The Backpacker’s Complete Guide to Crete, Greece | 2021

Of all the islands I visited in Greece, Crete was by far my favorite. Crete is big enough to be its own country. Honestly, it often feels like it. Crete has its own unique culture and history to go with a wide variety of landscapes that you’ll hardly believe are on the same island. Turquoise waters and snow-capped peaks? Yeah, Crete has it all. It’s one of the best destinations for backpackers in Greece. It is more budget-friendly than the other islands in Greece, and boasts a wider variety of adventures and activities.

After island hopping around the Cyclades, I was feeling burnt out. I considered flying back to Athens after Santorini, but a witch in Paros told me that I would fall in love with Crete and spend weeks there. I decided to check it out, and after a couple days in Heraklion to find my footing, I did indeed fall in love with this incredible island. I quickly had to accept that I was not going to have enough time to see everything I wanted to see here. Not for lack of trying, because I extended my trip twice, but this island is overflowing with adventure. Crete had the mountains and hiking that I had been craving to go along with Greece’s beaches and cute villages. The people were warmer and more welcoming. And don’t even get me started on the natural beauty.

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Crete had some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen. Most importantly, the scenery was diverse. You weren’t just hopping from beach to beach. One day, you might be hiking through a monstrous gorge, the next, exploring an ancient palace. Here’s the low down on this incredible island.

How To Get To Crete

Getting to Crete By Ferry

No matter where you are in Greece, it should be possible to catch a ferry to Crete. It might take a while depending where you’re at, but you will have no problem getting here. A ferry from Athens takes about six hours. If you’re island hopping in the Cyclades, a ferry from Santorini takes about two hours. The typical backpacker route through the Cyclades would likely place you in Santorini before Crete. From there, the SeaJets ferry can take you to Crete, although it’s quite pricy for the short journey.

Flying Into Crete

The main airports on Crete are Heraklion and Chania. Both have cheap flights to and from various European destinations. RyanAir flies to Crete for super cheap, and I was able to book a flight out of Crete to Corfu for 8 Euros. Cheap flight deals to and from Crete pop up all the time. From Athens, you’ll have no issue catching a cheap flight to Crete.

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Where To Stay in Crete

Crete is a big island. In fact, it’s the fifth largest in the entire Mediterranean. You’ll basically have to break the island up into several chunks because there’s no way you’re going to take it all on in one go. Let’s poetically name these chunks: the eastern chunk, the central chunk, and the western chunk. For the Western part of the island, you’ll want to use Chania as your home base. For the central part, you’ll want to stay in Rethymno. And for the Eastern part, you’ll want to use Heraklion.

Where To Stay in Chania

Let’s start with Chania. Most of Crete’s best attractions lie on the Western part of the island, so Chania is a huge hub for travelers and tourists. It’s also home to my favorite hostel on Crete, Cocoon City Hostel. I rented a car and had been traveling around Crete at a nonstop pace, driving several hours a day, hiking several more, and even unable to enjoy my lazy beach stops because I wanted to max out my days with our car Peggy Sue.

I had picked up two fellow backpackers that I met in Mykonos, and hadn’t booked a place to stay yet. I was feeling exhausted, and they recommended I stay at their party hostel. Usually, I’d be down, but man, was I burnt out. I dropped them off at theirs, and looked up other hostels in the area. I found Cocoon City, which happened to only be a couple of blocks away from my usual parking spot by Chania harbor.

As soon as I walked into Cocoon City, I knew I made the right choice. I was in desperate need to catch up on work, and the hostel was the first time in Greece that I felt like I’d found a proper workspace. The hostel is huge, with plenty of common areas, a common kitchen, a bar, a pool, and plenty of rooms. It’s a great balance between chill and social. They have a big group chat on WhatsApp for the hostel, so it’s even easier to meet people and go out. I loved my stay here and extended for several nights, and I’m certain you will, too.

Where To Stay in Heraklion

Heraklion is the largest city and capital of Crete, and it definitely feels like it. While it maintains a unique charm of its own, it definitely doesn’t have the sexy holiday vibe that many people come to Greece for. I still loved the city, and it was great for a few days to learn about the history and archaeology of the island. I stayed at So Young Hostel while I was in Heraklion, and it was great for the few nights I was there.

Where To Stay in Rethymno

Rethymno Youth Hostel is the spot to be for backpackers, but I needed a break from hostels so I found myself in a cute attic apartment for a night. Of the three main cities, Rethymno might have been my favorite had I stayed longer than one night. It was livelier and with a younger, more local scene. The nightlife strip along the beach is probably the nicest strip of bars and clubs I’ve seen on Crete.

Rethymno was literally and figuratively a halfway point between Heraklion and Chania. It had the charm of Chania, while maintaining a more alternative crowd and more local scene like Heraklion. There isn’t too much to do within the city itself but it is a great spot to chill.

Plakias – Plakias Youth Hostel

On the south side of the island, you’ll find the town of Plakias. It is much, much quieter than the three cities I listed above, but they do have a hostel there too. If you have your own car, this might be a great place to stay if you want something quieter and more laid back. I’ll talk about Plakias later, but it is absolutely beautiful.

There are other places to stay in Crete, but as a backpacker, I think these are your main hubs. Some of the other places cater more towards high-end travelers or don’t have a lively backpacker or solo traveler scene.

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As an affiliate of Hostelworld, a portion of any bookings made through these links will go towards supporting my blog and future adventures, at no extra cost to you.

How To Get Around Crete

Public Transportation on Crete

Local buses are a great way to get around Crete if you don’t have your own car. The tickets were more expensive than I was expecting for shorter rides, but then I rented a car and realized gas was like $10 per gallon. No more complaining from me on that end. There are bus stations in every major city, and the smaller ones will have bus stops. The bus schedules for Crete are updated pretty frequently and can be found online here.

Renting A Car in Crete

Crete is a massive island. I didn’t fully grasp its size until I looked at a satellite image of Greece, and realized that Crete was basically bigger than all of the other islands I had visited combined. If you don’t want to rely on the infrequent public transportation, then renting a car is the best way to see Crete. If you book a car in advance, it can actually be super cheap. However, being the unprepared traveler I am, we booked our car the morning of. We went to like ten different car rental places before finding one that was available. It was a painful 170 euros for three days, but it was still worth it for the freedom and flexibility.

Taxis

Taxis are a good way to get around a city, but I wouldn’t recommend them for going long distances across the island. Unless you have several people to split the cost with, the price difference compared to a bus is just too much to justify. A taxi from Heraklion to Chania costs 180 euros, while a bus is just 13 euros. I’d recommend taxis as a last resort, but I never had any issues with just using public transportation while I was here.

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Ferries

Some of the destinations in Crete can only be reached by ferry. Gramvoussa Island and Spinalonga come to mind. The more popular islands will have daily ferries open to the public. For other destinations, you might have to organize a private boat getting to and from them. For example, the ferry to Balos and Gramvoussa run daily, while you might have to show up at the port and arrange a private ferry to Spinalonga.

The Best Things To Do in Crete

It is impossible to do everything in Crete. Unless you have months on this island, you simply have to accept that you’re going to have to choose a few things that you’ll get to do. I actually did quite a lot with my ten days in Crete, helped monumentally by renting a car and Cocoon City Hostel organizing a number of activities for us.

Balos Lagoon and Gramvousa Island (Bucket List Stuff)

Whenever I read that somewhere is considered “top 10” whatevers in the world, I’m a little skeptical. In this case, Balos was named as one of the world’s best beaches. I’m Filipino, so I’m a bit jaded by nice beaches considering the ones I’ve got back home. However, Balos lived up to the hype, and even I have to give some respects to what is one of the most otherworldly beaches I’ve ever been to. It’s not even just a beach either. It’s hard to describe just how otherworldly Balos is, so you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

If you’ve taken the ferry, they’ll also make a stop at Gramvousa Island. There’s a fort on top of the hill and another small beach with absolutely beautiful waters. There’s a small shipwreck off the coast. It was a super cool visit, and the only way to get here is by the ferry or a private boat. While the Balos and Gramvousa ferry can be super crowded and touristy, it might be your only option, and it’s definitely worth putting up with to see these places.

The Palace of Knossos (Watch Out For Minotaurs)

While the Palace of Knossos itself is relatively underwhelming, this is still a can’t-miss spot for history lovers. If you buy the joint ticket with the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, then the price is absolutely worth it. It costs 15 euros to enter the palace and 20 euros for the joint ticket. The palace looks exactly as you’d expect after thousands of years of ruin. However, the diverse artifacts that have been preserved in Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum are pretty mind-blowing. The museum is huge, and it can take an entire day if you wanted to thoroughly immerse yourself in the history of this island.

I preferred the museum to the Palace of Knossos. It costs 12 euros to enter the museum, so getting the joint ticket will save you 7 euros to see both the palace and museum. The museum is huge and you could spend an entire day here easily.

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Elafonisi Beach (Epic Sunsets and Pink Sand)

Thought pink sand beaches were only in Hawaii? Think again. Elafonisi Beach on the southwestern tip of the island is a beautiful pink sand beach perfect for swimming and sunset chasing. Elafonisi is one of Crete’s most famous beaches, for good reason. The sunset here was otherworldly. The beach itself isn’t remarkably pink, but take a walk where the waves meet the shore and you’ll see plenty of pink sand washing up. Despite its popularity, the beach is spacious enough where you can easily find a quieter spot to yourself. We came at sunset and the beach had cleared out almost entirely by then. 

Falasarna Beach (Best Beach for Chilling/Relaxing)

Drive through the groves of olive trees all the way to the west side of Crete, and you’ll find yourself at Falasarna Beach. This long strip of beach is arguably the best for having a proper beach day. There are some restaurants and bars along the beach, so you’ll have plenty of options for beachside cocktails and snacks.

Plakias Beach (Jurassic Park Vibes)

On the south central part of Crete is the town and beach of Plakias. The town was quieter than the main cities of Crete, but still had everything you’d need as a tourist, such as restaurants, hotels, and markets. The beach here was gorgeous. I was pleasantly surprised at how amazing our road trip’s lunch stop turned out to be. We were in the area to check out Preveli, but hunger overcame us so we detoured for food in Plakias. We ended up spending a couple of hours here chilling on the beach. I would have gladly spent longer if we didn’t have a sunset to chase.

Preveli Beach and Gorge (Just Cool AF, no other words needed)

Crete had no shortage of “wow” moments. Preveli was among the wow-est. Walking down from the parking lot, it looked like what I’d imagine Hawaii to look like. At the bottom, the landscapes were completely different. There was a canyon with a river running through it. Palm trees and lush vegetation lined that river between the canyons. The place was otherworldly, and without a doubt one of my favorite places I visited in Crete. We missed most of the sunset that we tried so hard to chase, but it was jaw-droppingly beautiful anyway.

Spinalonga Island (Former Leper Colony) and Plaka Village

Off the coast of Eastern Crete, you’ll find Spinalonga Island, a former leper colony. To get here, you’ll need to catch a ferry or take a private tour. You can catch the ferry from Plaka Village, a cute destination in itself. I didn’t make it to the east side of the island, but Spinalonga was one of the only places that really tempted me.

Malia (British Party Beach)

One of Crete’s most famous beaches is Malia Beach. Malia is famous for its nightlife, but I skipped it this time ’round. I’ll be back one day when the parties on Crete are in full swing. It’s not all party, though. Malia is home to quite a bit of history, and there are some archaeological sites to explore to go with the nightlife.

Seitan Limani Beach (The Beach With the Goats)

Come for the goats, stay for the views. This is one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, although it is very small and therefore, quite crowded. Regardless, it is a must visit destination on Crete. It’s one of the most unique beaches you’ll ever see, with the water trickling onto shore in a zig-zag pattern. Of course, the main attractions are the goats roaming around on the beach and climbing the rocks.

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Samaria Gorge

Crete is much, much more than just beaches. There is plenty of great hiking on the island, and one of the most famous hikes is the journey through Samaria Gorge. This is a whole day affair, requiring a 6 AM start, a lengthy hike, and then a bit of lounging around until you can catch the ferry and bus back to your starting point. It’s one of the best things you can do on this island, so if you’re up for the challenge, don’t miss it.

Make sure to have good travel insurance handy whenever you’re out adventuring. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels.

Lake Kournas

Who would have thought that Crete would have turquoise lakes up in the mountains? A short drive from Rethymno, you’ll find Lake Kournas. If you’re tired of the sea and saltwater, you can hit up this beautiful lake in the mountains for a stunning freshwater dip. It’s a popular family destination, so there’ll be tacky paddle boats all over the water. The shores can be crowded until you walk a little further from the main entrance. Regardless, it was a great stop on our cross-Crete road trip.

Ancient Olive Tree of Vouves

Okay, let’s take a break between the epic beaches and hiking. We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog post to chat about one of the oldest olive trees in the world! This olive tree dates between 2000-4000 years old. The craziest part? It still produces olives today! They even used branches from this tree to crown the Olympic medalists of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and the 2008 games in Beijing. Look, I know most people probably aren’t as excited about this as I am, but I thought it was pretty neat. My pal Matt (the nomadic one) and I hit a brewery nearby, and seeing that it was only 10 minutes away, decided to make the quick stop. We took a few selfies inside the tree and were on our merry way.

Stavros Beach

About a 30 minute drive from Chania, you’ll find one of Crete’s most famous beaches. It’s a beautiful beach, but the real draw is that it was where a scene from a famous movie was filmed. It’s an older one that I’ve never heard of, but if I’ve got any huge Zorba the Greek fanatics reading this, Stavros Beach might be for you.

But don’t let this list limit you. It is a long list and more than enough to fill your time, but one of the best things about Crete is that there are so many hidden gems. I already know that I’ll be coming back to Crete time and time again to continue exploring this magical island.

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