The perennial favourite Greek holiday island of Crete is like a mini country, bursting with historical gems and its own unique diverse culture. The largest of all the Greek islands (and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean) is packed with interesting heritage as the rich legacy from the Minoans c. 2700–1420 BC), Venetians, Romans and Ottomans presents travellers with seemingly never-ending things to see and do in Crete, all year round.
Explore the mighty Palace complex of Knossos in Heraklion
The capital of Crete, Heraklion, boasts an intriguing array of both ancient Minoan and Venetian sights, the highlight of which is undoubtedly the legendary ruins of Knossos. The Bronze Age archaeological site is now thought to be the oldest city within Europe, founded as early as 7000 BC. The first Palace of Knossos is thought to date back to 1900 BC. Many of the buildings that make up the place complex are inscribed with Minotaurs and labyrinths which have links with King Minos. The Minotaur creature stems from Greek mythology and featured a bulls head on a man’s body. The ruins of Knossos were only uncovered in the year 1900 by a British archaeologist. Watch the fascinating 3D reconstruction below from YouTube.
Don’t miss the intriguing Heraklion Archaeological Museum which details the Minoan heritage of Crete, including the iconic bull-leaping Fresco, decorative Minoan jewellery and the captivating Snake Goddess statue. Possibly the best museum in Greece!
Although much of Heraklion’s Old Town district has been lost, the Venetian port area is well worth a look; the Venetian castle of Koules, Venetian Walls and the fort dominate the port area. A walk through the city will reveal the Morosini Fountain, imposing St. Minas Cathedral and the interesting Museum of Natural History.
Discover the Venetian Fortresses of Rethymno
The city of Rethymno was largely overlooked by the ancient Minoans but was favoured by the Venetians, who ruled Crete from 1212 to 1866. Their influence can be seen within the structures throughout the city, most notably the awesome Venetian Fortress that dominates the Old Town. The intriguing and well-preserved Old Town retains an old-town atmosphere, which you’ll pick up on as you wander the narrow alleys and maze of streets. The main highlight is undoubtedly the Fortezza itself which gazes out over Rethymno and the surrounding mountains and sea. The fortress dates back to the 16th century when the Venetians occupied Crete. Visitors can go inside the fort and explore the many structures inside.
Take the time to wander the streets of Rethymno and you’ll uncover a myriad of historical delights, with many building dating back to the 16th century and spanning the Minoan, Roman and Ottoman period.
Hike the gorgeous Samaria National Park
Crete is known for its spectacular natural beauty, which is evident within the Samaria National Park in the Chania region. The highlight is the challenging 13km gorge within the park which makes for rewarding hike. The gorge is only open during the summer season (May to October) and you will need to be pretty fit to tackle the seven hour (or so) trail.
Savour the Venetian and Turkish influences of Chania
The city of Chania has strong Turkish and Venetian influences which can be seem with the architecture, culture and food. Chania’s Old Town area is well preserved and spans the port and harbour areas. The highlight is the handsome lighthouse in the Venetian Port which dates back to 1595 and is thought to be the oldest lighthouse in the world. The Turkish influence can be seen with the old Turkish Mosque in the harbour, the Yiali Tzami, which dates back to the 17th century and the handful of traditional hammams, Turkish baths, dotted along Chania’s Old Town streets.
Go in search of Zeus’ Birthplace
Mighty Zeus ruled the Olympians of Mount Olympus and was known as the God of Sky and Thunder according to ancient Greek mythology. His birthplace is reputed to be at the Dikteon Caves complex in Lasithi. The vast cave system, replete with stalactites and stalagmites is a firm favourite in the tourist trail.
Explore the Minoan Palace of Zakros
The very last of the great Minoan palaces to be discovered was the one at Zakros, on Crete’s eastern coast, which was uncovered in 1962. The site has yielded an amazing array of Minoan delights, who ruled Crete from around 2700 BC to1420 BC. The most notable artefacts uncovered are the bull’s head cast in stone and the beautiful rock-crystal vase which are both now on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, which has the best collection of Minoan artefacts in the world.
Full details on the Minoan palaces, tombs, cemeteries, settlements and building can be found on this archaeology site.
Check out Crete’s beautiful beaches
With such a diverse wealth of cultural sights it would easy to forget that this Greek gem also ‘does’ superb landscapes just as well as her neighbours! As well as dramatic gorges, dense forests, plains filled with palms and cacti, there are also a clutch of pristine beaches, ranging from sand to shingle. Check out breathtaking Elafonissi Beach on the west coast (which was voted sixth best beach in Europe by TripAdvisor), the superb Balos Beach at Kissamos (which was voted one of the world's best beaches by CNN) and resilient Preveli Beach at Finikas which is slowly but surely re-establishing after a devastating fire three years ago.
Experience the Ancient and sacred trees
There are several locations across Crete that are home to sacred trees, such as olive, holy myrtle and lost forests, many of which are over 2,000 years old. The best way to experience this phenomenon up close is to join a local guided walking tour. Stop by the lost forest of Donkey island with its trees of twisted stumps and witness the 3250 year old olive tree that provided branches for the 2004 Olympic Games winners’ wreaths. More details on the holy trees of Crete can be found here.
Chill out in picturesque Archanes
The town of Archanes is a mere stone’s throw from Heraklion, yet couldn’t be more different. The dramatic mountain scenery, with quaint little white churches dotted around add to the village atmosphere. Base yourself here to explore the local Turkish and Venetian heritage, climb into the cooling mountains and bike the surrounding vineyards - one of my favourite things to see and do in Crete!
Spot the celebs in Elounda
If the name ‘Elounda’ rings a bell, it’s quite possible that you’ve read about this former Cretan fishing town in a glossy magazine. Recently it’s become the travel destination of choice – Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have holidayed here in the past! Grab a coffee and watch the beautiful people go by. You can also walk the town around the pretty Elounda Bay area and gaze over the long abandoned Spinalonga Island, which is a former Turkish fortress that was later used as a leper colony.