Looking back at Heraklion Harbour on a sunny day

Nestled between the Libyan and Aegean Sea, Crete is both the largest and southernmost island in Greece.  Boasting an intoxicating mix of history, culture, and impressive natural scenery, Crete lies about 400 km from Athens and about 320 km from Pireaus.

Crete is renowned for its impressive archaeological and architectural sites, however there’s much more to the island. Travellers will find themselves enchanted by the stunning beaches, charming villages and some of the best food you'll find in the whole of Europe.

As one of the larger Greek islands, it’s worth considering where you want to base yourself in Crete. If you have time for a longer trip, it’s worth picking a couple of the below towns and spending a few days in each. This will give you the opportunity to get some insight into the different regions in the island and experience everyday life in the island. 

The harbour of the pretty town of Agios Nikolaos in Crete, Greece

At a glance

  • Best for first-timers: Heraklion for world class museums, captivating historical landmarks, great nightlife, and excellent wineries.
  • Best for sightseeing: Chania for fascinating sightseeing opportunities and wonderful local cuisine at waterfront restaurants.
  • Best for couples: Agios Nikolaos with its romantic setting, stunning beaches, and fabulous lake.
  • Best for families: Elounda to enjoy uncrowded beaches, boutique shopping and family friendly restaurants.
  • Best on a budget: Sitia for its more affordable hotels and restaurants and friendly vibe.
  • Best for slow travel: Rethymnon with a charming, pedestrianised centre that features an archaeological museum and Venetian castle.
  • Best for a local experience: Myrtos for the fascinating insight you will get into an authentic Greek Island way of life.

Best place to stay in Crete for first-time visitors

Heraklion

  • World class archaeological museum and other fascinating sights

  • Terrific restaurants and nightlife

  • Excellent wineries with wine tours available

Boats in the harbour in Heraklion, Crete

Heraklion is the capital of Crete and for most visitors will arrive here, either at its international airport, or via ferry. First-time visitors to the island should base themselves here, at least for a few days. It's a great place to acclimatise to island life and enjoy the great food and excellent nightlife the city has to offer.

When not in the mood to eat or party, the city is blessed with a host of museums and historic sites. The Koules Fortress is a must-visit - the stunning fortification was originally built by Arabs in the 9th century, before being completed in the 16th century by the Venetians. Other places of note include the world-renowned Archaeological Museum, the iconic Knossos Palace and the Palace of Phaistos.

Although not as picturesque as other towns on Crete, Heraklion has a friendliness and charm that is best discovered on foot. It also has a lovely beach (Matala), and several wineries that are open for tours.

Stay at the Pava Art Hotel which offers comfortable accommodation with free WI-Fi just over 1 km from Amoudara Beach.

Best place to stay in Crete for sightseeing

Chania

  • Visit the gorgeous walled 14th century old town

  • Dine at one of the lovely waterfront restaurants at the old port

  • Get your fix of history and culture at the Nautical and an Archaeological Museums

The old Venetian harbour in Chania, Crete

For those who enjoy sightseeing, Chania offers plenty of historical landmarks and important cultural institutions to visit. Boasting a captivating Old Town and an Old Port, you'll definitely want to spend a lot of time at both.

The Old Town is particularly alluring. A stunning walled Venetian settlement that dates back to the 14th Century, it features narrow streets that accommodate quaint boutique stores and backstreet restaurants, as well as a picturesque harbour and bustling waterfront.

Another must-see landmark is the fabulous 16th-century lighthouse which guards the harbour. Made from Egyptian, Ottoman and Venetian construction, it is believed to channel power from the Ley Lines.

As well as these sights, Chania also houses both a Nautical and an Archaeological Museum, the latter of which is situated in a former monastery.

When not sightseeing, a major drawcard of Chania is just the place itself. Possessing a unique ambience, you won't find anywhere else on the island, Chanis is perfect for exploring on foot, people-watching, and just soaking in the atmosphere.

Although Chania isn't noted as a beach destination, there are a couple of nice beaches within easy walking distance that you can head to when you want to relax.

Stay at the Casa Delfino Hotel & Spa, an authentic 17th-century Venetian mansion that offers personalised service in the heart of the old town

Best place to stay in Crete for couples

Agios Nikolaos

  • Bathe at Lake Voulismeni, the bathing place of the goddess Athena

  • Sunbathe and relax at some of Crete's best beaches

  • Explore the charming windmills and quaint villages of Lasithi Plateau

The lights of Agios Nikolaos reflecting in the water at night

If you are a couple searching for a romantic destination then look no further than Agios Nikolaos.

Far enough away from the package holidaymakers area to not be affected by their frenzy, yet close enough to be in touch with many of the island's main attractions, Agios Nikolaos is a lovely, compact town that looks out to the stunning Mirabello Bay.

Located in the middle of the north-eastern coast of the island, this charming seaside town is perfect for those who want quieter nightlife, casual and relaxed dining, and the opportunity to relax and swim in peace.

Centred around the beautiful Lake Voulismeni - which is believed to have been where the goddess Athena bathed - it enjoys a picturesque setting, framed by cliffs. There are also a couple of excellent beaches on either side of the marina, as well as plenty of bars, restaurants, and cafés to enjoy.

Close by, Lasithi Plateau is renowned for its charming windmills, and fascinating Psychro Cave. It is filled with stalactites and features an underground lake which was the mythological birthplace of Zeus.

Whilst here, you can also easily rent a car, or take the bus, to other destinations if you did want to travel further afield.

Stay at the St. Nicolas Bay Resort Hotel & Villas on a private beachfront and experience world class service

Best place to stay in Crete for families

Elounda

  • Sunbathe and relax on deserted beaches

  • Explore the boutique shops, cafes and tavernas located on the harbour front and its backstreets

  • Take a day trip to the former leper colony island of Spinalonga

An aerial view of Elounda and Mirabello Bay in Crete, Greece

A veritable world away from the buzzy capital of Crete, the town of Elounda is an excellent destination for families.

Situated on the Gulf of Mirabello in the northeastern part of the island, it is known for its quaint fishing villages, gorgeous bays and picturesque, uninhabited islands.

Radiating an authentic Greek Island feel, it is the kind of place where you can spend many hours swimming in the turquoise waters of the sea, or relaxing on the beach. When away from the shoreline, you can also walk the coastal paths, take in the stunning scenery or explore the quaint backstreets.

While here, you might even spot a celebrity or two as well. The area is a renowned holiday destination for Hollywood A-Listers and Greek celebrities.

For meal options, the harbour front is lined with plenty of excellent restaurants, cafes, and bars. You'll also find plenty of tour operators too. Which will take you on local boat rides to some of the surrounding islands, including to Spinalonga: a  famous former leper colony island that is highly recommended.

Stay at the luxury, 5-star Elounda Beach Hotel & Villas on the waterfront.

Best place to stay in Crete on a budget

Sitia

  • Explore the shops and attractions in its bustling town centre

  • Relax on its beach expanse of golden beach

  • Take a drive or tour to the Toplou Monastery

The pretty port of Sitia, Crete with swans swimming in the water

If you are looking for a budget-friendly destination in Crete, then Sitia is a terrific option. Situated about 70 km east of Agios Nikolaos, it is in one of the least touristy parts of the island. This translates into cheaper accommodation and food options for those who take the time to visit.

Despite not being a tourist hotspot there is plenty to see and do here, notably, the distinguished Toplou monastery and several fascinating archaeological sites. Throw in a good selection of palm tree-lined beaches, a number of picturesque bays, and some captivating walks and hiking treks, and you have a destination that offers something for everyone.

Known for its friendliness, the town has a real feel-good nature to it. Best explored on foot, the centre is easy to walk around, while the beach is quite expansive.

One of the best things about Sitia is the quality of the food you can get. As the cafes, tavernas, and restaurants are predominantly geared towards the palates and wallets of locals, you are guaranteed a fantastic meal at un-inflated prices.

Several buses link Sitia to other parts of the island including Agios Nikolaos, while the port here has links to Rhodes and Karpathos.

Stay at the Sitia Beach City Resort & Spa for a 5 star hotel experience just 300 metres from the town centre.

Best place to stay in Crete for slow travellers

Rethymnon

  • Gorgeous pedestrianised Old Town

  • Hosts a fascinating archaeological museum

  • Historic Venetian castle

A pretty street lined with flowers in Rhythmno, Crete

Tucked away on the north coast of Crete, Rethymnon is one of the island's most impressive well-preserved Venetian old towns. Often referred to as Rethymno or Rethimno, it is about halfway between Heraklion and Chania and there's enough to see and do here to keep you busy for a longer stay.

The main drawcard here is its almost completely pedestrianised Old Town, which accommodates a stunning Venetian harbour. Lined with trees and high-quality tavernas - most of which offer al fresco dining - it is an enchanting place that is filled with rustic fishing boats. It also boasts byzantine, narrow streets with boutique shops and restaurants that are a joy to explore.

The third biggest city in Crete, Rethymnon has stunning beaches, fascinating archaeological sites, charming villages, and Byzantine churches. Other notable landmarks around Rethymnon include the 1830s Rethymno Lighthouse, and the hilltop Fortezza, which is a 16th-century citadel that is shaped like a star.

The Historical and Folklore Museum os well worth checking out for its preservation of local crafts like textiles and ceramics, while the long stretch of Rethymno Beach is a wonderful place to relax and sunbathe.

Stay at the Casa Vitae Villas for a central old town location. The fully-equipped villas that each come with a private pool.

Best place to stay in Crete for a local experience

Myrtos

  • Discover life in an authentic Cretan village

  • Enjoy high quality meals at any of its fabulous fish tavernas

  • Relax and sunbathe on its smooth and stunning beach

The grey beach in Mythos, Crete, with the white village in the distance

If you are after a local experience that is far removed from the bustling tourist centres you'll find elsewhere on the island, then head to Myrtos.

A very laid back and pleasant village that lies on the southern coast of the island, this is a destination that most international tourists never see. It is not on any main road, or near a port or airport, so if you do make it here you will find yourself totally immersed in the local culture.

Situated by the sea, the village is near a stunning grey-dusty beach, which is perfectly offset by the stunning turquoise waters of the Libyan Sea. Half sand, half pebbles, it makes a relaxing place to spend a day. You'll also find a lovely boardwalk along the sea, lined with charming shops, cafes and fish tavernas.

Myrtos is the kind of place where you will be recognised and greeted by all after a day of you being there. Spend your time people-watching and chatting with locals (despite potential language barriers), then head to the beach and sunbathe, swim, relax and eat until your heart's content.

Stay at the Myrtos Mare Suites for a brilliant beachside location and well appointed air conditioned rooms.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 14 October 2022

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