In the ancient world, Crete was home to one of the most advanced early civilisations, that of the Minoans. Between around 2600 and 1150 BC the Minoan civilisation flourished, based upon maritime trade around the Mediterranean region. They acquired great wealth and built large cities and fabulous palaces, the remains of which can be visited today. Of course, according to legend, Crete was also the place where Athenian youths were sent to their deaths in King Minos’s labyrinth, the lair of the famous Minotaur. The fall of the Minoan civilisation was swift and has still not been definitively explained. It has been supposed that tidal waves, caused by the volcanic eruption that formed the island of Santorini, may well have precipitated the end.
The main sites of archaeological interest today are the remains of the great palaces at Knossos and Phaistos. Parts of these sites are extraordinarily well preserved and provide intriguing insights into the lives of the Minoan kings. The Minoan architectural style is famous for its distinctive rows of red columns, as well as its many beautiful wall frescoes. Even if you only have a passing interest in history, it is certainly well worth taking a day off the beaches to visit at least one of these palaces. The two largest cities on Crete are Iraklion and Hania, both on the northern side of the island. Iraklion, on the central coast, is a bustling port city with quite a lot to offer. It is a good place to shop for souvenirs, or simply to sit in a café and watch life go by. It also boasts the main archaeological museum on the island, another must-see for history buffs.
After periods of Roman and Arab rule, Crete came under the influence of the Venetians. This heritage can particularly be observed in the city of Hania. Many of the hotels have been converted from Venetian villas, and the harbour remains as an impressive monument to Venice’s maritime empire. There are plenty of good accommodation options in Hania, as well as a wide selection of restaurants and cafés.
There is more to Crete than just the history and the cities. The island’s geography is dominated by spectacular mountains, pine forests, and a stunning variety of native flora. In addition to the landscape, Crete’s interesting local culture adds to the colour. The people who live here are known for their gregariousness and there is a genuine sense of joie de vivre. Crete is the most visited of the Greek islands, hosting around two million tourists yearly. Some of the more touristy areas might feel a little crowded, but the island is certainly big enough that you can easily find your own space if you are willing to get off the beaten track. With the combination of sun, sea, mountains, and its mysterious history, Crete is without question a prime destination.