Crete is a tapestry of splendid beaches, ancient treasures and landscapes, weaving in vibrant cities and dreamy villages, where locals share their traditions, wonderful cuisine and generous spirit.
There’s something undeniably artistic in the way the Cretan landscape unfolds, from the sun-drenched beaches in the north to the rugged canyons spilling out at the cove-carved and cliff-lined southern coast. In between, valleys cradle moody villages, and round-shouldered hills are the overture to often snow-dabbed mountains. Take it all in on a driving tour, trek through Europe’s longest gorge, hike to the cave where Zeus was born or cycle among orchards on the Lasithi Plateau. Leave time to plant your footprints on a sandy beach, and boat, kayak or snorkel in the crystalline waters.
Rich Historical Tapestry
Crete’s natural beauty is equalled only by the richness of its history. The island is the birthplace of the first advanced society on European soil, the Minoans, who ruled some 4000 years ago. You’ll find evocative vestiges all over, most famously at the Palace of Knossos. At the crossroads of three continents, Crete has been coveted and occupied by consecutive invaders. History imbues Hania and Rethymno, where labyrinthine lanes are lorded over by mighty fortresses, and where gorgeously restored Renaissance mansions rub rafters with mosques and Turkish bathhouses. The Byzantine influence stands in magnificent frescoed chapels, churches and monasteries.
If you’re a foodie, you will be in heaven in Crete, where ‘locavore’ is not a trend but a way of life. Rural tavernas often produce their own meat, cheese, olive oil, raki and wine, and catch their own seafood. Follow a gourmet trail across the landscape and you’ll delight in distinctive herbs and greens gathered from each hillside, cheeses made fresh with unique village- or household-specific recipes, and honey flavoured by mountain herbs. The Cretan diet is among the healthiest in the world. Pair your meal with excellent local wine, and cap it off with a fiery shot of raki.
Untouched by mass tourism, villages are the backbone of Cretan culture and identity – especially those tucked in the hills and mountains. The island's spirited people still champion many of their unique customs, and time-honoured traditions remain a dynamic part of daily life. Look for musicians striking up a free-form jam on local instruments, such as the stringed lyra (lyre), or wedding celebrants weaving their traditional regional dances. Meeting regular folk gossiping in kafeneia (coffee houses), preparing their Easter feast, tending to their sheep or celebrating during the island’s many festivals is what makes a visit to Crete so special.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Crete.
Crete’s most famous historical attraction is the Palace of Knossos, the grand capital of Minoan Crete, located 5km south of the city of Iraklio. The setting is evocative and the ruins and recreations impressive, incorporating an immense palace, courtyards, private apartments, baths, lively frescoes and more. History Knossos’ first palace (1900 BCE) was destroyed by an earthquake around 1700 BCE and rebuilt to a grander and more sophisticated design. It was partially destroyed again between 1500 and 1450 BCE, and inhabited for another 50 years before finally burning down. After initial excavation of part of the palace by Cretan archaeologist Minos Kalokerinos, the ruins of Knossos were fully unearthed in 1900 by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941). Evans was so enthralled by the site that he spent 35 years and £250,000 of his own money excavating and reconstructing sections of the palace. Although controversial in expert circles, his reconstructions help casual visitors conceive of what the palace might have looked like in its heyday. The first treasure to be unearthed in the flat-topped mound called Kefala was a fresco of a Minoan man, followed by the discovery of the Throne Room. The archaeological world was stunned that a civilisation of this maturity and sophistication had existed in Europe at the same time as the great pharaohs of Egypt. The Minoans’ highly sophisticated society is further revealed by details like the advanced drainage system and the clever placement of rooms in relation to passages, light wells, porches and verandas that kept rooms cool in summer and warm in winter. Touring the Palace of Knossos There is no prescribed route for exploring the palace, but the following one takes in all the highlights: West Court and South Propylaion 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. Piano Nobile From the South Propylaion, 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. Fresco Gallery 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 in Iraklio. From the balcony, a great view unfolds of the Central Court, which was hemmed in by high walls during Minoan times. Throne Room 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 a statue of a 'snake goddess', which is believed to date back to 1600 BCE. The figurine is now on display in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. King and queen's quarters Crossing the Central Court takes you to the east wing, where the Grand Staircase drops down to the royal apartments. Here you can peek inside the queen's megaron (bedroom), with a copy of the Dolphin fresco, one of the most exquisite Minoan artworks. 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’. Charging Bull fresco and Royal Road From here, head 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. Tickets and other practicalities The entrance fee to the Palace of Knossos is €15. A ticket pairing both the palace and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Iraklio (Heraklion) is €20. Entry to the palace is free every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st. 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.
This state-of-the-art museum is one of the largest and most important in Greece. The two-storey revamped 1930s Bauhaus building makes a gleaming showcase for artefacts spanning 5500 years from Neolithic to Roman times, including a Minoan collection of unparalleled richness. The rooms are colour coded and displays are arranged both chronologically and thematically, and presented with descriptions in English. A visit here will greatly enhance your understanding of Crete’s rich history. Don’t skip it.
Gortyna (also Gortyn or Gortys) has been inhabited since Neolithic times but reached its pinnacle after becoming the capital of Roman Crete from around 67 BC until the Saracens raided the island in AD 824. At its peak, as many as 100,000 people may have milled around Gortyna's streets. There are two sections, bisected by the highway. Most people only stop long enough to investigate the fenced area on the north side of the road past the entrance. However, several more important temples, baths and other buildings are scattered south of the road.
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.
Ancient Zakros, the smallest of Crete’s four Minoan palatial complexes, sat next to a harbour and was likely engaged in sea trade with the Middle East, as suggested by excavated elephant tusks and oxhide ingots. Like Knossos, Phaestos and Malia, Zakros centred on a courtyard flanked by royal apartments, shrines, ceremonial halls, storerooms and workshops. While the ruins are sparse, the remote setting makes it an attractive site to nose around. Information panels help spur your imagination.
The 16th-century Arkadi Monastery, 23km southeast of Rethymno, has deep significance for Cretans. As the site where hundreds of cornered locals massacred both themselves and invading Turks, it's a stark and potent symbol of resistance and considered a catalyst in the island's struggle towards freedom from Turkish occupation. Arkadiou’s impressive Venetian church (1587) has a striking Renaissance facade topped by an ornate triple-belled tower. The grounds include a small museum and the old wine cellar where the gunpowder was stored.
Looming over Rethymno, the star-shaped Venetian fortress cuts an imposing figure with its massive walls and bastions but was nevertheless unable to stave off the Turks in 1646. Over time, an entire village took shape on the grounds, most of which was destroyed in WWII. Views over the town, the Mediterranean and mountains are fabulous up here and it’s fun to poke around the ramparts, palm trees and remaining buildings, most notably the Sultan Bin Ibrahim Mosque with its huge dome.
The ruins of ancient Lissos are a pleasant 3.5km hike from Sougia on the coastal (though not waterfront) path to Paleohora, which starts at the far end of Sougia’s small port. Lissos arose under the Dorians, flourished under the Byzantines and was destroyed by the Saracens in the 9th century. A port for inland Elyros (now gone), it was part of a league of city-states, led by ancient Gortyna, that minted its own gold coins inscribed with the word ‘Lission’.
The archaeological site of Ancient Eleutherna is a Dorian-built settlement that was among the most important in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, and also experienced heydays in Hellenistic and Roman times. Excavations have been ongoing since 1985 and archaeologists continue to make new finds all the time; many are showcased at the impressive museum nearby. The 2010 discovery of the gold-adorned remains of a woman in a 2700-year-old double tomb made international news.