After our first few days in Athens, we hopped on a cheap RyanAir flight (preceded by much luggage-related stress… watch the size of your carry-on if you ever use this airline!) and traveled over to beautiful Crete. My close friend Abigail highly recommended that we visit Crete, saying that it has “everything” – stunning beaches, hiking opportunities, great food, rich history, and more. We were so happy we decided to go. Crete, in many ways, felt like a real Greek experience. It was kind of gritty at some points and we definitely didn’t feel like coddled travelers most of the time (which was both good and bad!).
If I had one regret about our time in Crete, it would be that we didn’t try enough of the food! Our time there was short and often hurried from one place to the next, so our meals were somewhat thrown together too. Cretan food is famous around the world for being especially fresh and healthy; one reason for this is the fertile soil yields incredibly flavorful and quality produce.
Without further ado, here are some highlights from our time in Crete…
1.) Hiking Samariá Gorge.
The Samariá Gorge hike is one of the must-do activities in Crete, around 15-16 kilometers (9-10 miles) long. The terrain was very rocky at times and the trail was not for the faint of heart, but the views were spectacular and it sure felt good to do something active around all of the food we were consuming!
Most travelers begin this hike by taking a bus from Chania to the Omalos plateau entrance. The finale of the hike is the absolutely stunning town of Agia Roumeli, with black sand beaches on the Libyan Sea.
From there, we took a ferry to the seaside village of Hora Sfakion.
We expected to take a bus back to Chania from this town, but unfortunately, the bus never showed up! We waited for about an hour with a group of mostly Greeks, staring in confusion at the afternoon time—covered up in duct tape!—on the bus stop sign.
We could have hung around Hora Sfakion for 4-5 more hours and hoped the next bus arrived–and it was an adorable town–but we hadn’t had the chance to enjoy the view and pool (which sounded really nice after our hike!) at our apartment near Chania, so we opted to split a very pricey cab with a couple from Bordeaux, France. These are the adventures of foreign travel, I suppose!
2.) Cooking a simple dinner and relaxing at our apartment pool after hiking.
After the intense hike (and the intense getting back from the hike experience!), we wandered the streets of Chania for a grocery market and bought some ingredients to make a simple pasta back at our apartment. I wrote about this lovely pasta and evening here. The dip in the pool, the fresh pasta, the sunset, the landscape view… it was all so refreshing after the day.
3.) Taking in the charming seaside towns of Crete.
It’s worth repeating that the coastline of Crete is absolutely breathtaking. The best views of Crete’s charming seaside towns came during our ferry ride from Agia Roumeli to Hora Sfakion after the Samariá Gorge hike. We felt like we were in another world! We also enjoyed glimpses of the coast during our three hour bus ride from Chania to Iraklion. I was immersed in reading The Giver, but couldn’t help stealing a glance out the window every few minutes at one of the richest blue seas I’ve ever seen…
4.) Stumbling upon a fresh, delicious lunch at KYPIAKOΣ in Iraklion.
The second part of our visit to Crete was based in the capital, Iraklion. On our way to the Iraklion Archaeological Museum, we randomly decided to dine at KYPIAKOΣ (Kiriakos), a restaurant that we just happened upon on our walk.
As I mentioned, the cuisine in Crete is spectacular — just very fresh and local — and this lunch confirmed all that I’d heard about it! Our Greek salad (which I mentioned recently here) was particularly delicious, with the addition of radish slices and “Cretan mountain greens.”
We also very much enjoyed trying out the shrimp saganaki, sautéed shrimp with tomato sauce and feta!
5.) Hanging out with the Ancient Minoans.
Even before Abigail gave us a glowing review of Crete, the Minoans were the whole reason we decided to consider Crete in the first place! As an art history nerd, I remember learning in class about this fascinating ancient Greek cultural group, which peaked in 2000 B.C. with their civilization’s epicenter at Knossos. The ruins are fascinating – and even controversial, as English archaeologist Arthur Evans took some great artistic liberties to restore the site in the early 1900s.
Though the Iraklion Archaeological Museum was one of the most hectic museums I’ve ever visited (there were at least five tours going on in a room at one point!), it was incredible to see famous pieces like the Snake Goddess, Kamares pottery, and restored frescoes from Knossos.
From Iraklion, you can take an easy, 20-minute bus ride to the Knossos site itself. It’s a hot place to explore, as there is very little shade, but it’s so neat to imagine what life there must have been like as you venture through… and also humbling to see what remains of the splendor now.
6.) Wandering around different Greek neighborhoods (particularly, Iraklion).
We had some blocks of time during our Greece trip for simply wandering around. Of course, even just walking from one attraction to another gave us the opportunity to experience different neighborhoods in various Greek cities too. We especially enjoyed exploring Athens, Fira in Santorini (in small doses — very busy/touristy!), and I think our favorite–and quite unexpected–wandering location was Iraklion in Crete. Iraklion is a smaller city, but has great energy!
We stumbled upon a group of older Greeks playing cards at a local diner, saw children running around in the streets, and loved walking through the hopping squares filled with both tourists and locals. This would have been a great place to go out dancing. I could see it being a fun city for a study abroad experience too; it felt authentic, but approachable at the same time.
With that, more to come soon on the final major destination of our Greece trip, magical Santorini…