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Fasolada (Greek Bean Soup)

Considered a national dish of Greece, fasolada represents the country’s frugal and healthy style of cuisine all in one bowl. Made with a hearty combination of white beans, chopped vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, a handful of herbs, and a robust sauce, fasolada is a meal meant to last for days.

Though fasolada is traditionally a thick soup, I like more sauce to mine, as I do with most soups and stews, because that equals more opportunity for bread dunking. And who doesn’t love carbs soaked in sauce? Complement fasolada with a salty side dish, such as anchovies, feta cheese or your favorite olive type.

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Fasolada (Greek Bean Soup)
Recipe type: Vegetarian/Lenten
Serves: 6-8 bowls
 
Fasolada, the national dish of Greece.
Ingredients
  • 16 oz white navy beans (I prefer medium or large sized)
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 yellow onions, diced
  • 3 large carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
  • 4 celery stalks plus their leaves, chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 16 oz tomato sauce (or tomato passata)
  • 2 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 6 cups of water, plus more if needed
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon oregano, or more to taste
  • ½ tsp chili flakes (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, for serving
Instructions
  1. The night before: rinse the beans and add to a bowl and cover with water to soak overnight (up to 24 hours). When ready to use, rinse and drain the beans.
  2. In a large pot, bring a pot of water to a boil and add the beans. As the beans cook, you may notice a white foam rise to the surface. If so, be sure to remove with a spoon.
  3. Meanwhile, heat half of the olive oil in frying pan over medium heat. Add onions, carrots, and celery and sprinkle with pepper and oregano to taste. Cook until vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another 5 minutes.
  4. To the pot, add the vegetables, tomato sauce, tomato paste, bay leaf, vegetable broth and the remaining olive oil. Be sure there is enough liquid to cover the beans.
  5. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to low/medium and slow simmer for about 1 ½ to 2 hours. Occasionally check the soup and add more water if necessary.
  6. Towards the end of the cooking process, season with salt and pepper to taste, plus chili flakes if desired. Continue to slow simmer until the soup has thickened and beans have softened.
  7. Stir in the red wine vinegar at the end to taste.
Notes
Fasolada is even better the next day, as the ingredients sit and develop together. Reheat in a pot on the stove and add more water or vegetable broth.

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20 Beaches of Greece

Let me help narrow the field of amazing Greek beaches to relish. With a coastline of 8,498 miles, Greece challenges tourists and locals alike. In a good way! For every new beach found, another discovery awaits. Whether your mood is mellow or high energy, whether you prefer to lie on pebbles or sink your toes in the sand—you’ll find your perfect beach experience on either the mainland or one of the numerous islands. I’m happy to provide a short list of can’t-miss beaches that my dear Instagram followers assure me are THE BEST. Because I have not combed every single Greek beach, you’ll have to take their enthusiastic words for it.

On Instagram, I simply posted a picture with the instructions to leave a comment with a name of their favorite beach in Greece with a short why. The endorsements below came from local Greeks in Greece, as well as Greeks living in America, Australia, South Africa, Trinidad and the UK. The results cover nearly every corner of Greece and range from beaches that cater to families, have great beach food, possess perfect Instagram photo-shoots or glorious backdrops, and offer enough water activities to pack into ten lifetimes. Enjoy.

 

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Image made by Rachel Scott

1. Arillas Beach, Corfu
“I spent every summer growing up on this beach! Great memories, sunsets, and family.” –@thegreeknyc

2. Kolymbithres Beach, Paros
“Clear water and lots of fun rocks for insta- photoshoots.”  –@i.pateras

3. Sarakiniko Beach, Milos
“It’s stunningly picturesque surrounded by white rock, and with water so clear you can see the ocean floor! Its beauty is so unique that I felt like I was in a dream rather than experiencing reality.” –@diannayota

4. Navagio Beach (Shipwreck Bay), Zakynthos
“When you are there you truly feel like you are on another planet. There really isn’t anything like it!” –@iamgreece

5. Paraga Beach, Mykonos
“The beach offers something for everyone. Party- goers can find their rhythm at Kalua Beach Bar, while others can rent a comfortable lounge chair with a large umbrella, and relax until their heart’s content. Need a good Instagram? The mermaid rock about 30 yards from the shore will do the trick.” –@realchriscohen

6. Falasarna Beach, Crete
“Truly breathtakingly beautiful and crystal turquoise blue water.” –@paraskivoula

7. Vroulidia Beach, Chios
“The walk down to the beach is absolutely beautiful. The turquoise water contrasts with white cliffs perfectly. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can swim out to a natural landing off the cliffs and do some light climbing (mountain goat style).” –@mathoula11

8. Apella Beach, Karpathos

“Surrounded by mountains and pine trees and I’ll never forget the color of the water. AMAZING!!” –@_my_greece_

9. Kathisma Beach, Lefkada
“You can rock jump, swim, and hang glide all in one place!” –@greeks_at_their_finest

10. Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia
“Breathtaking drive to the beach, with clear blue warm water.” –@theoliveandmango

11. Kamari Beach, Santorini
“An amazing ‘black beach’ in Santorini with black pebbles and clear water, with a view of a white cliff to the right, and an endless sea view to the left.” –@marinasavva007

12. Agios Nikolaos Alikis Beach, Paros
“The water is crystal clear, it is a sandy beach,
and it does not have many tourists. Secluded and romantic, it suits individuals, couples and families.” –@createcookshare

13. Palionisos Beach, Kalymnos
“The pebbled beach lies in a beautiful ord-like bay with the calmest, clearest water I’ve ever seen. There are usually a handful of sailboats anchored deep in the bay, making for some awesome IG photos! Oh, and there’s a lady that makes loukoumades right on the beach that are so amazing!” –@marialopu

14. Agia Dynami Beach, Chios
“Feels like you’re in the Bahamas. Crystal clear water, scenic drive on the way there and off the beaten path.” –@vasilaki25

15. Koukounaires Beach, Skiathos

Ultra-fine golden sand, surrounded by a pine forest. Arguably one of the most beautiful beaches in Greece! –@magdatsagaris

16. Agios Stefanos Beach, Kos
“It’s stunning. You arrive down at a beautiful beach with ruins on your left and a long stretch of sand to your right. Ahead of you is a tiny, mountain island with the chapel of Agios Stefanos on top. People love to swim or paddle board out to the island to pay their respects and cliff dive the other side.” –@varahlynette

17. Navarino Beach, Kalamata
“The water is crystal clear, warm and calm, since it lies in the center of the Messinian Gulf. It’s a long and wide beach, and the magnificent Mount Taygetos is visible no matter where you are on the beach.” –@miakouppa

18. Vasiliki Beach, Lefkada
“It’s beautiful, great food to be had nearby and although it is a bit windy this makes it the perfect wind sailing and surfing beach. Of course, Porto Katsiki and Kathisma are also on the island and are STUNNING.” –@starsandstatic

19. Elafonisi Beach, Crete
“The water was beautiful. Crystal clear water and the sand was divine!”
-@glutenfreegreekuk

20. Diakofti Beach, Kythira
“My happy place! Golden sand, turquoise waters and more than enough wonderful memories to see me through rainy UK winters.” –@pollynostimos

Garbanzo Bean Greek Salad

Well composed and packed with flavorful ingredients, Greek salads can’t be beat. Those flavors, however, do have room to be elevated. Simply use all the Greek salad mixings (tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers, olives, feta) as a base and add ingredients you enjoy. For me, the addition of garbanzo beans and avocados takes this classic to new heights and greater textures. Plus, both garbanzo beans and avocados are heart healthy and nutrient rich. This garbanzo bean Greek salad is especially perfect for those fasting from meat or dairy during Lent.

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Greek Garbanzo Bean Salad
Recipe type: Vegetarian/Salad
Serves: 2-4
 
Garbanzo bean salad: Loaded with vegetables, packed with nutrients, and tossed in a bright Greek dressing.
Ingredients
For the salad:
  • 15 oz can garbanzo beans
  • 1 English cucumber, optionally peeled and sliced in half
  • 3 cups cherry and golden tomatoes, halved (or 4 diced tomatoes)
  • 2 avocados, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • ½ red onion, diced
  • ½ cup pitted Kalamata olives
  • 8 oz of feta cheese (optional-serve on the side or mix in)
For the dressing:
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ⅓ cup lemon juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Instructions
  1. Place the garbanzo beans in a colander and rinse well. Allow to drain well before using.
  2. In a small bowl or a mason jar, make the dressing by whisking together the olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning as you’d like
  3. Place all vegetables, garbanzo beans, and olives into a large bowl and toss to combine.
  4. Place all salad ingredients into a large bowl. Toss the salad with dressing and serve.
Notes
If you are planning to prepare this salad ahead of time or if you want to have leftovers, do not add all of the dressing and just dress the amount that will be consumed immediately. For freshness, add avocados before serving as well.

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Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Poppers with Feta

I’m a firm believer that everything tastes better with bacon. I’m also an extreme spice advocate—I love anything with a spicy bite. The more it burns my mouth the better. So, it was only a matter of time before I added these popular appetizers to my blog. These bacon wrapped jalapeño poppers are “Greekified” within the filling, by combining the deliciously salty feta cheese with thick Greek yogurt for a creamy texture. Once the jalapeño is stuffed, wrap a thin strip of bacon wraps around to seal the popper together and sent to the oven.

While jalapeño peppers are what’s standard for this appetizer, you can also spice up or down the pepper to your liking. If you want a hotter bite, use habaneros. For a milder bite, use small poblanos or even mini bell peppers work well. Whatever type of pepper you choose to use, be cautioned that these poppers are addictive and will disappear once served.

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Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Poppers with Feta
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 20 poppers
 
Ingredients
  • 10 jalapeños
  • 20 bacon slices
  • 6 oz feta cheese
  • 2 oz Greek yogurt
  • 6 green onions, finely sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 20 toothpicks
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Slice the jalapeños in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds and membranes. (For a spicier popper, don’t remove the seeds).
  3. In a medium bowl, combine Greek yogurt, feta, green onions, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix until well blended.
  4. Fill each jalapeño half with the cheese mixture. Tightly wrap each piece with bacon and secure with a toothpick.
  5. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and arrange the bacon wrapped jalapeños.
  6. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the bacon is cooked through and crisp to your liking. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Greek Coffee Brownies

Brownies are my greatest weakness of all—especially the good old fashioned out of the box stuff. When I’m really craving a chocolatey fix, nothing beats the convenience of just dumping all the premixed ingredients into a bowl, stirring in some extra liquid, and sending them to the oven. They come out simple and scrumptious every single time.

Because I’m satisfied with the boxed brownies, I hardly make them from scratch, or maybe didn’t care to recognize how easy they are to make on my own. But then one day when my brownie craving hit unusually early in the morning as I was making a cup of Greek coffee, I decided to make my own brownies—with Greek coffee. Coffee and chocolate is a classic combo so it just made sense. My recipe blends the grounds of Greek coffee with cocoa powder for a dark and decadent result that’s just as gooey as the boxed brownies I’ve adored for so many years. Now I don’t have to run to the store at random hours because all the ingredients are always in my fridge and pantry—just waiting to be whipped up together for a delicious treat.

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¾ cup unsalted butter, softened or melted
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (dark or regular, whatever you prefer)
2 tablespoons Greek coffee powder*
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup all-purpose flour
Nonstick cooking spray, for greasing the pan

*For a stronger coffee flavor, add an extra tablespoon of Greek coffee. I use BRAVO Greek coffee, and the grounds come more fine and powdery. If the coffee you’re using is grainy, I would suggest grinding the coffee a bit beforehand to avoid graininess.

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Melt the butter in a microwave safe bowl for about 15 seconds and allow to cool slightly.
2. In medium bowl, combine the butter, sugar, and vanilla and whisk until well combined.
3. Add eggs in one by one until fully incorporated.
4. Sift together the cocoa powder, Greek coffee, salt, and flour. Gently fold into the wet ingredients with a spatula until combined, being careful not to over mix.
5. Lightly grease a 8×8 or 9×9 square inch baking pan with parchment paper and grease with a nonstick spray. Pour the batter into the dish and spread evenly.
6. Bake on the middle rack for 25 – 27 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs. For these fudgier brownies, the toothpick will come out a little gooey. Don’t over bake! The brownies will firm up when you take them out to cool.
7. Remove from oven and allow to cool before cutting and serving.

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“Greekified” French Onion Soup

Introducing: French onion soup with a Greek twist! I was inspired by a photo I saw on Peter Minaki’s aka “Kalofagas” page and decided to give it a try myself. For my version, I added Greek flavors I enjoy at home, like garlic and oregano, plus tested batches with both Kasseri and Halloumi cheeses. I preferred the Kasseri version, as it melted better, but the Halloumi also created a nice flavor. The result was excellent and just what you want from a typical French onion soup—caramelized onions, warm broth, a thick baguette, and gooey cheese. What a comforting meal that will certainly hold a favorable spot at my dinner table.

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Image by Sarah Arnoff

"Greekified" French Onion Soup
Recipe type: Soup/Greek Soup
Serves: 4-6 bowls
 
French onion soup with a Greek twist!
Ingredients
  • 6 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 1 ½ lbs)
  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • 1 Tablespoon oregano
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 cups beef broth
  • ½ cup white wine
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 slices of French bread or baguette, cut 1 inch thick
  • 12 oz Kasseri or Halloumi cheese, sliced
  • Parmesan cheese, grated
Instructions
  1. In a large pot over medium heat, add the butter, onions, oregano and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper if desired and cook until onions become soft and translucent, about 15 minutes.
  2. To caramelize the onions, add sugar and a dash of salt and cook until onions have browned and reduced significantly, about 20 minutes. Be sure to stir occasionally so they don’t burn.
  3. Add the white wine and deglaze the pot by scraping the brown bits around the pot.
  4. Add the beef broth, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to a simmer for 30 minutes. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Discard the bay leaves.
  5. Preheat oven to 350F. Arrange bread slices on a baking sheet and brush each lightly with olive oil. Bake for 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Alternatively, you can toast the bread in a toaster.
  6. Turn the oven to broil.
  7. Ladle the soup into oven safe bowls and depending on the size of bowls used, top one to two slices of bread on each. Top with the sliced Kasseri (or Halloumi) cheese, and sprinkle Parmesan cheese in a thick layer on top, being sure to cover the edges.
  8. Place the bowls in the broiler oven for 7 minutes, or until the cheese is browned and bubbling.
  9. Let cool slightly before serving, and enjoy!
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Image by Sarah Arnoff

Mizithra Pancakes

During the weekdays, my breakfasts consist of coffee or a protein shake. Sometimes, as I’m rushing out the door for work, I grab a muffin or a banana. Truly, I don’t care for breakfast, and have noticed I function better at work by putting off eating until lunch time. When the weekend comes around I’m ready for all the breakfast foods–eggs, bacon, cottage cheese, and toast. Pancakes are a special item I like to make at home, especially because I get to make them how I like them–stuffed with mizithra cheese.

Mizithra pancakes have become an instant hit at my home. We love them so much we’ve even had them for dinner one night. Adding mizithra cheese to the batter ups the creaminess factor to the pancakes that you’ll notice with just one bite. These light and fluffy mizithra pancakes will certainly stand out for your next breakfast–or dinner–whenever you need a pancake fix.

Can’t find soft mizithra cheese? Learn how to make your own here. You can also substitute mizithra for ricotta cheese.

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Mizithra Pancakes
Recipe type: breakfast/sweets
 
Delicious and creamy mizithra pancakes
Ingredients
  • 1 ½ cup soft mizithra cheese (or ricotta)
  • 1 ½ cups buttermilk
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • non-stick cooking spray, or butter, for cooking
Instructions
  1. Heat an electric griddle or skillet to 350F or medium heat.
  2. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and mix well.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix the mizithra cheese (or ricotta), buttermilk, whole milk, eggs, and vanilla until well combined. It’s ok if there are lumps of cheese, but if they are too big, feel free to break them up.
  4. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ingredients and stir gently with a whisk or wooden spoon until incorporated. Don’t over mix the mixture. The batter should be thick with lumps and that’s fine. If it is too thick to work with, add some extra whole milk.
  5. Spray cooking surface with cooking spray, or place a pat of butter and wait for it to sizzle.
  6. In batches, ladle about ⅓ cup volume of batter onto the griddle. Cook until the surface forms bubbles, about 3 minutes. Flip, and repeat on the other side so both sides are golden brown. Repeat with the remaining batter.
  7. Serve warm with maple syrup, and enjoy!
Notes
If making a large batch, keep warm in the oven.
Also, if you have leftover pancakes, individually wrap and freeze. Rewarm by toasting them or heating them in the oven.

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Fried Feta with Sesame Seeds

Fried feta with sesame seeds is combination of salty and sweet that creates maximum flavor.

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Sesame Coated Fried Feta
Recipe type: Meze/Appetizer
Serves: 2 pieces
 
Sesame coated fried feta is one of the easiest dishes, ready in minutes.
Ingredients
  • 8 ounce block of feta cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup of flour
  • ½ cup sesame seeds
  • Olive oil, for frying
  • Honey, for drizzling
Instructions
  1. Cut the feta into squares or rectangles about ½ inch thick.
  2. Crack the eggs in a bowl wide enough to fit the feta and beat lightly with a fork. Add the flour on a plate. On a second plate, add the sesame seeds.
  3. Coat each piece of feta in the flour, and then the eggs, and then the sesame seeds. Be sure to coat well with each step, so all sides are covered.
  4. In a frying pan, heat olive oil (enough to shallow fry) over medium to high heat. Carefully add the feta and fry until nicely golden colored, and then flip and fry on the other side. Drain the feta on paper towels to remove any excess oils.
  5. Serve warm and drizzle honey on top.
Notes
Alternatively, for a healthier version, you can bake the feta for 30 minutes in the oven at 400F.

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5 Favorite Beaches in Crete

Greece’s largest island, Crete, provides hundreds of beautiful beaches that draws crowds in the summer months. Below are just five of my favorites, plus some extra suggestions for you to check out on your next visit to Crete. Do you have a favorite? Please comment and share 🙂

Falassarna Beach: I’ve taken some of my best photos on Falassarna, catching shots of the big waves and vibrant skies. My favorite beach in all of Crete, Falassarna stretches far along the coast and makes an especially nice spot for sunset lovers since the beach faces west. There’s no need for an Instagram filter or Photoshop, the natural beauty of Falassarna does all the work.

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Image by @iamgreece

Elafonisi: The early bird gets the worm, or better, a sunbed to lie on at the always-crowded Elafonisi beach. Don’t let the crowds deter you, though. Elafonisi is one of the most sought-out beaches in the world for good reason: the pretty pink sand contrasts brilliantly with the tranquil turquoise water. Talk about paradise! Do visit, but be diligent in picking up after yourself so others can enjoy the same clean and colorful environment that you did.

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Image by @iamgreece

Balos: You haven’t visited Crete until you’ve sunk your toes in the white powdery sand of Balos beach. Relax and wade into the shallow blue lagoon or venture to the small uninhabited island of Gramvousa, opposite the coast. The top of Gramvousa offers a great view of the dreamy lagoon below, and visitors can walk along the remains of a 16th century Venetian fortress. Access Balos via a rocky track road, or by ferry from either Kissamos or Chania Town.

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Image by @iamgreece

Vai: Vai gives off serious Caribbean vibes with 5,000 trees surrounding the shore and crystal clear water as far as the eyes can see. Vai boasts the largest palm tree forest in Europe. The Cretan date palm does not offer up coconuts but instead a normally-inedible fruit consumed only by a few daring locals. Everything about this beach is unlike any other.

Seitan Limania: Don’t let the name (satanic/evil harbor) mislead you—this virtuous beach, nestled in a small canyon, offers deep blue waters, warm white sand and scenic surroundings. Be warned though, you must work for this beach by climbing (or scrambling) down 200 meters’ worth of steep rocky hill. The climb is well worth it, you won’t be disappointed. Do note, there are no food vendors at this beach so be sure to pack snacks before you descend.

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Image by @iamgreece

Other notable beaches: Paleochora, Sougia, Chrisi Akti, Platanias, Glyka Nera, Matala, Rodakino . . . basically, head to the shore and you’ll land on a great spot. You just can’t go wrong when it comes to the beaches of Crete.

Images provided by Tony Kariotis, from iamgreece.net 

For a short guide of what to do and see in Crete, click here.

5 Things to do in Crete

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.

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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.

Explore Knossos:
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.

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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.

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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 info@balos-travel.com 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.