It’s easy to fall in love with Crete: From the Venetian architecture of Chania to the Minoan ruins at Knossos, and the beauty of its secluded white sand beaches, Greece's largest island is brimming with breathtaking vistas, rich culture, and some of the best food in the country. And the best part -- you don't have to spend a lot to experience it. Here are five ways to get the most out of Crete, without breaking the bank.
1. Go during low season
Book your trip to Crete for June or September when the weather is warm enough to enjoy the island's famed beaches, but tourists are few and accommodations are cheap. Fly to Athens and transfer to Chania, one of Crete’s most popular cities. In the off-season, you can find round-trip airfare to Athens for less than $1,000 from major U.S. cities, including New York and Atlanta; the one-hour connecting flight to Crete starts at just $79.
2. Stay in Old Town
Chania’s historic harbor provides an ideal base for exploring the island. Built in the 14th century, the port is lined with colorful buildings from the Venetian and Ottoman periods. Most of the fun is in just walking around and getting lost in the narrow, cobblestone alleys, which are lined with stores selling jewelry and souvenirs. Grab a meal at one of the waterfront restaurants, such as local favorites Michalis Taverna and Chrisostomos. To get the best bang for your buck, stay along the waterfront at Case Leone, a lovely bed and breakfast set in a restored 15th-century villa (rooms from $115 per night).
3. Eat like the locals
Agriculture has been a cornerstone of the local economy and way of life for thousands of years. For an authentic Greek experience, rent a car from Chania (around $40 per day) and drive to Agreco Farm, located in the rolling hills near Rethymno. This picturesque replica of a 17th-century estate overlooks vineyards and olive trees and features a watermill, a wood-burning oven, a wine cellar, and a menagerie of rescued animals. Here, you can play farmer for a day, making bread or pressing olives. Taste the fruits of your labor at the Taverna, where $60 will get you a multi-course feast made from the farm’s organic produce and bottomless wine. If you don't have the hours to spend, opt to take an independent tour of the property for $5 and sample coffee in the kafeneio.
4. Use the bus system
Whether you’re craving an adventure in Samaria’s Great Gorge or an afternoon delving into Greek history at the Palace of Knossos, the air-conditioned buses at Chania’s KTEL terminal ($15 to $30 round-trip) are an easy and affordable way to get there. At the archeological site of Knossos, near Heraklion, walk among the hilltop ruins and view the restored artwork of the Minoan civilization. The Great Gorge, a mile walk from the Omalos bus stop, provides thrilling trails to view its 1,600 feet soaring walls, some just 10 feet apart, and a chance to spot indigenous kri kri (Cretan goats). Alternatively, hikers can also take a bus from Chania to Xyloskalo, which stops right at the beginning of the trail high above the gorge.
5. Hit the beach
A two-hour, $21 round-trip bus ride over the Gorge of Topolia brings you to Elafonisi, which has earned its reputation as one of world’s best beaches for its clear lagoons and coral pink sands. Lounge chairs with umbrellas and snack bars are free to use to make the day more comfortable. If you prefer to stay near Chania, take a cab to Cabana Mare Beach Resort in Agia Marina to take a dip in the sea and sip cocktails in luxury cabanas. There’s no fee to use the pool and jacuzzi; just order a beer or even a cup of coffee and you are welcome to spend the day.