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 that can hardly be fully explored from a single base. In addition, it is important to note that Crete is far from densely populated. While impressive natural landscapes are everywhere, on many roads between points A and B you will feel like being in the middle of nowhere; in more remote mountain areas, you may drive for miles without seeing anyone else. Furthermore, driving through the mountains can be exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. The roadway may be unpaved, narrow, or both; also winding, and sometimes going through tiny villages with no room to spare on either side. The upshot is that the views from the highest points are amazing – and plenty of goats will offer roadside entertainment.
This section covers places in the central part of the island that can be more or less conveniently visited with Heraklion as the base. Other destinations require different bases and include Chania in the west, the Lasithi region in the east, Rethymno, and a number of monasteries such as the Monastery of Arkadi.
Heraklion ♥ (Ηράκλειο) is a pleasant seaside town with a few key points of interest. Its central pedestrianized area is fairly commercialized, starting with a quasi-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 a brilliant exterior and many exceptional artworks inside, among them frescoes, large-size stained glass, woodwork, ironwork, etc. St-Titus Church ♥♥ exhibits especially 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 may be worth considering for a visit: the Archaeological Museum, the Historical Museum of Crete, the Natural History Museum, or the Cretaquarium.
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 toward the details of palace reconstruction. Younger children may enjoy climbing the rocks, which are not cordoned off. Outside the archaeological site, the village of Knossos has 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.
Kourtaliotiko Gorge ♥♥ (Φαράγγι Κουρταλιώτη) is unmissable if you drive to Preveli Beach. From one of the viewpoints on the road, 250 steps go down to a small church inside the gorge and to a waterfall. 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 an unusual lion-head series of water fountains on the main square and then runs up the hill with many picturesque corners. There are plenty of cafés and shops in the center of town. There are also a couple of defined points of interest, such as a reputedly interesting Folk Museum of Spili. The gorgeously decorated newish church of St-Paul is definitely worth a look (when it is closed, you could still see the interior through the glass doors).
The Psychro Cave, aka the Cave of Zeus (also marked in Greek as Δικταίο Άνδρο), may actually be a disappointment to most. 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 relatively small in size and takes no more than 15 minutes to see. 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. Or, you can have a donkey carry you for about 90% of the way for an extra fee; that part is rather popular with children, and a definite tourist trap in terms of the cost since those under-18 go to the cave itself for free.
You will see many little roadside shrines ♥ along the way on your drives around the island. The more elaborate ones are meant as symbols of their owner’s wealth.
One more 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.
Matala Beach ♥♥ in (Μάταλα) is very picturesque, wide and sandy, with pebbles and large rocks on the beach floor. The beach is flanked by yellow rocks with caves, which could be explored for a separate fee. Taverns, bars, shops, and a playground are all part of the beachfront. Lounge chairs and sun umbrellas can be hired for a nominal fee.
Agia Pelagia beach ♥♥ (Αγία Πελαγία) was the favorite of our children: sandy, not too wide, about half-kilometer long around a lagoon, and 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 abutting 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. The scenery is just gorgeous. The outdoor taverna under the palm trees offers several simple choices for lunch.
In the “memorable stays” category, an apartment in Pantanassa Port (link) is about 15 minutes drive from Heraklion. It’s a small village vibe rather than the big town scene, with the bigger town just a few minutes away. A beach is nearby; the aforementioned tavern and a few activities are also literally next door. The apartment has all the necessary amenities (including a washer and drier, and a dishwasher), and directly faces the marina and the sea beyond – an incredible sunrise view directly from the sunroom. The host was incredibly friendly and helpful and stocked the fridge for us much more than we expected. Parking is slightly awkward for a bigger car, but you do have your own space. There are a couple of small imperfections in terms of bathroom fixtures and the absence of A/C (need to keep the windows open at night), but overall, a definite recommendation.
None of our restaurant experiences on Crete (in and around Heraklion, more or less) were either exceptional or terrible, which proves the simple assumption that any random selection for a meal in Greece is likely to be reasonable without being superb. At Taverna Limanaki in Pantanassa Port we only had one lunch but later noticed a large flow of locals coming for dinner on multiple nights, which probably constitutes the basis for a recommendation.