Day 1 in Agios Nikolaos
Welcome to Agios Nikolaos! Arrive at your hotel, check in and then grab a bite to eat in one of the many cafes nestled around Lake Voulismeni (rumored to be the 'Bath of Athena'), before exploring the rest of this beautiful city. Not to be missed is the Archaeological Museum, established in 1970, which houses a compelling collection of artifacts covering 3,000 years of Cretan history, dating from the ancient Minoan civilization up to Roman times. Next, stop into the Folklore Museum located in the ground floor of the Port Police, just opposite the lake of Agios Nikolaos. Although small, there are many fine exhibits of woodcarvings and Byzantine icons in addition to local costumes, traditional textiles and various old manuscripts and books.
In the afternoon, set off for the traditional village of Kritsa, located in the foothills of the Dikti Mountains behind Ayios Nikolaos. Here, the Church of Panagia Kera features beautiful 14th and 15th century frescoes, considered to be some of the finest examples of Cretan-Byzantine art. Afterwards, visit the village of Kritsa itself for lunch and some shopping followed by the archaeological site of Lato (named after the mother of Apollo and Artemis), one of the most important Doric city-states in ancient Crete. Today visitors can see the remains of a fortress, a temple and an ancient theatre as well as amazing views of Mirabello Bay.
As evening approaches, head back to town where a decidedly sophisticated ambience descends upon the harbor. Enjoy a seafood dinner in one of the local tavernas followed by a romantic stroll around the marina, with its expensive yachts and traditional, wooden fishing boats painted in bright colors.
Day 2 in Agios Nikolaos
Wake up early this morning and head to Ierapetra where you can catch a boat to the island of Chrissi, officially known as Gaidouronissi (Donkey Island). Chrissi (which means 'Golden Island' in Greek) lies in the Libyan Sea and is famous for its exotic beaches. Because of its unique ecosystem, the islet has been included in the NATURA 2000 Program, a European initiative to protect places of natural beauty and ecological interest. Swim in the turquoise waters off Belegrina beach and admire its fossilized sea shells or visit the historical sites, including the 13th century church of Agios Nikolaos, some Roman graves and an old lighthouse.
Later, return to Ierapetra (Holy Stone) and have lunch in one of the cafes or tavernas around the harbor before exploring Kales Fortress, situated at the entrance to the port. Built by the Venetians in the 13th century, it is a landmark of the town, although not much of the castle remains today. Next visit the beautiful Turkish mosque in the old town as well as the 14th century Church of the Metamorfossis (Transformation) of Christ, which houses some beautiful frescoes; and the Archaeological Museum exhibits items from the Minoan, Classical and Roman times.
Finally, unwind and end the day with dinner and drinks at the beach at Kitroplatia. This is one of the few places in Crete to provide that charming 'village by the sea' atmosphere coupled with its own original restaurants and cafes.
Day 3 in Agios Nikolaos
Today we recommend an excursion to Heraklion. Starting at Koules Fortress, which dominates the lovely Venetian harbor, follow the city's medieval walls around, taking in the Historical Museum, Agios Minas and Agia Ekaterini before brushing up on Minoan history at Heraklion's Archaeological Museum.
After lunch, make your way to the excavated ruins of the legendary Palace of Knossos, just outside Heraklion. This is the largest and most famous Minoan site in Greece. Reconstructions of the original courtyards, private apartments, baths and frescos will give you a good idea of palatial life in Minoan times. Legend has it that this palace was the location of the Labyrinth built by King Minos of Crete to keep away the mythical creature Minotaur, who was half bull and half man.
Later, admire the Venetian Loggia that serves as Heraklion's town hall before doing some shopping in the center. Tonight enjoy a bit of people watching while dining in one of the many cafes surrounding Lion's Square (Morozini Fountain). Alternately, you may want to return to the picturesque marina in Agios Nikolaos for your last evening.
Additional Days in Agios Nikolaos
Should you be able to spend additional days in Agios Nikolaos, you may want to explore some other areas in Lassithi. A short distance north of Agios Nikolaos are the beautiful coastal villages of Elounda and Plaka, which are popular for their lovely beaches and coves. From these towns, boat trips are organized to the nearby islet of Spinalonga where the Venetians built one of their many fortresses in 1579. Spinalonga was a leper colony until after World War II, but is now a tourist attraction. Afterwards, continue northwest to the Cave of Milatos, which is of historical and sentimental importance for the locals. This is where about 3,600 people were slaughtered by the Turks in February 1823, during the revolution. To commemorate this tragic event, the small Church of Saint Thomas was built inside the cave and a small service is held every year in their memory.
Within the prefecture of Lassithi, west of Agios Nikolaos, the Lassithi Plateau is one of the most fascinating landscapes of Crete and has a rich history dating back to the Neolithic period. This fertile plateau, with its abundance of vegetation, is watered by the melting snowcaps of the Dikti Mountain. The plateau is home to nearly ten thousand windmills, which are a spectacular sight themselves. One of the highlights is the Dikteon Andron, the cave where, according to Homer, Rhea hid baby Zeus from his father Cronos. The cave has some interesting stalactites and stalagmites and remains of early cults. There are about twenty Greek villages here, each more picturesque than the other. There are also a number of churches and monasteries in the area including the Church of the Holy Cross at Tzermiado, the largest village of the Lassithi Plateau and the famous Monastery of Panagia Kroustallenia in the village of Agios Konstantinos. There is also a Folk Museum and a museum dedicated to Eleftherios Venizelos at the village of Agios Georgios. The Holy Monastery of Vidiani is located at the northwest entrance of Lassithi Plateau. Constructed in the 19th century, it hosts a department of the Museum of Natural History of Crete.
To explore Eastern Crete, make your way through the villages of Touloti and Mochlos on your way to Sitia, where you can visit the Faneromeni Monastery, the Archaeological Museum and the Kazarma Fortress. Admire its idyllic beaches and have lunch in one of the waterfront cafes before continuing to Palekastro and the Monastery of Toplou, one of the largest and most important monasteries of Crete. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Agios Ioannis Theologos (Saint John the Theologian), it is home to a museum with Byzantine icons and many wonderful engravings. Finally head south to the ancient Minoan Palace of Zakros. Then hike the Gorge of the Dead, whose rock faces contain caves that were used as burial grounds during the Minoan period; take in the beautiful landscape of the valley before ending up at the bay of Kato Zakros. There are many fine tavernas here where you can relax and enjoy a bite to eat.
Your Last Day in Agios Nikolaos
Depart your hotel for the airport for your return home. Please remember to leave enough time to return your rental car before your flight out.