From the never-ending coastline to the 4000-year-old archaeological ruins…hip towns to historical treasures…family-owned vineyards to breathtaking beaches…Crete’s got a lot going on. Here are 5 amazing things to do with your 5 days in Crete, plus a few more pearls for planning the perfect trip.
Crete is the largest Greek island. Over 600,000 people live here. And yet somehow, when people talk about the Greek Islands, Crete rarely sees the spotlight it deserves. You’ve heard the hype surrounding Greece’s other island destinations (ahem: Santorini & Mykonos), but maybe it’s time to revisit this Mediterranean masterpiece.
This guide includes food, lodging & activity recommendations to help you make the most of your 5 days in Crete. Here’s what we’ll cover:
Planning your 5 days in Crete:
- When to go
- Getting there
- Getting around
- Where to stay
- Dining & imbibing
- Sample 5-day itinerary
- What to pack
Top 5 things to do:
- Visit the Minoan Palace of Knossos
- Taste at Lyrarakis Family Winery
- Hike down to Balos Beach
- Explore the streets & shores of Chania
- Choose your own adventure (don’t worry—we’ll give you 5 more ideas)
Planning your 5 days in Crete
Let’s start with some of the basics.
When to go
Crete enjoys a temperate Mediterranean climate, with mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. Most rain falls between October and March. Regional differences:
- Eastern Crete (Sitia) is drier and warmer than the west side (Chania)
- Southern Crete is sunnier, warmer and drier than the north (Heraklion), due to the central mountains that form a wind & cloud barrier
Thanks to this geographical diversity—and the never-ending list of things to do—Crete is truly a year-round destination.
Our advice: aim for early May or late September: warm, but not ridiculously hot; minimal rain; and most importantly: you’ll avoid the summer crowds.
By boat: companies like Minoan Lines and ANEK Lines connect Crete to the mainland (Athens) & many of the other Greek islands (Santorini, Mykonos, etc.) with daily routes.
By plane: the most efficient way to plan your 5 days in Crete is to fly into one airport and out from another.
- Heraklion (HER) international airport is the central and primary gateway to the island
- Chania (CHQ) international airport on the west side of the island is the #2
- Sitia (JSH) on the northeast corner of Crete is an interesting option as well. If you’re staying in one of the picturesque towns on Mirabello Bay—like Elounda or Agios Nikolaos—take a look at flights in & out of JSH. They began servicing international charters to Germany in May 2018, and they’ll add a slew of Scandinavian cities in May/June 2019.
Here’s a look at the driving distance between these 3 airports:
Taxis & buses: plenty of options on the island. Although: relying on taxis will get expensive, and relying on buses will become time-consuming.
Rental cars: do yourself a favor and rent a car while you’re out here. The staff at our hotel made one phone call, and our car was delivered in a half hour. We handled the paperwork in the lobby, and hit the road.
Where to stay
The best way to ensure you do & see as much as you possibly can—and also not spend 6 hours a day in the car—is to stay in different areas on the island.
This is also a great way to gain some different perspectives on the pace & style of life in these towns & villages. What you’ll find early in the morning and after the sun goes down is far different from what you’ll experience during the peak tourist hours of 9am-4pm.
Our advice: structure your exploration of Crete in much the same way you’d plan your trip to Madeira. If you’ve only got 5 days, choose 2 locations. If you’ve got a week, add a 3rd.
We had a great experience at Lato Boutique Hotel in Heraklion. The hotel staff were some of the friendliest and funniest we’ve ever met, and they offered many useful, local recommendations during our stay. Thank you Katerina & crew!
Crete’s second largest city (after Heraklion) is located on the northwest corner of the island. A large apartment at the laid-back, beachfront Corinna Mare was perfect for our 2 nights in Chania.
Other areas & specific hotels to consider:
- Domes of Elounda — a luxury option that we discovered for our honeymooning friends
- The Blue Palace — highly recommended to us by a close family friend
- Agios Nikolaos (Mirabello Bay) — supposedly a gorgeous, high-end area to stay on the east side
- Rethymno — some consider it the island’s most beautiful city; located on the northern coast, essentially the midpoint between Heraklion and Chania
Dining & imbibing
From gyros to souvlaki, spanakopita to saganaki…you know the deal. Greek food is amongst the best on the planet.
Thirsty? Crete has become the heart and soul of Greece’s up-and-coming wine scene. And let’s not forget the ouzo, raki and other high-gravity digestifs.
Here are a few spots to snack & sip:
- Heraklion: on the top floor of Lato Boutique Hotel, you’ll find Herb’s Garden: the restaurant where D enjoyed her first official Greek meal! Great food. Nice cocktails. Gorgeous view.
- Kaliviani: stop by Agarathos Tavern on the way back from Balos Beach. Enjoy a delicious homemade meal in their peaceful garden setting, as cats roam freely.
- Chania: grab a cup of coffee and some homemade pastries at Virage.
Sample 5-day itinerary
Our itinerary looked like this:
- Late flight arrival into Heraklion; slept in Heraklion
- Knossos & Lyrarakis; slept in Heraklion
- Northern coast road trip part 1; explored Chania; slept in Chania
- Balos Beach; slept in Chania
- Northern coast road trip part 2; stopped near Rethymno; Heraklion harbor sunset; slept in Heraklion
What to pack
Here’s a short list of things you might need for your trip to Crete:
- Bathing suit: D’s Favorite brand | Adam’s favorite brand
- Reef Safe Sunscreen
- Sunscreen for sunbathing
- Reusable water bottle
- Beach towel
- Hat or umbrella
- Waterproof speaker
- Portable cooler
- Waterproof shoes: D’s Chacos | A’s kicks
- GoPro for action-packed video & underwater shots!
- These stylish Greek flag sandals that Adam bought in 2006 and somehow still owns today
Top 5 things to do
Check these 5 boxes during your 5 days in Crete, and you’ll be in good shape.
1. Visit the Minoan Palace of Knossos
Crete was once the heart & soul of the Minoan civilization, largely considered the oldest in Europe. Home to over 100,000 people, the Palace of Knossos was at the center of it all, and this was during the Bronze Age—4000 years ago.
Today, Knossos is the #2 archaeological tourist attraction in all of Greece. Only the Acropolis receives more visitors. Our complete guide has everything you need to know about planning the perfect Knossos day trip—with minimal crowds.
Tickets, tours & ways to explore:
The entire site features 22 landmarks, and you’ve got a few different options for checking them out. Save some €€€ and skip the line by pre-purchasing tickets online. Search all options here.
- Private tour guide (price is for a group of 2)
- Round-trip transfer from Heraklion + private tour guide (price is for a group of 3)
- Skip the line + self-guided audio tour: catch all the (disputed) facts, straight from your smartphone
- Grab a Knossos guide book from the gift shop & do it yourself: we chose this route, moved quickly, skipped a few sights, and wrapped up our tour in less than 90 minutes.
Further reading: the controversy behind Knossos
Admittedly, we were not well-prepared for our visit to Knossos. Nor were we aware of the controversial backdrop to these ancient ruins. Long after our trip, we humbly learned that a little bit of homework would have been helpful.
2. Taste at Lyrarakis Family Winery
Today, Crete has upwards of 50 wineries, but unless you’re on a dedicated wine tour, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to visit more than a few. Make sure Lyrarakis is on your list!
A family that makes wine…and saves grapes
For over 50 years, the Lyrarakis family has been committed to sustainable winemaking. And since the 1990’s, they’ve been recognized as local heroes.
After touring the vineyard, head to the tasting room to sample some Plyto, Dafni & Melissaki—3 grapes that were on the verge of extinction until the Lyrarakis family stepped in & fought for their survival. Fortunately for you wine lovers of the world, they won that fight.
Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or just enjoying life, it’s never the wrong time to pop a bottle of ZaZaZu—Crete’s 1st (and official) sparkling wine.
3. Hike down to Balos Beach
No visit to Crete is complete without a visit to Balos Beach—largely considered one of the most picturesque locales in the entire Mediterranean. The Balos experience includes:
- Balos Lagoon—an inviting cove of warm turquoise water
- Cape Tigani—a rocky, shrub-covered islet narrowly connected to the mainland
- Balos Beach—a soft mixture of fine white & pink sand below, plus a stunning view from above
3 options for visiting Balos Beach:
- Take a full-day ferry tour: you’ll visit Balos Beach and nearby Imeri Gramvousa—a former pirate island that’s home to the remains of a Venetian Fortress and a famous shipwreck. Tours depart from Kissamos and last 7-9 hours.
- Hike from Kaliviani: this is the most aggressive option. Distance is 10 km (6 miles) each way—3 hours in the morning and 3 more in the afternoon, across dry rocky landscape. Wear a hat and bring plenty of water & sunscreen.
- Drive to the Balos Beach parking lot & hike down: we chose this option—an energizing combination of smooth driving, bumpy driving, and a total of 2.4 km (1.5 miles) of hiking, roundtrip.
We’ll show you how to find this remote destination, avoid the crowds, and work up a sweat on your way to sun, sand & seclusion.
4. Explore the streets & shores of Chania
You’ve absorbed the knowledge of Knossos and tannins of Lyrarakis, then sweated it all out during the hike to Balos Beach. Maybe it’s time to chill out for a minute, with a leisurely stroll through Chania.
Wander the narrow cobblestone streets, check out the 16th-century lighthouse, and grab some local food & drink at one of the waterfront restaurants that surround the 14th-century Venetian harbor.
sunset seekers: given its location on the northwest corner of the island, Chania is one of the best places in Crete to catch a sunset (see photo at the end of this guide).
5. Choose your own adventure
Here are a 5 things we missed, that you may want to check out:
- Dikteon Cave (Psychro Cave): ever wanted to visit the (alleged) birthplace of Zeus? Now’s your chance. This legendary site is located near the Lasithi Plateau (also worth a visit), less than 2 hours southeast of Heraklion.
- Spinalonga Island: take a day trip to Crete’s second most visited archaeological site, after Knossos. The island is accessible via ferry from Ayios Nikolaos, Elounda or Plaka. Solid option if you’re staying in eastern Crete.
- Samaria Gorge: hike the longest gorge in Europe (10 miles; 16 km), at the center of White Mountains National Park (Crete’s only national park). Many cities on the island offer organized day trips. Note: only open May-October.
- Mount Psiloritis (Mount Ida): Crete’s highest mountain happens to exist at its most central location. Hike it in the summer, or ski it in the winter.
- Full-day wine tour: we planned this little excursion for our honeymooning friends. Leave the rental car at home (please) and hire a private driver. All 4 spots are within an hour of each other: Idaia | Douloufakis | Rhous | Lyrarakis
Crete’s got a lot going on.
For us, 5 days in Crete wasn’t nearly enough time to explore all that this incredible island has to offer. In fact, five weeks probably wouldn’t have been enough time. But we’ll never forget our time there, and we’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Give Crete some serious consideration for your next vacation. And holler at us if we can help.