The Mediterranean’s fifth-largest island was the birthplace of the oldest civilisation in Europe, blossoming in 2700 BC. To get to know the Minoans you can venture through Bronze Age archaeological sites across the island, and call in at the phenomenal Archaeological Museum in the capital, Heraklion.
These Minoan palaces and cities blur the lines between fact and Greek mythology, and conjure thoughts of King Minos, Daedalus and Icarus.
Many centuries later, the Venetians also made a lasting contribution to Crete’s cities, building ports, walls and fortresses that stand tall today in Heraklion, Chania and Rethymno.
And away from civilisation the island is sprinkled with mountain ranges and gorges like the life-changing Samaria, and has some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll ever lay your eyes on.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Crete:
A few kilometres south of Crete’s modern capital, Heraklion was the capital of Minoan Crete.
Knossos is the name of a palace and its encompassing city, which had a population of up to 100,000 in the 18th century BC. The palace was built around 3,000 years ago and features in Greek mythology as the seat of King Minos, where he had Daedalus build a labyrinth to hold his son, the Minotaur.
Knossos was affected by repeated catastrophes like invasions, earthquakes and the Theran Eruption in about 1625 BC. It was excavated for the first time in 1900 by the British Archaeologist Arthur Evans, who restored some of the architecture and frescoes.
You can check out the sweeping reception courtyard where the royal family would entertain guests, and enter the Throne Room, Sanctuary, walk a section of the Royal Way in the direction of the coast and see the Royal Apartments, built on four levels.
Recommended tour: Knossos Palace Skip-the-Line Entry with Guided Walking Tour
2. Heraklion Archaeological Museum
To fully understand the oldest civilisation in Europe, look no further than Heraklion’s outstanding archaeological museum.
This has the biggest collection of Minoan artefacts of any museum, and has 20 rooms in chronological order.
You’ll start in Neolithic times, long before Crete’s palaces were built, and in the following rooms there’s jewellery, liturgical figurines, vases, weapons and armour.
Whole frescoes have been transferred to the museum from Crete’s Minoan sites, as well as the emblematic ivory figurine of the bull leaper from Knossos Palace.
One artefact that remains a mystery is the Phaistos Disc, 15 cm in diameter and covered with symbols arranged in a spiral.
Another piece with strange inscriptions is the Arkalochori Axe, found in the cave of the same name and etched with 15 symbols.
3. Elafonisi Beach
Often cited as one of the world’s best beaches, Elafonisi Beach has to be seen to be believed.
The beach is a nature reserve on the channel between the mainland and Elafonisi, a rectangular island famed for the pink sand on its beaches and dunes.
The water between the mainland and the island is clear, shallow and lagoon-like, and often you can pass from one to the other on sand bars without getting your feet wet.
There’s an enormous natural pool where you can paddle or lie back and float in shimmering water no more than ankle or knee deep.
Add to this the white sand, turquoise water, azure sky and views to Crete’s mountainous southwest coast and you’ve got a small patch of paradise.
4. Samaria Gorge
Walking this ravine the real way, from the Omalos Plateau is something that will stay with you for a lifetime.
The 16-kilometre hike begins at a viewing platform at the bottom of a circuitous path and wooden steps, where you’ll be bowled off your feet by the walls of rock that climb to almost 300 metres.
On the way the ravine will narrow to a stretch named the “Gates” or “Iron Gates”, where the gorge tapers to just four metres across.
Look up as you walk, to catch sight of the endangered kri-kri, a kind of feral goat that makes light work of even sheer rock faces.
At the end of the gorge it’s another three kilometres to the coastal village of Agia Roumeli, where you can catch the ferry to Sougia in the west or Sfakia in the east.
Recommended tour: Samaria Gorge Trek: Full-Day Excursion from Rethymno
5. Rethymno Old Town
The third-largest city in Crete also has what may be the best preserved old town on the island.
Originally behind walls, the city’s tight cobblestone alleys were laid out in the 14th century when Crete was in the hands of the Republic of Venice, and has held onto its Renaissance mansions, arches and catholic churches.
If one building can sum up Rethymno’s tumultuous history it’s the Neratze Mosque.
This started life as a Venetian Church, before becoming a mosque for almost 300 years up to 1925. Now it’s Rethymno’s municipal odeon, staging regular music concerts.
Venetian monuments surviving in Rehtymno include the 17th-century Loggia (also converted into a mosque by the Ottomans) and the Rimondi Fountain from 1629, framed by two pairs of Corinthian columns next to a Gothic arch.
Available tour: Rethymno Old Town Segway Tour
6. Balos Lagoon
A beach to rival Elafonisi, Balos Lagoon is equally paradisiacal and is one of Crete’s most famous images.
Balos is some 60 kilometres northwest of Chania and is frequented by day-trippers by ferry from Kissamos, 18 kilometres away.
The lagoon is wedged between two capes, Gramvousa and Tigani, trapping a pool of shallow, turquoise water as beautiful as it is safe.
If you make the journey by road the walk down the rugged hillside is an experience of its own, and you’ll turn a bend to be confronted by the lagoon fringed by white sand against the rocky mass of Tigani.
By boat you’ll also have the chance to take a closer look at the Gramvousa islands, one of which, Imeri Gramvousa, has a historic fort built by the Venetians.
7. Chania’s Venetian Harbour
The Venetians started building Chania’s glorious harbour in 1320 and work would continue for the next three centuries.
From the eastern end there’s a mole, several hundred metres in length, leading all the way to the lighthouse, a symbol for the city.
This was built at the turn of the 17th century and got its minaret-like form in the Egyptian period in the 1830s.
The western part of the harbour was where goods were brought ashore, while the more sheltered eastern pocket was for ship building and maintenance.
There you can still find the terrace of dry docks and repair yards known as the Arsenali, constructed from the mid-1400s to 1599. Separated from this row, the Grand Arsenal has had many different roles over the years, as a Christian School, hospital and Chania’s Town Hall.
After post-war renovations it now hosts the Centre of Mediterranean Architecture.
8. Arkadi Monastery
Of all the memorable man-made and natural landmarks on Crete none mean quite as much to its people as this monastery just over 20 kilometres southeast of Rethymno.
Supposedly founded by the Byzantine emperor Arcadius in the 5th century, the Arkadi Monastery rests on a plateau surrounded by vineyards, olive trees and oaks.
The present architecture is from a 16th-century makeover in the early Venetian Baroque style.
In Ottoman times it was famed for its gold embroidery and an exceptionally rich library.
Then in 1866 came a watershed, when during the Cretan Revolt 943 Greeks, mainly women and children, walled themselves at the monastery holding out against the Ottomans for three days.
The siege was brought to a devastating close when the Cretans ignited their gunpowder barrels, choosing martyrdom over surrender.
The site is now a Greek national sanctuary, and 8 November, the day of the explosion, is observed in Arkadi and Rethymno.
Fun tour available: Arkadi Monastery e-Bike Tour with Lunch
9. Falassarna Beach
Often ranking as the best beach on Crete and one of the best in Europe, Falassarna beach is on the west coast where the Gramvousa Peninsula joins the mainland.
There are in fact five separate beaches here, around a large bay that was a harbour in antiquity.
The town’s acropolis is on a promontory on the north side of the bay, climbing 90 metres above the water and with the remains of wells, cisterns, fortifications and a temple going back to the 4th century BC. The main destination for sun-seekers is the centremost beach, which has a wide band of pale sand, bathed by clear shallow sea with only moderate surf.
Right on the beach you can go on a tandem paragliding trip, worthwhile because of the towering rugged hills in the background.
10. Phaistos Palace and Archaeological Site
The second largest Minoan palace on Crete after Knossos, Phaistos is in a dramatic position on a rise over the Messara plain in south central Crete.
In Greek mythology, this was the home of Radamanthus, the brother of Minos.
Phaistos is the origin of the enigmatic Phaistos Disc at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, and a settlement that existed in Neolithic times and reached its apogee around 1700 BC when the fourth iteration of the palace was built on the ruins of its destroyed predecessors.
The city thrived for 17 centuries and was designed with the landscape in mind.
This is most obvious when you stand on the original paving stones of the main courtyard (above an ancient sanitation system), and marvel at the unbroken views of the plain.
11. Lake Voulismeni
This unusual body of water is ringed by boats, coffee shops and restaurants in the eastern town of Agios Nikolaos.
Lake Voulismeni is no longer strictly a lake as in 1870 a channel was laid.
connecting it with the town’s harbour and the sea.
You may notice from the darkness of the water that it’s extremely deep, despite the lake’s width of just 137 metres.
There’s a local legend that the lake is bottomless, but that’s a tall story as it descends to a maximum depth of 64 metres.
Stop by for a coffee by day to watch the fish, or see the lights on the water over a meal in the evening.
On the Saturday night before Orthodox Easter most of the town gathers on the water’s edge for a fireworks display and to light their own firecrackers.
12. Malia’s Minoan Palace
East of Heraklion, Malia is a boisterous modern resort, but a little way east is Crete’s third-largest Minoan palace.
According to tradition, Sarpedon, another of King Minos’ brothers, had his throne here.
The ruins are kept partially under a glass roof canopy, and because the site was abandoned at the end of the 2nd millennium BC and never resettled, there are no interfering newer buildings.
One artefact uncovered during French excavations in the 20th century is a gigantic vase for oil or wine, 1.75 metres in height and with a volume of more 1,000 litres.
In its day the palace had two storeys and boasted a loggia, theatre, western and central court, magazines, workshops and royal quarters.
The section under a roof is the recently excavated hypostyle crypt, where the city’s lords would sit for political meetings.
13. Holy Trinity Monastery
This 17th-century monastery is on the Akrotiri Peninsula, ensconced in vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees.
Founded towards the end of Venetian rule on Crete, it lies in a compound approached along a stairway at the end of which is a portal beneath a narrow bell tower.
Passing through you’ll be met by the three domes of the monastery church, fronted by four powerful Doric columns and two smaller Corinthian columns that flank the entranceway.
The church is a blend of Greek Orthodox and Western Mannerist architecture and has an interior lined with icons, and a dark blue ceiling sparkling with golden stars.
In the museum you can view a portable icon of St John the Theologian from the early 16th century, along with paintings and rare manuscripts.
Wine and olive products made by monks are sold at the monastery shop.
14. Lychnostatis Open Air Museum
This private museum is the brainchild of a doctor, Yiorgos Markakis, who spent six years from 1986 to 1992 building a group of traditional-style houses in the village of Hersonissos.
Equipped with an audioguide you’ll learn all about Cretan folk culture, the island’s natural wealth and its traditional trades.
There’s a distillery, a farmhouse, wine and olive presses, workshops for weaving and crafting ceramics, and a merchant’s warehouse.
You can also peruse an exhibition of minerals and stones, a gallery for Cretan folk art, and head out into gardens to see the island’s native fruit, cactuses and herbs.
Be here in September for traditional dance, concerts and grape and wine-tasting workshops.
Book online: Lychnostatis Open Air Museum
15. Aquaworld Aquarium
A change of pace from Crete’s Minoan ruins and epic landscapes, this intimate attraction in Hersonissos is one of only three aquariums in Greece.
Aquaworld’s charm comes from its modest size, with enthusiastic staff who are happy to talk about the inhabitants and let you touch many of them.
Most of the creatures at Aquaworld have been rescued and nursed back to health, or are unwanted pets.
For kids the highlight will be getting to handle harmless reptiles like iguanas, snakes and a blind tortoise.