Things to see and do on Crete

There’s no such thing as taking a shortcut in Crete. With its peaks, forests and winding coastline, you might as well throw any ideas you had about taking the ‘direct route’ out the window and go with the slow and winding flow.

After all, Crete has always had a will of its own. This is an island where residents identify as Cretan before Greek. A rolling history of invasions, resistances and independence from everyone from the Minoans and Greco-Romans to the Venetians and Ottomans have created cities like Chania that come with a mash of Venetian churches, Ottoman mosques and Jewish synagogues. Its mountainous backbone has hidden away revolutionaries and independence seekers for millennia.
Crete is the biggest island in Greece, so holidays here often zoom in on one region.
The beach resorts are a decoy that prevents some visitors looking beyond the (admittedly lovely) coastline. Crete specialises in holidays that are an antidote to the overtourism that plagues some Greek Islands. Hiking and cycling tours are environmentally low impact, but they also take you into places neglected by the crowds. You’ll stay in a guesthouse in a Chania backstreet or a villa in the mountains, and use a tour operator or guide who’ll point you towards the best kafenio in town.

Types of holidays to Crete

Hike this way

Walking holidays turn their back on what most tourists class as Crete and swap it for what the islanders know to be Crete. Your guide will show you unmarked pilgrimage routes past the 16th-century Gouverneto Monastery, ruined Katholiko Monastery and Church of St John. Or you might follow in the bootsteps of revolutionaries who plotted against Venetian and Turkish invaders in the foothills outside Anopolis.
Most tours take a six-hour hike through the dramatic Samaria Gorge in the White Mountains; it’s one of the biggest gorges in Europe, after all. But you’ll also sneak off to the people-free caves and waterfalls of Boriano Gorge, where oak trees and wild herbs give shade. Kydoni and Zaros gorges are also worth a hike. End each walk at a sandy beach, where you can swim in the deep blue or paddle through the bathtub-warm sea to the islets that lie teasingly close to shore.
Small group holidays of a week are your best introduction to Crete’s walking paths. You’ll join a group of fellow hikers and a guide that can point out where the griffin vultures nest and reveal the ghost villages left behind after the devastating Nazi occupation of WWII. These trips tend to be point to point, so you’ll probably start and end in a picturesque city like Chania, and bed down in village guesthouses in-between.

On the road

Cycling holidays to Crete always take the scenic route. And it’s never a straight one. Hairpin bends scissor their way around the mountainous interior and sea-view roads swoop around the coast. Chania to Rethymno is a popular route – via a series of vineyards, cave churches and islets, of course. Inachoria, meanwhile, is a series of nine mountain villages that scatter themselves among the mountains of the southwest. Or you could concentrate on the east, taking in the archaeological site at Knossos where you can learn about olive oil production in Crete and take part in the languid ways of mountain villages.

Most cycling holidays are self guided, so you can take things at your own pace, but with the knowledge that you’ll have your luggage transferred, hotels booked and someone at the end of the line 24/7 if you need anything from directions to restaurant recommendations. Crete is a mountainous island, so you’ll need at least a moderate level of fitness for ascents and descents. And you’ll probably cover 15km to 35km a day. Fancy a break from orienteering? Your tour op will match you up with a local guide who can take you on a guided walk of, say, Bronze Age Knossos or the hidden coves.

There’s another flavour of self guided holidays in Crete: driving. They’re also tailor made itineraries, so the specialist tour operator will design your trip to your needs. They’ll book the best Greek-run hotels and guesthouses en route, too, and suggest the best viewpoints and tavernas. As you’ll cover bigger distances, it’s a handy way of getting a general overview of Crete from mountain to coast. Driving also makes little explored southern Crete more accessible, helping you support the bakeries and guesthouses in off-piste towns.

Practicalities

You can choose between small group tours, tailor made trips or accommodation only holidays. Crete holidays tend to be activity-based – hiking or cultural excursions – and include most things in the price, from transport and accommodation to meals and some activities. Crete is a king-sized island, so you’ll need about a week to explore it properly – even if you’re just staying in one place and day tripping. Take that up to two weeks if you’re island hopping or adding a stint in the Peloponnese to your itinerary. Activity holidays run outside of high (and hot) season, so avoid travelling in July and August. The rest of the year is your oyster – especially if you want to have a hand in extending Greece’s tourist season. Walking holidays are especially good year-round, although spring is best for wildflowers.

Our top Greek islands Holiday

Rural Crete holiday villa, Greece

Rural Crete holiday villa, Greece

Spectacular views from luxury accommodation in Crete Mountains

From €160 to €220 per accommodation per night (sleeps 2-4)
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Crete tips from other travellers

“My wife got to the top of the hills before me, relaxed and breathing due to the great decision to use an e-bike. Do it if you have reservations about the hills!” - Trevor York on a cycling holiday to western Crete.

“There is so much to do and see in Crete. Impossible to do in one visit. Concentrate on just a few things or one particular region.” - Maureen Rae, on a Greece highlights tour.

“Really enjoyed the cycling and didn’t encounter too much traffic on the back roads except when approaching the larger towns and beach resorts. I’d highly recommend taking two weeks if you have the time.” - Stephen Reynolds on his cycling holiday to western Crete.
In the bigger towns always seek out the restaurants in the smaller alleys – ask the locals where's good to eat.
- Sue McNuff on an Eastern Crete cycling tour.
Sue McNuff travelled on an Eastern Crete cycling tour. She says:

Scene it

“The scenery was beautiful. It changed as we moved from one area to another. There were some great views to be had every day and you are never too far from some wonderful history. It brought to life the history I had studied as an 11-year-old many years ago. The weather at the end of October was perfect for us for cycling.”

Map it out

“The routes were well planned on usually the 'old road' which meant that they were a lot quieter... but easier to miss unless you are looking at the GPS. The GPS is very accurate, but sometimes you need to stop and zoom in to be sure you're on the right route. The nature of the island means that you are always going up or down... but the hills tended to be not too steep for too long.”

Ditch dessert

“In the bigger towns always seek out the restaurants in the smaller alleys – ask the locals where's good to eat. They almost certainly will be run by a family who pride themselves on giving you a lovely meal at very reasonable prices. Never order a pudding as one is almost certainly on its way as a gift to you, plus some raki!”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jan Fidler] [Top box: Matthieu Oger] [Hike this way: C messier] [Review - Sue McNuff: Matthieu Oger]
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