Some travellers might prefer to plan a holiday as to avoid any surprises, while others would rather go with the flow and decide what to do on the spot. If you are planning a trip to Crete, you might want to make a list of some must-see sites as there are many of them. Here is a list of the 20 places to see when visiting this Mediterranean island.
The Samaria Gorge, the longest in Europe, is an exhilarating visit. The trail covers 18 kilometres (11.1 miles) of spectacular landscape and scenery. You may even catch a glimpse of one or two endemic animal species such as the Cretan badger or the spiny mouse. And while it may be a bit strenuous to complete this hike during the warm summer months, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views over the Libyan Sea at the end of your journey.
Located about five kilometres (3.1 miles) from Iraklion, Knossos is considered Europe’s oldest city, and its Minoan Palace is a must-see. Discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos, Knossos was once a ceremonial and political hub of Minoan civilisation and culture. The palace featured over 1,200 rooms, with some of them reconstructed to portray the grandeur of the site. An earthquake destroyed the first palace – built sometime around 2000 BC – in 1700 BC. Constructed in its place was an even greater palace, but evidence shows that it was destroyed in 1450 BC, possibly by the Santorini eruption, the same one that ruined the ancient city of Akrotiri.
Elafonissi is a small paradise on Earth. Located approximately 70 kilometres (43.4 miles) from Chania, Elafonissi is a Natura 2000 Protection Program listed area blessed with natural beauty, shallow crystal clear waters and fine sand beaches. In some places, the sand looks pink, taking the unusual colour from the thousands of crushed shells. A marvellous playground for everyone, Elafonissi is a stunning place where you can spend the day sunbathing or exploring the hidden coves.
Another highlight of Crete and vestige of the Minoan civilisation is the Minoan Palace at Phaistos (or Faistos), set on a hill overlooking a plain. Less famous and crowded than the ruins of Knossos, the palace displays simple architecture and boasts a central courtyard, as well as what is thought to be royal apartments. It’s also the site where the famous Phaistos Disc was uncovered in 1908, an artefact whose mysterious purpose has yet to be defined.
Off the coast of Elounda, Spinalonga is a small rocky island also known as the Leper Island, as it was a leper colony until 1957. Now abandoned, the island is a major attraction for visitors who want to explore the ghost town and plunge into its tragic past.
Located in western Crete, Balos lagoon is a must-visit. Quite similar to Elafonissi, it is one of the most photographed spots in Crete. Its exotic scenery, stunning beaches and shallow turquoise waters are what make it a sought-after destination. But if you don’t want to spend the entire day soaking up some vitamin D, you can also visit the small uninhabited island of Gramvoussa, famous for its Venetian castle.
As one of the top museums in Europe, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, located in the centre of Heraklion city, sits on the site of a Venetian Franciscan monastery destroyed by an earthquake in 1856. Featuring an impressive collection of archaeological finds from all over Crete, the museum hosts a variety of treasures of Minoan civilisation, found scattered all over the island.
One of Europe’s biggest aquariums, Cretaquarium, which first opened in 2005, gives visitors a glimpse of the unique sea world. From a plethora of marine organisms such as fish, sharks, jellyfish and even tiny sea horses, the aquarium displays the rich diversity of Mediterranean marine life. A fun activity for visitors of all ages, Cretaquarium is a must-see when visiting Crete.
Visitors will find the Psychro Cave, also known as the Diktean Cave, in the eastern part of Crete, just outside the village of Psychro. If it weren’t for its mythological importance, the cave wouldn’t be much different from the other 3,000 caves located on the island. But the Psychro Cave is much more than a simple cave. Legend states that it was the place where the goddess Rhea gave birth to Zeus. With such significant importance, it’s no wonder that the cave still attracts thousands of visitors today.
The Kourtaliotiko Gorge, or Asomatos Gorge, is a beautiful natural wonder located approximately 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) from Rethymnon, near the village of Koxare. A place of incredible beauty, it boasts a wild landscape blessed with diverse flora and fauna, including many rare bird species. About 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) long, ending at the lagoon of Preveli, the limestone gorge is perfect for nature lovers or anyone looking for an escapade in the wild.
The imposing fortress of Koules, also named Rocca al Mare, is a Venetian structure standing in the old port of Heraklion. Built in the early 13th century, the fortress is one of the most recognised monuments in the city and the symbol of Heraklion. Today, the fortress is open to the public and often hosts exhibitions and cultural events.
Housed in a former Venetian Franciscan monastery, the Archaeological Museum of Chania houses a wide collection of Neolithic and Minoan artefacts as well as treasures of the late Roman periods. The collection grew with donated items from Konstantinos and Marika Mitsotakis’ collection, and the exhibits, which are in chronological order, feature Minoan pottery, stone carving, seals, jewellery and other items.
The imposing Cathedral of Saint Minas, in Heraklion, is one of the largest in Greece. Built in the 1860s to pay respect to the city’s patron saint, Agios Minas (Saint Minas), the cathedral’s construction was completed in 1895, while Crete was still under Turkish rule.
Created in 1973, the Nautical Museum of Chania, housed at the entrance of the Firka Fortress in the old harbour of Chania, is home to an extensive collection of models of modern and ancient ships, nautical instruments, war relics and memorabilia, historical photographs and paintings, all classified in chronological order. Divided into several sections such as symbols, Venetian occupation, Bronze Age, Post-war period, etc., exploring the museum is a fun activity to do with family or friends.
Located near the village of Elafonissi, the Monastery of Chrissoskalitissa, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is a 17th-century Orthodox Christian monastery built on a rock. Legend states that it received the name Chrissoskalitissa because one of the many steps leading up to the monastery was gold. Built during Venetian times, the monastery now is a famous pilgrimage site and includes a folklore museum.
Located on Dermatas’ Bay in Heraklion, the Natural History Museum of Crete highlights the unique, natural environment of Crete and the Mediterranean area. Explore Cretan ecosystems and their counterparts from mainland Greece and the Mediterranean. The museum features different areas where visitors can discover the Giant Deinotherium – the largest prehistoric animal that ever lived on the island – the Enceladus, an earthquake simulator, or the Erevnotopos Discovery Centre, a section designed for children.
Located near Rethymnon and built in 1587, the Arkadi Monastery is home to one of the finest Venetian churches on the island. During the 19th century, the monastery was one of the most prosperous ones on the island and served as a major centre of resistance against the Ottomans. Indeed, during the 1866 rebellion, villagers and guerrilla fighters hid in the structure. After a two-day siege, the warriors and villagers sacrificed themselves and bombed the monastery, and while many people died, including Turks and Cretans, the tragic event stimulated the Cretan Independence movement.
The highest mountain in Crete, peaking at 2,456 metres (8,057.7 feet), Mount Ida, or Psiloritis, is considered to be a sacred mountain. Legend has it that this was the childhood home of Zeus. Also located there is the Cave of Zeus, in the Nida Plateau. Part of the E4 European walking path, the mountain is perfect for hikes, where you will see beautiful nature and discover small mountain villages.
Located south of Mount Ida, Gortina (or Gortyn) is a Greco-Roman archaeological site whose small ruins sprawl throughout fields and olive groves. Explore the site, and admire the 6th-century church of Ayios Titos. At its peak during the Hellenistic era, Gortina was the most powerful and prosperous city of the island and dominated Crete.
One of the only Minoan cities to be fully excavated, Gournia dates back to about 1500 BC. You can walk in the streets of the city and see the houses and other buildings. It’s a unique visit you can do in one afternoon.