Crete is home to a stunning array of medieval architecture. Wandering through the warren of romantic alleys in Heraklion or Chania is like traveling back in time.
The island’s western mountains are dominated by the starkly beautiful White Mountains and Mount Psiloritis. These wild and rugged landscapes are dotted with gorges, including the world-famous Samaria Gorge.
One of the fastest growing tourism destinations in Greece, Heraklion is home to the famed ancient city of Knossos as well as numerous museums and restaurants. A stroll through the old city gives visitors a taste of the island’s past, with its narrow streets and picturesque houses.
The Venetian Fortress of Koules dominates the port, and nearby is Ammoudara Beach, a golden-sand beach awarded the Blue Flag for its clean water. The old town, also known as Heraklion, is a maze of small streets with souvenir shops and cafes, but don’t let its size fool you – there are many hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.
At the Archaeological Museum in Xanthoulidou Street, visitors can view the largest collection of Minoan art in Greece. The museum is also home to a number of paintings rescued from churches and monasteries throughout the island, as well as documents attesting to life on Crete during different historical periods.
For a touch of modernity, visit Handakos Street where high-end boutiques and jewelry stores are located next to hip cafes. Heraklion is also the perfect place to sample dishes from the celebrated Cretan cuisine at its many cafes, tavernas and restaurants. Diners can enjoy their meal accompanied by traditional music and a glass of tsikoudia, the island’s famous firewater. After dinner, head to one of Heraklion’s trendy bars or pulsating dance clubs that stay open until dawn.
The capital of Crete’s homonymous prefecture, Chania (also spelled Hania) is an historic town whose old aristocratic appearance has retained its charm. The town’s fortress towers over the small Venetian harbor and narrow streets below, where arched doorways and stone staircases lead to well-preserved ancient monuments. Its history as a hub for different civilizations is evident in its well-preserved buildings, including the Neradje Mosque, the Municipal Odeon arts center and the Loggia.
Outside the city, dramatic gorges, time-trodden villages with medieval churches and the spectacular mountains of Psiloritis are waiting to be explored. The fertile valley of Anogia offers fragrant orchards, olive groves and vineyards, as well as quaint villages where locals live a pastoral lifestyle that has remained unchanged for centuries.
Rethymnon is famous for its beaches on both the north and south coasts, its ancient architecture in the Old Town (including one of the best-preserved castles on the island), and the authentic Cretan food that can be found in its many tavernas and restaurants. It’s also a great base from which to explore the west of the island, with several of its most famous monasteries and scenic hiking routes.
Located in the western part of Crete, Chania stretches across 2376 square kilometers and borders Heraklion and Rethymno prefectures. It’s washed by the Mediterranean Sea, the Cretan Sea and the Libyan Sea. The city was one of the most important Minoan cities in ancient times. Its rich history continued through the Medieval period too. This is why Chania has a unique mixture of Eastern and Western culture, architecture and tradition.
The edifices of the Old Town testify to that heritage. Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans all settled here at different points in time, leaving their mark on this spirited, multicultural corner of the island.
Wandering the cobblestone streets, you’ll find yourself in front of awe-inspiring buildings and sites, from the Old Harbor to the Venetian lighthouse and the Grand Arsenal. The enchanting Chania Archaeological Museum is also worth visiting, as it displays a broad selection of finds from excavations in the area. From there, head to the Gouverneto Monastery, one of the best examples of orthodox monastery architecture in Crete. It offers breathtaking views over the azure waters of Ammoudara Beach.
Crete’s most renowned archaeological site is Knossos. During the Minoan period, a remarkable civilization flourished here, revealing complex palaces and sophisticated culture that has inspired mythologies across the world. Trace the spark of Greek genius as you travel to this storied island on our escorted Smithsonian Journey.
The largest of the palaces erected by the Bronze Age people of Knossos is now home to a museum that reveals much about this mysterious people and their sophisticated society. First excavated by a local businessman, Minos Kalokairinos, in 1878, Knossos was later rebuilt and expanded by a British archaeologist, Arthur Evans. Evans is often credited with discovering the Minoan Civilization, but the work of Kalokairinos and other workers at the site uncovered most of what we know today about this fascinating ancient culture.
What we do know is that these “palaces” were more than residences—they served as hubs of activity and trade. In addition to storing and displaying wealth, they likely housed workshops where goods were made such as ceramics (especially Kamares Ware), seal stone carving, weaving, and gold working. They also may have served as a court where the government operated. The palaces were so busy that a system of written script was developed—the Cretan Hieroglyphic—to keep records on tablets and nodules.