Wild natural beauty and thousands of years of culture & history .
There’s something undeniably artistic in the way the Cretan landscape unfolds, from the sun-drenched beaches in the north to the rugged canyons spilling out at the cove-carved and cliff-lined southern coast. In between, valleys cradle moody villages, and round-shouldered hills are the overture to often snow-dabbed mountains. Take it all in on a driving tour, trek through Europe’s longest gorge, hike to the cave where Zeus was born or cycle among orchards on the Lasithi Plateau. Leave time to plant your footprints on a sandy beach, and boat, kayak or snorkel in the crystalline waters.
Rich Historical Tapestry
Crete’s natural beauty is equalled only by the richness of its history. The island is the birthplace of the first advanced society on European soil, the Minoans, who ruled some 4000 years ago. You’ll find evocative vestiges all over, most famously at the Palace of Knossos. At the crossroads of three continents, Crete has been coveted and occupied by consecutive invaders. History imbues Hania and Rethymno, where labyrinthine lanes are lorded over by mighty fortresses, and where gorgeously restored Renaissance mansions rub rafters with mosques and Turkish bathhouses. The Byzantine influence stands in magnificent frescoed chapels, churches and monasteries.
Untouched by mass tourism, villages are the backbone of Cretan culture and identity – especially those tucked in the hills and mountains. The island’s spirited people still champion many of their unique customs, and time-honoured traditions remain a dynamic part of daily life. Look for musicians striking up a free-form jam on local instruments, such as the stringed lyra (lyre), or wedding celebrants weaving their traditional regional dances. Meeting regular folk gossiping in kafeneia (coffee houses), preparing their Easter feast, tending to their sheep or celebrating during the island’s many festivals is what makes a visit to Crete so special.
A Tour of Heraklion City
Coming to Heraklion for the first time, the visitor nowadays may be somewhat surprised by the changes that are taking place in Crete's
capital city; Heraklion is celebrating its rich history and moving onwards to a future full of potential.
Where, at one time, the number of cars in the city centre would have made walking difficult, you will now find large city-centre spaces cleared of traffic. You can enjoy walking in one of the most historically and socially fascinating cities facing 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. These changes bring a harmony too; between the traditionally warm, considerate people of Heraklion, and the fine buildings that surround us, the open public spaces and views over the ocean. 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 is living 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 mediaeval times, now offer visitors some fantastic walks in the heart of the city.
If you begin a walk around Heraklion, starting at the fishing harbour close to the Rocca al Mare, but is now known by its Turkish name, Koules. It has a mixed history; 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 many Cretan rebels and those who broke the rules imposed by successive occupiers of Crete. Koules is built on two tiers and offers a commanding view of Heraklion from the battlements. Nowadays, the harbour itself is home to brightly coloured fishing boats and busy tavernas selling 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 gunpowder. 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 the diver, Jacques Cousteau. Boat trips can be booked from travel shops throughout central Heraklion, as can excursions to various places of interest.
25th of August Street
The car free 25 August St. is directly opposite the Old Harbour and extends to Lion Square. It takes its name from a massacre of ‘martyrs” which occurred in 1898. This involved the killing of many Cretans and, crucially, British in this area, by the Turks, finally forcing the ‘Great Powers” (Britain, France and Russia) to recognize Crete”s struggle. These events led eventually to the declaration of a Cretan State and, finally, unification with Greece in 1913. Old and modern buildings compete for space now on the street named to remember 25th August.
Walking up the short hill, and passing the shops and tourist offices, we reach St. Titus” Cathedral, an impressive sight. Saint Titus, a fellow traveller of Saint Paul, preached the gospel in Crete during Roman rule and was martyred in Gortyn, where a 7th Century basilica stands in his memory. His church in Heraklion was built during the second Byzantine period, when it first served as the city”s cathedral. During Venetian rule, it housed the seat of the Catholic archbishop and was renovated in 1466, only to be ruined in a fire in 1544. During the Turkish Occupation it served as a mosque and called Vizier Tzami, when a minaret was added, now gone. The present-day structure is the result of further renovations after its almost entire destruction by a strong earthquake in 1856, and later work which followed in 1922. The skull of St Titus was transferred here from Venice in 1956 and has since been kept in the church. If the cathedral is open when you visit, it is well worth going in.
A little further and you discover the Venetian architecture of the Loggia which functioned as a club for the nobility to gather and relax. The Loggia is a wonderful example of Venetian building, unmistakeable with its semi-circular arches, it was built in the 16th century and was located in the Piazza dei Signori (Square of the Administrative Authorities). Today, the Loggia, decorated with sculptured coat of arms, trophies and metopes, houses part of the town-hall of Heraklion. The Loggia was awarded the Europa Nostra first prize in 1987 for the best renovated and preserved European monument of the year.
St. Mark”s Basilica, almost next door, is now the Municipal Art Gallery and often host to art and crafts exhibitions, almost always open to visit. Built in 1239 in the Piazza delle Biade (Square of Blades), it was at one time the Cathedral of Crete. The Basilica belonged to the reigning Duke, eventually becoming his burial place.
In May 2006, the Basillica was host to the First International Conference on Ethics and Politics, featuring speakers from all over the world. You will welcome its cool, dignified interior and may begin to feel the great age of this city in its venerable walls.
Liondaria, or Lion Square
This is the heart of Heraklion where tourists and locals share the small space around the fountain, exchanging glances and perhaps a few words. Business and pleasure combine here, and it is the place to meet for whatever purpose or no purpose. To give some background, it might also be called the Morosini Fountain or, Liondaria in Greek or, more properly, Plateia Eleftheriou Venizelou, after Venizelos, Crete”s greatest man of state. The decorated fountain is composed of eight cisterns and decorated with stone relief, depicting figures of Greek mythology, Nymphs, Tritons, sea monsters and dolphins, while the main basin is supported by four sitting lions balancing a circular bowl on their heads. It was left by Francesco Morosini, the Italian governor who had it built to commemorate Venetian success in bringing much needed water, through a brilliantly executed viaduct system from Mount Youchtas, to the centre of the city. Morosini was still in charge when the Turks captured the city. Nowadays it is always interesting, the hub around which Heraklion revolves.
No need to be hungry here. The bougatsas, or vanilla cream pies, are great for breakfast, and there are plenty of omelette, crepe and souvlaki places around. You will always be given water when you sit to order something, and might well be charmed into sitting for quite a while in any of these worthwhile establishments. On the far side of the square, you might prefer the renewed Handakos Street, now closed to traffic. Handakos, a busy thoroughfare since antiquity, is an attractive place to walk, shop or rest.
Discover the area
Experience the time of your life !
A few kilometres south of Crete’s modern capital, Heraklion was the capital of Minoan Crete.
Knossos is the name of a palace and its encompassing city, which had a population of up to 100,000 in the 18th century BC. The palace was built around 3,000 years ago and features in Greek mythology as the seat of King Minos, where he had Daedalus build a labyrinth to hold his son, the Minotaur.
Knossos was affected by repeated catastrophes like invasions, earthquakes and the Theran Eruption in about 1625 BC. It was excavated for the first time in 1900 by the British Archaeologist Arthur Evans, who restored some of the architecture and frescoes.
You can check out the sweeping reception courtyard where the royal family would entertain guests, and enter the Throne Room, Sanctuary, walk a section of the Royal Way in the direction of the coast and see the Royal Apartments, built on four levels.
Recommended tour: Knossos Palace Skip-the-Line Entry with Guided Walking Tour
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
To fully understand the oldest civilisation in Europe, look no further than Heraklion’s outstanding archaeological museum. This has the biggest collection of Minoan artefacts of any museum, and has 20 rooms in chronological order. You’ll start in Neolithic times, long before Crete’s palaces were built, and in the following rooms there’s jewellery, liturgical figurines, vases, weapons and armour. Whole frescoes have been transferred to the museum from Crete’s Minoan sites, as well as the emblematic ivory figurine of the bull leaper from Knossos Palace. One artefact that remains a mystery is the Phaistos Disc, 15 cm in diameter and covered with symbols arranged in a spiral. Another piece with strange inscriptions is the Arkalochori Axe, found in the cave of the same name and etched with 15 symbols.
Suggested tour : Skip the Line: Heraklion Archaeological Museum Entrance Ticket
Phaistos Palace and Archaeological Site
The second largest Minoan palace on Crete after Knossos, Phaistos is in a dramatic position on a rise over the Messara plain in south central Crete. In Greek mythology, this was the home of Radamanthus, the brother of Minos. Phaistos is the origin of the enigmatic Phaistos Disc at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, and a settlement that existed in Neolithic times and reached its apogee around 1700 BC when the fourth iteration of the palace was built on the ruins of its destroyed predecessors. The city thrived for 17 centuries and was designed with the landscape in mind. This is most obvious when you stand on the original paving stones of the main courtyard (above an ancient sanitation system), and marvel at the unbroken views of the plain.
Suggested tour : Phaistos Palace – Ag Triada Royal Villa – Roman Gortys – Matala
Shopping in the Old Town
The Old Town of Heraklion has close to 1,000 shops, many of which are found in the extensive maze of pedestrian-only streets. Located in among the narrow streets and alleys, you’ll find lovely restaurants, hidden patios, and retail shops selling pretty much anything you can imagine. If you are on the hunt for the perfect souvenir from Crete, head to the pedestrian-only 1866 Street, known as the Central Market. This narrow street is full of vendors, with wares piled high and spilling out onto tables. You can find shirts, fridge magnets, jewelry, linens, and all manner of kitsch for sale. If you have no room in your bags, don’t worry, even luggage to transport all your new purchases is available. The shops, restaurants, and cafés are literally everywhere in the Old Town. Just pick a street and start walking, take random turns, and you’ll be amazed at what you discover.
Suggested tour : Heraklion Shopping Tour
Arrive at the archaeological site of Malia, 3 kms. east of the modern town of the same name. Malia was an important Minoan town with a palace equivalent in size to those of Knossos and Phaestos, but not so grand. The first palace was built around 1900 BC, was destroyed around 1700 BC, following which a new one was built. However, around 1450 BC, this new palace suffered the same fate. The ruins to be seen on the northwestern side, belong to the old palace, while the remainders of the ruins belong to the new palace.
Continuing the tour and at a distance of 11 kilometers southwest of Aghios Nikolaos lies the picturesque village of Kritsa, built amphitheatrically on a hill. It is renowned for the quality of its handwoven articles. Three kilometers to the north of Kritsa at Kontaratos, lies the ruins of the ancient Doric city of Lato Hetera. It flourished between the 7th and the 3rd centuries BC and was protected by two acropolis, between which it lay. The archaeological site was excavated by the French School of Archaeology, and includes an agora, a number of public buildings and several houses.
From there drive north to the capital of Lasithi prefecture, Aghios Nikolaos. It is a modern town built on the northwestern point of the Mirabello bay. Aghios Nikolaos is also built on the site of the ancient town of Lato towards Kamara, which was a seaport of Lato Hetera (the Other Lato). It flourished during the 3rd century BC. The “trademark” of Aghios Nikolaos is the Voulismeni Lake in its middle, which is linked to the sea by a canal – offers an interesting walk. Continue on the coastal road towards the north, we come to Elounda, 10.5 kilometers from Aghios Nikolaos. This is one of the most developed holiday resorts in Greece. Further north, opposite the northernmost point of the Spinalonga peninsula and its fortified islet, lies the fishing village of Plaka. The rocky islet of Spinalonga or Kalydon originally fortified by the Venetians in 1579 by building a castle with 40 cannons and thus transforming it to a lethal stronghold for centuries. Later it became notorious as it was the exile center for lepers from 1903 until 1957.
Suggested tour : East Crete
Apicturesque little village surrounded by rich orange groves. This is the native village of the great painter Dominicos Theotokopoulos, or “El Greco” (1541-1614). The house where he was born is still standing. A short visit is always recommended.
Continue westwards and 48 kms. from Heraklion to the right leads to the lovely coastal settlement of Bali, built on a picturesque little bay.
Not far from the settlement is the monastery of St. John the Baptist, dating from the 16th century.
Eventually the tour will take you to the historic Monastery of Arkadi, the Cretan symbol of freedom, built on a hill with a magnificent view over the verdant area surrounding it. The monastery is built like a fortress. The church with its two naves was built in 1587 and its architectural style is a mixture of Renaissance, Gothic, Classical and Baroque elements. After the Greek War of Independence of 1821, many Cretan guerilla fighters who were being hunted by the Turks, took refuge in the monastery. On November 7th, 1866, a Turkish force of 15.000 men besieged the monastery, and its leader demanded of Abbot Gabriel to surrender the members of the revolutionary committee who were gathered there. At that time apart from the members of the committee, 300 armed men and 600 or so women and children had also taken refuge in the monastery. The “Arkadi holocaust”, as this heroic sacrifice came to be called, is a landmark of immense importance in the history of the struggle of the Cretan people for freedom. There is also an ossuary, where the bones of the dead heroes of the Arkadi holocaust are kept.
Continuing west and leaving the massive mountain range of the White Mountains you will arrive at the beautiful town of Chania.This is the largest and most important town of western Crete, which retained its local color. It is one of the loveliest towns in Greece and the many vestiges of its past give it a particular charm Her Venetian harbor, narrow streets and old buildings from the Venetian and Turkish periods are almost intact and bring directly into the past. One of the most characteristic spots in the town is the impressive Municipal Market, in the center of the town, which was built in 1911. The Archaeological Museum of Chania contains important finds from the excavations in the Chania region and the whole of western Crete, dating from the Neolithic to the Roman period.
In the Chania Naval Museum are exhibited models of ships from antiquity to modern times and relics from the historic battles of the Greek Navy.
Suggested tour : West Crete