1. Rethymnon on Old Town
If you’re in Rethymnon, then you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to wander the narrow alleys of Old Town, a seaside neighborhood that dates back to the 11th century. Here you’ll find prime examples of Venetian Renaissance architecture along with splashes of Turkish influence spread throughout the city.
The food and shopping options in Old Town are seemingly endless, but the maze-like streets can be perplexing. If you do get turned around, don’t despair: The area isn’t huge, and once you see the Venetian Fortezza or the harbor, you can easily regain your bearings. Recent travelers have actually embraced getting lost in Old Town because the streets are so charming, the locals are so kind and the food is so good. Case in point, Old Town Rethymnon is simply beautiful.
Old Town encompasses the northern portion of Rethymnon, wrapping around the southern and eastern walls of the Venetian Fortezza. The historic neighborhood is within walking distance of downtown Rethymnon, about 50 miles west of Heraklion.
2. Vai Beach (Palm Beach)
Also known as Palm Beach, Vai Beach is mainly known for its stunning landscape. The beach is home to the largest palm grove in Europe with 4,500 palm trees that have been there for more than 2,000 years. So if you’re looking to avoid renting a beach umbrella, you’ve come to the right place for some natural shade. The sand can get crowded with busloads of tourists, but a short hike over a hill at the south side of Vai Beach will reveal an underutilized, yet no less beautiful stretch of shore.
Recent visitors praised Vai Beach for its cleanliness and beautiful views from not only the beach but from atop the nearby hills. Travelers also lauded the picturesque drive coming into the beach. Others, however, lamented the distance and conditions of the roads, advising those who aren’t staying on the east side of the island to reconsider visiting. For those who want to beat the crowds, visitors suggest hitting the sand before 2 p.m.
Vai Beach is located in the far northeast corner of Crete. The best way to get there is from one of the three direct daily buses that depart from Sitia. If you choose to drive, know that parking at Vai Beach costs a small fee.
3. Elafonisi Beach
Located in the southwest corner of Crete, Elafonisi Beach sparkles with pink-tinted sand and crystal-clear Mediterranean waters. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can wade across Elafonisi’s shallow lagoon to a small, uninhabited island, home only to a historic lighthouse, a chapel and more than 100 native plant species. Recent travelers hail Elafonisi as one of the most beautiful beaches in Crete, if not in all of Greece.
However, Elafonisi’s beauty comes with a few drawbacks. First, you must brave winding roads and harrowing mountain passes to get there. Once you arrive, your visions of pristine sandy stretches may be spoiled by the legions of tourists who have also made the trek, especially in the summer months. But never fear: You can avoid the throngs of visitors by venturing a little farther away from the parking lot. A short walk east or west and you will hit smaller yet more secluded shorelines bordered by a juniper forest. Another surefire way to beat the crowds is to visit in the off-season. From late October to April, you might just get the beach all to yourself.
You’ll find Elafonisi Beach about 45 miles southwest of Chania. During the high season (May to September) you can take a public bus from Paleochora or Chania to Elafonisi, but it only runs once a day. There’s free parking available, so you may want to make the drive to the beach yourself. While there, take heed of the rules: Elafonisi is a protected nature reserve, so no umbrellas (besides the ones provided), fires, camping, littering or destroying plants.
4. The Palace of Knossos
A labyrinth of massive columns and beautiful frescoes, the Palace of Knossos is a testament to the sophistication of the Minoan civilization that disappeared sometime in the 14th century. According to legend, it was also home to the mythical Minotaur of King Minos. The site was restored extensively by the famous archaeologist Arthur Evans in the early 1900s. Since then, it has become the biggest tourist draw on Crete.
Knossos is located about 3 miles south of Heraklion (city buses run regularly from Bus Station A). Make sure to budget a good chunk of time as the Palace of Knossos is a large site that begs for extended exploration. Many recent visitors suggested shelling out for a guided tour — the palace’s history and mythology will really come to life. (Some travelers felt the placards didn’t offer up enough information about the attraction.) If you’re going to visit during the summer, travelers also strongly recommend arriving early to avoid crowds and beat the intense afternoon heat.
The ancient palace runs on seasonal hours and admission is 6 EUR for adults, but for 10 EUR you can get into both the Palace of Knossos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
5. Samaria Gorge National Park
Stretching for about 10 miles through southern Chania Prefecture’s White Mountains, Samaria Gorge is thought to be one of the longest canyons in Europe. The gorge trail begins on the Omalos plateau at Xyloskalo, perched high among the mountains. It then winds its way 10 miles between some 1,600-foot vertical walls to Agia Roumeli, a small seaside village. Speedy hikers can usually make the journey in four and a half hours, while more leisurely paced walkers can spend up to eight hours in the gorge. Fast or slow, you’re going to want to get an early start to beat the heat and the crowds (about 1,000 people make the hike every day during high season).
Recent visitors strongly advise bringing plenty of water and sunscreen, wearing sturdy shoes and really assessing your fitness level before embarking on this long walk. Although not a hike, travelers reported very few areas where the surface is completely flat. Since it is a gorge, rocks are everywhere and traversing them for hours may be too much for those who aren’t regularly active. Despite the challenge, many fawned over the beauty of the gorge. Make sure to observe the greenery, as there are hundreds of different plant species that populate the park. Also keep an eye out for the rare and endangered kri-kri, Crete’s native goat.
Park entrance costs €5 EUR. Visitors are welcome from May through October 15th each year between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily. You can drive yourself to the gorge, but that means you’ll need to retrieve your car at the trailhead at Omalos; a daunting prospect after a long hike. Another option is taking a public bus (KTEL) from Chania to the trail; after your hike, you can catch a ferry from Agia Roumeli to Hora Sfakion, where you can take the bus back to Chania.