Crete’s most famous historical attraction is the Palace of Knossos, the grand capital of Minoan Crete, located 5km south of Iraklio. The setting is evocative and the ruins and recreations impressive, incorporating an immense palace, courtyards, private apartments, baths, lively frescoes and more. Excavation of the site started in 1878 with Cretan archaeologist Minos Kalokerinos, and continued from 1900 to 1930 with British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who controversially restored parts of the site.
Evans' reconstructions bring to life the palace's most significant parts, including the columns, which are painted deep brown-red with gold-trimmed black capitals and taper gracefully at the bottom. Vibrant frescoes add dramatic flourishes. The advanced drainage system and a clever floor plan that kept rooms cool in summer and warm in winter are further evidence of Minoan high standards.
There is no prescribed route for exploring the palace, but the following one takes in all the highlights. Entering from the West Court, which may have been a marketplace or the site of public gatherings, you'll note a trio of circular pits on your left. Called kouloures, they were used for grain storage. From here, continue counterclockwise, starting with a walk along the Processional Walkway that leads to the South Propylaion, where you can admire the Cup Bearer Fresco. From here, a staircase leads past giant storage jars to an upper floor that Evans called the Piano Nobile because it reminded him of Italian Renaissance palazzi and where he supposed the reception and staterooms were located. On your left, you can see the west magazines (storage rooms), where giant pithoi (clay jars) once held oil, wine and other staples.
The restored room at the northern end of the Piano Nobile houses the Fresco Gallery, with replicas of Knossos' most famous frescoes, including the Bull Leaper, the Ladies in Blue and the Blue Bird. The originals are now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. From the balcony, a great view unfolds of the Central Court, which was hemmed in by high walls during Minoan times. Rooms facing the western side of the courtyard had official and religious purposes, while the residential quarters were on the opposite side.
Follow the stairs down to the courtyard and then turn left to peek inside the beautifully proportioned Throne Room, with its simple alabaster seat and walls decorated with frescoes of griffins (mythical beasts regarded by the Minoans as sacred). To the right of the stairs is a three-sectioned room that Evans called the Tripartite Shrine. Areas behind it yielded many precious finds, including the famous Snake Goddess statue.
Crossing the Central Court takes you to the east wing, where the Grand Staircase drops down to the royal apartments. Get there via the ramp off the southeastern corner, but not without first popping by the south entrance to admire a replica of the Prince of the Lilies fresco. Down below you can peek inside the queen's megaron (bedroom), with a copy of the Dolphin Fresco, one of the most exquisite Minoan artworks. The small adjacent chamber (behind plexiglass) may have been the queen's bathroom, with some sort of toilet. Continue to the king’s quarters in the Hall of the Double Axes; the latter takes its name from the double axe marks (labrys) on its light well, a sacred symbol to the Minoans and the origin of the word ‘labyrinth’.
Beyond, you can admire the Minoans' surprisingly sophisticated water and drainage system, pop by a stonemason's workshop and check out more giant storage jars before jogging around to the palace's north side for a good view of the partly reconstructed north entrance, easily recognised by the Charging Bull Fresco. Walking towards the exit, you pass the theatral area, a series of shallow steps whose function remains unknown. It could have been a theatre where spectators watched acrobatic and dance performances, or the place where people gathered to welcome important visitors arriving by the Royal Road, which leads off to the west and was flanked by workshops and the houses of ordinary people.
Unlike at other ruins around Iraklio, visitors make their way through the site on platform walkways, which can get very crowded. This makes it all the more important to time your visit for outside the tour-bus onslaught. Avoid ticket lines by buying in advance through the Archaeological Resources Fund e-Ticketing System (www.etickets.tap.gr).
City bus 2 to Knossos (€1.70, every 10 to 30 minutes) leaves from its own stop on the site of Iraklio's old long-distance bus station, 200m or so northwest of the new KTEL bus station. Perhaps more conveniently, you can also catch it at Plateia Eleftherias outside the Capsis Astoria hotel.