Crete is a big place. Measuring 160 miles from end to end, it’s the largest island in the whole of Greece. There’s oodles to see between its borders, ranging from ancient palaces built 3,000 years ago to paradise beaches with teal-tinged seas. Where to begin? How about this ultimate Crete 4 day itinerary?
We’ve aimed to squash a few of the island’s headline acts into a short 96 hours of unfettered fun and adventure. Travels begin in the island capital of Heraklion before breaking out west to the charming city of Chania and then circling the rugged southwest coast to take in the Samaria Gorge and the mountains.
That all means that our Crete 4 day itinerary has a good balance between history, culture, and beach life. It does miss out on a few key things, like the buzzy nightlife in Malia and the stunning beaches of Agios Nikolaos and Mirabello Bay. But you’ve got to leave something for when you return, right?
Day 1: Heraklion and the Palace of Knossos
We’re going to assume you’re landing in Heraklion, which is the busiest port and home to the main airport in Crete. It’s a great place to begin. Head straight for the city center when you touch down. We can wholeheartedly recommend Frankly Café for breakfast. It’s an uber-stylish joint that has artisan coffee and a stunning salmon-cheese bagel.
From there, take some time to explore the old city, which was actually laid out by the Moors and then fortified by the Venetians (check the Venetian Fortress on the docks). Feel free to wander a little but then make for Eleftherias Square, the beating heart of the town and a cracking location for some people watching.
The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is a-calling. It’s just a few steps to the north of Eleftherias Square and is hailed as one of the finest museums in the whole country. Inside, the collections contain many of the most precious relics from Knossos (a site that you’ll be visiting later on in the day).
There are a whopping 20 rooms in total, but you’ll want to focus on the Minoan area. That holds treasures like the Minoan rhyton, the Bull-Leaping Fresco, and the miniature Minoan snake goddess figurines – all exquisite works of art that date back thousands of years.
Leave the town and head to the archaeological site of Knossos, which sits just south of Heraklion. Home to a great palace complex, it’s thought to have once been a major center of power for the Minoan civilization. You’ll see an incredible North Entrance restoration covered in painted columns and frescos, along with haunting throne rooms and storage areas.
Try to finish at around 6pm because you need to drive the two hours west to Chania this evening. Rethymno harbor is a midway pitstop for dinner, where you can dine on an old Venetian port in traditional Cretan tavernas (we especially like Taverna Akri Garden for its flower-filled al fresco space).
Day 2: Chania Town, Gramvousa and Balos Lagoon
Wake up in Chania. Welcome to the most handsome and enchanting town in Crete. Seriously, this one’s lovely. It offers an old marina area that dates back centuries, which is where you’ll find the outline of the grand Venetian Lighthouse and a series of Byzantine maritime depots.
For breakfast, check out Kormoranos Bakery Café. It’s a lovely Cretan stop with strong coffee and local breads with local cheese. It’s also located on the famous Theotokopoulou walking street, which is prime souvenir-buying territory.
After dining, dive into the maze of narrow streets that spread away from the boats. That’s where you’ll see why Chania is so enchanting, and you may even happen upon the ruins of the Kastélli, a Byzantine-era fort that’s been uncovered in the middle of the town.
Afternoon & Evening
It’s time to hit the beach – finally! Hop in the car and drive west. You’re aiming for the rugged Gramvousa Peninsula. It should take about 50 minutes to get to on the main coastal highway (watch out, the local drivers are pretty unforgiving).
You’ll want to stop short of the peninsula itself in the town of Kissamos. A bustling and lived-in place, it’s fringed by a marine walkway that hosts cafés and tavernas, so is great for lunch. You could try the simply named Plaka Beach Restaurant, which has little Plaka Beach itself on the doorstep if you absolutely cannot wait for a dip.
Full? Good. You can now choose: A boat ride up to Balos Lagoon or a hardy bike ride across the side of the Gramvousa Peninsula. They should both take the whole afternoon and evening, but one’s going to be a whole load more challenging, going over rocky paths where mountain goats will watch you struggle (clue – it’s not the boat!).
Either way, the endgame is the incredible lagoon of Balos itself. It’s said to be the prettiest bay in Greece by some; a swirl of white sand and turquoise Aegean Sea that would fit right in in the Caribbean.
Day 3: Falasarna, Elafonisi and Palaiochora
Get on the road as early as you can. Today, you need to conquer the zig-zagging route that weaves down the west coast of Crete. It’s a gnarly way to drive, we won’t lie, with some precipitous ridges falling away on the sides and some hairy hairpin turns. But the reward is a vision of a truly stunning run of shoreline, beset by huge coast mountains and haloed in cloud. Your first stop, perhaps for a morning pastry on the beach, should be Falasarna. It’s a wavy stretch with an ancient ruin at its north end. Again, some say this is the most gorgeous beach in Crete as a whole.
The whole trip from the north of Crete to the south-western edge of the island should take about 1.5 hours in all. We’d say longer, though, because there’s no doubt that you’ll want to stop and take in the dramatic views of the Mediterranean as you go (be sure to have the camera fully charged).
The destination is Elafonisi. It’s a half-island that’s silted up over the last century and now forms a lovely isthmus beach connected to southern Crete. What makes it famous is the presence of pink sand, a phenomenon caused by broken-down coral in the water. Whatever the science behind it, the result is a dreamy section of coast that’s more Bermuda than Med.
We’d say try to walk a little into Elafonisi. The small coves and bays that form around the main lagoon are always busy with coach trippers, but the pink sands get even pinker as you go further south.
There’s no question about where to have lunch: Kalomirakis Tavern. It’s the best in the area and has a stunning, sun-kissed terrace with views of the Libyan Sea.
Sadly, the drive from Elafonisi to Palaiochora (where you’ll stay on the third night) isn’t that easy. On the plus side, it takes you back into the wild Lefka Ori mountains of Chania prefecture for an hour-long romp around gorge-sided roads and lookout points, so there’s plenty to keep you entertained.
Once you arrive, prepare for a welcoming little Greek village with its own sweep of pebbly beachfront. There are lots of little hotels and tavernas on the shore, so finding somewhere to sleep and eat shouldn’t be an issue. A personal fav is the Papagalos Cafe Restaurant Bar at the south end of Palaiochora Beach. Don’t think about the pizzas, this is stuffed vine leaf territory!
Day 4: The Samaria Gorge, Agia Roumeli, and Loutro
Morning & Afternoon
We hope you’ve had enough time to rest the legs during your jaunt through the beaches of Elafonisi to Palaiochora. The last day of our ultimate Crete 4 day itinerary starts with a trek through one of the most iconic natural sites on the island: The Samaria Gorge.
There are a couple of ways to plan this. You could drive to the trailhead yourself, but we’d actually recommend doing an organized tour. The reason for that is that you always have to go end-to-end in the gorge itself, so it’s tricky to return to the car. What’s more, there are some fantastic things to see once you’re done, but we’ll get to them a little later.
We won’t lie – the hike is a challenge. It takes 5-7 hours for most people and can be very hot. It’s also over rough terrain, so you’ll need a sturdy pair of walking boots. Also be sure to bring along lunch, as there aren’t any tavernas in this wild, UNESCO reserve. Water isn’t an issue as there are natural springs of potable water along the way.
There are some awesome things to see along the route. You’ll begin with a descent into a wooded valley under the Omalos Plateau deep in the Lefka Ori mountains. Gradually, the canyon narrows and narrows until it reaches the postbox-wide section known as the Iron Gates. You have just four meters from side to side there, but the cliffs lurch straight upwards like vertical walls of rock that seem never to end.
Also be sure to keep the eyes peeled for the unique array of mountain flora and fauna that lurk within the Samaria Gorge. The most famous is the Cretan ibex, a stout highland goat, but you’ll also get to see old cypress trees and wildflower blooms.
Evening (and the end of our ultimate Crete 4 day itinerary)
The last push of the Samaria Gorge will take you down to the sleepy village of Agia Roumeli. It’s a lovely little spot that’s totally without cars. Settle there for a hard-earned beer in one of the seaside tavernas if you like. This is also where the boat goes back to civilization. Hop on and let it take you east to the charming village of Loutro…
That’s a fantastic place to end our Crete 4 day itinerary, because it’s a vision of remote and relaxed south-Cretan life. Again, there’s no roadway in, no cars, and only a ferry dock. Choose one of the salt-washed B&Bs by the water’s edge and prepare to chillax. You’ve earned it!
(If you have a flight booked or need to leave straight after completing our Crete 4 day itinerary, you’ll want to continue on in the boat to Hora Sfakion and head back to the north coast’s airports from there.)