Our Exploring Crete tour is the ideal opportunity to experience this fascinating island to the full. You will visit its most important ancient sites, including the famous prehistoric Minoan palaces, but also veer off the beaten track to explore many of Crete’s hidden gems. Our tour of Crete includes a vast variety of different landscapes and ancient sites, bringing you into direct contact with the island’s coasts, mountains, gorges and fertile plains, as well as its historical villages and towns.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and its historical significance is second to none, ranging from Stone Age seafarers and Neolithic farmers to the mysterious and fascinating Bronze Age civilisation of the Minoans. The island’s renowned Classical cities and the rich remains of the Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman cultures, lead us right through to its turbulent 20th century history.
As well as its historical and archaeological riches, the island is a place of extraordinary natural beauty and diversity. Its inhabitants are fiercely proud of their homeland and maintain its many traditions, including the fabled Cretan hospitality. As a result of its varied nature and past, Crete also boasts one of the most refined variations of Greek cuisine.
Our Cretan tour is complemented by excellent meals in carefully selected restaurants and tavernas, as well as wine tastings from regional vineyards. At night, you will be staying in beautiful surroundings, ranging from high-quality city hotels via an elegant Venetian palazzo to traditional inns in serene mountain villages.
Your tour guides have excavated, surveyed, researched and travelled around Crete and are passionate connoisseurs not only of its archaeology, but also of its landscapes, people, traditions and products. Their in-depth knowledge will be your shortcut to a superb experience of one of Europe’s most celebrated destinations.
If you have never visited Crete, this expert-led tour is the perfect way to explore this wonderful and fascinating Greek Island; if you have been before, we are sure you will see it afresh and from a completely different perspective – in the company of two archaeologists who know the island intimately.
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Day 1: Arrival in Heraklion. Transfer from the airport about 15 minutes away. Welcome drinks and dinner.
Day 2: We follow the coast east to the extensive remains of the Minoan Palace at Malia and its surrounding town, founded over 4,000 years ago. Beautifully preserved just as it was excavated, Malia serves as a perfect introduction to Bronze Age archaeology, the Minoan civilisation and the nature of their ‘palaces’. We’ll have our first encounter with the spaces and architectural features we’ll meet – rearranged and adapted – as our journey continues. Later, we drive up into the Dikti Mountains to the celebrated Lasithi Plateau, 1,000m above sea level and famous for its white-sailed windmills. After our first village lunch, we make a short climb to one of the region’s sacred caves, a key feature of ancient Crete’s religious customs, and a home to generations of people before Minoan civilisation even developed, before returning to Heraklion.
Day 3: We begin exploring East Crete by visiting the scenic Hellenistic city of Lato, set on a saddle between twin peaks ringed by awe-inspiring heights, and boasting wonderful views over the beautiful gulf of Mirabello. For Homer, Crete was the land of “one hundred cities”, the city-states of the first millennium BC. We’ll use the ancient remains to discover how people lived, and how they governed themselves with surprising sophistication even in these now remote uplands. Next, we stop at the Byzantine-Venetian church of Panayia Kera, famous for the lavish frescoes covering every inch of its walls with intricate tales to inspire devotion. After lunch, we continue to the incredibly well-preserved Minoan town of Gournia, where we can walk along the 3,500-year-old streets and alleyways hugging the flanks of a rocky hill overlooking the sea. House after bronze age house gives us the best impression we can get of ordinary daily life, and above them an impressive public building with clues to the deep religious devotion of the settlement’s people. Our hotel, further east, is situated in a picturesque mountain hamlet where the hills shade into each other as the sun sets.
Day 4: This day is devoted to the island’s easternmost region, where we visit three archaeological treasures. At Siteia, we tour our first archaeological museum, not very large but offering a superb overview across the material culture of Minoan Crete, culminating in the famous gold-and-ivory Palaikastro ‘Kouros’, a superb piece of Bronze Age sculpture, painstakingly restored from the hundreds of fragments it was left in after its last time above ground, three and a half millennia ago. Keen to know more, we stop at the place where it was found: the Minoan town of Palaikastro itself, to learn of its heyday and its violent destruction. We lunch close to the crashing waves of the perfect beach at Kato Zakros, in an island of rich farmland cut off by magnificent bleak hills and the Gorge of the Dead. With this amazingly scenic backdrop, we then tour the Minoan town and Palace of Zakros itself, an artistic centre whose craftsmen produced some of the finest masterpieces of Minoan civilisation before it was brought down in flames, and whose trading contacts reached out to Egypt and beyond. In the afternoon, we return to our hotel.
Day 5: We head west for a key highlight of the tour: Crete’s most famous archaeological site, the great Minoan Palace of Knossos, the oldest, largest, and most elaborate of these sites. We’ll hear of its long history, its place in myth and learn of its discovery by Sir Arthur Evans and the controversial but iconic reconstructions he made on the site, which leave such an indelible impression. In its wide courts, shaded colonnades and intricate arrangements of room after room, floor after floor, we can really get to grips with what these palaces looked like and think about what they were for, who lived in them and how they functioned in still-debated ways in Minoan society.
Later, we enjoy lunch and a wine tasting in the lush Peza region, the heart of Cretan winemaking since the Minoan era. We continue south into the Asterousia Mountains, towering above the rugged southern coast, where we stay in a picturesque mountain village amid the high peaks.
Day 6: In the morning, we return to the green Mesara Plain, to investigate the island’s Roman and Early Byzantine capital, Gortyn. We visit the heart of this extensive site, still under excavation. Our visit begins with the famous Gortyn Law Code, one of the longest ancient Greek inscriptions ever found and hugely informative for our understanding of city-state laws and the workings of daily life for those who tend to get left out of the histories. Then, we set out on an easy stroll through old olive groves concealing parts of the ancient city, some excavated and some still unexplored. We return to our mountain village for a free afternoon in its picturesque winding lanes and bathing in the sheer visual opulence of its views.
Day 7: The day is devoted to the Minoan presence in the Mesara, Crete’s largest plain and agricultural heartland. Our first visit is to the Minoan Palace of Phaistos, arguably the most beautiful of its kind perched on a jutting spur that seems to leap into space high over the lush valley in a striking setting overlooked by snow-capped Mount Ida the, island’s towering central peak. Very close by, we follow (and disentangle!) the complex ruins of Agia Triada, a finely equipped, though not huge, Minoan town that may have been a summer residence for the Bronze Age rulers of southern Crete. We’ll hear about the incredibly rich finds made here, ready to admire them up close when we visit the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion.
We’ll have much to remember in the evening as the shadows cast by the enfolding peaks lengthen and we look out across the Libyan Sea in an idyllic evening soundtracked only by the sound of goat bells amid the solitude.
Day 8: We start the day with a short tour of the excellent and award-winning folklore museum at Voroi, to see impressive handiwork wrought by the hands of virtuoso craftspeople in weaving, basketry, beekeeping and the other skills of traditional rural life. We continue into western Crete, stopping by the Late Minoan-Mycenaean cemetery of Armenoi, its scores of rock-cut graves scattered in an oak forest. After lunch and a tasting at a famous winery in the most fertile part of West Crete, we end the day at a historic seafront hotel in the beautiful Venetian city of Chania.
Day 9: We begin the day in a fertile plain beneath a sheer-climbing acropolis and in sight of wave-battered rocks at the extreme west coast of Crete. We are at the site of ancient Phalasarna, where the geological story competes with the historical in impressiveness. We’ll see the beautifully-preserved harbours of this ancient city – part flourishing port, part pirate’s nest – the mooring rings for the ships still in place at the empty quayside. Complex artificial channels protected the ships, brilliantly-preserved fortifications the city – but neither proved adequate against two insuperable forces: nature and Rome. The whole port was heaved above sea level by a mighty geological paroxysm in the fourth century, but by that time the city was already dead, laid waste by Roman arms centuries earlier. We’ll see traces of both at the excellent museum in Kissamos next – the catapult stones of the Roman legionaries at Phalasarna, and the remains of flourishing local communities hit by the catastrophes of earthquake and tsunami.
We lunch by more peaceful shores, in the wide turquoise bay of the seafront at Kissamos, embraced by the painterly arms of distant hills. In the afternoon we visit the historic monastery of Gonia. Its serene, ordered modern state hides its central role in much of Crete’s turbulent revolutionary and wartime past. The beauty of the monastery is matched by the fine icon collection in the superb museum within.
Afterwards, we return to Chania and take advantage of the exceptional light for an evening meal with beautiful views as the westering sun paints and repaints the sky in vivid hues.
Day 10: Free day, yours to relax by the clear waters of the harbour, explore the pretty streets of old Chania or dive in and go shopping in the more bustling parts! You are free to choose your own options for lunch and dinner.
Day 11: A morning drive takes us to the Akrotiri peninsula, where we visit the serenely beautiful Venetian-era monastery of Agia Triada, whose sienna-hued walls and welter of picture postcard viewpoints beg for a painter or photographer to immortalise them. If your tastes run to, well, tastes, there’s the traditional olive press and the monastery’s organic oils and wines that need attending to. We drive by the magnificent Bay of Souda, site of the island’s British and Commonwealth war cemetery, to the vast Classical and Roman city of Aptera, sprawling prodigiously over a mighty eminence with impressive views over the blue bay and receding panoramas of mountain and shore. We’ll take in the grand Graeco-Roman theatre and the huge cisterns that fed its Roman baths, all now watched over by a formidable Ottoman stronghold. Following a delightful village lunch, we end the day in the grand Venetian city of Rethymno, where we stay in a 16th century palazzo. In the evening, advised by your tour experts, you can choose your own dinner among the many options available in the picturesque Old Town.
Day 12: After a morning tour of the Fortezza, the well-preserved Venetian fortress whose frowning, mighty walls dominate Rethymno, we set out inland to Eleutherna, one of Crete’s oldest and most important ancient cities, set in the beautiful Amari valley and the site of ongoing and superbly productive excavations. Its recently opened archaeological museum is eye-opening, revealing the broad trading contacts and considerable wealth that existed here in the Early Iron Age, just as the city-states began to develop. The rich burials of its warriors and priestesses are an outstanding highlight of this great display. After a village lunch, we return to Rethymno, exploring some of the Venetian city’s finest features on a pre-dinner stroll.
Day 13: We return to Heraklion to visit the superlative Archaeological Museum, housing one of the world’s most important exhibits of prehistoric art and artefacts, a magnificent showcase of Minoan culture and the Greek and Roman ages in Crete. Our extensive tour takes in many wonders: the stunning achievements of Minoan potters, delicate works in ivory, painstakingly carved stone vases with rituals and myth played out on them, elaborate jewellery of gold and precious stones, masterpiece offerings to the deities whose images they bear. We’ll see the world-class collection of famous and evocative fresco paintings from Knossos - lithe bull-leapers and the sinuous, privileged elite of Knossos. And we’ll finally be able to satisfy our curiosity by getting up close to some of the amazing artworks we’ve talked about at their original find-spots earlier in our tour. After a relaxing afternoon, we stroll through the Venetian heart of the city, once known as Candia, and conclude with a final magnificent dinner.
Day 14: Transfer to Heraklion airport.
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Arrival and Departure Information
Arrival Airport – Crete (Heraklion)
Departure Airport – Crete (Heraklion)
Check in time at our hotel in Heraklion is after 13:00 so we recommend choosing a flight that arrives mid to late afternoon. Check out time is 11:00. We will arrange local transfers from Heraklion airport and to Heraklion airport on the first and last day of the tour.
Booking Flights The cheapest way to book flights is directly with the airline online.
If you prefer to book with a travel agent, we are happy to recommend specialists in a number of countries around the world, please contact our office for more details.
Travel Insurance:We consider adequate travel insurance to be essential. You should ensure that you take out a suitable policy, to make sure that your trip is properly covered.
For UK Nationals, travel to the EU will change from 1 January 2021. Please check the current situation regarding visa requirements before you travel. You can find more information online here.
Citizens of European Union or Schengen Treaty member states need no visa for Greece, those from the United States, Canada and Australia do not need to apply for a visa to visit Greece for trips of less than 90 days duration.
Athens, Crete and the Greek islands If you are planning to stay in Athens before or after your tour we have included below links to more information and things to see and do. If you intend to add time on Crete or any other Greek island, we are happy to offer information and advice.
Further Details about our Exploring Crete tour Our Exploring Crete tour aims to be a truly comprehensive and in-depth introduction to the archaeology, history, culture and landscapes of this great and beautiful island, taking in the most famous of the Minoan sites, as well as locations further off the beaten track and derived from all periods of Crete’s long history.
There can be no doubt that the sites on the itinerary are unusually fascinating and that the various landscapes travelled are especially beautiful, but you need to be aware that the trip is an intensive and occasionally physically demanding one. In contrast to our gulet cruises which tend to visit one ancient city per day, and are designed with rest and relaxation as well as history in mind, our Exploring Crete tour visits at least two archaeological or historical sites on most days. Since the island is a large one and we aim to show all aspects of its natural diversity, some days include relatively long driving times, usually through stunning landscapes. We use a comfortable coach with ample space for all of our group and try, as far as possible, to make sure to arrive at our evening destinations with time to spare for refreshment and relaxation. A free day around the middle of the tour is given over fully to relaxation or exploration at our guests’ individual discretion.
With the exception of the final night, we spend two or more nights at each of the hotels/accommodations on the itinerary. Except at Iraklio, where we use a large and modern city hotel, this itinerary features smaller and family-run boutique hotels, two of them agritouristic projects involving the renovation of remote traditional villages, one a 16th century Venetian town house, and one a fine late 19th century urban seaside villa. Each of them has its own distinctive style, character and atmosphere. They are complemented by meals at a carefully chosen and very personal selection of restaurants reflecting the entire breadth of Cretan culinary tradition, as well as by three wine tastings at some of the islands’ best wineries.
The sites themselves often have rough and uneven terrain with loose stones underfoot, so guests must be fit and well to take part in this tour.
Our Exploring Crete tour is a unique archaeological, cultural and gastronomic experience, in a small group and with highly experienced specialised guides. You will complete it feeling a real connection with and understanding of one of the Mediterranean’s most fabled islands.