The largest Greek island and among the 10 largest from Europe is Crete, a beautiful island located at the southern part of the Aegean Sea and has a total surface of 8.336 square kilometres (3.219 square miles).
The Greek islands are traditionally grouped into the following clusters:
- the Argo-Saronic Islands in the Saronic Gulf near Athens;
- the Cycladic islands, a large but dense collection occupying the central part of the Aegean Sea;
- the North Aegean islands, a loose grouping off the west coast of Turkey;
- the Dodecanese islands, another loose collection in the southeast between Crete and Turkey;
- the Sporades, a small tight group off the coast of Euboea;
- the Ionian Islands, chiefly located to the west of the mainland in the Ionian Sea.
The rest of the islands, Crete with its surrounding islets and Euboea are traditionally excluded from this grouping.
The large island of Crete, is also the 5th biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, as well as Corsica.
The largest island of Greece has a population of almost 600,000. The capital of the island as well as the largest city is Heraklion.
Crete has a large variety of landscapes from fine-sand beaches at Elafonisi to the White Mountains.
Mt. Ida, the tallest point from the island. Mount Ida is the place where Zeus was born, according to Greek mythology.
The big island of Crete is not part of any kind of island group, though it does have a number of satellite islands consisting of Gavdos, which is thought about to be the most southern point of Europe.
The island has a significant number of ancient ruins, especially Knossos, which is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site, considered Europe’s earliest city.
Crete was home of the Minoan people, which is the earliest well-known civilisation in Europe going back to 2700 B.C.
But this article is not only about Crete history, it is also about the most interesting and amazing things you can do here.
Top attractions on the largest Greek island
1.Explore the Samaria Gorge
The Samaria Gorge is one of the longest of its kind from Europe, with a total length of the visiting trail of 18 kilometres (11.1 miles).
It will take you 7 or 8 hours to complete the route, but the landscape and scenery are breathtaking.
If you are lucky enough you might spot one or two endemic animal species such as a spiny mouse or Cretan badger.
The best time of the year to visit this natural beauty is in spring or autumn when the days are not that hot.
The park usually opens at the beginning of May and stays open by the end of October or even earlier if the autumn rains damage the paths.
It is not impossible to complete the hiking trail during the warm summer months but you will need to pay extra effort for this.
At the end of the trail, you will be rewarded with stunning views over the Libyan Sea.
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2. Travel back in time at Knossos Minoan Palace
Situated 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) away from Iraklio, Knossos is considered to be the oldest city from Europe and its Minoan Palace is definitely a must-see attraction from the island.
The palace was discovered in 1898 by Minos Kalokairinos and it became very clear for everyone that this was one of the most important ceremonial and political hubs of the Minoan civilisation and culture.
When it was built, the palace had more than 1.200 rooms, each of them being an architectural and design masterpiece for that time.
Unfortunately, the most important attraction on the largest Greek island built around 2.000 BCE was destroyed during a massive earthquake in 1.700 BCE.
A few centuries later, a brand new palace was constructed which is supposed to be even greater than the initial one.
According to the historical evidence, this second palace was destroyed in 1.450 BCE most probably by the Santorini eruption, the same eruption that destroyed the ancient city of Akrotiri.
Thanks to modern technology, most rooms have been virtually reconstructed and during your tour of the palace, you can visualise the interiors of the palace.
3. Discover the beautiful beaches
Small or large, secluded or full of facilities, the beaches of Crete are wonderful places to spend a whole day under the sun.
Balos, Elafonissi and Falassarna in Chania, or Preveli in Rethymno, Vai in Lassithi and many other beaches, all are waiting to be discovered by tourists from all over the place.
Balos for example is an exotic beach with crystal waters that form a superficial lagoon surrounded by a harsh hill landscape of striking contrast versus the blue-green water of the sea.
Elafonisi Beach is another spectacular place to visit in Crete. It’s a worldwide famous beach known for its fantastic pink sand, but also for a fairly calm sea with alluring shades of blue.
And the list could go on with the hundred of beaches nested on this island, beaches accessible by car or by boat.
As we wanted to explore as much as we can from the largest Greek island we chose to rent a car and drive from one beach to another.
It proved to be a very smart decision, as the rental prices are reasonable and the road conditions are good.
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You can also choose to take day trips or boat tours to get to some of the beaches, but tours and trips are more expensive than renting a car for the whole holiday.
4. Explore Chania’s Old Town
The Old Town of Chania is ranked as one of the prettiest cities from the whole island and for good reason!
It is home to a romantic old port, a magnificent Egyptian lighthouse, a chic Venetian quarter, an old Jewish quarter and much more.
The place is packed with restaurants, bars and taverns where you can taste the delicious Greek cuisine, as well as many international specialities.
Pick the one that you like most, order a cocktail or a tasty local wine and enjoy your night out with your friends and family.
5. Take a ferry to Lountro
One of the most beautiful drives from the Chania region is the one that takes you to the southern village of Chora Sfakion, passing through the majestic Imbros Gorge.
Once you reach Chora Sfakion, go straight to the port and take the ferry to the small fishing village of Loutro.
This is the perfect place where to spend one or two days relaxing and enjoying a peaceful holiday far from any noise pollution.
You can also reach the village on foot by climbing the coastal mountain trail that connects Chora Sfakion to the village.
6. Visit the Arkadi Monastery
The most important spiritual centre of Crete, the largest Greek island is for sure the Arkadi Monastery, a place full of history and charm.
The monastery surrounded by beautiful gardens played a very important role during the Ottoman occupation of the island.
According to historical evidence, here, in this place, more than 900 people, mostly children and women choose to take their own lives rather than surrender to the Turks.
These events did not lead to the immediate liberation of the island but did start a process of international support which, by 1898, finally put an end to 267 years of oppressing ottoman ruling on the island.
7. Experience the nightlife in Malia
Crete is not famous for its endless parties so those of you who are looking to party till morning should go to Mykonos or even Santorini.
Still, there is a place on Crete where you can party the whole night and this is Malia resort, a beautiful resort located on the northern coast of Heraklion.
The place is famous for its amazing beach, but also for the large variety of pubs, beach bars and even a few clubs where you can dance the whole night.
In Malia, there is also a very important Minoan settlement dating from ancient times with very interesting ruins of the Minoan Palace of Malia that are worth paying a visit.
8.Explore the ghost island of Spinalonga
Off the coastline of Elounda, Spinalonga is a little rocky island also known as the Leper Island, as it was a leper swarm till 1957.
Currently abandoned, the island is a significant tourist attraction for site visitors that wish to check out the ghost town and also plunge into its terrible past.
Here, on this part of the largest Greek island, just 6 kilometres away from Elounda we choose to set our camp and explore the island.
We booked a few nights at Blue Palace, a Luxury Collection Resort and Spa definitely a home away from home.
Stretching across 143 acres, the resort has no main building but it is surrounded by bungalows, suites & villas that are dotted around a gentle slope, leading to its impressive beach and breathtaking bay.
All rooms open up to extended verandas, most of them with a private pool and all with beautiful views to the Aegean Sea and Spinalonga island.
The place amazes you with its view, quality of services and high-end facilities, being one of the best hotels from the island.
9. Go village-hopping around the Lasithi Plateau
Crete’s easternmost region is Lasithi, a place located on a mountain plateau where Greek traditions and culture is very well preserved.
The mountain plateau from this part of Greece is a wonderful green extension full of small villages, some of them so small that in just a couple of minutes you manage to see them.
This is the place from the island where locals cultivate different types of fruits and vegetables and where you can taste one of the best authentic homemade meals in a beautiful mountain landscape.
A must-see place from Lasithi Plateau is the small village of Psycho, a place famous for the imposing Cave of Zeus, which is an ancient Minoan place of worship.
10. Explore the world at Cretaquarium
Crete, the largest Greek island is also home to one of the largest aquariums from Europe named Cretaquarium or Thalassocosmos.
This public aquarium was opened in 2005 and is located right near the town of Gournes, 15 kilometres east of the city of Heraklion.
Here you can find a large variety of marine organisms like fish, jellyfish, sharks and even beautiful and tiny seahorses.
Most of the sealife displayed at the aquarium comes from the Mediterranean sea and visiting this place is an entertaining experience for visitors of all ages.
The list of the best attractions to visit in Crete can go on with dozens of other places from all over the island like Psychro Cave from the eastern part of Greece, or Kourtaliotiko Gorge located 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) from Rethymnon.
All these places are amazing and will keep you busy for a couple of weeks when in Greece.
I invite you to visit this amazing island and explore its beautiful attractions and tell us which one is your favourite.