Top 6 Things to Do in Crete – Uncovering the Island’s Beauty
Crete, the Mediterranean’s fifth largest island, is a captivating destination where ancient history melds seamlessly with stunning landscapes, offering visitors a unique travel experience. It is a treasure trove of attractions and activities just waiting to be discovered.
Crete’s main attraction is the Palace of Knossos between 1700 and 1400 BC. Renowned for its magnificent architecture, intricate frescoes, as the centre of Minoan civilisation, and one of the earliest and most advanced societies in Europe. The island features other remarkable sites such as Samaria Gorge, Arkadi Monastery, and Elafonisi Island.
In this article, I cover six must-visit attractions and provide links to help you find the perfect experience for your trip. Embark on a remarkable journey through Crete’s top sites and uncover the beauty of this unforgettable island.
Note: There is a handy map with the locations of the sites listed for your convenience at the bottom of this feature.
1. Palace of Knossos
Located just a stone’s throw away from the bustling city of Heraklion lies the remarkable Palace of Knossos, one of Crete’s most significant and fascinating historical sites. Dating back 4,000 years to the ancient Minoan civilisation, the Palace of Knossos is an essential visit for anyone travelling to Crete.
To truly appreciate the site’s cultural and historical significance, I highly recommend exploring it with a knowledgeable guide or an audio tour. There are different types of entry tickets to choose from, including:
- A Basic Palace entrance ticket with no guide or audio,
- Palace with audio tour,
- Archaeological Museum and Palace with audio, or
- Knossos Palace Skip-the-Line Guided Walking Tour.
The skip the line guided tour is the better one for a more immersive experience, which is slightly pricier but highly rated. This tour also helps visitors to navigate the complex layout of the Palace, ensuring that they don’t miss any of the most important features or areas of interest.
As soon as you step into the Palace, your eyes will be drawn to the breathtaking Throne Room, featuring an alabaster throne that is said to have been used by the one and only King Minos. As you explore the rest of the site, you’ll come across some seriously impressive frescoes, like the world-famous “Prince of the Lilies” and “Bull-Leaping” ones. These works of art offer a unique window into the everyday life and culture of the Minoans.
But Knossos isn’t just about looking pretty. This place was way ahead of its time when it came to city planning and infrastructure. The site featured sophisticated water systems, efficient drainage, and even ventilation, demonstrating the Minoans’ impressive engineering capabilities.
It’s worth mentioning the fascinating myths and legends associated with Knossos, such as the renowned tale of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. Some speculate that the intricate design of the Palace might have been the inspiration behind the Labyrinth – the mythical dwelling of the terrifying Minotaur: a creature with a human body and a bull’s head.
2. Spinalonga Island
Just off the northeastern coast of Crete, you’ll find the small but captivating Spinalonga Island. This place is brimming with history and natural beauty, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the top things to do in Crete. Back in the day, it was a fortress keeping the port of Elounda safe, and later on, it was used to isolate people with leprosy until 1957. Nowadays, it’s all about exploring the past and soaking up the gorgeous scenery.
One of the best-rated tours focusing on Spinalonga departs from Agios Nikolaos and includes a boat cruise to the island. The tour offers historical and natural attractions, and the Pirate Barbarosa’s cave and the sunken city of Olous, add to the tour’s intrigue and interest. And with plenty of opportunities to relax, swim, and enjoy the beautiful surroundings, this tour offers a perfect blend of education and leisure.
As you approach Spinalonga Island by boat, the ancient Venetian fortress comes into view, a testament to the island’s strategic importance during the 16th century.
When you arrive on the island, be sure to wander through its narrow streets and visit the remnants of the leper colony, including the old homes and buildings. It’s a truly thought-provoking experience that offers a glimpse into the lives of those who were exiled here due to their illness.
Aside from its historical significance, Spinalonga Island is also a haven for nature lovers. The island’s rugged coastline, peppered with cosy coves and sparkling turquoise waters, beckons visitors to explore and unwind under the warm Mediterranean sun. Whether you prefer to wander leisurely around the island or seek out a quiet hideaway to admire the stunning views, there’s no shortage of opportunities to soak up the island’s natural beauty.
3. Samaria Gorge
Tucked away in the heart of Crete, Samaria Gorge is an absolute must-see for all nature enthusiasts and thrill-seekers. Spanning a whopping 16 kilometres, this magnificent natural wonder is one of Europe’s longest gorges.
It boasts awe-inspiring landscapes, diverse flora and fauna, and unique geological formations that have earned it the status of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
If you’re up for the challenge of exploring Samaria Gorge, you’ll find plenty of tours to choose from. But be warned – most of these tours involve long hikes, so you’ll need to be physically fit and up for an adventure.
The trek can take anywhere from 5 to 7 hours, depending on your pace. But the incredible scenery and the sense of accomplishment when you reach the end make it all worth it.
However, if a long hike isn’t really your thing, fear not! You can still enjoy the beauty of the region by going on this incredible safari tour. This tour takes you on an off-road journey through the stunning White Mountains of Crete, so you can still appreciate the remarkable views without the sore legs.
During your hike or safari tour, you’ll get to see some truly unique spots, like the abandoned village of Samaria and the Iron Gates, the narrowest part of the gorge. Plus, you’ll have the chance to spot the famous Cretan wild goats, known as “kri-kri”, as well as various bird species and other wildlife.
So whether you’re a hardcore hiker or prefer a more laid-back approach, Samaria Gorge is an unforgettable experience that perfectly showcases the natural beauty of Crete. Just remember to pack your camera – you won’t want to miss capturing these incredible sights!
4. Elafonisi Island
Elafonisi Island, located off the southwestern coast of Crete, is a true haven for beach bums and sun worshippers. With its pink-tinged sand and pristine turquoise waters, this idyllic destination is the ultimate place to unwind and soak up the natural beauty of the island.
Getting to Elafonisi Island is a breeze, whether you prefer to use public transport or book an organized day trip. There are affordable tours that offer the flexibility to explore the island at your own pace, leaving you plenty of time to lounge on the picture-perfect beaches or take a refreshing swim in the crystal-clear waters.
Some offers the convenience of pick-up and drop-off, you can leave all the logistics to the experts. Check out these affordable day trip options to find the one that suits you best: From Chania: Elafonisi Bus Trip with Free Time and From Rethymno & Chania: Elafonisi Island Day Tour by Bus.
The moment you set foot on Elafonisi Beach, you’ll see why it’s hailed as one of the best beaches in the world. The shallow waters surrounding the island are perfect for swimming and snorkelling, giving you the chance to get up close and personal with the vibrant marine life.
Additionally with the sand’s unique pink hue, created by crushed seashells, the beach provides an absolutely stunning backdrop for a day of unwinding and soaking up the sun.
However Elafonisi Island isn’t just about its gorgeous beaches. Nature lovers will be thrilled to discover the diverse flora and fauna found on the island, which include rare plant species and a variety of bird populations.
You’ll have ample opportunities to explore the island’s unique ecosystem by taking leisurely strolls or indulging in a peaceful picnic. It’s a wonderful way to appreciate the island’s natural beauty and reconnect with nature.
As you leave Elafonisi Island, you’ll undoubtedly take with you memories of its incredible beauty and tranquil atmosphere. This enchanting destination is a must-visit spot for anyone seeking a relaxing and picturesque escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
5. Rethymnon Old Town
A trip to Rethymnon Old Town is one of the top things to do in Crete. It’s packed with history, oozing charm, and features a distinct Venetian influence that’s hard to miss. The perfectly preserved old town is a labyrinth of cobblestone streets, teeming with colourful buildings, creating the perfect environment to explore and soak up the local culture.
For those eager to uncover the rich history and taste the local flavours of Rethymnon, an exclusive guided tour is the way to go. This unique experience combines sightseeing with food tasting, offering you the chance to truly savour the essence of Rethymnon while uncovering its rich past.
As you meander through the winding streets of Rethymnon Old Town, you’ll encounter an array of architectural gems that showcase the city’s Venetian and Ottoman heritage. The Fortezza is definitely worth checking out – this 16th-century fortress offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city. Another standout attraction is the Rimondi Fountain, a charming Venetian-era landmark that still provides fresh water to this day.
Make sure to visit the Venetian Harbour as well. It’s a must-see spot where you can take a leisurely stroll along the waterfront, admire the picturesque lighthouse, and watch local fishermen bringing in their daily catch. The lively harbour is also lined with an abundance of inviting tavernas, perfect for sampling traditional Cretan dishes and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere.
While exploring Rethymnon Old Town, don’t forget to indulge in some retail therapy. The narrow streets are dotted with quaint boutiques and artisan shops, where you can find handmade souvenirs, local delicacies, and unique crafts to bring home.
One of the best things about Rethymnon Old Town is its warm and friendly atmosphere. The locals are welcoming and eager to share their love for their city, making it a truly memorable experience for visitors.
6. Arkadi Monastery
If you’re a history buff, spiritual seeker, or just someone who loves gorgeous natural scenery, you have to check out the Arkadi Monastery. This Eastern Orthodox monastery, which dates back to the 16th century, is located about 23 kilometres southeast of Rethymnon and holds a special place in the hearts of Cretans for its crucial role in the island’s fight for independence during the Cretan Revolt of 1866.
For a fun and eco-friendly way to explore the monastery and the surrounding countryside, join this amazing e-bike tour. This guided experience takes you on a journey through the history and natural beauty of the area, complete with a delicious lunch to top off the adventure.
As you approach the monastery, you’ll be awed by its stunning Venetian architecture, which is a testament to Crete’s rich cultural heritage. The main church, dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ and the Saints Constantine and Helen, is adorned with exquisite frescoes and ornate wood carvings that are simply breathtaking. A small museum on the grounds also displays religious artefacts, weapons, and documents that tell the monastery’s story.
What makes Arkadi Monastery particularly poignant is its role as a powerful symbol of sacrifice and courage during the Cretan Revolt. The monastery provided a refuge for Cretan rebels and their loved ones, but when it came under siege from Ottoman forces, the defenders made the brave decision to ignite their gunpowder stores rather than surrender, resulting in a devastating loss of life. This event is remembered by a memorial ossuary within the monastery’s walls.
While you’re at Arkadi Monastery, be sure to soak in its peaceful setting, tucked away among green hills and olive groves. The scenic landscape offers a tranquil space for some quiet reflection, and you’ll find plenty of great photo opportunities too.
Top Things to do in Crete – Map Locations
- Elafonisi Beach
- Samaria Gorge
- Rethymnon old town
- Arkadi Monastery
- Palace of Knossos
- Spinalonga Island