Crete Travel Guide

Greece  #2 in Best Greek Islands
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Crete Area Map

Neighborhoods

Sitting between Asia, Africa and Europe, Crete is located around 200 miles south of mainland Greece. With an area of about 3,300 square miles, Crete is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean. The island's east and west coasts are connected by a main highway which traces Crete's northern coast from Sitia on the east to 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, all of which are located on the island's 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 night, the prefecture's cities (Chania in particular) come to life as residents and tourists alike fill the area's many bars and nightclubs. 

Chania

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 cafe-speckled street that 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 city also houses two beloved museums. The Archaeological Museum, located a few blocks south of the harbor, displays artifacts discovered during numerous area excavations. The neighboring Cretan House Folklore Museum recreates traditional scenes from everyday Cretan village life during the 18th and 19th centuries. The nearby Municipal Gardens is a local park that houses a few Cretan wild goats (otherwise known as Kri-Kri) that people can view from an enclosure. 

Paleochora

Sitting a little over 40 miles south of Chania on Crete's southwestern coast, the small port town of Paleochora offers sanctuary from Chania's city life. Surrounded on all sides by towering mountains and smooth sandy beaches, Paleochora welcomes beachgoers and outdoorsy travelers. The town 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 individuality in the face of tourism, many say that Rethymnon Prefecture has done just that. Just east of Chania, Rethymnon Prefecture is speckled with quaint seaside towns, leaving plenty of room for Cretan wildlife to flourish.

Rethymnon

Rethymnon holds tightly to its rich history, which spans centuries of power struggles. Visitors to this citywhich hugs Crete's northern coast about 40 miles east of Chaniaare invited to explore the remains of Rethymnon's turbulent past. The Venetian Fortezza, constructed in the 16th century, towers over the city. Built high and strong to deflect cannon fire, the Fortezza still houses a series of caves, as well as the remains of a Turkish mosque and a Greek Orthodox chapel. The area around the Fortezza, Old City, is home to prominent religious landmarks including the Kara Pasha Mosque, as well as prominent museums such as the Archaeological Museum and the L. Kanakakis Municipal Gallery of Contemporary Art.

While the town itself is not ideal for sun-seekers, a 10-minute walk east from Old City will take you to miles worth of shorelines. Although it is slightly crowded, particularly during the summer months, travelers and experts say the beach's soft sand and gentle waves are great for both swimming and sunbathing. 

Plakias

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 olive groves, Plakias is any hiker's dream. 

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 thousands of 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, as well as young travelers looking to participate in the island's nightlife.

Heraklion

One of the largest cities in Greece, Heraklion is Crete's capital city and primary port. However, the city's size is both its main attraction and its greatest drawback. While there is plenty to do and see, Heraklion's labyrinthine streets are enough to frustrate even the most skilled navigator. The city has two main squares: Plateia Eleftheriou Venizelou, commonly referred to as the Lions Square, sits in the middle of the historical Old Town district in the north and is recognizable by its large fountain surrounded by small lions. Plateia Eleftherias is located on the east side of the Old Town just a few blocks from Plateia Eleftheriou 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 various stages of Crete's history. Historians may also consider a day trip to Knossos, only a few miles west of the city. Knossos is home to Crete's largest Minoan palace — the Palace of Knossos — where many of the Heraklion's museum's artifacts were discovered.

Heraklion is also home to the Nikos Kazantzakis Museum and the Historical Museum, but make sure to save some energy for when the sun goes down. The city is known for its wild nightlife.

Hersonissos 

Smack dab in the center of the prefecture, about 15 miles east of Heraklion, Hersonissos is a playground for 20-somethings. During the day, water parks and the beach keep the crowds entertained, but at night, sun-drunk visitors flock to the Eleftheriou Venizelou main road that's littered with bars and nightclubs. 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 Kato Zakros Gorge, otherwise known as the Valley of the Dead. Lasithi's towns are great for beachgoers and 20-something hedonists.

Agios Nikolaos

On a small peninsula situated on Crete's northeastern coast, Agios Nikolaos is filled with boutique-lined boulevards, trendy seaside cafes and top-notch resort hotels that attract tourists with money to spend. Agios Nikolaos is also home to stunning beaches throughout as well as several cultural sights, including the Agios Nikolaos Archaeological Museum and the Panagia Kera Church.

Sitia

Located on the eastern end of the main highway that runs along Crete's northeast coast, the small town of Sitia mixes tourist conveniences with local charm. Situated directly on the waterfront, the town's main square Plateia Iroön Polytechniou plays host to visitors and residents mingling over glasses of ouzo at a seaside taverna or strolling leisurely past souvenir shops. The Kazarma Fortress, which dates back to the Byzantine Era, today hosts outdoor concerts and theatrical performances primarily during the summer.

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