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I just came back from Greece and I definitely fell in love with Crete. Crete is Greece’s largest island and although I’d encourage you to stay longer than five days, that’s all the time that we had in Crete. Of all the places that we visited in Greece, the food was best in Crete along with the prices for shopping. As it was a quick trip, we chose to explore Crete without a car. I hope that this Crete itinerary with some helpful tips if you have limited time!
My Cretan itinerary
- Day 1: Heraklion/Palace of Knossos
- Day 2: Rethymno
- Day 3: Chania
- Day 4: Day trip elsewhere in Crete
- Day 5: Heraklion/Winery day trip!
We traveled around exclusively by public bus in Crete. Although you’ll find many other guides to Crete promoting day trips and tours, if you stick to the Western part of Crete with staying in the major cities, you’ll manage perfectly well to get around by public bus between attractions. If you get frustrated, you can always rent a car for the day to go further, but we were happy to take things a bit slower and be able to enjoy our free raki bottles that came with free dessert with every meal that we had in Crete.
I heard poor things about public transit in Crete, however, I found it fairly easy beyond the fact that Google Maps wasn’t working for us. The most important thing is to find the intercity main bus station in Crete’s major cities. Here, you’ll be able to pick up a copy of the bus schedule and things generally run on time. Intercity Buses run between the major cities about once an hour. You can pay by debit or credit card. A contactless card makes it quicker to pay.
I cannot gush enough about the quality of Cretan food and wine, especially the local varieties of red wine. Be sure to find a good spot to enjoy the sunset with a glass of wine if you drink!
Day 1: Heraklion / Palace of Knossos
Heraklion is the capital of Crete and although it rarely receives a lot of love among travelers, I actually was quite a fan of Heraklion for its lovely nightlife, great food, and fantastic local wine (more about that later!). Heraklion is not as beautiful as other Cretan cities, but it’s a good base for day trips and you’ll definitely eat well here.
We flew into the Heraklion airport and departed from the port of Heraklion, which provides the best connections to nearby islands (Santorini) and Athens. (Note: It is also possible to fly into Chania.) It was fairly easy to find the bus stop that brought us from the airport to the city center by purchasing a ticket from the booth by the bus stop. It should cost about 10 euros to take a taxi to the center of Heraklion from the airport.
From the bus station, you can head into the city center to drop off your items. (If you don’t, you can leave your bags near the entrance of the Palace of Knossos) In order to head to the palace of Knossos, you can pick up a local bus ticket for less than 2 euros per way to take the bus within Heraklion towards Knossos.
The Palace of Knossos is truly impressive and a nice introduction to the long history of Crete. This sprawling palace is partially dating back to 2000 B.C. and it is one of the largest Minoan palaces. Although it’s mostly in ruins, a restoration was attempted in the 1900s, which you can judge on your own. Unfortunately, much of the original artifacts are held in the Heraklion Museum, but it is still impressive. If you have time, I’d recommend going to both. It wasn’t crowded when we went, but you can purchase skip-the-line tickets if you are visiting in peak season!
We ended up exploring Heraklion Fortress, which was a few euros to enter. I learned a lot here about the Ottoman-period of Crete and Cretan history. The views from the top are pretty sublime and it was a really lovely spot to watch the sunset from! The fortress has been well-restored and it’s easy to spend at least an hour exploring the various rooms.
We stayed at the budget-friendly So Young Hostel in a private room although those seeking a bit more comfort might prefer Crops Suites. The location of the hostel was really nice and the rooftop with a friendly hostel dog was a nice touch. It was a short walk to the hopping bars and restaurants of Heraklion and the receptionists were incredibly helpful giving us stellar recommendations!
The Greeks eat particularly late, so don’t be afraid to pick up a snack to help yourself last until 9-10pm. I stopped off at crump bakery for a vegan-friendly snack! Chagiati came highly recommended by our local receptionist, but you need to arrive early or make a reservation to come here. We ended up at Hairi, a newer Cretan restaurant with a chef focusing on local ingredients and traditional food. The food was seriously sublime.
After a good meal, we went out for cocktails at Xalavro Open Bar, which has some nice twists on the traditional cocktail. The music and atmosphere were really great and it was full of locals. You’ll find a number of great bars in this area as well as on the other side of Lion Square.
Day 2: Rethymno
I loved Rethymno, which was our base for the majority of our time in Crete. Depending on your interests, I’d say that it would make more sense to stay longer in Chania or Heraklion if you’re interested in exploring more of the island as there are more buses onwards and more tours departing from other cities. Rethymno worked well for us as we were happy to relax in the city center, but if you are less interested in cities, it’s best to book only one night in Rethymno.
Rethymno is a charming Cretan city with a stunning Old Town full of picturesque alleyways. Compared to Chania, it’s quieter, but the fact that so many people only come for a day trip means that nighttime allows you to wander the streets without much fuss and sit down at a charming cafe without a wait. For shopping (particularly for souvenirs/leather goods), I found the prices here some of the best that I saw for similar goods elsewhere on Crete and far better than Athens or Santorini.
We visited Rethmyno’s Fortezza, a fortress from the 16th century, which has stunning views over the water and the city. I found it worthwhile to walk around, but many of the main highlights of the city are free to see, including the old Venetian lighthouse where we spent sunset. There’s also a nice beach very close to the city center where my friend took a dip while I had a beer.
For coffee, I loved the artisanal coffee at Brew Your Mind, which was our morning stop-off. For a snack (or a hearty lunch), stop for authentic Cretan pastries at Ο Φούρνος του Νύκταρη, which was the favorite of our host. There’s one dedicated vegan restaurant here (Let’s Vegan). We had a number of good meals here although I really liked the atmosphere of Bakalogatos. For a more casual meal, we went to Bar B.Q. for souvlaki, probably the best that I had while in Greece!
We stayed at Barbara Studios, a cozy guesthouse in a 1600s Venetian building with a stunning garden and a very central location in the Old town. The owners are incredibly welcoming and we loved their food recommendations, especially their favorite bakery. The welcome raki was a nice touch, which we enjoyed on the balcony.
You could definitely book some day trips from Rethymno (if you choose to stay here!) either through GetyourGuide for a bit more certainty or Happy Walkers. I tried to book hiking a day trip to more rural parts of Crete through Happy Walkers, but there weren’t enough people to make the trip and I regretted not booking in advance for a different day trip to more rural parts of Crete, including mountain villages.
Day 3: Chania
Chania was definitely one of the highlights of our five-day trip to Crete! This charming former capital of Crete oozes beauty and quiet. Its picturesque alleyways were idyllic to experience although you’ll experience more crowds here than other cities in Greece as some cruises stop here. Still, it’s calm compared to Santorini and Athens! All the Greeks that I met raved about Chania and I totally understand why now.
It’s an easy one hour (ish) ride from Chania to Heraklion although I’d recommend considering moving your bags with you. I write this simply because a day in Chania is enough, but you’ll definitely want to experience the sunset and a nice meal here. We didn’t stay overnight, but I was kicking myself for not doing so. You’ll find many charming boutique hotels in Chania and I will stay at Ionas Boutique Hotel (which I had bookmarked!) when I return to Chania hopefully next year.
Walking around Chania is a delight. I ended up buying a dress from a boutique along the main square and those looking for a bargain will love the Chania Market. For lunch, we enjoyed a delicious Greek vegan meal at Pulse after exploring the port and the picturesque alleyways near Theotokopoulou.
The Etz Hayyim Synagogue is free to visit although I recommend carrying some cash to make a donation. This restored synagogue in operation after a pause after the Holocaust was lovingly restored in the 1950s. I recommend reading about its history inside! (No photos allowed.) After, we stopped for a drink at a local bar with a lot of flair: ABABA.
Part of Chania’s charm is found in its cafes and we found the locals incredibly friendly! We ended up spending the afternoon sitting at a cozy rock bar with a kitten in my lap. (I was the assigned babysitter to keep an eye on the kitten who was due to be adopted in two days while the shopkeepers worked!) Finally, we watched the sunset by the old Venetian port, which was one of the most beautiful sunsets that I’ve ever seen.
Day 4: Day trip elsewhere in Crete
If you’ve only been to the North, I recommend taking a day trip to the south of Crete. We ended up taking a bus to Plakias although Agia Galini is also a popular destination! You’ll find many day trips both east, west, and south in Crete depending on whether you’re staying in Rethymno, Chania, or Heraklion. I’d say that it’s easiest from Heraklion to find day trips, but it is possible by public bus to visit some other towns if you’re less keen on group tours.
Plakias is a quiet beach town on the other side of the White Mountains, which means that your bus ride will be absolutely epic as you pass through some of Crete’s most impressive gorges! (It was about an hour bus ride from Rethymno to Plakias.)
My friend who is a beach lover loved the soft sand along the beach, which wasn’t too crowded in September. You’ll also find a number of cute tavernas to get a nice meal. We stopped at Ταβέρνα Θρούμπι for a snack, which included the best octopus that we tried while we were in Greece.
One of the highlights of visiting Plakias is the short 30-minute walk up to the neighboring town of Mirthios for incredible views over the sea and the surrounding landscape. (The path begins near the Youth Hostel Plakias!) We had lunch at Taverna Panorama, which is a cozy family-run taverna with delicious food.
We quite enjoyed our lunch before exploring the old village and shopping at one of the cute locally run jewelry shops in town (Lithos). The prices here were far better than prices in the major cities in Greece that we saw and I am very glad that I got earrings here. ( I regretted not getting more handmade pieces!)
The town is fairly small and easy to explore on foot, but it’s the perfect place to relax on a slow afternoon. We quite enjoyed seeing all the olive oil trees on the way up only to try the organic olive oil down in Plakias with fresh bread. After a relaxing day and a dip in the sea, we took the last bus home just in time for dinner near our hotel.
Day 5: Relax in Heraklion/Visit a Cretan Winery
My last day in Crete was a relaxing one and I ended up taking it easy as I had an early morning ferry the next day to Santorini. We stayed at the budget-friendly So Young Hostel in a private room, which was close to the port and affordable. Heraklion is one of Crete’s major ports, which is why I recommend returning here if you intend to continue onwards through Greece by ferry. (Even for those who get seasick, the SeaJets Santorini-Crete ferry is large enough that you won’t feel it!)
Heraklion is a great base if you’re interested in doing a wine tasting and you don’t have a car. (Don’t drink and drive!) For those who are on a budget or simply prefer do day trips on their own, you can take the local bus going towards Knossos to get to Boutari winery. It’s a little bit of a walk, but you can get pretty close. (I recommend checking the Moovit app for Crete public transit!) You can also take a taxi here for 10-15 euros. Ask for the meter to be on.
Boutari is one of the Crete’s better-known wineries and it’s worth coming here if you’re looking for the full winery experience. It’s best to reserve in advance as they take pride in giving attention to all their visitors and it’s possible to also have a meal here. The wine from Boutari is really lovely, but so is all the Cretan wine that we tried in both white and red varieties. You’ll need to pay some money for the tasting, but it’s perfectly possible to come here without a tour.
If you have more limited time or Boutari is full, you can also try to visit Michalakis Estate, which is quite close to Heraklion Airport although you’ll need to take a taxi here. Call ahead for a tasting.
Another option for those short on time (and luck) is Alexaki Winery, which is Crete’s largest exporter of wine. We went here by taxi (10-15 euros per way) and the tasting was nice, but, unfortunately, this location is more of a processing plant than a traditional winery. You don’t get the gorgeous view of the vineyard, but the wine was still quite nice and we were able to do a tasting on short notice after calling an hour ahead.
Although you can do more wine tourism in other cities, I found the wineries most accessible by independent travel from Heraklion. (Please do not drink and drive! The winery that we visited was happy to call us a taxi after we did a tasting of five wines.) If you’re interested in visiting more than one winery in one day, book a wine tour in advance to visit Crete’s fantastic wineries.
All in all, Crete was a fantastic destination for a relaxing getaway in Greece. You certainly do not need to go with a packaged tour or even rent a car in order to enjoy Crete. I hope that this little five-day itinerary helped you plan your trip to Crete!