Of the thousands of Greek islands, one holds a very special place in my heart—Crete. With sandy shores, rugged terrain, bustling nightlife, ancient treasures, and world-renowned gastronomy, Crete is a feast for the senses. Everyone agrees Greek hospitality rates a ten on a scale of ten. However, Cretan hospitality rates a 20. Cretans robustly share their traditions with friends and strangers over endless drinks and abundant food, providing an experience like nowhere else in the world.
But that’s only half of it. My Greek roots span much of mainland Greece, but my Cretan roots are what I am most proud of. My yiayia and other Cretan women have taught me the most about cooking, and I’ve danced in Cretan groups my whole life. Whenever I step foot on Cretan soil, a feeling of pride and excitement rushes through me.
Crete is the largest and most populated island in Greece, making it impossible to get the full feel of Crete in anything less than one week or just one trip. But let’s try. Let’s pack our bags and head to Crete. We’ll explore my favorite beaches, activities, and of course, food. Let’s pack our bags and head to Crete. Here are five things to do and see in Crete:
Spend time in Old Town Chania:
If you only have a short amount of time on Crete, I suggest you stay in or near Chania. Chania ranks as my favorite city in all of Greece. It’s a prime location to nearby beaches and easy access to Samaria Gorge, Lake Kournas, and the Chrysoskalitissa Monastery, an impressive 17th century whitewashed Orthodox monastery that overlooks the sea. Chania creates its own vacation. If you have just one or two days to visit, stick with the city itself, and thoroughly experience the charming area known as Old Town.
The heart of Chania beats loudest in the summer months. With Old Town’s cobblestone streets and labyrinthine alleys, it draws locals and world travelers alike. However organic the town’s layout may be, Old Town feels like home—a place I can navigate as if I’ve lived there my whole life. Wherever you walk, past and present meld marvelously into each other. Various civilizations and intruders have left their mark on the town over the centuries, and many of the monuments and structures remain.
You must visit the ever-impressive Venetian harbor. It’s almost as if a paintbrush ran through the waterfront restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, and cafes, all painted in colorful shades. To best navigate the harbor, stand dead center and face the sea. To the left, the old Jewish Quarter embraces the Etz Hayyim Synagogue and the Maritime Museum, which covers history from the Bronze Age to present. To your right, you’ll see the round domed Mosque of the Janissaries, built in 1645, now used as an exhibition hall. In front of you is the most recognizable relic of the harbor, the Venetian lighthouse, one of the oldest in the world, and the jewel of Chania city.
Take a seat in any one of the tavernas long enough to appreciate a sunset on the harbor. This is the one time a day the harbor quiets down as onlookers pause and the sea reflects the sun ravishing the horizon with bright hues. You’ll never forget it. Before I leave Crete, I always make a point to stop at the Municipal Market (also called the agora) to smuggle some goodies back with me, such as honey and herbs that I can cook with at home. At the agora, you’ll find over 60 shops selling everything from local crafts, sweets, and souvenirs to fresh produce, meats and fish. Head to Municipal Market. Be amazed and shop like a Greek.
Visit a village:
To truly experience the essence of Crete, venture outside the bigger well-known cities of Chania, Rethymno, and Heraklion and into a smaller Cretan horio (village). It seems like there’s village after small village on Crete, mostly untouched by mass tourism and filled with alluring beauty and ancient history. At nearly every Cretan village you’ll be greeted with open arms, unforgettable smiles, and not just a sip of firewater tsikoudia, locals will try sending you home with a full bottle.
One such village is Gavalochori, just 20 miles from Chania. My great grandfather Emmanuel Constantine Nebavlakis left Gavalochori in 1906 to start a new life in America, working the coal mines in Carbon County, Utah. Seeing his house, painted an off-white tone with brown wooden blinds, makes me feel humble and grounded. The cracked red doorway is just steps away from the Aposperitis taverna, where they serve the best snails I have ever eaten.
Gavalochori is also home to a Historical and Folklore Museum, devoted to honoring traditional crafts such as time-treasured kopaneli, an old bobbin-lace weaving technique preserved by the village women. For history lovers, there are ancient Venetian Wells, a historic Roman Cemetery, and many old churches.
Other notable villages:
Anogia: Located on Mount Psiloritis, this village offers plenty of cafes in the town square where locals will often greet you. The area, known for its stockbreeding, guarantees you can’t go wrong ordering roasted lamb.
Chora Sfakion: Sfakia is one of the few areas in Greece said to have never been fully conquered by occupiers, turning away oppressors, from the Venetians to the Turks to the Germans in WWII. Sfakia’s capital, Chora Sfakion, is located right where the rugged mountains meet the deep sea. This is the place to get some sfakianes pites, traditional cheese filled pies named for the region.
Loutro: A peaceful seaside village situated between a turquoise bay and rocky mountains. There are no roads leading to Loutro—the only means of accessing this secluded village is by boat. What’s not to love?
Matala: A beach village with laid back atmosphere and hippie vibes left over from the 1960s. On the beach, you’ll find unusual rock formations and mysterious caves where counterculture kids once lived. Matala impressed Joni Mitchell enough to write about it in her song “Carey” that celebrates the local Mermaid Cafe and beautiful Matala moon.
Spili: Lush, green, and very serene, spili in Greek means cave, and you’ll see caves aplenty dotting the nearby hills. Old cobblestone streets, magnificent arches, and lush vegetation are just a small bit of what Spili offers. In the town center, a marble Venetian fountain spews fresh water from 25 sculptured lion heads in a long row that can’t be missed. Your camera will thank you.
I am fascinated by the Minoan civilization that flourished on Crete for 2,000 years, until it abruptly ended around 1,500 BC. The Minoans were especially known for their elaborate palaces, the most famous being Knossos. Also known as the Palace of Minos (named after King Minos, the first king of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa, ruler of the Minoans), Knossos is among the most ancient cities in Europe.
Knossos has been partially restored and is a remarkable sight. The complex, beautifully-constructed raised walkways weave in and out of various rooms and structures. Impressive frescoes adorn building walls, with support from massive columns (restored to their original blood-red color). Walking around Knossos, you get a great sense of its unique history.
To find even more treasures that adorned Knossos Palace, be sure to stop by the Heraklion Archeological Museum in the town center of Heraklion. It holds some of the greatest artifacts from all around Crete.
Hike Samaria Gorge:
I have hiked, climbed, and ran up the mountains that are just minutes from my home in Utah, therefore I look for similar activities in any place I visit. In Crete, I love trekking the Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Greece and one of the longest in Europe. The epic 16-kilometer trail begins high in the White Mountains at Omalos and ends at the coastal village of Agia Roumeli in the Sfakia region.
Along the trail, you’ll find ancient Byzantine churches, remnants of a small village, and the elusive kri-kri, the wild mountain goats of Crete, believed to have been around since prehistoric times. Samaria Gorge became a national park in 1962 to protect these animals. Cretans identify with the kri-kri: independent, strong, and tough.
Your downhill scramble nears its end when you reach the stretch known as the “Iron Gates.” Here, the gorge closes to a width of about 12 feet and upwards to nearly 1,000 feet. The rocky trail flattens out and continues on to a great reward: the chance to dip your feet into the cool, Libyan Sea and to walk into a nearby tavern to get some sfakianes pites before catching the ferry to Chora Sfakion and your awaiting bus.
Take a cooking class:
There’s no better way to learn about a different culture than through its cuisine, so I suggest everyone take a cooking class. You can find them all over Crete, but the class I recommend takes place at the Metochi Farmhouse in Kissamos. I took the class in September 2017 with a group of 20 fellow cooks. That evening of stuffing farm fresh tomatoes and rolling thick Cretan dough made for one of my favorite nights ever spent in Greece.
Our hostess, also named Eleni, stood side by side with her mother Chrisoula in the shade of a lovely vine-covered patio and talked us through Cretan hospitality, culture, food and fun. At this point we already had our money’s worth. I admired the rural atmosphere, the clucking chickens, and the strength of the beams that Eleni’s grandfather had used to build the house—but I honestly could not wait to start cooking. We carved and stuffed vegetables for yemista, and whipped up tzatziki, horiatiki salata, and dolmades. We toured the property, where Eleni showed off their free-range chickens and sheep, then walked us through an enormous vegetable garden surrounded by vast olive groves. Wine tasting in their rustic cellar caused the group spirit to come alive.
Back in the kitchen, we packed around the table to watch Chrisoula’s magic hands turn cups of flour and water into a huge batch of dough in a matter of minutes. With rolling pins in hands, we each wrestled a small portion of dough to roll into long thin sheets. Eleni spooned a kingdom’s worth of mizithra cheese on top, folded the dough over to seal the cheese, cut diagonal slices, and laid them aside for frying later. Yes, dear reader, we would fry these kalitsounia (Cretan cheese pies) for dessert.
When it was finally time to enjoy the fruits of our labor, Eleni sat us all around the table and poured glasses of tsikoudia (aka tsispouro on the mainland). She raised her glass of spirits, toasted our group, and wished for our safe return home, asking us to always remember her family. We will.
The evening at the Metochi Farmhouse taught us more than how to cook and enjoy Cretan dishes. Our hosts showed us what Crete is all about—simple and healthy food prepared with fresh ingredients, good drinks, and superior parea (joyous, spirited company). Email firstname.lastname@example.org for an inquiry.
BONUS! Find a painting of me:
I reached my peak coolness in life several years ago. As one of my friends strolled in and out of shops in Chania, he noticed a familiar face in an art shop. It was me. No, not me, me. That would be creepy. I was home in Utah. What he saw was a painting of me dancing with my friend Mary Papadakis. We were in traditional Cretan dancing costumes, from the elaborate silky red headscarf, past the loose trousers that hug the ankles, all the way down to strappy black-heeled shoes.
He sent a photo of the painting with the text “Found a painting of you and Mary.” After three minutes of freak out time, I began to wonder how this painting came to be. The shop owner told my friend that the painter searched for Cretan dancers online and discovered a picture of Mary and me dancing at the Utah Greek Festival. Later, my friend found yet another painting in a totally different shop. He brought back both paintings, so now Mary and I have a copy in our homes.
The coolness goes on: There have been at least two more sightings of this painting. In 2017, I was in a group tour in Chania when one of our fellow travelers hollered at me to come over. Everyone grabbed their cameras, and we held a little photoshoot right there as I held yet another painting outside an art shop. I felt like a celebrity with ten different cameras flashing at once. We left the painting there for someone else to find.
One year later, yet another friend found the painting in Chania in another yet art shop. Who knows how many more Eleni and Mary paintings have yet to be discovered? If you find one on your Cretan adventure, please share.
Don’t leave Crete without feasting on . . .
Bougatsa: The first thing you must do when you arrive in Crete, even before you set your bags down and check into your hotel, is take a seat in any cafe and order bougatsa. Well, when in Chania, do as Chaniots do—don’t go to any cafe, order from Bougatsa Iordanis. This shop has been serving the popular phyllo pastry for nearly 100 years, so you know they’re doing it right. Look for the long lines of hungry diners eager to get their bite. Order the bougatsa with mizithra cheese, my absolute favorite. Or, if you have a sweeter tooth, the creamy custard version topped with cinnamon and sugar will satisfy.
Boureki: Crete just might be the best place for any veggie lover to visit. Here, Cretans have mastered hearty vegetable dishes. Cretan boureki (vegetable pie) makes a wonderful example with its thick layers of thinly cut zucchini and potatoes. A hint of mint and a combination of Cretan cheeses enhance the flavorful dish.
Chochlioi Boubouritsi: After a rainy day, the locals hunt for snails to make chochlioi boubouritsi (fried snails). The snails are carefully cleaned, tossed in flour, coated in extra virgin olive oil, topped with herbs, and doused in vinegar in a fry pan. Voila! Snails are a delicacy to the Cretans, too.
Dakos: Ah, dakos, one of my absolute favorites. This dish will certainly catch your eye: a hard barley rusk topped with juicy tomatoes, creamy mizithra cheese, a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and a Kalamata olive on top for a finishing touch. It may look like a snack but dakos will fill you up.
Kalitsounia: Baked or fried, you can’t have just one kalitsounia even if you try. These handheld pies are traditionally made with a thick dough and filled with local Cretan cheese. A drizzle of honey on top makes them all the more addicting.
Sfakiani pita: Sfakiani pita, a scrumptious pie of local fame from the mountainous region of Sfakia, sells all over Crete. It’s so good it couldn’t stay local. Sfakianes pites resemble a really thin crepe or pancake made all the more glorious where the dough wraps around a ball of mizithra before it’s flattened out and fried to perfection. Top yours with lots of honey, please.
Staka: Two words: fatty cream. Made from the residue from sheep or goat milk and thickened with flour, staka is truly rich and creamy. Much like a roux, staka can be used to thicken soups and sauces. But the Cretans take staka even further and serve this crazy-rich sauce as a delicious dip for bread or fries, and even mix it in with eggs. A wonderful indulgence indeed.
Tsikoudia: It would be virtually impossible to leave Crete without trying even a sip of tsikoudia (aka raki or tsipouro). Restaurant owners bring out this strong spirit after every meal as a sign of hospitality and gratitude for your visit. Take a sip and toast to your trip!
Xerotigana: Xerotigana (which translates to dry fries and sometimes called diples in other regions of Greece) makes pastry freaks happy. This light dough fried in olive oil, soaked in honey, and topped with sesame seeds or chopped nuts deserves your taste buds’ full attention. Notice a theme here? Cretans love their honey! Xerotigana are traditionally served at weddings or other special occasions, yet some restaurants will feature this treat on their menu so keep your eyes peeled.