How to Spend 5 Days in Crete Greece (the Perfect Itinerary)

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Balos Crete Greece

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Inside: The best things to do in Crete, where to stay on Greece’s largest island, and the perfect way to spend 5 days in Crete.

Decision time. What’s it going to be, Chania or Heraklion?” I queried my favorite travel accomplice, Shannon, as we waited to board our flight from Riga, Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania.

Or Rethymno or Agios Nikolaos?” she countered, with an exasperated sigh.

This exchange mirrored all previous deliberations over where to call home on our upcoming visit to Crete Greece – the country’s largest island.

We were smack in the middle of a 30-day, 15-stop summer adventure from Moscow to Turkey. If we didn’t end this dance of procrastination soon, we’d be landing in Crete homeless.

Our cheap-o Ryan Air flight from Sardinia (via Rome) landed in Chania, on the western end of the island. Logic dictated spending (at least) the first night there.

But our outbound flight 5 days later departs from the eastern city of Heraklion.

Further complicating our decision? There is plenty to see in between.

Thus, the Cretan Dilemma

Usually, picking the right hotel is one of my biggest hurdles in travel planning.

But with Crete, you must first choose between beachy resort areas (Agios Nikolaos, Elounda), charming harbor towns (Chania, Rethymno), or a history-rich city port (Heraklion).

East or West. Big or small. Beach, history, or nightlife?

Finally, while searching Chania hotels on, we found a great rate on a small, basic hotel in a terrific location near the harbor. It seemed like a sign, so we booked it for the first two nights.

We’ll throw caution to the wind and figure out the rest when we arrive.

Elafonisi Beach Crete Things to Do

But before I dive into our Cretan adventure, let’s quickly cover the need-to-know info for travel to Greece.

Traveling to Greece this summer?

If you’re headed to Greece this summer this one is required reading. From the current entry requirements to the essentials of island-hopping, here’s every little thing you need to know:

Ultimate Greek Islands Travel Guide

Planning a trip to Greece in 2024?

From the most spectacular beaches to the tastiest treats to try, here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip to the Greek Islands!

And now, back to Crete!

How we spent our 5 days on Crete

Don’t have time to read the full post (you should, it’s great!) here’s our 5-day Crete itinerary in a nutshell:

  1. Arrival in Chania (swoon), decide to spend all 5 nights there.
  2. Day Trip to Elafonisi Beach from Chania.
  3. Day Trip to Gramvousa and Balos Lagoon from Chania.
  4. Explore Chania and take a glass-bottom boat trip.
  5. Early bus to Heraklion and an afternoon exploring Knossos.

But read on for all the juicy details and whether spending all 5 nights in Chania turned out to be the right decision.

What Makes Crete Unique?

For centuries the natural beauty of Crete was at the mercy of pirate fleets and the conquests of formidable Mediterranean powers. The Greeks, Romans, Venetians, and Turks each left their cultural mark on the island.

As a result of this confluence of cultures, Crete evolved a national identity that is entirely unique from the rest of Greece.

Even today, when the locals refer to their traditional dishes or local products like olive oil or honey, it’s always as “Cretan,” never Greek. In fact, it wasn’t until 1913 that Crete formally joined with Greece.

Today, it’s one of Greece’s most popular islands to visit and makes my list as one of The 7 Best Greek Islands to Visit This Summer (2024).

How to get to Crete – flight or ferry?

If you’re coming from Athens, there are plenty of options for both ferries and flights.

But before you depart Athens…

If this is your first trip to Greece, you absolutely must spend at least a few days exploring the city’s incredible historic sights. I know, I know, the Greek Islands are enticing. But Athens is literally the birthplace of Western civilization. And that’s pretty darn impressive. If time is short, here’s a foolproof one-day itinerary:

How to Spend 24 Hours in Athens

If you’re coming from mainland Europe, you’ll find a number of direct flight options (like we did) into Crete.

From Athens, a quick flight makes the most sense due to Crete’s distance from the mainland. But if you prefer a ferry, the ride will take you anywhere from 6-9 hours with several stops along the way.

Tip: The absolute best site for booking ferries in Greece is

With the basics covered, let’s get back to how we allocated our 5 day itinerary for Crete.

Day 1. Love at First Sight in Chania

After landing at the Chania airport, we grab a taxi to our hotel.

Our bargain hotel pick in Chania turns out to be a genius decision. Shannon and I immediately fall in love with the quaint harbor town of Chania the minute we see it (ultimately deciding to spend our entire 5 days in Crete there).

I didn’t think anything could top my previous Greek Islands favorite, Mykonos, but Chania just might come close.

Read More: The Meaning of Mykonos: The Island that Inspired a Lifetime of Wanderlust

Our room at Nikolas Rooms is small and very basic. However, the location is superb, with a lovely view of the town square and church and just steps away from the harbor…all for about $100 a night.

Chania Crete Greece
Chania’s charming harbor

Chania is our base for the first two nights of our 5 days in Crete, but the question remains. Where to stay for our last three nights?

And more importantly, what are the best things to do in Crete to fill our days? We spend the rest of Day 1 investigating the best things to do near Chania.

The Top 2 Things To Do Near Chania

For a little professional guidance, we head straight to the local travel office for a map and some local advice. The office is extremely helpful and we quickly nail down the two main things we want to do while on the western end of the island:

  1. Visit the pink sands of Elafonisi Beach
  2. Take a day trip to Gramvousa and Balos islands

The bus to Elafonissi departs and returns at two set times each day. Judging the morning time a bit aggressive for a proper Greek island holiday, we opt to rent a car for tomorrow to drive ourselves.

Tip: When it comes to booking rental cars in Europe, is my go-to site:

MY Pick
Milos Greek Island Car Rental

Discover Cars

My favorite rental car booking site to use all over the world. No hidden costs, free cancellation, and 24/7 customer support.

Then, we book the standard ferry boat trip to Gramvousa and Balos for the following day.

The Balos day trip means we’ll be gone all of our third day, so it makes sense to stay put at Nikolas Rooms for a third night (luckily, our host is gracious enough to extend our stay).

Three nights down, two more to go.

We were also interested in possibly taking a day trip over to the island of Santorini but quickly learned that one is much easier to tackle from Heraklion. We’ll save that for another time, there’s plenty to see on this side of the island.

Read More: 3 Things to Know About a Crete to Santorini Day Trip

Day 2. A Day Trip to Elafonisi Beach

The plan for our first full day in Crete:

1 – Make the 90-minute drive across the mountainous center of the island to Elafonisi Beach on the southwest corner

2 – Maximize our 1-day car rental by checking out the picturesque harbor of Rethymno to see if it is any better than Chania (which doesn’t seem possible).

Driving in Crete Greece
The drive to Elafonissi through the mountains

Driving on the Island of Crete

We pick up our rental car at Car Rental Crete by Rental Center Crete at a respectable 9:00am to begin our day of island adventure.

Once on the road, the drive involves several white-knuckle, winding roads through the mountains. It takes nearly two hours to get to Elafonisi, instead of the estimated 90 minutes.

Pink Beach Paradise at Elafonisi Beach

But it is definitely worth the ambitious drive, Elafonisi is absolutely stunning.

More than just a simple beach, Elafonisi actually a peninsula of several beaches. At various tides, it even becomes its own island. The shallow, sparkling turquoise sea extends at knee-high depth for what seems like miles.

It brings to mind some of my favorite endless lagoons in the South Pacific, like Aitutaki and Moorea. It is just fantastic.

Read More: Forget Bora Bora: 3 Reasons Moorea is the Best of Tahiti

Elafonisi Beach Crete Greece
The pink sands of Elafonisi

Though it isn’t a bold shade of pink, the pink crystals of sand in the shoreline are easy to see. I’ve never seen a pink beach before, so I thought Elafonisi was amazing.

Posted signs warn visitors not to damage the natural environment by taking any of the pink sand (this is apparently a problem).

Tip: If you want to visit this beautiful beach but you’re not up for the white-knuckle drive (I hear you!), there are a few excellent day tour options to Elafonisi from Chania. This one is my top pick:

#1 Pick
Elafonissi Crete Greece

Elafonisi, Falasarna & Vouves Shared Tour from Chania

This full-day small group tour includes plenty of free time at Elafonisi and two more of Crete’s top beaches, plus lunch, snacks, a terrific guide, and zero stress.

We explore the various coves of Elafonisi and spend some quality time lounging on the pink sands. But if we are going to squeeze in a trip to Reythmno, by mid-afternoon it’s time to hit the road.

A quick stop in Reythmno

Three hours later, we arrive in the harbor of Reythmno. It is lovely, but it’s no match for Chania.

We get some ice cream and stroll the port’s shop-lined, cobbled lanes. An hour later, we’re back in the car bound for Chania – secure in the knowledge that we’ve made the right decision between those two towns.

Stick with Chania or Move On?

That night, over dinner in the harbor, we make the easy decision to spend our final two nights in Chania as well.

However, it’s time to upgrade our hotel situation and splurge on a room with a view. We’ve been secretly coveting several hotels around the harbor with terraces and (what must be) incredible views.

A Room with a View in Chania

As we eat, we search rates for our top picks on We identify a few favorites and then narrow it down to three:

1. The Plaza Apartment, which has a spacious terrace and sweeping views of the harbor. Sadly, a quick check reveals it is fully booked for the week.

2. Captain Vasilis Hotel – Also boasting a striking terrace and pristine location in the harbor.

3. Erietta Suites Hotel – Great views of the harbor, reasonable rates…but also fully booked for the next two nights.

So we go straight to the source and walk right into the lobby at Captain Vasilis to ask if we can see a room. The room we are most excited about is occupied that night but is available for the next two nights.

The helpful manager shows us around the small B&B and up to the terrace we’ve spotted from the harbor. The view is simply incredible. SOLD!

Captain Vassilis Chania Crete Greece
The terrace we spotted at the Captain Vassilis hotel

It is a shared terrace with one other room, but it is huge. And our room will have a magnificent view as well.

The rate is nearly twice what we were paying at Nikolas Rooms, but it is a considerable upgrade for a very reasonable price.

We book it on the spot for our last two nights.

Day 3. Gramvousa and Balos Islands

For our third day on Crete, we have another full day planned. First up, we catch the 8:00am bus to the port of Kissamos. From there, we’ll hook up with our boat for the day.

We arrive at the port around 9:30am and are mildly alarmed at the size of the ship. There are easily 400 people aboard the large ferry boat.

We immediately fear this might be one of those obnoxious group tours, elbow to elbow on the beach with everyone else.

But we shouldn’t have worried.

Despite the large number of people aboard, both islands are expansive. There is plenty of room for us to carve out our own little bit of serenity at each stop, away from the crowds.

After a one-hour sail from Kissamos, we arrive at our first stop, the more ambitious of the two, Gramvousa Island.

First stop, Gramvousa

Gramvousa features a perfect stretch of white sand beach, complete with an awesome shipwreck peeking up from the emerald sea just offshore.

Gramvousa Island Crete Greece
Views from the castle on Gramvousa Island

However, the island’s top sight is easily the Venetian castle towering atop a steep rock, 500ft above sea level. It’s considered one of the most impressive castles in Crete, so like most of our fellow passengers, Shannon and I opt to make the climb to the top instead of lounging around on the beach.

The climb is tough in the mid-day heat, but we are rewarded with incredible views of the sea from every corner of the castle.

The island itself explodes with colorful flora and fauna and has tremendous views of our next stop, Balos Island. By the time we climb back down, the ship is blasting its departure horn.

So much for beach time!

The Spectacular Balos Lagoon

Our next stop at the Balos Lagoon is all about relaxation.

Like Elafonissi yesterday, the beach is actually a vast lagoon with several different beach areas. Deciding to forgo the more crowded umbrella and beach chair area, we find a quiet area off to the side of the main beach and spread out our towels to relax for a while.

Balos Crete Greece
Beautiful Balos Island, Crete

It is a splendid way to spend an afternoon.

Tip: If you don’t want to do a bus to Kissamos and the ferry ride, this is my pick for a more relaxed day at the beach:

#1 Pick
Balos Lagoon Crete Greece

Balos & Falassarna Beach – Jeep Tour w/Loungers & Lunch

This full-day small-group Jeep Tour is one of the top-rated tours on the island. And it’s the perfect way to dodge the ferry and avoid the crowds. You’ll stop at Balos for photos & then head to Falassarna Beach (a local favorite). It also includes lunch and reserved lounge chairs, something Balos doesn’t have.

We enjoy nearly three hours of relaxation time on Balos before it’s time to head back to Kissamos for the drive back to Chania.

Day 4. A Vacation from our Crete Vacation

For our fourth day on Crete, there are lots of things we could do.

The other major day trip on this end of the island is hiking the Samaria Gorge, a rugged 6-hour hike that’s supposed to be fabulous. We could also take the local bus to any number of beaches along the coast.

What we actually do is take a vacation from our (so far) exhausting vacation. And not just our Crete vacation. We’ve been sightseeing at full-throttle for two weeks straight. We are spent.

A day to relax, sleep in, and not plan anything is definitely in order. So after a serene morning, we head over to our new hotel at the very civilized hour of 11:00am.

An Upgrade to Captain Vasilis

The room at Captain Vasilis is just as fantastic as we hoped. Twice the size of the one we’ve been sharing for the past three nights. It even has a Jacuzzi tub with a million-dollar view of the harbor.

We’ve been wishing for a giant tub in which to soak our tired legs for a week and finally, we have one! Trade-off times for the tub are immediately established as we settle into our fancy new digs.

Later, we grab lunch and finally take a stroll around the harbor’s Venetian walls and out to the lighthouse. Chania’s architecture has a strong Venetian-Turkish influence which really adds to its charm.

Chania Crete Greece
The view from our new terrace and my office for the day

The town was also heavily bombed during WWII and some of its unique atmosphere is due to a variety of nearly demolished buildings being reinvented as shops and restaurants.

That afternoon we try out one of the many glass-bottom boat trips available from Chania harbor.

We opt for the 2-hour trip with Captain Nick’s Boat Tours which circles Thodorou and Lazaretta islands and over the top of wreckage from an airplane shot down in World War II.

It’s another gorgeous day and the boat tour is the perfect way to get out on the water and get a look at some of the other beaches near Chania.

Last Night in Chania

We make the most of our terrace tonight with a sunset glass of wine. Then choose a new spot for dinner and try to come up with a plan for Heraklion.

Captain Vasilis Chania Crete Greece
Wine on the terrace enjoying our view!

I have a flight out tomorrow night to Rhodes. But Shannon has two more nights on Crete and still needs to secure a room on that side of the island.

Day 5. The Port City of Heraklion

For my last day on Crete, we hop on the 9:00am bus from Chania to Heraklion and arrive in town just after 11:00am. My flight doesn’t depart until 8:00pm tonight, so we have plenty of time left to explore Heraklion and visit the nearby Minoan Palace of Knossos.

Shannon booked a room near the port at the gorgeous Aquila Atlantis Hotel and we find it easily after a short walk from the bus stop.

Heraklion is exactly as our local friends in Chania described it, a big city. Though the harbor area is pretty and the hotel is fabulous, the town itself is definitely lacking the charm and character of Chania.

We are instantly certain we made the right decision about where to spend our time while on Crete.

We ditch our luggage in Shannon’s room and wander the old Venetian port area for a bit before catching the bus over to Knossos.

Ancient History at Knossos

For many visitors to Crete, Knossos is the main attraction.

Excavation of the site containing two major Minoan palaces begun under Arthur Evans in 1900. Prior to that time, little was known about the ancient Minoan people.

Knossos Crete Greece
Getting a few shots at Knossos

Excavations continue to this day but during Evans’ time, he did something many considered controversial. He rebuilt large parts of the palace based on evidence that he had uncovered.

Throughout the site, reconstructed walls, stairs, windows, and columns give visitors a sense of what the palace may have looked like so many centuries ago.

While his actions at Knossos may have been controversial to some, it sure helps those of us without an archaeology degree gain a better appreciation for the place.

Palace of Knossos Crete Greece
Palace of Knossos, Crete

Like many of the incredible ruins I’ve seen across Greece in Athens and the island of Cyprus, it’s a fascinating site to visit and explore.

Read More: Cyprus: The Best of Aphrodite’s Divided Isle – Paphos, Kourion & Lefkara

Read More: 24 Hours in Athens

After wandering Knossos for a while, we grab the bus back into the city. There is just enough time for one last Cretan meal before I leave for the airport.

Did We Make the Right Decision?

Over dinner, we realize our lack of initial planning turned out to be a solid strategy. I’m a natural planner (it’s what I do for a living), so it was a struggle for me to leave Crete to work itself out upon arrival.

Yes, I know other travelers do this all the time. But the fact that it worked out so perfectly has inspired me to consider a more relaxed approach to travel planning going forward.


Big thanks to Shannon for joining me again for half of this summer’s trip. She’s now been on all 6 of my month-long summer trips since I first added them to the travel roster in 2009 with a 30-day trip around Europe.

Read More: Europe in 30 Days

Not everyone can keep up with my high-octane style of travel (or would want to for that matter!). But she never complains. Not when we attempt to see an entirely new country in an afternoon (most recently, Lithuania).

Read More: Lightning Fast Lithuania: 3 Hours in Vilnius

Or bounce from one hotel to another, night after night. Like me, she makes the most of every destination, no matter how short the stay.

Next up for me, a late-night flight to Rhodes before continuing on to the Greek island I’m most excited about on this trip, Symi!

Read More: How to Make the Most of 24 Hours on the Greek Island of Rhodes

Read More: Sparkling Symi is the Best Greek Island You’ve Never Heard Of

Looking for more fantastic Greek Islands to explore? Start here:

Must-See Milos: 5 Things You Can’t Miss on this Glorious Greek Island

7 Reasons Naxos is the Best Greek Island (for Pretty Much Everything)

5 Reasons to Fall in Love with Paros Greece (Hint: Antiparos is one)

Greek Island Showdown: Naxos or Paros – Which one is BEST for You?

How to Plan the Perfect Santorini Honeymoon (on a budget!)

The Meaning of Mykonos: The Island that Inspired a Lifetime of Wanderlust

How to Visit Saranda & the Albanian Riviera from the Greek Island of Corfu


  1. Great trip! We’re spending 4 days in Crete for our honeymoon (Gahh not nearly enough time, but we only have 14 days total, and we’re doing Athens, Mykonos, Santorini, and Crete!). We’re getting into Heraklion, spending a night, then driving (renting a car) to Chania for 2 nights, and heading back for our last day/night in Heraklion before catching a flight out first thing in the morning. Would LOVE any restaurant recommendations or particular spots you enjoyed strolling around in Chania. LOVED the blog!

    1. Hi Robin! That sounds like an amazing honeymoon!! You picked the best 3 Greek islands of the whole bunch. My husband and I spent some time on Santorini on our honeymoon last summer and it was absolute bliss. Definitely rent a quad bike to get out and explore, we had so much fun riding around the island with our own wheels. On Mykonos, my favorite beach is Platis Gialos. It’s away from the party scene, quiet and just stunningly beautiful. The sunsets from Little Venice each night are just to die for. It’s super easy to use the local bus system to get between town and all the beaches. As for Crete, well 4 days isn’t enough to see it all (5 wasn’t either!) but you can definitely cover a lot of ground. I wish I could remember a single name of a restaurant but in Chania we really just walked along the waterfront and picked a new place to try every night. They were all good, we never had a bad meal anywhere on that island. The harbor in Chania is just stunning, that was my favorite spot on the whole island and we spent lots of time just walking around it. Congratulations on your wedding! I hope you guys have a wonderful time exploring Greece on your honeymoon, you couldn’t have picked a more romantic spot 🙂

  2. Great post! 🙂 I booked two nights at Captain Vilasis upon your recommendation, thanks.

    1. Awesome! You will love it, the views are amazing 🙂

  3. This is a great travel review of Crete.
    I hope I will have the chance to go to Crete one day.
    It is not easy if you are on a budget, as a student you have to save a lot to be able to collect the $ for such a trip.
    I am hoping to save $3000 for a round trip to Greece. It should be enough for two weeks island hopping and a short visit to Crete to cross the Samaria Gorge. A good friend of mine did the Samaria Gorge last year and wrote and article about her Trip to Crete

    1. Thanks, Judith! It really is an amazing island.

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