Few destinations evoke quintessential images of an ideal autumn break more than Crete — and rightfully so. Greece’s largest island — and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus and Corsica — is situated at the southernmost reaches of the Aegean Sea, with the Libyan Sea and Egypt to its south. It boasts some of the best beaches and top resorts in Greece and the entire Mediterranean, but it’s also home to the Minoan Civilization, one of the earliest and most influential civilizations on the planet.
Named for King Minos — who according to myth ordered Daedalus to build the infamous Labyrinth of Knossos to house the half-bull half-man Minotaur — the Minoan Civilization was an Aegean Bronze Age civilization that flourished throughout Crete and other Aegean islands from about 2600 to 1100 BCE. Today, following over a century of excavations, Crete is peppered with world-class Minoan to visit, and the majority of them just happen to be located a stone’s throw from one or more of the island’s gorgeous beaches.
Want to combine sun, sea and fabulous history? Read on to discover our top five Minoan destinations to infuse your autumn break holiday with a touch of history and culture.
Knossos and Heraklion
You can’t visit Crete without visiting the renowned Palace of Knossos, arguably one of the world’s most important ancient monuments. The largest, and most important Minoan site, on the island, the Palace was unearthed in the early 20th century, bringing to light a fabulous palace complex, with luxurious quarters, a majestic throne room and a number of extraordinary, elegant frescoes including the famed Bull Leapers, the Dolphins, the Prince of the Lilies, and the Ladies in Blue.
Make sure to visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion too, and while you’re in the city, make time to stroll the beachfront, visit the Venetian Fortress and view the city’s impressive cathedrals. The long sandy beaches of Amoudara and Karteros are just a short drive away and offer a full range of amenities and plenty of seafood tavernas to choose from.
Phaistos and Matala
About an hour south of Heraklion, near the island’s south coast, is the Palace of Phaistos. This is the second most important Minoan site on the island. It is also where the famous and rather mysterious Disc of Phaistos was discovered: a 4,000-year-old clay disc covered in spirals of enigmatic writing that has perplexed archaeologists for decades.
Just 15’ away, the town of Matala is another must-visit. The picturesque town has long been a favorite with visitors from around the world. Its famous caves, carved into the cliffs during the Neolithic Age were home to hippies from around the world during the 1960s and continue to attract visitors even today.
Just east of Heraklion, Malia is home to the island’s third most important Minoan site, the Minoan Palace of Malia. But this is a clear case of Come for the culture, stay for the nightlife. Malia is one of Crete’s best-known nightlife hotspots and is a particularly popular destination with holidaymakers looking for a destination where the fun continues well into the small hours of the night. In addition to the Palace of Malia, make sure to visit the nearby village of Krasi, famous for its ancient giant plane trees that adorn the village square.
Mochlos and Agios Nikolaos
Mochlos is a tiny islet located in Mirabello Bay near the town of Agios Nikolaos. Evidence suggests that before becoming an island, Mochlos was actually connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land — and this would have been the case during the Minoan period. A Minoan settlement was excavated on the island during the early 20th century, and the area still hosts regular excavation projects by Greek and international teams.
Mochlos can be reached by boat from the popular seaside town of Agios Nikolaos. While in the area, take the opportunity to see the gorgeous Lake Vouliagmeni, visit Istros beach for a swim, enjoy a stroll along Agios Nikolaos’ promenade and tuck into some tasty seafood at one of its beachfront tavernas. Craving a bit more local flavor? Visit the nearby Cretan Olive Oil Farm and Votania Herb Farm for a taste of local culinary traditions.
Situated on the island’s east coast, the archaeological site of Zakros is ideally combined with a day trip to the Crete’s easternmost reaches. Visit the ruins of the Minoan palace, head north to explore the magnificent palm forest of Vai — the beach is amazing too! — and continue your trip to visit the renowned 15th-century Toplou Monastery, which regularly attracts visitors from all corners of the Earth. Toplou is also home to some of Crete’s best vineyards, so make sure to make time for a winery tour and wine tasting.
Not sure where to start or how to combine it all? With years of expertise as one of Greece’s top cultural tour operators, Discover Greek Culture has a range of itineraries to choose from, all completely customizable to your specifications. All our tours are led by experienced tour guides and can be tailored to your wishes. What’s more, our specialty is providing unique cultural experiences and exclusive access to off-the-beaten path sites and locations. Can you think of a better way to treat yourself to the perfect holiday on Crete?