The Town works as the main transportation hub and capital of the island and has many developed tourist places. Malia, Hersonissos and Stalida are the most popular resorts attracting mainly young people due to the vivid nightlife. The rest of Heraklion is great for family holidays, as the beaches are calm and relaxing.
Apart from relaxing in the amazing beach resorts, do not miss a visit to the archaeological sites of the region: the Minoan Palaces of Knossos and Phaestos, the Caves of Matala, the Medieval Castles, the Byzantine monasteries and the ancient sites. Many festivals and panigiria are organized in summer in various villages and attending such a festival is a nice experience of local tradition.
The ancient history of Heraklion is strongly associated with the Minoan Palace of Knossos. Ancient historians such as Strabo refer to Heraklion as the port of Knossos, the center of Minoan civilization. This period reached its peak from the 16th to the 14th century BC and excavations have revealed a wealth society that based its economy on agriculture and trade.
The Minoans had developed an important navigation system, had built ships and had made beautiful pots to restore their trading goods, usually olive oil, cereals and wine. This was a peaceful society as archaeologists believe, since no fortifications protected the towns. The space-planning of the era is impressive and so are the frescoes that have been discovered in the palace of Knossos. This civilization was destroyed in about 1,500 BC, when the volcanic eruption of Santorini raised tsunami waves in the Aegean and covered these towns in volcanic ashes.
The centuries that followed was not very prosperous for Crete. Only in the Roman times, there was some development, when Ancient Gortyn was established in southern Heraklion. Then, Crete became part of the Byzantine Empire but it was frequently raided by pirates and enemies.
During the 9th century, the Arabs occupied Crete and founded at the site of Heraklion a new town called Radth al Khandak (Castle of Handakas). The following century, the Byzantines took over the island and remained there until the 13th century. In 14th century, the city of Heraklion was surrendered to the Venetians, who ruled Crete for four centuries. This was the most prosperous period for Heraklion with a great development in arts, trade, architecture and literature. Many intellectuals and artists found refuge there after the fall of Constantinoupolis in 1453.
The construction of the defensive walls lasted for a whole century and the strategic importance of these fortifications was revealed in the battle between the Ottomans and the Venetians, which lasted for many years.
After the siege of the Turks for 25 years, the Venetians were forced to abandon the town. The Cretans fought against the Turks for many times the centuries that followed and in 1898 the island gained its autonomy. It was finally united with the rest of Greece in 1913.
Again, due to its strategic position, Heraklion was attacked by the German forces in 1941. The war caused many destructions and the city was largely damaged. Today, a plethora of Venetian monuments still survive in the town like the old defensive walls which are built around Heraklion, the emblematic fortress, the fountains and other art works of European character.
On top of a hill outside the Walls, there is the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, the famous writer from Crete and near the New Gate there is also a theater to his honour.
Museums - Archeological
Known as the largest town in Crete, Heraklion is home to remarkable museums and ancient sites, all being part of the Cretan history that begins from antiquity. The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion impresses with its outstanding collection of findings from excavations in Knossos, Pheastos, Gortyn, Aharnes, Matala and other regions. The museum also features exhibits from the Minoan civilization as well as a vast collection of traces from the Neolithic period including ceramics, pottery, sculptures from the Hellenistic period, statuettes, rings, coins and other findings from the ancient tombs.
The Historical Museum of Heraklion is dedicated to the Cretan culture where you can see an interesting collection of artifacts, frescoes, icons, portraits and many other findings from the Minoan sites. The finds are arranged in a chronological and thematical order offering visitors the chance to discover the rich Cretan heritage.
The beautiful basilica of Saint Ekaterini houses the interesting Byzantine collection of various manuscripts, frescoes and byzantine icons. If you travel to Myrtia village, you shall pay a visit at the museum dedicated to Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the most famous Greek writers. El Greco Museum is also an ideal stop for the lovers of art who will admire a great collection of the painter's works.
Heraklion provides excellent facilities for children as well like the Cretaquarium which is the largest aquarium of the Mediterranean. There you can see the rich marine life, the outstanding landscapes and rare sea creatures. Likewise, families can also visit Aqualand water park, a place that protects the sea animals and hosts a vast collection of reptiles.
Matala, Hersonissos, Amoudara, Amnissos, Tymbaki, Stalida, Agia Pelagia, Malia, Agia Pelagia Mononaftis, Agia Pelagia Psaromoura, Agiofaraggo, Analipsi, Dermatos, Fodele, Gouves, Kalamaki, Karteros, Keratokambos, Kokkini Hani, Kokkinos Pyrgos, Komos, Lygaria, Paleokastro, Psari Forada, Sidonia, Tertsa, Tobrouk, Treis Ekklisies, Tsoutsouros, Linoperamata, Messara Gulf
Religious Monasteries and Churches
Heraklion is the largest town of Crete reflecting on the different civilizations that flourished through the ages. In the heart of the city you can see Byzantine monuments standing next to Venetian buildings, whereas in the villages one can admire numerous abandoned monasteries and ancient churches.
The impressive Cathedral of Saint Minas dominates the heart of Heraklion, one of the largest churches of Greece. It is the saint protector of the island and it stands out for its two bell towers.
The square of Saint Catherine is a pure oasis for the city, in the middle of which lies the church of Saint Catherine built by the Venetians in 1555. The church hosts a fine collection of icons painted by El Greco, among other important artists. Another church that adorns the city of Heraklion is Agios Titos, a beautiful Byzantine monument with three naves dedicated to Agios Spyridon, Agios Titos and Agios Nikolaos. The Venetians used it as a Catholic Cathedral.
The churches of Michael the Archangel and Profitis Elias are the landmarks of Arkalochori village, outside the town. They are fine examples of Byzantine architecture.
During the first years of Venetian ruling, in the village of Virizia was founded the holy monastery of Valsamonerou. Today only the churches have survived dedicated to three saints Agios Fanourios, Agios Ioannis and the Virgin Mary. The abandoned monastery is a unique masterpiece and is worth a visit.
Far from the city of Heraklion, between the villages Messara and Moires lies the female monastery of kaliviani. The church was built in 1873 over the ruins of an ancient church monastery where it was discovered the icon of the Virgin. Kaliviani monastery leads by example for its charity work to the poor.