Crete’s position in the Mediterranean has ensured a history richer and more varied than many nations, and above all Crete is distinguished as home of Europe’s earliest civilisation, the Minoans.
From ancient Crete, the Minoans governed a maritime empire from as early as 2000 BC, but Venetians, Ottomans, Romans, and Byzantines also left their mark on the island. Of the island’s historic sites, however, it’s Crete’s remarkable ancient history which is primed to leave the biggest impression on visitors.
Appropriately, Crete’s historic highlights are the Minoan palace at Knossos and the archaeological museum in Heraklion, which holds the finest collection of Minoan artefacts anywhere in the world, as well as other impressive Minoan sites such as Phaestos, Malia and Zakros.
The palace of Knossos was the centre of Europe’s first civilisation and is the largest Bronze Age site in the country. It has connections to the myths of Theseus, the Minotaur and the labyrinth, and is unquestionably the standout archaeological site in Crete.
Knossos reached its peak in the period from the 19th to the 14th centuries BC, as the capital of the Minoan civilisation. Excavated and reconstructed in the 19th century by archaeologist Arthur Evans, Knossos has revealed a wealth of ancient treasures, not least of which are its fascinating ruins.
At the archaeological museum in Crete’s largest city of Heraklion, you’ll see one of the world’s most important exhibits of prehistoric art and a magnificent showcase of Minoan culture. Arranged in thematic and chronologically ordered displays, artefacts are allowed to speak for themselves: entire walls are covered with ancient objects, while the most famous frescoes from Knossos are displayed in the upstairs fresco gallery. Where few fragments of the originals survived, these have been interpreted into impressions of entire artworks.
The Greco-Roman site of Gortyn is located in the lush Messara Valley. Appearing in Homeric poems, Gortyna or ‘Gortyn’ was an ancient settlement originally founded in approximately 3000 BC, during the Neolithic era.
However, it was during the Roman era from around the 1st to the 5th centuries AD that Gortyn flourished, boasting a population of up to 100,000 people. Gortyn is best known for its lengthy wall inscription of 5th-century BC law codes of the city, the oldest and most complete example of coded ancient Greek laws ever found.
Phaestos, or Festos, was one of the three palace complexes where Minoan power was concentrated. Located in the centre of Crete, Phaestos was identified in the 19th century by Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt who followed the directions written by the ancient geographer Strabo. In 1908, the Phaestos Disc was discovered in the basements of the ancient site. On display at Heraklion’s archaeological museum, the artefact is a clay disk, dated to between 1950 BC and 1400 BC and impressed with a unique and as yet undeciphered script.
5. Agia Triada
The once-grand Bronze Age villa of Agia Triada, or Ayia Triadha, has yielded more examples of Linear A tablets than any other site of its kind. Situated 4 kilometres from Phaestos, in a beautifully placed position, it’s generally thought that the site of Agia Triada was a royal summer villa. Visitors can identify the row of ancient stores that faced a marketplace, the remains of a paved road leading towards the Gulf of Messara, and a 14th century chapel which houses the remains of medieval frescoes.
6. Palace of Malia
Down the road from Crete’s most notorious resort is the Palace of Malia, a more peaceful though less imposing location than either Knossos or Phaestos, yet nevertheless a remarkable Minoan complex whose ground plan remains virtually intact. Dating back over 4,000 years, the palace includes the remains of ceremonial stairways, a unique craftsmen’s settlement with distinctive storage rooms and granaries. The archaeological site also happens to sit fairly close to a good beach.
The well-preserved late Minoan town of Gournia is situated between two peaks in eastern Crete. The remains of Gournia cluster around cobbled streets and are crowned by workers’ houses and a palace. It is the best example of a Minoan town in the prehistoric Aegean, and it is still being excavated.
There are traces of around 50 houses to be seen here, as well as three cemeteries and a port. Less grand than the Minoan palaces, Gournia instead sheds light on the lives of the ordinary people who lived here 3,500 years ago. From Gournia, visitors can travel by boat to Mochlos, a large and significant early Minoan cemetery.
8. Palace of Zakros
The Palace of Zakros, the smallest of the great Minoan palaces, is located in the far east of Crete. The site’s size plays in its favour: it’s easy to understand, given there are the remains of just one palace here, while it is also built with the same ancient Minoan techniques and materials.
Excavation at Zakros has yielded knowledge on Minoan trade: evidence of links with the east was provided by the discovery of four elephant tusks and six bronze ingots. Ascending the hill above the palace leads to a good view of the overall plan of the palace.
13 kilometres east of the coastal town of Hania, or Chania, is the ancient city and archaeological site of Aptera. It was a powerful site in Minoan times, and today is notable for its array of interesting Greco-Roman ruins, the highlight of which is probably the remains of the Roman cisterns which originally supplied water to the city’s baths.
The archaeological site of Lato in eastern Crete contains the ruins of the ancient city which once dominated this area. The site remains well preserved and contains the remnants of houses, the agora, temples, ancient cisterns, basements, a theatre and threshing floor. The site has not been troubled by modern restorations and therefore contrasts well with sites such as Knossos and Malia.