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See

Yes, you must go to Knossos. It’s essential – but the most beautiful Minoan palaces to visit are Phaistos on the south Coast, Mallia about a half hour east of Heraklion, and Zakros, a rarely-visited palace located on the south east coast. It’s a substantial drive and you may want to overnight in Paleokastro or Agios Nikolaos to facilitate your visit. Local Zakros olive oil is renowned and can be purchased in local shops along the main road, along with local handcrafts including shepherd’s staffs.

Shop

A block south of the famed Four Lions Square is Heraklion’s small market street, filled with vendors, ouzeri, and a cozy good traditional taverna, the Pantheon. The moussaka is excellent and is served with typical Cretan bread. The stalls offer a big variety of local herbs and spices, including Greek saffron, plus luggage, shoes, small electronics and many other items. An old Turkish bathhouse now serves coffee, and stopping for a frappe – a chilled frothy coffee drink – is a great way to break up your shopping. More upscale shopping can be found along Dedalou and adjacent streets, which is near the Archaelogical Museum as well. You can reach these streets by walking across the parking lot of the museum and just go up any of the side streets. These generally lead to the square of the Four Lions, where a Venetian-era fountain dominates the area. By the fountain, stop at Kypros Bougatsi for a classic pastry which has been produced at the same location for over a hundred years. It’s pastry filled with a local mild cheese and drizzled with honey, and many a citizen of Heraklion starts their day there.

Eat

East of Heraklion in Chersonissos, the Tritonas Restaurant offers sea-side seafood. Unlike many Greek restaurants, it goes all out on a signature lettuce-based salad with sliced Graviera cheese locally-sourced. The restaurant is at its best during the warmer months when diners can sit out side and see and hear the sea. Its located next to the luxurious Caldera Hotel, which is something of a misnomer – the nearest Caldera is at Santorini, 70 miles across the sea.

Stay

In the heart of Heraklion located near the Archaeological Museum, the Capsis Astoria Hotel is a centrally-located refuge with a great breakfast buffet. While many travelers might prefer a coastal resort hotel for a longer stay, this is ideal for a night or two in Heraklion. Rates start at about 140 Euros, more for view rooms which are preferable – the ones without views look out on a very uninspiring light well. You can “own” the view wherever your room is with a visit to the Zephyros rooftop pool and bar, which provides an expansive view of Heraklion and its harbor. The chicken salad is huge and one of the better deals in town.
Consistently well-reviewed is the Galaxy Hotel. It’s slightly farther from the center, but is still within longer walking distance to reach the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and other local attractions. Until further notice, the main Archaeological Museum is closed but there is a small, choice collection of major artifacts on display, including the mysterious Phaistos disk, the charming small Snake Goddess, Roman-era statues of Isis and Sarais, and a giant double axe.

Walk

Crete is a walker’s paradise. You can hike all day in the Samaria Gorge, an approximately 11-mile downhill trek which begins at the plain of Omalos and descends to the seaside village of Agia Roumeli. You may prefer to plan to spend the night in Agia Roumeli and then take the ferry the following morning.

Hikers can also walk along a section of the E4 from Agia Roumeli to Loutro and then on to Chora Sfakia, all charming seaside towns. From Chora Sfakia there is a bus back up to the North Coast, making this a relatively simple walk logistically.

Get Out

Most visitors arrive in Heraklion, the capital of Crete. While Heraklion can be fine or a day or so, it is a working Greek city, and the urban environment may not be what you came to Crete to enjoy. Crete’s other cities and large towns can all be reached for day trips from Heraklion. These include Chania in the far west, Rethymno roughly midway between Chania and Heraklion, and Agios Nikolaos and Siteia to the east. Agios Nikolaos is surrounded by many hotels and resort complexes, and is not far from the famed lagoon of Elounda. This is where Spinalonga Island is located, the subject of the recent bestseller “The Island” and an increasingly popular stop for tourists. Up above Elounda, you can visit the ancient town of Lato which is a well-preserved and beautiful place to visit.

On the wilder southern coast of Crete, you can reach the famed hippie-era town of Matala by a good road. It’s a little over an hour from Heraklion and offers many small, inexpensive hotels. “Red Beach” is a famed nude beach, and there are ancient caves adjacent to the main beach in Matala.

If you do choose to visit Phaistos on the south coast, it can be combined with a visit to the vast archaeological site of Gortyn, a Minoan, Hellenistic, and Roman city which is also the site of what is said to be the earliest Christian churcn on the island, that of St. Titus, an evangelist who visited Crete at the instigation of St. Paul. It’s well-preserved and includes an image of a Black Madonna. Nearby, see the plane tree where Zeus is said to have taken Europa after he kidnapped her from a seaside meadow in Libya. If you think the tree is a little small to be thousands of years old, the guards will be quick to say it was burned to the root on more than one occasion and this is just the latest shoot.

Listen

Crete has a great music scene. Keep an ear out for concerts by Ross Daly, a beloved expatriate who has mastered Cretan music and combines it with Indian and other world music. Arrapao Midnight plays around the island and offers straight-on rock and roll. For an unusual take on traditional Cretan music, check out Chainides, whose haunting melodies and vocals provide an interesting soundtrack for your drives across Crete.

Avoid

The big resort complexes on the North Coast insulate visitors from the real life of Crete. While cheap package deals are tempting and widely available, you’ll get more out of your trip by planning your own journeys.