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.