General Information on Heraklion
Heraklion is one of the four prefectures of Crete. Covering the central part of the island, it is divided in 7 provinces. The middle of the prefecture has fertile valleys and plains, the most important being the plains of Messara. Heraklion is densely inhabited and tourist may visit multiple villages in a go.
Most of the beaches in the North are sandy, well protected from winds, due to bays and coves. The southern coasts are open, with a single bay, that of Messara. Partly sandy and partly pebbly, the beaches have crystal-clear waters and an interesting seabed. Heraklion is a wealthy place. Along with traditional agricultural activities, tourism is also a main resource of income in the area, attracting visitors all year round, thanks to beautiful beaches, archaeological sites, amazing landscapes, impressive gorges and numerous traditional villages.
History of Heraklion
Undoubtedly, during the Minoan and Mycenaean periods, Knossos was the most important city, an economic and cultural centre. Archaeological remains from the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods appear periodically in different areas. The site of modern Heraklion has been settled since the Neolithic times. This settlement served as a port of Knossos at the time.
In 824 AD, the Saracens captured this settlement and named it El Khandak (= moat) because of the strong walls protecting the city, surrounded by a deep moat. The Byzantine Empire liberated it in 961 AD. After 1204 and the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders, Crete was given to Boniface of Monferrat, who sold it to Venice. Venetians ruled here until 1699, when the town, now named Candia, starting flourishing. It became a cultural and educational centre, and many artists and scholars came here after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
In 1462, the Venetians fortified the city by building a huge triangular wall, 4 kilometres long and bearing seven bastions. A harbour was also built, along with plenty architectural marvels such as buildings, fountains, squares and churches. It was a time of prosperity for the city, and art and literature developed considerably.
After 21 years of siege, one of the longest in history, the town surrendered to the Turks in 1669. They changed the name to Megalo Kastro (Big Castle) and its destroyed fortifications were repaired. As Turkish occupation was strongly resented by Cretans, guerrilla fights and revolutionary movements were organised very often. The Turks reacted strongly, sometimes leading to massacres (like in 1828 and 1898). The town fell into darkness and slavery.
In 1913, Heraklion, as the rest of Crete, was annexed to newly formed Greece, and it grew in size. During World War II, Germans occupied the island, and the Cretans participated in various resistance movements against fascism. During the Battle of Crete, the Germans bombed the city, causing great damages. After the war, the city was rebuilt and developed rapidly during the last decades.
Towns & Villages in Heraklion
Heraklion Town: Heraklion is the fourth largest city in Greece and capital of the homonymous prefecturel it is the administrative, commercial, industrial and agricultural centre of the island. Because of the spectacular development the town has experienced after the World War II, Heraklion faces the problems of a quickly built modern city, such as disorderly construction, traffic jams, lack of parking space, impersonal neighbourhoods etc.
Despite its drawbacks, Heraklion still has a beauty of its own, and the archaeological sites around the city definitely make amends. The Old port of the city is one of the few preserved areas, and the Venetian Fortress or Koules is very impressive. It was built at the entrance of the old Venetian port, as a means of protection from pirate raids.
Hersonisos: Limenas Hersonisou is the most cosmopolitan resort of the prefecture and possibly of the island. It is situated 27km east of Heraklion Town and has a wide range of hotels for every budget, rooms to let as well as camp sites. Many taverns, restaurants, cafes and clubs can be found here, along with small coves for swimming. The resort has a long, sandy beach with many tourist facilities, which can get crowded during summer. The little village of Hersonisos nearby seems indifferent to the hustle and bustle of the port, keeping its simplicity and authenticity.
Malia: Malia lies 36km away from Heraklion at the northern coast of Crete. This coastal town welcomes thousands of visitors every summer and has all necessary tourist facilities. The town expands over a large area and is divided into the old and the modern part. The old town has narrow alleys and is the tourist attraction of the city. Taverns, bars and shops are abundant here. The modern town still develops and the municipality has made a lot of effort to preserve the old and authentic character of Malia. The town is known due to the homonymous archaeological site, with one of the most important Minoan palaces. Apart from the palace, a very important necropolis has been found near the coast, northeast of the palace.
Kasteli: This small town lies 36km southeast of Heraklion Town on fertile plains, full of olive trees and vineyards. It is the commercial and agrarian centre of the area, and a farmer's market takes place every Wednesday. Accommodations and restaurants can be found here. 4km away are the ruins of Ancient Lytos, a powerful town during Dorian times and a rival of Knossos.
Viannos: This picturesque village is built amphitheatrically on the southern foot of Dikti Mountain. It is situated 65km southeast of Heraklion Town. The village has retained its traditional features, such as old houses, uphill narrow streets and stone fountains, in the shadow of old plane trees. Some rooms are available to rent, and you will find excellent food and abundant “tsikoudia”, the local alcoholic drink, in taverns and cafes.
Stalida: Stalida is a popular and crowded tourist resort situated 3km west of Malia and 33km east of Heraklion Town. Accommodations of any kind can be found here as well as taverns, restaurants and bars. The main attraction of this resort is the diverse beaches, a short distance from the village.
Agia Pelagia: The village of Agia Pelagia is situated 24km from the capital city of the prefecture. The settlement is another well-known tourist resort with marvellous sandy beaches and well protected small coves. Thanks to its wide tourist facilities, the village receives a large number of visitors. Accommodation is plenty and for every budget, both in the village and in the nearby tourist resorts of Mononaftis, Lygaria, Made and Paleokastro. 15km away towards south, lies the Savathianon Monastery, while 5km from Agia Pelagia is the village of Ahlada. The settlement has a magnificent view over the sea and the twin church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. Trifonas; the church has a beautiful woodcarved icon screen.
Beaches in Heraklion
Amoudara: This beach is situated in the Gulf of Heraklion, 5km west of the capital, on the northern coast of the prefecture. It is a very well organised beach, offering a wide range of accommodation facilities, taverns, restaurants and cafes. Amoudara has soft golden sand and crystal-clear waters and has been awarded the EU Blue Flag. Access from Heraklion is very easy, with frequent bus routes, as well as taxis, rented cars and motorbikes.
Linoperamata: This beach is in front of the tourist resort of the same name and it is well organised.
Fodele: This beach is situated 3km away from the homonymous picturesque village, 23km west of Heraklion. It is a sandy beach often affected by “meltemia” (summer northern winds). Fodele is an organised beach with easy access from the capital, as public buses run regularly.
Lygaria: This beach is situated 2km east of Agia Pelagia tourist resort and 17km from Heraklion. The beach is sandy, long and organised. It is also well protected by winds as it lies within a small cove.
Karteros: This beach is situated 8km from Heraklion near the beach of Amnisos. It has fine, soft golden sand and tourist facilities. It has also been awarded the EU Blue Flag for the cleanliness of its waters.
Kokkini Ammos (=Red Sand): This beach is one of the most beautiful of the Heraklion prefecture. It is situated within an area of unique beauty in the Messara bay, 69km from Heraklion Town. The beach is sandy with turquoise waters and tourist facilities.
Agiofarago: The beach of Agiofarago (=the gorge of the saints) is found at the exit of the homonymous impressive gorge, in the southern coast of Crete. Southeast of the village Kali Limenes, at a distance of more that 80km from Heraklion, this pebbly beach is well protected from winds. Its wild beauty is untouched by tourism; nudism is tolerated.
Kali Limenes: This beach is situated about 80km from Heraklion in front of the village with the same name. It is pebbly, well protected from winds and it is surrounded by an amazing landscape. The beach is not organised and access from the capital is possible by car and motorbikes.
Stalida: This beach is in front of the resort with the same name. It is sandy and has shallow waters and many tourist facilities. The beach is open to the North and thus affected by northern winds. Access from the capital is possible by public bus, taxi, car and motorbike. The beaches of the area are beautiful, some of them sandy and suitable for swimming and others rocky, ideal for snorkelling.
Tobrouk: The beach is named after the tavern that operates here and lies within the bay of Heraklion. Tobrouk is a sandy beach, well organised and situated 10km away from Heraklion town. Its proximity to the capital has made this beach one of the most popular and thus, gets crowded during summer.
Top Things to Do in Heraklion
1. Phaistos: Phaistos was one of the most important centres of Minoan civilization, and the most wealthy and powerful city in southern Crete. It had been inhabited since the Neolithic period, until the foundation of Minoan palaces in the 15th century BC. The city covered an extensive area around the palatial centre. After the destruction of the palace in the 15th century, the city continued to be inhabited in the Mycenaean and Geometric periods, until the 8th century BC. Later, the temple of Rhea was built south of the old palace. In Hellenistic times, the city prospered; houses of the period can be seen in the west court of the palace. In the middle of the 2nd century BC, it was destroyed and captured by the neighbouring city of Gortyn.
Traces of habitation dating to the Venetian period are scattered around. According to mythology, Phaistos was the seat of king Radamanthis, brother of king Minos. It was also the birthplace of Epimenidis, one of the seven wise men of the ancient world. Today, visitors of Phaistos can see the Old and the New Palace. The Old Palace was built at the beginning of the 2nd millennium, known as the Protopalatial Period (1900-1700 BC). It was severely damaged by earthquakes and rebuilt twice, thus three distinct phases are visible. When the Old Palace was completely destroyed, a new palace was built from scratch. In the central, peristyle court lie the royal quarters, the storerooms, a lustral basin, and workshops. The monumental propylon and the large staircases facilitated access to the many terraces. Southeast and northwest of the palace, sections of the town have been discovered at the sites Chalara and Agia Photeini. Furthermore, west of the palace, lies the Venetian church of St. George of Phalandra. Phaistos is situated 62km south of Heraklion and regular buses connect the two areas.
2. Agia Triada: Agia Triada is situated a couple of kilometres from Phaistos on the western slope of a 30-40 meter hill. Remains of a settlement and graves prove that the site has been inhabited as early as the 3rd millennium BC. It remained inhabited throughout the Middle Minoan period, but it is still unknown how important the city was at that time. It is likely that the settled area was as large as it was in later times, though there is no evidence of grandiose buildings on the scale of the so-called Small Palace or Royal Villa that was built in the Neopalatian period. The villa was built in 1600 BC and was destroyed in the 15th century BC. An imposing megaron of the Mycenaean type was erected on its ruins (14th-11th centuries BC) and a large settlement with a portico (marketplace) developed north of the villa. In the Geometric period, the site was a cult place, while in the Hellenistic period, a small sanctuary was founded, dedicated to Zeus Velchanos. The single-aisle church of St. George was built in the period of the Venetian occupation.
The most important monuments of the site today are the Royal Villa, which consists of two wings and presents all typical features of palatial architecture; the settlement and “Agora”, northeast of the villa, belonging to the Mycenaean period; and, the cemetery of Agia Triada, which includes two Early Minoan (3000-2300 BC) domed tombs with funerary rooms and chamber tombs of the Late Minoan period (14th century BC). Worth seeing is also the Megaron of the Mycenaean type, built over the storerooms of the Royal Villa, as well as the church of St. George.
3. Malia: The Palace of Malia is situated on the northern coast of Crete, east of Heraklion. At 7,500m², it is the third largest of the Minoan palaces. It was named after the nearby town of Malia. Human presence in the area dates to the Neolithic period (6000-3000 BC) and is attested by potsherds; until the end of prehistory, the area had been inhabited. Houses of a prepalatial settlement (2500-2000 BC) have been found under the palace, while graves of the same period are located near the sea. The first palace was built in around 2000-1900 BC. The existing settlement, of which parts are still preserved, was then converted into a palatial centre - city. It was destroyed in circa 1700 BC and was rebuilt in 1650 BC. The destruction of the new palace occurred in 1450 BC, along with the destruction of the other Minoan palatial centres.
Today, visitors of Malia may see the ruins of the New Palace period. Only a section of the first palace is preserved, northwest of the building. Access to the palace is through the western paved court, which is crossed by slightly raised paths, the so-called “processional ways”. Every side of the complex had an entrance, but the main ones were in the north and south wings.
The palace is arranged around the central court, which had porticos on the north and east sides, and an altar in the centre. The largest and most important part of the palace is the two-storey west wing with cult and official apartments, and extensive magazines. Impressive is the Loggia, a raised hall opening to the court, and the rooms to the west, all related to cult practice, the pillar crypt with an antechamber, also of religious character, and between them, the grand staircase to the upper floor. Another broad flight of steps, possibly used as a theatrical area, is located southwest of the central court. Moreover, the east wing is almost completely filled with magazines of liquids, with low platforms on which pithoi were placed, along with a system of channels and receptacles to collect liquids. Also, behind the northern arcade of the central court is the “hypostyle hall” and its antechamber. Above these rooms, on the upper storey, was a ceremonial banquet hall. To the west, a stone-paved corridor connects the central court to the north court, surrounded by workshops and storerooms, and to the northwest court or “court of the dungeon”. Further west, lie the official rooms of the palace. The palace is surrounded by the houses of one of the most important Minoan towns. The most important sector and houses of the town are sector Z, houses E, Da, and Db.
4. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion: Thousands of visitors dutifully walk through Knossos, but miss the incredible museum a few kilometres away. We suggest that you visit the museum before the archaeological site. This is one of the most important museums in Greece. Within its 20 rooms, there are exhibits that have been excavated solely in Crete, and are related to its prestigious past, from Neolithic to Roman times, through the important and prosperous Minoan period. Visitors may admire sculptures, clay figurines, superb jewels and astonishing frescoes, as well as remains from the various Minoan palaces of Crete.
5. Matala: The village of Matala is the most ancient village in Crete and it is situated about 70km south of Heraklion. It was the ancient port of Phaistos and Gortys and a former fishing community. The remains of the ancient city are still submerged in the sea. Today, this small seaside village has a lovely sandy beach that attracts a lot of tourists in summer.
The beach is famous for its artificial caves that are carved into rocks located north of the coast. Some of these caves may have been used as prehistoric dwellings, while, during the 1st and 2nd centuries, they were used as tombs. The tombs here date back to the Greek, Roman and Early Christian Times. The 1960s and early 1970s saw an increase in the number of foreigners who visited the caves. Especially during the 70s, the caves became home to an international hippie community. Great musicians like Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell have lived here, inspired by the breathtaking beauty of the area. South of the caves, there is a huge rock formation known as the rock of “Theosyni” offering a magical view of the bay. Furthermore, the rocks form an underwater cave called “Kouropi” that provides shelter to wild pigeons and Mediterranean seals. Today, the cave area is an archaeological site and can be visited for a nominal fee.
How to Reach Heraklion
Air – Domestic: The airport of Heraklion named Nikos Kazantzakis has several flights daily to Athens and few weekly to Thessaloniki, Rhodes and Santorini.
Air – International: Heraklion is also connected to numerous international destinations, especially during summertime.
Ferry: Many companies operate ferry services between Heraklion and Piraeus (10 hours). Also, there are services to Thessaloniki (23 hours) via Santorini (3 ¾ hours) and Mykonos (9 hours). These routes may also stop at Paros (7 ½ hours), Tinos (10 ¼ hours), Naxos (7 hours), Syros (10 hours) and Skiathos (17 ¾ hours).
Getting Around in Heraklion
To/From the Airport: Buses go to and from the airport every 15 minutes between 6am and 1am. Their starting point is near the Astoria Hotel on Plateia Eleftherias.
Bus: There are two buses per hour to Rethinmo (1 ½ hours) and Chania (3 hours). Moreover, there is a bus service every 10 minutes to Knossos.
Weather in Heraklion
The climate of Crete is the mildest of Greece and maybe of Europe. It is a temperate Mediterranean climate with hot and dry summers, moderated by northern winds, and mild, rainy winters in the plains. In the mountains of Crete, winters are quite harsh and it snows in the period from January to the end of February. Autumn is the mildest season in Crete, because the temperatures are often higher than in spring and lower than in summer.
Because the island is very mountainous, weather changes can be sudden, and the mountains, as a barrier, create different weather conditions in northern and southern Crete.
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Map of Heraklion