Gods, Monsters, Heroes – what more could you want from a visit to the Palace of Knossos on Crete? Beneath this UNESCO world heritage site is the fabled labyrinth of the Minotaur, a major element in Greek mythology. Learn how to visit Knossos Palace and see for yourself where the legends of King Minos, Theseus, and the Minotaur Labyrinth come from.
The Palace of Knossos
Sitting just outside the modern city of Heraklion on the island of Crete, Knossos has been called Europe’s oldest city, with humans present since 7000BCE (BC)!
Knossos was one of the principle centres of the Minoan civilisation, whose rise coincided with the beginnings of the Greek Bronze Age around 3000BCE (BC). But it was only around 1900BCE (BC) that the Minoans started to build their palaces, and it’s from this earliest point that the first palace complex at Knossos dates.
By 1700BC, Earthquakes were thought to have destroyed much of the original construction, and so the palace was built again on a much grander scale. Financed by lucrative
Mediterranean trade, the palace complex grew to cover five acres of multi-story buildings including luxurious royal apartments, various living quarters, and storage areas, all serviced by plumbing.
Lying in the middle of the complex, and adorned with colorful frescoes, the Throne Room was the palace’s centerpiece. The subject of extensive modern restoration, the Throne Room is thought to have used been for key ceremonial and religious rituals.
There were around 1000 buildings at Knossos and the Palace had four wings (made up of four-story houses) around a central courtyard. The buildings were connected by a maze (a labyrinth!) or narrow stairs and corridors. There were colonnades on the outside of these connecting corridors.
The central square was raised 15 meters above the other buildings and here you can peer down into the layers of basements.
The frescoes at Knossos make it once of the most beautiful archaeological sites in all of Greece.
But for all its wonder, disaster struck at the height of Minoan power. In around 1450BC, Minoan cities across Crete were destroyed, either by earthquakes, invaders from the Greek mainland, or both, never again to reach their former might.
Knossos was only rediscovered by archaeologists in the 19th Century, with extensive work undertaken by the famous Arthur Evans in 1900. It was Evans who named the site and the civilization who built it, after the mythic King Minos of Crete.
Visiting the Archaeological Site of Knossos: Top Tips and Information
Luckily for us, thanks to the extensive excavations, ancient Knossos is open to tourists today. It’s important to realize that this is the second most visited site in Greece.
Only the Acropolis of Athens has more tourists each year. It is a crowded site and so it is much better to arrive at the very beginning or end of the day to avoid the crush.
OPENING HOURS: The site is located a little outside the modern-day city of Heraklion (Iraklio) (with a fair share of its own attractions) and its opening hours run from 8 am until 8 pm in the summer and until 5 pm in the winter.
ADMISSION TICKET COSTS: 16 Euros or 20 Euros on a combined ticket with the local museum. Queues can be very long at the ticket office, so skip the line and purchase your electronic ticket online here. Or, opt for a skip the line electronic ticket that includes the Archaeological museum here.
TOUR COSTS: A 90-minute tour of the site (limited to groups of five) is available from 250 Euros. Check out the prices and availability of the best tours available on this page.
WHAT TO BRING: This is an enormous archaeological zone. The Palace buildings covered 5 acres alone. Wear comfortable walking shoes and bring water and sun protection – the Crete summer sun is fierce!
MUST-SEE: Tours end at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, a delight for visitors and one of the best museums in Crete, with artifacts and discoveries on exhibit that range back over 5,000 years.
It’s a must-see destination so try hard to fit it in at the end of your visit!
GETTING TO THE PALACE OF KNOSSOS: By BUS – Bus Station A in Iraklio is where all the buses for the eastern Crete leave from. Bus No. 2 goes to the Palace and buses run from 8 a.m. approximately every 20 minutes.
If you’ve been on buses on the Greek islands, you’ll know not to expect a seat and to get to the bus early!
By TAXI: But if you want to get there in time for the opening of the Palace, you’ll need to take a taxi (about 30 Euros). it’s worth getting to this incredible but very crowded site as early as possible.
Scholars believe that Minoans were a population distinct from the Greeks that came after them, like Athens, Sparta, and the Myceneans. Minoan language is not thought to have been related to modern Greek. It was written in a distinct and undecipherable writing system now called Linear A.
Minoan culture was critically important to the development of Ancient Greece as we know it today. Taking inspiration from the increasingly complex societies of Mesopotamia, the Minoans were the precursors of the later Myceneans of Homeric fame, and all those that followed them.
Minoan palaces became central to the fortified city-states of the more warlike Myceneans, while Minoan Linear A was adapted into Mycenean Linear B, the first writing system used for an Indo-European language.
Theseus and the Minotaur Labyrinth
Both Knossos and the island of Crete upon which it grew, are rich in myth, and the most famous Cretan story of all is that of the Minotaur.
The great hero Theseus is known as the founder of Athens and has been central to the identity of Athenians for thousands of years. But Theseus’ endeavors weren’t just confined to Attica – his most famous exploit took place at Knossos.
Born the son of both King Aegeus (the King of Athens) and Poseidon, Theseus was born into obscurity before proving himself a hero with six great labors and reuniting with his long-lost father.
But before long Athens was in dire straits. When, during the Panathenaic Games, the eldest son of King Minos of Crete was assassinated, the might of the Minoans was turned against then weak Athens.
Before long Aegeus surrendered and the Minoans forced the Athenians to pay them a tribute of seven boys and seven girls every few years. These fourteen youths were sent into the Labyrinth, home of the Minotaur, said to be half man and half bull.
The monster known as the Minotaur was a chimeric creature with the body of a man, but the head and tail of a bull. The Minotaur was the offspring of Minos’ wife Pasiphae and a Cretan bull, a set of circumstances arranged by the god Poseidon to punish Minos for a perceived slight.
Determined to end this atrocious sacrifice, Theseus promised to go as part of the next tribute and confront the Minotaur. Theseus sailed off in a ship with black sails, promising his father that he would replace them with white sails should he return alive.
Once at Knossos, the charming Theseus quickly won the affection of King Minos’ daughter, Princess Ariadne. Ariadne and the Labyrinth’s architect Daedalus provided our young hero with a ball of thread, to be unfurled as he went throughout the maze.
That night Theseus entered the Labyrinth, and after a titanic battle overpowered the legendary Minotaur, following the thread back out, he returned in triumph with the beast’s head.
With his deed done, Theseus fled Knossos with Ariadne, her sister, and all of that year’s Athenian tributes in tow. But Greek heroes rarely get their happy ending. Stopping in at Naxos on the way home, Theseus was visited by the goddess Athena, and forced to leave his beloved Ariadne on the island as a gift for Dionysus.
Grief-stricken, Theseus forgot to change his black sails to white. Waiting on the cliffs at Sounion his father, King Aegeus, looked out at the approaching ship in despair. Believing that his son was dead, the King threw himself into the water far below, giving the sea its current name, the Aegean.
You can peer down into the bowels of the Palace of Knossos but not everyone believes Daedalus built his labyrinth underneath the Palace.
Instead, there is a 2.5-kilometer cave system (it was once a quarry) that is an hour’s drive south of Knossos, near the ancient Minoan site of Phaistos. This is the other site where some historians have speculated was the entrance to the labyrinth.
But no matter where you think the labyrinth is, this intriguing site has given Greece some of its most colorful legends and is a wonderful site to visit when you’re next in Greece!
Links and Further Information
- There are so many things to do in Greece. See all of the best things to do in Greece from Get Your Guide here
- If you’re planning a trip to Greece, check out my Greek posts here and make sure you listen to the Trip Anthropologist travel podcast series on Greece here.
- If you’re planning a trip to Athens, see my comprehensive guide to Athens Ruins: Ancient Greek Sites of Athens
- Don’t miss my guides to Everything You Need to Know About Visiting the Acropolis and Where to Stay near the Acropolis.
- Hard to decide which ancient Greek ruins to see? Read Best Ancient Ruins in Greece.
- For the must-see Ancient Akrotiri Minoan city on Santorini, see my blog post here
- And for the things you need to know before you book your trip to Santorini, including the best time to visit Santorini, see my travel guide here
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