This is the chief town of Crete, a bustling and sprawling port where most of the island’s trade and industry is concentrated. Like other north Cretan ports, Heraklion is dominated by its own Venetian castle and battlements. This fortress took shape in the first half of the 16th century and for a long time was known as Rocca a Mare (Italian for Rock By The Sea).
Of course, the biggest archaeological attraction of the area is the remains of Knossos, the prime Minoan palace of ancient Crete. Lying just a few miles south of Heraklion in a wooded grove, Knossos is one of Greece’s most-visited historic sites. It was built by the Minoans about 1900BC as the base for their growing maritime empire. For four hundred years the city and palace flourished until the colossal eruption of the Thera volcano (now Santorini) in mid-Aegean sent a great tsunami southwards that almost wiped out the Minoan culture. Nonetheless, Knossos struggled on for another fifty years or so until its many enemies, encouraged by its weakened state, destroyed it around 1450BC.
The ruins of Knossos remained buried for millennia until Sir Arthur Evans, an intrepid British archaeologist, made history by diligently unearthing them in 1901. Partly restored to give some idea of what the original palace looked like, Knossos remains at the top of everyone’s must-see list for Crete.
There are plenty of high-quality resorts and beaches lining the coast of Heraklion prefecture. One lies near Fodele, just east of the city. Art buffs may recognize the name as the birthplace of Renaissance artist El Greco (or Domenikos Theotokopoulos, to give him his real name). Ammoudara, and – to the east of Heraklion airport – Hersonissos, Florida, Gournes and Malia are all popular.
At Malia (if you can ignore the occasional hordes of lager louts that inundate the place) there are archaeological sites with the remains of Minoan palaces similar to that of Knossos.
About 50km to the east, at the extremity of Heraklion prefecture, lies the ruin of the palace of Phaistos covering about 7,000 square metres. This is where the Phaistos Disk was found – a roughly circular clay disk with a series of inscriptions on it that have never been deciphered; nothing like it has ever been found anywhere in the world.
This sandy beach is on the highway from Heraklion to Rethymnon and Chania.
The village itself is two kilometres from the beach. It’s famous as the birthplace of the painter El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos).
Sixteen kilometres west of Heraklion, it has plenty of taverns, restaurants and cafes in the adjacent town. There are also many hotels and apartments. The bay of Aghia Pelaghia is sheltered from the northwesterly winds and the sea is almost always calm. Drive carefully on the winding road descending to the beach. There is another smaller sandy beach west of the Capsis Beach hotel. Ask the locals to show you the way. This beach is not sheltered from the wind.
Fifteen kilometres west of Heraklion, it is less crowded than Aghia Pelaghia.
A beach of small pebbles, it is relatively sheltered from the northerly winds, but the water becomes deep rapidly. There are a few restaurants here and some small hotels and apartments. Good for snorkelling.
A long, sandy beach in an area with many hotels, large and small. There are sunbeds, umbrellas and a lifeguard, but some parts of the beach have nothing. Cafes, restaurants and beach bars can be found if looked for. At the west end of the beach there is a windsurfing school. A course lasts one week and cost €90 euros at last year’s rates.
Florida, Karteros, EOT beach (Akti Club), Amnissos, Tobruk
These are names for various sections of a 5-mile long wide sandy beach east of Heraklion. There are beach cafes, restaurants and fish taverns nearby. Florida beach, the part closest to the airport, is less crowded as it’s right under the flight path. Don’t go topless when the pilots are concentrating on landing!
A big sandy beach along the main road, full of sunbeds. There is also a beach bar with loud music which may appeal to the younger set. Around Kokkini Hani there are also many smaller sandy beaches. Side roads lead to them, but there aren’t any road signs, so don’t hesitate to ask.
Gournes and Gouves
Sandy beaches 10-12 miles east of Heraklion.
Analipsis and Anissaras
Sandy beaches with the occasional rocky sea-bed. A few hundred yards away from the crowds, it’s possible to find a secluded spot.
Stalis or Stalida
A good sandy shallow beach. When the wind is strong, high waves may prove dangerous for inexperienced swimmers. To be treated with caution. Lifeguards are on hand.
Four miles of good sandy beach. If it gets too crowded with lager louts then go east, to Potamos beach.
This is a generic term for the several sandy beaches in this area. Some of them are very small. The sandy beach west of the port is the largest, extending to the Kreta Maris Hotel and always crowded. All facilities and watersports are available, however. The beach east of the port starts in front of the New York Bar and stretches to the east. It is also crowded. Various tiny beaches can be found in the Silva Maris Hotel area. The waves cover the beach totally on windy days. No watersports here. The Star Beach water park has some good sand. Anyone bored with sunbathing can go bungee-jumping. There are several pebbly beaches past the Lychnostatis Museum, east of Hersonissos. The Nana Beach Hotel has a sandy beach sheltered from the wind. Next to the main beach there is a smaller one, which is also sandy but the seabed is full of slippery rocks and the water temperature is unusually low because of fresh water springs in the area.
Three miles south of Heraklion, the first palace of Knossos was built around 1900 BC. Two hundred years later it was destroyed in an earthquake and rebuilt, grander and more luxurious. The final catastrophe occurred about 1500-1400 BC, according to one theory, after the massive eruption of the volcano of Thera (Santorini). Despite this blow, people continued to live there for another fifty years, until a fire swept through the city about 1400 B.C. The Minoan palaces were not only the residence of the ruling house, they were also administrative and religious centres for the whole region. The ruins of the capital of the Minoan realm include the palace of Minos, the homes of the officials and priests who served him (Little Palace, Caravanserai, House of the Frescoes, etc.), the homes of ordinary people and the cemetery. The palace was a labyrinthine complex built around a central court. This multi-storied construction covered 22,000 square metres and contained p1aces of worship, treasuries, workshops and storerooms. Ticket entrance
Fourni at Arhanes
Excavations at Fourni have brought to light 26 buildings, most of which were used in connection with funerals. The cemetery was used from 2400 BC to 1200 BC. Each complex had more than one architectural phase. Free entrance
Koules Venetian Fortress
The symbol of Iraklion, the fortress was originally called the “Rocca al Mare” (Italian for “Rock By The Sea”). It was built by the Venetians, before the construction of the new walls, destroyed by the great earthquake of 1303 and rebuilt in its final shape between 1523 and 1540. “Koules” comes from the Turkish word for fortress. Ticket entrance
Excavations 25 miles east of Heraklion and near the summer resort of Malia have brought to light a palace similar to the ones at Knossos and Phaistos (also built around 1900 BC and abandoned about 1450 BC). At Hrissolakos (Pit of Gold), archaeologists also unearthed the districts surrounding the Minoan palace and cemetery. The palace covered an area of about 6,000 square yards. Many of the objects on display in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum were found at Malia. Ticket entrance
About 45 miles southwest of Heraklion and 58 miles southeast of Rethymnon stood this second most important palace-city of Minoan Crete. Known as the residence of the mythical Radamanthys, the palace of 6,000 square yards was also the nucleus of a settlement inhabited since Neolithic times. The architectural layout is identical to that of Knossos. Here too the rooms are arranged around a court. On the other hand, in contrast to Knossos, the frescoes decorating the walls are relatively scanty, the unpainted floors and walls being lined with pure white gypsum. Ticket entrance
Ten miles southwest of Heraklion lie the ruins of one of the oldest Minoan cities of central Crete, including three large buildings believed to have been the residences of the local lords. Ticket entrance.
This is one of the most important museums in Greece. Here are assembled almost all the finds from the Minoan era: pottery, stone carvings, seal stones, statuettes, gold, metalwork, the renowned frescoes from the Royal and Little Palaces and villas of the wealthy, and finally, the unique painted limestone sarcophagus from Aghia Trias. A new museum building is almost ready for opening, having cost €21m. Circumstances permitting, it will open its doors in 2010.
This houses exhibits from the Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish periods and historical documents of more recent Cretan history. There is also a rich collection of folk art consisting of local costumes, textiles, woodcarvings and embroidery as well as a reconstruction of a typical Cretan house.
St Catherine of Sinai
The preserved katholikon of the monastery and the chapel of Aghii Deka today house a collection of representative works of Cretan Byzantine and post-Byzantine art.
Lychnostatis Museum, Hersonissos
This museum has its origins in a private collection formed over thirty years by Giorgos Markakis, a professor of ophthalmology, lecturer and writer. The buildings themselves are some of the main exhibits. Built with the prevalent raw materials (stone, wood and clay) under the creative supervision of the founder, they have an aesthetic quality unique in the area. The collections are broad in scope, from agricultural implements to embroideries, and from herbs to poetry.
Today the routes form a unified pilot route starting at the exits from the city of Heraklion onto the national road, at Knossou Avenue to the east and Estavromenos (Giofyros Junction) to the west of the city.
Starting from the Knossou Avenue exit from Heraklion, the route continues along Knossou Avenue to the archaeological site of Knossos. A short distance around the Palace are other important Minoan and Roman monuments such as the “Royal Villa”, the Little Palace, the “Caravanserai”, the “House of the High Priest”, the Royal Temple Tomb and the Villa Dionysos.
You then drive down into the lovely valley south of Knossos and through the first vineyards.
Nearby, at Spilia, you can see the old aqueduct that once supplied Heraklion with water from springs in the Archanes area.
A little further south of Spilia is the junction leading east to the village of Skalani, on the ridge of a hill covered in vines.
If you choose to continue south along the road through the small valley of Patsides village, you can enjoy the sight of a wonderful rural landscape with vineyards climbing up the sides of the valley to the village of Kato Archanes. A little further on is Archanes, one of the most prosperous market towns in Greece, rooted deep in Minoan antiquity and with a long winemaking tradition.
West of the village rises the imposing mass of Mount Juktas, with scattered archaeological sites such as the Minoan cemetery at Fourni, the Sanctuary at Anemospilia and the Juktas Peak Sanctuary.
If you follow the road south of Archanes, you will find yourself in the now-abandoned village of Vathypetro. Here you can see the Minoan Megaron with its wine-press, one of the most important monuments of the Minoan period and evidence of the age-old winemaking tradition of the area.
Taking the uphill road out of Archanes and after crossing the hilltop to the east, you will see before you the Kounavi area, green with vineyards. Drive through the village of Katalagari to reach it.
South of Kounavi is the Peza valley, the largest centre of wine production in Crete. On the slopes of the surrounding hills lie the traditional wine-producing villages of Agies Paraskies, Kalloni and Agios Vassilios. For following the roads up north or south there are countless other vineyards truly worth visiting.
E4 European Route
The paths in the interior and the mountains of Heraklion Prefecture date from the time when animals were used for transport.
In prosperous areas, these paths, together with engineering works including bridges and paved roads, formed networks of what were major public works for their time.
The mountain paths lead into mountain regions and up to the peaks and are usually the same as the tracks still used by shepherds. In many parts of the Prefecture today, signposted nature and hiking trails constitute an important network of routes supporting outdoor recreation.
The most important network of walking paths in Heraklion Prefecture is the E4 path, which crosses the whole Prefecture from Mt Psiloritis in the west to Mt Dicte in the east, covering the major mountain trails and ecotopes of Heraklion.
Port of Heraklion Tel: 0030 2810 244912
Heraklion Airport Tel: 0030 2810 245644
Knossos Archaeological Sights Tel: 0030 2810 231940
Health Aid Tel: 0030 2810 222222
Official website: www.nah.gr