Road trips

The 5 best road trips in Crete

Aerial view of an old fortress on the hill with a road along the coast

The mountains, beaches, monasteries, vineyards, unspoiled villages and old Venetian towns of Crete are some of the highlights you will enjoy on these five road trips. Each dives deep into the island’s best bits and each of them can be done in a day.

Many of these driving routes follow winding mountain roads, so don’t expect to get anywhere fast. On the plus side, this means you have time to savor the countryside passing by your window.

The southwestern province of Hania is the best road trip for secluded beaches and natural beauty

Hania round trip; 96 km (60 miles)

The southwest of Crete has the most stunning natural beauty on the island. It is a tangle of mountain roads winding between bucolic villages, olive orchards, deep rocky ravines and steep peaks. This route is punctuated by some of the most beautiful beaches in Crete. It’s an all-day adventure, so leave Hania early and plan for slow, frequent stops – which is really the point.

First stop at Lakki, an unspoilt village with 360 degree views and a beautiful old church. Continue to hidden Omalos and take a look at the world-class Samaria Gorge (if you follow the rest of this route, you don’t have time for the full trek, just walk 2km and return). Go back slightly and cross the plateau of Omalos to the gorge of Agia Irini. Hike the trail a bit to get a sense of the lush foliage and pass through traditional villages like Rodovani and Temenia. Near the coast, Azogires has caves and waterfalls. Head to the beaches of Paleohora, then make the long loop to the highest point of the trip: the pinkish-white sands of Elafonisi. Next, head to the magnificent monastery of Moni Hrysoskalitissas, then follow the west coast north through the remote Innahorian villages and Sfinari. Make your final stop for sunset at Falasarna Beach. From there it is a direct return to Hania.

Aerial view of an old fortress on the hill with a road along the coast
Follow the scenic coastal road out of Rethymno © Roberto Moiola / Getty Images

The Amari Valley is a great road trip through unspoilt mountain villages

round trip to Rethymnon; 150 km (93 miles)

Psiloritis Natural Park in central Crete encompasses religious, cultural and natural splendor in a Unesco-designated Global Geopark. Within the sprawling park is Mount Psiloritis, Crete’s highest peak (2456m/8058ft), visible throughout the region. One of the park’s must-sees is the Amari Valley, a heady mix of traditional villages, olive groves and orchards. With frequent stops, this is a full-day road trip, so leave Rethymno early.

Leave Rethymno by the coastal road and make the first stop Moni Arkadiou, the deeply sacred and symbolic monastery. Head south to Thronos, where the Agia Panagia church houses 14th-century frescoes (ask for the key at the cafe). Drive through fruit trees to Amari, the valley town of the same name, home to a fine collection of Venetian buildings. Grab refreshments in the main square filled with cafes and flowers. Heading southeast, Monastiraki has Minoan ruins, the Bizari Basilica dates from the 7th century and Vizari has carpentry workshops. Fourfouras is the start of the trails on the side of Mount Psiloritis. Return north to Apodoulou, which is the site of an ancient Minoan ceremonial building. Gerakari is a market town and if the cherries are in season you will be delighted. Watch for wild tulips along the route and head to Meronas, another charming village with a 14th century church. Now follow a wide river valley to the coast.

Rows of green vines stretch across the hillsides between white brick houses
Appoint a designated driver before touring the Iraklio wine region © Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

Iraklio Wine Country is the best road trip through the vineyards of Crete

round trip Iraklio; 45 km (28 miles)

More than two dozen wineries spread their vines over the gently rolling landscape south of Iraklio. In fact, just when you see the palace of Knossos, the grapes begin. Although short in duration, this itinerary can easily fill a day, since the purpose of the trip is to visit vineyards. Plus, spending time in Knossos and the many charming villages will add even more time. There are fine tavernas along the route, so it will be easy to find a pleasant stop for lunch overlooking the vineyards.

The road trip itinerary takes you through a myriad of vineyards, which together produce 70% of Crete’s renowned wines. Let your mood help you decide where to stop. Note that many tasting rooms operate during opening hours, so some may be closed on weekends and from November to March. Two first choices are Boutari and Minos-Miliarakis.

If you haven’t seen one of Greece’s greatest ancient sites yet, make Knossos your first stop. Just south of the palace you will see an early 19th century double arched aqueduct. In Koronekes, stop by the olive estate of the same name for all kinds of exquisite food products. Arhanes is a hub of the wine region and the village has a small museum. Take a detour to Mount Yiouhtas for stunning views of the area. Back on the loop you can see a Minoan wine press at Vathypetro. Near the southern limit of this road, Houdetsi has an interesting museum of traditional musical instruments. Returning north, Peza is another wine center and you can choose from several nearby tasting rooms. Admire the beautiful main square of Myrtia and return to Iraklio.

Bathers on a sandy beach near the town of Gournia
Take a break from the mountain roads of eastern Crete to enjoy coastal views © Atlantis Phototravel / Getty Images

Eastern Crete is a mountain road trip with views of the Mediterranean

Agios Nikolaos round trip; 55 km (34 miles)

A network of small roads meanders through the rocky pinnacles and tree-covered escarpments of the narrow piece of Crete sandwiched between Mirabello Bay and the Libyan Sea. This route takes you away from the tourist centers, so even in the busy summer months you will savor a more intimate Crete.

Agios Nikolaos is a great place to start and end your visit. It has a superb seafront location and the streets leading down to the seafront are lined with good cafes and tavernas. Head southwest to the mountain town of Kalamafka. Just south, climb the 220 steps to the cave chapel of Timios Stavros – the views are worth it. Stop at the preserved village of Anatoli and have an outdoor coffee in a cafe. Drive northwest through the hills to Males and turn south into the wide valley of Mythi. Sarakinas Gorge is even worth a short walk. Once you reach the coast at Myrtos, follow the signs to Myrtos-Pyrgos, a Minoan villa perched on a hill. Following the coastal road due east, ignore the greenhouses on the left and contemplate the sea on the right. Stop on the deserted gray sand beaches. The port town of Ierapetra is a good spot for a seafood lunch. Head northeast and take in the views of the Ha Gorge, which splits the Thripti Mountains. Pause for Minoan ruins in the villages of Vasiliki and Gournia, then return to Agios Nikolaos.

Drive the north coast to visit the three best towns of Crete

Iraklio–Hania or vice versa; 142 km (88 miles)

Many visitors travel between the two main cities of Crete, Hania and the capital, Iraklio. Many even stop at Rethymno, the Venetian port town about halfway along the route. This itinerary is designed to highlight the must-see sites in and between these three must-see Cretan hubs. The busy E75 motorway connects all three. Dive here anytime for quieter local roads or just to find a vantage point over the Cretan Sea.

In Heraklion, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum is open all year round and details the ancient Minoan culture in all its glory and beauty. Leaving town to the west, your first potential stop is Agia Pelagia, which has a lovely beach. The same goes for Bali, although it has several beautiful beaches, with varying personalities, ranging from family-friendly to rowdy. Next, Panormo is the most traditional and unspoilt of the seaside towns on the north coast. Rethymnon is an unbeatable lunch stop. Explore the old center and the port. Ascend to the Fortezza, the Venetian fortress, then stop at one of the many excellent tavernas for a well-deserved meal. Continuing west, look inland from the E75 for Aptera, the ruins of an ancient city dating back to the 7th century BCE. In Hania, take a walk on the long stone breakwater and admire the view of the beautiful pastel-colored old town. With extra time, visit the Archaeological and Maritime Museums.

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