Things to Do in Crete
Once the glorious capital of Minoan Crete and one of the most powerful cities in the eastern Mediterranean, ancient Knossos is a place steeped in legend. Today, it’s Crete’s largest and most important archaeological site, crowned by the hilltop Palace of Knossos—built around 2000 BC—and revealing a fascinating history that stretches all the way back to the earliest European civilizations.
Chania’s spectacular Venetian Harbour is a symbol of the town’s rich and varied history, built between 1320 and 1356 when it was first under control of the Republic of Venice. Made of butter-colored stone and with its walls stretching for just under a mile (1.5 km), it provided sheltered waters and safe anchorage and was originally a thriving trading port with berthing room for up to 40 galleys. A breakwater was constructed to the north of the harbor to protect the ships from storm damage, and on this St Nicholas Chapel and bastion were built. During Venetian times condemned criminals were executed on this spot. The Firkas Fortress (now the Maritime Museum of Crete) at the entrance to the harbor was built with the dual purpose of safeguarding Chania from invasion and housing Venetian troops.
However the most striking of the edifices along the Venetian Harbour is the lighthouse (no public access), which dates from around 1570 and looms majestically skywards at the harbor entrance to this day. It is Chania’s most-photographed monument and was restored to its original splendor in the 1840s; the lighthouse is magical when illuminated at night.
Today, the Venetian Harbour offers mooring for local fishing boats and pleasure craft; in summer it is a romantic spot to stroll and then enjoy eating and drinking in the many harbor-side restaurants, tavernas and ouzo shops. Even in winter, it’s usually warm enough to sit outside in a café while sipping coffee and enjoying the Cretan sun.
Perching on the end of the breakwater, the Venetian Lighthouse is the most striking of all the buildings around Chania’s imperious Venetian Harbour, and was constructed around 1570 when the town was under control of the Republic of Venice. It is one of the oldest lighthouses in the world and its spindly, butter-colored stone tower stretches up 69 feet (21 m) high. Last renovated in 2006, the tower was modified several times in the intervening centuries, gaining the mini-minaret above its light in 1839, when Ottoman Turks occupied Crete.
Although it’s no longer operational and closed to the public, the lighthouse is the landmark building in Chania and has an unusual three-part construction; its base has eight sides and its middle section has 16, while its upper reaches are circular. There’s an enjoyable stroll along the walls of the Venetian Harbour to admire its spectacular architecture and this is a romantic spot to linger when it’s illuminated after dark; better still, enjoy the view over an ouzo in one of Chania’s many harbour-side tavernas.
Crete is renowned for being a divinely sun-baked Greek Island, boasting great beaches and hot weather—but it’s less known for its spectacular White Mountains (Lefka Ori). Found in the west of the island, the mountains are a paradise for hikers and nature spotters when not dusted with snow in winter and early spring.
With shallow waters, pale pink-tinted sands, and sweeping dunes, Elafonisi is frequently and deservedly listed among Europe’s best beaches. The beach is connected to a protected island nature reserve, which is home to a variety of rare plants and animals, including loggerhead sea turtles.
Bridging the gap between the wild Gramvousa Peninsula and the idyllic Cape Tigani, Balos Beach is a startlingly blue lagoon, framed by jagged sea cliffs and pristine pink and white sand beaches. A pocket of paradise, Balos Beach is one of Crete’s most photographed natural beaches.
Imbros Gorge is located in the countryside of western Crete. It is one of the most popular gorges for hikers on the island. It's popular for many reasons including its beauty. The hike is also easier than some others in the area, making it a good choice for almost anyone who wants to spend a few hours exploring nature. The trail is about five miles long with a descent of less than 2,000 feet and usually takes two to three hours. There are some spectacular sections along the trail, including some narrow passageways. Along the hike, you will pass several small villages.
The gorge also holds historical significance. In May 1941 during World War II, Allied troops walked through the gorge while trying to escape Crete and get to Egypt. Many people whose parents or grandparents were there visit the gorge today as a kind of pilgrimage.
Second in size and importance to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum houses the most magnificent collection of Minoan art and culture in the world. The museum's exhibition contains more than 15,000 artifacts from all periods of Cretan prehistory and history, covering a chronological span of over 5,000 years, from the Neolithic era to Roman times.
As the Museum is still under renovation, its temporary exhibition is a curation of the most famous and representative items of the collection. Notable items include: the Prince of the Lilies' fresco, the Phaistos Disc, the snake goddesses from Knossos, the black stone bull’s head, the "Bull Leaping" and "La Parisienne" frescoes.
The various artifacts form a valuable record of the artistic, social and economic life of the island during the ancient period. You’ll find examples of pottery, jewelry, goldwork and metalwork (household utensils and weapons), and seal engraving - a miniature art where the Minoans excelled.
Samaria Gorge, in southwestern Crete, is one of Europe’s longest canyons. A popular hiking destination, its rugged river valley trail runs 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Xyloskalo in the White Mountains to he coastal village of Agia Roumeli. The gorge is part of Samaria Gorge National Park, which enjoys a seat along the Libyan Sea coast.
Situated in a valley surrounded by dramatic mountains, Lake Kournas offers a picturesque alternative to Crete’s many beaches. It’s the only freshwater lake on the island, and its warm, turquoise, spring-fed waters reflect the rocky peaks above like a mirror. Summertime visitors come to swim, boat, or just loll on the beach.
More Things to Do in Crete
With its sawtooth walls and square crenellated towers at each corner, the well-preserved Venetian castle of Frangokastello is straight from the pages of a medieval fairytale. The Venetians built the castle fort in the 1370s, when their empire ruled the seas and the island of Crete. You can still make out the carving of the winged lion of the Venetian Republic, above the entrance to the castle.
The imposing structure lies on the coastal plain, strategically positioned to ward off pirates and protect the Venetian nobles who called the island home. It was originally called the Castle of St. Nikitas, but eventually took on the name given to it by unhappy locals: Castle of the Franks (as in foreigners). The battlements and buildings within the wall date from the island’s Ottoman occupation.
Nearby, Frangokastello’s beaches are a modern-day draw and the small town offers remote seaside accommodation
Measuring just 4.35 miles (7 kilometers) long and 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) at its widest point, Chrissi Island, also known as Gaidouronisi, is small but undoubtedly lovely. This protected nature reserve off Crete’s south coast is blessed with pristine beaches, shallow snorkel-friendly waters, and swaths of old cedar forest.
The now-uninhabited island of Spinalonga (Kalydon) sits in the Elounda Gulf along Crete’s northeastern shore. During the 16th-century Venetian occupation, the invaders built a defensive fortress here protecting Mirabello Bay. Today visitors can tour the massive structure and the abandoned buildings that sit along its turreted walls.
Comprising two sandy stretches extending from either side of a pier, Marathi Beach overlooks the vivid blue waters of Souda Bay and the White Mountains of Chania. The beach is well sheltered from the elements, meaning the waters are waveless and calm. Traditional tavernas near the sand serve fresh fish to hungry beachgoers.
The third-largest settlement on the Greek island of Crete, the port town of Rethymno (Rethimno) has been occupied since the Late Minoan period. Its Venetian- and Ottoman-era old town—a knot of narrow, flower-bedecked lanes overlooked by a fortified Venetian castle—oozes history and character. A series of sandy beaches stretch out along the coastline to the east.
The Firkas Fortress at the entrance to Chania harbor was built during the Venetian occupation of Crete between 1204 and 1669; it was originally used as a barracks and prison. Since 1973, it has housed the Maritime Museum of Crete (sometimes translated as the Nautical Museum of Crete).
Spread over two floors of the Maritime Museum are 13 chronological displays starting with models of ships from Prehistoric times, passing through ancient navigational equipment, and ending with models of destroyers and landing craft from Greece’s modern-day naval fleet. Highlights along the way include plunder from ancient shipwrecks, such as amphorae and cooking utensils; reproductions of Minoan galleys; a Bronze Age trireme; and a model bridge from a World War II torpedo boat. A section is also given over to the German invasion of Crete in 1941, illustrated with photographs and personal testimonies.
The museum offers a small exhibition of shells showcasing the diversity of Mediterranean sea life and a well-stocked library of maritime books. A visit to the museum is easily combined with a walk around Chania’s Venetian Harbour or can be visited as part of an electric Trikke tour of its Old Town.
A vast canyon burrowing between the Kouroupis and Xiro Oros mountains, the Kourtaliotiko Gorge is among Crete’s most dramatic natural attractions – running for almost 3 km along the Kourtaliotiko River. Starting out from the village of Koxare, the scenic canyon winds through the cliffs to join the Libyan Sea coast, where it forms a glistening lagoon fringed by the sandy beaches and verdant palm forests of the Preveli Palm Beach.
Most visitors choose to follow the road along the top of the canyon, enjoying the views over Kourtaliotiko Gorge and stopping to clamber down into the gorge and explore the many caves, streams and waterfalls, as well as the historic Church of St. Nicholas, perched on the hillside.
Crete is renowned for its many beautiful beaches, and many consider Preveli Palm Beach the very best of them all. Located on the island’s southern coast, the beach sits in front of the limestone cliffs of the Kourtaliotiko gorge and is framed by a lush palm forest.
Just a short drive from the beaches of Heraklion, Acqua Plus Water Park is the largest and most popular water park in Crete. With more than 50 different slides, games, and activities, the park has plenty to do for all ages and preferences, from daring water slides to a scenic lazy-river cruise.
The fortress-like Arkadi Monastery (Moni Arkadiou) is perched on a hilltop plateau surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, while Crete’s highest peak, Mt. Ida, looms in the distance. Picturesque and architecturally impressive, with fairy-tale turrets and a dramatic bell tower, the monastery is also a symbol of the Cretan struggle for independence.
Tucked behind the façade of the former Venetian church of St Francis, the Archaeological Museum of Chania can be visited as part of an electric Trikke tour of its charming Old Town. Displays cover the periods from Neolithic and Minoan to late Roman times, and exhibit treasures found during excavations around the town and across western Crete.
The collections are elegantly displayed under the soaring vaulted ceiling of the church’s nave and include models of ships, clay seals, battered Classical statuary and a bust of Emperor Hadrian. Highlights are a bird-shaped Minoan drinking vessel dating from 3000-2300 BC; gold discs from a Neolithic burial site, thought to be from the 9th century BC; an almost-complete mosaic of Dionysos and Ariadne, which was uncovered during building work in Chania and dates from the 3rd century AD; and a charming clutch of carved animals. The Mitsotakis Collection, donated to the museum in 2000, is also on display and encompasses Minoan pottery and jewelry.
The Turkish Fountain in the courtyard outside the museum originally stood in Eleftherios Venizelos Square down by Chania’s Venetian harbour.
The vast archaeological site of Aptera lies on the northwest coast of Crete, 20 minutes from the charming seaside town of Chania. Believed to date back to the 14th century BC, Aptera was a powerful ancient city with its roots in Minoan times.
From its all-powerful position high on a plateau overlooking Souda Bay, Ancient Aptera had its own currency and thrived for millennia as a trading post with two natural harbors. Its eventual downfall came in the 7th century AD, when the city-state was repressed by Arabs and then destroyed by earthquake. It fell into long decline and lay undiscovered until Nazi troops occupying Crete during World War II started to excavate the site in 1942. Work still continues, and slowly the remains — dating from Minoan, Greek and Roman times — of an aqueduct, cisterns, public baths, temples, graves, houses, palaces and a small hillside theater have resurfaced, all cradled inside a protective walls that stretches for 2.5 miles (4 km).
Surrounded by olive groves and sleepy villages such as Maheri and Arhanes, where traditional rural life creeps on as it has for centuries, Ancient Aptera is one of the most important archaeological sites on Crete but — wrongly — flies under the tourist radar. As the hordes head for Knossos, Aptera is often relatively deserted.
Close by is the austere Itzedin Fortress, overlooking Souda Bay and built by the Turks in 1866-69 to crush the Cretan Revolution. The Aptera ruins can be visited on day trips from Heraklion or Rethymnon, and explored as part of a half-day walking tour of Arhanes and its environs; the views of the snow-capped White Mountains are spectacular in spring.
Spread across three hills overlooking the crescent-shaped Mirabello Bay, Agios Nikolaos is a picturesque and cosmopolitan seaside resort. By day, visitors flock to the beaches, while at night, patrons fill chic waterfront restaurants and bars in the harbor and Voulismeni Lake—connected to the harbor via a narrow channel.
Built in the 13th century when Crete was under Venetian rule, Koules Fortress is known by many names. Sometimes called Rocca al Mare, or simply the Venetian Fortress, it was initially designed to protect Heraklion from invasion. Today it houses exhibits on the history of Heraklion.
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