In this post, I focus on one of the main reasons why people come and visit Crete… The past of the island, its complex history, and the archaeological sites on the island.
This article shows you some of the famous archaeological sites in Crete, including the four Minoan Palaces.
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Archaeological Sites in Crete that You Should See
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They say it’s here where everything started… on this island. With a long and complex past, spanning from the Bronze Age to the last significant events of World War II, Crete concentrates thousands of years of the history of our Western civilization.
In fact, for history fans, Crete is indeed an island rich in opportunities to learn a lot. In this article, I chose to focus on some of the traces that several ancient civilizations left on the island.
We’ll see just some of Crete’s most remarkable archaeological sites and I’ll provide some tips to make the most of your visit.
Let’s first check their location on the map to better plan your itinerary.
Map of Crete’s Archaeological Sites
The map contains a few of the most famous archaeological sites in Crete.
Some of them are not included in this guide.
Crete’s Four Minoan Palaces
So far, four Minoan Palaces have been unearthed on Crete. These are Knossos, Festos (or Phaistos), Malia in the region of Heraklion, and Kato Zakros in Lasithi. However, on such a big territory, there’s always a chance for a discovery.
These palaces are on the eastern side of the island:, if you look at those four spots on the map, it’s soon clear that at least one major center of power should be located in the west of Crete.
These palaces stand as an example of the organizational structure of ancient Crete, which shifted from a simpler village system (in the Neolithic) to a system of greater concentration of political power, religious authority, commerce, and wealth later on.
Experts believe that the Minoan Palace of Kydonia lies underneath the present city of Chania, a very densely populated area that cannot be excavated.
Some parts of the ruins came indeed to light after the Nazi air raid of 1941. These are visible to the public in different spots in town.
The Minoan Palaces of Crete shared the following characteristics
- All of them have the same orientation (from north to south).
- None of them is fortified, they lack surrounding walls for protection.
- They are palatial complexes, an elaborate network of rooms and spaces more than just a single structure.
- The palaces had wings on the north, south, west, and east around a central court for light and ventilation.
- Workshops used to be on the east wing while the west areas were sacred.
- They all have imposing staircases and columns, walls decorated with frescoes, and wood was widely used.
- The four palaces had a very advanced and complex drainage system with running water. They were made in different materials (stone or clay) according to their function: flush the toilets, deviate rainwater, and distribute drinking water.
These are the total areas of the Minoan Palaces
- Knossos – 22.000 square km (8.494 square miles)
- Festos – 18.000 square km (6.949 square miles)
- Zakros – 8.500 square km (3.281 square miles)
- Malia – 7.500 square km (2.895 square miles)
You might also want to read: What to Wear to Visit the Archaeological Sites in Crete.
Minoan Palace of Knossos
Practical Information about Knossos
Region: Heraklion, about 15 minutes from the city center.
GPS coordinates: Latitude N 35.29812 | Longitude E 25.162826.
Getting there from Heraklion Central Bus Station: Take bus Number 2 direction Knossos at the old bus station of Heraklion (Opposite the Megaron Hotel).
The bus runs 3-5 times per hour and Knossos is the final stop. For 2020, the fee is 1.50 € one-way.
Running hours: from 8 am to 7 pm (summer) and from 8 am to 3 pm (winter).
Entrance fee: Full €15, reduced €8. A special package for €16 includes the entrance to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (Reduced €8). Reduced fees apply to:
- Greek citizens and citizens of other European countries over 65 years old (ID card or passport needed).
- Escorts on educational visits (primary schools).
- University Students (high education institutes or equivalent, student ID card needed).
- For free admission categories, check this site.
Opening hours: The archaeological site is open all year long, from 8 am to 5 pm (winter), and from 8 am to 8 pm (summer).
The last admission is always 15 minutes before the closing time, but you should estimate at least 2 hours as a reasonable time needed to visit.
The site is closed on the following dates: January 1, March 25, May 1, Easter Sunday, August 15, December 25 & 26.
The site is open with a limited timetable on the following dates: Easter Friday, Easter Saturday, October 28.
Organized tours you can check:
- Convenient combo: Skip the line + ticket + licensed tour guide + ticket for the Archaeological Museum.
- Cheapest option: Skip the line + E-ticket +self-guided audio tour + offline content to avoid roaming charges.
- Kid-friendly tour: A family tour through mythology + iPad on-site with interactive activities + Minoan talisman.
- Private experience: Skip the line ticket + private guided tour by a licensed archaeologist + roundtrip transfers (Heraklion area).
You can also read Where to Stay in Crete for History and Culture.
About the Archaeological Site
- Dates: The first settlement dates back to 7000 BC and the First palace to 1900 BC.
- Civilization: Minoan.
What to See in Knossos
Central Court: One of the most impressive areas in the palace is the imposing central court. According to some archaeologists, this was the place where the bull-leaping ceremonies and other celebrations would take place.
Throne Room: Inside this room, you can see a stone seat close to the wall adorned with vivid frescoes and a perimetral bench along the sides. In the middle of the room stands a sunken bath not connected to the drain system, probably used during religious or ritual baths.
Queen Megaron: Here, it’s possible to admire the magnificent fresco with the dolphins, probably one of the most beautiful wall decorations in the palace.
Pithoi: Check the impressive storage containers made of clay, probably used by the Minoans to store olive oil and grain.
Some people believe that Knossos can be Europe’s oldest city.
Preparing the Visit
- Combine, whenever possible, the visit to the site with a visit to the Archaeological Museum (Heraklion). Otherwise, it will be very hard to get a real understanding of the site.
- Allow at least 2 hours to see the site, more if you prefer to book a guided tour.
- Most of the palace is exposed to the sun. Bring a hat, water, and sunscreen (you can get them from the different shops at the entrance).
- Wear comfortable shoes, and avoid flip-flops.
- In summer, wear light clothes. Here you can check how to dress comfortably to visit Knossos and any archaeological site.
You might also want to read Outstanding Things to See in Knossos.
Minoan Palace of Phaistos (Festòs)
You might also want to read: How to Get from Heraklion to Matala.
Practical Information about Phaistos
Region: Heraklion, about an hour from the capital (south).
GPS coordinates: Latitude N 35.051710 | Longitude E 24.814643.
Getting there: From Heraklion KTEL central station, and changing bus at Moires (bus for Matala). You don’t need to buy another ticket. The total fee for the trip is € 7.10
Heraklion-Moires: 1h, Moires-Phaistos: 15 m.
Make sure to ask for the stop to the bus driver.
Opening hours: The archaeological site is open all year long, from 8:30 am to 3 pm (winter) and from 8 am to 8 pm (summer). The last admission is always 15 minutes before the closing time, but you should estimate at least 2 hours as a reasonable time needed to visit.
Entrance fee: Full €6, reduced €3. There’s a ticket package (€8) that allows access to Phaistos and the Royal Villa of Agia Triada).
About the Archaeological Site
- Dates: The first settlement dates from the Late Neolithic (3000 BC approx.). The First palace dates back to 1850 BC while the New palace is from around 1700 BC.
- Civilization: Minoan.
What to See in Phaistos
Architecture: Festos is considered the finest and most typical Minoan palace, as well as the best-preserved of all the Minoan palaces that have been excavated on the island.
West Propylon: Check the impressive entrance to the palace known as the West Propylon as well as the staircases.
Also check the different terraces, the royal quarters, the storerooms and the pottery artifacts, and the workshops. It’s also possible to see the place where the famous Disk of Phaistos (Disk of Festos) was found, however, to see the disk you need to visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
Curious Facts about Phaistos
According to mythology, Phaistos was the seat of King Radamanthis, brother of King Minos.
Preparing the Visit
- The archaeological site is located 62 km south of Heraklion, about 100 m above sea level.
- If you drive there from Heraklion, take the road Moires-Timbaki. You can also access Phaistos from the south.
- If you travel by bus, check the summer/winter schedules at Heraklion’s bus station, according to when you’re visiting.
Minoan Palace of Malia
Practical Information about Malia
Region: Heraklion, about 30 minutes from the center, on the northern coast.
GPS coordinates: Latitude N 35.29327 | Longitude E 25.49209.
Getting there: There’s no public transport service. You can get there by car via VOAK/E75 (national road), 30 minutes from Heraklion (direction Agios Nikolaos – East).
Opening hours: The archaeological site is open all year long from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. The last admission is always 15 minutes before the closing time, but you should estimate at least 1 hour as a reasonable time needed to visit. It’s closed on Tuesdays.
Entrance fee: Full €6, reduced €3.
About the Archaeological Site
- Dates: The palace was inhabited from the Neolithic until the early Minoan period (6000- 2000 BC). The First Palace dates from 1900 BC and the New Palace from 1700 BC.
- Civilization: Minoan
What to See in Malia
Museum: The small museum is located right after the entrance. Most findings are housed at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, however, you can check the scale model that recreated the palatial complex of Malia.
Magazines: These are located towards the east of the central court, there are storage rooms that lead to a common corridor and contained the famous vases or pithoi normally used to store cereals, oil, and wine.
Kernos: Small round table, with a central cavity and holes around the edge where the Minoans would put seeds as an offer to the gods for a prosperous crop.
Also, check out: The staircase which led to the first floor of the palace, the several containing jars or pithoi, the pillars with Minoan inscriptions, the Minoan town also called Quartier Mu, which might have has an independent life, separated from the palace and might have been a place dedicated to the manufacture of pottery.
Important & Curious Facts about Malia
Malia is Crete’s third Minoan palace in size and importance.
According to mythology, here ruled Sarpedon, another bother of the legendary King Minos.
It was in Malia where archeologists found some of the most refined jewelry pieces made by the Minoans.
Preparing the Visit
- The archaeological site is about 3 km east of the resort town of Malia.
- Malia is another archaeological site that, pretty much like Knossos, has large portions not repaired from direct exposure to the sun, carrying a hat and sunscreen.
- Wear comfortable shoes. If you want, you can visit the nearby beach of Malia after the visit.
- Read more about Malia here
Minoan Palace of Zakros
Practical Information about Zakros
GPS coordinates: Latitude N 35.097917 | Longitude E 26.260719.
Getting there: The nearest city is Sitia (44 km) via Sitias-Palekastrou-Vai road. The road from Sitia takes about 1 h, and 2 h 20 min. from Agios Nikolaos. You can also get there by the Sitia-Kato Zakros bus.
Opening hours: The archaeological site is open all year long, from 8.30 am to 3 pm (winter) and from 8 am to 6 pm (summer). The last admission is always 15 minutes before the closing time, but you should estimate at least 1 hour as a reasonable time needed to visit.
Entrance fee: Full €6, reduced €3.
About the Archaeological Site
- Dates: The settlement was built around 1900 BC, and the ruins mostly date from the Neopalatial period.
- Civilization: Minoan.
What to See in the Minoan Palace of Zakros
Large central courtyard: It’s the place from where the paved road that leads to the sea begins.
Other places to check: Workshops and warehouses, as well as the treasury vault and the royal room
Important & Curious Facts about Zakros
The area is populated by wells with fresh water, the ones inside the palace are home to different turtles which children love to spot when they visit!
The archaeological site is in the region of Lasithi, about 45 km from the city of Sitia. The palace stands at the exit of the so-called Gorge of the Dead since the inhabitants of Zakros used to bury their dead in the caves along the walls of the gorge.
Remember that the most important findings can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, as well as in the smaller but still interesting Archeological Museum of Sitia, among these, there are beautiful pieces of pottery as well as refined jewelry pieces.
There are also exhibits in the Archaeological Museum of Agios Nikolaos which is temporarily closed for renovation works.
Preparing the Visit
- The settlement is one of the most remote archaeological sites on Crete, get ready to be on the road for a while. However, this makes it one of the less crowded sites you can visit on Crete.
- There are virtually no places protected from the sun, so the same rule to visit all archaeological sites apply: carry plenty of water, apply sunscreen, wear a hat, visit in the early or late hours of the day, and as common sense would dictate, wear comfortable shoes.
Other Archaeological Sites in Crete
In my opinion, these are some other great archaeological sites and ancient ruins worth visiting in Crete, take a look!
Ancient Phalassarna (also spelled Phalasarna and Falasarna) is in the region of Chania, close to the popular beach of Falasarna, about 15 km from the city of Kissamos and 55 km from the center of Chania.
The settlement was one of Crete’s important city-states and a trading center during the Hellenistic period.
The city minted its own coins which had the initials ΦΑ (FA), a trident, and the shape of a woman on the opposite side.
The most important feature of Phalassarna was the harbor that was lined to the sea by means of artificial channels.
The city, instead, stood on top of a cape, about a hundred meters above the sea.
In the archaeological site, it’s possible to see the fortification walls, the harbor, as well as baths, an altar, and public roads, among others.
Phalassarna was a prosperous maritime center, in constant rivalry with the city-states of Polyrrhenia (close to the present city of Kissamos) and Kydonia (today Chania).
However, the cities signed different peace treaties, one of them signed on a tablet made of stone that can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Kissamos.
The city started slowly declining, according to some sources, due to a Roman invasion (about 69 BC), according to others, instead, the real reason behind Phalassarna’s decline was a violent earthquake.
As a matter of fact, this has been confirmed not so long ago, after recent excavations in the site which proved a sudden change in the level of the sea (365 AD) due not only to the major quake but also to the tsunami waves of huge magnitude.
Opening hours: 9 am – 3 pm. Tuesdays closed
Entrance fee: free, contributions accepted.
Insider’s tip: Combine it with a visit to Ancient Polyrrenia and the Archaeological Museum of Kissamos… or if you’re a beach type, with a visit to the stunning Falassarna beach. Here’s a guide to visit.
Ancient Polyrrenia (also spelled Polyrrinia) is an open-air archaeological site in the Chania region of Crete, no more than 7 km from the modern town of Kissamos.
Polyrrenia was an important fortified city-state not only a rival to the naval settlement of Phalassarna but also engaged in continuous fights and rivalry with Knossos and Ancient Kydonia.
The ruins belong to different historical periods, showing a continuity of the settlement during the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods.
Just like other important city-states of the same period, also Polyrrenia minted its own coins which are currently exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Kissamos.
The city used to have imposing fortification walls which are still visible in most of their extension At the top of the acropolis (standing at about 400 meters a.s.l), instead, there’s a fortification of Byzantine origin also well-preserved.
If you visit, check the fantastic Roman aqueducts and cisterns that were used to gather rainwater which was then distributed in the city by means of several public fountains, the tunnels, and cistern are still standing and are one of the most remarkable remains of the archaeological site.
You can reach the site with the local bus from Kissamos. If you want more tips to visit or want to learn about the thing you can do in the area, Polyrrenia is included in my guide to Balos Beach.
Opening hours: Open-air site with free access at any time.
The archaeological site of Aptera stands about 200 meters above sea level, overlooking the natural bay of Souda, in the region of Chania, on the northern coast of Crete.
The site has Minoan origins (3500-1000 BC) and it was located between two different important ports, one down on the bay, currently, the popular beach of Marathi, known as Minoa, and the other in the village of Kalyves with the name of Kisamo.
The city was an important settlement also during the Geometric (1000-685 BC) and the Hellenistic (323-67 BC) periods, as well as during the years of the Roman Empire (1000- 685 BC).
Among the different things to see in and around Aptera, don’t miss the impressive Roman Aqueducts and the remains of an early Roman Villa.
Inside the site, you can also check out the small but beautiful theater, which has been fully restored. Just outside the palace, don’t forget to pay a visit to the Ottoman Fortress overlooking the Bay of Souda.
You can read more about the restoration process of the Theater of Aptera here.
Ticket: Full €4, reduced €2 – Package: Full €6 (gives access to Aptera, Archaeological Museum of Chania, Archaeological Museum of Kissamos, Byzantine and Postbyzantine Collection of Chania and it lasts for 3 days).
Opening hours: 8.30 am – 6 pm (closed on Tuesdays).
Located in the region of Rethymnon, about 30 km south of the city, the settlement of Ancient Eleutherna stands about 380 m above sea level.
The remains that have been brought to light belong to different historical periods, dating from the Geometric period until the Early Byzantine era.
On the site, it’s possible to see the ruins of buildings dating back to the Hellenistic and Roman periods, as well as an Early Christian Basilica and a cemetery from the Archaic period.
Archaeologists have found evidence of continuous human occupation since the early Minoan period.
Archaeological Museum of Eleftherna
When visiting the site, it can be of great help to visit the small but beautiful and modern Archaeological Museum of Eleftherna, with interesting interactive proposals and audiovisual aids to the exhibition.
It’s located just a few hundred meters from the site. It will help you to better understand the civilizations that occupied the area.
Tickets: Archaeological site: Full €4, reduced €2. Museum: Full: €4, reduced: €2.
Visiting hours: 8.30 am – 3 pm (winter), 8.30 am – 6 pm (summer)
To plan your visit better, check the website of the museum.
Archaeological Site of Lato
The settlement of Lato was a city-state that flourished during the Dorian period (4th – 5th centuries B.C.), although it’s believed that previous civilizations were also established in the area.
The settlement is believed to have been in continuous conflict with the neighboring city of Olous now under the sea) regarding border issues.
When you visit, check the agora, an open space probably devoted to commerce and trade, with a square cistern and a small rectangular temple.
Lato used to have a port, Lato Pros Kamara, located where today stands the modern Agios Nikolaos. Lato Pros Kamara was a striving settlement which by the middle of the 2nd century A.D. became Lato’s administrative town while the original settlement was abandoned.
Free admission – Opening hours: 8.30 am – 3 pm (winter), 8.30 am – 6 pm (summer).
Sunken City of Olous
The Sunken City of Olous was one of the most important cities of Crete during the Minoan period.
Read more about Olous.
Olous minted its own coins which had the images of gods Artemis and Zeus holding a dolphin or an eagle.
The rests of the settlement today remain under the sea and can be seen along the path that connects the city of Elounda with the Kolokitha peninsula.
It’s a great idea to go snorkeling in the area, although several parts of the site can be seen from the surface of the sea on a clear day. It’s an open area, so the entrance is free.
Archaeological Town of Gournias
Gournia is a late Minoan town that has been fully excavated. Although the original name of the settlement remains unknown, it gets its present name from the hollow vessels found on the site, some of which are still in place.
The settlement is very close to the sea, on Mirabello Bay (Lasithi). It can be found on the narrowest and easiest point to cross the island from north to south.
According to archaeologists, the town can be separated into different neighborhoods, while there were two roads surrounding both the lower and the upper areas of the settlement.
Ticket: Full €3, reduced €2
Opening hours: 8.30 am – 3.30 pm (winter), 8.30 am – 4 pm (summer), closed on Tuesdays.
Archaeological Ruins of Itanos
The ancient settlement of Itanos was an important city harbor located in the region of Lasithi, on the east coast of the island.
Although part of the ruins of Itanos can also be found under the sea level, when you visit the settlement you can see the ruins of houses as well as the walls surrounding the city.
According to archaeologists, the site was occupied from the 10th Century B.C. to the 6th Century A.D.
One of the most remarkable findings in the settlement is a necropolis from the Hellenistic period, as well as earlier funerary activities (Geometric period).
The site is located overlooking the beach of Itanos, a few minutes away from the famous palm tree beach of Vai. The entrance is free.
Which of these archaeological sites in Crete would you visit?
Hey… Don’t Leave without Pinning! Pin this Great Guide About Crete’s Archaeological Sites to Read it Later!
You might also want to read these articles:
- Unique Things to Do in Ierapetra For An Incredible Trip to South Crete!
- 52 Spectacular Things to Do in Heraklion (Region) for a Great Vacation in Crete!
- Unmissable Things to Do in Hersonissos: A Complete Guide by a Local
About my blog:
I moved to Crete in 2016. During these years, I learned much about the island.
In Crete, I juggle being a solo mom, hosting culinary tours, and writing for several travel media.
I’ve written for Greek Reporter, published travel guides about Greece, co-authored DK Eyewitness Top 10 Crete, and had more glasses of frappe than any regular person could ever handle.
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