CRETE

Heraklion // Rethymno // Plakias // Sfakia // Chania // Balos // Elafonisi // Stavros // Agia Triada // Spilies

Crete surpassed all of our expectations in so many ways - the landscape, wine, food, beaches, cities. There were olive trees growing absolutely everywhere (cultivated and wild, it seemed), goats browsing along the roadside, and thriving flowers and vines and potted plants on every building. It was absolutely necessary to rent a car to explore the island, however the roads were tiny and the locals drove very, very fast, and if they had any road rules, they were barely followed. We managed to get through the week without a scratch on the car, but I don't think that's the norm! We loved exploring this island and feel like we only scratched the surface - it is the largest Greek island and offers more adventures and experiences that only a week-long visit can hold. We mainly stuck to the western side of the island during our trip and are already wanting to go back to see more! Below is a compilation of the places we went, some photos to provide a visual, and our recommendations for each. We would highly recommend Crete if you are looking for a mix of relaxing, breathtaking beaches, rugged countryside/hiking, and delicious wine, olives, and cheese!

First, some general recommendations:

  • Most of the beaches are pebbly/rocky instead of sandy. There are some sandy beaches, however the pebbles were nice because it was much less messy than sand! Pretty much every beach had chairs to rent, but we were fine just using our towels.

  • We stayed in the "Old Town" areas of Heraklion, Rethymno, and Chania. While the old town areas are lovely to walk around in, they are very touristy. While you can find a few great shops and restaurants here and there, most of them are geared towards European and American tourists (think T-shirts, souvenirs, post cards, etc.). When we go back, we plan to stay a bit outside of the old town areas to get more of an authentic experience.

  • As I mentioned above, the driving is a bit daunting. Most of the roads in the center of the island are tiny, curvy, and people drive really fast. The highways near the coast are much larger and felt safer, but we recommend driving around the island because the mountains are just spectacular!

  • Pretty much everyone spoke at least a little bit of English, and most of the road signs had the English-version of the word underneath the Greek one. It was nearly impossible to pick up any Greek while we were there, but it was pretty easy to get around.

  • Food we really enjoyed: Cretan salad, stuffed grape leaves, Cretan cheese (sheep and/or goat), goat dishes, olives (all of them), and wine.

Heraklion

We only stayed in Heraklion one night - this is the largest city and is where the airport is that we flew into. We barely saw any of it because most of our time was spent Westward, however I think it's worth checking out.

  • Infinity City Boutique Hotel - lovely rooms, really nice breakfast, friendly staff

  • THINK TANK cafe - good coffee, beautiful rooftop seating area with lots of greenery

  • Plánē - cute restaurant with outdoor seating, right next to the hotel

  • Wine and cheese from small markets

  • Walking around the harbor

  • Old town had a lot of cute looking restaurants that we would have loved to try!

Rethymno

We also only stayed in Rethymno for one night but had a bit more time to explore the town. The streets were smaller and more touristy than Heraklion, but still had a lot of charm.

  • Leo Hotel - beautiful rooms, friendly staff. More of a classic/vintage feel.

  • Avli - Wonderful restaurant, we were recommended to come here by a few sources. We had their grouper dish and a slow-cooked goat and potato meal, both were wonderful! And a very nice bottle of wine: Kotsifali Mandilaria red wine from Idaia Gi winery in Crete (highly recommend Kotsifali!).

Chania

We stayed in Chania for four nights and really felt like we got a good sense of the city. There are a lot of perks to staying in one place for multiple days as you get to really experience more of what a place has to offer, but staying in more places for less time allows you to see more places! We had a nice mix of both. We really enjoyed Chania - the old town was, again, a bit too touristy for our tastes, but it still had a lot of good restaurants, shops, and cafes that we enjoyed. We also explored outside of the old town and really liked that area as well.

  • Vilamine Hotel - The nicest part about this hotel was the view - it overlooked the square with the Presentation of the Virgin Mary Holy Metropolitan Orthodox Church, which is very beautiful and worth the visit. Other than that, we might not recommend this hotel - it was right in the heart of the most touristy part of Chania, and the bed wasn't very comfortable. It did have a nice porch where we enjoyed some wine and was spacious, though.

  • Monogram Coffee - Every city needs it's minimalistic, hipster, specialty coffee shop! We came back to Monogram a few times - the coffee was really good and it was on a really pretty street with lots of nice restaurants and bars. Highly recommend!

  • Oinopiio Restaurant - It seemed like this was where a lot of the locals came to eat - the food was great. We got a nice Cretan salad, an eggplant pastry casserole dish of some sort, a greek dessert (not sure what it was, it had ice cream in it!), and to top it off, raki.

  • Park of Peace and Friendship - A pretty park just outside of the old town that was close to our favorite coffee place (Kross) and our favorite street just south of the park (Nearchou).

  • Kross Coffee - Our favorite coffee shop. There were multiple locations, but our favorite was at the corner of Solomou and Nearchou. It's in a big, old, white building with lots of beautiful plants and outdoor seating under huge white umbrellas. Such a treat!

  • Nearchou street and surrounding area, south of the park - Our favorite place to walk - gorgeous homes and beautiful old buildings, lots of flowering trees. So pretty!

  • Chania Market - An indoor market with fruit and veggie stands, cheese and olive shops, prepared food, and souvenirs.

  • Sinagogi Cafe-Bar - A really cool bar inside an old Synagog. Craft cocktails, open air, worth a visit.

  • Carmela Iatropoulou gallery - B-E-A-UTIFUL jewelry and ceramics. This was by far our favorite shop, and possibly one of our favorite experience. The woman working was so friendly and lovely, and the pieces were stunning. We purchased some pottery but I was so tempted by the jewelry - I plan to go back next time we are in Crete to treat myself. Please please please go here!

Sfakia

Sfakia is a tiny little town right on the water on the southern side of Crete. We came for a couple of hours, which is really all you need to see the place (we didn't stay to enjoy the little beach).

  • There is one little street right on the water that is touristy - we avoided that and felt that we got a nice authentic experience! We walked parallel to the touristy street and found a sweet market with local products, and kept walking up through narrow pathways and beautiful white buildings with overgrown vines and flowers.

  • We highly recommend taking the hike up to a little shrine on the cliff overlooking the town - great view! There are blue railings along the steps that you can see from the road below.

Elafonisi Beach

I have a hard time deciding which one was the most beautiful: Elafonisi or Balos beach (below). Elafonisi had beautiful white sand and it's characteristic pink sand. This beach was huge - tons of places for people to sit and swim without feeling too crowded. So while there were a lot of people there, because it was so big it never felt crowded, and it was easy to find a peaceful spot to relax. I recommend not finding a spot right when you walk in, but exploring a bit before settling down. We would also recommend walking along their little nature trail. You can take it all the way up this small mountain/cliffside that gives a beautiful view of the entire beach, and then it connects back to the beach on the East side. Everywhere you look was gorgeous! Even though it is a popular spot, and it is a bit of a drive to get there, it is definitely a must-do in Crete.

 

*It seems as if they've had problems with people taking the pink sand as souvenirs - so if you go PLEASE respect the beach and leave the pink sand for others to enjoy!

Balos Beach

This might be my absolute favorite spot of our whole trip. Not only was it breathtakingly gorgeous, but it was also the spot where my guy proposed to me! He couldn't have picked a more beautiful spot. Balos beach was much more rugged than Elafonisi - you have to drive on a very rocky road along a cliffside on the most Northeastern part of the island for about 30 minutes, but it is absolutely worth it. A short walk takes you to the overlook, where the cliffside melts into the sea and the beach is in a little lagoon. When we go back, we may take a boat there, however for the first time we recommend driving and walking in. It was such an amazing experience!

Geropotamos Beach

We went to a new beach each day and are so glad we did - each one is different and offers its own experience. Geropotamos beach was pebbly and located off of a dirt road off the main highway. It is a small beach surrounded by rocky cliffs on each side. It was a nice spot to spend a few hours!