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Crete simply has it all! Discovering Crete

Crete is the largest island in Greece, and the fifth largest one in the Mediterranean Sea. Here, the visitor can admire the remnants of brilliant civilizations, explore glorious beaches, impressive mountainscapes, fertile valleys and steep gorges, and become part of the island’s rich gastronomic culture. Crete is, after all, a small universe teeming with beauties and treasures that you will probably need a lifetime to uncover!

Diving with Dolphins on Crete, GreeceDiving with Dolphins on Crete, Greece. Image by © Visit Greece / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Here are four prefectures of Crete, and tips which one is the best for your expectations.

Chania - best for Hiking, Beaches, Canoeing, Festivals and Food

The region of Chania (Hania), on the western side of the island, is dominated by the impressive White Mountains (in Greek: Lefka Ori) and its famous National Park, which occupy the largest part of the region. The Prefecture of Chania provides tourist services and activities of all kinds, satisfying all the choices. The city of Chania maintains unaltered all of its characteristics, from the time of the Venetian Rule up until today.

the city of Chania (Hania), Venetian Harbor |Crete, GreeceVenetian Harbor in the city of Chania(Hania)|Crete, Greece. Image by © Lapplaender / CC BY-SA 3.0DE

The major cities of the prefecture are Chania, the capital of the prefecture, and Kastelli in Kisamos. Among the most important villages are Paleochora and Kantanos in Selino, the Chora of Sfakion in Sfakia. The inhabited islands of Gavdos and Gavdopoula, which are located at a distance of 20 miles south from Chania, in Liviko Sea, also come under Chania.

Kastelli district, Chania(Hania)| Crete, GreeceKastelli district, Chania(Hania)| Crete, Greece. Image by © Doris Antony / CC BY-SA 3.0

Hiking. The White Mountains’ National Park, expanding around Samaria Gorge, is the biggest and most imposing gorge in Greece. You need about seven hours to cross it but the rich landscape and rare flora and fauna will definitely reward you. There are also many other smaller gorges for you to hike (Aradaina, Agia Irini, Imbros and Polyrhenia) as well as beautiful walking trails (from Hrysoskalitissa to Elafonissi, from Palaiohora to Souyia and from Ayia Roumeli to Hora Sfakion), which make Chania a beloved destination among nature enthusiasts from all over the world. On the edge of a gloriously scenic turquoise lagoon lies the islet of Elafonissi with its ancient-old Cedar Forest.

National Parak of Crete- Samaria Gorge ,Lefka Ori(White Mountains)-Crete, GreeceNational Parak of Crete- Samaria Gorge, Lefka Ori(White Mountains), Greece. Image by © Lapplaender / CC BY-SA 3.0DE

Need more action? Go mountaineering on White Mountains (there are 4 shelters), climbing on the amazingly vertical slope of Mt. Gigilos, or canoeing down the Klados, Sapounas and Therissos gorges.

Beaches. Turquoise waters lap against the white sandy beaches, that lie to the west of the city: Hrissi Akti, Ayia Marina, Ayioi Apostoloi, Maleme, Kalathas, Stavros, Platanias, Kolympari, Gavdos etc, are only some of the beaches where you can bask in the sun. On the islet of Elafonissi, a beach with crystal clear waters and white sand dunes will take your breath away! The whole area forms part of the NATURA network.

Chania(Hania), Balos beach -Crete, GreeceChania(Hania), Balos beach | Crete, Greece. Image by © Visit Greece / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Festivals. A plethora of religious and cultural festivals take place all year long, inviting both locals and visitors to experience the Cretan way of celebrating. Local products have their own prominent position in Chania’s cultural life: participate in the Chestnut Festival in Elos, the Rosewater Festival in Fourni, or the Wine Festival in Vouves. In May takes place a glorious commemoration of the Battle of Crete in all the municipalities of the region.

Cuisine. No visit to Chania is complete unless you have sampled traditional local specialties: Eggs with staka, Cretan kalitsounia (sweet mini cheese pies), lamb served with spiny chicory, dacos (the traditional hard Cretan bread accompanied with tomato, mizithra cheese and plenty of virgin Cretan oil), snails boubouristí(popping fried snails), haniotiko boureki (patty from Chania, a vegetable specialty), kserotígana (honey dipped spiral pastries) wedding cookies, dry bread wreaths, yraviera cheese (full fat sheep’s cheese with appellation of controlled origin)

Also try sweet smelling Anthotyros from Sfakia (fresh, soft, white cheese made of either sheep’s or goat’s milk), fresh staka butter (the cream of the butter) for the Cretan wedding rice (rice cooked in meat broth), roasted goat or sea food delights – special ingredients blended in delicious sea-urchin salads, or divine fish soups! Accompany your dinner with a glass of deep-red Cretan wine, the divine marouvas, or drink after your meal an ice-cold raki, a traditional Cretan spirit distilled from pomace, with a delicate aroma of ripe grapes.

Rethymno - best for History, Hiking, Biking, Beaches and Culture

Rethymno region: Crete's smallest prefecture located between White Mountains and Mt Psilorítis (also called “Ídi”), is synonymous with gorgeous mountainscapes, marvellous beaches, Cretan lyre melodies, legendary caves, historic monasteries and monuments, traditional mountain villages and luxurious holiday resorts. Feel the essence of Mythical Crete in this mountainous, remote and self-sufficient region of the island of Crete.

Lyre maker, Nikos Papalexakis, finishing Cretan Lyre, Rethymno |Crete, GreeceLyre maker, Nikos Papalexakis, finishing Cretan Lyre, Rethymno |Crete, Greece. Image by © zorbknox / All rights reserved.

History. The city of Rethymno is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Greece: Venetian fortification works mingle harmonically with orthodox and catholic churches, mosques, grand mansions of Venetian architecture, arches and cobblestone streets they all create a wondrous atmosphere.

Venecian Fortezza Castle in Rethymno|Crete, GreeceVenecian Fortezza Castle in Rethymno|Crete, Greece. Image by © Olaf Tausch / CC BY 3.0

Rethymno’s outstanding natural wealth is reflected on Mt. Psiloritis, which dominates the eastern part of the region, the most mountainous part on the island. The variation of the landscape will impress the nature enthusiasts: flourishing valleys succeed harsh mountainscapes and rocky shores follow long sandy beaches. Steep gorges, leafy valleys, small rivers cutting through the mountains, wild life refuges and forty canyons complete the picture.

Psiloritis Mountains in Rethymno |Crete, GreecePsiloritis Mountains in Rethymno |Crete, Greece. Image by © Visit Greece / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Hiking and Biking. Unique wonders of nature will take your breath away:
Lagoon of Préveli: At the point where river Meyalos Potamos (“Big River”) flows into the sea and “Kourtaliotis” gorge ends lie the famous Preveli Lagoon and “Palm beach” (“Finikas”), a sandy cove with a small date-palm grove. To get there you have to follow the road to the Monastery of Preveli. Shortly before the monastery a track on your left leads down to a parking place. From this point onwards walk down to the sandy beach, where a remarkable, almost tropical landscape awaits you. The river flowing into the sea combined with the rich vegetation creates a magnificent sight. Don’t miss it!
The Nida Plateau, located 79km far from Rethymno, on Mount Psiloritis. Here, major attractions are "mitata", vaulted stone huts where the shepherds live. The Plateau provides also skiing facilities during wintertime.
Argyroupoli: 27km far from Rethymno you will find Argyroúpoli, a village built on the remnants of the ancient city of Lappas. Numerous springs, the cave and the chapel bearing the same name are all well worth a visit.
Gorges of extraordinary beauty traverse the mountains of the region: the ravine of Kourtaliotis, 3km long, ends at the famous Lagoon of Preveli; the ravine of Kotsifou starts from the village of Kanevos and ends near the village of Sellía; the gorge of Patsos, in the Amari district; the gorge of Prasses, which ends at the village of Platanias at the north coast east of the town of Rethymno; finally, the gorge of Arkadi and a number of smaller ones.
The mountains of the region are exceptionally rich in caves. The most famous caves are those of Gerani, Simonelli west of the town of Rethymno, Ayios Antonios in the district of Amari, Melidoni, Mougri Sisson and Sfendoni near the village of Zoniana. The cave of Ideon Andron, in which Zeus was raised according to mythology, represented an important place of worship in both the Minoan and the Roman periods.

History. Important archaeological finds indicate that the area have flourished from the Stone Age up until the Roman and Early Christian periods. Minoan and Geometric sites, cemeteries, Roman cities and Hellenistic relics have been discovered, most important of which are considered to be Eleftherna, an ancient settlement inhabited until the 8th century, as well as Armenon cemetery with more than 350 underground tombs.

Ecclesiastic monuments like stone chapels on Mt Psiloritis, historical monasteries and early Christian Basilicas enrich your visit on the island. A monastery of great historic importance is the 15th century Arkadi Monastery overlooking the imposing gorge and Preveli. Set off on a journey back to time through your visit to traditional settlements like Adele, Anoyia, RUstika, Garazo and Chromonastiri and feel their original Cretan atmosphere.

Here you can taste delicious local culinary delights, like goat cooked with tomatoes, hilopítes (home made pasta) and snails with vegetables –always accompanied with a shot of local tsikoudia!

Culture. Necessarily visit Rethymno during the summer months to attend two fascinating events only to be found here: the famous “Renaissance Festival” invites you to become protagonists, co-creators and co-travellers in an enchanting trip through time where music and theatrical expression prevail. Almost all performances take place at the “Erofili” theatre in Fortezza. The “Wine Festival”, on the other hand, welcomes wine producers, wine aficionados and culinary enthusiasts to a pan Cretan event of culture, gastronomy, wine tasting, entertainment and fun!

The largest and most densely populated region on the island of Crete is Heraklion (Iráklion). Nestling picturesquely among two imposing mountain ranges – Ídi (Mt Psiloritis) to the west and Dikti (Lasithiótika mountains) to the east– Iráklion boasts exceptional archaeological treasures, significant coastal settlements, a series of picturesque villages, vast valleys with olive groves and vineyards as well as the best organised tourist infrastructure in Crete. A unique combination of urban scenery and natural wealth makes the region of Iráklion an appealing all-year-round destination.

Ancient Minoan Knossos Palace, Heraklion -Crete, GreeceKnossos Palace, Heraklion |Crete, Greece. Image by © Lapplaender / CC BY-SA 3.0DE

(more about the region of Heraklion at "Crete simply has it all! Part 2", including: where to go's; The archaeological site of Knossos; museums of Heraklion; Festivals and celebrations; the hiking network and the natural wealth of Heráklion.)

Lasithi (Lassíthi) region. Welcome to the easternmost and least mountainous region of Crete, where the population resides in four semi-urban centers: Áyios Nikólaos, Ierápetra, Sitía and Neápoli. The mythical palm tree forest of Váï, the Gulf of Mirabello, the windmills on the Plateau of Lassíthi (the largest in Crete), beaches lapped by crystalline water, beautiful cities and luxurious hotel resorts all make up a rather fascinating world.

Chrissi, Lasithi region |Crete, GreeceChrissi, Lasithi region |Crete, Greece. Image by © Visit Greece / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

(more about the region of Lasithi at "Crete simply has it all! Part 2", including: where to go's; what is the sunniest city in Europe, Local celebrations, "Kýrvia" in Ierápetra, Eloúnda- a famous cosmopolitan resort .)

To cognize Crete better, lets make a short historic journey.

Due to its geographical position between Africa, Europe, and Asia Minor and due to its mild climate, Crete became a center of culture as early as Neolithic times. The first prehistoric settlements appeared in Crete around 6000 BC while in 2600 BC settlers who knew how to craft bronze arrived in Crete. It was then that the illustrious course of the Minoan Civilization began, reaching its peak around 1950 BC with the erection of the imposing palaces in Knossos, Faistos, and Malia.

Mythology has it that it was in a cave of Crete where the goddess Rhea hid the newborn Zeus.  In that cave, Zeus was brought up by the nymphs while the demonical Kouretes would strike their shields loudly so that Cronus may not hear the crying of the baby Zeus and eat it.  It was also to Crete that Zeus, disguised as a bull, took Europa so that they may enjoy their love together.  Their union produced a son, Minos, who ruled Crete and turned it into a mighty island empire of the seas.  In Minoan times, even Attica would pay a tribute tax to Crete, until Theseus, the Athenian prince, killed the Minotaur.  The truth behind the myth is the existence of a mighty and wealthy kingdom and of a civilisation that is considered the most ancient one on the European continent.

In 1450 BC and again in 1400 BC the Minoan Civilization was successively devastated possibly due to the eruption of the volcano of Thera and was eventually led to its decline.  In the wake of the devastation the Dorians arrived to settle on the island.  They were later followed by the Romans.  After the Roman rule, Crete becomes a province of Byzantium until the arrival of the Arabs who occupied the island for an entire century (824-961 BC).  During the Arab domination, Crete became the lair of pirates who were based out of Handakas, present day Heraklion.

Next, Crete fell under Byzantine rule again until the arrival of the Venetians who occupied the island for approximately 5 centuries leaving their stamp on the island’s culture.  After the fall of Handakas in 1669, the Turkish Occupation began marked by ferocious and bloody uprisings.  At the end of the 19th century Turkish rule came to an end.  The Cretan State was created with the King of Greece as the island’s High Commissioner. In 1913, Crete was finally joined officially with Greece.

the beauty of west Crete, GreeceThe beauty of west Crete, Greece. Image by © louisvolant / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Crete simply has it all!

Traveler's NotesLocation

  • Crete is a Greek Island
  • Monetary unit: Euro, €
  • Time Zone: UTC +2
  • Phone code: +30
  • Climat: Mediterranean
  • Main cities: Heraklion (capital), Chania, Rethymno , Ierapetra, Agios Nikolaos
Source: adapted with written permission of GNTO/
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