Guide to Heraklion


Heraklion: The largest and best-known city of Crete (and the fifth-largest of all Greece), Heraklion is the commercial and political center of the island as well as the focal point for most visitors. Although the city itself lacks ancient remains, it has far more historical attractions than many people realize. Above all, it houses the world’s supreme collection of Minoan art and is the gateway to Knossos, the foremost Minoan site and to many of other points of interest for the traveler.

Principal sights

Archaeological Museum: By far the most important “sight” in Heraklion itself is the world’s unrivalled collection of Minoan art and culture. This museum would require several visits to be explored in detail.

Historical and Ethnographic Museum: Taking up where the Archaeological Museum leaves off, this is a collection of art, historical mementoes and handicrafts dating from the first years of the Christian era.

Basilica of St Mark: Built in 1239 under the Venetians, it was reconstructed after an earthquake in 1303 as the church of the Duke. The church restored in 1961 and used as an auditorium for lectures and exhibition hall.

Church of St Katherine: This church, so rich in its own historical associations, has been restored in recent years and now serves as a museum for religious art of the middle Ages on Crete.

Venetian Castle of Koules: Venetians worked on the ambitious fort we see today, constructing the major part between 1523 and 1540.

Venetian Wall and Gates: The dominating structure of Heraklion is the Venetian Wall. First erected in the fifteenth century, these ramparts were greatly enlarged and improved in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Church of Ayios Titos: An early Greek Byzantine church on the spot was evidently greatly modified by the Venetians in the 16th century, until the Turks made a major reconstruction as a mosque and finally in 1923 it reverted to the Orthodox.

Venetian Armory and Loggia: Constructed early in the 17th century in a mixed “Palladian-Renaissance” style, now the City Hall of Heraklion.

Fountain Square: The Venetian governor-general Francesco Morosini is credited with supervising its construction, in the early 17th century. The four lions on the fountain date from the 14th century.

Cathedral of Agios Minas: Erected between 1862 and 1895, it contains some notable wood-carving, as well as icons dating back to 18th century.

Knossos: Knossos is, of course, the goal of all visitors to Crete, and it lives up to its reputation. There will always be some who feel that Sir Arthur Evans carried his reconstruction rather too far, but no one ever leaves without being impressed by the majesty of the whole.

Malia Palace: Although not as dramatic as those of Knossos or Phaestos, the remains of the palace are relatively well preserved, with a minimum of restoration. There is no better way to feel the authenticity and delights of a Minoan palace than to stroll through this site in a good day, when Malia seems to hover between the mountains and the sea.

Gortyna: If there was any settlement at Gortyna during the Minoan era, it was completely overshadowed by Phaestos. Not until the great Minoan centers declined and the Dorians took over did Gortyna come into its own; it began to compete as a commercial power from the 8th century B.C. Gortyna fell to the Romans along with the rest of the island about about 67 B.C. As part of Rome’s imperial vision, Gortyna became the seat of a praetor, the capital of Crete and the province of Cyrenaica.

Phaestos: The history of Pheastos is not so well known as that of Knossos, although recent excavations are bringing much to light. It is said to have been founded by Minos, but it is traditionally associated with his brother Rhadamanthys-also a noted legislator. The development of Phaestos, both political and architectural, seems to have paralleled that of Knossos, although it was never so extensive in power or so intricate in structure. The materials and workmanship at the palace of Phaestos were however at least as good as at Knossos.

Matala: Until the mid 1960s, Matala was frequented only in the summer, and mainly by Cretans and the occasional foreigner; for a combination of reasons, Matala was “adopted” by the international youth set conviently labeled as “hippies” and it has never been the same.

Tylissos: Tylissos hardly compares the major Minoan sites, but it is still of some interest; as so often on Crete, it is the setting that satisfies. Three Minoan villas and a post-Minoan megaron were excavated here in the years before the First World War.

Lassithi Plain and Diktain Cave: The birth-cave of Zeus and the plateau known as “The Valley of the Windmills” requires a full day, especially if some of the sites en route are taken in. From 8 to 10 km. long and 4 to 7 km. wide, the plain appears almost symmetrical, an alluvial plateau in that the run-off from the slopes has deposited a thick soil, making for some of the most productive land on Crete. The cave, a gaping split in the mountain-side, was brought to light back in the 1880s by local men.

Cave of Kamares: Used in Neolithic times as shelter, it became a sacred cave for the Minoans; here were found some of the most eloquent witnesses to the Minoans’ artistry – the thin, polychrome, delicately decorated pottery that is known as “Kamares ware”