This 10-day Crete road trip was long enough for us to explore most of the island’s most iconic places as well some of it’s hidden gems. Being the largest of the Greek islands, we moved around every few days so that we could explore the island, starting our journey in the traditional fishing villages of the South coast before making our way to the more populated Northside with Crete’s largest towns and cities.
10 Day Crete Road Trip
Best time to visit Crete for a road trip
I always advise people to visit Crete in the Spring (April-May) or the Autumn (Mid-September to mid-October) when it’s not too crowded and the weather is not overbearing. If you visit in early Spring you’ll be able to admire the wildflowers and the snow on top of the mountains which makes for incredible views as you drive around the island, however, at this time of the year it’s a little too cold for swimming in the sea, the water temperatures having yet to warm up so if you want to swim at the fabulous beaches mentioned here (without freezing as I did in May!), it’s best to visit in the Autumn.
Check out: The best time to visit Crete.
Depending on where you live, you can either fly to Heraklion or get the ferry from Piraeus as we did. We took the overnight ferry to allow us to make the most of our time but there are regular crossings throughout the Summer including from the Cycladic islands (Mykonos, Paros, Naxos, Ios, Santorini) with various different ferry companies to choose from.
There are also multiple direct flights to Crete from around Europe in the Summer months (April-October) with airlines including Easyjet, Aegean/Olympic Air (from Athens), Eurowings, Jet2, Norwegian Air, Transavia, Tui, Vueling, and Wizz Air to name a few.
You might also be interested in: Where to stay in Crete.
Day 1: Phaistos, Matala, Agia Galini, Agios Pavlos, Triopetra
The ship arrived to Heraklion port at 7 am and we headed straight to the South of Crete towards Moires – Timbaki until we arrived at the archaeological site of Phaistos, approximately an hour’s drive.
Phaistos, inhabited from the Neolithic period until the 15th century BC, was one of the most important centres of Minoan civilization. All the inscriptions that were found at the archaeological site of Phaistos are in Linear A code which is undeciphered, so all the information known about Phaistos came from the excavation at Knossos (day 4 of our road trip).
The most famous finding was the disc of Phaistos, which can be seen at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion among other findings (day 4 of our road trip) The most important monuments on site are the palaces and the Venetian church of St. George of Phalandra.
Tickets cost: Full 4 € and Reduced 2 €.
After spending an hour around the archaeological site we headed to the seaside town of Matala only a 15 minute drive away. Matala’s beach became famous at the 1960’s when the hippies from around the world arrived at Matala and lived inside the caves that can be found there.
These caves are actually graves from the Roman or the Christianity period. Matala is a cute seafront resort with hotels, restaurants and bars that can cater to every need.
Our next stop was the seaside village of Agia Galini. The last time I visited Agia Galini was 20 years ago when it was at its prime. To tell you the truth I didn’t particularly like it now. On the plus side, Agia Galini’s beach looked lovely.
On the small port of Agia Galini, there is a big rock. On top of it, you can see the monument of Daedalus and Icarus. According to mythology King Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus but they managed to escape. They went to Agia Galini and from the top of the rock, they flew to freedom with wings made of wax and feathers.
Our last stop was Agios Pavlos, a very peaceful area by the sea. It was there we decided to stay for 2 nights. The area of Agios Pavlos has two beaches the main beach with umbrellas and a beach bar (quiet one) and one with huge sand dunes, easy to go down but difficult to climb up. That is the best place to watch the sunset. The latest was my favorite one. Agios Pavlos is very peaceful ita has only a few rooms to rent, 2 tavernas and a quiet beach bar.
Next to Agios Pavlos is an area called Triopetra with an incredible, long sandy beach dominated by three rocks. Both areas are quiet with wild beauty and breathtaking scenery. Triopetra is also known worldwide as a place with incredible energy and a perfect spot for yoga. In the area operates a yoga retreat.
The first night we had dinner at a taverna called Apanemia in Triopetra beach. The food was made from local ingredients and it was cheap and delicious. I totally recommend it. In the area there is another taverna but it was opening later on the day.
Day 2: Spili, Preveli, Plakias, Fragkokastello
On our second day we headed towards Plakias a seaside town in South Rethymnon. Plakias is more tourism – oriented with a big variety of restaurants, shops and bars but not overdeveloped.
We had chosen a very special activity for the day, horseback riding in Alianthos Crete horse riding centre. It was my second time riding a horse, my first time was in the Bahamas and so I thought I would try it again. For my husband, on the other hand, was the first time.
We arrived at the stables on time for our lesson. After meeting with our trainers and our horses, we were shown some basic riding and safety techniques. We then did some riding inside the stables in order to get the hang of it and afterwards we headed for our 1 hour walk towards the beach through a path full of olive groves. For both of us it was an amazing experience, especially after the first couple of minutes when we felt more comfortable with the horses.
Our next stop for the day was the famous Preveli monastery. The monastery has a remarkable history due to its leading role during the Ottoman occupation and World War II. It was there that a lot of soldiers from the allied troops found shelter from the German soldiers. In the monastery, you can see marble plaques that soldiers from New Zealand and Australia sent to the monastery thanking them for saving their lives.
Just before my visit I read a wonderful book of Leah Fleming called “The girl under the olive tree” which is the story of an English girl who arrives in Athens and when the war breaks out she becomes a nurse of the Red Cross. She then finds herself on the island of Crete helping the wounded. This book tells wonderfully the history of Crete in World War II and the Battle of Crete.
The monastery consists of two main building complexes; the Lower (Kato) monastery of Saint John the Baptist which is abandoned but has a small museum and the rear (Piso) monastery of Saint John the Theologian which is in operation. At the rear monastery there is a museum with a great collection of icons and ecclesiastical garments and vessels.
As you approach the area you will see an old stone bridge over a small river. Next to it there is a beautiful taverna. Following the road the first monastery on site is the Lower (kato) monastery. A few kilometers uphill you will meet the Rear (Piso) monastery.
Apart from the monasteries, the area is famous for its beach. Preveli beach is one of the most popular ones in South Crete. The Kourtaliotiko gorge and Megas Potamos (river) end in this beautiful beach with the white sand and crystal clear waters. If you want to access the beach there are two ways to do it. Just before the second monastery, you will see a sign that leads to big parking (there is a small fee 2, 50 €) for leaving your car.
From there starts a downhill path that leads to the beach. It should take you 15 to 20 minutes to get there but the view of the beach will compensate you. It is easy to go down but it’s more difficult to climb up.
The easy way is by taking a small boat from Agia Galini and Plakias but you will miss the incredible view.
The beach is not particularly organized but it has a small beach bar for lunch and refreshments. Behind the beach, by the river, there is a palm tree forest that you can walk by; you can also swim in the river. The water is a bit chilly though.
It was my first bath for the summer but it was so cold at the end of May that I completely froze. In the meantime, many people were enjoying the sea. Before heading back to the car we walked by the river and through the palm tree forest.
Our last stop for the day was the mountain village of Spili; a traditional village with an incredible view to the sea and the valley. The square of the village is very beautiful with a tone fountain with lion heads. There is a very nice taverna at the main road of the village called Kostas – Maria that serves traditional Greek food on a porch full of flowers. Alternatively, if you don’t want to eat, a coffee at the square is highly recommended.
Day 3: Fragkokastello, Chora Sfakion, Loutro, Riha Nera Beach
From our guesthouse accommodation in Spili, we headed back to the scenic South Coast via one of Crete’s scariest yet breathtaking roads, the Kallikratis-Kapsodasos Road famed for its 27 hairpin bends that takes you from 800 metres down to sea level.
Arriving at the traditional seaside village of Frangokastello after an hour’s drive, we went to check out the iconic Frangokastello Castle. Built by the Venetians between 1371-1374 BC there’s not so much to explore, only the impressive outer walls still standing, but with an entrance fee of just 1.50, we enjoyed our walk around before heading down to the beach to admire the castle from another angle.
After a quick paddle in the sea for me and a swim for my husband, we jumped back into the car to make the 12km journey east to the small seaside town of Chora Sfakion. Lined with several seafront tavernas and boasting not 1 but 2 small harbours, this town feels quite touristy as it’s the gateway to the tranquil village of Loutro and also the coach pickup point for people who have completed the Samaria Gorge hike.
After a quick bite to eat in one of the tavernas on the front, we caught the 1 pm boat over to the village of Loutro, one of the most picturesque villages on the island. Only accessible by boat (unless you want to hike overland, there being no road access!) this small tranquil village with its whitewashed buildings sits nestled in a beautiful bay.
To enjoy Loutro at its best, before and after the day-trippers descend, spend the night here but beware that the few studios and rooms that are available get booked up early so you may need to stay in Chora Sfakion instead, as we did.
The beach at Loutro isn’t the best as it’s small and pebbled so we headed to the stunning Sweet Water Beach aka Glyka Nera which is accessible either via an hours hike East along a narrow dirt track with stunning views every step of the way or by boat from the harbour.
You might be interested in: The best beaches in Chania, Crete.
Day 4: Chania
We left Chora Sfakion after breakfast, making the 1.5-hour drive up and over the mountains to the city of Chania which would be our base for the next 3 nights.
After spending 3 days exploring the sleepy scenic south coast it was a bit of a culture shock to re-enter civilization, Chania is one of the top places for visitors but away from the hustle and bustle of the new town, we really enjoyed exploring the narrow backstreets of the old town which lead to the iconic 16th-century Egyptian lighthouse and Venetian harbour and can highly recommend the Splanzia Boutique Hotel or the Pension Eva for places to stay.
After admiring the harbour views with a refreshing drink, we walked past the Küçük Hasan Pasha Mosque (one of the first buildings the Ottomans erected on Crete), past the marina filled with sailing boats and fishing boats, the old shipyards, and followed the sea wall out to the lighthouse. In the afternoon we became culture vultures, visiting some of the city’s museums.
There are so many to choose from including the Maritime Museum, Archeological Museum, Museum of Typography, the 9D Minoan’s World Experience, Folklore Museum, Art Museum, and the Greek National Football Team Museum.
In the evening we strolled 3km along the seafront past ‘The Hand’ monument at Talos Square which commemorates the SS Heraklion ferry disaster of 1966, past the seafront hotels towards Golden Beach returning back into the heart of the city’s backstreets with an appetite for dinner!
Check out: The best things to do in Chania.
Day 5: Chania, Elafonisi, Moni Chrisoskalitisas, Falassarna
Up and on the road bright and early, we made the 1.5 hour trip west to the famous ‘pink sand beach’ of Elafonisi before the tour buses arrived, enjoying the tranquillity of this place almost to ourselves for an hour or so. Elafonisi is a protected nature reserve covering 150hectares and, unlike some of Crete’s other top scenic beaches, does not require a strenuous trek to reach it, just park the car in the huge car park and you’re on the sand within seconds.
The first part of this beach is a haven for kite surfers and is also lined with some sunbeds but once you cross the cool yet refreshing waters of the lagoon, Elafonisi actually being an island, following the rope lined paths through the cedar trees and over the sand dunes to the other side, you feel like you’re in a secluded tropical paradise, however, the sand is not as pink as the edited photos would have you believe!
You can walk up to the church of Agia Irini as we did and admire the panoramic views looking back down across the sand and water – breathtaking!
After leaving the beach we stopped in at Chrisoskalitisas Monastery which is just a 10minute drive back up the hill. Built in the 17th century, it was originally for monks but was converted into a nunnery in 1940.
It offers breathtaking views as it’s perched 35 metres above the sea (you need to climb 90 steps to access it) as well as interesting history – just 1 year after becoming a nunnery in 1941, it became a German outpost with the nuns expelled never to return, the monastery returning to the monks after WWII.
Being this far West, we wanted to see as much of this area as possible in 1 day so we jumped back into the car heading North for just over an hour to visit our second beach of the day, Falassarna. Once again, this is not just 1 beach but many, known as ‘the turquoise beach’.
Laying down on the unspoiled golden sand we could relax with the sun beating down on our bodies and though there were people enjoying the sea, I could only dip my toes in before walking towards the rocks to ‘explore’ whilst my husband went snorkelling. We stayed here until sunset to watch Mother Nature’s last show of the day as it’s reportedly one of the best spots on the island to watch the sun go down although, in my opinion, you can view a good sunset from just about anywhere on this island!
Day 6 Balos – Chania
Another day, another famous beach! We were booked in for the boat trip to Gramvousa and Balos Lagoon leaving from the port of Kissamos, a 1.5-hour drive from Chania. We could have taken the day trip here, the coach picking us up from our hotel in Chania, but because we already had the car we decided to make our own way to the boat to give us a little more freedom.
You can also drive directly to Balos but you miss out on visiting the island of Gramvousa, plus I’d heard horror stories about the long and treacherous dirt road that leads to Balos and the 800 steps down and up the beach from the car park didn’t feel appealing to me after the climb down and then up at Preveli Beach!
The islet of Gramvousa, a 1-hour boat ride from Kissamos, has a Venetian castle perched at the top (137 metres above the sea) of the larger island where the boats dock so that you can hike up and admire the panoramic views as well as the history and architecture. Used by pirates, and complete with rusty shipwreck just out of the port, legend has it that there’s buried treasure on Gramvousa!
It was hard-going walking up to the castle as the sun was beating down on us but the views made it worth it and it was wonderful to be able to fully appreciate that crystal clear water once at the bottom again – yes, even I went swimming on this day!
After time to dry off and a stroll along the beach it was time to get back on board the boat and make our way to the outstandingly beautiful Balos Lagoon that we’d been eagerly eyeing up from atop the castle.
Both locations are protected under the Natura 2000 program with 400 species of flora and over 100 species of bird, Balos home to the Eleonora falcon and cormorants who nest in the sea caves with the Mediterranean seal and Caretta Caretta sea turtle both seeking food in this area.
After a short cruise, we disembarked at the most photographed beach on Crete – Balos Beach aka Balos Lagoon where we could relax in the turquoise waters and golden sand with pink tinges for 3 hours before having to make our way back to the boat. There are no facilities on the beach for food/drink but we had supplies with us including a beach umbrella although there were some sunbeds with umbrellas available to rent for the day.
My husband spent a lot of his time snorkelling whilst I sat and soaked up the amazing views, also watching the kite surfers and the super friendly mountain goat that had made its way down to the beach in search of snacks! I did walk up some of the cliffside steps which leads to the car park to be able to admire some of the birds-eye-view but was glad I didn’t have to make it all the way to the top at the end of the day!
We returned to the dock to catch the boat in the late afternoon, enjoying the 1-hour cruise back to Kisammos, all the while exclaiming that such a beautiful place exists.
Check out: The best beaches in Crete.
Day 7: Chania -Argyroupoli – Rethymno
Change over day! We packed our bags and waved goodbye to Chania, making the 1-hour journey East along the North coast to the central town of Rethymno choosing to stop en route at the inland village of Argyroupoli.
Argyroupoli is split into two parts, the top part of the village is known as Ancient Lappa whilst the bottom part of the village is where you find the springs of Argyroupoli. We had lunch in one of the trout tavernas at the bottom part of the village before taking a walk around to see the waterfalls and springs. We then jumped in the car to head 5 minutes uphill to explore the old part of the village. There is a hiking trail that cuts uphill if you have the right footwear on unlike me – flip flops are not suitable!
The upper part of the village, Ancient Lappa, was a powerful town during Roman times though its history goes back much further as Ancient Lappa had connections with Ancient Knossos. Pieces of Roman history still exist on the oldey-worldey streets with the most famous artifact being a mosaic floor that was once inside a Roman home but now sits outside, undercover, in the street.
There’s much more to see if you look very closely – a Roman gate, sections of marble columns, urns, Venetian facades, and limestone tombs. Be sure to follow the road once you leave the village on foot from under the arch as the views looking down are fabulous and the clock tower isn’t a bad sight either!
After about 45minutes exploring the upper village, we resumed our journey to Rethymno arriving in 30 minutes. After checking into our hotel located in the heart of the old town, we went exploring.
Rethymno is the 3rd largest city on the island and is similar to Chania with an Egyptian lighthouse and Venetian harbour plus a huge fortress that you can look around. Its smaller size makes it feel friendlier and it’s more easily walkable whether you want the quaint backstreets of the old town that are filled with bars, tavernas, and souvenir shops, plus old Ottoman mosques and minarets, or the hustle and bustle of the new part of town filled with coffee shops, banks, fashion stores, and all the day-to-day needs of the locals.
We took photos in front of the Rimondi fountain that dates back to 1626, walked to the lighthouse, admired the Ottoman, Venetian, and Neoclassical architecture in the backstreets, enjoyed the shade of the municipal gardens and finally, lay down on the long sandy beach with watersports facilities. In the evening we ate at one of the fish restaurants by the Venetian harbour and watched the sunset from the sea wall below the fort.
Rethymno also has plenty of museums to explore including the Cretan Lyra Workshop and Museum, the Ecclesiastical Museum, Archeological Museum, and Contemporary Art Museum to name a few.
You might also like: The best things to do in Rethymno.
Day 8: Rethymno – Arkadi Monastery, Eleftherna, Margarites Village
Just 30minutes from Rethymno is the famous Arkadi Monastery which was our first stop of the day. Dating back to the 12th century, this is the place made famous by the atrocities of the 1866 revolution took place when Cretan’s barricaded themselves into the magazine housing the gunpowder, preferring to blow themselves up than be caught and killed by the Ottomans. Incredibly beautiful as well as historic, Arkadi Monastery is still active so you have to make sure you’ve dressed appropriately with knees and shoulders covered.
Our 2nd stop of the day was at the archaeological site of Ancient Eleftherna, just a 20minute drive from Arkadi monastery. Active from the Neolithic period through to the Byzantine era, visitors can see architecture from the late Minoan period, the remains of an Early Christian Basilica, Roman remains, and architecture from the Geometric period cemetery.
Artefacts from as far back as the 9th century are on display in the modern museum’s 3 halls which we greatly enjoyed looking around, it’s just a short drive away from the archaeological site entrance with highlights including the first known monument dedicated to the ‘unknown soldier’ and a bronze shield with lion’s head from the 8th century BC.
Feeling that our history quota was now filled for the day, we made the 15minute journey to the picturesque village of Margarites which is famous for its pottery. Enjoying a stroll around the quaint backstreets full of bougainvillaea, Venetian doorways, and Byzantine churches, we stopped for a late leisurely lunch and then did some souvenir shopping.
This village was once filled with potters throwing pots by hand, a tradition dating as far back as Minoan times when they used clay from the river banks, and though you can still find some working studios using traditional methods, it is a dying art. We also, unexpectedly, came across what is one of Rethymno’s most important monuments – a Late Minoan vaulted grave which dates back to 1350BC, such an unexpected find!
We enjoyed seeing more of Rethymno in the evening, discovering the outdoor cinema where we returned for the 11pm showing under the stars having missed the start of the earlier film that was showing (U.S/UK films are shown in English with Greek subtitles).
We opted to spend another night here but if you have an early departure from Heraklion, you could check-out of your Rethymno accommodation in the morning and go to Heraklion straight from the village of Margarites to make the most of your available time on Crete.
Day 9: Knossos, Heraklion Town
We left Rethymno after breakfast, driving straight to the famous archaeological site of Knossos in the morning which took us 1hour 15 minutes to reach.
Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, home of the Minoan civilization that flourished 2,000 years ago. We paid for a guided tour here and are so pleased we did, able to better understand the history of the Minoan civilisation as well as the ruins and reconstructions that we were looking at.
After just over an hour at Knossos, we hopped in the car for the 15-minute journey into the city centre, ready to spend the rest of the afternoon at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion which houses the largest collection of Minoan artefacts in the whole of Greece.
We left the car at the port which costs just 3.00 for 24 hours (also enabling us to be ‘in place’ ahead of the following day’s ferry crossing) and walked through the bustling city streets to the archaeological museum where all of the artefacts that have been uncovered from Knossos are on display along with items dating back to Neolithic times right through to Roman times.
We wanted to see the famous bee pendant with our own eyes plus the statues of the Goddesses Of The Snakes, and the Leaping Bull fresco all recovered from Knossos Palace but were also impressed with the gold axes, stone sarcophagus, and the display of coins, especially after we spotted a coin from Ancient Lappa where we’d been 2 days before!
After checking into our hotel we took a walk around the Venetian harbour just as the sun was setting, taking in the remains of the Venetian dockyards, and walking out to the 16th century fortress before going for dinner at one of the restaurants with panoramic views over the harbour.
Check out the best things to do in Heraklion.
Day 10 Heraklion
Our last day of the road trip was now upon us – How could it have gone so fast?! After packing our bags and checking out of our room ahead of our ferry home that evening, we spent the day people watching over coffee, window shopping, admiring more landmarks including the Loggia building and the Venetian lion fountain on August Street before visiting some of Heraklion’s other museums.
The Museum of Ancient Greek Technology was truly fascinating as it doesn’t just tell you how the Ancient Greek’s did things but shows you! Seeing the ancient wine-serving robot, learning the trick of the so-called miracles at temples, learning how water was turned into wine and vice versa, plus seeing Plato’s invention of the first ever alarm clock really fascinated me.
After a late lunch we spent the rest of our time in Heraklion looking around the Natural History Museum. Although mainly aimed at families with kids, we can’t say we didn’t enjoy the dinosaur exhibit and I did enjoy watching the films at the on-site cinema – It was nice to be able to rest my feet whilst learning more about Crete’s natural world and the Natura 2000 programme that has been set up to protect Crete’s wild spaces, some of which we’d visited.
After a coffee and snack it was time for us to head back to the car and join the queue for the ferry – We were feeling tired but were thrilled with how much we’d managed to see of this amazing island and spent the return journey to Piraeus discussing another visit to explore the far East of the island before falling asleep.
What about you, does our 10 day road trip inspire you to explore Crete?