Despite being Greece’s largest and perhaps most historically rich island, Crete is often overlooked by travelers, pulled by photogenic views of Santorini or the pulsing nightlife of Mykonos. This means that travelers in the know are left to savor Crete’s disarming beauty and diverse landscapes in relative solitude; it’s a fantastic break from the horde of tourists the flock to the Cyclades in the summer months.
In this ultimate guide to the very best things to do in Crete, we share the top activities and destinations you can’t miss for your perfect trip. Whether you’re looking for adrenaline-pumping hikes and adventure sports or prefer to enjoy your time in Crete on one of the island’s many white sand beaches, there is no end to the options of things to do in Crete.
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12 Best Things To Do in Crete
1. Relax on Crete’s Pristine Beaches
If there is any reason to skip the Cyclades and head to Crete instead, it’s the beaches. While other Greek islands have pebbly, rocky beaches, Crete is blessed with a seemingly unending array of white sand (and pink sand!) beaches. If you didn’t know better, you might say you were in the Caribbean.
While you can’t go wrong with any hidden cove or patch of sand in Crete, these are among the island’s best beaches you’ll want to add to your Crete itinerary.
One of Crete’s most expansive – and famous – beaches, Balos Beach is a must-visit destination on the far western edge of the island. While it can get crowded during the summer travel season, it’s well worth a visit. The pure white sand and turquoise water in this unique lagoon have landed it a top spot on many lists of best beaches in the world.
One of the best ways to visit Balos Beach is by taking a day cruise to Balos Beach from Chania. You can find inexpensive (less than $30!) but well-done day trips by boat from Chania to Balos Beach and Gramvousa Island. It’s the perfect way to enjoy Crete from the water.
South of the charming town of Rethymno, Plakias Beach is one of Crete’s best. Boasting all the amenities you could need for the perfect beach day, it’s a great choice for travelers looking for an uncomplicated day in a beautiful spot. While the sand isn’t as fine as it is at Balos Beach, the long, arched beach is a favorite with locals and travelers alike.
A little over an hour from Heraklion, Matala Beach on Crete’s southern shore is an extremely popular beach with all the beach amenities and easy accessibility you could want. Set in a gorgeous bay, this is the perfect spot for swimming or just relaxing on the sand.
You can also visit the famous caves within the cliffside; in the 1960s, they were home to hippies, and even singers like Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell called them home for a time. You’ll need to pay a small ticket price to access them.
The sand here isn’t as fine as it is at some of Crete’s other most popular beaches, but the beach is still impressive. Make sure to get lunch or a drink from one of the restaurants situated on the cliffs overlooking the beach; the views are spectacular.
This white sand beach surrounded by soaring cliffs is undoubtedly the most beautiful beach in Crete. The cliffs surrounding this paradise spot keep the wind from whipping up waves, making it the perfect spot for swimming in crystal-clear water.
While just a convenient 30-minute drive from Chania and nearby some of the best places to stay in Crete, Seitan Limania is only accessible by a steep staircase and narrow walkway that takes you down from the parking area to the beach below. It takes about 15 minutes to reach the water, meaning it’s not one of the best things to do in Crete with kids or if you have mobility issues.
2. Take a Cruise Around the Island
Once you’ve had your share of beach days while visiting Crete, take in the island’s stunning shoreline from another angle: the water. There is no way to enjoy a Greece vacation like cruising across clear waters through historic ports, along hidden islands, and to impressive swimming spots: it’s easily one of the best things to do in Crete.
You’ll have no trouble finding opportunities to take a tour around some of the island’s most beautiful spots. We recommend taking a sailing trip from Heraklion to stunning Dia Island. We thought this trip was a blast, as it takes you to under-the-radar spots you can’t visit otherwise. It’s the BEST day trip from Heraklion!
Another favorite choice is taking a luxe catamaran cruise complete with delicious Greek food and plenty of options for swimming, beach spots, and water sports all day long. No matter where you’re staying on Crete, you’ll have your pick of excursions!
3. Visit Arkadi Monastery
This beautiful and historically-significant monastery in central Crete is one of the island’s most well-known landmarks, both for its impressive architecture and its crucial role in the island’s history. It holds a special place in the hearts of Cretians for its important role in the 1866 uprising against Ottoman rule when it was besieged for three days.
Easily accessible from Rethymno, the monastery has nice gardens, impressive fortress walls, and a lovely, ornate church with impressive paintings, and a small museum with artifacts and explanations of the monastery’s extensive history.
4. Wander Through Agios Nikolaos
Crete is packed with quaint and historic towns to explore, and Agios Nikolaos is among the favorites. Situated on the north coast about an hour east of Heraklion, it’s a great base from which to explore surrounding towns and villages, and visit beautiful beaches. Plus, it offers a ferry to nearby Spinalonga with its Venetian fortress, another best thing to do in Crete.
When visiting Agios Nikolaos, you’ll want to take time to explore the city’s many pedestrian streets, visit nearby favorite beaches like Voulisma, and visit the town’s small but impressive archology museum, jam-packed with artifacts. Of course, a cruise from Agios Nikolaos to Spinalonga island is a must!
5. Learn About (and Taste-Test!) Greek Cuisine
If there is any kind of tour we recommend to travelers – and always find ourselves booking! – it’s food tours. They’re one of the most unique and memorable ways to connect with locals, learn about local cuisine, and slow down from the pace of a hectic travel schedule. Crete is packed with excellent food tours, tastings, and cooking classes to consider for your trip.
Generally, you’ll find a couple of popular food-related tours or experiences in Crete: olive oil tastings, foodie walking tours, and wine tastings. There’s also an extremely popular cooking class in the White Mountains outside of Chania that we’ve heard through the grape vine is a highlight.
Oliving in Crete offers a one-of-a-kind olive oil tasting and food pairing, a true highlight for those looking for a genuine and well-done experience to remember. For a more affordable yet just as popular foodie walking tour, there’s a popular walking tour through Chania that includes a bit of history and plenty of food that we’d try again in a heartbeat.
6. Visit Crete’s Pink Sand Beaches
Crete is famous for its gorgeous beaches, sure, but it’s world-renowned for having some of the planet’s only true pink sand beaches. By far the most famous pink sand beach on Crete is Elafonissi Beach on the island’s southwest shore. Travelers visit Elafonissi Beach as one of the most popular day trips from Chania.
The other pink sand beach in Crete? The famous Balos Beach! While most of the beach at Balos is white sand, there are small sections with a pinkish hue from the crushed shells that wash ashore.
Be warned – don’t expect shocking pink hues at any of Crete’s pink sand beaches. You’ll find light pink tones, mostly along the water’s edge where the waves lap up, bringing newly crushed red shells. While the hues are light, it’s a beautiful sight to behold.
7. Explore Knossos Palace
Located just south of Heraklion, the ruins of Knossos Palace are the most archeologically significant ruins on Crete, making a visit to the palace a must for travelers. The political center of the Bronze Age Minoan Empire, the palace is extensive, including fascinating rebuilt sections to give visitors a better idea of it’s former glory. You’ll need at lead two hours to explore the complete in its entirety.
The ruins can get crowded year-round, though this is especially true during the summer months. Make sure to book a skip-the-line ticket online in advance or you could end up spending up to an hour or more waiting. Skip-the-line tickets come with audio guides, or, book a skip-the-line ticket with a guided tour of the palace – it’s the best way to get the most out of the experience.
Make sure to accompany your visit with a trip to the Heraklion Archeological Museum. You’ll get to see firsthand some of the amazing pottery, statues, and other precious treasures that have been pulled from the ruins of the palace. It’s a fascinating visit even if you’re not a museum buff, especially after visiting the palace.
8. Visit Spinalonga Island
Just off the shores of Agios Nikolaos, Spinalonga Island is home to an impressive Venetian fortress, built in the 1500s to protect this important port, used for salt extraction and subject to frequent piracy. Even centuries later, the fortress is impressive, among the many reasons visiting Spinalonga is one of the most popular things to do in Crete.
This island is cryptically called the island of the living dead, as it was converted into a leper colony in the first half of the 20th century. After the last inhabitant, a priest, left the island in 1962, it fell mostly into disuse until tourist activity transformed it into one of the most-visited attractions in Crete.
Today you can take frequent daily ferries from Agios Nikolaos, Plaka, and Elounda to Spinalonga, or even better, take a cruise from Agios Nikolaos to Spinalonga island with a guide to fill you in on all the history. In addition to touring the island, you can enjoy the island’s small pebbly beaches – they’re not the greatest, but the swimming is excellent as the water is shallow and clear.
9. Trek Samaria Gorge
Located in the center of the island in the heart of the White Mountains, the Samaria Gorge is supremely impressive, with soaring walls that keep you cool and shaded on a hot Greek summer day. Don’t underestimate this gorge – walking the full length can take up to five or six hours, and requires a degree of physical fitness, though it’s not a particularly challenging hike.
Watery conditions during the winter months can make the gorge dangerous, so it’s only open to visitors from May through October. Take the trek by yourself, or book on to a guided hiking excurion to Samaria Gorge to facilitate transportation.
10. Visit the Picture-Perfect Town of Rethymno
Another quaint and historic town you won’t want to miss, the northern coastal town of Rethymno is an absolute gem, considered among the most picturesque spots in Crete. Located between Chania and Heraklion, it’s also a fantastic spot to base yourself to conveniently explore the very best of the island.
You’ll love Rethymno, with its old town center filled with Venetian architecture and historical details around every turn. Explore the port, check out cafes and shops along the winding streets, and make sure to head to Preveli Monastery. You can also find small boats for sunset cruises to any of the countless pristine beaches near Rethymno.
Despite being such a charming town, it doesn’t see as many tourists as Chania or Heraklion, making it one of the best places to base yourself in Crete if you’re traveling during the high season in summer.
We truly recommend considering a stay in Rethymno! Looking for the best accommodations in town? Here are some favorites to consider:
11. Go Snorkeling or Scuba Diving
With all of Crete’s scenic beaches with crystal-clear water, you’ll have no problem finding a great place to snorkel or scuba dive no matter where you base yourself for yor stay in Crete. You won’t find the ultra-colorful fish or massive corals you’d expect from tropical spots, but you will find an array of sealife, underwater caverns and caves, and plenty more to make for fantastic excursions.
Some of the best destinations for snorkeling include the famous pink sand beach of Elafonisi, or the nearby Kedrosas, which many say is actually a better spot for snorkeling as the waters are more protected. Matala beach on the southern coast is also another fantastic spot for snorkeling, as you can even find ancient Roman remains among the waves.
In larger cities like Chania and Heraklion, you’ll find certified dive shops offering diving excursions along the island, including some lessons and easy yet exciting experiences for beginners looking to get their first taste of diving in the waters of Crete. These are some of the most popular scuba diving excursions:
12. Explore Old Town Chania
Crete is filled with quaint, historic towns, but Chania is easily among the most charming spots on the island. With its narrow cobblestone streets, winding roads, Venetian architecture, gorgeous harbor, and unique museums and monuments, there are plenty of things to do in Chania. It’s also a great spot from which to explore the rest of the island on easy day trips, making it one of the most popular places to stay in Crete.
One of the best ways to explore Chania is by taking a guided walking tour and food tour of Chania. Not only will this engaging food introduce you to some of the city’s most important monuments, but you’ll get to taste delicious local food in the process. It’s a great way to kick off your trip.
If you just have a short time in Chania, make sure to visit the quaint harbor and lighthouse and explore the heart of the old town. You’ll enjoy getting lost among its streets and find plenty of cute cafes, shops, and restaurants worth visiting.
Filled with historical and archeological gems, stunning vistas, and world-class beaches, Crete is a stunner if you take the time to get to know it well. While it may not have the immediate impact of neighboring Greek islands like Mykonos or Santorini, so much is revealed to you little by little if and only if you have the patience to explore it.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.