A millenary history combined with a natural beauty at times wild: this is the island of Crete, the largest and most populous of the Greek islands. Cradle first of the Mycenaean civilization and then of the Minoan one, the island of Crete was the place of occupation of many peoples who have left their architectural and cultural heritage.
In Crete you can find some of the most significant attractions of Greece such as important archaeological centers, historical religious buildings, magnificent cities and interesting museums. All this is combined with a unique natural environment, not only for its beaches with crystal clear water and its uncontaminated bays, but also for its hiking routes that cross valleys, canyons, mountains and forests
The island knows how to please even the youngest and the lovers of parties as several locations are revealed as the ideal destination for those who love nightlife, beach parties and clubs to dance until late at night.
In Crete there are also a large number of religious buildings including churches, mosques and monasteries. The latter often turn out to be very special places because they are located in isolated environments, away from city centers and in unique contexts. Monasteries have played a very important role in the history of the island because they have often been a place of refuge and the last bastion of resistance during the invasions of the Ottoman Empire.
One of the most famous places in classical mythology, the magnificent Palace of Knossos is located just six kilometers from the city of Heraklion. Knossos was the capital city of the ancient Minoan civilization where a palace was built in 1900 BC not only to house the royal family, but also as a financial, religious and commercial center. The remains of this important civilization are found within the archaeological site reconstructed by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans.
Although according to many experts the reconstruction done does not reflect the original and is completely arbitrary, the site of the Palace with its many rooms, large courtyards and beautiful frescoes is still a must-see. To visit absolutely the throne room of Minos and the royal apartments where, especially the bathroom of the queen, are revealed as a truly unique work.
Besides being an important archaeological site, Knossos is special because it is linked to the legend of the Minotaur, a creature half man and half bull. According to Greek mythology, King Minos had a labyrinth built to enclose the Minotaur, a monstrous creature that killed local youth. The story goes that it was Theseus who entered the intricate labyrinth and killed the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos.
Second archaeological center of the island for fame after Knossos, Festo rises in the plain of Messara in the prefecture of Heraklion. Radamante, son of Zeus and younger brother of King Minosse, built the Palace of Festo as his palace around 1900 BC. The complex unfortunately was destroyed by an earthquake in 1700 BC but then rebuilt according to a structure very similar to that of Knossos.
It was the Italian School of Archaeology to bring to light the archaeological site of Festo which, unlike Knossos, has not undergone any kind of reconstruction. The complex consisted of a monumental entrance that led to the rectangular courtyard, closed by a colonnade, the rooms of warehouses and service rooms. The central courtyard, the royal apartments and the open-air theater are among the stops not to be missed during a visit to this site.
The island of Crete is characterized by the presence of numerous gorges carved into the rock by rivers and streams. The most famous of all is certainly the Samaria Gorge which is located within the National Park and goes from Omalos to the beach of Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea.
The route is about 16 km long and winds at first along a downhill path through a verdant forest, and then continues on a flatter path inside the gorge proper. Here you walk between high rock walls that in certain points narrow up to what are called “Iron Doors” or a part of the path “wide” just 3 meters.
Nicknamed the Venice of the East, Chania is a real gem on the northwest coast of the island of Crete. The city has a truly unique historical and architectural heritage, in which mosques, churches and Venetian-style buildings coexist in harmony.
The most ancient part of the city“the old Chania” winds around the port and is composed of a labyrinth of alleys where you can get lost among stores and small taverns. Do not miss the area of Tabakaria, the district of the island which once housed the tanneries of the city and now houses small stores selling handicraft leather goods.
Heraklion, also called Candia, is the capital of the island of Crete as well as the largest city. Its airport is the busiest on the island, while in summer the port is connected daily with Piraeus and the main islands of the Cyclades. It is one of the island’s entertainment centers, as well as one of the most popular tourist resorts, thanks also to unique attractions such as the Palace of Knossos.
Not to be missed is the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, which houses objects that tell more than five thousand years of Cretan history with a section devoted entirely to the Minoan civilization. Most of the artifacts found in the archaeological sites of Phaestos, Knossos, Malia and other places are now housed in this museum.
The famous Discus of Phaestos, a terracotta disc dating back to 1700 BC found at the Palace of Phaestos, and the beautiful frescoes that decorated the walls of the Palace of Knossos are also preserved here.
It is the most important monastery of the island both for its charm and for the history that made it the protagonist of one of the most tragic pages of Crete. It was the year 1866 when, during the Turkish occupation, the Monastery of Arkadi became a place of refuge for several revolutionaries and for part of the population that rebelled against Turkish rule. For this reason the monastery was attacked by the Turks who had more men, more weapons and more ammunition than the local population. Faced with defeat the local people, in order not to surrender to the enemy, decided to blow themselves up in the gunpowder warehouse.
The original structure of the monastery has been rebuilt and is now open to tourists who can retrace its history. Not to be missed is a visit to the Church with an original facade dating back to the sixteenth century and to the museum which preserves testimonies and weapons related to the Ottoman siege. The monastery is easily reachable from the city of Rethymno as it is located only 20 km from it.
One of the most famous monasteries of Crete for its religious but also historical role, the Monastery of Toplou is located in the easternmost part of the island not far from the town of Sitia. The monastery seems to date back to the fifteenth century although its current name, Toplou Monastir, is of Turkish origin and means “Monastery of the Cannons” this is because it was one of the best protected Venetian fortifications.
During theTurkish occupation this monastery housed Cretan citizens who were wanted, while in the period of German occupation, during World War II, the monastery was used as a base by the national resistance movement.
Loutro is a small village nestled in the rocks along the southern coast of the island, in the prefecture of Chania. This village is a magical place that can only be reached in two ways: on foot or by sea. Whether you want to do the route on foot or reach Loutro by boat, the best starting point is the town of Chora Sfakion.
In Loutro time seems to have really stopped: white houses with blue roofs alternate with small taverns and bed breakfasts overlooking a crystal clear sea. This is the ideal place for all those who love peace and quiet and for those who prefer to stay in small structures with a family atmosphere.
Another Cretan town that is an interesting combination of history and culture is Rethymno, where the Venetian architecture coexists with the Turkish one, historical churches coexist with beautiful mosques. The port of the city dominated by the imposing Venetian fortress is definitely one of the best places to sit and have a fish lunch while looking at the sea.
The narrow and cobbled alleys of its center are surrounded by Italian-style buildings with blue doors and traditional taverns where you can try the Cretan cuisine. Do not miss a visit to the beautiful Neratze Mosque, which, at the time of the Venetian rule, was a church dedicated to the Virgin but during the Ottoman rule was transformed into a mosque.
In the Libyan Sea in front of the southern coast of the island of Crete is the island of Chrissi famous for its tropical waters and its “golden beach”. This island is known for its golden colored beach which is the result of the natural crushing of countless shells that have mixed with the sand.
Chrissi, also called Gaiduronìsi, is a protected area where it is not possible to stop to sleep but where it is possible to spend an unforgettable day at sea. The main beaches of the island are four and are easily reachable with a boat ride from the city of Ierapetra.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article