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Crete Travel Guide

  • Photo: Gabriela Insuratelu / Shutterstock

Plan Your Crete Vacation

To Greeks, Crete is the Megalonissi (Great Island), a hub of spectacular ancient art and architecture. Fabled as the land of King Minos, it is a unique world where civilization is counted by the millennium. From every point of view travelers discover landscapes of amazing variety. Mountains, split with deep gorges and honeycombed with caves, rise in sheer walls from the sea. Snowcapped peaks

loom behind sandy shoreline, vineyards, and olive groves. Miles of beaches, some with a wealth of amenities and others isolated and unspoiled, fringe the coast. Yet despite the attractions of sea and mountains, it is still the mystery surrounding Europe's first civilization and empire that draws the great majority of visitors to Crete and its world-famous Minoan palaces.

Around 1500 BC, while the rest of Europe was still in the grip of primitive barbarity, one of the most brilliant and amazing civilizations the world was ever to know approached its final climax, one that was breathtakingly uncovered through the late 19th-century excavations of Sir Arthur Evans. Paintings of bull-leapers, sculptures of bare-breasted snake charmers, myths of minotaurs, and the oldest throne in Europe were just a few of the wonders that the British archaeologist brought up from the earth to the astonishment of newspapers around the world. They proved telling evidence of the great elegance of King Minos's court (Evans chose the king's name to christen this culture). He determined that the Minoans, prehistoric Cretans, had founded Europe's first urban culture as far back as the 3rd millennium BC, and the island's rich legacy of art and architecture strongly influenced both mainland Greece and the Aegean islands in the Bronze Age. From around 1900 BC the Minoan palaces at Knossos (near present-day Heraklion), Mallia, Phaistos, and elsewhere were centers of political power, religious authority, and economic activity—all concentrated in one sprawling complex of buildings. Their administration seems to have had much in common with contemporary cultures in Egypt and Mesopotamia. What set the Minoans apart from the rest of the Bronze Age world was their art. It was lively and naturalistic, and they excelled in miniature techniques. From the scenes illustrated on their frescoes, stone vases, seal stones, and signet rings, it is possible to build a picture of a productive, well-regulated society. Yet new research suggests that prehistoric Crete was not a peaceful place; there may have been years of warfare before Knossos became the island's dominant power, in around 1600 BC. It is now thought that political upheaval, rather than the devastating volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini, triggered the violent downfall of the palace civilization around 1450 BC.

But there are many memorable places in Crete that belong to a more recent past, one measured in centuries and not millennia. Other invaders and occupiers—Roman colonists, the Byzantines, Arab invaders, Venetian colonists, and Ottoman pashas—have all left their mark on Heraklion, Hania, Rethymnon, and other towns and villages throughout the island. Today Crete welcomes outsiders, who delight in its splendid beaches, charming Old Town quarters, and array of splendid landscapes. Openly inviting to guests who want to experience the real Greece, Cretans remain family oriented and rooted in tradition and you'll find that one of the greatest pleasures on Crete is immersing yourself in the island's lifestyle.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Minoan Magnificence At the Palace of Knossos, get up close to the mysteries—and the throne room's dazzling murals—of the 3,500-year-old civilization of the Minoans.
  2. Getting Your Sea Majo From palm-backed Vai to remote Elafonisi, some of the finest beaches in Greece are lapped by Crete's turquoise waters.
  3. Crete's Venice Although it has its bright city lights, Rethymnon is most noted for its time-burnished Venetian/Turkish quarter, threaded with narrow lanes leading to palazzos, fountains, and shady squares.
  4. Walk on the Wild Side With its snowcapped peaks and deep gorges, craggy Crete offers lots of escapes for those who want to get away from it all.
  5. Suite Temptation New palatial resorts let you live like royalty in a Venetian palace or—at luxurious outposts like the Elounda Mare and Elounda Beach—sun worship the day away in your own private pool.

When To Go

When to Go to Crete

The best times for visiting Crete is May, when every outcrop of rock is ablaze with brilliant wildflowers and the sea is warm enough for a brisk...

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