Spending two weeks on the island of Crete, Greece was just about the closest I have ever come to being in absolute paradise. I loved every minute of it, but there were definitely some things that I wish we had known before going. If you are planning a trip to Crete, here are some tips for making the most out of your time on this beautiful island.
1. Don’t overlook the small towns
Crete isn’t a very big island, and there are only a handful of big cities (Chania, Rethymno, and Heraklion being the largest). There is certainly plenty to do and see in these cities, but they also tend to be noisy, crowded, and full of expensive tourist traps. I feel like this tip pretty much goes for anywhere you could think of to travel, but visiting the smaller cities, towns, and villages is not only cheaper, but it also gives you a feel for what life on Crete is really like outside of tourism. By staying in a small village, we were able to make friends with the locals, who welcomed us in and treated us like family.
2. Beware of mixed spellings
Sometimes it’s Heraklion. Sometimes it’s Iraklio. Sometimes it’s Ηράκλειο. Regardless of how it’s spelled or written, it’s all the same place, so don’t get confused when you’re driving around. They use Greek and English pretty intermittently, so make sure you recognize both spellings for wherever you’re trying to go.
3. Cretan drivers are cray cray
Like, I wasn’t kidding when I said traffic laws are treated like suggestions. They drive extremely fast on narrow, winding roads—which are often washed out by runoff from the mountains or blocked by landslides. They overtake like nobody’s business, even in “no passing” zones. They also don’t stop very well.
It’s tempting to start driving like a crazy person so you can keep up, but please please please drive carefully. The roadsides are dotted with lots of those little shrines for people who have died. Don’t make them add one for you. If you start feeling pressure from the drivers behind you, there are usually wide shoulders where you can pull over and let them pass.
4. Rent a house, not a hotel room
Staying in a house was one of my favorite things about our trip. Not only was there more space and more privacy, living in a house really makes you feel like part of the community. I loved sitting on the balcony patio and exchanging friendly smiles with the lady who lived next door whenever she’d come up to her own rooftop to hang her laundry to dry. On our last day there, she even climbed up just to give me some loquats! I loved the greetings of “yassos” and “kalimera” I’d get from the lady who lived up the street, who was always, always out on her front step. I loved hearing the sounds of the town instead of the slamming doors, loud TVs, and complaining children you usually hear at a hotel. The rentals we stayed in were roughly the same price as a comfortable hotel room, so it’s definitely the way to go.
5. Eat where the locals eat
Our lecturer, Carlo, told us to eat where the locals eat because that’s usually the best food. There were several tavernas in Sivas and we tried most of them, but Carlo’s advice turned out to be pretty accurate. The taverna we all liked best was always packed to the gills. The waiters there were the friendliest, and the food was spectacular. (Don’t get me wrong—the food at the other tavernas was also good. This was not an easy contest to win.)
6. Order appetizers.
Appetizers in Crete are cheap (€3-4) and plentiful. One or two of them is plenty of food for lunch or a light dinner (salads, especially), and sticking to the appetizer menu is a great way to save money. My favorites were the stuffed grape leaves and the tomato baked aubergine. Mmm!
7. Don’t be afraid to say no to Raki.
In places like the Mediterranean, where drinking is a major social event, saying no to a bottle of raki (Greek wine) is tantamount to telling someone their kid is ugly. As a Mormon, I’m often put into situations where I have to say no to alcohol. If the waiters asked why I refused their offer of raki, I would explain that I don’t drink because of my religion, and that was usually enough for them. “We don’t argue with religion here!” one of them even said.
But I had an interesting discussion with a classmate, not of my faith, who expressed frustration that those who don’t have religion as a “convenient excuse” are often pressured into drinking. She bemoaned the fact that you can’t just say no because you don’t like the taste or don’t feel like drinking that night. And when the rule is “no one leaves the table until the raki bottle is empty,” you’re in for either a long night or a difficult morning.
So if you’re not interested in drinking, don’t let them pressure you into it. Politely decline and stand your ground. Tell them how handsome their kids are to distract them, and have a great evening.
8. Be patient.
The island of Crete doesn’t use clocks. I’m kidding, of course—but only a little. No one really operates to any sort of schedule. If you say you’re going to meet at such-and-such a place in 15 minutes, it’s more likely to be at least twenty minutes later than you say. If you sit down for dinner at the taverna at seven, it’ll be midnight before you make it home. If you’re on your way to the airport to catch an international flight that you’re already kind of running late for and one of the people in your car has to stop to use the toilet really fast, it’ll be half an hour before your caravan gets back on the road. (*cough*Sorry, guys…*cough*)
Life is slow on Crete, and honestly, it’s part of the appeal. Be prepared to wait. Bring a book, or chat with your neighbor.
And get ready to ask for the bill at least four times.
9. Bring your student ID
Many of the historical attractions and museums in Greece are free or reduced for students, so be sure to bring your student ID if you have one. I had accidentally left mine in Newcastle, and quickly regretted that. If you do happen to forget it, but you’re on a student visa, it sometimes works to show them your passport. The ticket man at Phaistos let me use my visa as proof that I’m a student, but the ticket man at Knossos didn’t. It’s worth a try, but better to just bring your card in the first place.
10. Leave the laptop at home.
This is especially true if you’re staying in a small town like Sivas. The internet there just wasn’t reliable, so forget about playing Flappy Bird or checking your social media every five minutes.
And besides, you’ll be in paradise! There are so many great things to do and see in Crete. Go out there and have an adventure. Hike through a gorge. Go to the beach. Explore some ruins. Visit an orchard or a vineyard. Eat some incredible food. Pet some critters. Befriend the monks at a monastery. Dance or Die.
If you are thinking about going to Crete, DO IT. It will absolutely change your life.
Read all about my Cretan adventures with the OFFPS program here.