Experience Santorini Without The High Cost And Crowds At This Underrated Greek Gem

There are 227 inhabited Greek islands and plenty of magnificent cities and villages on the mainland, so there are lots of destinations to choose from when visiting this historic and beautiful country. While you're likely familiar with the city of iconic Athens and its spectacular museums, the popular beaches on the island of Mykonos, and Santorini (which can get really overcrowded and, thus, expensive), there are so many underrated options. One destination with enough to do for a whole week at least (or maybe even a lifetime) is the island of Crete. 


Crete is the largest of the Greek islands with two international airports, the ruins of the famous Palace of Knossos (where the mythic Minotaur was said to live), and one of the best beaches in the world with shining pink sand. There are Roman ruins, a spectacular hike, caves to explore, Venetian castle ruins that might just be haunted, and so much more. The best part? With a few exceptions, you won't be dealing with as many crowded spots on Crete as you may in other places. 

Crete: You can't miss Knossos, beaches, and Chania

The legendary palace at Knossos (pictured above) from around 7,000 B.C. is on Crete. Said to be the home of King Minos and the Minotaur, as well as the labyrinth the mythical beast was kept in, this palace of 1,500 rooms is spectacular. Visitors can see columns, frescos, and even the Queen's bedroom. It's around 3 miles from the city of Heraklion and costs only $16 to enter. It's also right by the Heraklion Archeological Museum (around $13), which has 5,500 years of artifacts and Minoan art inside. Note that this famous spot is a big draw, and going in the off-season or early or late in the day will give you more space. You should also make time for the free beach of Elafonisi with its lovely pink sand. There is shallow, clear turquoise water to splash in and caves to explore. You can walk into the water across a lagoon to a small uninhabited island with a lighthouse and a chapel. 


Another spot to check out is Chania, which has a charming old town area to walk through. This is a large city with a 16th-century lighthouse to explore and a beautiful harbor built when the Venetians ruled the island. Nearby is Frangokastello, with 13th-century Venetian castle ruins. Legend says that in May and June, you can see the shadowy ghosts of warriors who died there in the early 19th century, called Drosoulites. It's only around $1.60 to get in.

Hiking Samaria Gorge, Spinalonga, and Roman ruins

If you're in relatively good shape, hike the 9-mile point-to-point Samaria Gorge trail, which begins in the mountains and heads down over rocks, winding between two sheer cliffs that are only 9 feet apart in some spots. You might even see kri-kri, or mountain goats. You end at Agia Roumeli, which has a pretty beach with cafes and tavernas for refueling. It's also worth a boat trip to nearby Spinalonga, a small island that was a leper colony until 1957. A tour costs around $22 per person roundtrip with a guide and visits to the old Venetian fortress and grounds.


Another spot to visit is Gortyna, which has been inhabited since the Neolithic period. These days, you can see ruins, including a Roman bath and theater, the pre-Hellenistic Gortyna Law Code inscription on a wall from 450 B.C., and the Temple of Apollo Pythias from the 7th century B.C. Tickets cost around $6.50. 

While you're in Crete, make sure to try raki, an anise-flavored drink sort of like grappa — Crete's answer to ouzo. Cheese is another popular thing to try, including the local fetas and myzithra, which is a type of goat cheese. Another dish to try is dakos (also called koukouvagia or kouloukopsomo), which is barley rusk soaked in olive oil with fresh tomato, myzithra, salt, and pepper, which is sort of like a bruschetta and is completely delicious.