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Eastern Crete Itinerary: 10 Thrilling Things to Do and See

by Crete Locals

  • Posted 1 year ago

Eastern Crete offers travellers spectacular scenery. Here are some of the most famous seaside resorts, while further inland, there are green valleys surrounded by mountains. It is interesting to note that until the 1970s, there were no marked trails in this area. In this area, you will meet the traditional lifestyle that was once present everywhere on the island. Caves, canyons and archaeological sites add even more charm and make eastern Crete a great place to combine beach hours with excursions.

Noisy Resorts of Eastern Crete

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After leaving Heraklion and passing the airport, just 5 km away, you will enter the area of the big resorts. The new National Road takes you directly there, so if you want to explore more, you have to take the Old Road. This part of the north coast was developed in the ’70s and ’80s, when mass tourism emerged on the island, not to everyone’s liking.

Large hotels and apartment buildings offer thousands of accommodations to tourists, mainly from Europe, with English, German, French and Dutch menus and satellite TV with plenty of international channels. Sometimes it’s hard to believe you’re on a Greek island. But if you want non-stop fun, this is the place: amusement parks, bungee-jumping, carting tracks, bars and nightclubs – you can find them all here.

Hersonissos is the biggest resort in Crete, it’s a large and lively resort town with something to suit every taste and budget. It can be as quiet or as rowdy as you like. There are 3 main beaches and a long waterfront area that’s full of seafood restaurants, bars and clubs, and is popular in the evening.

Sitting just 40 minutes east of the capital, Malia coastal town has some of the best beaches on the island, plenty of water sports, ancient Greek ruins, and natural wonders. Once the sun sets, things kick up a gear. Rivalling the likes of Ibiza, Malia nightlife is perfect if you want to relax by day and party into the small hours.

Things to do and see from Malia to Neapoli

photo: Open-air museum Lychnostati, Crete

On the way to Malia, you can stop to visit the open-air museum Lychnostatis. It is dedicated to the flora of Crete, folklore and ethnography.

More information:

  • tel: 28970-23660;
  • Open on Sunday – Friday from 09:00 to 14:00 (closed on Saturdays).

The most developed area is Limenas Hersonisou (Hersonissos), although the village of Ano Hersonisos, a little further from the shore, still retains something of the old atmosphere – and some traditional Greek taverns.

Hersonissos competes with Malia for the title of entertainment capital on the island and is famous for the beautiful beaches and the Palace of Malia located near the seafront, 2 km east of the city.

Remains around the Palace of Malia indicate Neolithic settlements here, although the first palace was built after 2000 BC. (later than Knossos and Phaistos), but no Pre-Palatial Kamares pottery has been found here as has often been covered in other palaces. The construction was simple, without delicate decorations. The first palace was destroyed by an earthquake in 1700 BC; more ruins were scattered northwest of the archaeological site.

The new palace had an open courtyard in the centre, with a west wing with mostly storage rooms and rooms for religious monks. In one of the rooms was found a Pithos (Pithos is the Greek name of a large storage container),  which had inside a ceremonial dagger and a sword decorated with gold and crystals, which led specialists to conclude that it was one of the king’s rooms, a place of contemplation or training for various activities. Up the stairs is the altar room, where you can still see the base of the table on which the altar was sitting.

Further west, there is an area with a paved floor, thought to be the royal apartment. Here were found clay tablets inscribed with hieroglyphs and official seals. A bit further north of the palace is the chrysólakkos or “golden well”, a mausoleum where discovered among other jewels, a gold medallion representing a bee. Archaeologists are now digging up the city around the palace – beyond the north side of the palace – what can be seen if you take a short walk.

After passing Malia, the road turns inland, passing through the city of Neapolis, the birthplace of Petros Philargos who was raised Catholic, and became Pope Alexander V in 1409 or rather an antipope “. He was one of the three who were vying for the title at the time.

Neapolis Eastern Crete
City of Neapolis, Crete

Neapolis is the only place on the island to try soumada, a sweet drink made from wild almonds. It was the capital of the Lasithi region before Agios Nikolaos and marked the beginning of a long journey and pleasant journey to the plateau of the same name.

The Most Beautiful City in the Eastern Crete: Agios Nikolaos

sunrise in Agios Nikolaos
Sunrise over Agios Nikolaos, Crete

Finally, the two roads, New and Old, meet at Agios Nikolaos, perhaps the most pleasant town in the eastern Crete. Although Agios Nikolaos suffered from the construction of some pretty ugly buildings in the 1970s, the authorities tried to keep the city’s charm alive, so you’ll notice the Greek atmosphere better here than in the Mália / Liménas Hersonisou area.

The town is located in the low-lying Mirabello Bay. In the centre of the city is Voulismeni, a lake with natural springs, 60 meters deep, where you will see many fishing boats. The shores of the lake are full of taverns and cafes where you can sit and have a drink and watch the fishermen and divers who want to explore the deep blue.

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Cliffs border the southern and western shores, and if you want to see the city from above, you can climb the stairs to the top. The view is perfect, especially at sunset or sunrise

Lake Voulismeni is connected to the sea by an artificial canal. Across the bridge is the tourist information office, and beyond is the main port – where ferries no longer reach. You can go on a boat trip to the area attractions from the quays, although it must be said that from here to Spinalónga is a long way.

You won’t explore Agios Nikolaos if you do not want to climb a few hills. On the side of the port, there are clothing stores. Ikosiogdóis Oktovriou Street is partially pedestrianized and is a delightful way to reach the central square.

Ikosiogdois Oktovriou Street, Agios Nikolaos, Crete

The local Archaeological Museum near Konstandinou Paleologou has a good collection of Minoan objects, presented in chronological order. You may see a sarcophagus that still contains a skeleton and the “Goddess of Myrtos”, a vessel of libations dating from the second millennium BC, depicting a woman with a long neck and stocky body. A Roman discovery later is the Potamós skull, decorated with a crown of gilded olive leaves, and the coin next to it was found between the teeth of the skull, probably symbolizing the payment for crossing the Stix River to the afterlife.

From Elounda to the Spinalonga island itinerary

While Agios Nikolaos is an impressive city, some of the best accommodations are located in the northern part, towards Elounda. This resort is underestimated, but it has charm and a lovely church right by the sea.

From here, you can reach Spinalonga Island, and the trip is much shorter than from Agios Nikolaos. But be careful not to confuse it with Cape Spinalónga, accessible from Elounda through a narrow dike built over an artificial canal.

In the shallow waters around the dam, you can see the remains of the Greco-Roman city of Olous, which was influential in the 15th century. It is in the form of the writings of the Greek geographer Pausanias. The town probably sank during the earthquake in the 2nd century, which did not destroy the church on the shore (now fenced), which has walls decorated with frescoes with dolphins.

Further north, there is a small resort, Plaka, where you can take the fastest and cheapest boat transfer to Spinalonga Island, right on the shore. On weekends, it’s pretty crowded, so get on board before 11:00 and be sure to get a sun hat and plenty of water, as there are no shaded areas or shops on the island. Spinalónga Island has bastions and walls left from the Venetian fortress built in 1579 to protect the entrance to the Gulf behind the island, a former Ottoman town and the colony of lepers that eventually occupied the entire island.

The fortress was never conquered by force; the Venetian garrisons remained there until 1715, 60 years after the fall of Heraklion, and left only after being offered free passage, following a peace treaty. Cretan Muslims retreated to the island, where they remained until the end of the 19th century when they began to be attacked by the Cretan rebels.

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In 1903, the administrative council of Crete decided to establish a colony of lepers on Spinalonga. It is not known precisely whether this measure was taken to force the Muslim islanders to leave. Still, the truth is that the disease wreaked havoc in Crete, and the position of Spinalonga – far enough not to pose a danger, but still not very far away – was considered perfect for quarantining patients.

Initially, the regime was very harsh. Victims were treated as criminals rather than patients. Still, conditions had improved over the years, thanks to activism in this regard and drugs were more readily available after 1948, when the colony was abolished. It takes about an hour and a half to explore the fortifications and the old town. Part of the market street has been rebuilt, and in the workshops you see today, there is a museum that tells the story of the island.

Inside the Island Road to Kritsa

Starting from Agios Nikolaos and heading inland Crete, you will meet three important sights, perfect for an afternoon visit. Take it to the village of Kritsa, 12 km from the town. Before reaching the city, you will see a beautiful Byzantine chapel on the right. Panagia Kera was built in the 18th century and decorated with beautiful frescoes a century later. You need time and the local guide, which you can buy at the entrance, to better understand the interior. Although many frescoes are damaged or dirty, you will be impressed by the “Appearance of the Virgin Mary” and “The Last Supper” in the central nave and the “Mystery of the Water “in the south aisle.

Continue your journey to Kritsa, but you have not yet entered the village. First, follow the signs on the detour to Lato (access allowed) to reach the remains of a Dorian town from the 15th century. VII-III BC, from the nearby hills.

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Enter the village of Kritsa to have a cold drink and rest. This traditional village is very well maintained and inhabited. The charm of the place is given by the contrast between the bright white walls of the houses and the window sill, painted in bright colours. You will find good taverns near the central square of the village – hidden by giant plane trees. The town is famous for the fabrics made by the locals, which you will see everywhere, in the shops and on the walls of the houses.

Lasithi Plateau: one of the Most Interesting Parts of Eastern Crete

Kritsa is an excellent example of a “saved” village of tourism, but unfortunately, many others have not been as fortunate, as the rural economy has been in decline since the 1970s. This is more visible in the guarded region of the Dikti Mountains, isolated from the rest of the island even many years after World War II, as there were no access roads, which can only be reached on foot, horse or horse donkey. The access to the Lasithi plateau (Oropedio Lasithioul) has only accelerated the depopulation of the area.

Two main roads rise to an altitude of 850 m. From the New Road to the Malia, you can take it to Krasi, which has an ancient tree in the central square. And Kera, where you can visit Panagia Kardiotissis, a monastery dating from the 14th century, before continuing to the Seli Ambelou pass, which has a spectacular view mainly due to the stone windmills.

Another option is to climb from Neapoli on a long road that is not used by tourist buses and explore the villages of Exo and Mesa Potami, from where you have panoramic views of the plain and the peak of Psari Madara (2,148 m).

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There is only one road around the plain, connecting all the small communities in the area, but many houses are abandoned, and the shops have long been closed. The tiny agricultural activity that is still going on here is delayed by the heavy spring rains, as the water collects in the valley and takes quite a long time for the soil to dry out.

The plateau is cultivated mainly with potatoes and cereals, you can see flocks of sheep grazing quietly, and on the slopes, there are vines and orchards of fruit trees. The famous windmills that helped pump water in late spring have almost disappeared; there are only a few left at the edge of the plateau, more for the joy of tourists because they have long been disconnected and the pools are empty.

The only town in the active area is still Tzermiado. Take a clockwise direction and stop at Agios Georgios to visit the three rooms of the Peasant Museum, for which there are expansion plans.

On the southern side of the plain, 1 km from the village of Psyhro, with springs of clean water and giant plane trees, lies the vast Diktaion Cave, where Zeus is said to have been born. Ancient offerings discovered here confirm the importance of the cave during the Minoan civilization. The journey from the parking lot to the entrance to the cave takes 15 minutes of walking (or a costly donkey walk). From the entrance, the cave corridor descends steeply 65 m, followed by the hall that can be crowded during the tourist season. Identify the figure of Cronus trying to eat the newborn Zeus and the stalagmites from which Zeus is said to have sucked.

Birth place of Zeus

Towards East to Sitia

If you go east from Agios Nikolaos, be careful because the road is still under construction. Follow the gulf line, first south to Istro, where there are several beaches (the most beautiful being Voulisma) and then east to one of the most significant archaeological sites in the area, Gournia, 18 km from Agios Nikolaos.

Here, you will see many stone walls, and foundations of multi-storey houses – connected by cobbled streets, scattered on the hillside. It is the place where, more than anywhere else on the island, you can imagine how simple people lived in ancient times. Take a look at the local market and artisan workshops in the area.

The palace was located at the foot of the hill, the west courtyard housing an altar for sacrifices and rooms where objects used in religious ceremonies were stored. Gournia was a large city that stretched as far as the port. Much of the town is still undiscovered for a panorama of the ancient town – discovered by the American Loga Harriet Boyd Hawkes at the beginning of the 20th century – stop on the main road, which is above the archaeological site.

From Gournia, the old national road winds through the smooth hills to Sitia. The only point on the coast worth mentioning, below one of the two secondary roads, is Mohlos, now a relaxed resort, without a beach, but was an important place during the Minoan civilization. The old Minoan settlement is located on a small island just 150 m from the shore – you can take a boat or even swim there, but 3,000 years ago it was connected to the mainland. A little further offshore is Psira, for which you will definitely need a boat if you want to visit the former Minoan port.

In the end, the road reaches Sitia, a bustling port city with a population of about 9,000 – including students at the local school of geology and the Police Academy, which fill the ouzeris bars and restaurants on the seafront all year round. Another Minoan settlement is at Petras, 1 km to the east, but the Venetians preferred to build their fortress – Kazarma – on top of the hill.

Unfortunately, the Turks destroyed the Venetian buildings when they conquered the city. However, the network of alleys and narrow streets still exists, remaining an architectural delight and bringing some of the charms of ancient times. Sitia also has an Archaeological Museum, with a collection of objects found mainly in Zakros, especially painted lárnakes (tombstones decorated with ceramics), but also wine vessels and even a grill. The museum is very close to the city centre.

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From Toplou to Zakros itinerary

Sitia is the gateway to the far eastern Crete. Sparsely populated today, with most villages further inland, living on olives and grapes, this region hides important Minoan sites, suggesting that many people lived in these areas 3,000 years ago. For those who want to explore the area for several days, it is good to know plenty of accommodation options in Palekastro and Kato Zakros. Surprisingly for this remote part of the island, a bus full of tourists comes every day from Agios Nikolaos and beyond.

Many of them go to one of the most important religious sites in Crete, Moni Toplou (Toplou Monastery). It’s a real oasis in a somewhat arid landscape. Established in the 14th century, the monastery was built for contemplation and protection against external threats. Toplou is a word of Turkish origin meaning “with a cannon” – the correct name of the monastery being Kyria Akrotiriiani – which indicates that the priesthood here was not easily intimidated.

The walls resemble it more like a fortress than a monastery – although these were not enough to protect it from pirate attacks in 1498. The monastery played an essential role in the Cretan revolts against the Turks – 12 monks were hanged in 1821 due to the rebellions – and more recently, in the battles against the Germans, in World War II when British troops and nearby villagers took refuge here. The elder and several monks were shot during counterattacks before the end of the war.

The church and the monastery museum house many worthy objects, such as an icon from the 18th century, painted by loánnis Kornaros, with 61 miniature scenes based on the orthodox prayer “God the Great”, at the top, you can see the Holy Trinity, bizarrely surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. There are also two galleys with rare and strange inscriptions and copies of the Gospels. Unfortunately, most of the monastery is not accessible to the public. You can buy copies of the icon inside and olive oil produced by the monks from the olive trees in the monastery orchard.

Northeast of Toplou, it is one of the natural wonders of Crete. In the middle of the arid landscape, an oasis of dates suddenly appears, behind which you can see the gold of the beach and the azure of the water. This is Vai, very beautiful and therefore very sought after in the summer season when it is packed to the brim.

Legend has it that the date palms grew naturally from the seeds spit by Arab pirates who came to the island. However, the truth, less spectacular, is that they are a local species (Phoenix theophrastiil, which grows on the island for thousands of years). If Vai is full, you can choose to go on one of the three less crowded beaches located 3 km further north, in Itanos – there you can find dates as well.

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The roads between Vai and Toplou join the village of Palekastro, where the Minoan site of Rousolakkos (where archaeological works are still taking place; access is free) leads to Hiona Beach, a former ancient port. It is separated by a steep cliff from another beach, Koureménos, preferred by windsurfing enthusiasts.

South of Palékastro, the narrower road moves away from the coast, passing through pine villages from where you can make gorgeous hikes, including two canyons: the Chochlakies canyon, which ends at Karoúmes beach and the Zakros canyon (better known as Death Valley). Both walks take about an hour and a half to descend (two hours to climb). At the “Death Canyon” is open drinking water as it is signalled. The prize at the end of the hike is a Minoan palace and a beach with many taverns.

The Zakros Palace is very close. In ancient times, the city also had a large port and was very well-located for trade with Egypt and Syria. Construction of the palace began around 1900 BC, although nothing of the original structure can be seen today. The exhibited remains come from the second palace, built around 1600 BC, but the earthquake of 1450 BC. caused the city to be abandoned, remaining uninhabited.

The west wing of the palace was dedicated mainly to religious ceremonies, with workshops at the top. In the north wing were the rooms of the relatives of the royal family and the central kitchen, and in the east were the royal bedrooms. Archaeologists have discovered treasures in many of these rooms.

A unique aspect of Zakros is the cistern room, where there is a circular cistern, still full of water, in which freshwater turtles now live. Near the cistern, a nunnery fountain with steps descends to a small square basin.

South Coast of Eastern Crete

At Xerokampos, the subsequent seaside settlement after Kato Zakros, the road turns inland and reaches the high-lying village of Ziros. The lower coast is not accessible by car, but it is not very spectacular either. You better stay further from the coast, on the southern road from Sitia to Etia, a Venetian-founded village, now abandoned, with a beautifully restored Venetian villa, which contains details of daily life from Crete in the Venetian period.

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Whichever route you choose, the next point of interest is Makry Gialos, a not very well-known and slightly disorganized resort, but with a somewhat sloping beach and many taverns by the sea. From here to the west, the coast is more populated, with pine forests and sandy bays (the most beautiful being Agia Fotia and Ahlia) on the way to Ierapetra, where you can reach a less detoured (but more boring) road that crosses the island from Gournia.

Best Things to do in Ierapetra from Crete Island
Ierapetra, the fourth largest city in Crete

Ierapetra is the fourth largest city in Crete and is said to be the southernmost point in Europe. In ancient times, it was known as lerapytna and was the last Cretan city conquered by the Romans, who established their base here to conquer Egypt. Today, Ierapetra is an agricultural centre full of greenhouses and a small resort in the city’s eastern part. The list of tourist attractions is relatively short: in the old town, there is a small Venetian castle, a mosque from the 18th century, with a severed minaret and an “archaeological” collection arranged inside the former Qur’an school.

To the west of Ierapetra, the greenhouses disappear until you reach Myrtos, a “relaxed, alternative resort” located right near the Minoan sites of Fournou Koryfi and Pyrgos. Despite the damage caused during World War in late 1943, it is a pleasant and welcoming place, almost a city in all respects.

If you don’t like Myrtos, go another 5m west to Tertsa, another long beach guarded by the Dikti mountains in the distance. Take a short trip inland (33 km) to Ano Viannos, a surprisingly large village at the foot of their mountains. The main attraction here is Agía Pelagía, a 16th-century church (very well signposted and open all the time), with frescoes depicting episodes from the life of Christ. From here, it is effortless to continue your journey in the Heraklion region.

Day Trip from Ierapetra to Chrissi Island

From the pier of Ierapetra, you can make an excursion to the island of Chrissi (Gaidouro), 7 nautical miles away, which you can see from the shore. The terrain is almost flat, covered here and there with junipers and at least two beaches with fine white sand. In season, you can have lunch at the port tavern. Boat trips start at 10:10; the boats set sail back at 16:00.

However, a significant update has recently been implemented by the local government: they have suspended all boat access to the island. Essentially, boats will drop you off 10-20 metres from the shore, from where you’ll need to swim to reach this paradisiacal beach. The island no longer features sun umbrellas or other amenities. These changes have been put into effect to preserve the land and marine environments of Chrissi Island.

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Eastern Crete might not be the first choice for many travellers, drawn instead to the western part of the island with its iconic pink beaches and Venetian-influenced towns like Chania and Rethymno. However, the eastern region holds its own unique allure, brimming with authenticity and deep-rooted traditions that offer a more undiluted glimpse into Cretan life.

From the serene beauty of its landscapes to the rich cultural experiences awaiting in its villages, Eastern Crete promises a rewarding journey for those who venture beyond the well-trodden path. So, while you might be tempted to follow the crowd on your first visit, make sure to explore the eastern part of the island on your subsequent trip—you won’t regret the chance to discover its hidden charms.

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