5+1 things you need to know about Heraklion: a smart travel guide
Updated: Jan 2
Why Heraklion is such a great place to visit?
The location of #Heraklion is in the center of Crete and thus the city is the focal point of the island from the Prehistoric times. The famous Minoan site of Knossos, the capital palace of the Minoans, is around 5 kilometer south of the old town of Heraklion, being nowadays a suburb of the modern city. The geomorphology of the area of Heraklion is rocky and hilly, between two river basins. These basins are on the N-S axis, with fertile lands and diachronic communication routes between the northern coastline and the inland. The rocky terrain at that coastal spot was ideal for the organization of a fortified settlement and a port.
We 've made a research and we present you the top 5+1 things you need to know about Heraklion, an emerging destination for city breaks!
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... But first let's talk about some aspects of the local history: There is archaeological evidence about human presence in the area of Heraklion from the Minoan Era, and an ancient settlement flourished during Hellenistic and Roman periods. Nevertheless, according to scholars, the modern city emerged since the Arab occupation of the island (9th-10th centuries) and the setting of the capital of their emirate in this place. At the same time, for almost 1000 years during medieval and pre-modern Eras, the city’s place name was different, since the Arabs named their new capital town as rabḍ al-ḫandaq ("Castle of the Moat"). The name was translated to Greek as Χάνδαξ / Χάνδακας (Chándax / Chándakas), and later on in Latin as Candia, while the Ottomans called the city Kandiye. On the other hand, locals called the city as Megalo Kastro (Μεγάλο Κάστρο, “Big Castle”) and its inhabitants called themselves Kastrinoi (Καστρινοί, "castle-dwellers"). The modern toponym Heraklion (Ηράκλειον) was revived in the 19th century coming after the ancient place name ("Heracles's city").
“Between the two Venetian towers, at the entrance of the port...”
Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco.
Knossos during the Minoan era had a port at the site of Heraklion, perhaps to the east of the old port at Poros and Katsambas; as a matter of fact remnants of a Minoan shipyard were excavated at the latter place and they are still visible (but in a rather abandoned condition and not easy to visit). Some scholars suggested that the area of the old Venetian harbour was a port even from the Minoan time. The diachronic use of the area as a port is easy to assume, still without any serious evidence for the ancient and early medieval times, since the development of the Venetian harbour with the massive construction of arsenal and shipyards, ramparts, and the naval fortress Rocca a Mare, nowadays known as (Megalos [Big]) Koules, who are landmarks of the coastal part of the modern city. Till the 1930s there was also a smaller artillery tower at the east jetty of the Venetian harbour, being called by the locals as Mikros (Small) Koules.
An ideal starting point for a tour in Heraklion. Simply follow our next suggestions! Admire the Koules fortress and the Venetian arsenal. Don’t miss the opportunity to watch the sunrise from there!
Old administrative quarter
After the Venetian occupation of Crete, the island was governed by the Duke of Candia whom seat was in Heraklion. The administrative quarterwas located at the low hill south of the port consisting of the palace of the Duke (now almost demolished) and the square in front of it (Piazza delle Biade) along with the Morosini fountain there (with the distinctive four, axially placed, sculpted lions, and other sculpted reliefs lower depicting sea motifs, thus being called as Liontaria [Lions sq.]), the Basilica of San Marco (reused nowadays as a public gallery), and further north the Loggia, a huge building serving as the meeting point of the Nobility, reflecting influences by the Paladian architecture (the modern Town Hall), as well as other public buildings. The main road of the old town on the axis North-South, the Venetian Ruga Maistra (now known as 25th of August str.), is still connecting the port with the administrative quarter. This road become a paved one a decade ago, designated for pedestrian use and a walk there it’s a real pleasure.
While ascending the 25th of August str. admire the neoclassical buildings across the road. Take a coffee break. Explore many cozy places around! Go shopping! In the area there are many retails stores for clothing, shoes, accessories, etc.
The Market area
Following the axis of the Ruga Maistra outside the limits of the initial old town, in the new part of the extended urbanized space, on the road heading to the inland of Heraklion district (1821 street) and the alleys around became the main market place of Heraklion during pre-modern and modern times. Strolling around the Market you may still find many family-driven shops selling local vegetables and fruits, meat, fish, cheese and other dairy products, as well as coffee-shops, bakeries and other shops for other goods.
Immerse yourself in the tastes, smells, and flavours of local products! Walk around the narrow alleys around the market and find many taverns (some of them are being called rakadika, named after raki the local white spirit being specialised to serve mezes)
The Venetians initially improved the existent fortifications of Heraklion. The combination of the technological evolution in warfare, the increased Ottoman hostility, and the expansion of urban spaces outside the walls in the 16th century, led to the enlargement of the fortified circuit to a significant extend incorporating the then state-of-the-art Italian theories for the sophisticated fortification of cities against massive combined attacks of pedestrians and artillery. The bastions are like a triangle in their ground plan, being massively constructed with tons of accumulated soil like small hills, internal walkways and warehouses in tunnels and side batteries. The entire defensive system consisted of the fortified circuit of about 4 kilometres length in almost a pentagon ground plan with seven bastions, outer works and two independent fortresses, Agios Dimitrios and Koules.
You can walk or circle by the walls or on the top of them (being aware of many dangerous spots!). Head to the southernmost spot of the fortification, the Martinengo bastion. This is the higher spot of the old city, artificially made by the Venetians in order to construct a strong post. Now on the top there are some sports facilities and the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, the prominent writer who was born in Heraklion (1883-1957). Visit Kazantzakis’ tomb and admire the view to the city, the broader area and Yiouchtas mount to the south. Kazantzakis himself was always keen on visiting castles and viewpoints, being impressed and inspired by the views.
The Cathedral of Heraklion, dedicated to Saint Mēnas (Agios Mēnas / Minas [῾Ιερός Μητροπολιτικός Ναός ῾Αγίου Μηνᾶ]), the patron saint of the city, is the seat of the Archbishop of Crete. The church was constructed during 1862-1895, and remains one of the largest cathedrals in Greece. In terms of architecture, the church has a cruciform ground plan and a central dome.
The church is celebrating on November 11, and this day is the celebration day and a public holiday for Heraklion too. A perfect occasion to visit the city! From Kazantzakis’ tomb go downhill to the area of Lakkos, a small river basin, and visit Agios Mathaios (Saint Matthew) monastery. Then head to the nearby Cathedral. Close to the neoclassical Cathedral there is the initial church, being called by the locals as the “Mikros Agios Mēnas” (“Small Saint Mēnas”). To the north of the Cathedral there is the impressive Venetian-era church of Agia Aikaterini (Saint Catherine of Sinai) being reused today as a Christian Art Museum.
The seafront of Heraklion is located on the northern part of the old town, practically on the line of the massive Venetian sea walls. This seafront is a popular walking route of the locals for decades. In recent years redevelopment works have been undertaken. Besides the route on the sea walls, in the seafront there are also prominent monuments, namely the Venetian Basilica of Agios Petros (Saint Peter of the Dominicans) and the complex of a Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian periods consisting of a tower and a Venetian ruined church, the Santa Catarina Ruinata. Moreover, in the area there are two Museums, the Historical Museum of Crete in a reused historic building and the Natural History Museum of Crete, in the place of the old electric power plant by the sea. Of course, there are many taverns on the seaside road, especially for seafood, and some cafés.
Finish your tour in Heraklion walking by the sea: the top of the Venetian walls was redeveloped in previous years as a wonderful promenade. On the same route a railway was operated in the 1920s and 1930s and at some parts the tracks are still visible. See these two important museums in reused historic buildings, the Historical Museum of Crete and the Natural History Museum of Crete respectively, as well as the two prominent monuments, the Venetian Basilica of Agios Petros and the archaeological site of Santa Catarina ruinata at Mpentenaki. This is the best place to see a sunset!
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