While mainland Greece is unarguably an exciting place worth exploring, the islands of Greece seem to be even more popular holiday destinations. Crete, the largest of the Greek islands attracts millions of tourists every year. A mild climate, beautiful landscapes, great sites and the famous Cretan hospitality: all these make for a perfect holiday.
The landscape of Crete is dominated by the high mountain range that extends from east to west, and its mountains are just excellent for hiking. It also has many wonderful beaches on its 660-mile coastline.
However, what is really special about Crete is its intriguing history. The island has been inhabited for thousands of years, and before the various Greek tribes arrived, it was home to the famous Minoans, a highly advanced civilization, whose traces can still be seen in many places on Crete.
Top things to do and see on Crete
Heraklion, the largest city, and capital of Crete are located about 190 miles southeast of Athens. It is an important port which accepts several daily ferries from Piraeus, Athens, and many visitors come through it on their way to other popular destinations, such as Santorini, Mykonos, and Rhodes.
The area has been inhabited since Neolithic times and all the different eras of Heraklion’s long history have left their traces in the city. Today you can admire an exciting variety of monuments ranging from beautiful mosques (from the Ottoman period) to Byzantine churches and Venetian fortresses.
The most famous museum of the city, the Heraklion Archeological Museum houses an excellent collection of artifacts, most importantly some true masterpieces of Minoan art. The museum is well-organized and provides plenty of information – a perfect way to understand Cretan history.
All lovers of history must have heard of Knossos, the ancient capital of the Minoan empire, and you might also know the story of the mythical Minotaur, a half-man-half-bull creature. The ruins of the Knossos palace are some of the oldest in Greece, but surprisingly well preserved. Exploring the ruins will take you several hours, but you can easily spend a whole day here. Although information boards are provided it’s really worth joining a guided tour so that you can fully appreciate what you see. The highlight of the site is the ruins of the labyrinth that is said to have been home to the monstrous Minotaur.
This excellent aquarium, located near Gournes (less than 10 miles from Heraklion), has 60 tanks displaying over 2000 specimen of sea creatures. Cretaquarium was first opened in 2005 but was expanded with 25 tanks in 2008-9.
It’s a great way to learn about the marine fauna of the Mediterranean and a must-see for visitors with children. It also offers good educational programs and special events, check out what’s on during your stay.
The Samariá Gorge has been a National Park of Greece since 1962 and is a really great hiking spot. It can only be visited from May to October and is closed on rainy days since bad weather conditions make the place dangerous and impassable.
The Gorge is 10 miles long so be prepared for a 5-6 hour hike on rough terrain – comfortable boots are highly recommended. The most spectacular part is the “Gates”, a narrow passage between 980 ft rocks. The gorge is home to the famous Cretan goat and you might be lucky enough to see other rare species of animals. You will also find several well-maintained springs on the way, so you don’t have to carry a lot of water.
The Palm Beach of Vai
The palm beach of Vai is a singularly scenic place, which has the largest natural palm forest in Europe. With its palm trees, the islet in the bay and the golden sand, it’s just like a tropical beach. No wonder it draws thousands of tourists and in high season it can get terribly crowded. You might have difficulty just finding a spot to park your car, or even approaching the place because of all the cars parked on the road. In that case, you might want to go to one of the other Cretan beaches with palm forests (although much smaller ones): Preveli, near Plakias or the beach at Agios Antonios, might be a good choice.