Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. It is located to the south east of mainland Greece. The island has an extensive history and today it remains a place steeped in culture with proud people, productive soil, and time honored traditions.
Beneath a sometimes rugged exterior, Cretans are some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet, epitomizing the famous Greek hospitality and friendliness toward strangers. While city dwellers have taken on a more contemporary urban lifestyle, visitors who venture into the countryside and rural villages will experience the traditional way of life.
In villages across Crete, people can be found producing their own wine and raki, preparing fresh bread and artisan cheeses, preserving olives and summer fruits, visiting each other unannounced, and spending lazy afternoons gossiping in the kafeneia. Some men still proudly wear the traditional attire; impressive and handsome in their black pants (vráka), sturdy boots, wide sash, and a black fringed head cover.
Crete is one of Greece’s most popular tourist destinations for good reason. The people are unique, the food is excellent, the culture is alive, and there are endless things to do from visiting the Minoan Palace of Knossos, to exploring hidden caves (including the cave where Zeus was born), to hiking the Samaria Gorge, to reclining on a sandy beach beside Europe’s largest natural palm forest at Vai.
Cretans are proud of their identity and will most likely identify themselves as Cretan first, then Greek. As in many parts of Greece, hospitality is of utmost importance. Visitors to remote villages may even be welcomed into a stranger’s home, where they will likely be greeted with a shot of locally distilled raki (the spirit of choice throughout Crete), a demitasse of strong and sweet Greek coffee, or even an impromptu spread of delicious local products – olives, fresh goat or sheep’s milk cheese, dark rusks, and fruity olive oil – more than likely all produced from within just a few kilometers.
Crete is well known for its Minoan heritage – a civilization which ruled much of the Aegean Sea several thousand years ago, and was the first highly sophisticated civilization in Europe. The Palace of Knossos is Crete’s most popular tourism attraction, offering insights into this incredible early civilization.
Besides the archaeological treasures and unique geological features that dot the Cretan countryside, coasts, tourist sites, and historic towns, the Cretan people themselves are perhaps one of the greatest attractions of this special island. They are hardy people who value family, community, quality of life, and hospitality, or what is known as filoxenia, which can be loosely defined as a generous giving spirit, especially toward strangers.
The people of Crete mirror the landscape around them – rugged, raw, occasionally overwhelming, yet full of character and depth. It is part of the Cretan spirit to welcome the lost traveler, just as a wandering shepherd takes shelter in one of the many caves hidden amongst rocky hills, or savors the sweetness of fresh fruit from a giving tree. Cretans work hard with what they have, producing excellent food in natural abundance from seemingly little. They have fought hard over the centuries to preserve their land, culture, and traditions, and are proud of all three.
Cretan food is known as some of the healthiest in the world. This is according to numerous studies, especially conducted after the difficult WWII years, when many islanders survived largely on a diet of foraged mountain greens, and what little else they could procure. These greens, known as horta (horta is a common dish throughout Greece, varying by region depending on the greens that grow wild), have become synonymous with good health and the famed longevity of the Cretan people.
The great deal of gentle sunshine, combined with plentiful rainfall in Fall and Winter, makes for an excellent climate under which Mediterranean staples such as olives, grapes, fruit, beans, legumes, and a plethora of vegetables grow. This is in addition to a seemingly endless list of fragrant wild herbs and greens which are collected and used in pies, or braised in a variety of satisfying dishes.
The food is flavorful and nourishing. It is comprised mainly of plant based foods that are grown locally (or as locally as possible), and often without the use of pesticides.
Fresh seafood abounds in the coastal areas, and locals know how to prepare it perfectly (often grilled simply with olive oil and lemon). Inland, goat or rabbit may be stewed in a succulent stifado, or grilled with olive oil, lemon and herbs. Locally produced honey is prized and delicious, and pairs well with artisan cheeses or in a sweet flaky filo pie. Savory filo pies, filled with vegetables, cheese, or wild greens and herbs (hortopita) are also very popular.
The local cheeses – either fresh or aged, and most often made from goat or sheep milk – are excellent.
A notable item on the Cretan menu is daxos – hard rusks are softened with juicy ripe tomatoes, luscious olive oil, a sprinkling of herbs, and creamy myzithra cheese.
Wine making is an ancient tradition in Crete, and has been an integral part of the social tradition (and diet) for centuries – since Minoan times. Today, Cretan wines are becoming increasing recognized for their surprising quality and sophisticated profiles. Wine routes have been established around Heraklion, and elsewhere on the island, and local winemakers are working hard to perpetuate this centuries old tradition and to improve the quality of their wines.
Currency is the Euro. ATMs are available in most cities, villages, and tourist areas. Banks and ATMs may not be available in smaller villages. Major credit cards are accepted in most tourist areas and in cities. Cash is usually preferred for most exchanges and it’s good to always have some on hand.
Visitors will most likely fly into Crete, arriving in Iraklio (Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport). From there, you can catch a bus, which runs frequently into the city center in Iraklio. Taxis are widely available in the cities, and at the airport.
Rental cars are also available, which can be a good way to explore Crete’s many sites, small villages and its beautiful countryside.
Some beaches and small towns on Crete’s southern coast are accessible only by boat. Crete has many excellent hiking trails and cycling routes for those who seek to discover the island’s beauty at a slower pace (highly recommended). Crete is one of the best places in Europe for outdoor adventurers, with particularly good options for climbing, hiking, and cycling.
The language is Greek.
No vaccinations are required to travel to Crete. The water is treated and palatable. Food is generally very safe to eat. Be prepared for some heat and strong sun in July and August. Citizens of some countries may be eligible for the European Health Insurance Card (EHIS), which includes free or low cost medical coverage (provided by your country of origin), if necessary while traveling in Crete (EU nationals and residents of some Scandinavian countries are eligible).
Visitors from many Western countries do not need a visa to enter Crete. A Schengen Visa may be required for visitors of some countries. A valid passport is necessary for all non-Greek citizens.
When to Go
Crete is pleasant to visit year round thanks to its moderate Mediterranean climate. Summer (June, July, August) is the most popular time to visit. Winds can be particularly strong during the hot summer months of July and August, when prices and crowds are also at their highest.
A good time to visit is from April to June, or from September to October. During these months the weather is pleasant, crowds are fewer than during the peak season, and accommodation prices are lower. Off-season highlights include blossoming wildflowers and various celebrations in the Spring, and the harvesting of grapes for wine (as well as the olive harvest) in the Fall.
“Low season” runs from November to March, during which there are fewest visitors, and the greatest chance of rain. Some resorts close and tourism services are more limited during this low season.
Most people dress in contemporary Western clothing. Some people in rural villages still wear their traditional regional costume (this is mostly true for men). Traditional clothing is sometimes worn during festivals and dance performances, of which there are many.
Dress is generally casual (though travelers should cover up appropriately, especially in the villages, which can be conservative). When visiting a monastery women may be required to wear a long skirt.