Top historic sites in Crete

Knossos

Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete island and has been called Europe's oldest city. The settlement was established well before 2000 BC and was destroyed, most likely by fire (though some claim a tsunami) around 1700 BC. The Minoan palace is the main site of interest at Knossos, an important city in antiquity, which was inhabited continuously from the Neolithic period until the 5th centur ...
Founded: 2000 BC | Location: Heraklion, Greece

Heraklion Archaeological Museum

The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is one of the greatest museums in Greece and the best in the world for Minoan art, as it contains the most notable and complete collection of artifacts of the Minoan civilization of Crete. The museum began in 1883 as a simple collection of antiquities. A dedicated building was constructed from 1904 to 1912.  Today Herakleion Archaeological Museum is one of the largest and most ...
Founded: 1883 | Location: Heraklion, Greece

Koules Fortress

The 'Castello a Mare' is a fortress located at the entrance of the old port of Heraklion, Crete. It was built by the Republic of Venice in the early 16th century, and is still in good condition today. The site of Castello a Mare was possibly first fortified by the Arabs in the 9th or 10th centuries. By the Byzantine period, a tower known as Castellum Comunis stood on the site. In 1303, the tower was des ...
Founded: 1462 | Location: Heraklion, Greece

Spinalonga Fortress

Spinalonga is a barren, arid rocky islet lying in the mouth of the natural harbour of Elounda. The islet was fortified in antiquity, to protect the ancient city of Olous. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Venetians, as part of their great fortification works to defend Crete, built on Spinalonga one of the most important bastion-type seaward fortresses of the Mediterranean. At strategic points in the fortifications ...
Founded: 16th century | Location: Agios Nikolaos, Greece

Rethymno Fortress

The Fortezza (fortress) is the citadel of the city of Rethymno in Crete. It is built on a hill which was the site of ancient Rhithymna"s acropolis. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, the Byzantines established a fortified settlement to the east of the hill. It was called Castrum Rethemi, and it had square towers and two gates. The fortifications were repaired in the beginning of the 13th century. Ve ...
Founded: 1573-1580 | Location: Rethymno, Greece

Arkadi Monastery

Arkadi Monatery is perhaps the best known monastery on Crete due to the Holocaust of 1866. However, its location and impressive architecture make it all the more special. The current catholicon (church) dates back to the 16th century and is marked by the influence of the Renaissance. This influence is visible in the architecture, which mixes both Roman and baroque elements. As early as the 16th century, the mon ...
Founded: 16th century | Location: Arkadi, Greece

Phaistos

Phaistos is an Bronze Age archaeological site at modern Phaistos, a municipality in south central Crete. The was the second largest ancient palace in Crete. Phaistos was inhabited from about 4000 BC. The palace, dating from the Middle Bronze Age (2000 BC), was destroyed by an earthquake during the Late Bronze Age. Knossos along with other Minoan sites was destroyed at that time. The palace was rebuilt towa ...
Founded: 2000 BC | Location: Phaistos, Greece

Agia Triada Monastery

Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) Orthodox Monastery was built in the 17th century by two brothers of the Venetian Zangaroli family on the site of a pre-existing church. The church is built in the Byzantine architectural cruciform style with three domes. The main church is flanked by two smaller domed chapels, one of which is dedicated to the Life-Giving Spring (Zoodochos Pigi) and the other to Saint John the Theologian. The ...
Founded: 17th century | Location: Chaniá, Greece

Gortyn

Gortyn or Gortys was a city that flourished particularly during the Roman era. It was the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica. It had its origins in the Minoan era (around 3200 BC). The most distinctive monuments are the Praetorium, the residence of the Roman governor of the province, and the Nymphaion (both dating from 2nd century AD), where the Nymphs were worshipped. There is also a temple of Pythian ...
Founded: 3200 BC | Location: Górtyn, Greece

Frangokastello Castle

Frangokastello castle was built by the Venetians in 1371-74 as a garrison to impose order on the rebellious Sfakia region, to deter pirates, and to protect Venetian nobles and their properties. The Venetians named it the Castle of St. Nikitas after the nearby church. The locals, however, who never saw it in a positive light, contemptuously dubbed it Frangokastello, meaning the Castle of the Franks (i.e. Catholic fo ...
Founded: 1371-1374 | Location: Sfakiá, Greece

Preveli Monastery

Preveli Monastery comprises two main building complexes, the ruined Lower Monastery of St. John the Baptist, and the currently operational Upper (Rear) Monastery of St. John the Theologian. The monastery was probably founded in the Middle Ages, during the occupation of Crete by the Republic of Venice, its founder being a feudal lord named Prevelis. It developed over several centuries as a religious and cultural centre ...
Founded: 16th century | Location: Ágios Vasíleios, Greece

Aptera

Aptera was an ancient city, now an archaeological site in western Crete, a kilometre inland from the southern shore of Souda Bay. It is mentioned tablets from the 14th-13th centuries BC. With its highly fortunate geographical situation, the city-state was powerful from Minoan through Hellenistictimes, when it gradually declined. In Greek mythology, here was placed the scene of the legend of the contest between the  ...
Founded: 2000-3000 BC | Location: Chaniá, Greece

Gramvousa Fortress

The fort at Imeri Gramvousa island was built between 1579 and 1584 during Venetian rule over Crete to defend the island from the Ottoman Turks. The fort remained in Venetian hands throughout the prolonged Cretan War, and in the treaty of 16 September 1669, which surrendered Crete to the Ottomans, Gramvousa, along with the fortresses of Souda and Spinalonga, was retained by Venice. These three forts defended Venetian ...
Founded: 1579-1584 | Location: Kíssamos, Greece

Malia Minoan Palace

To the east of the modern resort is the Minoan Palace of Malia. This is the third-largest Minoan palace in Crete, built in a wonderful setting near the sea, on the road linking eastern and central Crete. This palace - the seat, according to myth, of Minos’ brother Sarpedon - was first constructed circa 1900 BC. The already large settlement, some parts of which are preserved around the palace, thus became a palace-city ...
Founded: 1900 BC | Location: Malia, Greece

Toplou Monastery

Toplou monastery is one of the most significant monasteries in Crete, dedicated to Virgin Mary and St. John the Theologian. It was founded around the mid-15th century, probably on the ruins of an earlier convent. The monastery was plundered by the knights of Malta in 1530 and shattered in 1612 by a strong earthquake. Due to its strategic position, the senate of the Republic of Venice, then ruler of Crete, decided to ...
Founded: c. 1450 | Location: Sitia, Greece

Zakros

Zakros contains ruins from the Minoan civilization. The site is often known to archaeologists as Zakro or Kato Zakro. It is believed to have been one of the four main administrative centers of the Minoans, and its protected harbor and strategic location made it an important commercial hub for trade to the east. The town was dominated by the Palace of Zakro, originally built around 1900 BC, rebuilt around 1600 BC, ...
Founded: 1900 BC | Location: Zakros, Greece

Lato

Lato was an ancient city of Crete, the ruins of which are located approximately 3 km from the small town of Kritsa. The Dorian city-state was built in a defensible position overlooking Mirabello Bay between two peaks, both of which became acropolises to the city. Although the city probably predates the arrival of the Dorians, the ruins date mainly from the Dorian period (5th and 4th centuries BCE). The city was de ...
Founded: 400-300 BC | Location: Kritsa, Greece

Gonia Monastery

Gonia is an Orthodox monastery located on the coast of the south-east Rodopos peninsula in Crete, overlooking the Gulf of Chania. Today dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, the monastery was founded in the 9th century and was originally dedicated to St. George. It was originally situated at Menies on the ruins of the ancient temple of Artemis Britomartis (Diktynna). The monastery was built in the 13th c ...
Founded: 1618-1634 | Location: Plataniás, Greece

Gournia

The Late Minoan town of Gournia was excavated by Harriet Boyd in the first years of the 20th century. The original name of the settlement is not known and its present name comes from the hollow vessels found all over the site, many of which can still be seen at the entrances to the rooms. Gournia lies on a small hill, a few hundred metres from the sea in the Gulf of Mirabello. Its position is important as it lies on the ...
Founded: 1700 BC | Location: Ierapetra, Greece

Epanosifis Monastery

Epanosifis (Upper Sifis) is one of the largest and richest monasteries on Crete. It flourished during the era of Ottoman rule and is dedicated to Saint George. The structure of the monastery is reminiscent of 17th century secular Cretan architecture with independent cells, one built next to each other. The Refectory and the priory are located west of the church. The surviving manuscripts, dating back to the 1 ...
Founded: 17th century | Location: Archánes-Asteroúsia, Greece

Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

Historic Site of the week

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is a baroque French château built between 1658-1661 for Nicolas Fouquet. It was made for Marquis de Belle Île, Viscount of Melun and Vaux, the superintendent of finances of Louis XIV, the château was an influential work of architecture in mid-17th century Europe. At Vaux-le-Vicomte, the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André le Nôtre, and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun worked together on a large-scale project for the first time. Their collaboration marked the beginning of the 'Louis XIV style' combining architecture, interior design and landscape design. The garden's pronounced visual axis is an example of this style.

To secure the necessary grounds for the elaborate plans for Vaux-le-Vicomte’s garden and castle, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages. The displaced villagers were then employed in the upkeep and maintenance of the gardens. It was said to have employed eighteen thousand workers and cost as much as 16 million livres. The château and its patron became for a short time a focus for fine feasts, literature and arts. The poet La Fontaine and the playwright Molière were among the artists close to Fouquet. At the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Molière play was performed, along with a dinner event organized by François Vatel, and an impressive firework show.

After Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life, and his wife exiled, Vaux-le-Vicomte was placed under sequestration. The king seized, confiscated or purchased 120 tapestries, the statues, and all the orange trees from Vaux-le-Vicomte. He then sent the team of artists (Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun) to design what would be a much larger project than Vaux-le-Vicomte, the palace and gardens of Versailles.

The Marshal Villars became the new owner without first seeing the chateau. In 1764, the Marshal's son sold the estate to the Duke of Praslin, whose descendants would maintain the property for over a century. It is sometimes mistakenly reported that the château was the scene of a murder in 1847, when duke Charles de Choiseul-Praslin, killed his wife in her bedroom, but this did not happen at Vaux-le-Vicomte but at the Paris residence of the Duke.

In 1875, after thirty years of neglect, the estate was sold to Alfred Sommier in a public auction. The château was empty, some of the outbuildings had fallen into ruin, and the famous gardens were totally overgrown. The huge task of restoration and refurbishment began under the direction of the architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, assisted by the landscape architect Elie Lainé. When Sommier died in 1908, the château and the gardens had recovered their original appearance. His son, Edme Sommier, and his daughter-in-law completed the task. Today, his descendants continue to preserve the château, which remains privately owned by Patrice and Cristina de Vogüé, the Count and Countess de Vogüé. It is now administered by their three sons Alexandre, Jean-Charles and Ascanio de Vogüé. Recognized by the state as a monument historique, it is open to the public regularly.

Architecture

The chateau is situated near the northern end of a 1.5-km long north-south axis with the entrance front facing north. Its elevations are perfectly symmetrical to either side of this axis. Somewhat surprisingly the interior plan is also nearly completely symmetrical with few differences between the eastern and western halves. The two rooms in the center, the entrance vestibule to the north and the oval salon to the south, were originally an open-air loggia, dividing the chateau into two distinct sections. The interior decoration of these two rooms was therefore more typical of an outdoor setting. Three sets of three arches, those on the entrance front, three more between the vestibule and the salon, and the three leading from the salon to the garden are all aligned and permitted the arriving visitor to see through to the central axis of the garden even before entering the chateau. The exterior arches could be closed with iron gates, and only later were they filled in with glass doors and the interior arches with mirrored doors. Since the loggia divided the building into two halves, there are two symmetrical staircases on either side of it, rather than a single staircase. The rooms in the eastern half of the house were intended for the use of the king, those in the western were for Fouquet. The provision of a suite of rooms for the king was normal practice in aristocratic houses of the time, since the king travelled frequently.

Another surprising feature of the plan is the thickness of the main body of the building (corps de logis), which consists of two rows of rooms running east and west. Traditionally the middle of the corps de logis of French chateaux consisted of a single row of rooms. Double-thick corps de logis had already been used in hôtels particuliers in Paris, including Le Vau's Hôtel Tambonneau, but Vaux was the first chateau to incorporate this change. Even more unusual, the main rooms are all on the ground floor rather than the first floor (the traditional piano nobile). This accounts for the lack of a grand staircase or a gallery, standard elements of most contemporary chateaux. Also noteworthy are corridors in the basement and on the first floor which run the length of house providing privacy to the rooms they access. Up to the middle of the 17th century, corridors were essentially unknown. Another feature of the plan, the four pavilions, one at each corner of the building, is more conventional.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was originally planned to be constructed in brick and stone, but after the mid-century, as the middle classes began to imitate this style, aristocratic circles began using stone exclusively. Rather late in the design process, Fouquet and Le Vau switched to stone, a decision that may have been influenced by the use of stone at François Mansart's Château de Maisons. The service buildings flanking the large avant-cour to the north of the house remained in brick and stone, and other structures preceding them were in rubble-stone and plaster, a social ranking of building materials that would be common in France for a considerable length of time thereafter.

The main chateau is constructed entirely on a moated platform, reached via two bridges, both aligned with the central axis and placed on the north and south sides. The moat is a picturesque holdover from medieval fortified residences, and is again a feature that Le Vau may have borrowed from Maisons. The moat at Vaux may also have been inspired by the previous chateau on the site, which Le Vau's work replaced.

Gardens

The château rises on an elevated platform in the middle of the woods and marks the border between unequal spaces, each treated in a different way. This effect is more distinctive today, as the woodlands are mature, than it was in the seventeenth century when the site had been farmland, and the plantations were new.

Le Nôtre's garden was the dominant structure of the great complex, stretching nearly a mile and a half (3 km), with a balanced composition of water basins and canals contained in stone curbs, fountains, gravel walks, and patterned parterres that remains more coherent than the vast display Le Nôtre was to create at Versailles.

Le Nôtre created a magnificent scene to be viewed from the house, using the laws of perspective. Le Notre used the natural terrain to his advantage. He placed the canal at the lowest part of the complex, thus hiding it from the main perspectival point of view. Past the canal, the garden ascends a large open lawn and ends with the Hercules column added in the 19th century. Shrubberies provided a picture frame to the garden that also served as a stage for royal fêtes.

From the top of the grand staircase, this gives the impression that the entire garden is revealed in one single glance. Initially, the view consists of symmetrical rows of shrubbery, avenues, fountains, statues, flowers and other pieces developed to imitate nature – these elements exemplify the Baroque desire to mold nature to fit its wishes, thus using nature to imitate nature. The centerpiece is a large reflecting pool flanked by grottos holding statues in their many niches. The grand sloping lawn is not visible until one begins to explore the garden, when the viewer is made aware of the optical elements involved and discovers that the garden is much larger than it looks.