Planning a winter vacation on Crete is not something usually found on travelers’ bucket lists since the island is mainly preferred for its delightful beachside lifestyle.
Most resorts close their doors in November, there are no more beach parties, open-air venues enter in hibernation, souvenir shops close until the next tourist season, and the island slows down its frantic summer tempo.
Winters are peaceful and mild on Crete. The average temperatures range between 10 and 15ºC, and rain seems to confine most residents indoors. A feeling of melancholy hovers over cities and villages everywhere.
Despite the apparent somnolence enveloping everything, Crete is not asleep. There’s plenty to do if the weather doesn’t put you off. Wind and rain are prevalent from mid-November until the end of March, and the high peaks of the island are covered in snow from December onwards. This snow makes Crete a surprising winter destination as Europe’s southernmost skiing haven.
Go Ski Mountaineering
Crete does not have ski resorts or ski lifts. A ski resort operated in the past in Anogia, but it closed several years ago. It is a pity because the island offers exceptional conditions for ski mountaineering and ski touring.
Since 2014, a ski mountaineering race takes place every March on Psiloritis. During this race, you will reach Timios Stavros, at 2546m above sea level, Crete’s highest peak. Pierra Creta organizes the race under the auspices of the Hellenic Tourism Organization. It attracts skiers from Greece, Italy, Norway, and several other countries. In 2019 there were more than 200 participants from across Europe.
Suppose you do not want to participate in the competition. In that case, Pierra Creta is still the go-to resource to learn about skiing on the mountain ranges of Psiloritis, Lefka Ori, or Dikti. Snowboarding is another winter sport practiced in the winter in these areas. Since the routes are not prepared for inexperienced explorers, you should try to find a local guide.
Make Heraklion Your Winter Base
Heraklion is a lively metropolis every season. Most hotels remain open, offering accommodation at reduced prices. Bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues continue their activity on a winter schedule. There are still enough shopping opportunities to satisfy your urges, and discounts add incentives for locals and tourists alike.
You can take your children for a few hours of fun at the Talos Plaza mall, which, despite its small size, does offer cineplex screening movies in English, some good shops, and a pleasant food court. Across the street from the mall, you can access a small park by the promenade where you can wait while watching the Cretan Sea. The main landmark of the park is Fountain Karavola, which sports color-changing light effects in the evening.
The kafenion culture is still thriving in winter – you can enjoy a hot cuppa, and people watch at one of the cafes around the Morosini Lions Fountain on Eleftheriou Venizelou Square or across the Heraklion Archeological Museum in Plateia Elefterias. The latest is also the site of a charming Christmas Market with all kinds of fun activities for children, sweets, roasted chestnuts, souvenirs, and live concerts.
There is plenty more to see and do in Heraklion in the winter. The museums remain open, and due to a reduced number of visitors, you can enjoy the exhibitions unperturbed, at your pace.
The archeological site at Knossos stays open too, and you can finally see everything without waiting in endless queues, safe from the scorching heat of the summer.
Rent a Car and Explore the Island
Crete is best explored by car regardless of the season, but in winter, you will enjoy the comfort even more. The road infrastructure is good, and you can reach the most popular towns and villages without any problems. You can drive through the countryside to see traditional villages and along the coastline to enjoy the striking beauty of the sea from beaches that are usually under tourists’ siege in the summer.
If you venture to drive in the mountains, mind the local forecast and news about potential road damage. Better remain on the safe coastal highway and take day trips to the main towns, including Rethymno, Chania, and Agios Nikolaus.
Winter in Crete will provide you an invigorating and authentic experience, far from the crowds, and engaged in genuine, meaningful exchanges with the islanders, who are probably the friendliest people on Earth.