Whenever people ask me for recommendations on where to go in Greece, I start with Crete. I don’t hear enough people talking about it and seems a bit underrated in my opinion. The island is Greece’s largest, with a few main towns (Chania, Heraklion). The geography is diverse and the island houses some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, as well as the continent’s longest gorge. We chose to stay in Chania in Western Crete as it felt like the town closest to the most activities. Other areas of Crete looked beautiful, but possibly more relaxing and less active.
Getting There: We took the ferry from Santorini to Heraklion. It is possible to pick up your ferry tickets in advance in the center of town, before going down to the port. Highly recommend doing so. There are cafes at the port where you can kill time with snacks/drinks if you are early or your ferry is delayed (like ours). When the ferry finally came it was a mad rush to get on. The trip took about 1.5 hours, another hot mess when we arrived at Heraklion. From there we rented a car to drive to Chania. There was an option to take a bus, but since we got in late there was only one bus left at 9 and we didn’t think we’d make it. We were able to arrange to drop off the car at the Chania airport where we would depart from a few days later. Traffic was awful in Heraklion, and we couldn’t wait to get out of there. Driving to Chania took about 2 hours, mostly an easy drive though lots of winding roads in the dark.
It is possible to fly into Chania from Athens (we traveled back to Athens this way). The flight to Athens is about 50 minutes.
Where to Stay: We chose to stay just outside of the Chania town so that we could be closer to the beach, opting for Yakinthos Hotel. Maria and the other young woman were super helpful, so nice. Always helping with directions, making phone calls for us in Greek, and whenever we had to get up really early they made sure to have breakfast for us the night before. The pool area was nice, but we never used it due to close proximity to beach (a few hundred feet away). Old town Chania was about a 10 min drive from the hotel. There were a few mini markets and restaurants near the hotel but not many so we usually drove into town for dinner. The nearby beach clubs had free chairs, snacks, and drinks (Blue Sea was our favorite). Breakfast at the hotel was pretty good, variety of things including yogurt, breads, cheese, eggs, fruit, veggies, coffee, tea, and even raki! One downside: our room always seemed a bit damp and nothing seemed to dry in there.
You can also choose to stay in the old town of Chania, which closely resembles other port towns like Nafplio. There is definitely more happening in the town with boutiques, souvenir shops, restaurants and bars (and tourists), but it was nice to be out closer to the beach for a few days.
Where to Eat:
Mezedopoleio – Came recommended by a couple we met on the sailing tour. It took some time to find, we had to ask for directions as the Old Town is full of little streets that all look the same so it’s quite easy to get lost. The restaurant was on a very cute street that we dubbed our favorite street with its little cafes spilling into the street and some cute shops (and great graffiti). We ordered the beet root salad which came recommended, as well as the truffle mushroom risotto. Both were fantastic. We also ordered lamb, as well as escallop with black truffle which we soon found out was pork and not fish. We also had the salmon pasta which was excellent (and had been recommended). We ordered a liter of the house white wine which was huge and only 9 euro. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that great. At the end of our meal, we received free panna cotta and raki for dessert. The raki was not to our liking…also lots of gypsies coming up to the tables on the street.
Evies – Quick and easy spot we found for dinner. It was pretty cheap with everyone getting some kind of dinner special priced around 11,50 euro which included a Greek salad and wine or beer. Food was decent, the lamb meatballs were fantastic. They added avocados to our salads which was a nice bonus that they didn’t charge us extra for.
Oinopieio – On our favorite street. Delicious grilled bread. We ordered a bunch of food since it was our final meal in Greece: fava, beet root salad, roasted mushrooms, stuffed zucchini flowers, and a lamb/beef kebab. That kebab was probably the one thing I had been trying to find the whole time we were in Greece and one of the best things I ate while we were there. Amazing. After dinner, we each got a little panna cotta, raki for the table, and fresh watermelon and honeydew.
Things to Do:
Samaria Gorge – Hike the gorge. DO IT. It’s an amazing experience. This is Europe’s longest gorge (16 km), about 1.5 hour drive from Chania (the entrance is in a town called Omalos). We went through a tour since driving ourselves seemed really complicated. You can also take a public bus from Chania, but then you have to get to the bus station really early in the morning. Cost for the tour was 24 euro plus 5 euro admission and 10 euro ferry ride.
You’re in for a full day (14 hours). The bus picked us up around 6am at our hotel. The ride there took about an hour and a half. There is a small coffee shop at the entrance where you can get snacks, use the bathroom, etc. It was cool in the morning, but so nice since we knew it was going to be super hot later on. This is also why it’s good to get an early start, especially in the summer. The tour is really just a means of getting to and from the gorge: our guide gave us a map and we had until 4:30p to meet him for our ferry tickets. The hike takes 4-6 hours and the park closes at 3. The hike ends at Agia Roumeli which is on the Libyan Sea.
From reading reviews on Trip Advisor, we knew the first part of the hike was going to be steep and rocky and it definitely was. Slippy rocks, lots of pebbles, very uneven terrain. This pretty much held true for the entire hike until the last few km. Definitely took our time walking to get through this without injuries, and we had to keep reminding ourselves to stop and look around at the gorgeous views. There are rest stops throughout the gorge and all have spring water available so you can fill up your water bottle. Bring snacks to eat along the way. For shoes: many people were wearing sneakers which are fine (like real sneakers, not Converse). Some had hiking shoes through my friend said she would have been too hot had she worn hers. In the middle of the summer, it gets really hot on that hike so I can’t imagine wearing hot, heavy shoes the whole time. I saw people wearing hiking sandals, but given all of the pebbles, I wouldn’t recommend that. Once you get through to the last kilometer, it’s very easy and flat (there is also an option to take a van to the ferry area but if you’ve already walked this far…). However, there’s also a bunch of animals over there (fenced in) and it smells terrible. The best moment was when we finally got to the beach and could jump in the water (bring a swimsuit)! The beach is black sand and quite rocky, but the water feels amazing after the hike. There are many restaurants for lunch and post-hike beers around the beach. After cooling off, we got on a ferry around 5:30 with our group, another hour or so to get to Agia Skafion which is where all the buses depart from. You will be sore for a few days after the hike so plan accordingly!
Beaches – We spent a lot of time at the beach in Crete. There was a beach very close to our hotel where we could walk to and would hang out at the Blue Sea Beach Bar. No charge for huts, pretty empty at the beach. Really lovely beach, very quiet for the most part. No one really in the water, lots of sand and few rocks.
Elafonissi Beach – Heralded as Greece’s most beautiful beach. It was about an hour or so drive from Chania. By the time we left, we didn’t get there until a little after one. So crowded. So many tourists. There aren’t beach clubs there, it’s more like a public beach with huts for rent (7 euro) and snack bars. We weren’t used to being at such a touristy, crowded beach. We couldn’t get chairs at first so we just found a place on the sand. The only way to snag chairs at that time of day was to hover around people who might be leaving soon to get chairs. Finally this worked! It was pretty windy on the beach too. The beach is beautiful and very shallow which is why so many families go there. The water is very light blue, turquoise color and very clear and calm (Caribbean like). Sandy, a few rocks in areas but pretty clear for the most part. We liked the beach, but definitely preferred our less crowded beach club.
Old Town Chania- Parking in the Old Town is tough, so we generally would just find a place and walk from there. Mostly street parking and few free lots. Touristy, old Venetian port, lots of souvenir shops with clothes, food, gifts, etc. So many gelato places too…and a Starbucks. The port area was nice, but lined with touristy restaurants.
Al Hammam – In the center of Old Town, it’s more of a modern spa than a traditional hammam. We had opted for the Sultana treatment which included the hammam scrub, massage, and hair wash. Treatment was scheduled for 90 minutes. They booked all of us at 4pm, but there were only two girls there to do our treatments so we waited awhile. But other than that the service was excellent, we loved our scrubs and massages and it was just what we needed. One other thing to note is that the dressing room is unisex. While we were getting dressed, an employee brought a man back there to shower. Awkward.