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Crete is a treasure trove of history, where you can explore magnificent palaces and museums then step outside to discover beautiful parks and boutique-lined boulevards. Flanked by more than 600 miles of coastline, you can marvel at dramatic mountains or sit back on beautiful golden beaches, while centuries-old harbor towns will lure you in to explore ancient archaeological sites. Read on to see our pick for the best things to do in Crete.
Start your exploration of Crete in Rethymnon Old Town, where you can wander through the narrow alleys and get to know this seaside neighborhood. Dating back to the 11th century, there’s a lot of history to soak up with its Venetian Renaissance architecture, while the dizzying array of food and shopping options are enough to keep you busy throughout the day. Snap photographs of the Venetian harbor of Rethymnon, Rimondi Fountain and Platanos Square, then stop to admire Our Lady of the Angels or the Nerantze Mosque before stopping in a taverna or cafeteria for traditional Greek delicacies and iced coffee.
You won’t want to miss soaking up the sunshine on the golden shores of Palm Beach, Crete’s most beautiful beach. Surrounded by the largest palm grove in Europe with 4,500 palm trees, the beach is also lined with sun beds and straw umbrellas, while a quaint cafe serves fresh seafood and water sports rental facility is available for adventurous travelers. For the best view of the area, head to the rocky outcrop at the south end of the beach, where you can stand on the viewing platform and admire the views along the shore.
History enthusiasts can take a step back in time at the Palace of Knossos, which is complex with massive columns and beautiful frescoes. Located about three miles south of Heraklion, this large site offers you a chance to sign up for guided tours or explore it on your own, where you’ll discover the unique history that dates back to the Minoan civilization, which was at its peak between 1700 and 1450 BC. According to local folklore, it was once the home of mythical Minotaur of King Minos.
Lace up your hiking boots and head to Samaria Gorge, located in the Samaria National Park. The 11-mile gorge is the longest canyons in Europe, offering an exhilarating adventure for those brave enough to traverse its spectacular landscape where Cretan badgers and spiny mouse live. Keep your eyes peeled for the rare and endangered kri-kri, Crete’s native goat. At the end of your hiking adventure, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous views over the Libyan Sea.
Considered a must-see attraction in Crete for even non-history buffs, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum boasts an impressive collection of Minoan artwork. Some of the highlights of the museum include a mini-statue of a Snake Goddess and the Phaistos Disk, which is a clay tablet that has symbols that have not been deciphered even to this day. The artifacts here span over 5,000 years of history and were excavated exclusively from the archaeological sites in Crete.
If you’re traveling with the family, take a break from the outdoors and head to Cretaquarium. Here you can get up close to 2,000 sea animals and 200 different Mediterranean species, then marvel at the large shark tank. You’ll be impressed with the variety of sea life on display that can be seen from around 100 viewing points, from hunter sharks to lobsters and colorful jellyfish. You can explore on your own or sign up for a guided tour, while audio devices offer useful information.
Nestled in the southwest corner of Crete, Elafonisi Beach is most noted for its pink-hued sands from the thousands of crushed shells, which reflect beautifully against the crystal clear Mediterranean waters. Swim across Elafonisi’s shallow lagoon to discover a small, uninhabited island that features a historic lighthouse, a chapel and is home to more than 100 native plant species. Considered one of the most picturesque beaches not only in Crete, it is a must-see natural wonder in all of Greece where you can spend an afternoon sunbathing and exploring hidden coves.
Venetian Fortezza is built atop a hill in Rethymnon Old Town, said to symbolize Crete’s rich history dating back to the 16th century. Built to protect Crete against Ottoman invasion, it now houses the partially restored Ibrahim Han Mosque and the church of Agios Theodoros Trichinas. You’ll find a range of cultural events held at this venue, including the Rethymnon Renaissance Festival. The best time to visit is towards the end of the day when the crowd things out, where you can enjoy the sunset against the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.
Step inside a former Venetian Franciscan monastery to discover the Archaeological Museum of Chania, which houses a wide collection of Neolithic and Minoan artifacts. You can marvel at treasures from the late Roman periods, then browse through the donated items from the Konstantinos and Marika Mitsotakis’ collection. See the exhibits displayed in chronological order and get up close to ancient Minoan pottery, stone carvings, seals, jewelry and other items.
Located in the capital city of Heraklion, the Historical Museum of Crete boasts an array of historic items from Crete’s rich history. The small museum chronicles Cretan life starting in the early Byzantine times and stretches all the way to modern day. There are lots to see and do for all ages, including a chance to admire two notable paintings by El Greco. Considered a highlight of the museum, The Baptism of Chris and View of Mt. Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine is a must-see for art enthusiasts.