Crete, Greece’s pink beaches, rugged canyons and snow-capped mountains make it worth a trip all on its own. Here are a few sites to visit.
If you plan to visit Crete as a day trip on your vacation to Greece’s mainland, think again. Greece’s largest island offers more than pristine pink beaches, rugged canyons, and white-peaked mountains. In between, you’ll find towns and villages that intertwine current customs with relics that date back more than 5,000 years. Crete is more than worth a trip of its own.
If you’re a history buff or fascinated by Greek mythology, then you’ll find lots to explore in Crete. Discover the alleged birthplace of Zeus; learn about the Minoan civilization; and stand before ancient castles, churches, and other structures. Here are just a few sites to put at the top of your historical Crete itinerary.
Palace of Knossos
It’s the most popular tourist attraction in Crete, yet the Palace of Knossos is a must-see even if you tend to avoid large crowds. The Minoan palace includes a vast network of frescoes, courtyards, and private apartments supported by grand columns.
The setting for the myth of the Minotaur — half man, half-bull — the palace was first built in 1900 BC, but fires and earthquakes caused the Minoans to build and rebuild many times. Archaeologist Arthur Evans restored the site in the early 1900s; although he faced criticism for his reconstructions, he also discovered about 3,000 clay tablets and other artifacts that revealed a sophisticated society.
When you go, take a guided tour to get the most from your experience. James Stathis, founder of CelebrateGreece.com, advises going early and staying late. “Go early in the morning to beat the tour busses — the palace sees 10,000 people a day,” he says. “Have lunch at their café, then after busses have gone, go back and see it at sunset when the shadows are long and the rocks turn gold.”
High atop a hill in Rethymnon Old Town, this fortezza (fortress) has stood since the 16th century. The Venetians built the fortezza in hopes of protecting Crete against the Ottoman invasion. Their efforts proved unsuccessful; the Ottomans captured the fortezza less than a century later and ruled Crete for more than 200 years.
To reach the fortezza, follow the path that starts from behind the harbor. Stop at one of the cafes before taking the steps up.
Stathis says this is another attraction to admire as the sun sets. Even better, catch a concert at its Erofili Theatre.
This small island in the Lasithi, next to the town of Plaka, has served a number of roles over the centuries, most notably as a leper colony. From 1903 to 1957, lepers from Crete and the rest of Greece were kept on this island in isolation. They received food, water, medical attention, and financial payments.
Now called Kalydon, the island has been featured in films, television series, and Victoria Hislop’s novel “The Island.” Get there via tour boat from Plaka and Agios Nikolaos.
To visit the birthplace of a mythological Greek god, you have to travel just over a half-mile above sea level and then dip into a dark cave. Surrounded by the Dikti range, the picturesque Lasithi plateau offers green fields, pear and apple orchards, stone mausoleums, and white-sailed windmills.
For an underground hike, descend into Dikteon Cave, the alleged birthplace of Zeus. Walking down a never-ending staircase, you’ll pass stalactites and maybe a bat or two before reaching the chamber where Zeus was born. The climb to and out of the cave can get slippery — wear proper shoes and bring a sweater.
To combine your historical exploration with a day in nature, visit Samariá Gorge National Park. Stretching for about 10 miles through the White Mountains, Samaria Gorge is one of the longest canyons in Europe.
Start early and explore the entire canyon from the Omalos plateau at Xyloskalo to Agia Roumeli, a small seaside village. It’s not an easy hike. Expect to spend about six hours in the canyon. From Agia Roumeli, relax on the beach before taking a ferry or a bus to your starting point.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Crete boasts a few fascinating museums, but the Heraklion Archaeological Museum stands out for its extensive Minoan art collection. Artifacts span 5,000 years of history and were all excavated in Crete. Get a combo ticket that includes admission to both the museum and the Palace of Knossos.
Church of Agios Nikolaos
In the old city of Chania you’ll find the Church of Agios Nikolaos, built before 1320 as a monastery of Dominican order. During the Ottoman Empire, the site became a mosque. In 1928, it became a Christian church dedicated to Agios Nikolaos.
In Chania and throughout Crete, you’ll find dozens of breathtaking ancient churches, but none with the distinctive two-level minaret of the Church of Agios Nikolaos. After your visit, be sure to explore the surrounding square and the rest of this historic city.
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