Self-Guided Tour of Knossos – Inside Crete’s Minoan Palace

Check this incredibly useful guide to visit Crete’s Archaeological Site of Knossos without hiring a tour guide.

The Archaeological Palace of Knossos is located in Heraklion, Crete. And a tour of Knossos (Crete’s most famous Minoan palace) is probably the main — but not only — valid reason to visit Heraklion. Some argue that it’s not as good as other sites due to the heavy restoration. But I believe that the restoration works are exactly what give a better picture of how wonderful the place must have looked in the past. You can visit the site hiring a guide at the entrance, or you can guide yourself around with the help of this post.

Self-Guided Tour of Crete's Minoan Palace of Knossos.
Inside Crete’s Minoan Palace.

The myth: Theseus and the Minotaur

Bull fresco, Knossos, Crete's Minoan Palace
Bull fresco, Knossos, Crete’s Minoan Palace

Let’s face it, it’s more romantic to tour Knossos knowing about the myth of Theseus. One of its versions tells that King Minos, from Crete, had won a battle over Athens. Therefore, every 9 years Athens had to send 7 boys and 7 girls to Crete to feed the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived in a Labyrinth inside the palace and it was half man and half bull.

Theseus volunteered to reach Crete and try to kill the monster. He promised his father, Aegeus, that in case of victory he would have returned with white sails, but if he had been killed, the sails would have been black.

On Crete, he fell in love with Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter. She gave him a ball of thread to find his way of out the Labyrinth. The hero managed to defeat the beast, left the Labyrinth, and sailed away with Ariadne. But he abandoned her in the Naxos on his way back.

In despair for the loss of Ariadne, Theseus forgot to change the sails of his boat. His father, seeing his ship approaching with black sails, believed him dead and he threw himself in the sea  – in Cape Sounion. He died and thus gave his name to the Aegean sea.

General information about the Minoan Palace

General view of the Minoan Palace of Knossos, Crete
General view of the Minoan Palace of Knossos, Crete

It’s easy to reach the Archaeological Site of Knossos from the center of Heraklion, either by car or bus. The trip takes about 15 minutes. Remember that it’s always better to visit early in the morning or just before sunset.

Horn Bull,, Knossos palace.
View of the area.

This way, you will avoid crowds as well as extreme heat in summer (at the end of the post there is also a list with more practical tips). If you intend to visit it thoroughly, allow about 3 to 4 hours.

The Prince of the Lilies, Knossos Palace.
The Prince of the Lilies, Knossos Palace.

Crete’s Minoan Palace of Knossos is only 5 kilometers from Heraklion. It is on a low hill known as Kefalas, in the valley of river Kairatos. The area is rich in vineyards, fruit trees, and olive groves, prosperous since ancient times for its resources.

Some agree that the Palace of Knossos was the largest of the Minoan palaces in Crete. The most important fact is that Knossos was the center of a sophisticated civilization that lived on Crete thousands of years ago.

Knossos, know the chronology

Chronology of Knossos Palace, Crete
Eras of Knossos.

The first settlement goes back to the Neolithic, about 7000 BC. The palace was built around 1900 BC and it is proof of the advanced economic and social structure of the civilization.

Knossos was a palatial complex with sanctuaries, residences, workshops, and storage chambers. There were also royal rooms, terraces, and shelters.

During that period, the area was the capital of the state of King Minos, which included dozens of other cities as well as the current Cycladic islands.

The first palace belong to 19th – 17th centuries while the second ones date back to between 16th – 14th century (BC).

A massive quake wrecked important parts of the complex in 1700 BC. But the palace and the city underwent immediate reconstruction.

Its final destruction is thought to be due to a Mycenaean invasion from Greece. However, Knossos was a prosperous city until the end (1370).

Discovery of Crete’s Minoan Palace

Knossos existed only in Greek mythology until its discovery, at the dawn of the 20th century. The German scholar Heinrich Schliemann was convinced that there was an important Minoan site in the area of Heraklion. However, Crete was under the Ottoman domination, and the Turkish authorities didn’t allow the excavations.

 

Years had to go by until Sir Arthur Evans, a rich British archaeologist, took Schliemann’s ideas and bought a big quantity of land in the area. Being now private property, digging works began in 1900. He only needed a few days to find the first evidence of the Minoan civilization.

Restoration works in Knossos

The vivid colors of the frescoes, restoration under Sir Arthur Evans - Knossos Crete
The vivid colors of the frescoes, restoration under Sir Arthur Evans.

The controversial intervention of Evans gave new shapes and colors, reinventing the area according to what he deduced the place might have been.

These cement reproductions thought by Evans show the construction poles originally made of wood. Knossos Palace
These cement reproductions thought by Evans show the construction poles originally made of wood.

It was Evans the one to give the name Minoan to the civilization, after King Minos. With this intervention, Evans put Knossos forever at the center of discussions.


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He replaced different columns and rebuilt the famous Grand Staircase. He also put a roof over the Throne Room and revived the frescoes. If you are interested in seeing the real walls, don’t miss a visit to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

Despite the controversy, it would have been extremely difficult to understand what the palace would have looked like without Evans’ conjectural intervention.

On the other hand, I recommend visiting the nearby site of Malia or the well-known Festos for a more authentic take on the Minoan civilization.

What to see in the Archaeological Site of Knossos

Stairs inside the Minoan Palace Knossos
Stairs inside the Minoan Palace Knossos

Once inside, from the ticket office, get yourself a good plan of the site (which you can also get in the shop). It will help you highlight what areas you should see.

The complex is quite impressive, there are about 1300 rooms connected with corridors. There is an entrance gate on each of its cardinal faces. It’s interesting to pay a look at the enormous storage rooms with containers made of clay (pithoi) used to keep grain, beans, olives, oil, and dried fish.

Here is a small list of the best places to visit inside the Archaeological Site of Knossos.

Tour of Knossos: The courts

Stone pavement - Knossos - Crete
Tour of Knossos, Crete’s Minoan Palace

The central court

Located in the central area of the palace there is an important courtyard, here a new floor lays over the oldest remains which belong to the Neolithic era. Many believe that it was here that the bull-leaping ceremony used to take place. However, space wouldn’t have been enough for the acrobatic movements required for the performance. If you want to read more, check Wikipedia. For an even more fascinating explanation, here you will find a great article on the ceremony and bulls in Crete.

The west court

The west court was probably a gathering place for public meetings or even the area devoted to the marketplace. The place also presented sidewalks that connected the west of the palace to the theatre. In the court, there are 3 circular pits which might have been silos or storage places.

The piano nobile

As I have mentioned before, the area known as Piano Nobile is an addition of Evans from scratch. Archaeologists don’t give importance to the place, but you can use it to have a privileged view of the dimensions of the site. And get take great photos! Those who know better say the area is confusing and totally out of place.

Tour of Knossos: The royal rooms

Throne, Knossos Palace, Crete.
The throne, Knossos

The throne room

Probably the most popular spot in Knossos Palace, after the bull fresco, is the Throne Room, get ready to queue. Inside there is a stone seat and the wall, colored in vivid red and with frescoes, is lined with a continuous bench. According to our guide, more than a throne, the seat was meant to be used by a priest, also because there is a sunken bath not connected to the drain system. For this reason, the water in the bath was probably used for ritual baths.

 

The royal apartments

Dolphins fresco, Knossos palace, Crete.
Frescos, Knossos.

Through the Grand Staircase, you will reach the Royal apartments. Comfortable and luxurious, these beautiful rooms were probably used by the highest rulers and authorities since, despite their beauty, many think that their small size was not enough for the royalty.

The famous fresco of the dolphins decorates one of the rooms in the Queen’s Suite (again, the original version is in the Archaeological Museum). Right above, visit the King’s Room. It includes a reception and a personal chamber known as the Hall of the Double Axes.

The room known as the Queen’s Bathroom includes a bathtub made of clay as well as a lavatory connected to the complex’s drainage.

Tour of Knossos: Other points of interest

Theatre area

This open space resembles an amphitheater and it was probably used for public entertainment, dances, and representations. However, according to our guide, space would have been limited for such events, so it still remains one more of the enigmas of Knossos Archaeological Site.

Theatre area, Knossos.
Theatre area.

The workshops

Probably the place where potters, artisans, and smiths worked and sold their products. There are also some pithoi, the famous vases of impressive capacity used to store goods. From here you can take good photos of the Bull relief fresco (minus the crowds!).

The drains

Drain and piping system, Knossos Palace, Crete.
The drains.

Several terracotta pipes and drains were interconnected underneath the whole extension of the complex. Very close to the external walls, it is also visible a system baffles that was specially designed to avoid floods.

Sites outside the palace

Just behind the theatre, the Royal Road leads to numerous small sites. The Little Palace is worth a visit for its Roman remains. If you can, also visit Villa Dionysios for its mosaics and the Royal Villa which faces the main complex from the north. The small sites outside the main complex are often closed or have very limited visiting hours. Check at the entrance or at the ticket office for updated information.

Interior areas. Knossos
Interior areas. Knossos

Click on the picture to read a comprehensive guide to Family Travel in Crete.

Best Things to Do in Crete with Kids


Important tips for visiting the
Archeological Site of Knossos

Places to see during a tour of Knossos Crete's Minoan Palace - the bull fresco and the red columns
The most famous view of Knossos Palace.

Tickets & special fees

Full €15, Reduced €8.
There’s a special package that includes the entrance to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, it’s only 1 more euro: Full €16, 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 & closing dates (2019)

Winter: January 7 to March 31 (2019)  8:00 – 17:00. (Last admission at 16:45)
Summer: 8:00 – 20:00. (Last admission at 19:45)

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.

Transport

From Heraklion Central Bus Station: Bus Number 2 – Knossos. The bus runs 3 to 5 times per hour. Its final stop is Knossos. For 2019, the fee is 1.50 € one-way. 

Running hours: from 8.00 to 19.00 in summer and from 8.00 to 15.00 in winter.

Bus to Knossos, Crete.
Bus N° 20 takes you there and back to the port of Heraklion. This is the bus stop in front of the palace.

Other important tips

  • The Palace of Knossos is the most important Minoan site on Crete so it’s very popular. This means that the place is busy all year round, but very busy in summer. Expect lines to get the ticket or buy it in advance from the Archaeological Museum, in the center of Heraklion, if you also intend to visit the museum.
  • The best way to understand the palatial complex is to combine a tour of Knossos with a visit to the Archaeological Museum. Doing this smartly will let you avoid queues and save a little money.
  • Allow at least two hours for the site, more if you are really interested in a guided tour. Also, leave plenty of time to see the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, which includes a massive exhibition related to the Minoan period.
  • Most of the palace is exposed to the sun and there are no roofs or shadow. Please bear in mind Crete’s extremely hot temperatures in summer. Sunscreen, a hat, and water are a must (if you forget the hat, plenty of souvenir shops in front of Knossos will provide for a moderate price). Sunglasses are also a good idea.
Hat shop, Knossos palace, Crete.
Hats, sunscreen, souvenirs… if you forget anything, you’ll find it there.
  • Wear light clothes and comfortable walking shoes or trainers. Do not wear flip-flops or heels.
  • Don’t forget your camera. It’s possible to take pictures but tripods or very large professional cameras are not allowed without previous written consent.

Guided tours are available in the site from 10 € per person. I experienced a guided tour last August and it was most disappointing. Our guide kept talking of King Minos and Queen Pasiphae as they had really existed. I didn’t really enjoy the guided visit, but it’s also true that if you have no idea about the Minoan civilization, it can be a good starting point.

Booth to hire your guided tour.

Guides for different languages are available at the entrance (they’re usually quite unfriendly, maybe it’s a problem of the category in Crete, never found a smiling licensed guide in my life in Crete!

 

Locals know better

  • On our way, we passed by old women selling sweet figs from their gardens, the smell is irresistible. Try some!
  • Just a few meters from the entrance, a traditional taverna, Pasiphae, is an oasis. Order their jugs of freshly made orange juice from their own trees. Try their freshly baked Cretan pastries, Kalitsounia, filled with sweet cheese and honey. I’ve never tasted something so delicate, soft, gently cloying, with a refreshing perfume of lemon drops and strong cinnamon powder… We ordered twice.

This article is currently up to date and includes the latest information about Visiting Knossos Minoan Palace. However, it can always be improved with your help! If you think that there’s important information missing, do let me know! Together we can make this article so much better and even more complete! Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Tour of Knossos, Crete's Minoan Palace

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