Places of Interest
Crete has numerous places of interest. There are places of natural beauty, historical sites and cities. Below are some of the most important places of interest.
It would be a missed opportunity to visit Crete and not to walk through the Samaria Gorge. The gorge is in the heart of the White Mountains and was created by surface water wearing away an 18 kilometre long ravine over millions of years. The gorge is recognised as one of the most beautiful and spectacular in Europe if not the world.
Walking down the gorge from the Omalos Plateau to Agia Roumeli on the coast one encounters a variety of wild and sometimes awesome scenery. The walk begins with a flight of wooden steps followed by a twisting path descending rapidly amongst plane and pine trees. There is a viewing platform with an impressive view of the ravine between rock walls which rise to more than 2,000. The path continues down the gorge partly following a stream which is mostly dry during the summer months.
Half way down the gorge is the deserted village of Samaria. Shortly after the village there is the narrowest section of the gorge where the distance between the 300 metre high rock walls is no more than 2 or 3 metres (see picture above). Eventually the path reaches the sea at Agia Roumeli where there are some restaurants and a ferry service to Sfakia. Due to unpredictable winter weather the Samaria Gorge is only open to visitors from May to October.
All of the mountain ranges of Crete provide spectacular scenery. However, Mount Psiloritis (or Idi), its tallest mountain at 2,456 metres, holds a special place for most Cretans.
During Minoan times, Psiloritis (then known as Mount Idi) used to be a holy mountain with many myths attached to it. It is said that Zeus was raised in Idaion cave at one of the approaches to the mountain. After the advent of Christianity a stone-made church was built on top of Psiloritis, the church of Holy Cross. On the day of the Holy Cross each year, September 14, there is a celebration on the summit and people from all over Crete walk to the top together with a priest to join in the ceremony inside the little church (see picture on right).
From the top of Psiloritis there is a magnificent view. On a clear day you can see all the way to Heraklion and the Aegean Sea to the north, the White Mountains to the west and the plain of Messara and Libyan Sea to the south.
There are several routes to the top of the mountain. The easiest one is from the Nidha plateau (1,412 m) which is approximately one and a half hours from Heraklion by car. Depending on your level of fitness, it takes between 3 to 6 hours to walk to the summit and then 2 to 4 hours to return. In summer it is best to start early to avoid the heat. In May or even early June there is still snow on the summit.
Vai Palm Grove
About 28 kilometres east of Sitia is the only natural palm grove in Europe. The palm grove contains approximately 5,000 trees and appears like an oasis in the otherwise barren landscape. A fine sandy beach completes the ideal setting.
One of the highpoints in Crete, the Lasithi Plateau is surrounded on all sides by the Dikti Mountains. There are approximately 10,000 windmills located on the plateau which were built during Venetian times to irrigate the rich soil. Only a few windmills are used today but the sight of the thousands of windmills against the mountains is unique. Another attraction in the area is the Diktaion caves were Zeus was born according to Greek mythology.
The most important historical site on Crete is undoubtedly the Minoan palace of Knossos which is approximately 5 kilometres south of Heraklion in an area which has been inhabited since at least 6,000 BC. Knossos is the setting of many myths such as the Labyrinth and the Minotaur and Daedalus and Icarus.
The site was discovered in 1878 by a local Cretan merchant and antiquarian, Minos Kalokairinos, but extensive excavations did not commence until 1900 by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and continued for 35 years. The palace whose remains we see today was built around 1,700 BC, covered an area of 22,000 square metres and comprised more than 1,300 rooms which were arranged around a central courtyard. There were no fortifications around the palace which is an indication of the relative stability on Crete at the time it was built. The palace was the centre of the surrounding thriving town of some 50,000 to 100,000 people. The palace and surrounding town appear to have been partially destroyed by an earthquake and tidal wave which resulted from a volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Santorini.
The Arcadi Monastery is situated on the edge of a plateau overlooking a wild gorge and resembles a fortress more than a monastery. It was on this site that perhaps the most defining moment in Crete’s struggle for independence against the Turks took place. In 1866 at least 550 Cretans, mostly unarmed women and children, heroically defended themselves against an attacking Turkish army of some 15,000 men and in the end chose to blow themselves up rather than submit (refer section on Cretan history).
The monastery dates back to the 11th century and the church façade was built in 1587. A small museum contains artefacts from the famous battle as well as other material depicting life in Crete at the time. One striking reminder of what took place there is a lock of hair from a young girl who was killed during the final stages of the battle.
Heraklion is Crete’s capital and main administrative and commercial centre with a population of approximately 140,000. The city was named after Hercules who according to legend came to Crete to undertake one of his twelve labours, the capture of the Cretan bull that was ravaging the Minoan kingdom (refer section on Cretan mythology).
The development of the city in the last 50 years has been huge and this leads to the contrasts and contradictions between old and new that one sees around every corner. The Venetian castle and ramparts are surrounded by modern districts. Traditional houses and apartment buildings co-exist side by side as does the old picturesque harbour (above) with the modern port. Small narrow streets come off broad boulevards. Modern music is heard along with classic Cretan songs played on the lyre.
The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion is one of Greece’s major museums and is dedicated to Minoan civilisation. Inside are many well known antiquities discovered in nearby Knossos and other sites around the island.
Heraklion is also home to the Pan-Cretan Stadium which was used for many of the football matches during the Athens 2006 Olympics. The modern stadium has a capacity to seat some 26,400 spectators and is now home to the OFI football club.
The University of Crete also has its principal facilities and campus near Heraklion. In recent times the university has produced high quality graduates and research that has helped Heraklion become a centre of technology in the eastern Mediterranean.
Chania is Crete’s second largest city with approximately 70,000 residents. It is the site of the ancient city of Kydonia and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world with habitation dating back to the Neolithic period.
The modern city is built around the picturesque old town with its Venetian harbour. A lighthouse and fortifications are landmarks at the entrance to the harbour. The old town is a gathering place for both locals and tourists. Its narrow paved streets contain tastefully renovated houses from a variety of eras as well as numerous tavernas and entertainment spots (picture on right). At nights it is a hive of activity.
The modern town with its parks and town squares is one of the best designed and pleasant cities in Greece. The indoor markets, considered one of the finest in Europe, are housed in an imposing building completed in 1913 to celebrate Crete’s union with Greece.
The public gardens near the city centre are amongst the prettiest in Crete. A small zoo located in the gardens includes an enclosure with the famous and unique Cretan goat, the kri-kri. To the west of Chania on top of the hill of Profitis Ilias is a memorial and the tomb of Crete’s most famous modern statesmen, Eleftherios Venizelos (refer section on famous Cretans).
Chania has an international airport at Akrotiri, which is well serviced by summer charter flights, as well as the largest harbour in the Mediterranean at Souda Bay. Due to its strategic location a large NATO naval base is also located at Souda Bay.
Apart from its historical old town, many tourists visit Chania for its proximity to the Samaria Gorge. In addition, the many fine beaches surrounding Chania are a favourite destination with European tourists in particular.
Rethymno is a lively town of some 40,000 inhabitants. It has one of the best preserved old towns in Crete with a blend of Venetian and Ottoman influences. Turkish houses, Venetian mansions and medieval fountains co-exist harmoniously. One of Crete’s largest and best preserved Venetian fortresses is built on the promontory and overlooks the town.
Rethymno has been traditionally a cultural and learning centre and the town still hosts many conferences, exhibitions and festivals. The 500 year old Wine Festival in early July, the Arcadi Festival on 7-8th November and the century old Rethymno Carnival in February all attract considerable crowds.
Nowadays the main activity of Rethymno is tourism and there is a magnificent long sandy beach with a beautiful esplanade next to the old town. The town is also home to the University of Crete’s Philosophical School and the School Political Science and hosts close to 10,000 students every year.
Agios Nikolaos is the smallest of the four provincial capitals of Crete with 20,000 inhabitants including the surrounding districts. It serves as a busy modern administrative centre and tourist resort. The coast around Agios Nikolaos is superb and is noted for its sandy beaches and beautiful bays.
The city’s central landmark is a small picturesque lake known as “Voulismeni” which according to Greek mythology was used by the goddess Athena for her bath. It has a circular shape with a diameter of 137metres and a depth of 64 metres. The lake was connected to the sea by a canal in 1870. Due to its considerable depth the retreating Germans used the lake during World War II to dump all their tanks. Many open-air cafes and restaurants along the bank of the lake together with the small fishing boats lining its shore make it the town’s favourite gathering place.
A new marina recently constructed in the city with excellent facilities has increased the flow of high spending tourists to the region and Crete as a whole. The town has also become host to a Technological Education Institute which concentrates on tourism related courses. Finally, Agios Nikolaos possesses an archaeological museum that is only second to the one in Heraklion among the museums on Crete.
Ierapetra is the southern most town in Europe and has an oriental feel about it. Its population of approximately 15,000 is, on average, the wealthiest in Crete and possibly all of Greece. The source of this wealth is its ideal climate which sustains a large export industry of high quality fruit and vegetables which are grown in thousands of greenhouses around the city. The virgin beaches and tropical weather also attract large numbers of tourists to the area during summer.
Sitia is an attractive small town of some 10,000 inhabitants whose main activity is agriculture. Its proximity to the Vai Palm Grove as well other isolated beaches and historical sites in eastern Crete make it a perfect place for those travellers wanting to get away from mass tourism. It has a modern domestic airport with connections to Athens as well as a small port which connects it to Pireaus, other parts of Crete and nearby Aegean islands.