For your first visit anything less than a week will mean seeing only parts of the vast island.
Distances between major destinations require non-trivial amount of driving. You absolutely need a car.
Worthy destinations: Heraklion; Matala; Spili; Kourtaliotiko Gorge; Preveli Beach.
Left for another visit: Chania region in the west; Lasithi region in the east; Rethymno; a number of monasteries, starting with Monastery of Arkadi.
Last visit: July 2018.
The sun and the sea are the primary attractions for people coming to Crete. It also has its fair share of historic sights, natural wonders, and attractive little villages.
The key to remember is that Crete is a huge island which can hardly be fully explored from a single base. We allocated only 3 full days to Crete on our island-hopping itinerary around Greece, and prioritized beach-going on each day, which allowed us just barely to cover the central third of the island.
In addition, it is important to note that Crete has impressive natural landscapes, but on many roads, between points A and B you will fill like in the middle of nowhere. Densely populated it is not. In more remote mountain areas, you may drive for miles without seeing anyone else. Furthermore, drives through the mountains can be exhausting and exhilarating in equal measures. The roadway may be unpaved, or narrow, or both. Also winding, and sometimes going through tiny villages with no room to spare on either side. The views from the highest points are amazing – and plenty of goats for roadside entertainment.
You will see many little roadside shrines ♥ along the way, making any drive more colorful. The more elaborate ones are meant as symbols of their owners’ wealth; others commemorate traffic accidents having occurred on the spot.
Final transportation note: most roads are single-lane in each direction, but a slow-moving car would normally hug the shoulder, allowing faster cars to pass within the same lane. Many passes occur across the double white line as well, so be on your guard when driving.
Heraklion ♥ (Ηράκλειο) is a pleasant seaside town, not too exceptional but with a few key points of interest. Its central pedestrianized area is fairly commercialized, starting with a quazi-market and continuing towards the waterfront full of shops and restaurants.
Greek Orthodox churches are always worth a look, as they are frequently ornate and gorgeous. Cathedral St-Menos ♥♥♥ is an outstanding example, with brilliant exterior and many exceptional artworks inside: frescoes, large-size stained glass, woodwork, ironwork, etc. We also looked into St-Titus Church ♥♥, which exhibits magnificent woodwork in the interior.
Fortress Rocca al Mare ♥ (aka, “Castello del Molo” or “Koules”) at the port entrance is well-preserved, with plenty of historical information in its rooms and passages, and some archaeological artifacts. There are great views from its ramparts.
There are several museums in Heraklion that we did not visit: Archaeological Museum, Historical Museum of Crete, Natural History Museum. Cretaquarium, a short drive eastward from the town, also did not fit into our itinerary.
Other points of interest
The archaeological site of Knossos Palace ♥♥ is one of the most popular attractions in all of Crete. It is a large multi-level site, where a lot has to be imagined (as is the case with most ruins). However, there are a few standing remains and several reconstructions that help fill in the gaps. A lot of historical information is on hand, although it is skewed towards the details of palace reconstruction. Younger children may simply enjoy running and climbing the rocks. Outside the archaeological site, the village of Knossos offers several cafés and souvenir shops.
Another major archaeological site, Phaistos Palace (or Faistos – Φαιστός) is almost entirely all ruins, where almost everything requires a lot of imagination. Unless you are an archaeology buff, it may be wise to skip it.
The beach ♥♥ in Matala (Μάταλα) is very picturesque, flanked by yellow rocks with caves (which could be explored for a separate fee). Wide and sandy, with pebbles and large rocks on the beach floor. Taverns, bars, shops, a playground – all part of the beachfront. Lounge chairs and sun umbrellas can be hired for a nominal fee.
The beach ♥♥ in Agia Pelagia (Αγία Πελαγία) was the favorite of our children: sandy, not too wide, about half-kilometer long around a lagoon, pretty busy on Sunday. Calm beautiful waters. Lounge chairs and sun umbrellas can be hired for a small fee. Tavernas and shops run along the entire beach and up into the pleasant seaside village.
Preveli Beach ♥ (Παραλία Πρέβελη) is a destination in itself, isolated and boasting a palm grove. It is pretty hard to get to: park the car and then descend 500 steps (plus inclines without steps). Ascending is obviously harder, not for people in indifferent physical shape. The sand is pebbly, and there are large rocks under the water, making it quite hard to walk in and out. There are a couple of sandy “channels” to make getting into the water easier. The water itself is pretty cold, due to the gorge stream that joins the sea here. Scenery is just gorgeous. The outdoor taverna under the palm trees offers several simple choices for lunch.
Kourtaliotiko Gorge ♥♥ (Φαράγγι Κουρταλιώτη) is unmissable if you drive to Preveli. We explored it very minimally. From one of the road viewpoints, 250 steps go down to a small church inside the gorge and to a waterfall. But if you choose, you can hike the gorge for several kilometers of amazing scenery.
Spili ♥♥ (Σπήλι) is a pleasant village with an atmospheric pedestrian core that starts with unusual lion-head series of water fountains and then runs up a few picturesque corners. There are plenty of cafés and shops in the center of town. There are also a couple of points of interest, which we only walked by. Folk Museum of Spili is reputedly quite interesting. Gorgeously decorated newish church of St-Paul is definitely worth a look (it was closed during our visit to town, so we could only see the interior through the glass doors).
The Psychro Cave, aka the Cave of Zeus (also marked in Greek as Δικταίο Άνδρο), was actually a bit of a disappointment. It makes virtually no play on the myth of Zeus’s birth; a child enchanted by Greek mythology who wants to come here because he knows that particular story will find just a couple of lines on the information stand related to that. There are impressive stalactites and stalagmites in the cave, but it is not too big, and takes no more than 15 minutes to enjoy. Given that you have to walk up a kilometer of a steep mountain from the parking lot, the effort/value ratio is not exactly there. Of course, you can have a donkey carry you for about 90% of the way, which costs €10. That part if very popular with children, which is kind of ironic, because those under-18 go to the cave itself for free.
Places to Eat
None of our restaurant experiences in and around Heraklion in 2018 were either exceptional or terrible, which proves a simple assumption that any random selection for meal in Greece is likely to be reasonable without being superb. TripAdvisor nowadays has sufficient critical mass of feedback to help those who prefer to be more selective with their choice. Nonetheless, here are a brief notes of our experiences.
All eateries on the main pedestrian street in Heraklion are clearly tourist-oriented. We randomly picked Politia for lunch and found nothing to complain about.
Also quite touristy is Taverna Petoussis in Ammoudara resort zone. It is large, nicely appointed, with friendly staff, and an adjoining playground for restless youngsters. The food is fairly mediocre. Complimentary desserts and rakia were, nonetheless, quite welcome.
Taverna Limanaki ♥ in Pantanassa Port offers an extensive selection of traditional Greek dishes, with lots of seafood, but also some meats. Big portions, be careful not to order too many plates. Friendly and un-fussy service. Damage: €60 for 3, including two carafes of wine. We only had a lunch there, but later noticed a number of dressed-up locals coming in for dinner, which we always interpret as a positive recommendation.
Restaurant Myrtios in Old Hersonissos main square gets additional points for “creating” a table for us on a very busy night where all tables at all eateries on the square seemed to be taken. Food was ok, and the service a little harried on such a busy night. Damage: €103 for 6 people (2 kids), including wine.
A couple of kilometers from Phaistos, Taverna Agios Ioannis ♥ in the hamlet of the same name offered us a nice homemade lunch. Nice outdoor seating, simple traditional menu (with some touristy fare thrown in), nice service, good food. Rabbit specialty dish earned rave reviews. There is a playground for children, should they become restless. Damage: €48 for 4, with wine.
In 2018, we stayed in AirBnB-listed apartment in Pantanassa Port (link), about 15 minutes drive from Heraklion. It has all necessary amenities (including washer and drier, and a dishwasher), directly faces the marina and the sea beyond. The host is incredibly friendly and helpful, and stocked the fridge for us much more than we expected. A beach is a hundred meters away. A restaurant, a bar, and a few activities are also literally next door. Parking is slightly awkward for a bigger car, but you have your own space. It’s a small village vibe rather than the big town scene, but the bigger town is just a few minutes away. Incredible sunrise view directly from the sunroom. There are a couple of small imperfections: one shower is only hand-held, another has lower pressure (and the rainshower head is not connected); two smaller bedrooms may get stuffy on hot nights, you have to keep doors and windows open for a breeze. But overall, a definite recommendation!