Phaestos was the second-most-important Minoan palace-city after Knossos and enjoys an awe-inspiring setting with panoramic views of the Messara Plain and Mt Psiloritis. It was built around 1700 BC atop an older, previously destroyed palace, and laid out around a central court. In contrast to Knossos, it had fewer frescoes, as its walls were likely covered with white gypsum. Phaestos was defeated by Gortyna in the 2nd century BC. Good English panelling and graphics stationed in key spots help demystify the ruins.
Past the entrance, the first stop is the Upper Court, which was flanked by a colonnade and overlooked the West Court, to which it is connected by a long staircase. Since the court is bounded by eight wide steps that may have served as bleachers, it may have been used as a theatral area – a staging ground for performances. On the side opposite the seats are four round, cistern-like structures called koulores that may have been used to store grain.
East of the West Court, a 15m-wide grand stairway once led to the Propylaeum, the main palace entrance, of which only the pillar bases survive. Continue past the stairway and turn left to walk past a corridor lined with a series of storerooms – called west magazines – where pithoi (storage urns) held oil, wine and other staples of the Minoan diet. The walkway culminates in an antechamber, below which another room – the so-called archive – held records of the goods in the magazines.
The corridor spills out into the vast rectangular Central Court, the social heart of the palace, which was once flanked by colonnades and gives a sense of the structure's size and magnificence. Turning right takes you into an area believed to have contained several shrines, including a 'bench shrine' whose walls were lined with low benches, and a 'lustral basin' with a sunken cistern that was perhaps used in purification rituals. On the opposite side is the east wing, which contained royal apartments, although the main residential area was actually in the north wing, most of which is under cover. This is where you'll come across the queen's megaron (bedroom), which centred on twin pillars and featured gypsum-paved floors and benches. Immediately behind it is the king's megaron. The celebrated Phaestos Disk, now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, was found in a building to the northeast of the king's chambers. Before exiting, swing by the columned Peristyle Court, the most elegant inner courtyard in the north wing.
Phaestos is 63km southwest of Iraklio and served by KTEL buses twice daily from Iraklio's bus station (7.30am and 12.45pm, €7.10, 1½ hours), three times daily from Matala (€2, 30 minutes) and six times daily from Agia Galini (€2.30, 35 to 45 minutes).