Are you about to visit the Archaeological Site of Phaistos, and you are not sure what to expect? Or want to know more about the second most important Minoan palace of Crete? Either way, this article is for you. Keep reading to discover all Phaistos has to offer.
Spoiler alert: there is more than meets the eye!
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What to See in Phaistos Palace, Crete
Lonely and fascinating, the Minoan Palace of Phaistos is located on the southern coast of Heraklion, in Crete, and it is an imposing archaeological site, contemporary to Knossos Palace, on the northern coast of the same region. In this article, you can find all the info you need to prepare for your visit and know what to expect. Read on!
The Many Spellings
Before we get into the many details, note that Phaistos has more than one spelling. Just like its many faces. To be exact, you can also spell Phaistos as Phestos, Festos, or rarely even Faistos. As long as you emphasize the last syllable, every local will understand you refer to the same ancient Minoan palace.
You might also want to read: Red Beach Matala Crete: Everything about the Stunning Kokkini Ammos.
Second Only to Knossos
Phaistos is one of the most important historical sites on the island. Although it does not get to the top of the list, this lesser-visited Minoan palace deserves more attention than it currently gets.
After all, it was one of the noblest centers of power in the grand age of Minoan civilization.
If you have time to visit only one Minoan site, then that should be the Knossos Palace. After all, it is the most renowned ancient sight in all of Crete. However, if you want to delve deeper into the ancient civilization of Crete, or if Phaistos is on your way, then a stopover in the site will reward you with unique scenery and pictures of beauty you can’t find elsewhere.
The Myth of King Rhadamanthys
Next to its rich history, Phaistos is also known for being the home of the mythical figure king Rhadamanthys. According to Greek mythology, Rhadamanthys was a wise king of Crete who later became a judge in the underworld. In other words, he was responsible for judging the souls of the dead.
Son of Zeus and Europa, Rhadamanthys was a demigod with an unparalleled stern and inflexible judgment. As a king, he was known for his thoughtful and progressive legislative activities.
Do not forget that the Minoan was a civilization where women had an elevated role in everyday happenings.
Location of the Minoan Palace of Phaistos
To reach Phaistos, you would need to drive south for about an hour from Heraklion, the capital of Crete. Alternatively, the palace is only 70 kilometers from Rethymnon, another important city on the island.
As you find your way to the site along the National road, you will pass through the town of Moires and reach Phaistos in less than 9 kilometers.
The ruins of the city of Phaistos lie on a hill on the way to the village of Tymbaki. Once you reach the site, you can leave your car in the free parking area and enter the palace.
You will first come across a comprehensive bookstore next to a lovely cafe and souvenir store. Pay your €8 ticket and get ready to discover the hidden beauty of the palace! (More on ticket fees at the end of the article).
View from Phaistos
The moment you step foot into the ancient city of Phaistos, you cannot but notice the spectacular view across the nearby valley. The Messara Plain is covered with thousands of olive trees and local plantations.
Just imagine how it would feel to live there all your life. That is a handy opportunity to get a feeling of royal life in ancient Crete.
And do not forget to put some snow into the picture too. Across the valley on the horizon lies the peak of Psiloritis, the highest mountain in Crete. Until the end of May, the summit is covered with snow.
No matter the time of your visit, you can take great photos of the surrounding area and the excavation site of Phaistos.
History of Phaistos
Once you start walking around the ancient city, it is important to have a basic understanding of what this place once was. Eight thousand years ago, the lush valley of Messara provided plenty of sustenance to early communities and succeeding societies. As time passed, a central power emerged, and locals built a city on top of the hill to overlook the whole area.
Around 2000 BC, the first palace of Phaistos included paved yards, multiple gates, facades, and skylights of any kind. Unfortunately, an unknown disaster hit the city in 1700 BC, when the locals built a new palace on top of the ruins.
This new palace lasted until 1450 BC, when the whole site was destroyed for good, possibly by fire.
The locals abandoned the idea of rebuilding the palace and never attempted to live there again. Instead, the site started to gain religious significance.
They even built an archaic temple of the Greek goddess of Rea in the southern part of the old palace.
The city turned into ruins after the neighboring prosperous city of Gortyn attacked it in the 2nd century BC. Since then, Phaistos palace has been in ruins, almost like you see it now.
The excavations of the area began about 2100 years later. In 1900, the first archaeologists came to the island thanks to the newly formed country of Greece.
To create a national identity and showcase the glory of Ancient Greece to the world, the government speeded the excavation processes.
Unfortunately, the two world wars reversed any progress but luckily left the site intact. After about 200 years since the first excavations started, Phaistos is now available for a visit.
Although most finds were moved to the archaeological museum of Heraklion, the site is still worth the visit.
Some of the monuments, mainly the old building and the royal quarters of the new palace, include a cover of plastic sheds for protection.
What is more, archaeologists added concrete roofing to the storerooms of the new palace. These are the only changes and modern touches in an otherwise ancient site in ruins.
The Phaistos Disk
The most intriguing artifact found on the site is the Phaistos Disc, (also spelled Phaistos Disk, Phaestos Disc) is a disk of fired clay now displayed in the museum in Heraklion. It is a 3500-year-old circular flat clay tablet that shows several imprints of symbols.
Thousands of archaeologists and interpreters tried to decode the use and significance of those symbols. Today, their meaning is still a mystery.
The most popular theory says that the Phaistos disk was used to save important, possibly top-secret, trading information.
Although no one has decoded the meaning, similar symbols are found on clay seals in many archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean. As a result, it is believed that these symbols were possibly a form of early trading record.
How to Prepare for Your Visit
If you want to make your visit to Phaistos as spectacular and rewarding as you can, it will help if you know your way around.
If you have no idea what lies around you, you will miss a big part of the fun. All you will see would be a few squares, stairs, and plenty of knee-high walls.
Although an organized tour or a personal guide can save you from the trouble of reading or looking up things, nothing is compared to self-learning.
You will appreciate the beauty of the place more if you discover it yourself. The site is full of small posters and signs that designate and describe what you see in front of you. Use them to get the best feeling of this ancient city.
What to Expect
If you expect to see old objects, such as vessels, jewelry, or even the famous disc of Phaistos, know that these are all moved to museums.
This is necessary for safety reasons alone. Phaistos is an open-air city protected only by a simple fence. Most of the buildings do not even have a roof. As a result, anything valuable has been moved elsewhere.
What remains on the site, however, is still an incredible piece of raw beauty and history. On the surface, you see three large squares of the old palace surrounded by ruined walls.
But if you start observing, you will discover various significant buildings as well as small preserved rooms.
The Upper Court connects the palace and the rest of the city with a long staircase.
In the center of the court, you can see the main theatre where various performances took place in antiquity.
Not far from the area, four-round structures known as Kouloures were used to store grain.
Near the West Court, you will come across the Grand Stairway, which leads to the main palace entrance. There, you will also find gigantic storage urns that used to contain wine, oil, or other food staples. (pithoi)
Temple of Rhea
The temple dedicated to goddess Rhea is not far from West Propylon. Built in the Hellenistic period, it was the reason thousands of Cretans and Greeks visited Phaistos even after its destruction.
During Roman occupation, the nearby city of Gortyna prevailed, leaving the temple in ruin.
There is nothing more prominent in Phaistos than its palace. Its superb architectural composition and time-enduring construction make it one of the finest and most typical Minoan palaces. Thankfully, you can explore the ruins of both the new and the old palace, which is in good condition thanks to a natural shade.
The heart of the new palace is a central court surrounded by various rooms. Shrines, royal quarters, storerooms, and workshops create a setting unique to Phaistos. With some imagination, you can relive the glory of the past days.
To the west of the storerooms, you will find the theatre where all cultural activities and ceremonies took place. Not far away, you can explore the granaries of the old palace or climb large staircases that lead to successive terraces.
However, what you will most love is West Propylon, the monumental entrance to the new palace.
The Central Court was once lined with columns and was the meeting point of the palace. Now, the central yard still preserves its pavement which dates back to 2000 BC.
Royal Apartments in the North Wing
Once you are in the palace, do not forget to check out the Royal Apartments. This is an area only select royals had access to. The southernmost of the Royal Apartments has been identified as the Queen’s Megaron.
It was a bedroom that featured gypsum-paved floors and benches. Immediately behind is the King’s Megaron.
A long corridor and interior yards give access to a complex of rooms and a larger yard with a ceramic furnace in the center. This is where the royal servants spent most of their time. Explore the area, leave your imagination loose, and experience life 5000 years ago.
The King’s Megaron bears an impressive resemblance to the corresponding King’s Megaron at the Palace of Knossos.
Tips for Your Visit to Phaistos
When you come to Phaistos, allow at least 2 hours to explore the entire place. Anything less than that will not give justice to the significance and gravity of the site.
At the same time, do not plan to spend your entire day here. After all, there is only one small canteen that sells coffee.
If you have your own car, consider combining your visit to Phaistos with a visit to the ruins of Gortyna (read on), only a few kilometers east of Phaistos. This is the place where, according to legend, Zeus made love to Europa under the plane tree.
If you are a history buff or want to explore the deep culture of the Minoan civilization, you need to visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
Preferably, before you explore Phaistos. If you do so, you can use the knowledge from the museum to understand more about Phaisos and Minoans. Everything will appear so much more in harmony.
Practical Information to Visit the Archaeological Site of Phaistos
Keep these details at hand before heading to the palace.
If you are wondering about the cost, know that the standard entrance fee is €8. However, there is also a reduced entrance fee of €4. This reduced fee applies to university students, escorts on educational visits, and elderly above 65 years of age from Europe.
There will be free admission if you visit during the following days: 6 March, 18 April, 18 May, last weekend of September, 28 October, every first Sunday from November to March
Opening Hours and Dates
Phaistos is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m during the summer season from May to October. The last admission is 19:45.
The site is closed on the following dates: January 1, March 25, May 1, Easter Sunday, August 15, December 25 & 26.
Phaistos is open with a limited timetable on the following dates: Easter Friday, Easter Saturday, October 28.
Other Things to See in the Area
Once you reach the southern coast of Crete to visit Phaistos, it would be a pity not to devote some time to discover the area.
The following are some of the places worth visiting, they are all very close to Phaistos and will certainly be a great addition to your South Heraklion itinerary. Take a look at the places to visit near Phaistos.
Archaeological Site of Gortyn
This archaeological site is located only 23 km from Phaistos, about 30 minutes by car. Gortyn (also written as Gortyna) is not as big as Phaistos, therefore it is quite easy to visit in about an hour.
Gortyn used to be an important city in Crete, quite powerful back in its times of splendor. Most buildings and ruins date back either to the Roman or Byzantine periods of the island. However, vases and stone tools dating from the Neolithic have been found in the area.
The settlement evolved between 11th-8th BC, a period known as Geometric. The Acropolis of Gortyn was probably built during that time.
The most impressive area in Gortyn is certainly the space where you will find the Odeon and the city’s first Agora. These ruins date from the 7th-6th century.
Probably the most remarkable thing to see in Gortyn dates from 5th-4th BC, the Classical period. Inside a semicircular building in the Odeon area, it is possible to admire the remains of the Gortyn Code.
Also known as the Great Code, this was a legal code for the civil law of the ancient city-state. It was also here that the inhabitants minted the first silver coins on the island, back in 470 BC.
From the Roman period (1st-4th BC), there are the remains of impressive Roman public buildings as well as an extensive drainage network that supplied water to the city-state.
Finally, the most imposing building you will be able to see is the Byzantine Church of Agios Titos, dating from the Early Christian and Byzantine periods (4th-9th AD).
The city of Gortyn was raided and destroyed by the Saracens back in the 9th AD and it was uninhabited until the first excavations started in 1884.
The entrance fee is €6 for adults and free for kids.
Agia Triada is a small archaeological site located only 5 minutes (3 km) from Phaistos. This small Minoan Palace receives the place of a small village located close to the site, however, the original name that this place had during the Minoan times remains unknown.
Visitors here can explore the ruins of the Minoan town as well as tombs from the same period. The site developed contemporary to Phaistos. And the most remarkable things to see include the Royal Villa, smaller than the palaces in Knossos and Phaistos, yet it features the same traits of palatial architecture, such as halls, shrines, magazines, workshops, staircases, and paved streets.
The agora and the ruins of the settlement belong to the Mycenaean period, while at the cemetery there are two Early Minoan tholos tombs with funerary rooms. It is also possible to check the chamber tombs of the Late Minoan period where archaeologists unearthed different sarcophagus made of clay.
The well-known Agia Triada Larnax is a painted sarcophagus from about 1400 BC, the only one that has been found made of limestone. Today it is exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
Museum of Cretan Ethnology
The Museum of Cretan Ethnology is located in Voroi Pirgiotissis, a village part of the municipality of Faistos. Its main focus is to promote typical cultural characteristics and ancestral memories of the island.
In the museum, it is possible to check exhibits regarding metalwork (balcony railings, door rings, etc), furniture-making, weaving and pottery, crafts that have characterized the popular culture of Crete for centuries and that are still part of the present lifestyle. You can read more about the exhibits here.
The hippie village of Matala is another great place to visit when exploring Faistos. You can read everything about the things to do in the village here.
However, if you are on an archaeological exploration quest, then there’s certainly one thing you can check in Matala, the magnificent ancient caves on the west side of the beach.
Probably an ancient Roman or Early Christian cemetery, the caves of Matala have been carved out of the soft rock thousands of years ago, they are located above the northwest side of the bay and it is possible to visit.
Be aware that the cliff is very steep, the climbing is not easy (at times even dangerous), so do wear the proper shoes.
Inside some of the caves, it’s possible to see carved beds, porches, end entrances. It is believed that the caves were used centuries ago as homes.
More or likes like in the 60s when the caves were the place where dozens of hippies from the U.S. and other parts of the world, moved to and lived for years (more info about this in my Matala article).
The entrance fee to Matala is €4 for adults and free for kids. The site opens at 10 am closes at 7 pm in the afternoon during summer.
Not only is Kommos a beautiful beach just minutes from Matala (about 5 km), but here it is also possible to see the remains of an important ancient site.
Kommos is believed to have been the port of Phaistos, and indeed an important port connecting Crete to the Near East. The ruins date back to the Bronze Age.
The excavations brought to light rich and elaborate buildings which represent the importance of foreign trade for Crete in ancient times. Although part of the site was damaged during WWII, much of it is still visible.
It is believed that Kommos was also the harbor of Agia Triada during the last years of the Late Minoan period. Visitors can also find ample parking space and a local tavern if they want to spend their day on the nearby beach.
Have you ever been to the Palace of Phaistos?
Let me know in the comments section below!
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About the author of this blog:
Gabi has been living in Crete for the last five years. Here, she juggles being a solo mom, hosting culinary tours in the summer, translating, and writing for The Tiny Book and her other blogs.
She’s written for Greek Reporter, published three travel guides about Greece, and had more glasses of frappe than any regular person would be able to handle.
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