Crete has some of Greece’s best sandy beaches – many far from developed areas, so you can truly enjoy a remote holiday on the sand.
Although almost every main beach gets busy in July and August, you can usually walk just a few minutes away to find a patch of heaven sans crowds. With a few notable exceptions, the water at Crete’s beaches is usually calm and good for swimming and watersports.
Here’s our pick of the top eight beaches in Crete.
For white sand and panoramic views, head to Elafonisi
Sparkling white sand with a pinkish hue makes Elafonisi a standout in a nation of islands where pebbly, grey beaches are common. Its shallow, azure waters surround an islet just offshore that is an easy walk.
Cliffs, dunes and semi-secluded coves are highlights here. Beat the summer crowds by walking 1km (0.6 miles) along the coastal trail east to Kedrodasos Beach. Otherwise, climb the dunes on the islet for panoramic views of this entire magical spot.
In summer, there’s no shortage of refreshments, and you’ll find umbrella, lounger and gear rentals on the main beach. Infrequent ferries link Elafonisi to beaches to the east along the southwest coast. Venture further afield for more solitude, or come in the off-season when the water dazzles with myriad points of light and the only sounds are the wind and waves.
Get off the beaten track with a trip to Balos
The drive alone to the beaches at Balos makes a visit here a must. The remote Gramvousa Peninsula on the far northwest tip of Crete boasts cliffside views and wild rocky terrain.
Lagoons surround the main beach with shallow waters brimming with tiny, darting fish and cagy shellfish. There are two easily reached islets right offshore (walk through the placid waters): Agria (wild) and Imeri (tame). The latter includes the ruins of a 16th-century Venetian fortress that has great views across the beaches and lagoons. Services here are few beyond umbrella and lounger rentals.
Just getting to Balos is an adventure. By road, you need 4WD to navigate the 12km (7.5 miles) dirt track from the village of Kalyviani. From a tiny car park with a snack stand, it’s a 1.2km (0.7 miles) hike down the sandy cliffs to the beach. An even better option is the day-trip boat from Kissamos, which includes a few scenic stops along the peninsula. Even in summer, there are few people at Balos before 11am and after 4pm.
Wander around Paleohora, then hit the beach
The liveliest town on the southwest coast boasts two beaches, each with a name that tells you all you need to know about its character: Pahia Ammos Beach (Sandy Beach) and Halikia Beach (Pebble Beach).
Note that “lively” doesn’t mean anything close to manic. Paleohora still has a village feel, with narrow, stone lanes meandering past cafes, tavernas and bars. The latter are known for their live Cretan music. Services abound, and families can rent gear for relaxing days on the beach. The sports-minded can windsurf off Pahia Ammos Beach. Hikers will find coastal trails leading to even more quiet beaches and various historic and archeological sites.
Few can resist the pull of the commanding Venetian castle, which dates to the 13th century. Don’t expect a fortress, however, as centuries of battles have made it more ruin than a redoubt.
Paleohora is worth a visit year-round and is easily reached by bus from Hania.
Surf the waves in Falasarna
Sunsets dazzle throughout the year at the long beach in Falasarna, which faces directly west across azure water. Waves here are regularly the largest in Crete, which draw people ready to ride them, whether on a board or freestyle. Sets of rollers crash into the sand from the open Mediterranean.
The sand has the same pinkish-white hue that makes Elafonisi to the south famous. Tavernas, cafes, modest hotels and gear rental stands line the shore in summer. Olive trees and greenhouses form the backdrop. An easy 2km (1.2 miles) walk along a dirt path takes you to the site of Ancient Falasarna, which dates to the 4th century BCE. Stones mark out where walls protected the old port.
Like most beaches in Crete, Falasarna gets busy in summer, but there are more isolated and quiet sandy coves north of the long, main beach. Buses here are summer-only. Lacking a year-round village, Falasarna is a lovely and lonely escape in winter.
Explore the cliffs at Vaï
Get here before the developers! A local monastery that owns much of the land at Vaï, on the northeast end of Crete, is intent on building resorts, but in the meantime, you can try to catch falling dates from the largest natural palm forest in Europe. Botanists think that these trees are a sub-species unique to Crete. Visitors just think they’re magnificent – they offer a bit of lush tropical appeal on an island better known for its sun-drenched, semi-arid expanses.
The beach at Vaï is small but perfectly framed by turquoise waters lapping at the edges of the inlet. It’s a gorgeous setting and one worth exploring beyond the main beach. Trails lead to cliffside walks, vista points and more secluded, clothing-optional coves.
From May to October, there are regular buses here from Sitia, 24km (14.9 miles) to the west. Ride these to avoid the hassle of the traffic-clogged access road to the car park.
Take a dip in a freshwater pool at Preveli
At the end of a gorge on the south coast of central Crete, the beach at Preveli is a legend on the island. The river Megalopotamos flows into the sea here and you can wander the river banks taking dips in fresh water pools shaded by palm trees. Sublime!
The main beach area has the usual umbrella and snack vendors. There’s no permanent village, so out of season, the entire area is nearly devoid of people. It’s a steep walk down from the car park, but once on the sand, it’s worth walking a bit more as the furthest reaches are some of the most appealing and sandiest.
Few people visit Preveli without also stopping at Moni Preveli, an ancient monastery that sits high on a promontory looking across the Libyan Sea. The chapel is a spectacle of glittery artwork and gilded artifacts. A museum covers the many struggles for Cretan independence that were centered here.
Find your peace at Agios Pavlos
Not far from Rethymno, the beach at Agios Pavlos is right out of central casting: a lovely sandy crescent surrounded by rugged cliffs and lapped by brilliant blue water. This entire area is free from mega-resorts and exudes the sort of sublime calm that attracts mystics and yoga enthusiasts. A few tavernas offer languid lunches and a scattering of low-key hotels means you can cheerily wave farewell to the day-trippers as the sun sets over a beach you can then almost call your own.
Residents compete with other beachside villages in Crete by claiming that this was the spot where Icarus and Daedalus took their ancient flight too close to the sun. With your own feet firmly on earth, there are hikes and walks over the high dunes to even more isolated beaches.
For family fun, head to Karavostasi
You don’t need to go to Indonesia for Bali – Crete has its own. Bali is almost equally distant from Iraklio (also known as Heraklion) and Rethymno but feels worlds apart from these cities. It’s home to a series of beaches in little coves along the corrugated shore. Karavostasi is ideal for families. It’s quiet, sheltered and good for inexperienced swimmers ready for their first dip. The sand is easily mounded into castles and a few summer vendors rent out watersports gear.
For a more energetic vibe, head south along the small bay to Livadi Beach, which has tavernas blasting pulsing music for a nonstop party. There are myriad choices for food, drink and fun.