Crete is the largest of the islands, and the southernmost region in Greece. With its own culture and language, the island is large enough that you you won’t be able to see everything in one visit. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations, with around 20% of the total visitors to Greece. While the most popular areas are very crowded, especially during the summer, you can easily find a desolate beach or mountain village. Tourists come for the beach resorts, but also because the island has a varied cultural heritage, from the Minoans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantine empire annd the Venetians. The Minoans were an ancient civilization that existed between 3000 BC and 1200 BC. Their wealth was based on sea trade, and their legacy is most visible in the palaces left behind, the two best known being Knossos and Phaistos.
Heraklion is the capital and largest town of Crete. A large Venetian fortress stands as an easily recognizable landmark of the harbour. Its open air market offers everything from local delicacies to souvenirs. The town also has a wonderful archeological museum, displaying artifacts from the island’s ancient Minoan, Greek and Roman empires.
In the suburbs of Heraklion lies the palace of Knossos, perhaps the biggest attraction of Crete. Knossos was the capital of the Minoan empire, and was used as both an administrative as well as a religious centre. It was destroyed around 1450 BC, probably by the volcanic eruption that created Santorini, and wasn’t discovered again until the 20th century. Since then a large Minoan palace has been excavated. Legend has it that this was the home of the king Minos, and that the minotaur roamed a labyrinth beneath the palace. No such labyrinth has been found, but this was the capital of the first great civilization in Europe, as evidenced by grand courtyards, gates and frescoes.
Chania lies on the western part of Crete, and is located where the Minoan city of Cydonia once was. With lovely beaches to the west, mountain peaks to the south, an enclosed harbour and an old town was mainly built by the Venetians, it is no wonder that it is often considered the most beautiful town in all of Greece. Add the best shopping on Crete and a selection of good museums, and you’ve got a winner.
The Samaria Gorge
This national park and natural tourist attraction lies in the White Mountains, south of Chania. The gorge was created by a small river, and starts at an altitude of 1250 meters above sea level, and then runs 16 kilometers south util it reaches the Libyan sea. you can hike the entire distance, and pass by the so called Iron Gates, where the gorge is a mere four meters wide, while the walls reach 500 meters up on either side.
Other places of interest
A short distance east of Heraklion you’ll find Rethymno, Crete’s third largest town. Even though it flourished under the Venetians, palm trees and many Turkish buildings gives Rethymno an exotic feel.
Near the south coast lies the remains of Phaistos, the third of the major settlements of the Minoans, along with Cydonia and Knossos. Here two palaces have been excavated.
The archeological site of Gortyn, also in the south, has remains from a mixture of eras, but is predominantly Roman.
While the northern coast of Crete has most of the towns and tourists, the southern coast can offer some of the most beautiful beaches. In the southeast you can actually find Europe’s only beach bordered by a dade palm forest.
How to get there
Crete is easily accessible by the two international airports in Chnania and Heraklio. Boats from Piraeus outside Athens go to all the bigger towns on Crete.