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Mountains 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. But spectacular scenery is just the start of Crete's appeal: vestiges of Minoan civilization, which flourished on Crete some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago and is one of the most brilliant and amazing cultures the world has ever known, abound at Knossos and other archaeological sites around the island. Invaders and occupiers-Roman colonists, the Byzantines, Arab invaders, Venetian colonists, and Ottoman pashas-have all left their mark on towns and villages throughout the island.

A charming and animated port town, Agios Nikolaos is clustered on a peninsula alongside the Gulf of Mirabello, a dramatic composition of bare mountains, islets, and deep blue sea. Hilly, with narrow, steep streets that provide sea views, the town is a welcoming place.

Archaeological Museum. The Archaeological Museum at Ayios Nikolaos is the island's second-best showcase for Minoan artifacts (after Heraklion's own archaeological museum), most unearthed here in eastern Crete. The prize is the Goddess of Myrtos, a surprisingly contempory-looking statue circa 2500 BC (actually, the entire object is a rhyton, or vessel) of a woman cradling a large jug (the spout) in her spindly arms. There are also examples of late Minoan pottery in the naturalist marine style, with lively octopus and shell designs. Odos Palaiologou 74, Ayios Nikolaos, Crete. Admission charged.

Folk Museum. This excellent museum showcases exquisite weavings and embroidered pieces, along with walking sticks, tools, and other artifacts from everyday rural life in Crete. Odos Palaiologou 2, Ayios Nikolaos, Crete. Admission charged.

Heraklion. Although a sprawling, untidy collection of apartment blocks and busy roadways today, in Minoan times Crete's largest city was a harbor for Knossos, the power center of prehistoric Crete. It's also home to the renowned Archaeological Museum.

Archaeological Museum. The museum is home to many of the treasures uncovered during the excavations at the Palace of Knossos and other great monuments of the Minoan civilization. Eleftherias Sq.. Admission charged.

Ayia Aikaterina. One of Crete's most attractive small churches, it was built in 1555 and now contains a museum of icons by Cretan artists.Kyrillou Loukareos. Admission charged.

Ayios Markos. Now an exhibition space, 13th-century Ayios Markos is named for Venice's patron saint. Eleftheriou Venizelou Sq.

Ayios Titos. A chapel to the left of the entrance of Ayios Titos contains the skull of St. Tito, credited with converting the islanders to Christianity in the 1st century ad on the instructions of St. Paul. Set back from 25 Avgoustou.

Historical Museum of Crete. The imposing museum houses a varied collection of early Christian and Byzantine sculptures, Venetian and Ottoman stonework, artifacts of war, and rustic folklife items.Kalokorinou, in a warren of little lanes near the seafrontAdmission charged.

Koules. Heraklion's inner harbor, where fishing boats land their catch and yachts are moored, is dominated by the Turkish-named fortress.North end of 25 AvgoustouAdmission charged.

Loggia. A gathering place for the island's Venetian nobility, it was built in the early 17th century by Italian architect Francesco Basilicata. 25 Avgoustou.

Martinengo Bastion. Six bastions shaped like arrowheads jut out from the well-preserved Venetian walls. Martinengo Bastion is the largest, designed by Micheli Sanmicheli in the 16th century to keep out Barbary pirates and Turkish invaders. When the Turks overran Crete in 1648, the garrison at Heraklion held out for another 21 years in one of the longest sieges in European history. South of Kyrillou Loukareos on N. G. Mousourou.

Platia Eleftherias. The city's biggest square is paved in marble and dotted with fountains. At the west side is the beginning of Daidalou, the city's main street, which follows the line of an early fortification wall.Southeast end of Daidalou.

Platia Kornarou. The square is graced with a Venetian fountain and an elegant Turkish stone kiosk. Odos 1866, which runs north from the square, houses Heraklion's lively open-air market. At Odos 1866, south of Ta Leontaria.

Ta Leontaria. A stately marble Renaissance fountain and a beloved town landmark, this is the heart of Eleftheriou Venizelou Square, a triangular pedestrian zone filled with cafés and named after the Cretan statesman who united the island with Greece in 1913. Eleftheriou Venizelou Sq.

Kritsa. The mountain village of Kritsa is renowned for its weaving tradition and surrounds a large, shady town square filled with café tables that afford views down the green valleys to the sea.

Panayia Kera. The lovely Byzantine church has an unusual shape, with three naves supported by heavy triangular buttresses. Built in the early years of Venetian occupation, it contains some of the liveliest and best-preserved medieval frescoes on the island, painted in the 13th century.On main road before town.. Admission charged.

Lato. An ancient city in the hills just above Ayios Nikolaos, Lato was built by the Doric Greeks in a dip between two rocky peaks and named for the mother of Artemis and Apollo. Her image appears on coins found at the site. Make your way over the expanse of ancient masonry to the far end of the ongoing excavations for one of the best views in Crete: on a clear day you can see the island of Santorini, 100 km (60 mi) across the Cretan Sea, as well as inland across a seemingly endless panorama of mountains and valleys. About 10 km (6 mi) west of Ayios Nikolaos, follow marked road from village of Kritsa, Ayios Nikolaos, CreteAdmission charged.

Palace of Knossos. This most amazing of archaeological sites once lay hidden beneath a huge mound hemmed in by low hills. Heinrich Schliemann, father of archaeology and discoverer of Troy, knew it was here, but Turkish obstruction prevented him from exploring his last discovery. Cretan independence from the Ottoman Turks made it possible for Sir Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist, to start excavations in 1899. A forgotten and sublime civilization thus came again to light with the uncovering of the great Palace of Knossos. The site was occupied from Neolithic times, and the population spread to the surrounding land. Around 1900 BC, the hilltop was leveled and the first palace constructed; around 1700 BC, after an earthquake destroyed the original structure, the later palace was built, surrounded by houses and other buildings. Around 1450 BC, another widespread disaster occurred, perhaps an invasion: palaces and country villas were razed by fire and abandoned, but Knossos remained inhabited even though the palace suffered some damage. But around 1380 BC the palace and its outlying buildings were destroyed by fire, and at the end of the Bronze Age the site was abandoned. Still later, Knossos became a Greek city-state.

You enter the palace from the west, passing a bust of Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated at Knossos on and off for more than 20 years. A path leads you around to the monumental south gateway. The west wingencases lines of long, narrow storerooms where the true wealth of Knossos was kept in tall clay jars: oil, wine, grains, and honey. Thecentral court is about 164 feet by 82 feet long. The cool, dark throne-room complex has a griffin fresco and a tall, wavy-back gypsum throne, the oldest in Europe. The most spectacular piece of palace architecture is the grand staircase, on the east side of the court, leading to the domestic apartments. Four flights of shallow gypsum stairs survive, lighted by a deep light well. The queen's megaron (apartment or hall) is decorated with a colorful dolphin fresco and furnished with stone benches. Beside it is a bathroom, complete with a clay tub, and next door a toilet, whose drainage system permitted flushing into a channel flowing into the Kairatos stream far below. The east side of the palace also contained workshops. Beside the staircase leading down to the east bastion is a stone water channel made up of parabolic curves and settling basins: a Minoan storm drain. Northwest of the east bastion is the north entrance, guarded by a relief fresco of a charging bull. Beyond is the theatrical area, shaded by pines and overlooking a shallow flight of steps, which lead down to the royal road. This, perhaps, was the ceremonial entrance to the palace.. Admission charged.

BeachesThere are several good beaches right in town. Kitroplatia and Ammosare both only about a 5- to 10-minute walk from the center. You can rent lounges and umbrellas at both.

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