All Articles 10 dishes you must try on Crete

10 dishes you must try on Crete

You could plan an entire Cretan trip around these dishes alone.

Jane Foster
By Jane Foster29 Mar 2024 7 minutes read
Greek dinner table with Food and plates under olive trees with Cretan delicacies
Image: MelanieMaya/Getty Images

Crete is known for its glorious beaches and soaring mountains—but it's also a superb destination for food lovers. Cretans are justly proud of their centuries-old rustic cuisine, where quality fresh produce bursting with flavor means there's no need for elaborate preparation or fancy sauces.

Nature is extraordinarily generous here: The island is abundant in grapes, olives, tomatoes, zucchini, lemons, avocados, and bananas. Then there's the fresh fish, mountain lamb, and artisan sheep and goat cheeses—it’s no wonder Crete claims to have one of the healthiest diets in the world. (And the wine is pretty good too.)

I’ve enjoyed some wonderful holidays on Crete—touring the island by car, staying at rural farmsteads, and hiking to remote beaches—and here, I’ve whittled down the 10 dishes you shouldn’t miss during your stay.

Bougatsa

bougatsa in the town of chania crete
Image: Tristan Balme/Getty Images

Start the day Cretan-style, with a generous slice of bougatsa—delicious filo-pastry pie filled with mizithra (a tangy white creamy cheese) made from sheep's milk. Bougatsa originates from modern-day Turkey and was brought to Crete by Greeks who fled the region in the 1920s. Generally eaten in the morning, it’s served oven-warm and chopped into bite-size cubes.

Where to get it: Phyllosophies, Heraklion

Located in Heraklion's Liontaria neighborhood overlooking the 17th-century Morosini fountain, this family-run cafe was founded by great-grandpa Apostolos Salkintzis who arrived from Smyrna in 1922. His descendants have been baking bougatsa ever since. It opens at 6 a.m., so get there early and order a slice of bougatsa and a summery frappe (iced coffee made from Nescafe and evaporated milk). If you're vegan, try their non-dairy bougatsa, which is filled with almond cream and coconut.

Tip: Don't confuse Cretan bougatsa with the Macedonian variety, eaten in other parts of Greece. The latter is filled with sweet creamy semolina custard.

Kolokithokeftedes

Kolokithokeftedes
selection of plates at Tamam
Image: Left: Philippe_Carole/Tripadvisor; Right: Sabrina/Tripadvisor

Light and crispy on the outside, moist and salty in the middle, these zucchini fritters make irresistible appetizers and are best eaten warm. Made from grated zucchini, onion, egg, and flour, and flavored with fresh mint, parsley, and crumbled feta cheese, they originate from Crete but can be found all over Greece.

Where to get them: Tamam, Chania

In the gorgeous harbor town of Chania with its Venetian-era facades, Tamam does super-tasty kolokithokeftedes. They add regato, a hard yellow Irish cheese that’s popular in Greece and often used grated on pasta dishes. Tamam means "all good"—it's a play on words, as the restaurant also occupies a former 16th-century Turkish hammam.

Tip: Besides kolokithokeftedes, Tamam also serves up tomatokeftedes (tomato fritters). And be sure to grab a copy of the restaurant's recipe book so you can replicate your favorite dishes at home.

Dakos

Dakos traditional greek appetizer on a traditional plate
Image: Olena Beisiuk/Getty Images

For centuries, paximadia (rusks) made from twice-baked barley bread were a staple food on Crete—shepherds tending their flocks far from home would carry them as a standby snack. Today, they’re used to make delicious daxos, which consists of paximadia doused with water, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, and topped with grated tomato, creamy mizithra cheese, and oregano.

Where to get it: Peskesi, Heraklion

Housed in a 19th-century mansion in Heraklion, Peskesi specializes in almost-forgotten Cretan recipes. They have their own organic farm in the hilltop village of Haraso, so their tomatoes and mizithra cheese are guaranteed to be full of flavor.

Tip: Book a two-hour guided tour of Peskesi's farm to learn about biodynamic production, or join a six-hour cooking class.

Graviera saganaki

Saganaki, a Greek delicacy of fried cheese
Image: Esin Deniz/Getty Images

You can eat saganaki (fried cheese) all over Greece, but Crete is notable for its delicious graviera kritis—a rich sweet hard cheese with a salty aftertaste made from sheep's milk and matured for three to six months. When fried, it turns crispy golden brown on the outside, and warm and melted in the middle. It is best eaten piping hot, with a squeeze of lemon to balance the fattiness and saltiness.

Where to get it: Seli Ambelou, Lassithi Plateau

Up on the rural Lassithi Plateau behind Malia at an altitude of nearly 3,000 feet, Seli Ambelou is set in a lush garden with spectacular views over the surrounding landscape. They do hearty meat dishes baked in a wood-fired oven, as well as yummy graviera saganaki. Locals flock here on Sundays for lunch and wedding receptions.

Tip: The Lasithi Plateau is famed for its white-sailed windmills and you can see one in the garden at Seli Ambelou.

Grilled fresh fish

grilled fish at Captain Fidias, Sfinari
Captain Fidias, Sfinari
Image: Left: litanies/Tripadvisor; Right: Krasimir K/Tripadvisor

With 625 miles of coastline, Crete has extensive fishing waters. You'll find delectable sea bass, sea bream, and red mullet on menus everywhere from rustic beach tavernas to fine-dining restaurants. Cooks and chefs keep it simple: fresh fish is generally served grilled, seasoned with lemon and olive oil.

Where to get it: Captain Fidias, Sfinari

It’s not uncommon to see the owners hauling in their catch directly from sea at this family-run taverna with its own fishing boat. This spot is located right on the beach at Sfinari near Kissamos on Crete's west coast. The area is home to some of the island’s most impressive beaches, so stop by Elafonissi or Balos Lagoon for the day then head to Captain Fidias to watch the sunset with a glass of wine while the chef grills your dinner.

Tip: For a romantic date night, feast on fresh fish at La Bouillabaisse at the Minos Beach Art Hotel in Agios Nikolaos in eastern Crete. They serve it with potato salad and grilled Mediterranean vegetables (tomato, zucchini, eggplant, and peppers).

Kakavia

Kakavia, Fish Sea Soup with lemon
Image: Galembeck/Getty Images

You'll find variations of this flavorful fish stew throughout the Med. Traditionally it was a humble meal made by fishermen using a mix of the smaller, bonier fish they were unlikely to sell cooked up in a pot with olive oil, onion, potato, and seawater. Through time, it’s evolved into a more sophisticated presentation, using quality fish and fresh herbs.

Where to get it: Hiona, Palekastro

On Crete's east coast, Hiona has tables on a terrace built into the rocks directly by the sea. It’s considered one of Crete's best fish restaurants and serves a refined version of kakavia, combining grouper and scorpionfish to create a stew you won’t soon forget. They use their own olive oil and add a little tomato, only adjusting the seasoning with salt and lemon once it's ready.

Tip: Make it a day trip and combine a visit to Hiona with a six-mile drive to Vaï (aka Palm Beach) on Crete's far-flung east coast. A swathe of fine white sand, it’s backed by a dense palm grove, made up of some 5,000 centuries-old date palm trees.

Tsigariasto

Chrisostomos restaurant in Crete
Tsigariasto at Chrisostomos
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

A classic in western Crete, this braised dish is accentuated with hunks of either goat or lamb slow-cooked with olive oil, onion, wine, and lemon. As always on Crete, there are numerous variations, using either red or white wine, or adding oregano or bay leaf.

Where to get it: Chrisostomos, Chania

Here you're guaranteed the tastiest proteins—free-range lamb and goat, sourced from the owner's family farm near Crete's remote south coast. Lamb is the house specialty at Chrisostomos, much loved by locals for its authentic Cretan fare baked in a wood-fired oven and its one-block proximity from the harbor.

Tip: Ask for a plate of stamnagathi (a bitter wild green, similar to chicory), another local specialty that pairs well with lamb. Try their cheeses too, which are made at the owner's family dairy farm.

Antikristo

Antikristo at Enagron in Crete
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Have you ever wondered how ancient communities cooked their meat? On Crete, the antikristo method was mentioned by Homer in The Iliad and has been kept alive by shepherds in the Psiloritis mountains. There's no need for pots and pans—just skewers and salt. A young lamb is cut into four pieces, well salted, then placed on big skewers (locals claim that Cretan warriors would use their spears) over an open fire. It slow-roasts for six hours, losing much of its fat and becoming imbued with smoky flavors from the flames.

Where to get it: Enagron, Axos Mylopotamou

Behind Rethymno in the foothills of Mount Psiloritis, this welcoming ecotourism village prepares antikristo lamb twice weekly. They use lamb from a local farm or supplied by regional shepherds and serve it with roast potatoes and homegrown salad, graviera cheese, and wine.

Tip: Enagron offers accommodation in cozy apartments with kitchenettes, ideal for families with kids. There’s also a farm-to-table cooking class and a guided botanical walk with foraging.

Snails

snails at Kritamon
Kritamon restaurant
Image: Left: Elmaria_s/Tripadvisor; Right: Management/Tripadvisor

Cretans have been consuming snails for generations. There are dozens of ways to prepare them, but the classic method is boubouristi, fried in olive oil with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a dash of wine vinegar.

Where to get them: Kritamon, Arhanes

To reach this lovely “slow food” restaurant and its leafy courtyard garden tables, drive nine miles south of Heraklion to the rural village of Archanes, a veritable foodie paradise. There, you’ll likely meet Kritamon's owner-chef Dimitris Mavrakis, a big fan of snails that’s keen to promote them to the uninitiated.

Tip: On the road from Heraklion to Archanes, you'll pass the Knossos archaeological site, home to a monumental Minoan palace built some 4,000 years ago decorated with stunning frescoes.

Souvlaki

souvlaki in crete
Image: Mathieu/Tripadvisor

No visit to Greece would be complete without indulging in souvlaki, tasty morsels of grilled meat (usually pork, but sometimes chicken) served in pita bread with optional tomato, onion, fries, and garlicky tzatziki.

Where to get it: Oasis Souvlaki, Chania

Listen to the locals on this one: You shouldn't miss Oasis Souvlaki. Run by two brothers, this hole-in-the-wall kiosk dates back to 1967. The menu features just one item: warm pita bread filled with tender pork gyro, tomato, onion, and yogurt, all sprinkled with spicy paprika. It’s the perfect combination of exquisite and inexpensive.

Tip: Come early—Oasis Souvlaki closes when the meat runs out, usually around 3 p.m.

Sfakiani pita

Sfakian pies with honey
Image: Sarah Franklin www.eyeshoot.co.uk/Getty Images

A heavenly dessert, these flat dough pies are rolled as thin as crepes and filled with soft white xinomizithra cheese (a more sour version of mizithra), cooked on a hot griddle, then drizzled with honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The slightly salty, tangy cheese offers a perfect contrast to the sweet honey. As the name suggests, they originate from Sfakia on Crete's south coast.

Where to get it: Despina, Sfakia

Outfitted with tables on a raised terrace overlooking the Libyan Sea, this cafe-patisserie is run by a mother and son, known around the island for serving delicious homemade cakes. To get there from Chania, you have a spectacular drive through the rugged White Mountains and the dramatic Imbros Gorge.

Tip: If you don't make it to the south coast, you can try Sfakiani pita at Avli, a boutique hotel located in a 16th-century house with a gorgeous leafy courtyard restaurant in Rethymno. Get there early—they only serve it at breakfast.

Jane Foster
Originating from the Yorkshire Dales in the UK, Jane Foster lives on the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia. She writes about Croatia, neighbouring Montenegro and Greece (where she spent 7 years in Athens). Her favourite Greek island is Crete, and her favourite Croatian island remains a secret. She has written for the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Conde Nast Traveller, Decanter wine magazine, DK Eyewitness, Bradt guidebooks and i-escape.