Heraklion (Iraklion/Iraklio) is the capital and largest city of Crete. The Venetian old town, a wonderful archeological museum and the ruins of Knossos are the highlights for anyone visiting. Unfortunately Heraklion was heavily bombed during World War II, and large parts of the city destroyed. This in combination with large urban growth, has led to a modern city, but perhaps not what most tourists come looking for. Despite municipal rebuilding in later years, Heraklion is not a particularly pretty or charming city.
The harbour is dominated by a fortress, built between 1523 and 1540, and called called Rocca al Mare by the Venetians. The impressive building looks like something out of a movie, and it is easy to understand how it took the Turks 24 years to conquer the city. During daytime the fortress offers some great views, and during night the whole place is lit up by floodlights. The only other remaining Venetian building on the harbour is the arsenal.
The City Walls
The border between the fortified old town, which was known as Candia, and the rest of Heraklion is clearly marked by the massive city walls. It is in fact possible to walk the whole way round on top of them. You’ll be rewarded with some nice views, and some not so great, looking straight at people’s roof tops.
At the southwestern corner of the walls, on the Martinengo Bastion, lies the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1947). He is the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, and also a native of Heraklion.
The open air market is one of the most charming remains of the old city, an can offer all kinds of foods, from the expected fruits, vegetables, fish and meat, to cheeses, yoghurts and spices. In addition to food, there’s also souvenirs, leather goods and all kind of knick knacks you may or may not need. And you often feel like you’re in a bazaar further east than Europe.
The Archeological Museum of Heraklion
The museum was founded in 1937 because of all the Minoan sites on Greece. The finds has made The Archeological Museum of Heraklion the most important collection of Minoan artifacts anywhere, and also the second largest museum in Greece. If you are planning to go to Knossos, a visit here first will help you get into context. Some of the most famous exhibits are the Hall of Frescoes, with frescoes found at Knossos, and the Phaestos Disc, which has still undeciphered Minoan linear script on it.
The museum is a popular destination for tour groups and tourists in general, so try to go early in the morning or late in the evening, if you want to avoid the crowds.
The Historical Museum
This museum covers the period from early Christianity to the modern age, including plenty of Byzantian, Venetian and Turkish items. The prideof the museum is a painting by El Greco, Crete’s most famous painter. It also has a recreation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s’ study.
The Museum of Religious Art
Here you can see the finest collection of Cretan icons in the world. The museum is housed in a church, built in the fifteenth century. The church was one of the centres of the Cretan Renaissance, and its students produced many works where Byzantine tradition mixed with Venetian Renaissance. Among the most famous students were Vitzentzos Kornaros, El Greco and Mihailis Dhamaskinos. The latter has six of his works displayed here.
Right outside Heraklion lies the palace of Knossos, the remains of the Minoan capital, and the biggest tourist attraction on Crete. The Minoans ruled Crete and several of the nearby islands between approximately 2650 BC and 1450 BC, when the Minoans sites, including Knossos, were abandoned.
The ruins of Knossos were rediscovered in 1878 by the Cretan antiquarian Minos Kalokairinos, In 1900 the wealthy archeologist Arthur Evans bought the site, and started massive excavations, and uncovered a large Minoan palace. Knossos was used as both a religious as well as an administrative centre, with hundreds of interlinked rooms. This could be the origin to the myth of the Labyrinth that was built by Daedalus for King Minos, to hold the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature.
Knossos was the capital of the first great civilization in Europe, and the colourful frescoes and grand courtyards makes this one of the most remarkable arhceological sites in the world, and certainly worth a visit by everyone who comes to Crete.
How to get there
Nikos Kazantzakis Airport is 5 km east of the city, and is actually the second busiest airport in Greece. There are direct flights to Athens, Thessaloniki, Rhodes, Santorini and several other of the islands. During summer there’s also many international flighs from all over Europe, because of Crete’s popularity as a holiday destination.
Heraklion has a busy port with daily ferries to Piraeus outside Athens, as well as frequent connections to many of the other islands.