1. Knossos Palace
A trip to Crete is incomplete without a visit to Knossos, centre of Minoan civilization
No visit to Crete is complete, of course, without a trip to the Minoan palace at Knossos, which was inhabited continuously from the Neolithic period until the 5th c. AD.
The palace was built on the Kephala hill and had easy access to the sea and the Cretan interior. The partly-restored palace is what’s left of the headquarters of the Minoan civilization that flourished in Crete in the second millennium BC.
The remarkable civilization that grew up in and around Knossos included amenities such as indoor plumbing and a high degree of artistic excellence which can be seen in the preserved frescoes.
The civilization based at Knossos maintained a powerful navy that made it the ruler of the eastern Mediterranean.
It’s intriguing that the discovery of the palace at Knossos is just over a century old, the result of the labours of the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans.
The palace and its contents offer a vivid picture of what life was like in that long-ago era. Knossos palace lies just five kilometres south of Heraklion.
Stay in Elounda village nearby to the unique Spinalonga island
2. Festos Palace
Do not miss the ancient palace of Festos, the finest and most typical of all Minoan palaces
The remains of the Minoan palace at Festos are, apart from Knossos, the most impressive that Crete can boast. Though it’s the second biggest such Minoan centre yet unearthed, it’s arguably better preserved, and larger as well.
The Festos palace lies on a plain near the Lybian sea in south central Crete, indicating that it oversaw trade with Egypt and other places in the Middle East.
The region was inhabited from the 6th millennia BC to the early Byzantine years. The earliest Minoan palace extended on three levels with the central court, sanctuaries, storage rooms, workshops, and other rooms arranged on at least two floors.
The most enigmatic find so far at Festos has been the so-called Festos Disk, a circular object containing so-far indecipherable marks arranged in spiral form.
This object, the only one of its kind ever found, came to light in the ruins of Festos in the early 20th century and has puzzled experts ever since.
3. Fragokastello Fortress
Visit Frangokastello, the best preserved Venetian castle in south Crete
The best preserved Venetian castle on the south coast of Crete — and perhaps the most impressive in the whole island — is Fragokastello, perched on a height overlooking the Libyan Sea and in the shadow of the White Mountain looming behind.
Frangokastello is a corruption of the Italian Franco Castello, or castle of the Franks. It’s a well-preserved rectangular structure based on four corner towers and connecting curtain walls with battlements on top that presents a formidable sight when viewed from below.
The main gate in the south wall, facing the sea, features the marble coat of arms of Saint Mark of Venice and other noble escutcheons.
To get to Fragokastello, drive east from Chania for 33 kilometres, turning right at Vrisis for the winding road to Sfakia, and then left at the coast — a total of 85 kilometres.
Or you could take a KTEL rural bus from Chania to Sfakia, and then a local bus to Fragokastello.
4. The Fortress of Rethymno
Fortezza is Rethymno’s landmark, seen from every part of town
The Venetian stronghold of Fortezza is built on top of a low hill above Rethymno Town. The hill is known as Paleokastro, which means old castle in Greek and suggests the existence of an older structure in that place.
This huge fortress, with its turbulent history, was built between 1540 and 1570 by the Venetian maritime power as a bulwark against Turkish pirates.
More than 100,000 Cretans on compulsory labor and over 40,000 pack animals were used in the construction of this mighty fortress. However, the Fortezza was conquered by the Turks in 1646.
After many upheavals during the next three centuries, only the outer fortifications of the Fortezza remain intact and few buildings are still under restoration.
The Fortezza is visible from every part of the town and provides the visitor a panoramic view of Rythymno town. The visitors enter from the East Gate through an impressive archway.
Some of the many sights to see inside the Fortezza are the Ibraham Han Mosque, the Bastion of Santa Maria and the church of Agios Theodoros Trichinas.This orthodox chapel was built in 1899 by the Russian Governor of Rethymnon.
The 20th century Theatre of Erofili is also inside the Fortezza and holds many cultural events every summer. In the wider Rethymno area there are excellent accommodation opportunities in villas to rent, offering exclusive services.
5. A Day In Spinalonga Island
The eerie island of Spinalonga is a living museum of the lepers’ resistance to social prejudice
Spinalonga is a tiny island off the northeast coast of Crete, not visited until the mid-1950s as it was a leper colony, the subject matter of Victoria Hislop’s book ‘The Island’. Approximately 400 people inhabited the island from 1903 to 1957.
People from Crete and other parts of Greece suffering from leprosy were sent to live out their days on this small island. At that time leprosy was still seen as a highly contagious and incurable disease and sufferers were treated as outcasts.
Today, the intriguing and atmospheric Island of Spinalonga attracts a great many visitors and is one of the main tourist attractions in Crete.
The Island of Spinalonga can be accessed easily from the village of Elounda and from the town of Agios Nikolaos. Tourist boats depart from both places on a daily basis in the summer season.
Keep in mind that in touristy Elounda as well as in Agios Nikolaos there are splendid villas for rent, for the eclectic traveller.
6. Sfendoni Cave
A magic world of stalagmites and stalactites await you in Sfendoni cave.
One of the most remarkable caves in Greece, the Sfendoni cave covering an area of about 3.000 square meters, is located just 43 kilometers from the town of Heraklion and 52 kilometers from Rethymno.
Guided tours take you 270m below ground and through seven chambers with such fanciful names as Sanctuary of the Fairy and Zeus’ Palace.
All teem with illuminated stalagmites and stalactites shaped into drapery, organ pipes, domes, curtains, waves and other strange formations.
The cave, which is protected by Unesco, is home to over 400 bats who may greet you if you visit in the morning. Tours run roughly every 45 minutes and take about 40 minutes.
There is also a small admission price, which varies according to the season. A new 270m-long walkway makes it accessible to everyone.