Crete has easily the longest summers in Greece, and there are plenty of beaches with which to fill those long, lazy summer days. Whether you’re into watersports, skinny dipping or good old-fashioned sunbathing, the island almost certainly has a stretch of sand to suit your tastes. Take a look at our guide to the best beaches in Crete, grab your sunhat and go.
Crete is the largest island in Greece, and consequently has a wealth of beaches to discover, from wide sandy bays to rocky coves with crystal clear water. The map here lists the key spots, many of which are described in more detail below. Aside from beaches, Crete is packed with ancient historic sites, excellent hiking, and of course plenty of cosy tavernas to relax in once the day is done.
Elafonísi Beach comes as an exotic shock. The almost tropical waters (sheltered by the islet of the same name) boast white sand tinged pink by coral, aquamarine waters, salt-encrusted rock pools and bright-red starfish. The water is incredibly warm, calm and shallow and the islet itself is a short wade across the sand bar.
Koureménos Beach is one of Crete’s top windsurfing spots. Not surprisingly, it can be windy here (a funnel effect creates ideal windsurfing conditions; nearby Hióna Beach is far more sheltered), but it’s a fine, long sand-and-pebble beach, with several tavernas and places to stay along the way. And there's even a bar. There’s also quite a community of camper vans filled with enthusiastic windsurfers and beach bums in summer. If you're thinking of picking up some lessons there's an excellent windsurf centre, too.
While Mátala was once known for its cave-dwelling hippy community, the town now feels rather touristy. That said, the beach is still excellent, one of the best in Crete, the atmosphere is boisterous and you’ll never be short of somewhere to enjoy a cocktail at sunset. With the caves lit up at night, the beach is an impossibly romantic setting. If the crowds get too much you can scramble over the hill to Red Beach, which, with its reddish-gold sand, nudists and scruffy, seasonal beach café, does its best to uphold Mátala’s traditions.
The palm-lined beach at Vái makes for a thoroughly secular contrast to the spiritual tranquillity of nearby Toploú monastery. As you lie on the fine sand in the early morning, especially in early spring or late autumn, you could almost imagine yourself to be on a Caribbean island instead of a Greek one. In summer the beach fills to overflowing, but even then, for a couple of hours at each end of the day, you should be able to enjoy Vái the way it ought to be.
Mýrtos is a charming, white-walled Cretan village with a long shingle beach. Even in August, when the place can get pretty full, the pace of life remains slow, and the atmosphere pleasantly laid back. Apart from topping up your tan, swimming, renting a boat or lingering over a drink, there’s not a great deal to do in here. That being said, the surrounding countryside offers a couple of important Minoan sites, as well as the opportunity for mountain hikes.
Just 3km beyond Horafákia is Stavrós and its near-perfect beach, an almost completely enclosed circular bay. The sea is dead calm with gently shelving sand underfoot, making it ideal for kids. It’s an extraordinary-looking place, too, with a sheer, bare mountainside rising just 100m away from you on the far side of the bay. It’s also home to a cave, whose entrance can just about be seen from the beach, in which there is an ancient sanctuary. Stavrós beach is often crowded, but even so it’s a great place to bask for a few hours, and there’s also a far less visited patch of sand facing directly out to sea.
For peaceful lassitude the beach at Frangokástello is among the best beaches in Crete, with fine sand and crystal-clear water (with good snorkelling opportunities). If you want company you’ll find it around the castle, where the best part of the sand is sheltered slides slowly into the water. For solitude, head west along the shoreline. There are beaches to the east too: follow the coastal path for ten to fifteen minutes and you’ll arrive at the top of a low cliff overlooking perhaps 1km of beautiful, deserted sand and rocks.
From the sea, Sweetwater Beach appears as a long, extremely narrow slice of grey between sheer ochre cliffs and a dark, deep sea. Closer up, the beach seems much larger, but there’s still an unnerving sense of being isolated between huge mountains and an endless stretch of water. The beach takes its name from the small springs that bubble up beneath the pebbles to provide fresh, cool drinking water. You can dig a hole almost anywhere to find water (but don't think about bathing here – it's not good to pollute the groundwater with soap).
The most popular way to escape southern Crete's stifling summer temperatures (where it can reach 40°C) is to take a boat trip to Gaidhouronísi, some 10km offshore. A real desert island a little over 4km in length, with a fine cedar forest, some excellent sandy beaches, a couple of tavernas and the fabulous “Shell Beach”, covered with discarded shells from countless generations of molluscs, undoubtedly one of the best beaches in Crete.
Gávdhos is the largest of Crete’s offshore islands. Its attraction lies in its enduring isolation, by which we mean, it's a little tricky to reach. If all you want is a beach and a taverna to grill your fish, this is the place for you. Kamaréles – at Tripití, the most southerly point of Europe –is pebbly with little shade, but the water is brilliantly clear and it's a snorkeller’s paradise, with plenty of aquatic life. When you need a break, you can do what everyone else comes here to do: climb the famous three-holed rock, sit in the giant chair, and dangle your feet off the edge of a continent.