Crete is the largest island in Greece, where visitors are sure to ‘sense the authentic’, as per the tourism board. In our case, we got to taste it. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Crete boasts a diverse landscape of rugged mountains, ancient ruins, charming cities, and idyllic beaches. Travelers come for the sun and the sea, and long to stay for the outstanding Cretan hospitality. The local people from Crete seem to differentiate themselves from the rest of Greece and are very proud of their island. It’s easy to see why!
There is an abundance of things to do in Crete. From immersing in ancient history, beach hopping, and trying your hand at local crafts to tasting the incredible cuisine. A visit to Crete includes everything encapsulated in a Greek island holiday minus the crowds you are likely to encounter in Santorini. So, if you are wondering what island to visit in Greece, make it Crete, and you won’t regret it.
Where to Stay in Crete and How to Get Around
During our stay in Crete, we based ourselves in Chania, one of the main cities on the island, and took day trips to other points. In our opinion, the best experiences in Crete are the most rustic ones, that’s why one of our top stays ever was in a 300-year-old farmhouse in Chania and the best meal, at a tavern that runs on zero electricity. Most of the hidden gems and authentic spots in Crete are located down windy roads, so we strongly recommend renting a car throughout your stay to allow yourself more flexibility. (Protip: We don’t recommend Airbnb much, but this is an exception. Here is the link.)
Hypnotizing Chania (pronounced Hania) has plenty of activities to keep you as busy as you like when on vacation. And having a vehicle will unlock many wonderful day trips from Chania, allowing for a wholesome Crete itinerary. Let us share our experience in Crete so you know what you can expect from your visit to Chania and its surroundings.
Things to Do in Chania, Crete & Day Trips
It’s hard not to fall in love with Chania. Its colorful Old Town boasts facades that represent Italian and Ottoman influences. The streets are lined with inviting restaurants and artisan shops. Everything is drenched in sunshine, color saturation dialed up. It seems impossible to have a bad day on Crete Island.
Between learning about the history and shopping for souvenirs you can actually use, you should be eating Cretan food. It is probably the secret ingredient behind everyone’s disposition. The island thrives on farming and cultivation and is known for the production of olive oil, wine, and cheeses with sustainable practices that align with the Slow Food philosophy. So, it’s no wonder Cretans function like well-olive-oiled machines (pun intended).
To taste Crete’s spectacular produce, we recommend heading to the Municipal Market of Chania, which not only gathers all Cretan essentials under one roof but is also one of the city’s architectural gems. Start your day with Bougatsa, a typical Cretan breakfast, which is a ruddy, crispy square of phyllo pastry filled with Mizithra cheese, generously sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon. Browse the olive stands, grab a few of each type to taste, and the cheese stands. Apart from feta, there are a few varieties to discover, including Cretan Graviera cheese. Don’t worry about overdoing it because these delicacies make for the perfect road trip snack you’ll need later in your stay.
Wander around Chania’s Old Town, admiring charming lanes and stopping to browse the selection of handmade jewelry, leather shoes, and accessories, which can be tailor-made to your wishes, by the way! You will inevitably end up on the 14th century Venetian Harbor, a former trading and military port. It’s the spot to marvel at Chania’s Turkish, Venetian, and even Egyptian style architecture. The waterfront is lined with restaurants, inviting passersby to grab a seat and enjoy a meal with a view. Take the invitation and soak in the simple pleasures of life on Crete.
Take a Day Trip to Elafonissi Beach
The magic blend of a Greek holiday includes beaches and mountains, Crete has both: beaches of unreal colors and peaks that reach 8058 feet. We took a day trip from Chania to Elafonissi Beach, which is famous for its pink sand and turquoise water. The drive takes about an hour and a half, but it’s so scenic that the time flies right by. It was on this day that we realized how diverse and dramatic Crete’s landscapes are. Slopes filled with olive groves, imposing gorges, and families of mountain goats. The breathtaking beauty of Elafonissi considered one of the best beaches in Crete, was the cherry on top.
Have Authentic Cretan Food
And just as we thought our road trip through the Chania region couldn’t get any better, we found Ntounias Tavern, near Drakona. The only thing we knew about the restaurant is that they don’t use any electricity to prepare their dishes. We had zero expectations. (Protip: Make a reservation on their website, be sure to tell them the Retirement Travelers sent you!)
It was a clear, sunny day. Wood fire danced under massive traditional clay pots of food bubbling away, waiting for guests to arrive. We grabbed a table al fresco, where we could enjoy the view of the mountains and wafts of aromas from the open kitchen. We told Stelios, the owner of this tavern serving farm-to-table traditional dishes, to place our order at his own discretion. With the words “Good luck”, he gladly obliged.
We had already decided Ntounias was our favorite place on Crete even before the dishes started to come out. First came a giant Greek salad with potatoes and cheese and no tomatoes, much to John’s delight since he’s not a fan, which was actually because they were not in season when we visited. A recipe adjustment very much in accordance with Ntounias slow food principles. Then came the asparagus, which was “not fresh”, as per Stelios, “it was very, VERY fresh!” He proceeded to bring out plate after plate of slow-cooked goat, vegetables, and escargot, which he personally pronged and placed in John’s mouth in one swift motion, as if practiced thousands of times.
Every dish was exquisite in an uncomplicated way, as Cretan food should be. (Protip: Ask for a kitchen tour when you go!)
About six courses into our meal, when the previously half-empty terrace had filled up with tables that kept emerging from the restaurant, we had to ask Stelios to stop bringing out food. So, he served us a rich rice pudding, because no meal in Greece is ever complete without dessert. Oftentimes, a complimentary gesture, part of Greek hospitality.
He said ‘good luck’ many times that day. We are not sure of the correct translation to Greek or the exact meaning, but we learned that Greeks have various expressions for different occasions that are meant to attract joy and good fortune. And we definitely felt like we were living the dream, being at Ntounias Tavern in Crete.
Googling it now, to be able to share the tavern with you, we are not surprised to see review upon review proclaiming it to be not only the best restaurant in Crete but possibly in the world! We can’t argue with that.
So, have we convinced you to add Chania, Crete to your bucket list?