Heraklion, also known as Iraklio, is a surprise for travellers who are accustomed to Greek ports in the northern Aegean Sea. It is the fourth largest city in Greece (with a population of about 150,000 inhabitants), being Crete’s administrative and commercial centre. Despite the difficult period the whole island goes through – in winter, unemployment exceeds 25% – the area around the university is full of life, with a sophisticated air, similar to other university cities in Greece, such as Patra or Ioannina. But this is not the only face of the city. In the area next to the port, you will find many fishing boats owned by the locals, the base of the fish trade, and on the narrow streets, there are various workshops.
The truth is that Heraklion is not the most attractive city; intensely bombed during the Second World War, it was subsequently the victim of poorly developed renovation projects. Only recently, it began projects for the conservation and restoration of medieval buildings and public monuments. Take the time to explore the narrow streets behind the crowded boulevards, and you won’t regret it.
Heraklion was once an important port during the Minoan civilization, becoming known as Heracleum during Roman rule. The Andalusians who founded the Emirate of Crete built a large castle here. The Venetians established their capital here, renaming the city and the island of Heraklion. Candia prospered under Venetian control, and when the Turkish armies invaded the island, it took 22 years to conquer it in 1669. Kandiye, as the Turks called it, was not crucial to the Ottoman Empire, so the development of the city (and therefore the island) stagnated until the union with Greece, which brought a new breath. Again, it was declared the capital in 1971, a title previously held by Chania, located further west. The well-known painter El Greco was born in Heraklion, whose real name is Doménikos Theotokópoulos.
The city centre is inside the fortress built by the Venetians and fortified by the Ottomans. If you want to realize how big the citadel was, walk along the walls. The city’s heart is the small Platía Venizélou (Venizelos Square), full of cafes and restaurants. In the centre is the Morosini Fountain, which dates from the Venetian period. However, the lion statues are 300 years older and have made the locals nickname the place Platía Leondária (Lion Square). From here, you can walk to most of Heraklion’s major attractions, one of the closest being Ágios Markos (St. Mark’s). This Venetian church now houses an art gallery.
To the north, along the pedestrian street Ikostipémptis Avgoustou (25 August Street), you can see the impressive face of the Venetian Lodge, originally built in 1628, but rebuilt after the Second World War. The municipal offices in Heraklion are located partly here and partly in Andrógeio Mégaro. Stroll around the lodge and you will find the Church of Ágios Títos founded at the end of the first millennium, in honour of St. Titus, the first bishop and protector of the island. When the church was consecrated, the saint’s body was brought here from Gortys. The Venetians took the relics with them to Venice when they left Crete, and the church was turned into a mosque after an earthquake in 1856, which explains the decorations on the exterior walls of the building. In 1966, Venetian authorities returned the skeleton of St. Titus, which is now in the church, along with paintings depicting moments in his life. A little further on is a small park with cafes.
Continue on 25 August Street, and you will reach the waterfront and the majestic Venetian Fortress, built to protect the port. On the way, you will pass the arches of the arsenália (depots for the repair of Venetian boats) and past the fleet of fishing boats, small and colourful, full of yellow nets. The fortress was completed in 1540 to protect the city from Ottoman threats. If we look at the construction, we can understand how Candia managed to withstand the attacks long after the rest of Crete had been conquered. The fortress was reopened in 2016, along with a new exhibition that presents its history. The interior tour gives you an overview in this regard, and the view from the ramparts is breathtaking.
After a short walk west, along the seafront, next to the former Dominican monastery Ágios Pétros (St. Peter), you will reach the Museum of History of Crete, housed in an impressive building, half Venetian villa, half modern glass building. The museum tells the history of Crete, divided by themes, rather than chronologically, from the period of the Byzantine Empire to the present, containing elements of ethnography. The collection includes icons and fragments of frescoes rescued from churches on the island, stone sculptures, documents attesting to the Jewish, Muslim and Armenian communities on the island, textiles and even the interior of a traditional Cretan house. Representations depicting Heraklion at various historical moments show how the city changed. With the interactive model of the medieval town, you can see many of the monuments that were unfortunately destroyed in 1897. You will notice the importance given to the struggle for Cretan independence and resistance in World War II (including the 1942 sabotage of the German airfield). You can admire the only two El Greco paintings left on the island.
Crete Museum of Natural History is nearby, in a former seaside factory. The museum has an interesting collection of flora and fauna specimens. And even an earthquake simulator where visitors can experience an earthquake with a magnitude of up to 6 degrees on the Richter scale (once every half hour).
South of Lions Square is 1866 Street called “Market Street”, which retains a bazaar atmosphere. You can walk among the stalls with fresh products and souvenirs, or you can eat something at one of the many ouzerís, where market workers dine. At the southern end of the street is Platía Kornárou (Kornarou Square), where you will see an Ottoman hexagonal building (now home to a café) near the Bembo Fountain (Kríni Bémbou). This was created in 1588 from reused architectural elements, including the torso of a Roman statue.
A short distance to the northwest from here, along the inner road, you will reach the Platía Agías Ekaterinis (St. Catherine’s Square), where the Ágios MinásCathedral of the 19th century makes the other two church buildings look tiny. The nearby church is also called Ágios Minás and has a splendid iconoclast – if the church is closed, ask for the key to the cathedral. Behind these two churches is the altar of the XV century, from which comes the name of the square: Agía Ekaterini (St. Catherine). It originally belonged to the monastery of the same name, located in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. Today, here is the Museum of St. Catherine, with lots of art objects brought from churches and the monasteries on the island, including six large icons by the well-known Cretan artist Mikhail Damaskinos.
From Lion Square, head southeast along Dedálou Pedestrian Street to reach the city’s most important tourist attraction, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. With one of the most impressive archaeological collections in the world, the museum brings together discoveries from all over the island, from every historical epoch of Crete. In place of honour are the objects of Minoan civilization.
Being the preeminent centre of these ancient people, Crete is the primary source of information about the Minoan people due to archaeological discoveries. Although the museum would be pretty impressive and if it did not contain anything else, you can also see many ancient Greek and Roman objects. So this must enter your holiday list because the objects here will help you understand better the other ancient sites, which are now empty. Museum reopened in 2014, after an intense renovation program. To truly appreciate its beauty, you need to devote a few good hours to the visit. The details on the ceramic objects and frescoes, as well as the craftsmanship of the jewellery, are fascinating. Try to arrive as early as possible or late in the afternoon to avoid organized groups that generally come around noon. The 24 rooms are organized in chronological order, starting with the Neolithic period and up to the Roman period. The objects are grouped according to where they were discovered. The only room that does not meet this criterion of chronology is the one dedicated to Minoan paintings and sculptures on the wall.
The oldest objects found on the island date from 7000 B.C. from the neolithic and protopalatial periods. Most were located at Mohlotes, on the northeast coast of the island. Among the small wax objects on display is a bull with an acrobat holding on to one of the animal’s horns, quite simply worked, and more meticulously worked objects, such as pyxis (a jewellery box) made of stone, decorated with geometric elements and a lying animal. Discoveries from the protopalatial period (2000-1700 B.C.) include early examples of Kamáres pottery found in the ruins of Knossos. Miniature objects are also on display, absolutely fascinating, including a series of tiny plates representing the facades of Minoan houses.
However, the most delicate discovery is that of the Phaistos Palace, the Disc of Phaistos, a ceramic disc with a diameter of 16 cm, decorated with hieroglyphs and geometric symbols that have not yet been deciphered.
The objects belonging to the golden age of the Minoan civilization – the neo-palatial period (1700-1450 B.C.) – were discovered mainly in the palaces of Knossos, Mália and Phaistos. It is worth mentioning the beautiful rhyton (libation vessel) carved from black soapstone in the shape of a bull’s head. Taurus was one of the most important religious symbols for the Minoans, and this piece was most likely created by one of the most skilled craftsmen of the time.
There are also objects dating from the end of the Minoan civilization (1450-1400 B.C.). It is worth stopping on ceramics and stone objects. Still, the most important exhibits are the inscribed ceramic tablets, the meanings of which have not yet been deciphered (group A). Those in Group B were deciphered in 1952, being of Mycenaean origin, which shows that the Minoans had already lost control of major cities at the time of their writing.
There is also an exquisite replica of a Minoan house at the museum, with a roof terrace and small windows, meant to keep away the scorching sun and the strong winds of Crete.
The tombs from the neo-palatial and post-palatial periods also contained beautiful ceramic objects and caps, sword handles, and gold jewellery.
The collection of household and personal tools found in the palaces around the royal chambers, Megara, includes stone, ceramic, axes and even a pottery wheel. There are also some beautifully carved soapstone vessels, including the Harvest Vase discovered at Agía Triáda and decorated with reliefs depicting men working in the fields.
Some of the objects come from the palace in Zakros, in the far east of Crete. The “marine” amphora is decorated with octopuses and argonauts. A rhyton of stone and crystal is proof of the mastery and good taste that characterized the neopalatal period. There are objects from other areas of the eastern region of Crete, from the post-palace period (1400-1100 B.C.) and from the period between 1100 and 650 B.C., including a rich collection of gold jewellery. You can also see painted Minoan sarcophagi, many decorated with fish and birds.
The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion is where you can see the most beautiful frescoes found on the territory of the Minoan kingdom, dating from 1600 -1400 B.C. They show how the Minoans worked and had fun and the important symbols for them – the bull and other terrestrial and marine animals. Men – who probably spent more time in the sun – are coloured in shades of red, while women who were perhaps safer – are always painted white.
The spiral decorations that adorn the only stone sarcophagus found on the island (at Agía Triáda) frame scenes of libation and other religious activities. You can also examine a miniature of the Knossos palace, which is believed to have been made according to its early form.
The ring of King Minos is a gold ring, engraved, found in 1928, near the palace of Knossos and which was long considered a fake until it was verified by experts in 2002.
The museum also has a shop where you can buy books and views and a cafe, but there are more across the driveway.
Contemporary art lovers will most likely want to visit the Museum of Visual Arts, located on Nymphon Street no. 3, east of the Archaeological Museum, founded in 2000. The museum’s collection contains works by some of the most important contemporary artists with Cretan origins.