Greece is a mythical place. It is amazing, full of things to see and do. And among the many things to see in Greece and of the many islands that are part of the country, Crete is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and fascinating, in many ways. It is the cradle of ancient Minoan culture, the place where many populations have come and gone for centuries and where so many myths that are fixed in all our memories were created.
Nature is pretty spectacular in Crete too: with its gorges, heavenly beaches, exotic settings and natural lakes, nature lovers will be spoilt for choice. Here are the places of Crete, one of the most beautiful islands of Greece, that we will explore together, including archaeological sites, beaches and ancient and modern beaches:
- Palace of Knossos and Palace of Phaistos
- Arkadi Monastery and Venetian Fortress in Rethymno
- Agios Nikolaos
- The picturesque village of Kritsa
- Church of Panagia Kera
- Museum of agricultural history and popular art
- Elafonissi Pink Beach
- Seitan Limania Beach
- The Gorge of Samaria
- The palm forest in Vai
- Lake Kournas
- Trip to Chrissi Island
Let’s start with the capital, the most important city on the Island of Crete. Heraklion is a lively port (as well as being the city where the island’s airport is located).
Heraklion is the perfect synthesis of modern Greece: it is chaotic, untidy, ready to welcome tourists from all over the world, but also ancient and deeply aware of its glorious past. It is, in fact, here that Minoa was founded, and the Minoan civilisation was born, without which our history and the evolution of our civilisation would have been completely different.
Between the white, rickety houses (Heraklion is in fact called “Candia” due to the white stone used to construct all the buildings), the characteristic workshops and the tourist souvenir shops, there are many places to see: above all the Archaeological Museum, the fortress and the city arsenal, and the famous Morosini Fountain.
Let’s not forget that we are talking about the main city on an island, therefore even the beaches close to Heraklion are noteworthy: in particular, we can point out Hersonissos, Ammoudara and Gouves.
Palace of Knossos and Palace of Phaistos
Speaking of the Minoan and Cretan civilisation, we must of course speak of the Palace of Knossos, the ruins of which are just five kilometres from the centre of Heraklion.
It was brought to light during the dig that began in 1900 headed by the archaeologist Arthur Evans who discovered an important part of history and legend: the Palace of Knossos was the home of King Minos, he who, according to legend, had a labyrinth built to imprison his terrible step son, the Minotaur and who was then defeated by the courage of Theseus and the shrewdness of Ariadne.
Aside from the myth, the Palace of Knossos has several frescoes that depict games with bulls, and the secondary palace that is a part of the complex was so intricate and complicated that it was attributed the name of labyrinth even in the most ancient inscriptions.
Today it is possible to visit the Palace of Knossos (that has been partly renovated and rebuilt) and discover everything there is to know about its fascinating history, perhaps with the help of an expert guide.
We should also point out another interesting archaeological site, less famous than Knossos but just as important. We are talking about the archaeological site of Phaistos in the south of the island and that was used as a connection with Egypt.
Arkadi Monastery and Venetian Fortress in Rethymno
Let's continue our journey to discover the island of Crete, with another two important and fascinating sites, or rather the Arkadi Monastery and the Fortress in Rethymno.
In addition to being a beautiful, interesting place, with all its delicate elegance, this is also a historically important place: during the Cretan revolt against the Ottomans, almost a thousand Greeks hid in this monastery and then decided to be blown up rather than hand themselves over to the enemy.
Today, the church boasts a magnificent 16th-century façade that is considerably influenced by Venetian and Baroque styles, while the rest of the monastery still has the stables, refectory, and cells where the monks lived.
There is also a small museum where some items from the history of the Ottoman siege have been stored. These include books, weapons and icons from the Cretan School.
The Fortress in Rethymno, on the other hand, is on the Paleokastro hill and was built by the Venetian in the 16th century. It was conquered by the Ottomans in 1646. It can now be visited. It has an irregular shape, with four main bastions, the main door that is now used as the Archaeological Museum of Rethymno and several buildings inside it, including the Mosque of the Sultan Ibrahim (previously the Cathedral of St Nicholas), the Rector's House and the Council’s Palace.
We must travel east to visit Agios Nikolaos, another of Crete's most important towns,which is also a beautiful, charming port.
In addition to the local shops selling local delicacies, there are many museums in Agios Nikolaos that you must not miss: the Archaeological Museum, for example, houses collection of Minoan art and the famous Goddess of Mirtos, while the Ethnographical Museum is dedicated to popular art and you can admire some wonderful Byzantine icons.
If you want to eat in a characteristic taverna, the town’s port is the ideal place: lively and colourful, it exudes attraction and is the quintessence of Greek atmosphere.
The picturesque village of Kritsa
A pochi chilometri da Agios Nikolaus c’è un bellissimo villaggio dove il tempo sembra essersi fermato: a Kritsa le tradizioni più antiche sono state conservate con cura dai suoi abitanti.
Vicoli stretti pieni di piante rigogliose, fiori e cielo azzurro sono la cornice di tutte le case - una più bella e caratteristica dell’altra - che compongono il pittoresco villaggio di Kritsa e alle botteghe artigiane, dove è possibile ammirare e acquistare ceramiche e merletti stupendi, fatti come un tempo secondo le antiche tradizioni.
Kritsa ebbe il suo momento di massimo splendore durante i periodi di dominazioni bizantina e veneziana e ci sono molte bellissime chiese nella zona a testimoniare questo pezzo di storia; su tutte, Panagia Kera è una chiesa formata da tre cappelle unite dove ci sono stupendi affreschi che risalgono proprio al periodo bizantino.
Church of Panagia Kera
The Church of Panagia Kera deserves a chapter of its own as it is not just a church that dates back to the Byzantine period, but also the church with the best-preserved Byzantine frescoes on the whole island of Crete.
The frescoes of Panagia Kera date back to the Renaissance and are full of bright colours; it is said that the church was home to an icon of the Virgin May (panagia in Ancient Greek means “virgin”) that had miraculous powers, and that it was stolen, returned and repainted several times over the centuries.
The frescoes in the church of Panagia Kera address several themes: on the dome and on the central nave, there are some scenes from the New Testament, such as the baptism, the ascension of Lazarus and the entry into Jerusalem; the central nave is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while the frescoes on the western side of the church are dedicated to the crucifixion of Jesus and the Punishment of the Damned.
Museum of agricultural history and popular art
For history lovers who want to know more about the culture, history and traditions of the island of Crete, the Museum of History and Popular Art in the old town of Rethymno is just what they are looking for.
The location is worth the journey alone, as it is an 17th-century restored Venetian palace. In addition to this, the museum collection is unbelievable: it includes more than five thousand items and tools that tell of the life, traditions and habits of the Cretan people. There are handmade fabrics, embroidery, lace, folk costumes, ceramics, carved wood, metal utensils, and also flags, photographs, various types of documents, coins, weapons, maps and a special section dedicated to the island’s agricultural traditions.
The museum also hosts cultural events and conferences. The Cretan people have never been so interesting and here you will find everything you need to study them and understand them.
Elafonissi Pink Beach
Let’s leave the interesting archaeological, historical and cultural sites of Crete for a moment and look another, no less important aspect that the island offers, i.e. its wild and mostly incredible nature.
This is the exact case of Elafonissi Beach. Can you think of the pink beach in the Bermuda Islands that is the queen of all beaches on social media? Well, Elafonissi Beach is even prettier, even pinker and, above all, much closer!
The pink beach of Elafonissi is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful beaches in Crete. It is located in a remote corner of the island, far from the giant hotels that can be seen on the coast and far from the towns, and this makes it a real paradise on earth - with the help of a simple equipped area with sunbeds, parasols and toilets - surrounded by Mediterranean scrub and centuries-old olive trees.
This oasis is just as pretty as the heavenly beaches of Bermuda and the turquoise Caribbean Sea. It can be reached by car, but the more adventurous who do not fear a few hours of trekking, by a beautiful path that runs alongside the sea.
Seitan Limania Beach
Speaking of heavenly beaches and routes for adventure lovers we can turn our attention to Seitan Limania Beach, a beach that is difficult to reach but that is a jaw-dropping sight for those brave enough to climb over the rocks to reach it.
From up high, the view is that of a long strip of turquoise sea surrounded by white rocky peaks. You need to climb these rocky peaks and then descend the other side to reach the small Seitan Limania beach. Despite the fact that the beach is actually quite small, there aren't many tourists who venture here, and that is why you will never find the beach overcrowded. It is truly one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Crete.
The Gorge of Samaria
The Gorge of Samaria is another of the natural attractions to see on this beautiful island. And of all the beautiful nature spots, this is especially attractive as this rocky gorge stretches for 12 kilometres, starting from Omalos, that stands 1250 metres above sea level, and goes as far as Agia Roumeli Beach on the Libyan Sea.
It takes a good four hours to travel this route, four hours in close contact with unspoilt nature: you cross wood, clearings and streams, until you come to the real gorge, the narrowest and most famous crevice along the path, Porte di Ferro, which is just three metres wide.
A real adventure that will take your breath away.
Let's continue our Cretan adventure by exploring Gortyna, an archaeological site in the Messara Valley that, like many Greek sites, is famous and has an interesting history and myth about it..
According to Greek mythology, Gortyna is the place where Zeus seduced Princess Europa: he kidnapped her from Lebanon and after their union under a plane tree (a type of tree still much a part of the local landscape), Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon were born, who became the kinds of three Minoan palaces in Crete. This myth is especially important as it corroborates the theory according to Europe and consequently, modern western civilisation originated in Crete, starting from the Minoans.
The dig at Gortyna began in 1884: there are ruins in the citadel that date back to 1050 B.C., and a temple from the 7th century B.C. where clay statues painted red and black, an agorà and a giant statue of Europa sitting on a bull have been found that are now a part of the British Museum collection.
Crete has so much to offer, including the outlying destinations that are perfect for a day trip.
One of these is Gavdos, the southernmost island of Greece and also the least inhabited - in 2011 there were just 150 inhabitants. The true owners of the island are, in fact, the pine trees and juniper bushes, the cedar trees, the owls, falcons, quails, turtle doves and scorpions (not dangerous for humans). It is the ideal place if you are looking for peace and quiet!
Gavdos boasts beautiful, unspoilt nature, dream-like beaches (some only to be reached by sea and by private transport) and a small picturesque fishing village, Karavè.
The town of Chania (also known as La Canea) is one of the prettiest and picturesque villages on the island, famous for its old, spectacular Venetian port - where you can sit and eat at one of the many restaurants and while watching the sunset over the sea - and for several historical monuments and places of interest, such as the Giannizzeri mosque, or the ancient Venetian walls.
The old town, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the perfect combination of architecture and Italian and Ottoman tradition (the doors to houses still have Venetian heralds on them), while the Kastelli district is the oldest part of the town where there are buildings dating back to the Minoan era.
There is also an interesting archaeological museum in Chania, inside the former convent of Saint Francis, that houses various finds, such as ceramics and items from surrounding digs, arranged in chronological order, from the prehistoric age to Roman rule.
It is possible to visit Frangokastello in the Chania area, a castle built by the Venetians in 1371 to discourage pirates who raided the Cretan coasts, and was the setting of bloody battles between the locals and the invaders.
In fact, it is said that when the Venetian builders came here to build the castle, the locals, or sfakiani as they are known, organized to destroy every night what the builders had completed during the day; when the Venetians realised what was going on, they crushed the rebellion summoning all other groups and hanging the rebels leasers.
The castle holds Venetian and Ottoman characteristics: it is rectangular, a tower in each corner of the rectangle and a Venetian shield on the main gate; the merlons and the buildings inside the walls date back to the Turkish-Ottoman occupation.
Another attractive place on Crete is the city of Ierapetra. It is famous for having been a cove of Pirates during the Roman era and was the place where Napoleon stopped in 1798 when returning to France from the Egypt campaign (the house he lived in can still be seen).
The remains of this fascinating past can be witnessed in the local museum, where a statue of Perspehone is in perfect condition.
Ierapetra has a medieval network of roads, with narrow, winding alleyways, cul de sacs and low houses. Napoleon’s house that we already mentioned can be found in the old town, together with the church of Aghios Georgios, the church with the blind dones built in cedar wood.
The new part of the town is more for tourists, where we find the port, the sandy beach with bars and restaurants and souvenir shops.
The palm forest in Vai
Do you want the thrill of crossing an exotic palm tree and relaxing on a beach worthy of the Seychelles, but without quiet going that far? Well, Vai is an incredible place on the eastern coast of the island.
The views are exactly the ones you would expect from an exotic paradise: high, solid palm trees create a jungle that is the setting for a strip of white sand that falls into the crystal-clear sea.
These palm trees are a part of a forest of twenty hectares that includes more than five thousand trees in total. It is said that the forest was planted by pirates by chance, but science tells us dreamers and story-tellers that it has been discovered that it is an endogenous species.
Crete is full of natural wonders, and one of them is Lake Kournas, the only fresh water lake on the island, set between the mountains.
It lies where once there was a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena and legend continues that it is full of eels Apart from all the legends, all the animals that populate the lake waters are turtles and small fish ready to carry out a fancy pedicure on all these who put their feet in the lake water; these fish eat all the dry skin on your feet and now sees strange to see that it is a very trendy in the best aesthetic centres in the world.
The mountain settings, reflected in the lake water and the small shops and taverns around the lake do the rest. Spending the day here is an excellent idea, but it is also an extraordinary experience.
Trip to Chrissi Island
Let's end this trip to the island of Crete with a visit to the island of Chrissi.
We have already said several times that Crete is full of points of paradise on earth, but perhaps this is the place that more than any other reflects the idea of paradise on earth.
The Island of Chrissi is a small island that can be reached either by ferry from the various points on the island of Crete (including Ierapetra) and its distinguishing traits that are the soft, white sand, similar to talcum powder and the turquoise coloured sea.
An oasis, an Eden, the ideal place to relax to end a great holiday with Costa Cruises.
Discover Crete with Costa Cruises
Set sail with Costa Cruises in search of Crete, its amazing beaches, its history and the magnificent Greek, terribly fascinating atmosphere. Be bewitched by the turquoise, crystal-clear sea on the Island of Chrissie, by the Caribbean-like beaches at Vai, but also by the ancient history of the Palace of Knossos, the beauty of the picturesque fishing villages and much more too.