The province of Iraklion with the string of big resorts that lies to the east of the island, the great Minoan sites, Knossos, Malia and Phaistos are in easy reach of almost anywhere in the province, and there are excellent beaches.
Crete’s bustling capital boasts great restaurants and cafes, a vibrant market and an impressive harbor fortress as well as an archeological museum with the world’s finest collection of Minoan artifacts.
Virtually everything of interest in Iraklion lies within the old walled city, with the majority of the sights clustered in the northeastern corner. Despite the city’s rather cheerless reputation, parts of the old town can be genuinely picturesque, not least the weighty Venetian defenses: the harbor fortress and the massive walls framing the old quarters. Focal to this area are Venizelos and Eleftherias squares, most of the churches and museums are few minutes’ walk from either.
The most vital thoroughfare, 25 August street lined with banks ,cafes, souvenir shops links the harbor with the commercial city center. West of the here behind Venizelos square is the grandly named El Greco park.
In the 25 August Street are some of the most interesting of Iraklion’s buildings, including the church of Agios Titos and the Venetian Loggia.LoggiaAt its southern end 25-August opens into Square Nikiforou Foka, which forms a junction for central Iraklion’s other main arteries: Kalokairinou heads westwards down to the Porta Hanion and out of the city; straight ahead, 1821 street- a fashionable shopping spot-heads southwest. The 1866 street is given over the animated market.
A Roman port, Heraclium, stood hereabouts and the city readopted its name only at the begging of the 20th century. Founded by the Saracens, who held Crete from 827 to 961, it was originally known as El Khandak, after the great ditch that surrounded it later corrupted by the Venetians to Candia.
This Venetian capital was in its day, one of the strongest and most spectacular cities in Europe; a trading center, a staging-point for the Crusades and as time wore on the front line of Christendom. The Turks finally conquered the city after 21 years of war, which culminated in a bitter siege from May 1667 to September 1669. Under its new Turkish rulers, the city’s importance declined in relation to Hania’s, but it remained a major port and the second city in Crete. It was here, too, that the incident occurred which eventually put an end to Turkish occupation of the island. Finally united with Greece, Iraklion’s future prosperity was assured by its central position.
Almost all that you see today dates only from the last sixty years or so, partly because of the heavy bombing agriculture, industry and tourism. In 1971, Iraklion regained the official title of island capital, and the city is now the wealthiest per head in the whole of Greece.
The obvious starting point is the Harbor, now home to fishing boats and a pleasure marina but still guarded over an impressive 16th century Venetian Fortress, generally known by its Turkish name of Koules, emblazoned with the Lion of Saint Mark.
Though it withstood the 22-year Turkish siege, time has caught up with the underwater foundations and the building has been closed to visitors pending restoration. Even from the outside it is undeniably impressive; sturdy walls protecting a series of chambers in which the defenders must have enjoyed an overwhelming sense of security. The causeway leading to the fort is a favorite place for a stroll and for locals to fish at night, when the fortress is floodlit, it’s a place to watch the ferries coming and going.
On the landward side of the harbor, the vaulted Arsenals are marooned in the sea of traffic scooting along the harbor road. In their heyday these shipyards were at the water’s edge and as many as fifty galleys at time could be built here, or dragged ashore to be overhauled and repaired.
The city’s walls
Iraklion’s city walls were originally thrown up in the 15th century, and constantly improved thereafter as Crete became increasingly isolated in the path of Turkish westward expansion: their final shape owes much to Michele Sanmicheli, who arrived here in 1538 having previously designed the fortifications of Padua and Verona. In its day this was the strongest bastion in the Mediterranean.
Nikos Kazantzaki’s tomb
On the Martinengo Bastion, facing south is the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, Crete’s greatest writer. Despite his work being banned for their unorthodox views, Kazantzakis’ burial rites were performed at Saint Minas Cathedral, although no priests officially escorted his body up here. His simply grave is adorned only with an inscription, from his own writings: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free”.
He was born in Iraklion in 1883 in the street now named after him. His early life was shadowed by the struggle against the Turks and for union with Greece. Educated in Athens and Paris, Kazantzakis travelled widely throughout his life, working for the Greek government on more than one occasion (serving briefly as a Minister for Education in 1954) and UNESCO, but above all writing. He produced a vast range of works, including philosophical essays, epic poetry, travel books, translations of classics such as Dante’s Divine Comedy into Greek and, of course, the novels on which his fame in the west mostly rests. Zorba the Greek (1946) was his first and most celebrated novel, but his output remained prolific to the end of his life. Particularly relevant to Cretan travels are Freedom or Death(1950) set amid the struggle against the Turks, and the autobiographical Report to Greco published posthumously in 1961 (Kazantzakis died in Freiburg, West Germany, in 1957 after contracting hepatitis from an unsterilized vaccination needle during a visit to China).
Kazantzakis is widely accepted as the leading Greek writer of the 20th century and Cretans are extremely proud of him, despite the fact that most of his later life was spent abroad, that he was banned from entering Greece for long periods, and that he was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church for his vigorously expressed doubts about Christianity. This last detail gained him more notoriety when his The last Temptation of Christ was filmed by Martin Scorsese, amid much controversy, in 1988.
The church was also instrumental in working behind the scenes to deny him the Novel Prize, which he lost by one vote to Albert Camus in 1957. Many critics now regard his writing as overblown and pretentious, but even they admit that the best parts are where the Cretan Kazantzakis shows through, in the tremendous gusto and vitality of books like Zorba and Freedom or Death. Kazantzakis himself was always conscious, and proud, of his Cretan heritage.
For the most impressive views of the city’s defenses stroll out of the elaborate gates, the Porta Hanion at the bottom of Kalokairinou street or the Porta Kainouria at the top of the Evans street, and admire them from the outside. Both of these portals date from the second half of the 16th century, when the majority of the surviving defenses were completed. At the Porta Kainouria the walls are over 40m thick.
The Historical Museum
One of the most dynamic in Iraklion, with frequent events and interesting temporary exhibitions. The fascinating permanent collection-with many interactive displays-helps fill the gap which, for most people, yawns between Knossos and the present day, and since it’s always virtually deserted, wandering around is a pleasure.
The Priouli fountain
The Ottoman fountain of Idomeneus (mentioned by Kazantzakis in his novel Kapetan Michalis) is set into a wall to the rear of the Historical Museum, partly obscured in the evening by diners of the terrace of a nearby tavern. Close to the junction of Gorgolaini and Dhelimarkou lies the impressive Priouli fountain, built at the very end of the Venetian period during the long siege of the city by Turkish forces. Sited in what was then the old Jewish quarter, the fountain is based on the form of Greek temple. It used an underground source to supply the city with water after the Turks had destroyed the aqueducts.
Ayios Titos church
Originally Byzantine, but wholly rebuilt by the Venetians in the 16th century, it was adapted by the Turks as a mosque and rebuilt by after a major earthquake in 1856. The Orthodox Church renovated the building after the Turkish population left Iraklion, and it was reconstructed in 1925. A reliquary inside contains the skull of St Titus, originally brought here from his tomb in Gortys; his body was never found. In the Midle Ages, the skull was regularly and ceremonially exhibited to the people of Iraklion, but was later taken to Venice, where it stayed from the time of the Turkish invasion until 1966. On August 25 each year, a major procession from the church marks St Titus’ Day.
San Marco Basilica
One of the first and quite important works of the Venetian settlers was the building of a temple dedicated to their patron, St. Mark, in the centre of the city and opposite to the Palace of the Duke. The church of St. Marc was not totally dependent on the Latin archbishopric, but on every duke of the Cretan Realm. Because he himself was not in a position to fulfill his religious duties, he appointed someone else, the "primikirio"or the "capellano" for that seat. Within the church all the lords and the state officials used to assume their duties with every formality while common people used to seek protection from their patron Saint. Also the church was used as a burial place for the dukes and members of the high class (they were put in special sarcophagi). Next to the church on the southwest corner there was a high bell tower with a clock. During the long Turkish siege of the city, the bell was used as a bomb alarm, which is why many times the bell tower became target of the Turkish cannons. When the Turks took over the city - , the church of St. Mark was given to Defterdar Ahmet Passa who converted it into a mosque, named after him. The bell tower was demolished and in its place they built a minaret. The new conquerors, without having any respect for the sacred place, destroyed the frescoes and the Christian graves. After the exchange of population and the Turkish withdrawal, St. Marc came to the jurisdiction of the National Bank and then of the Municipality. Lastly, in 1956 a contract was signed between the Municipality and the E.K.I.M (Society of Cretan Historical Studies) in order to start the restoration of the building, so today it is an ornament for the city, which is used as Municipal Art Gallery.
Ringed by busy cafes its focal point is the Morosini fountain which dates from the final years of Venetian rule and upon is inauguration in 1628 became the city’s main source of fresh water. Originally the whole thing was topped by a giant statue of Poseidon, but even without him it’s impressive: the lions on guard are two to three hundred years old than the rest of the structure, while the eight basins are decorated with marine themes including dolphins and Tritons.
1866 street the market
This is one of a few living reminders of an older city, with an atmosphere reminiscent of an eastern bazaar. There are luscious fruit and vegetables, as well as butchers’ and fishmongers’ stalls and other selling a bewildering variety of herbs and spices, cheese and yoghurt, leather and plastic goods, Cds tacky souvenirs, an amazing array of cheap kitchen utensils, pocket knives and just about anything else you might conceivably need.
At the top of the 1866 street market, Platia Kornarou makes a pleasantly tranquil contrast. The focal point of the square is a beautiful hexagonal Turkish pump house, heavily restored, which now houses a café run by the municipality, a meeting place for locals who converse at the tables under the trees. The small 16th century Venetian drinking fountain beside the café Bembo fountain was the first to supply the city running water. It incorporates a headless Roman torso imported from Ierapetra.
In platia Eleftherias( Liberty square), a line o pricey pavement cafes face a rather uninspiring concourse dotted with gum trees and benches, and skirted by busy roads, Mainly due to is size the square is one of the city’s most popular venues for political demonstrations, but most of time is used by locals for walking, talking and sitting out. There’s a small bust of Nikos Kazantzakis and a larger-than-life statue of Eleftherios Venizelos( the leading figure in the struggle for union with Greece)staring out over the harbor from the ramparts. Beyond the statue you reach the entrance to the Public Gardens, as often as not half taken over by a funfair, but otherwise relatively peaceful.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
One of the major reasons to visit the city. The museum houses far and away the most important collection of Minoan art and artifacts anywhere in the world, and visit to Knossos or the other sites will be greatly enhanced if you’ve been here first. Given the museum’s status at the time of writing it is impossible to know exactly what will be on display, or where, but many of the major exhibits are described below.
The collections of the Herakleion Archaeological Museum include unique works of Cretan art, found in excavations across the central and eastern part of the island and which cover a chronological span of roughly 7000 years, from the Neolithic (7000 BC) to the Roman period (3rd century AD). Most objects date to prehistoric times and to the so-called Minoan period, named after the island's mythical king, Minos. They include pottery, carved stone objects, seals, small sculpture, metal objects and wall-paintings, which were discovered in palaces, mansions, settlements, funerary monuments, sanctuaries and caves.
After the completion of the new exhibition project in April 2014, the exhibition occupies a total of twenty seven rooms. Several important themes, such as Minoan wall-paintings are presented separately from the overall chronological sequence. The objects give a complete image of Cretan civilization, as it developed in different regions and important centers. Social, ideological and economic aspects form the core of the display, with a strong focus on religious and ceremonial practices, mortuary habits, bureaucratic administration and daily life. Explanatory texts, photographs, drawings and models of monuments supplement the exhibition.
Platia Ayia Aikaterini
The most interesting church on this square Ayia Aikaterini was part of monastic school which, up to the end of Venetian rule, was one of the centers of the Cretan Renaissance, a last flourish of Eastern Christian art following the fall of Byzantium. Among the school’s students were Vintzentzos Kornaros, author of the classic Erotokritos, and many leading Orthodox theologians; most importantly, however, it served as an art school where Byzantine tradition came face to face with the 16th century painter Michalis Dhamaskinos, who introduced perspective and depth to Byzantine art, while never straying far from the strict traditions of icon painting. The most famous Cretan painter of them all, El Greco, took the opposite course, wholeheartedly embracing Italian styles, to which he brought the influence of his Byzantine training. Although there is little evidence, it’s generally accepted that these two-Dhamaskinos and El Greco-were near contemporaries at the school.
The church used to house a Museum of Religious Art with the finest collection of Cretan icons anywhere, including many of Dhamaskinos’ finest works.