Greece’s largest island isn’t hailed as one of the most kid-friendly in the Aegean Sea for nothing. Nope, this one’s got loads for the little ones and the parents alike, and in this guide to Crete, things to do with family take center stage, as we home in on the top draws of all…
There’s an overload of classic holiday pursuits, from adrenaline-pumping water parks on the main coast roads between Rethymno and Heraklion to aquariums filled with strange jellies and sweet sea turtles. There’s also history that’s bound to steal the imagination, starting with the ancient palaces of Knossos to the come-get-lost-in-me lanes of Chania’s old town.
Oh, and let’s not forget the beaches. They range from pink-tinged bays on the south coast to protected runs of pebbly sand near the main resorts of the north coast. So, when it comes to Crete, things to do with family often involve a healthy dollop of good old sunscreen, buckets and spades, and a snorkeling kit. Let’s go…
CretAquarium – one of the top Crete things to do with family when it’s raining!
Dive under the waters of the Med that surround Crete without even having to pull on the snorkels, all courtesy of the incredible CretAquarium. It showcases the rich marine life of the region and the Aegean Sea, through a number of eye-catching marine exhibits. You’ll find it in the area of Gournes, conveniently sat smack dab in the middle of the main resort strip west of Heraklion. CretAquarium is open every day of the week, including weekends.
Inside, you’ll see all manner of bubbling water tanks. The most famous exhibits let you get up close to formidable sand tiger sharks, one of the more feared predators of the Aegean and a critically endangered species beside. There are also enclosures of stingrays and octopi, along with learning tanks that reveal the importance of more “invisible” ocean life like plankton.
The CretAquarium also boasts an on-site café and gift shop. The former has an al fresco terrace area where you can sit and sip coffee after seeing the sharks and whatnot indoors. It’s also possible to organize guided tours with qualified aquarium staff (costing around €100 per group), but it’s a good idea to book ahead for that.
The Palace of Knossos
There’s no more important archaeological site on the whole island of Crete than Knossos. Scratch that, this one’s up there with the Parthenon and Mycenae and Delphi as one of the most important dig sites in the country. It offers a glimpse back into the Bronze Age Minoan civilization. Crete was their home, but they held sway over much of the Aegean for many centuries until their eventual demise sometime around 1100 BC.
Knossos itself is a prime example of the audacious palace architecture that the Minoans built at their zenith. It’s located just south of the main city of Heraklion and lies half in ruins, half reconstructed. Today, visitors get to see red-painted palace walls and an ancient throne room, along with all sorts of remains, including oil amphorae and Linear tablets.
Another one of the top Crete things to do with the family that’s related to Knossos can be found in the heart of Heraklion town itself. That’s the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, where many of the most prized treasures from the palace itself are kept safely behind glass. It’s a great option if you’re unlucky enough to catch some rain!
Okay, so it’s a bit of a trek from the north coast resorts of Crete to Elafonisi. Located on the far south shores of the island, it’s not exactly the most accessible location going. But there are day trips on offer and the drive isn’t that bad from Chania (although it does involve some winding mountain roads that aren’t the best if you suffer from vertigo).
Still, it’s 100% worth a mention here on our guide to Crete things to do with families simply because it’s stunning. Some say it’s the most gorgeous beach on the whole island. It’s hard to disagree. There are pink-tinted sands that are loaded with broken-down coral from the Libyan Sea, along with small lagoons where turquoise waters drift this way and that.
We’d recommend making a whole day of it. Pass through the rural mountain villages that perch up on the Cretan highlands in the morning. They include little Vlatos and Topolia; places you would otherwise have totally missed. Then, take the uber-dramatic west-coast road home. Again, it’s not an easy drive, but it’s simply sublime, with soaring coast mountains and empty bays deep below.
Of all the beaches in Crete (and there are hundreds of them once you factor in the coves and crevices that cover the 650 miles of coastline here), we’d say Hersonissos is one of the best for families. It’s not quiet – seclusion is better on the far south shoreline. It’s not empty – this is one of the most built-up parts of the island. However, it does have all the amenities and features you could possibly need for a day on the sands with the little ones…
There are marked areas that are safe for swimming. The slight easterly orientation of the beach means that waves are kept to a minimum, even when the strong Meltemi winds are blowing in the summer. And there are rows and rows of tavernas and bars offering international food menus and bargain drinks right behind.
Hersonissos Beach also happens to front the resort of Hersonissos itself. That’s a family fave, with oodles of cracking resort hotels. Oh, and it’s a cinch to get to, being just 20 miles down the coast from Heraklion Airport.
Not all of Crete’s wonders are above ground, you know? The island is also riddled with incredible cave systems, which carve and whittle their way through the mighty mountains and gorges that score the hinterland. Melidoni Cave is surely one of the most impressive there is. It’s located near the village of the same name, just south of the idyllic beach resort of Bali.
Visitors are invited to enter huge underground tunnels and caverns that delve into the rugged Kouloukonas Mountain. It’s all on a maintained boardwalk and pathway, so pretty darn safe. What awaits is a showcasing of impressive stalactites and stalagmites and all manner of strange mineral formations. In the heart of the cave, you’ll also be able to see a haunting burial chamber and memorial to Cretan people who died during the Ottoman occupation of the island.
Acqua Plus Water Park
For some folk hitting Crete, things to do with family do not get any better than the Acqua Plus Water Park. A fun-filled, heart-thumping pitstop, it’s located right in the middle of the island’s most built-up resort area. That puts it just south of the E75 motorway that runs the length of the island’s north coast, a couple of minutes’ driving from Hersonissos and Malia.
There are over 50 various attractions within. They range from whirling and corkscrewing slides to spurting fountains and chilled lazy rivers. The mainstay draws for the adrenaline buffs would surely include the appropriately named Giants of Terror, a 180-meter tube that soars 23 meters above ground, and the Black Holes, which span 110-meters, much of which is in neon-lit darkness.
If you’re not one for high-octane water sliding, check out the relax area instead. There are oodles of smaller splash pools, a dedicated swimming zone, small octopus-inspired kiddie slides, and even a fish spa there. Acqua Plus Water Park offers an on-site café and restaurant, along with a poolside bar for when mom and dad fancy a tipple.
Tempt the little ones by spinning tales of haunting Spinalonga. It’s an old Venetian fortress that resides on its own island just off the coast of Elounda in eastern Crete. After being captured by the Ottoman Turks in the 1700s it was used as a leper colony right up until the end of the 1950s. All that rich history combines with a spooky abandoned town and citadel to make for a seriously intriguing and unforgettable day out that’s sure to stoke the imagination.
Day trips to Spinalonga leave from the towns of Elounda, Plaka and Agios Nikolaos. There are all sorts available. You can either go for full-on guided tours to learn more about the history of the place or choose a basic ferry (they typically take about 20 minutes to cross) and explore on your own. Spinalonga also has a few pretty pebble coves if you have the time, so pack the swimming stuff.
To be honest, Spinalonga is so darn awesome and enthralling that we’d say it’s one of the top things to do on Crete, things to do with family or not.
Although it’s privately owned, the Amazonas Park now reigns as the largest zoo on the island of Crete. It’s risen to become one of the most popular things to do with families since first opening its enclosures in 2011. Part of the reason for that is that it’s located in the heart of one of the main resort areas, just east of Heraklion, but on the doorstep of Malia, Agios Nikolaos, Elounda – the list goes on!
Inside, you’ll spy out a strange menagerie of fauna. Much comes from the tropics of South America, but there are also more European species, like the barbary apes that are known to reside on the rock of Gibraltar. Amazonas Park is a pretty hands-on animal exhibit. Guests are free to roam around large parts of the zoo, and it’s not uncommon for the monkey species to hop onto unsuspecting shoulders. You can also get up close to meet a local Cretan goat (a creature you’re likely to see all around the island).
There’s surely no more enchanting town on the island than Chania. Seriously, it’s wonderful. We’d even say it’s close to the top of our bucket-list for Crete, things to do with family and kids considered or not!
Yep, everyone should visit, but the little ones are bound to love getting lost in the winding and wiggling inner-city lanes. They were laid out several hundred years ago by Venetian traders, and spill into a beautiful harbor that’s topped by a 500-year-old lighthouse. Check the water there – we even saw a turtle once!
Chania is a great place to seek out family hotels and eateries. The historic center has all sorts of lovely B&Bs with rooftop terraces and views across the Cretan coast. They make for a great vacation base, mainly because the whole run of shoreline that goes west from here is a medley of resorts and beaches, many of them sandy and safe for swimming.