Crete is probably best known for being home to one of Europe’s oldest civilisations - the Minoans inhabited Crete over 3500 years ago. But it’s also surrounded by postcard-worthy beaches, crumbling Venetian old towns, and some of the best food in Greece.
Although the KTEL bus network is reliable, the easiest way to explore all of the best things to do in Crete is to rent a car. That way, you can hit all the main towns like Chania, Heraklion, Agios Nikolaos and Rethymnon, as well as more out-of-the-way attractions like Loutro and Balos Lagoon. It's affordable to rent a car in Crete, prices start from around €150-200 for one week. You can pick up a car rental easily from Heraklion or Chania.
This 10-day road trip itinerary lets you visit some of the most popular (and beautiful) places on the island and a chance to try some of Crete’s amazing food.
Crete is the largest of the Greek Islands, and many visitors underestimate just how long it takes to get around. You really can’t do the island justice in a few days. Seven days in Crete is enough if you simply want to visit the beach and relax, but give yourself at least 10-14 days to explore more of the island and see the major sites.
That said, in all honesty, 10 days probably isn’t quite enough time to really see and experience Crete. But you can get an insight into the history and culture of the largest Greek Island, spend a couple of nights in each place, and go home without too many regrets.
If you are flying into Crete, you will arrive at one of the island's two international airports in Chania or Heraklion. Ferries from other Greek Islands like Santorini or the overnight ferry to Crete from Athens generally arrive in Heraklion, so it might be an easier place to start your Crete road trip itinerary.
Heraklion is the fifth largest city in Greece, and the largest on the island, so expect it to be busy and a little chaotic. Chania, on the other hand, is more set up for tourists, but prices can also be higher, especially in peak season. Of course, the only way to decide for yourself is to visit both. This Crete itinerary starts in Heraklion and then spends three nights in Chania, a great way to see the two major cities of Crete.
Heraklion is Crete’s buzzing modern capital and home to over 200,000 people. It has great transport links, and the largest airport and port on the island are very close to the city - you can get a taxi from either into the city centre for around €15.
The historic centre has some of the best things to see in Heraklion. It’s easily walkable, and taxis are also a reliable way to get around.
Wander the grand city walls built by the Venetians, then head to Koules Fortress and the old arsenal dockyards. The oriental windows of 25th August Street make for another good detour, while the Greek Orthodox church Agios Titos is also a must-see attraction in Heraklion.
Be warned that driving in Heraklion isn’t for the faint-hearted. The roads are gridlocked and chaotic, so it’s best to either leave the car at the accommodation or wait until the next day to hire one.
A great place to start your trip off is 3 Pines Design Living, a sustainable aparthotel situated in Heraklion Town - just 3 km from Amoudara Beach. Make use of the outdoor swimming pool to enjoy the fantastic views over the city. This aparthotel also has free private parking and offers a car rental service.
Just an hour's drive to the east of Heraklion is Agios Nikolaos. But first, stop at the Palace of Knossos - the largest ancient Minoan settlement on the island. It’s best to arrive early to beat the crowds and avoid the heat. Go on a guided tour to get an insight into the story behind the colourful frescos and the restoration work of archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans.
Another interesting detour on the way to Agios Nikolaos is the birthplace of Zeus. Make your way up mountain passes to the Cave of Diktaion Andron. The nearby Greek Mythology Thematic Park does a good job at giving a child-friendly overview of Greek mythology. Then head down to the coastal city of Agios Nikolaos, relax by the waterfront or stroll around Lake Voulismeni.
Rise early the next day to take a 25-minute drive north of town to Plaka, where you can catch a boat to visit a curious island just off the coast that is home to a 16th-century Venetian fortress. Anyone that has read Victoria Hislop’s novel, The Island, will know the name Spinalonga all too well. Home to a leper colony which housed a community from all over Greece, this island has many secrets to reveal.
After leaving the island, grab a bite to eat in one of the nearby villages before getting the true Greek Island sun, sea, and sand experience at Plaka or Kolokitha Beach. There are plenty of options for dinner back at Agios Nikolaos, with waterfront restaurants and tavernas offering the best views.
Head to Archontiko (Αρχοντικό) on the waterfront for fresh seafood with amazing views over the ocean. Or if meze is more your thing, head to Gioma Meze for plates of zucchini fries, stuffed peppers, and aubergine dip (melitzanosalata).
For views over the ocean and town, it’s hard to beat the adults-only Casa Porto Boutique Hotel. The stylish rooms and comfy communal spaces make it feel homely, and its prime location means it's the perfect base for exploring the area by foot.
Next, return west to the fishing city of Rethymnon or ‘Rethymno’. You can either return on the two-hour route along the north of the island or head south to stop at the hippy caves of Matala (adding another two hours of driving).
Once you arrive in Rethymnon head straight into the old town to spot ornate mosques, explore the harbour filled with fishing boats, and go for a stroll along the taverna-covered seafront.
But the best views are from the Venetian Fortezza, just a short walk from town this 16th-century Venetian citadel offers panoramic views of scenic Rethymnon.
Stay at the White Swan located in Kallithea of Rethymnon for a touch of luxury with all of the amenities. Family rooms are spacious and well designed, with optional extras like a hot tub, or make use of the hotel's rooftop pool with views out to sea.
Just another hour west of Rethymnon is Crete’s second-largest city, Chania.
Some of the best things to do in Chania include exploring the covered market that’s crammed full of Cretan products like olive oil, raki and wine, visiting the Old Venetian Port on the seafront with its colourful façades and charming kerb-appeal, and marvelling at the pink-domed Kiutsouk Hasan mosque. Other sights not to miss in Chania are the great Venetian arsenal and the ancient boat hangars, San Rocco Church, and Agios Nikolaos Church.
For beaches to visit in Chania, there are plenty to choose between, but it’s good to know that the western beaches like Golden Beach are much quieter than the central Nea Chora beach. Agii Apostoli beach is one of the most beautiful, and it’s lined with pine trees that are perfect for relaxing in the shade.
If you want to see one of the most beautiful beaches in Greece, it is an easy day trip from Chania. Catch a ferry from Kissamos to avoid the bumpy unpaved road to Balos Lagoon - most rental agencies won’t insure cars to drive there.
The ferry will make a stop at Gramvousa Island before dropping you off on the gorgeous pink beaches of Balos Lagoon. Snorkel, sunbathe, or go for a dip in the turquoise waters.
Bring drinks and snacks as there are no amenities on the beach.
After catching the ferry back to the mainland head to Gramboussa Restaurant - just a 7 minute drive from the port. A real farm-to-fork experience, Gramboussa grow much of their own produce on-site and only serve locally sourced meat and fish. Their combination of traditional Cretan cuisine, hospitality, and laid-back dining make this one of the best places to eat in Crete.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Europe’s longest gorges, and is best explored via a 14 km downhill hike along the river ending with a swim at Agia Roumeli.
Take a guided tour of Samaria Gorge from Chania. If you take your own car, it takes too long to do the return hike through the gorge to the car park (and you will be walking against the flow of other hikers). With the tour you can simply jump on an included ferry from Agia Roumeli to reunite with the bus at the other end.
The 5-star Domus Renier Boutique Hotel is the perfect base for exploring Chania old town. It’s situated in the heart of the Venetian harbour with views over the ocean and the lighthouse. A traditional breakfast is also included, with local Cretan dishes freshly prepared every day.
Drive for an hour and a half through Crete’s mountainous interior to Sfakia. Leave the car behind and jump on a short ferry across to the isolated bay of Loutro. There are no roads here, and in all honesty, there’s not an awful lot of things to do in Loutro other than enjoy the delicious food, outstanding scenery and of course to relax on the empty beaches.
The water is where you’ll want to spend most of your time as there are ample snorkelling and swimming opportunities, or rent a boat to see a little more of the coastline. If you missed Samaria Gorge you can also hike for about an hour west of Loutro to Agia Roumeli, a village with plenty of taverns, bars, and shops.
The Maistrali Guest House is a must when visiting Loutro Bay. The clean and spacious rooms have large terraced balconies that offer amazing views over the picturesque bay. The guest house is also just a one-minute walk from Loutro Beach.
Preveli Beach is just under two hours from both Heraklion and Chania so it’s the perfect place to spend the day if you're catching a late flight in the evening.
Once you’ve jumped on the ferry back to Sfakia and reunited with the car, drive east for around an hour to Preveli Beach. Make stops at the Preveli Monastery and the Cretan WW2 Monument if you have time, but the main attraction is the palm-fringed beach that encapsulates the natural beauty of Crete.
Last Updated 4 September 2023