Crete is the biggest island in Greece, so it’s worth splitting your time between a few of the regions to hit the best beaches and tavernas on each side. It’s divided into four regions: Lasithi in the east, Heraklion in central Crete, and Rethymnon and Chania to the west. Make a beeline for the capital Heraklion – where the main airport is – to see the best archaeological sites, including The Palace of Knossos and the ancient Phaistos. The romantic town of Chania has a buzzing food scene with some of the island’s best restaurants, while Rethymnon has a similar vibe but feels less touristy. Its Old Town is almost entirely pedestrian-only and is home to some of Crete’s top hotels.
WHERE TO STAY
Crete has an excellent range of accommodation for all budgets, whether you’re after family villas or small boutique hotels. Over the last few years, the island has also seen an influx of luxury hotels and resorts, so there’s no shortage of places to stay for a blow-the-budget holiday. For a family affair, Daios is tucked along a craggy cliff overlooking a private cove in Vathi, a small village near Heraklion. Choose between one, two- or three-bedroom villas set across two levels, each with a heated saltwater pool and private terrace. There are plenty of activities on offer, from archery and trips to local olive farms, to treasure hunts and games on the beach. Adults can also make use of two tennis courts, a fitness centre and the spa with an indoor pool.
Elsewhere, Cretan Malia Park (a member of Design Hotels) is an eco-friendly hotel surrounded by a lush Mediterranean garden just a short walk from Malia beach. Parents can drop off little ones at the Explorers Kids’ Club to take part in eco-focused activities, while teenagers can relax in a separate area, complete with its own outdoor cinema, games hub and hammocks. Family rooms and bungalows are surrounded by gardens, and some have private pools.
Domes Zeen in Chania is another family-orientated resort with suites and villas where little ones can play in private gardens and pools. Adults will appreciate the new Greek restaurant and Jungle Spa, while kids can make friends at the junior club or book activities like mountain biking and horse riding. For a more affordable option, Ammos is a laid-back retro beachside hotel, just a short drive from Chania’s harbour. All rooms have fully equipped kitchenettes and there’s a great kids’ club with supervised games and arts and crafts.
For Total Luxury
Luxury hotel ACRO Suites opened its doors a few months ago and has already established itself a go-to spot for those in the know. Tucked into the rocky cliffside at Mononaftis Bay to the north of the island, guests are encouraged to relax and unwind in the eco-friendly resort. Couples can stay in villas with private infinity pools or two-storey suites with beautiful sea views. There’s also an impressive ‘bath house’ spa with a byzantine hammam and indoor and outdoor pools, plus a pool bar and Mediterranean restaurant.
Domes of Elounda to the east of the island has its own private beach and overlooks the beautiful Mirabello Bay. Surrounded by olive groves and lush greenery, it has facilities for families, but we like it best for a romantic trip – couples should book suites on the more private side of the resort. There are four restaurants, wine tastings events and a 24/7 conciergerie service. Just a few moments away, the newly opened Minos Beach Art Hotel is another top choice. The hotel is comprised of whitewashed villas and bungalows filled with artwork inspired by the island’s natural surroundings – the interiors are some of the best on the island. Guests can relax on two private beaches, visit the open-air art museum, and dine at three restaurants, one of which is headed up by esteemed chef Giannis Baxevanis.
For Something Affordable
For an adult-only retreat, Numo Ierapetra Beach Resort is a surprisingly affordable option in Ierapetra, one of the quieter towns in southern Crete. The beachfront hotel is surrounded by gardens, while design-led rooms are chic and minimalist, with private balconies or pools. There’s also Màre Màre, its destination cocktail bar where guests make a beeline for sundowner drinks, as well as three fine dining restaurants.
To the far west of the island, you’ll find Balos Beach Hotel , a simple and traditional property spread across four buildings and a private beach. A great location from which to explore Crete’s western cape, guests can stay in beach apartments and studios – ideal for a fun girls’ trip. The beautiful Balos Lagoon and beach is just a ten-minute walk away. If you’d rather stay in the city, Dom Boutique Hotel in Heraklion has smart rooms and suites with boho-inspired interiors. You won’t find a restaurant or bar, but there are plenty of options on its doorstep. Similarly, Vranas Ambiance Hotel in Chania’s Old Town has a buzzy atmosphere with simple yet comfortable rooms. The Venetian Harbour, the Archaeological Museum and the Egyptian Lighthouse are all a short walk away.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
You won’t find any Michelin-starred restaurants in Crete, but the island is famous for its traditional tavernas which celebrate local produce – many restaurant owners will boast about their organic gardens and family recipes. With plenty of affordable options, you’ll find excellent options in all four regions, especially Chania. Just a short walk from Chania’s city centre, Periplous is a lovely seaside restaurant on the Halepa waterfront. It specialises in Cretan cuisine and local seafood – try and get a table outside to enjoy a sunset meal. Maiami, just a short walk away is another top choice which serves brunch and Mediterranean dishes throughout the day. The owner is a ceramicist who sells her pieces in the shop next door – well worth a browse.
For a more traditional setting, Kritamon is an atmospheric restaurant and wine bar in Chania Town, while Chrisostomos is an award-winning Cretan restaurant which serves generous portions of grilled meat with dips and bread. For something a little more upmarket, you can get grilled lobster and octopus at Periplous along the water’s edge, and other seafood dishes at Salis, one of the island’s most celebrated restaurants.
After sightseeing in Heraklion, make like the locals and enjoy a leisurely lunch at Parasities which has been serving Greek for over 100 years. Today, it’s a more modern affair where diners can enjoy dishes cooked over an open wood-fired grill. Its traditional loukoumades (small donut-like bites) are not to be missed. Pekesei, a five-minute walk away, offers farm-to-table dining to highlight the best produce in the region – dishes change weekly so there’s always something delicious on the menu. After dinner, take the short talk to Opus wine bar where carafes of local wine and cocktails are served in a cosy brick-exposed room.
Elsewhere, Agia Fotia Taverna in Preveli Beach to the south is a must-visit. Perfect for a romantic evening or special family meal, diners arrive by boat to enjoy seafood overlooking the water. Guests are encouraged to stay for hours and soak up the relaxed atmosphere. La Bouillabaisse at Minos Beach Art Hotel also has beautiful views. Here, you can expect modern Mediterranean dishes like seafood orzo pasta with fennel oil, Romana salad with marinated anchovies, and seabass ceviche with avocado and grapefruit.
WHAT TO DO
Crete has 100 Blue Flag beaches, meaning it’s one of Greece’s leading islands for water quality and environmental management. If you go to just one, head to Elafonissi at the island’s southwest tip. The bay often breaks into two parts when the tide is out, when locals and tourists alike flock to the white and pink sand (comprised of millions of crushed shells) to swim in the crystal-clear waters and sunbathe on the beach. There’s a lagoon to the eastern side of the beach, as well as beachside restaurants, cafés and changing rooms. Balos Lagoon is equally beautiful but a little quieter, especially during the autumn months. Famous for its turquoise waters, visitors can snorkel in the bay and see a panoramic view of the lagoon from surrounding mountains. Falassarna beach to the west is also worth is visit, as is Vaï beach on the eastern cape.
For a leisurely afternoon activity, book a wine and olive oil tour at one of the many vineyards to the northwest of the island. Fabulous Crete offers a tour at an olive oil factory and two family-run wineries. Late afternoon is then a great time to hit Crete’s top archaeological spots, including the Palace of Knossos in Heraklion which was excavated in the early 20th century. Dating back to 1900 BC, visitors can book a tour of the palace to see one of its most impressive rooms, the Fresco Gallery. The nearby Gortyna, which dates back to Neolithic times, is also a must for history buffs, as is the archaeological site Phaestos and Fortezza Castle.