Crete gets a lot of visitors each year – it's the largest of the Greek islands, and as well as Greek island charms of sun, sand and blue sea, Crete also has the remnants of the great Minoan culture that prospered here thousands of years ago, and the often elegant markers the Romans, Venetians and Turks have left behind in the last few hundred. Crete's a charming backdrop of mountains, down which gorges cut, leading to caves and tiny fishing villages on picturesque bays.
A lot of visitors come just to crash in one of resorts, which are mostly along the island's northern coast, but for travellers wanting to conduct their own explorations the island's eastern and western tips still hum with a slower, more traditional way of life.
This loose itinerary visits all the major sights and sites from Chania travelling west to Agios Nikolaos, and spares more time for exploring the ancient side of the island than reclining on the beach, but then if you want to spend your time on the beach you can write your own itinerary, taking pleasure in leaving great swathes of it blank!
A well as being the largest city in western Crete, Chania also has charm and history on its side, along with colour, most obvious within the crumbling labyrinth of streets built and decorated by the Venetians then the Turks. These winding passages open onto busy markets and shady squares served by cafes and tavernas.
The old town and the harbour, with its arched Venetian arsenals, where they built the ships, and Firkas fort - now home of the Naval Museum - are the first places to explore. Halidon Street is the main road down to the harbour, passing Chania's Cathedral, the Cretan Folk Museum and Chania's Archaeological Museum: built into an old Venetian church, this museum houses the best locally found treasures, from Neolithic to Minoan to Roman era finds. Zambeliou Street has some of the best architecture.
Crete's old monasteries and churches are famous for their frescos and Byzantine art, and among Chania's best are the local cathedral and the 17th Century Monastery of Agia Triada, with its five domes, three chapels and Corinthian and Ionic columns. Chania's 17th Century Turkish baths, which is the building with the six domes, is another local architectural landmark.
While in town get your Cretan rugs and blankets, jewellery, art and ceramics at Carmela, your leather on the Leather Street: Odhós Skrídhlof, and your food from the Public Market.
Elafonissi Beach, which scoops into a long, shallow lagoon with a reef that you can cross in low tide, is a lovely place to watch the afternoon turn into evening. On the other side of the lagoon there's a little flat island which has nice beaches and pink coral – apparently the sunset here is glorious; and good news for budget travellers: you can camp here.
Scenic Samariá Gorge is a 16km cleft in the earth running from an altitude of 1,250m on the Omalos Plateau towards the shores of the Libyan Sea. Most people explore the gorge on foot along the well worn walking trail: it’s a steep track downwards before the stroll between the high walls of the gorge base. Walkers shying away from the incline of this track could opt for another walk on the Omalos Plateau, both plateau and gorge are home to many specimens of Crete's unique plant and animal life. Both need a full day.
During longer stays in Chania a day trip to Gramvousa Island and Balos Lagoon might be worth considering if you like crumbling Venetian castles and shallow, clear blue lagoons. Fragokastello Fort, a well preserved Venetian fort, surviving from the 14th Century, is on the south coast, almost directly below Chania as the crow flies and about 80kms drive.
If you'd rather do less than more, Golden Beach, a short stroll out of Chania, is named for the colour of the sand, and is a pretty place to do nothing much.
Rethymnon is about midway between Chania and Heraklion along the coast road. Its 16th Century heart, an elegant Venetian city built on top of the remains of the old Byzantine and Roman towns, survives in beautiful repair below the Fortezza Castle, built by the Venetians on top of the town's hill - and supposedly the largest castle fort they ever built.
Just east of Rethymnon is one of the longest sand beaches on Crete, with about 12kms worth of space to lay your towel out on. Beyond that on the road south towards Plakias, about 23kms out of Rethymnon, is the Monastery of Arkádhi. It looks like something out of a western film but it's actually in the Renaissance style, and the site of an important battle in the war of Independence against the Turks.
Heraklion is Crete's largest city, but even if you don't fancy a city break this is a good place to stay to be close to some of the island's most important historic sites – most famously the Palace of Minos at Knossos , which is where the story of the Minotaur in the labyrinth comes from – and the maze-like ruins back up mythology - and the Heraklion Museum, home of some of the great archaeological detritus of the Minoan civilisation. This is not as nice looking a place to stay as the others suggested by this itinerary, but the Venetian fortress and loggia, and the church of Saint Titus are quite elegant if you're walking round town. The more relaxed resort town of Hersonisos is an alternative place to spend your nights.
The Palace at Knossos deserves at least a day: as well as the multi-storey maze of corridors, rooms, courtyards and indoor and outdoor staircases, the palace has colourful frescos depicting daily Minoan life and partly 'reconstructed' sections. The Heraklion Museum could be a whole or half day, followed by a trip out to the archaeological site at Vathypetro, once a Minoan villa.
Phaistos, south of Heraklion, is also worth a day trip. It was once a great Minoan city, until it was destroyed by a Bronze Age earthquake, and despite several rebuilds it was eventually shaken beyond repair. The multiple rebuilds have made excavations here particularly rich, and it's one of the best maintained and presented of Crete's archaeological sites. Matala, for the famous beach and the caves, is directly south, about 75kms drive across to the other side of the island. The Malia Minoan palace ruins, are on the road to the next port of call Agios Nikolaos. This large palace was destroyed by the same quake that flattened Knossos but rebuilt towards the end of the Bronze Age.
Agios Nikolaos has the sea on three sides, on the lake, the port and the beach and marina, and has more than its fair share of cafes and tavernas, from the scholarly kind to the loud dance music playing kind. Spinalonga Island, a picturesque old leper colony, makes a good day trip out on the water, especially if you return via the famous fishing village of Elounda, and Agios Nikolaos' beaches are some of the best on the island, especially Amoudara, Istron and Kalo Hori Beach.
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