All Articles 3 perfect days in Crete

3 perfect days in Crete

Rebecca Hall
By Rebecca Hall01 Apr 2024 9 minutes read
Narrow alley in Chania historic old town, Crete, Greece
Image: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

Hands down, Crete is one of my favorite Greek islands. It has tons of ancient ruins to explore—if that’s your thing—and charming beachfront towns like Chania, where you can wander the cobblestone streets and stroll along the harbor. Even the sunsets are the most beautiful, giving the coastal trails, sandy beaches, and historic lighthouses a golden glow.

You can't see all of Crete in just three days, but trust me, that's enough time to check out the highlights on a road trip. This three-day itinerary doesn't backtrack (so you’re not losing precious time driving around) and builds in plenty of moments to reset and refuel. I’ve also included stops and recs from Tripadvisor reviews, so you'll know which places your fellow travelers enjoyed the most.


DAY ONE

Young woman at Knossos archaeological site, Crete, Greece
Image: Roberto Moiola/Sysaworld/Getty Images

MORNING: See Minoan culture up close

Your first day in Crete starts with a healthy dose of Greek history in Heraklion, the island’s capital. Head to the Palace of Knossos, where you’ll find the ruins of a Bronze Age city that served as the center of Minoan civilization for centuries. It’s said the mythological creature, the Minotaur—body of a man, head of a bull—was kept in the labyrinth of Knossos. Note: There’s not much shade around this archaeological site, so I recommend getting here as early as possible to avoid the hottest part of the day.

You can tour the palace on your own, but a guided tour is the best option if you want to know what you’re looking at. (Sign up for a small-group tour at the entrance.) They’ll take you to the Queen’s Suite, which is adorned with the famous dolphin frescos—as you’ve probably seen on postcards—and the King’s Quarters. Here, you’ll see shields on the walls of the Hall of the Royal Guard.

The palace isn’t just for history buffs. Nature lovers will appreciate the sweeping views of the surrounding hills. I loved watching the peacocks strutting around the grounds and defying the “do not enter” signs. They often get more attention than the palace itself!

Travelers say: “Visiting the ancient ruins of Knossos was a fantastic experience. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and made the history of the site come alive for us. We were impressed by the size and complexity of the palace and the impressive architecture that had stood the test of time.” —Alain A

KNOSSOS TOURS

  • The Knossos Palace and Heraklion City Tour is the perfect way to take in this ancient site. You also get a chance to see Crete’s capital city through the eyes of a local, stopping along the way at little cafés.
  • On this Full-Day Private Adventure, you can experience the majesty of the Knossos Palace, as well as surrounding destinations like the Aposelemis Dam and the Panagia Kera Monastery.

AFTERNOON: Take a beach break

A 15-minute drive brings you to Ammoudara Beach, a long swath of sand along the Gulf of Heraklion. With lounge chairs beneath reed umbrellas—they’re free if you buy something from the vendors that put them out—it’s the perfect place to get your feet wet during your first day on this Greek island.

You’ve probably worked up quite an appetite by now, and luckily there are several cheap and cheerful tavernas lining the waterfront. Nearby is Aris Katerina, popular for authentic Cretan fare. The seafood, especially the grilled swordfish and the steamed mussels, get consistent high ratings.

EVENING: Dine at the city’s oldest tavern

Continue the food crawl back in Heraklion. In a neoclassical building in the heart of Old Town, you’ll find a gorgeous bar called Xalavro. Grab a table in the breezy courtyard and sip a glass of wine. Better yet, have a colorful cocktail garnished with little flowers. If you need to check your email, take advantage of the strong Wi-Fi signal (you’ll see lots of locals doing this as well).

For dinner, move on to Giakoumis, which claims to be the city’s oldest taverna. It looks pretty unremarkable, but locals swear it serves some of the best païdhákia (lamb chops) on the island. I suggest trying the meatballs with hand-cut fries or a Greek salad topped with a slab of feta cheese.

Worthy detours along the way

DAY TWO

Old lighthouse in the Venetian harbor, Rethymno, Crete
Image: Roberto Moiola/Sysaworld/Getty Images

MORNING: Explore Old Town Rethymnon

It’s a 90-minute drive from Heraklion to Rethymnon, another port city known for its incredible harbor views. Hit the road early to have breakfast or brunch at Stella’s Kitchen, a family-run place in the heart of Rethymnon’s Old Town. Keep it simple here with some Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts accompanied by a strong cup of coffee. It's my go-to order.

Dotted with pretty fountains, Old Town has architectural flourishes from the days when the Venetians and Ottomans ruled. It has plenty of narrow streets and alleyways lined with ornate wooden doors and balconies. Window shop at the rickety stores, some still with traditionally dressed craftspeople sitting out front.

The small Venetian Harbor is the most attractive part of the waterfront. There are several cafés where you can stop for coffee and watch the sailboats gliding past. The Rethymnon Lighthouse, built in the 1800s when the city was occupied by the Egyptians, is the most popular photo op. You can walk out to it along the stone breakwater, but it’s best shot from a distance to capture how large it really is.

Travelers say: “If ever you see photos of Rethymnon, this wonderful structure will always be front and center. You can walk all the way around it if you want, but it can be quite tough in the hot sun. Maybe it’s better to sit at one of the harborside bars and look at it whilst having a cold beer!” —@Off their P

AFTERNOON: Eat a leisurely lunch and beach trip

When hunger strikes, head to the rooftop at Archinos for lunch. It has one of the best views of the harbor and the lighthouse. Fresh fish is the thing to order here: Try the sea bass carpaccio with lime juice, tuna tartare with pickled cucumber, or smoked salmon bruschetta with avocado.

As you’ve walked around Rethymnon, you’ve probably seen its beach right alongside Old Town. This swathe of sand is the perfect place to while away the afternoon. It’s also ideal for families as it's a calm swim spot protected by breakwaters. Afterward, there are showers to wash the sand off.

I prefer a less crowded beach, so I usually head about 11 miles outside of town to Geropotamos Beach. The Geropotamos River flows into the sea here, so it’s another beautiful place for nature lovers. Plus, there are some rental umbrellas and lounge chairs available.

EVENING: Have a night on the town

While in Crete, you must share Greek meze—like Spanish tapas, but usually in more ample portions—at Raki Ba Raki 1600, a modern eatery from the team that runs the Avli Hotel next door. This lovely spot in an alleyway covered with bougainvillea is more expensive than some other tavernas, but the food is excellent and there’s a huge amount of choices, from slow-cooked lamb with yogurt to cheese pie with apáki (smoked pork).

If you enjoyed your lunch at Archinos earlier, consider heading back for evening cocktails. Otherwise, Fraoules is another all-day restaurant that has a buzzy vibe after 10 pm, attracting a pre-club crowd with its live music.

Worthy detours along the way

DAY THREE

Siciliana Salad at Laganon, Crete
Laganon
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

MORNING: Travel to the most beautiful city in Crete

About 90 minutes west of Rethymnon is Chania, which I think is Crete’s most beautiful city. It’s surrounded by the snow-capped Lefka Ori, perhaps better known as the White Mountains.

The capital of Crete until 1971, Chania is the second largest city on the island. Its size doesn’t make it any less charming. Spend a good two hours looking around the Old Venetian Harbor and stopping at the Lighthouse of Chania, this one originally built by the Venetians in 1570 and reconstructed in 1830.

Travelers say: “We enjoyed our walk along the seawall for the view of the Lighthouse up close and the harbor in Chania. There are two ways to walk, upper level and lower, and we varied it based on the crowd and the wind the day we went. It was a nice walk with sights along the way.” —@kattriprevus

Walk out along the promenade—I always come back here later in the day to watch the sunset—and then explore the narrow side streets of the Venetian Old Town, one of the oldest on Crete. The 15th- and 16th-century mansions are mostly small boutique hotels these days, but some are still occupied by local families. You can hear everyday life taking place somewhere past the open doors.

CHANIA TOURS

  • On the Chania’s Through the Eyes of a Local walking tour, a private guide will take you through Old Town, teaching you about the city’s Venetian, Egyptian, and Ottoman influences. Pick up and drop off from your hotel is included.
  • This guided Segway Tour of Chania takes you around Old Town’s streets on two wheels. Don’t worry, they’ll hand you a helmet and teach you how to ride.
  • Prefer to go it alone? No problem. This Self-Guided Audio Tour of Chania lets you take things at your own pace.

AFTERNOON: Cook a traditional Cretan meal

Have a bite to eat along the harbor at Laganon, which serves Italian favorites like pizza, pasta, and risotto. The restaurant is named after the wide, flat pasta that the owner’s parents used to make every Sunday. (In Italy, they call it lasagne.) It’s on the menu here, along with lots of other pastas that you can have tossed with truffle oil, topped with a garlicky cream sauce, or made a dozen different ways. There are tables on the sidewalk, but the ones in the open, airy dining room let you watch the chefs at work.

If you’re as excited about the food in Chania as I am, you’ll definitely want to take a cooking class. This four-hour workshop in a village nearby will teach you the proper way to prepare dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and kleftiko (a lamb dish that literally translates as "thieve’s dinner"). While you cook, you’ll nibble on Greek meze, such as dakos (crusty bread topped with tomatoes and crumbled cheese) and sip some regional wine. Afterward, you’ll sit down and enjoy your meal with fellow travelers.

Travelers say: “Wonderful experience!! Veerna and her brother have created a fun, unique cooking class. The lessons were easy to follow with local history incorporated. All the ingredients are fresh. The environment was beautiful and relaxing, and we enjoyed eating our lunch with the hosts. I highly recommend anyone who enjoys cooking to take this class.” —Amanda G

EVENING: Cheers to your last night in Chania

Back in Chania, enjoy an evening at Ababa, a fun gay-friendly bar. It’s hard not to fall in love with the wall full of portraits of Frida Kahlo inside. This nightlife spot is open until the early hours, so you can sip creative cocktails all night long.

Another popular watering hole near the Old Port is Sinagogi, so named as it’s in a building one occupied by a synagogue. Some of the old stone walls are still visible. Locals love to come here, too.

Worthy detours along the way

Know Before You Go


Unlike many Greek islands, Crete is a year-round destination because of its location so far south. June to August are good beach-going months, but you’ll be fighting the crowds. April and May or September and October are a good compromise.



Weekends are a bit busier than during the week, but otherwise there’s not a good or bad day of the week to visit Crete.



Restaurants usually stay open all day, but eat like the Greeks: lunch is at about 1 pm, then dinner is from 8:30 pm onwards. If you can’t last that long, have a snack around 5 pm. Some shops may close for an hour or so for lunch.



Heraklion: If you only have a day in Heraklion, you’ll probably want to stay in the center of the city. Lato Boutique Hotel gets high marks for its stylish decor and location near the ocean. The reasonably priced Kronos Hotel gets a point for its waterfront address, but loses one for the traffic noise in some rooms. If you don’t mind that, it has some great sea views.

Rethymnon: A block from the beach, Melrose Hotel Rethymno earns a “best of the best” rating from Tripadvisor readers for its central location and sleek decor. In the heart of Old Town, the affordable Afroditi Hotel puts you within walking distance of all the main sites.

Chania: Within Chania’s Venetian Walls, Notus is a short walk from the small city beach of Paralia Koum Kapi. The rooms are fairly basic, livened up with some unexpected art. The rooftop has great views, too. For something a little quirkier, opt for the shabby-chic Fagotto Art Residences. It’s within spitting distance of the harbor and tons of restaurants and tavernas.



Public transportation: An extensive bus network can take you around the island. There’s regular service between Heraklion, Rethymnon, and Chania. Buy tickets at a kiosk before boarding the bus.

By taxi: Crete is a huge island, so I don’t advise you to travel between cities by taxi. The prices within each city are fairly reasonable. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are not available in Crete.

Airport transfers: From Heraklion International Airport, buses bound for downtown Heraklion depart every 10 minutes and take about 20 minutes in transit. They cost just a couple of euros, but can get packed in the summer. Taxis are a pricier but faster option.


Rebecca Hall
Rebecca Hall is a Greece based travel writer and author who writes hotel reviews, for luxury travel members clubs, inflight magazines, among others and is a Lonely Planet and Rough Guide guidebook updater and creator.Her debut novel Girl Gone Greek–available on Amazon–has been written into a double award-winning screenplay and when not travelling or writing, she enjoys spending downtime sampling the many different coffee shops in Athens.