Crete Road Trip: 10 Cool Crete Outdoor Things to Do

December 21, 2021

crete road trip

Largest of the Greek Islands and birthplace of mythological Zeus, Crete’s stunning turquoise beaches, dramatic mountain gorges, charming harbor towns, and ancient archaeological sites make it the perfect destination for a diverse holiday. There is no better way to explore the treasure trove of fascinating attractions than via a Crete road trip.

Compared to other beautiful Greece Islands like Mykonos, Santorini, Paros, Koufonesia, Ios, and Naxos, Crete is huge and takes longer to explore. We spent four days before moving on to our Yacht Getaways Cyclades Catamaran Cruise, and we wish we’d allotted more time. We never got over to the eastern part of the island, but we loved the western, central, and southern areas.

crete road trip

Here are some cool Crete outdoor activities and places to see for the best Crete road trip ever!

10 Samaria Gorge

crete road trip

The Samaria Gorge is amazing and the only reason why I’ve ranked it at #10 is that we ran out of time and were unable to do it.

The spectacular 10-mile Samaria Gorge is the longest canyon in Europe, containing dense pine and cypress forests and towering craggy cliffs. The gorge spans the Omalos Plateau at 4,000 feet high from the island’s interior to the Libyan Sea.

Traversing the gorge on a downhill hike takes around six hours and is the most exhilarating adventure on Crete.

9 Heraklion Old Town

heraklion old town

Full transparency, we did not find Heraklion to be the most compelling city on the Greek islands. We Kary chose a hotel in the commercial port because it was close to the ferry to Paros, but we subsequently regretted that choice. It wasn’t pretty and there were no restaurants or shops in that part of town.

We used Heraklion as a base to explore Knossos and drive to the south coast, but we did enjoy a stroll and dinner in the “old town” (which is not medieval as other European old towns). We wandered around the narrow streets and found some lovely Venetian buildings, Byzantine churches, and a well-preserved Venetian wall and fortress from the 15th century.

In the busy center of Old Town is the Morosini Fountain in Lions’ Square. Dating back to 1628, the Venetian fountain is perched on an octagonal pedestal surrounded by four lions. The fountain is surrounded by many restaurants, cafes, and shops.

Additional architecture to discover in old town include:

  • The Venetian Loggia
  • the church of Saint Titus
  • Koules Venetian Fortress sitting firmly since the 15th century
  • St. Peter & St. Paul Church
  • Saint Minas Cathedral
  • Turkish Pump House

8 Elafonisi

elafonisi beach

Crete has more than its share of beautiful beaches. Elafonisi Beach is known for its picturesque light pink-hued sand formed from crushed shells and an alluring, crystal clear, shallow, light blue lagoon.

We drove from Chania, passing through small traditional villages and crossing the scenic Topolia Gorge where we stopped and had a delicious lunch in the small village of Elos, at a tiny family taverna.

Although the crescent-shaped beach is long, it gets horrendously crowded in the summer.

7 Rethymnon

rethymnon

On our drive from Chania to Heraklion, we stopped in the Venetian port town of Rethymnon to explore the labyrinth of cobblestone alleys and have a cup of coffee overlooking the water.

Established in 1204, the old town is strewn with Venetian mansions sporting attractive wooden balconies, and Turkish architecture displayed in minarets of Valide Sultana the Mosque of Neratzes.

On a low hill overlooking the harbor is the imposing Venetian Fortezza (fortress), built in 1590.

Other attractions include the Rimondi Fountain, Platanos Square, and Our Lady of the Angels.

6 Seitan Limania

seitan limania

Upon our morning arrival in Crete, we quickly secured our rental car and drove over to Seitan Limania which was close to the airport. The drive itself was an adventure, as we zigzagged downhill via a series of steep switchbacks (with no guardrails) which did not allow much leeway for error.

We left our vehicle in the parking lot and then walked over to the lookout point positioned on a makeshift bridge cantilevered over a steep gorge spilling down to the stunning turquoise sea.

If you keep walking left, you’ll be on the steep dirt path that will take you down to the beach area. It’s about a 20-minute and steep hike that’s not for the faint of heart, but worth the effort.

5 Matala

matala beach

We stumbled upon Matala quite by chance during our drive in the southern region of the island. Displaying a distinctly hippie vibe, the cute little beach town sits on a sparkling turquoise beach framed by white stone cliffs.

We loved the small town and wished we had stayed here for a couple of days instead of in Heraklion.

4 Katholiko Monastery

katholiko monastery

Alert: Don’t hike to Katholiko Monastery before reading this!

About 10 miles outside of Chania, is the monastery of Gouverneto. This is the starting point for the trek to Katholliko ruins. I’d read a few blogs stating that it was a fairly easy hike; however, after doing it, I realized that the experience for those 20-something male bloggers is certainly not the same experience as it is for a female Baby Boomer.

The first part of the descent is not difficult, but you’ll be scrambling over rock steps hewn by the monks to connect their monastery to the abandoned Katholiko monastery.

We explored the Katholiko ruins then crossed over the gorge where I perched on the rocks to get the money shot. We were short on time and were lamenting the hot, difficult climb back up, so we did not continue down the narrow gorge to the fjord. To reach the exit of the gorge, takes approximately 20 to 30 min.

I consider myself to be in pretty good shape and if I’d known more about the hike, i.e. how long it was, the steep ascent back up, how hot it is, then we would have been better prepared. I would have worn better hiking shoes, brought water, and worn more sunscreen and a hat.

3 Knossos

knossos

You can’t have a successful Crete road trip without visiting the Minoan Palace of Knossos.

Located about three miles south of the capital of Crete, Heraklion, the Palace of Knossos is Greece’s second most-visited archaeological site (behind the Acropolis in Athens) and best-known Minoan site in Crete. According to local folklore, it was once the home of the mythical Minotaur of King Minos.

Constructed between 1700 and 1400 BC – making it the oldest European city – the complex with massive columns and beautiful frescoes was home to the Minoan civilization, which flourished on the island, conducting trade with other important Mediterranean cultures.

Excavated by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evens in 1900, the compound is a maze of chambers, the Throne Room, Temple Tomb, storage rooms, staircases, in-tact frescoes, a theater, and engineering innovations, including an extensive piping system.

2 Chania

chania

We chose to begin the first part of our visit to Crete using the old town of Chania as our base. Known as Crete’s prettiest city, the old harbor town hosts fascinating Turkish, Jewish, Christian, and Splantzia quarters, a picturesque port lined with open-air restaurants winding cobblestone alleys, courtyards, an Egyptian lighthouse that is one of the oldest in the world, and a ton of shops selling everything imaginable.

1 Balos Beach

Balos Beach

Balos Beach is a double lagoon located about an hour’s drive from Chania. Known to be one of the most exotic and magnificent beaches – not just in Greece but in all of Europe – Balos was also at the top of my places to visit on Crete.

Getting to Balos was half the fun! After arriving within a few kilometers of the beach, we drove around 45 minutes, slow as molasses, on a dirt road alternately dodging boulders and holes. We got there in mid-morning, but it was already crowded and the parking along the hillside across from the sea was quite long.

After parking, we did not continue by foot on the dirt road towards the beach; I’d had insider information about where to get the best panoramic view, so we started climbing the hill next to our car. It was full of loose rocks and scrubby, thorny bushes, so it was a tedious task, being careful where to land your feet.

When we arrived at the windy top, we were treated to a magnificent sight of two shallow lagoons of varied shades of turquoise, separated by a sandbar. With no one else around us, we spent a considerable amount of time admiring the view and taking photos and videos with no one else in them.

Balos Beach did not disappoint! It truly is one of the best white sand beaches in Europe!

What to Eat in Crete

food in crete

Moussaka – layers of eggplant,  potato, ground beef or lamb, tomato sauce, and creamy béchamel sauce. It tastes like an exotic version of lasagna.

Souvlaki –  small pieces of spiced lamb grilled on a skewer. It is usually eaten straight off the skewer while still hot.

Mussels – Greece is one of the world’s main producers of the delicious Mediterranean mussel

Baklava – a delicious traditional dessert made of layers of crispy golden brown phyllo, filled with chopped walnuts and garnished with honey syrup.

Raki (also known as tsikoudia) – a strong, homemade spirit with high alcohol content sometimes made from plums. It’s traditionally consumed as a digestif, many times complimentary from the restaurant as an expression of hospitality.

Ouzo – a dry anise-flavored aperitif and Greece’s signature spirit.

Epilogue

crete road trip

Considered the cradle of civilization because it sits at the trade route between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, Crete was also the base for Europe’s oldest city and the Minoan civilization. We had a great time on our Crete road trip discovering the island’s natural wonders, rich history, charming villages, and devouring the delicious food.

Most photos ©Kary Kern.

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.

She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.

Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.

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