The Minoan ruins in Knossos, Crete

Knossos: the centre of Minoan Crete

Planning on visiting Knossos? Book a guided tour for more insight into the ruins.

Crete is the largest Greek island, and as you’d expect, there are several ancient sites to see there. Easily the most famous is the Minoan Palace of Knossos, home to the legendary Minotaur – the half-human, half-bull that lived in the labyrinth of Knossos, built by King Minos, the King of Crete.

Knossos was first settled around 7,000 BCE, however, the palace and site became prominent during the Minoan period - from 2,600 to 1100 BCE. The Minoans were known for their magnificent palaces, colourful frescoes and sophisticated culture, all of which are on show throughout Knossos.

Nowadays, Knossos is one of the best-known ancient sites and is extremely popular with tourists In fact, it's the second most-visited site in Greece, after the Acropolis in Athens. In the summer of 2022, Knossos received a record number of visitors - an average of 5,000 per day.

The site is just 5km from the Cretan capital of Heraklion and is easily accessible to visitors. Just keep in mind that it can get extremely busy, particularly in the summer months, so time your visit accordingly. 

Partially reconstructed Minoan ruins in Knossos, Crete

The Minoan Palace of Knossos

Knossos is, quintessentially, a journey through the Minoan period–referred to as the Golden Age of Crete.  The palace is not just one site, but rather a complex of buildings and courtyards used as residences, government buildings and, of course, the Palace itself.

Alas, a volcanic eruption in 1450 BCE is thought to have destroyed much of the Palace, but there’s enough left of its architectural wonder to see. Nowadays, many peacocks have taken up residence and roam freely, calling to each other and often attracting more photographic interest than the site itself!

Knossos was originally excavated by a Cretan businessman, Minos Kalokairinos, in 1878, however he seldom receives credit for his work. Instead, documented evidence focuses on the work of a British archaeologist almost 25 years later.

 In 1904, Sir Arthur Evans continued the reconstruction through the 1920s to what you see today. A recent Guardian article points to changes afoot to remedy this lack of acknowledgement, and in 2019, a bust of Kalokairinos was erected alongside Evans at the site’s entrance.

Despite this, Evans is held in high esteem by the Greeks, essentially for creating a site that’s so popular. It’s worth noting that what you see of the site today includes several reconstructions by Evans, which are his interpretation of the site, and not necessarily how it was originally. 

While controversial for several reasons, including potentially imagined details and hindering the natural light in the palace, his reconstructions give visitors a visual representation of the lost grandeur of Knossos.

The partially reconstructed Minoan ruins at Knossos, Crete

Highlights of Knossos

Knossos is a vast archaeological complex with a fascinating history. Many of the treasures of Knossos are displayed at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, so be sure to visit the museum as well. Below are just a few of the buildings you can see at this remarkable site.

The Royal Villa

Built around 1900-1700 BCE, the Villa is thought to have been the residence of the royal family of Knossos, the most powerful rulers of the Minoan society. 

The three floors are connected by a spiralling, stone staircase around an open-air courtyard. They are believed to have housed grand reception halls, residential apartments, cult rooms and storerooms.

These are impressive enough as it is, but it’s the Pillar Crypt beneath the Minoan Hall that causes much intrigue. Some scholars maintain that the Pillar Crypt was used for ritual purification, even human sacrifices. 

The Villa also has frescos showcasing daily Minoan life - hunting and war - and huge columns featuring elaborate Linear A script, which has yet to be deciphered.

Southern entrance to Knossos showing horns and cup bearer fresco.

The South Propylaeum

The South Propylaeum was the formal entrance to the palace from the southern side, leading visitors and residents to the central courtyard and main part of the palace. It seems to have played a critical role in ancient ceremonies and events, and its design and layout indicate it was a significant pathway for ceremonial processions.

Several frescoes show people in what appear to be ceremonial or ritualistic poses, suggesting that the area was used for or witnessed ceremonial activities. For instance, the "Cup-Bearer" fresco could represent individuals who played roles in religious or ceremonial events.

Its reconstruction by Sir Arthur Evans used giant limestone blocks and wooden beams to support the structure. These building materials and methods were typical of the time and can also be seen in other reconstructions at the site.

Ancient staircase at Knossos in Greece.

The Minoan Caravanserai

A two-story building serving as a public reception venue for travellers and their goods, the Minoan Caravanserei could be perceived as the Minoan equivalent of modern-day luxury accommodation. 

The upper floor was the most luxurious. The walls were colourful with open verandas, providing visitors with views of both the Vlychia stream below and the Palace. It’s thought the rooms here served as accommodation for the upper class.

The East Wing had underground chambers for storage, and the Stone Bath with its plumbing system was a revolutionary innovation of the time. The basin here was connected to the plumbing and drained to a waste hole, indicating its use for ritual purposes.

As water was thought to be the sanctuary’s most significant element, the Stone Bath was a symbol of the Minoans’ social sophistication.

Set in the northwest part of the complex, away from the palace’s official area and close to a major crossroads, the location of the Caravanserai allowed communication and trade between the palace and the wider world.

North Lustral Basin

This underground structure is thought to have been used for purification ceremonies at the complex.

The Minoans believed that the purity of a person’s soul was essential for good life, and cleansing the body through water was a vital part of these purification rituals. The North Lustral Basin was one such place where these ceremonies took place.

Frescoes in a room in Knossos, Crete

Little Palace of Minoan Knossos

Constructed in the late 16th century BCE, the Little Palace was the hub for palace administration, religious ceremonies and social gatherings. Of all the structures of the complex, the Little Palace is probably the most interesting with its many functions and layout.

During the Neopalatial period (15th-14th century BCE), there were several expansions on the complex’s west side. Once complete, the Little Palace had several interconnected buildings including a central court, west wing, domestic quarters and a storeroom.

The central court was the heart of the palace and was surrounded by a porch with sixteen square pillars. The west wing encompassed the throne room, banqueting hall and reception hall.

Numerous rooms for the royal family and their attendants were located in the domestic quarter, including a bathroom with a flushing toilet and a sophisticated drainage system.

The storeroom housed large storage jars, called pithoi, which contained food, wine, oil, and other commodities. There was also a cult room, which contained ritual vessels such as libation cups, clay figurines and miniature boats.

Ancient pots at Knossos in Crete.

Knossos tours and tickets

With so much to see and take in, it’s recommended to take a tour around Knossos.  This is especially relevant in high season when queuing at the entrance to buy your ticket can take as much as an hour or so. 

A pre-booked guided tour usually includes return transfers to your hotel in Heraklion and a qualified guide to give you commentary and history.  Note, some tours don't include the entrance fee to the site, so check when you book.

It’s possible to book your ticket in advance online via your smartphone to skip the lines too, and for those that have a group of 5 or more, you can hire a licensed guide to meet you at the entrance of the site to show you around.  

You can also buy a combined ticket to Knossos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum where many artifacts from the site are displayed.

At the time of writing, in 2023, the general admission ticket is 18 euro with reduced pricing available onsite for 65+ EU citizens, and young people (6-25) with current ID to prove age. 

The reduced ticket costs keep changing, so be sure to bring your relevant ID if eligible and enquire at the entrance.

Of course, tours will be extra.

Getting to Knossos

Knossos is easily accessible from Heraklion­ - Crete’s capital city - by public transport.  Bus number 2 goes from the port roughly every 20 minutes from 5.20 am (in the high season) and the journey takes about 25 minutes.

A taxi would take you about 14 minutes.

Heraklion is home to Crete’s international airport and busy port, so you can easily visit Knossos when you arrive or leave from the island.

The prettier, coastal towns of Chania and Rethymnon to the west are 2hrs 10 mins and 1hr 5 mins away by car, respectively.  Although further away, they do make for a more aesthetically pleasing place to base yourself, and you can make a day trip to Knossos from Rethymnon.

Ancient Minoan ruins in Knossos, Crete

Best time to visit Knossos

The Complex is open year-round, opening times vary from year to year but are generally daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer and in the winter, it closes at 5 pm. 

As summer temperatures continue to rise and can see the mercury hitting over the 30 Celsius mark during the day, as there’s virtually no shade at Knossos then the spring–March to May, and autumn–September to early November are the best months.  Winters can be cold and wet.

If you must visit in the summer, get there early to beat both the hot weather but also the crowds.

Where to stay near Knossos

As Heraklion is the nearest city to Knossos, it makes a good place to stay when you visit. There’s a range of accommodation to choose from:

The Olive Green Hotel is one of Heraklion’s popular choices as it’s a ‘smart’ hotel with sustainable and eco-friendly policies.  It’s in the heart of the Old Town, very near the Archaeological Museum.

For a cheaper option, Heraklion’s Youth Hostel is a good bet with its single-gendered dorm rooms and central location.

Where to next

From Heraklion, you can spend some time exploring the island of Crete. Basing yourself in Chania and Rethymnon for a few days will also allow you to explore their Old Towns and Venetian harbours -  both have magnificent lighthouses dating back to the 16th century.

It’s best to head to the Old Town of Chania if you’re using this as your base, as there’s a huge selection of small, quaint boutique-style hotels, and the same goes for Rethymnon.

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Rebecca Hall

Author - Rebecca Hall

 Rebecca Hall is a Greece-based travel writer and author who writes about culture, gastronomy and all things Greece for inflight magazines, digital and print media, among others. She is also a Lonely Planet and Rough Guide guidebook updater and creator.

Her debut novel Girl Gone Greek (available on Amazon) has been written into a double award-winning screenplay. When not travelling or writing, Rebecca enjoys spending her downtime sampling the many different coffee shops in Athens.

Last Updated 5 March 2024

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