Crete Greece: The Ultimate 5 – 7 Day Crete Itinerary
June 2, 2021
The Island of Crete, Greece: A Chania, Rethymno, and Heraklion Itinerary
Generally, I feel like I do a really good job of strategizing a solid itinerary for my trips. I mean that’s why I made my travel blog into an actual career. But even the most experienced travel planners can make a mistake and that is exactly what happened on my trip to Crete, Greece. The good news is that I have learned from my mistakes and am bringing you a much revised and improved Crete itinerary based on the experience that I had while traveling to this beautiful Greek island.
I knew that the five days I had allotted in Crete would not be enough. All of the material I had read prior pretty much unanimously stated that seven days in Crete was the minimum amount you could spend on the largest Greek island. But, complicated ferry arrangements quickly brought those seven days down to five and I was confident that I could fit it all in.
There are a few different types of Crete trips that you could take. Many spend a couple weeks at a fancy resort or private villa near some of the beautiful beaches and rent a car to explore the various surrounding quaint, traditional Greek villages during the day. I’m fully on board with this decision, especially if you live in Europe and can come back anytime you want because a flight to Crete isn’t halfway across the world. But, Chania, Crete is magical and if this is your first time to the island and you don’t know when you’ll be back, I firmly believe that you should base yourself in this remarkable city.
If you do only have five days to spend in Crete, I would suggest only visiting Chania. My mistake was to pack in Heraklion and Rethymo too. And, if you have seven days, then you can add Heraklion and possibly Rethymo as well to your Crete itinerary.
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How to get to Crete
There are three airports in Crete – one in the capital, Heraklion, another in Chania, and a smaller airport in Sitia. Ideally, you will find a flight into Chania airport (CHQ). However, Chania airport has limited flight options, especially when you are traveling internationally. Even flying in from neighboring Rhodes, I found that the odds are much more likely that Heraklion (HER) will need to be your point of entry. If that’s the case, take the bus to Chania that evening or if you arrive too late in the day, stay overnight before boarding a bus to Chania that next morning. The ticket price from Heraklion to Crete is €15.10 and the trip takes about 3 hours.
5 Days in Chania
Crete Itinerary: Day 1
Arrive in Chania. As soon as you do, make sure that you speak with the hotel concierge or hostel front desk to book your tours for the upcoming days. Or, you can book in advance by contacting your accommodation before your trip or booking through GetYourGuide or Viator. Ideally, you will have hotel pickup for these excursions. The guided activities do sell out, so it is imperative to have them all set up and ready to go before you go off to sightsee that first day in Chania.
Spend the evening wandering the historical center and watching the sunset from the lighthouse. It may not look far, but it’s actually quite a distance around the perimeter of the town so make sure you leave 20 minutes or so for the walk. After the sun goes down, grab some food and drinks at one of the restaurants along the water. They are definitely touristy, but the view of the Chania harbor is so beautiful, I believe the majestic scenery and people watching is absolutely worth an overpriced meal.
Where to Stay in Chania
Casa Delfino Hotel and Spa: This boutique hotel, housed in a 17th century Venetian mansion, used to be the private home of the Delfino family. There are 24 well-appointed guest rooms and suites that mix traditional architecture with modern amenities. The hotel is right in the center of the old town near the restaurants, shops, and bars, but off of a quiet street and without noise. There’s a rooftop terrace to enjoy a cocktail with views of the harbor, a daily breakfast, and spa on the property.
Serenissima Boutique Hotel: Housed in a traditional Venetian townhouse, Serenissima is located right in the heart of Old Town Chania steps away from the harbour. With just seven rooms, expect super friendly and helpful staff. There is a warm breakfast included with your stay in the open air courtyard or restaurant. Serenissima does a wonderful job of balancing old world charm with modern amenities.
Cocoon City Hostel: If you are considering a hostel stay, Cocoon City is incredible. My friend and I booked a private room, but we were able to socialize with the others staying here at the same time. If they still have an option for breakfast, buy it! The greek yogurt and honey was absolutely delicious. It’s also centrally located as it’s just two blocks to the main bus station in the newer part of Chania but in walking distance (10 minutes ish) to the Old Town.
Crete Itinerary: Days 2-5
There are three major excursions to take near Chania: a visit to Elafonissi Beach, a hike down the Samaria Gorge, and a trip to Balos Lagoon. We were hoping to do some of these excursions on our own, but after consulting with an employee at the tourist information counter at the Chania bus station, we realized that booking organized tours would be the best way.
It is up to you whether you would like to see all three of these major sites and in what order. If you are in Chania, you have to see a minimum of one of these two famous beaches, and if you are in good shape, you should also consider hiking the Gorge. When choosing your excursion order, keep in mind that your muscles will be very sore after the Samaria Gorge hike so you will want to take it easy the next day. My preference would be Elafonisi Day 2, Samaria Gorge Day 3, Chania sightseeing Day 4, and Balos Day 5.
Otherwise known as pink beach, Elafonissi is a marvel both for its unique hue and because the beach is actually sandy and not rocky like so many of the popular beaches in Greece. Elafonissi is actually an island just 200 meters off the southwestern side of Crete and between the island and shore is a lagoon. The water is so shallow that you can simply walk from one to the other. There are a lot of sunbeds available for rent, but they usually fill up by late morning. Luckily, Elafonisi is one of the widest beaches on Crete, so keep on walking until you find a more private, secluded area to set up your beach towel. It might be windy though, so bring something weighty to keep your towel on the sand. For a more in-depth guide to Elafonissi Beach, check out this post.
How to get to Elafonisi from Chania
Elafonissi is about 75 kilometers from Chania and there are three viable options to get there and back.
- Take an organized tour. These guided activities are typically full-day experiences. You’ll be picked up in the morning quite early – ideally from your hotel or hostel – and you’ll be driven through the Topolia Gorge before heading to Elafonisi. Many of the tours stop at the Agia Sofia cave or Cave of the Gods which is a small monastery built into the side of a cave. You’ll also probably stop at a taverna on the way back to Chania. The tour I went on wasn’t phenomenal, but Elafonisi beach itself more than made up for it.
- Rent a car. I would only recommend this option if you are really comfortable driving in Greece because the road to Elafonisi is not easy. There are hairpin turns around mountain ridges. The pro of renting a car is that you can go on your own timetable and not at the same time of day when all of the tourists arrive.
- The public bus costs 11 euros and leaves at 9:00 AM from Chania. The ride takes approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes, but the bus doesn’t leave Elafonisi until around 4PM/ 5PM (17:00), which is quite a long time to spend there.
Samaria Gorge is not only a Greek national park but it is part of the world’s biosphere reserve. You can hike down through the gorge which is about 15 kilometers or 10 miles. The good news is that you’re going downhill the entire way except for one short uphill section, and the bad news, at least for my non-athletic friends, is that it’s a long way through.
Similar to Elafonisi Beach, you can do the Samaria Gorge hike on your own, but plan to drive down windy roads. It’s also an exhausting, but exhilarating day, so I think it’s quite nice to have someone else take care of the planning. With that said, your typical guided tour should be as follows: Pickup at your hotel between 5 AM and 6AM. I know, brutal, but the hike itself is 5 to 6 hours and you want to do it when it’s still shady and cool. At the end of the trek, you’ll end up in the village of Agia Roumeli which is accessible only by foot or boat. There will be some free time (around 2-3 hours) for lunch at a taverna or a swim in the Libyan Sea which is a highlight for many hikers after a long day of trekking. From there, you will take a ferry boat back to an awaiting bus which should drop you off back at your hotel in Chania. The drive is about two hours. You typically won’t get back until 8:30PM, so the tour might be even longer than the 12 hours the company claims it will be.
A few notes: The best shoes for this excursion would be walking boots or water hiking shoes like the Keen Whispers for women and the Keen Newport H2 for men. You will be walking on rocky terrain, so hiking poles are available to rent which will help you on the downhill. If you have an energy bar to bring with you that would be good to pack just in case and you could also bring your own sack lunch if you don’t want to wait until the end of the tour to eat at a taverna. Don’t forget a bathing suit, turkish towel, sunscreen, water shoes, hat, and a water bottle as there are places to fill up along the way. The hike through the gorge itself most likely won’t be guided, so you can go at your own pace, but the guide will keep you on track if you start to fall behind. The tours typically don’t include the entrance fee ( 5 euros) and the ferry ticket (11 euros) so make sure you have cash on hand.
Today will be a well deserved rest day. There’s plenty to see and do in the exquisite town of Chania, but you won’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get on a tour bus! A welcome reprieve. And a chance to gorge at your hotel’s complimentary breakfast. Two things to do in Chania stand out from the rest: walking along the Old Venetian Harbor to the Lighthouse of Chania at sunset and strolling the back alleys of Chania Old Town with the intention to get lost. Along the way, you will hopefully discover the Etz Hayyim synagogue, which was constructed in the 15th century but abandoned during Nazi occupation during WWII. Etz Hayyim has been restored by an American Jew of Greek heritage and is the only remaining synagogue in Crete. You can also stop in for a visit to the Greek National Football Museum which has a fantastic collection of football memorabilia and a passionate tour guide, Dimitris, to guide you through. There’s the Maritime Museum of Crete which is well-loved, and of course you’ll find a Greek Orthodox church, Cathedral of Eisodion tis Theotokou, and a municipal market. Rest your legs while sipping on a cappuccino freddo in the afternoon before your sunset stroll along the harbor, if you didn’t already do this night one.
Surprise! You’ve got another 12 hour day ahead of you. But once again, it will be worth it. And that’s because you will be wading in the most gorgeous turquoise blue waters you’ve probably even seen. As with everything in Crete, there are a couple of ways to get to Balos Beach. You’ll have to decide which of these options makes the most sense for you and your travel partners.
- Rent a car and drive about 56 kilometers from Chania to Kissamos. The last 10 kilometers will have you off-roading to the parking lot which may violate your rental car’s insurance policy. From there, you’ll hike for about 25 to 30 minutes down to the beach.
- If you take the guided tour from Chania, you won’t have to deal with the hassle of driving off-road or hiking down to the beach. You will have another 12 hour excursion because the first half of the tour begins with an exploration of the Venetian fortress on the island of Gramvousa. You’ll have about 2 and a half hours on the island before heading to Balos Beach where you’ll have 3 hours to swim and relax. The day will end with a boat ride back to Kissamos and a bus ride home to Chania with an approximate return time of 7PM.
- You can take the public bus from Chania to the Kissamos port instead of going on a guided tour, but you will be on the same boat as everyone else. The public bus leaves the central bus station in Chania at 8:30 AM. From there, you will ferry to Gramvousa at 10:00 AM where you will have time to spend before the 15 minute ride to Balos. The ferry is large and there is a good chance that it will be full; but, despite the number of people, the islands are expansive and you’ll have opportunity to scout out your own spot away from the crowds.You will take the ferry back to Kissamos at around 6:00 PM where you will take the public bus back to Chania. The ferry costs 27 euros and the public bus costs 13 euros each way.
Rethymno Crete (Optional)
Rethymnon is a super cute city, but I am not sure it’s worth the day trip if you are traveling from Chania to Heraklion and stopping here in between. This might be an unpopular option (I’m not quite sure) but it’s a bit of a hassle to transport your luggage and you probably won’t have too much time to really get a feel for the city. If you have the time to stay overnight and properly tour the 16th century fortress, meander the streets, and eat at some quality restaurants, then Rethymo would be worth the stop. So, depending on the duration of your trip and the number of activities you do in Chania, this may or may not be a worthwhile pitstop for you.
Where to Stay in Rethymnon
Avli Lounge Apartments: Stay in one of 10 stunning suites in the heart of Old Town Rethymno. Your suite will be located in one of three renovated 15th century Venetian mansions. The property also has a gorgeous garden courtyard and award-winning fine dining restaurant. You’ll receive a welcome drink upon arrival and daily breakfast. Avli
Rimondi Boutique Hotel: Located in a 15th century renovated mansion, 32 rooms and suites comprise the Rimondi Boutique Hotel which is a members of the prestigious, Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The property is a bit of an oasis with two small pools, a rooftop terrace, fresh breakfast, and complimentary beverages upon arrival. If you choose to stay at this property, book a room overlooking the pool area!
Days 6 and 7: Heraklion
Palace of Knossos and Archaeological Museum
Heraklion is the largest port city and capital of Crete, so odds are you’ll end up here at some point during your trip to Crete. Not only is there a high likelihood that your flight or ferry will arrive or leave from here, but the famed Minoan palace is located just 20 minutes south of Heraklion, the Palace of Knossos. I personally didn’t find Heraklion to be the most charming city, so I would stay here for a day or two to see the important sights and then move along. One absolute standout however – and this is big for me because I rarely shout out specific restaurants – is eating authentic Cretan cuisine at Peskesi. It’s one of those meals that you’ll think about years later. Be sure to make a reservation.
If you have the energy to pack in Knossos, Peskesi, and the Archaeological Museum in one day, then I say go for it. My travel companion did it, but it wasn’t easy. Otherwise, you’ll visit one main attraction each day and hopefully head off on your next adventure mid-day on Day 7.
Some logistics for Palace of Knossos and the Archaeological Museum:
- Buy the combined ticket for the Palace of Knossos and the Archaeological Museum. It costs 16 euros and you have 72 hours to visit both. It only costs one euro more than a full-priced ticket for Knossos.
- There are pros and cons when determining which to visit first. You might have a better understanding of what you are seeing at Knossos if you visit the Archaeological Museum first, but it’s also nice to get Knossos out of the way because it is a short bus trip out of Heraklion.
- It will be extremely hot and there is no shade at Knossos. Go either first thing in the morning BEFORE the tour groups get there (unless you are on one of those tours) or an hour or two closing.
- The bus system is really easy to figure out. Tickets cost 1€ – 2€ each way. You leave from Bus Station A in Heraklion and get off at the final stop, Knossos.
- You can book a tour in advance, hire a bilingual tour guide onsite, purchase a self-guided audio tour for about $20, or walk through on your own. Unless you are history buff, I don’t recommend the latter. The Palace of Knossos is a ruined archaeological site and you simply won’t know what you’re looking at without some sort of educational component. I personally don’t think it’s worth paying to visit if you have no idea what you’re looking at.
- Knossos is almost completely reconstructed. After all, It is 8000 years old. So have your expectations in check before you visit. It’s a polarizing attraction. Some love and some could do without, but I do believe it’s worth a visit if you have any interest in learning about the oldest civilization in Europe.
Where to Stay in Heraklion
GDM Megaron Hotel: Since you’re staying in the big city, it’s time to upgrade to a more city-like hotel. GDM Megaron is a luxury historical property – it was built in 1925 – overlooking the harbor and in walking distance from everywhere you need to be. The pool on the top level boasts incredible views of the Venetian port, The rooms are very spacious, and the breakfast might be the best you’ve ever had.
Kastro Hotel: The Kastro Hotel is a perfect place to stay if you are looking to spend the night in Heraklion before taking a ferry or flight to your next destination. I ended up staying at this property for about 50 euros a night which was very reasonable as a solo traveler. It has been recently refurbished, the rooms are very clean, it’s centrally located, there is a rooftop terrace, and breakfast is included.
Where Should You Visit After Crete?
If you would like to extent your Greece vacation – and you absolutely should for as long as you can – some of the most accessible Greek islands to get to from Crete are a 2-hour ferry to Santorini, a 4-hour ferry to Paros, or a one hour flight to Rhodes.
I know that I’ve stressed the importance of timing 3,426 times in this post, but I hope this is helpful for you as you plan your trip to Crete, Greece. Do you have any questions or recommendations for things to do in Crete? Let us know in the comments below! And don’t forget to check out these other posts about Greece on World On A Whim!