Crete. The word alone calls to mind rocky cliffs, sapphire seas and crumbling ruins. All true, but one-note compared to the reality of arriving on the dynamic island. Here to help you plan your perfect trip is born-and-bred Crete expert Eva May. May has lived around the world, including stints in Italy and the USA, but returned to the land of beautiful sea and wild mountains to open the Evalia Hotel and offer guests an authentic experience of Cretan hospitality. Journy sat down with May to find out the places you absolutely can't miss on your trip to Crete.
Visit Knossos Palace
Knossos Palace was the capital of Minoan Crete and while the first palace building dates back to 1900 BC, the first traces of settlement extend to 7000 BC. The site was first excavated in 1878, and underwent controversial renovations in the early 20th century at the hands of British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. Regardless, the palace and its ruins are fascinating to explore. There's the West Court, which historians think was once a marketplace or a public gathering area. Duck into the restored fresco gallery, which gives you an idea of the vibrant colors that once decorated Minoan cities. And be sure to spend some time admiring the Throne Room, which was the center of Minoan palace life.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Get a grasp on Greek's mammoth ancient history with a trip to Heraklion Archaeological Museum, one of the most important and state of the art museums in the country. The Minoan selection is unparalleled and will give you a better understanding of what people were actually doing in the ruins at Knossos Palace. Grab a map and be prepared to spend a day (don't worry, it's well laid out, with plenty of explanation in English).
Address: Xanthoudidou 2, 71202 Heraklion, Crete, Greece
Phone: +30 2810 279000
Hours: Daily 8am - 8pm
Price: Full 10€, reduced 5€
Spend a day exploring Agios Nikolaos
This idyllic town has an enviable location perched along three hills nestled into the North West of the Gulf of Mirabello. Start your exploration lounging at a cafe along the lake, Voulismeni, where both locals and visitors gather to soak up the buzzy atmosphere. Grab your bathing suit and head to Kitroplatia, one of the only beaches in Crete located within a city. If you enjoy gawking at the tricked out boats of the luxury class, take a stroll around the yacht-packed Marina. While visitors throng the streets during the summer, it remains bustling during the winter—proof that people do live among the pastel-colored houses.
Relax in Elounda
This small fishing town is only a few miles from Agios Nikolaos, but with its calm pace of life, it might as well be another planet. While the beaches aren't unspoiled by nature, there's less of a visitor influence here. Perfect for soaking up the crystal clear skies and vivid azure waters.
Take a boat from Elounda to the island of Spinalonga, which takes just 25 minutes and costs about 10€ (you can also visit from Agios Nikolaos, and it takes about an hour). In the 16th century the Venetians (who inhabited Crete at the time), used the island as a fortification to protect Crete from foreign invaders. Later, in the 20th century, it was turned into the most active leper colonies in Europe, and the last inhabitant (a priest) only left in 1962. You'll have to pay to visit the island, and be aware that it can get crowded during peak holiday times in the summer. Prepare for your trip by reading The Island by Victoria Hislop, which takes place on Spinalonga.
Note: Boat trips leave from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda and Plaka with prices dependent on port of departure. Boat ticket does not include admission to the island, which costs 8€.
Escape civilization when you visit this sparsely inhabited plateau 900 meters above sea level in the middle of the island. Although nowadays the most common sights are almond trees, tourists and fields, back in the 17th century the plains were dotted with windmills and white canvas sails, few of which are still standing. While you're here, visit the Dikteon Cave, also called Zeus Cave, which according to legend was the birthplace of Zeus. Inside you'll find impressive stalactites, including one called "the mantle of Zeus," which was a site of cult worship during Minoan and Roman times. Be aware that to reach the entrance requires a rather steep 800 meter walk—choose between a rocky and shaded natural trail, or a paved but sunny path.
Whether you come to Matala Beach to glimpse the impressive rock caves or reminisce about the beach's hippy history, you're sure to forget your original motivation as soon as you glimpse the sapphire waters. Located 68 kilometers south west of Heraklion, the beach is one of the most popular in Greece with tourists and locals alike. Be sure to save some time to visit the nearby caves. While you can no longer party in the caves like hippies did in the 60s and 70s, they make an impressive afternoon excursion—and are free to boot.
Even if you don't fancy yourself a hiker, a trip to the imposing Samriá Gorge is a must on your trip to Crete. It's the longest gorge in Europe and at a certain points it's only four meters wide by 300 meters tall. In 1962, the area was made a National Park and later a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The park is home to the endangered kri-kri (a breed of goat native to Crete) as well as other endemic species of flowers and birds. While the official length of the gorge is 13 kilometers, the hike is 16 kilometers long as you’ll need to hike to the nearby town of Agia Roumeli from the park's exit. Be aware: the beginning of hike is quite steep and not ideal for beginners. The park is only open for hiking from May through to the end of October.
You don't go to Arkadi Monstery just to visit the building itself, though the delicately crumbling church of indeterminate age is indeed impressive. It sits on a fertile plateau 500 meters above sea level, which makes great viewing of olive groves, vineyards and cypress trees. There's the plummeting Arkadi Gorge nearby and don't forget the multitude of picture-perfect chapels nearby. The monastery was most likely founded as a Byzantine church in the 12th century and was dedicated to Saint Constantine. Over the years it's provided educational, monetary and national support for the locals, as well as being the site of an important battle in 1866, which launched the Cretan struggle for freedom from the rule of the Turkish Empire.
Address: Rethymnon, Rethymnon, Crete 74100, Greece
Phone: +30 28310 83136
Hours: Summer - Monday to Saturday 9am - 8pm, Sunday 10am - 8pm
Winter - Monday to Saturday 9am - 5pm, Sunday 10am - 5pm