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.
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.
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.
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.
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.