Crete Neighborhoods & Towns
Perched where the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe meet, Crete sits approximately 230 miles south of mainland Greece. With an area of about 3,300 square miles, Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. The island's east and west coasts are connected by the National Highway (or Road), which traces Crete's northern coast from Sitia on the east and Kissamos on the west.
Crete is divided into four prefectures (or districts) -- Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion and Lasithi -- which quarter the island from west to east. Each prefecture is home to one of Crete's major cities, which are all located on the northern coast.
Encompassing the westernmost section of the island, Chania Prefecture's pristine beaches, rocky gorges and forested hills attract nature lovers. Chania Prefecture's most renowned natural attraction, Samaria Gorge -- located near the center of the region -- is popular among hikers. At the end of the day, the prefecture's cities (Chania in particular) come to life as residents and tourists alike pour out into the streets to one of the area's many bars and nightclubs.
Located on the northern coast, the city of Chania is the second largest city in Crete and one of the most visited places on the island. While the outskirts of the city are described as somewhat gritty, the rugged edges give way to the more picturesque Old Town. Old Town surrounds the harbor with its beautiful pedestrian boulevards, meandering cobblestone alleys and spectacular Venetian architecture. During the day, Chania is a laid-back city. The air is filled with the quiet buzz of voices as shoppers peruse Cretan crafts stores and sip iced coffee along the Aktí Miaoúli, a café-speckled street, which runs along the coast. At night, the hum of voices mixes with music escaping from local bars, tavernas and nightclubs.
Chania is home to several popular attractions. The Venetian Inner Harbor, which sits on the northernmost edge of the city, is the site of a picturesque lighthouse, as well as Crete's Maritime Museum. The harbor itself is operational and handles both ferries from the mainland as well as boats to smaller offshore islets.
The city is also home to two beloved museums. The Archaeological Museum, located a few blocks south of the harbor, features displays of artifacts discovered during numerous excavations of the area. The neighboring Cretan House Folklore Museum recreates traditional scenes from everyday Cretan village life. And the nearby Municipal Gardens hosts weekly concerts in the summer and is the site of many of Chania's festivals.
Sitting a little less than 50 miles south of Chania on Crete's southwestern coast, the small port town of Paleochora offers sanctuary from Chania's activity. Surrounded on all sides by towering mountains and smooth sandy beaches, Paleochora welcomes beachgoers and outdoorsy travelers. Paleochora's main strip, Eleftheriou Venizelou is dotted with small bars, traditional Greek restaurants and even the ruins of an ancient castle. Paleochora is also home to numerous affordable hotels.
While other regions in Crete have had a difficult time retaining their uniqueness in the face of tourism, many travel writers say that it is Rethymnon Prefecture that has done just that. Resting just east of Chania, the coastlines of Rethymnon Prefecture are speckled with quaint seaside towns, leaving plenty of untouched land for Cretan wildlife.
As the mythical birthplace of the Greek god, Zeus, Rethymnon holds tightly to its rich history, which spans millennia of power struggles, both real and mythic. Visitors to this city -- which sits on Crete's northern coast about 40 miles east of Chania -- are invited to explore the remains of Rethymnon's turbulent history. The Venetian Fortezza, constructed in 1580, towers over the city and houses a series of caves, as well as the disintegrating facades of churches. The area around the Fortrezza, Old City, is home to several prominent religious landmarks like the Nerdjes Mosque and the Kara Pasha Mosque, as well as prominent museums like the Archaeological Museum and the L. Kanakakis Municipal Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Sitting in the center of Old City, just a few blocks south of the Fortrezza, is the Municipal Garden of Rethymnon, which acts as an urban oasis complete with lofty exotic trees, an intricate fountain and plenty of gazelles, ostriches and waterfowl.
While the town itself is not ideal for sun-seekers, a 10-minute walk east from Old City will lead to Ikarus Beach. Although it is slightly crowded, particularly during the summer months, travel writers say the soft sand and gentle waves are great for both swimming and sun bathing.
Although the tourism industry has infiltrated this small town, Plakias -- located about 20 miles south of Rethymnon -- remains both undeveloped and affordable. Sitting on the prefecture's southern coast amidst soaring mountains, jagged gorges and sweet-smelling olive groves, Plakias is any hiker's dream. Winding trails lead to hidden historical architectural gems, such as the Monastery of Agios Ioannis, which sits a little less than five miles from town.
Occupying the central eastern portion of Crete, Heraklion Prefecture is known for thinking big. Ever since the Minoans constructed their massive palaces throughout this region more than 4,000 years ago, Heraklion Prefecture has made size an issue. Home to Crete's largest city, Heraklion, as well as immense ruins scattered throughout the region, this prefecture draws attention from history lovers and young travelers looking for the island's nightlife.
As the fifth largest city in Greece, Heraklion is Crete's capital city and primary port. Experts say that the city's size is both its greatest attraction and its main drawback. While there is plenty to do and see, Heraklion's labyrinth of streets are enough to frustrate even the most skilled navigator. The city has two main centers: Plateia Venizelou, which sits in the middle of the historical Old Town district in the north, is recognizable by its large fountain surrounded by lions. Plateia Eleftherias is located on the east side of the Old Town just a few blocks from Plateia Venizelou. Many hotels and restaurants can be found within the vicinity of these two squares.
Although the city lacks a beach, Heraklion offers plenty to see and do. The spectacular Archaeological Museum, located just a short walk from Plateia Eleftherias, presents a clear timeline of the Neolithic and Minoan stages of Crete's history. Travel writers also suggest a day trip to Knossos, only a few miles southwest of the city. Knossos is home to Crete's largest Minoan palace -- the Palace of Knossos -- where many of the museum's artifacts were discovered.
Heraklion is also home to the Kazantzakis Tomb and Museum, the Icon Museum and the Historical Museum, but make sure to save some energy for after the sunsets. The city is known for its nightlife and many bars and clubs are located along the side streets surrounding Plateia Eleftherias and Plateia Venizelou.
Perched in the center of the prefecture approximately 16 miles east of Heraklion, travel writers describe Hersonissos as a playground for 20-somethings. During the day, go-karts, waterslides and the beach keep the crowds entertained while at night, sun-drunk visitors flock to the Eleftheriou Venizelou main road that's littered with bars and nightclubs. Writers say that both food and lodging are cheap, but many establishments focus more on convenience rather than quality. If you're looking for a quiet beachfront destination, avoid Hersonissos at all costs.
Although the easternmost Lasithi Prefecture's tourist-heavy coastline doesn't make the best first impression, the areas farther inland are filled with natural wonders such as the palm-tree forest at Vai and the Valley of Death. Lasithi's towns are great for beachgoers and 20-something hedonists.
Sitting on a small peninsula that juts out from Crete's northeastern coast, Agios Nikolaos is the center of nouveau chic. The resort town's boutique-lined boulevards, trendy seaside cafés and top-notch resort hotels attract tourists with plenty of money to spend. The city's main drag, Ethnikis Antistasis, hosts a weekly market selling fresh fruit, cheese, honey, and knock-off designer bags. Agios Nikolaos is also home to stunning beaches praised by the European Union for extreme cleanliness.
Although Agios Nikolaos is primarily a resort town, it is also home to several cultural sights, such as the Agios Nikolaos Archaeological Museum and the Panagia Kera Church.
Sitting on the eastern end of the National Highway along Crete's northeast coast, the small town of Sitia mixes tourists conveniences with local charm. Perched directly on the waterfront, the town's main square, Plateia Iroön Polytechniou, sees visitors and residents mingling over a glass of ouzo at a seaside taverna or strolling leisurely past souvenir shops. The Fortress , which also encircles the Sitia Archaeological Museum, hosts outdoor concerts and theatrical performances.
Crete is notoriously safe; many locals don't even bother to lock their doors. One safety concern of note is for those who decide to rent a car. TripAdvisor says, "You will see high mountain roads without safety barriers or even road markings. If you are hiring a car, you must make yourself familiar with the roads and drive very carefully."