its old Venetian Harbour and lighthouse is what tourists flock to see, and the nearby streets are full of character. Market stalls, street food stands and hidden traditional restaurants can all be found in the labyrinth of alleyways.
Did we mention that it also has a hilltop castle?
We visited Kourtaliotiko Gorge on our first day in Crete, and in no way were we prepared for the scenery that greeted us on arrival. Located deep with the mountains in the centre of the island, Kourtaliotiko Gorge is a deep cavern that descends between the mountain slopes. Towering cliffs surround you as you drive into the gorge, and you can then park your car to explore.
Walk down the winding set of stone steps and you’ll find an old monastery perched on the edge of the ridge. It overlooks a beautiful array of waterfalls and has views of the entire valley. The nature scenery on offer here will really blow you away! We recommend checking out the waterfalls and then going on a small trail walk through the centre of the gorge.
Preveli Palm Forest
If you’re looking for one of the best places to visit in Crete that’s slightly off the beaten track, Preveli Palm Forest is a unique place to check out. It’s situated a 20-minute drive south of Kourtaliotiko Gorge, so we recommend combining both attractions into one action-packed day trip. Once you’ve parked your car up, head down to the Prevli Beach area to be greeted with rows of palm trees on the shoreline.
Relax on the beach for an hour or so before you embark on the main attraction – the Prevli River walk. Swim or walk up the shallow river stream amongst a forest of palm trees. The scenery is unusually tropical for the Mediterranean and it’s the perfect place to stay cool. Further up the river there’s a waterfall and a number of walking trails through a gorge. It’s nature at its finest!
Many of the best places to visit in Crete are located by the coastline… but not everything. If you want a taste of the Cretan country life and some spectacular mountain scenery, the Lasithi Plateau in the east of Crete is the place to go. You’ll need a car to get here due to its remote location and multi-stop attractions. Part of the beauty of seeing Lasithi Plateauis is actually the scenic drive through the mountains.
Aside from the scenic drive, the top things to do here include stopping off at small local villages, sampling olive oil, wines and freshly made honey. There’s also Diktaion Andron Cave, a rugged cave complex deep within the mountain. Combine those with stops at some excellent mountain viewpoints and you have a day-trip unlike any other we’ve mentioned so far.
If you’re interested in Ancient Greek history or simply want to step foot in Europe’s oldest city, you can’t leave Crete without discovering Knossos. This vast collection of Bronze Age ancient ruins was once the ceremonial and political heart of Minoan civilisation.
The ancient temples, chambers and pathways have been preserved very well and you can spend a good hour or so exploring on foot. Learn about King Minos and the myths behind the labyrinths of the Minoans, including the widely known story of Theseus and the Minotaur.
We recommend joining a guided tour or listening to an audio walkthrough guide to get a true appreciation of the ruins.
Heraklion City and harbour
Heraklion is the bustling and widespread city of Heraklion. It has the largest population, Crete’s biggest airport and is where many businesses are based. It also provides a corridor to other Greek islands via its ferry port. Whilst we didn’t find Heraklion to be as natural pretty as other areas of Crete, it’s still worth checking out.
Firstly, it’s home to Heraklion Archaeological Museum. This museum alone is worthy of a visit, as it boasts one of the best collections of ancient Greek artefacts in the whole country. Learn about the ancient Minoans, the Cretan way of life and truth behind myth. In addition to the museum, we recommend checking out the scenic harbour-front and old town streets, where you’ll find a number of old monuments, fountains and churches. Heraklion is excellent for shopping too – so stock up on gifts and souvenirs before heading home.
An often overlooked place to visit in Crete by many, Sissi is a naturally pretty local town with a harbour, colourful buildings and narrow white-washed streets. Many locals and expats make it their home, and the quiet atmosphere here is a welcome escape from the busier tourist towns.
If you’re staying to the east of Crete in the Heraklion or Elounda area, we highly recommend paying Sissi a visit for the day. Go for a long walk around town for some idyllic Mediterranean scenery, stop for a brunch in a corner café or enjoy lunch with a view of the boat marina. There isn’t a great deal to do in Sissi, but that’s the beauty of it. Life is quiet, picturesque and relaxing.
Situated to the far-east of Crete and overlooking Mirabello bay, Elounda is a charming tourist town that’s popular with British holiday-seekers. Its elevated coastline provides a scenic background for any exploration, and its hotels, cafes and restaurants all have amazing views. Elounda town itself is small but quaint, with a number of shops and restaurants to check out.
Many people visit Elounda as part of a boat trip to the nearby Spinalonga Island, so you can explore both locations in a full day excursion. Take time to have lunch at one of its top-rated restaurants, relax on the beach, or go for a long walk along the promenade to the sand bar, and onward to Elounda Windmills.
As one of the last remaining Lepur colonies in Europe before it closed, Spinalonga Island is well known to be one of the best places to visit in Crete. Its story is known across Greece and it makes a truly unique attraction to visit during your time on the island. You’ll need a boat to get there, and they depart from the mainland towns of Elounda and Plaka every day.
As you sail over to Spinalonga, your attention will be captured by its castle-like turrets and tall fortifications. The boat docks up and you then have an hour or so to explore the island at your leisure. Take a guided tour or roam free and learn about the Lepar colony that once made Spinalonga their home.
Top things to see here include the remnants of old houses and other town buildings, the grand Venetian fortress, and plenty of viewpoints. You’ll have some of the best views of Mirabello Bay at every step you take.
Agios Nikolaus is not only one of the best places to visit in Crete, it’s also a very popular place to stay. It sits to the east of the island overlooking Mirabello Bay, with some of the most picturesque scenery you’ll encounter. The town is also centred around the serene Lake Voulismeni, with a long promenade of shops, bars and restaurants.
Visit for a half-day trip and enjoy strolling around town at your leisure. It’s a great place to grab a drink as you watch the boats leaving town, and has a number of scenic walking routes. The beauty of any visit to Agios Nikolaus is simply soaking in the holiday atmosphere. We personally recommend renting a small boat for an hour or so. Agios Nikolaus’ location makes it one of the best destinations for exploring the waters of Mirabello Bay.
As the sun sets on Agios, the town comes to life with live music, cocktail bars and some excellent Greek restaurants.
The final destination on our list of the best places to visit in Crete is a remote beach. Vai Beach is located to the very far east of Crete, which is a place that many tourists don’t venture to, simply because of how remote it is. Lush green palm trees surround a completely untouched beach for some of the best beach views you’ll find in Greece. It actually looks a lot like the tropics of South-East Asia at first glance!
Due to the far-east position of Vai, we recommend visiting as part of an extended Eastern Crete itinerary. Rent a car and explore this untouched region at your leisure. It has an authentic local feel and lots of quiet beaches. Kai is also well located to explore Kyriamadi Natural Park, which you’ll need a boat to access.
That wraps up our list of the best places to visit in Crete! As you’ve probably realised, it’s such a large and diverse island and many destinations are quite a distance from each other. We recommend building an itinerary around the key things you’d like to see and sticking to a section of the island if you’re visiting for a week or so. For longer stays, consider staying in multiple locations to see as much as you can. The Chania, Heraklion and Loutro areas make a great combo itinerary.
PS: if you want to find out more about the best places to visit in Crete, then be sure to check out our travel guide on our YouTube channel below:
By RickyAuthor bio:
An adventurer at heart that loves anything outdoors. Beaches, mountains and amazing scenery is everything I love about travel! I also enjoy home comforts and need a nice place to relax and re-charge after every trip.