Eastern Crete is home to Heraklion, on the northern side of Crete. It is both the largest city, a major port and the capital of the island. Here you will find constant activity because most tourists arrive here first when they come to Crete. It is a place rich with history and archaeological sites, including the Palace of Knossos. Crete combines natural wonders, agriculture, and plenty of industry to accommodate the tourist's desires to shop, eat, relax, and learn all at once. Tourists will delight in the family-run tavernas that supply the hungry visitor with delicious choice of meat like lamb and pork, and a host of specialty cheeses and wines.
The disk of Phaistos.
“Heraklion 17” by Shadowgate is licensed under CC BY 2.0
However, Crete's landscape is probably its biggest asset. Its coastline has earned it the nickname Big Blue. Cretans enjoy the water that surrounds them, as do tourists. A favorite sport at most any beach is windsurfing, and rentals are normally available. Much of the terrain on Crete is rough, but this can also make for a nice challenge if you are a hiker, biker, or nature enthusiast. For those less physically inclined, Crete offers plenty of museums and unique activities that will allow you to take it easy and enjoy. Bird watching, for example, is common in Heraklion, where migratory birds fly en masse. Regardless of your interests, Crete is sure to inspire awe with its rich history and modern splendor.
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Archaeological evidence shows that Heraklion probably arose during the 9th c. B.C. and was named in tribute to the Greek goddess Rhea, mother of Zeus. Like most Mediterranean cities, Heraklion has a long and turbulent history. Officially founded by the Saracens in the 9th c., the Byzantine Empire invaded in 961 only to lose control to the Crusaders who sold Crete to the Venetians in 1211 for a thousand silver coins.
“Heraklion Venetian fort and sea wall” by Robert Young is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Heraklion flourished once more under the Venetians. Throughout the city you'll find stunning reminders of their influence: the Loggia, Venetian Walls, and Fountain of Morosini are just a few must-see examples. But Heraklion is probably best known as the gateway to the breathtaking 4,000 year-old Minoan ruins at Knossos and to the famous windmills stretched across the Lassithi Plateau.
Heraklion is celebrating its rich history, and moving forward to a future full of potential. Where, at one time, the number of cars in the city center would have made walking difficult, you will now find large city-center spaces cleared of traffic. One can enjoy walking in one of the most historically and socially fascinating cities of the Mediterranean, on streets free from traffic noise and rush. The city has opened up in so many ways, making the city a place of discovery. Many landmarks tell their story about the city and the island that gave birth to gods, to rebellion, and to a place that inspires everyone who feels the spirit of Crete. Heraklion today lives between the fast moving currents of regeneration and a deep desire to maintain links with a past. Both these strands define its character. In the last hundred years alone, we have seen huge changes, which can be quite easily followed, in buildings and streets that reflect the changing fortunes of Crete. The ‘old town'' areas of the city, established from medieval times, now offer visitors some fantastic walks in the heart of the city. You may begin a walk around Heraklion, starting at the fishing port close to the Rocca al Mare, also known by its Turkish name, Koules. For centuries it was used as protection against invaders, as were the great city walls and ditches. These are among the longest city walls in Europe. With its huge dark hallways and cells, the fortress was also a prison to the many Cretan rebels who broke the rules imposed by successive occupiers of Crete. Koules offers a commanding view of the city. Nowadays, the harbor itself is home to brightly colored fishing boats and busy tavernas offering fresh fish. Looking back towards the city you will see the strong arches which housed boats under repair and were used as an arsenal for storing guns and ammunition. The greatest threat to the Venetian stronghold of Heraklion, or Candia, as it was named, was thought to come from the seaward side of the city, and indeed, many naval skirmishes were fought off this coast. The view northward takes in the uninhabited island of Dia, where evidence of ancient Minoan settlement (approx 2700-1450 BC) was found by Jacques Cousteau. Boat trips can be booked from travel shops throughout central Heraklion, as can excursions to various places of interest.
The ruins of the Minoan Palace of Knossos. Photo by Nicos Kontos, '60s, courtesy Greek National Tourist Organization.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum Heraklion Archaeological Museum is world famous, and is renowned for its vast array of exhibits from Crete and all over Greece, including a collection of treasures from the Minoans – the oldest European civilization. The museum was just honored as the 2017 European Museum of the Year by the European Museum Forum (EMF) that took place in Zagreb, Croatia May 3-6, 2017.
Knossos Palace 20-25 minutes from the center of Heraklion, the visitor will find the Palace of Knossos, Crete's archaeological gem, and the largest and most important of the Minoan palaces. Dating back 7,000 years, Knossos was the mythological home of King Minos who kept the menacing Minotaur in the palace's underground labyrinth. For some it is the major reason to visit Crete. You could spend anywhere from 1 - 3 hours or more here, depending on your interest in archaeology.
Kera Kardiotissa Monastery Considered Crete's most important Byzantine church, inside you'll find remarkably vivid frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries. The monastery is equally famous for its Virgin Mary icon, which is believed to have performed miracles.
Thrapsano Village Thrapsano is renowned for its pottery and ceramics. This ancient art form has flourished here dating back over 4,000 years and Thrapsano's craftsmen are said to be descendants of Minoan potters.
History Museum on Sophocleus Venizelou.
The Battle of Crete Museum.
The Venetian Loggia on 25th August Street, a two-floor Venetian mansion completed in 1628, used to be a meeting place for the local nobles.
The Municipal Gallery and Basilica of St. Mark with an ever-changing variety of exhibitions from early photographs of Crete, to specific works of art - have a look to see if there is a current exhibition.
The Koules Venetian Fortress on the harbor walls, built in the early 1500's. Both for the impressive stone mass of its fortification and unfathomably solid walls, the pleasure of views from its turret and roof, restored interior and exterior reliefs of the Lion of St. Mark.
The Natural History Museum of Crete. The museum is in the converted old electricity power plant. Has wonderful displays and good descriptive details about the flora and fauna, the wildlife, of Crete. An exciting feature is the "experience an earthquake" platform in the basement of the museum. It's a thrill for kids and educational for adults. There is also a not-to-be-missed childrens' area with caves and all sorts of play/learning materials (it's actually even fun for adults!).
CretAquarium - Thalassocosmos. is a 5000 sq. meter structure, it is both a research center (housing the Institute of Marine Biology & Genetics and the Institute of Oceanography) and a fun, impressive aquarium with 60 tanks (representing interesting underwater Cretan sea landscapes) and over 100 viewing points. 2500 organisms of 200 Mediterranean marine species, from hunter sharks to lobsters, to colorful jellyfish.
On the walk down 25th August Street from Dedalou to the sea (before most of the shops are turned over to car rental offices) is the church of Agios Titos, a beautiful building, Byzantine in origin, then rebuilt in the 16th century by the Venetians. The building was taken over by the Turks who converted it into a mosque and rebuilt it after the 1856 earthquake. It was renovated and re-consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Church in 1925. Fronted by a spacious square which accommodates a municipally run outdoor restaurant in the summer months and the interesting Pagopoieion restaurant/cafe/bar by the side of the church.
The church of Agia Ekaterini Sinaites - now a theological museum, is on the edge of the square surrounding the much larger and better known Agios Minas. It has some very fine Byzantine icons.