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Reconstructions of the archaeological site of Knossos in Crete.
Map of Greece highlighting the position of the island of Crete.

Exploring the Past in Crete

Crete is the largest of all the Greek islands, and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean. The island has been attracting people for millennia, thanks in large part to the mild climate as a result of being halfway between Europe and Africa. Mythologically, Crete is said to be the origins of Europe. Zeus is said to have abducted of Europa from modern-day Lebanon and taken her to Crete. Together they had three children, each of whom became the kings of the great Minoan palaces on Crete and thus the founders of the Minoan civilization, and in turn of Europe.

Crete: My Favourite Archaeological Destination

Crete was my first solo adventure while studying archaeology in South Africa. Then it was the Minoan frescoes from Knossos that captured my attention. Later it was the exquisite Byzantine frescoes. Crete is one of those few destinations that truly excites me again and again, whether it is the island’s prehistory or the more recent periods of Venetian and Ottoman occupation.

Ferry boats taking tourists to the island of Spinalonga, Crete.

Best Places to Visit in Crete

Chania

Heraklion

Rethymno

Must See Archaeological and Historical Sites and Museums in Crete

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Knossos

Knossos is an important archaeological site that figures prominently in the history and development of archaeology. Excavations began in 1900 AD by Sir Arthur Evans and carried on for 35 years. Although many of his reconstructions and interpretations are now questioned, it is thought that the ruins are those of a political and ceremonial centre that was at the heart of Bronze Age communities on Crete. There is also archaeological evidence at the site for Neolithic and later Classical occupations.
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The so-called Phaistos Disk in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

The archaeological museum in Heraklion is one of the largest and most important archaeology museums in Greece. Not only does the museum have extensive displays of some 7,000 years of Cretan prehistory, from the Neolithic to the Late Roman period, it also has the finest collection of Minoan art and artefacts. Some of the island’s most iconic objects can be seen in permanent exhibitions, these include the enigmatic Phaistos disk, the bull head rhyton from Zakros and bull leaping fresco from Knossos.
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Phaistos

Phaistos was an important centre of Minoan civilisation on the island of Crete, the wealthiest and most powerful in southern Crete. At the centre of the substantial Minoan city was, according to many archaeologists, the finest of all the Minoan palaces. The earliest evidence of habitation dates to the Neolithic, while the first palace was constructed during the 15th century BC. Of a much more recent age are the archaeological remains of the Venetian church of St. George of Phalandra.
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The Byzantine Church of St Titus at Gortyn, Crete.

Gortyn

Although a flourishing city was mentioned by Homer, it was not until the Hellenistic era that the city of Gortyn was at its most prosperous and powerful. During the Roman period the city became the capital city of the province of Creta et Cyrenaica. Later, in the sixth century AD a Christian cathedral was erected and dedicated to St Titus, the substantial ruins of which can still be seen today. Today, the site is best known for the Gortyn Code, discovered in 1884 it is the most complete and oldest example of a code of ancient Greek law.
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The Venetian fort on the island of Spinalonga.

Spinalonga

Although the island of Spinalonga has a fascinating Venetian and Ottoman history, it is better known today as a result of being the setting of Victoria Hislop’s 2005 novel The Island. The story, also adapted for TV, explore the novelist’s family ties to the island. An island on which those who suffered leprosy were quarantined from 1903 to 1957. Now the island is a popular day trip for tourists staying in Crete. Besides the ruined features of the hospital, visitors can also explore the Venetian fortress, which was one of the most important in the Mediterranean because of its strategic location.
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A mosque and a chapel in the Venetian Fort of Rethymno.

Fortezza Rethymno

Visible from most points around the city of Rethymno is the Venetian stronghold of Fortezza. It was built between 1540 and 1570 when the island was under Venetian rule to protect the commercial port against Ottoman attack. In 1646 Fortezza fell to the Ottomans. Besides the outer fortifications, a number of internal features have survived. These include the Ibraham Han Mosque and the late 19th century church of Agios Theodoros Trichinas. From the fort visitors get broad panoramic views of Rethymno and beyond.
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Historical Sites and Museums off the Beaten Path in Crete

Five Handpicked Tours and Activities in Crete for History Lovers

Cretan Culture & Nature Tour of the Lasithi Area: on this day tour you will see Crete past and present. You will visit ancient temples and historic monasteries, see local museums and traditional villages, and meet local shepherds and beekeepers.

Chania: Discover the Religious Heritage Of Apokoronas: On this day trip you will visit out of the way churches and learn about the religious history and traditions of Crete. One of the highlights is the 13th century church frescoes, of which the island is famous for.

Rethymno: Explore the Real Crete in a Small Group: This day trip from Rethymno takes you on a tour of Crete’s fascinating past, from time of the first farmers in the Neolithic period, to one of the most important archaeological sites on the island, to Crete’s earliest monastery.

Crete World War II History Tour: On this day trip from Chania you will visit some of the key sites where the Battle of Crete took place, including the site where the German army first landed.

Follow in the Footsteps of Greek Mythology: Crete is the birthplace of Zeus! On this tour you will visit the Cave of Zeus, believed by many to be the place where baby Zeus was hidden from Cronus by Rhea to prevent him from eating the baby. You will also visit traditional mountain villages and explore more recent Cretan customs and ways of life.

These are just five, hand selected tours of the archaeology and history of Crete, there are many more you can choose from, including many that explore the natural heritage of the island. See the full list of Tours and Activities available from GetYourGuide for Crete >>

These are our recommendations for walking tours of Chania, Heraklion and Rethymno.

Day Trip from Crete: Santorini

The covered archaeological site of Akrotiri in Santorini.

Excavated Minoan houses at Akrotiri.

If Crete is your base while visiting Greece, you have the option of taking a day trip to the island of Santorini. Here you could visit the archaeological site of Akrotiri, often described as Greece’s Pompeii. This Bronze Age settlement was one of the most important Minoan urban centres and ports in the Aegean Sea until it was covered by volcanic ash in the 17th century BC. A day trip to Santorini to visit Akrotiri would be a great addition to your itinerary if you are visiting the Minoan archaeological site of Knossos near Heraklion. And, if you are visiting Athens, do not miss the Thera Gallery in the National Archaeological Museum.
Day trips to Santorini from Crete are available from Heraklion, Rethymno and Chania.