Crete, the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, excites with its bygone civilizations, mouthwatering cuisine, wild landscapes and wondrous beaches. Tour centuries-old cities that sit on the island’s northern shores and hop between charming beach towns. Uncover a wealth of Venetian architecture and archaeological landmarks and marvel at a natural beauty that changes from pink sands to olive groves and rugged mountain peaks.
Start in Heraklion, the bustling island capital with an atmospheric old town and historic port set inside Venetian walls. Learn about island heritage at Koules Fortress, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and Natural History Museum. Travel west to Rethymnon, where colorful fishing boats moor at a Venetian harbor and tavernas line the seafront. Grand mansions and superb restaurants abound in the maze-like old quarter of Chania.
The dramatic limestone White Mountains rise above authentic Greek villages, such as Hora Sfakion, in western Crete. Snowfall drapes the mountains in winter and then makes way for wildflowers to flourish in springtime. Hike a 10-mile (16-kilometer) long trail through Samaria Gorge National Park, which is Europe’s longest ravine, to the fishing hamlet of Agia Roumeli. Boats depart from here to Sougia, home to a nearby 4th-century B.C. Hellenistic-era ruin.
Cretan beaches are defined by their powdery sand and crystalline Mediterranean waters. Try your hand at kitesurfing, among other watersports, at Ammoudara, Kedrodasos and Kouremenos. Gaze in awe at the pale pink quartz sand at Balos Lagoon and on Elafonisi island. Relax amid the tranquil seaside charm of Gerani and enjoy a blend of beach and nightlife at Elounda, Malia and Stalis.
Reach Crete Island by flying from major European cities to the international airports located in Chania and Heraklion. Or, arrive via the ferry crossing that departs year-round from Athens and takes from 7 to 9 hours. Expect warm and dry weather from May to October and large tourist crowds between June and August. Get around by rented car and stop at roadside tavernas to sample Cretan cheese, succulent olives and the local raki brandy.