When you have been travelling for a while, two years in my case, you get asked frequently where to go and what to do there. As time goes on you start developing itineraries even before having been asked anything at all! So if you are planning to go to Crete, I will give you the highlights, what there is to see and in which towns or cities to stay! In addition to that I based this island tour on a 15 day stay for a nice balance between travelling and relaxing.
DAY 1: Arrival Heraklion
Since it is a round trip around the island I recommend you to start in Heraklion as it has the most options for an extended travel. The city of Heraklion isn’t too spectacular so no matter what time you arrive there the next day you should move on to the next destination, however -especially in summer season- this is where you will find the cheapest places to stay on the island. Regardless of the fact that you are travelling on a budget or not a car is the cheapest way to travel Crete! Even for solo travellers it is a better investment as you can use the car as a sleeping place. I admit it is not the most comfortable bed but it will do the trick for your budget!
DAY 2: Sisi and Agios Nikolaos
Once you rented your car or if you can mobile-home -it would definitely be worth it- set your GPS to Sisi, a wonderful little port town. You won’t find a beach there but you can swim in the little harbour, where the wave breakers protect you from the rather turbulent sea. Overlooking the harbour you will find plenty of restaurants and food opportunities yet it is the opposite side that holds the gem of Sisi! Arches overgrown with vines lead you to a seemingly tropical forest ending on large rocks , “the beach”, giving way to the water and an amazing view of the harbour with the mountains in the background.
Along the way to the picturesque Agios Nikolaos -where you preferably stay two nights- you will pass saint george selinari monastery, an impressive construction entwined with the mountain range, which is more than worth the visit! As you reach Agios Nikolaos settle into your hotel, airbnb, hostel or park your mobile-home and take your time to explore the cozy town and end the day on top of the cliff overlooking the beautiful harbour!
DAY 3: Elounda
Elounda is an old fishers village with some archaeological sites you can visit for free. You can make a beautiful hike over the bridge connecting Crete to a smaller island that holds one of the most pristine beaches around Crete, aka. kolokytha. Protected by the hills this humble sand beach is perfect for a day full of relaxed swimming and floating, that is if you get there in time to secure a spot! It is advised to bring lunch or snacks to the beach as it won’t have any on site meal occasion. Should you prefer to hike some more, then you can visit a few churches spread out over the little island.
DAY 4: Spinalonga
A must do when you are in Agios Nikolaos is a boat trip to the island of Spinalonga. For sixteen Euros the company takes you on a five hour guided boat tour, with a thirty minute swim stop. The entrance fee, eight Euro, to Spinalonga will be paid by you. If you decide to listen to your guides, which I recommend you do as the history of Spinalonga is amazing, you will have half an hour to explore the rest of the island. However if you don’t care much about the history or you already looked up everything there is to know you can take up all the time exploring or photographing the island. Once you get back to Agios Nikolaos drive towards Sitia to spend the evening and night.
DAY 5: Sitia and Vai beach
If you happen to wake up early morning in Sitia get the sunrise from the port, it was a magical moment for me to see the city wake up in the glorious morning light. From thereon make your way across the mountains to Vai beach. Don’t be surprised if you see a tribe of mountain goats running about on the road, they will part for the car, however if you feel like pulling over and taking a picture be prepared to be swamped by them! As soon as you pull over they will run towards you and rub their noses and bodies against your legs hoping to get some food, one or two might even place there front hooves on your car!
Once you arrive at Vai beach you can either park a bit before reaching the beach, where you can park for free, or drive all the way down to the parking lot, where they will ask you to pay 2.50 euros, mind you it is just 250 meters difference. Plenty of palm trees give you a place in the shade, which is uncommon for Cretan beaches and definitely adds to the beauty of this place. There is no need to bring your own food as there are multiple food establishments. Once you have had your beach injection, drive to Zakros and spend the evening and night there.
DAY 6: Zakros to Ierapetra
What is there to see? Besides the little mountain village there is a panoramic view over the Zakros Gorge and instead of walking the gorge you can walk the road on the right for half an hour until you reach a little shelter harbouring an amazing view over the gorge. While making your way to Ammoudi beach you will pass a cute monastry, Kapsa monastry. It is not as impressive as the saint george selinari monastery but it has a hidden diamond, across the patio you will find stairs leading up towards the cave where Ioannis Vitsentzos ,aka. Gerontoyiannis, lived.
After relaxing on either Koutsounari beach, Ammoudi beach or both continue until Agio Fotia. This is a sheltered village at the bottom of a hill with no car park space! Leave your car along the main road and head down to the pebble beach, perfect for an afternoon dip or for consuming dinner. Conclude your day with a walk around the port of Ierapetra, where you will stay for the night.
DAY 7: Ierapetra to Matala
In Ierapetra there are two options: either you stay another night and you can go to chrissy island for 25 Euros, where -if it isn’t windy- an alluring sand beach awaits, or you explore the old town of Ierapetra in the morning and continue your way towards Matala. Having done Chrissy island on a windy day I definitely wouldn’t choose the first option, as it is a lot of money for a plain sand beach with overpriced sunbeds and umbrellas.
On the way to Matala you can visit Agiofaraggo beach, a pebble beach you reach after a thirty minute hike through a desert-like but beautiful gorge. However you might consider skipping this beach as the way to the parking lot exists of rocks and dirt and goes on for ages starting from the monastery Odigitrias with single car passage for the last few kilometres. If you were to make it to the Agiofaraggo beach, make sure to bring some lunch or you can buy something small from snack shacks on the parking lot. Continue your way to Matala, where I’d recommend you to stay for two nights.
DAY 8: Matala and Red beach
Take a day to relax , stand still and enjoy the hippy vibe of Matala. You could visit the caves overlooking the town and the beach or take a short but uphill hike over the mountain-where-against-the-town is build taking you to Red beach. Beware of the fact that this is a nudist beach and the more left you walk the more clothes disappear! If you don’t mind being naked you can make the most of this opportunity and get a free body clay mask by taking clay from surrounding rocks.
DAY 9: Preveli beach to Sougia
This is the longest drive, as you have to go all the way around the nature park. Nonetheless you will have plenty of time to enjoy Preveli beach. Park the car on the top of the hill in exchange for a small fee. Make your way down a long and steep staircase embedding in a sandy beach divided by a river flowing into the sea and inviting you to swim in it’s fresh water. It isn’t the river and it’s fresh water that makes this beach so beautiful, but the greenery surrounding it! Don’t worry if you didn’t bring your own food, this beach is decked out with a snack restaurant. After a day of chilling at the beach undertake the drive to Sougia, where you will spend the night.
DAY 10: Samaria gorge
Wake up early and catch the seven am bus to omalos to get to the trail head of the Samaria gorge, an amazing six or seven hour hike downhill surrounding you with a green forest, walled on both sides by huge cliffs. The hike ends in Agia Roumeli where there will be a boat back to Sougia around five pm, leaving you with plenty of time to swim or walk around the charming village that mainly exists of restaurants and hotels.
Take care when you go swimming as the pebbles of the beach are black and therefore hold and emit a lot of heat, even lying on your towel gets uncomfortable! Once you get back to Sougia make your way to Elafonisi. Did you decide to travel with a mobile-home, then you can park a two minute walk from the beach and if you are in time to catch the sunset you should definitely head out there, take some sunbeds (they don’t charge that late in the afternoon anymore) and enjoy the view!
DAY 11: ELafonisi, Falassarna beach and Chania
Elafonisi, the beautiful split beach with pink sand, is an amazing place to hang out for a while. Why a split beach, you ask? Well it has a main beach that you directly walk onto, but as you walk further you’ll notice an island which beach you can reach by simply crossing a faint strip of water, therefore a split beach. Don’t underestimate the depth of the water setting the beaches apart, depending where you set your feet it can get a bit deeper than expected.
I must say the beach was mainly golden sand instead of pink, however traces of pink are found here and there. What I love most about Elafonisi is the island, where you can walk around it’s dunes and find a -more or less- private beach, note that you might encounter some nudists. Once you had enough of this beach head towards Falassarna and spend the afternoon in a turquoise heaven before driving to your overnight location in the city Chania. Both Elafonisi and Falassarna have beach bars and restaurants, so don’t worry if you ran out of food and haven’t had time to replenish.
DAY 12: Balos
Stay in Chania for two nights. A city with an endearing core consisting out of little shops, restaurants and colourful houses; a city you could get lost in for eternity. As much as I love this city there is one more impressive beach to see, you can absolutely not leave Crete without having visited! I normally would say drive there, but the road going there is much like the road to Agiofaraggo beach, all dirt and rocky, only here it goes up with barely enough passage for one car and no rail along the all-to-visible cliff! So rather than get yourself killed trying to get to the parking lot go on a day boat-trip from Chania and get an extra place, Gramvousa island, to tick off your to-see list. Enjoy an evening alongside the harbour of Chania.
DAY 13: Chania to Loutro
Spend most of the day in Chania and explore the wonderful city in daylight. Start making your way to Chora Sfakion here you take a ferry to loutro, where I recommend you to spend the night as it is an absolute stunning village, only to be reached by boat! It takes approximately one hour and a half to drive from Chania to Chora Sfakion and there should be ferries until 7 pm, you can check the timetables on https://www.sfakia-crete.com/sfakia-crete/ferries.html or http://www.loutro.gr/en/transportation/ferry-boat-timetable. You will leave the car in the port of chora Sfakion and retrieve it once you get back as there is no reason to bring a car to a village without roads!
DAY 14: Marmara beach and Rethymno
This will be your last full day on Crete and there are still some places to discover! One of these places is Marmara beach an adorable pebble beach where you can swim in cave formations, it also has a scenic restaurant overlooking the bay. You can reach it by boat or if you like hiking you can hike up the mountain and see some of the nature and animal life along the way, you could also hike one way and come back by boat for example. The last ferry back to Chora Sfakion is around 6 pm, from there collect your car and make your way to Rethymno , another adorable city with a picturesque old town covered in a web of hidden streets and colourful decorations, to get caught in.
DAY 15: Departure Airport or ferry
I highly recommend you to take a flight out of Crete from either Heraklion or Chania -they are both an option as Rethymno is almost exactly in the middle of both airports- somewhere in the late afternoon or evening as this gives you the opportunity to see more of Rethymno.
If you want to go island hopping it is more likely for you to end up in the port of Heraklion, however some islands can also be reached from Chania. If this is something you are thinking about doing you should check which port your boat will leave from before starting this trek as it might influence the car drop off location, which is an important criteria in choosing a car company. Have you not given any thought to which island you will be hopping off to next, then I recommend you to hire and return the car in Heraklion and choose the next destination accordingly.
Keep in mind that if you decide to travel to Crete in summer, especially June, July and August, you will not find a private or non-tourist beach. This is high season and therefore will impact your vacation in privacy, price and availability. If you have any doubts about renting a car because you have no clue where to park, just be like the Greeks and park anywhere! Of course to be sure I always parked in a street dressed with parked cars.
This concludes everything I have to say for Crete. I hope you will enjoy this wonderful island as much as I have!