What to see in Heraklion
Knossos is the site of the most important and better known palace of Minoan civilization. According to tradition, it was the seat of the legendary king Minos. The Palace is also connected with thrilling legends, such as the myth of the Labyrinth with the Minotaur, and the story of Daidalos and Icaros.
The site was continuously inhabited from the Neolithic period (7000-3000 B.C.) until Roman times.
The Linear B tablets (Mycenaean script) of the 14th century B.C. mention the city as ko-no-so.
Intensive habitation occured mostly in the Minoan period, when the so-called first (19th-17th centuries B.C.) and second palaces (16th-14th centuries B.C.) were built along with luxurious houses, a hospice and various other structures. After its partial destruction in 1450 B.C., Knossos was settled by Mycenaeans from the Greek Mainland.
The city flourished again during the Hellenistic period (sanctuaries of Glaukos, Demeter, other sanctuaries, chamber tombs, north cemetery, defensive towers) and in 67 B.C. it was captured by the Roman Quintus Caecilius Metelus Creticus. The "Villa of Dionysos", a private house with splendid mosaics was built in the same period.
Knossos was discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos. Arthur Evans conducted systematic excavations at the site between 1900 and 1931, bringing to light the palace, a large section of the Minoan city, and the cemeteries. Since then, the site and the surrounding area have been excavated by the British School of Archaeology at Athens and the 23rd E.P.C.A.
ΗThe restoration of the palace to its present form was carried out by Arthur Evans. The interventions were mostly imposed by the need to preserve the monuments uncovered. The Archaeological Service of the Ministry of Culture carries out only consolidation work, whenever necessary.
The ruins of the large ancient city of Gortyna along with its acropolis and cemeteries lie 46 km south of the city of Herakleion on the plains of Mesaras and on an area of 4,000 hectares.
In 67 A.D. and for the following one thousand years it was the capital of Crete whereas it was where the first silver Cretan coins were cut in 470 A.D. There were three fortifications here, three large markets, two aquaducts, five theaters, one stadium, five sanctuaries and temples, nine buildings of Christian worship, underground mausoleums among other.
The imposing Temple of Saint Tito is an impressive ecclesiastical monument which dominates Gortyna and is the first building which will draw your attention. Its architecture is royal with a dome and its construction with carved limestone is impressive. On the east lies the sculpture gallery with exhibits and copies of statues and inscriptions of roman ages. The Ancient Theater of the city is outside of the enclosed space, opposite the Conservatory and is dated to the 10 century. On the northwest of the Market lies the Acropolis of Gortyna where significant clay statuettes were found (a triad of naked goddesses, twin figures, a figurine of the goddess Athena among other).
On your tour you will also see the Conservatory, a building which was used for performances and which is well-kept today.
Unique and particularly impressive is the large inscription which writes the most ancient codes of European law. Its written in boustrophedon writing ,namely, being read from right to left and archaic writing which is dated to the 6th and 7th centuries. It has been characterized by expert epigraphologists as the queen of all inscriptions. Parts of the inscription are hosted at the Louvre Museum.
The subjects which the inscription defines are those of civil law such as family and inheritance issues, matters of buying and selling, mortgages and debts, rapes, seduction and adultery.
Inside the enclosure of the archaeological site you will find the famous evergreen plane tree which preserves its leaves during winter and is a special sub-species of our well know plan tree.
In the surrounding area there are exceptional samples of the age of domination of Gortyna.
Near the Agricultural School lies the church of Saint George where a dome-shaped geometrical tomb has been found dating to the end of the 9th century B.C. and which has a plethora of vases, earthenware jars and ash urns.
The Praetorium was the largest construction the size of 1,000 square meters and was the home of the officers as well as the governor of Crete. Columns interspersed among the impressive olive trees but also the paved yard are witness to its size. Another large monument of Gortyna is the Temple of Apollo Pythius which lies in the center of the ancient city. It was rebuilt in roman times together with a small theater of which hardly any parts have been found. Here lies the unique sanctuary of Crete which is dedicated to the Egyptian gods of Isida, Serapi and Ermi which were worshipped during roman times.
The ruins of the city of Phaistos lie on a hill west of Mires on the way to Tumbaki. The older palace of Phaistos (1900 – 1700 B.C.) was built on embankments of Neolithic and Early Minoan periods (3000 – 2000 B.C.). This old palace, with basic features of Minoan architecture (paved yards, multi-gates, well-kept facades, skylights etc), had been destroyed and rebuilt twice. After another disaster around 1700 B.C. the ruins were leveled and on top of them a newer palace was built whose life lasted approximately up to 1450 B.C. In the western wing a huge chamber is of interest. It concerns a room supported by pillars and a triple pylon towards the central yard for the possible use of worship. In the same wing there are other rooms which are associated with worship.
The central yard preserves its pavement which is dated to the Palaeoanactoric Period (1900-1700) B.C.
In the eastern wing only a small section is preserved which includes a room with skylights and purification tanks. In the northern wing lie the “royal suites”. The sacredness and formality of these suites are emphasized by the exterior wall of the central yard which has protrusions and recesses in a symmetrical layout, the nearby central entrance with half pillars, as well as the altar placed on a small flight of stairs which lies in the corner between the north and west wing. A long corridor and interior yards give access to a complex of rooms and to a larger yard with a ceramic furnace in the center.
A "banquet hall" supported by pillars may have existed on a level with a view of the central yard. The rest of the wind is occupied by official apartments. Two rooms with a luxurious construction are discerned (alabaster paving on the walls, floor tiles, decorative wall frescoes) which are surrounded by skylights, balconies and a large peristyle yard. Apart from the palace, housing complexes and a temple of the Archaic period, perhaps of Rhea, have been excavated towards the NE and SW of the area. Archaeological finds from the palace are exhibited at the Museum of Heraklion, such as the famous disc of Phaistos, the large collection of vases with a variety of decorative colors and many more.
Museums in Heraklion
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Thousands of visitors come from all over the world to admire the treasures of the Minoan civilization which are exhibited in the Herakleion Archeological Museum. The Museum was built in 1937-1940 by Sp. Marinatos and is located in the north side of Eleftherias square. It is built in the place of the Roman Catholic monastery of Saint-Francis, which was destroyed by an earthquake.
It exhibits findings from all the palaces of the Minoan era (Knosos, Festos, Malia etc.), figurines, Neolithic vessels, frescos, coins, sculptures etc. The exhibition is hosted in 20 rooms following a chronological order, from the Neolithic period to the ancient years. Among the most impressive exhibits are the unique frescos of the Prince, the monkey gathering crocus, the Ladies in Blue, La Parisienne, the Bull-leaping, the ruton, the Blue birds. There are also many findings dating back to the Hellenistic and Roman years. Sculptures, burial columns, sarcophaguses, mosaic floors.
The museum also exhibits the famous ring of Minos: It found by someone in the early 20th century, but was only handed over to the Museum in the summer of 2002 by his descendants.
Address: 1, Xanthoudidou street, Eleftherias Square.
Historical Museum of Crete
If you wish to get the full picture regarding the Cretan civilization during the post-Christian years, you should undoubtedly visit the Historical Museum of Crete. On the west of the port, following the coastal road you will find it housed in a neoclassical building, formerly the residence of Andreas Kalokerinos, famous benefactor of the town. You will find very interesting collections of Byzantine sculptures, pictures of Cretan School of Hagiography, coins, heirlooms from the Cretan revolutions, examples of folk art with special textiles, a place dedicated to the great writer Nikos Kazantzakis and Emm. Tsouderos. You will have the opportunity to admire the painting of Dominicos Theotokopoulos "View of Mt. Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine", which is his only painting exposed in Crete.
Address: 7, Lyssimachou Kalokairinou street
Natural History Museum of Crete
The Natural History Museum of Crete offers its visitors a unique opportunity to familiarize with the natural environment of Crete and its particularities, as revealed through the ecological and cultural complexity of the Eastern Mediterranean area.In specially designed rooms of about 800 m2, with realistic representations of natural habitats, various plant and animal collections and plenty of photographic material, the visitor can experience the natural wealth of Crete and continental Greece.
In the rooms where fossils, rocks and minerals are exposed, you can be informed about the impressive geological past of Crete and the Mediterranean Sea. Finally, the botanical garden with the indigenous plants of Crete and the Mediterranean, the projection hall and as well as the bar on the first floor of the Museum can help the visitor combine learning with entertainment and relaxation. Address: 157, Knossos Avenue.
Leaving Chersonisos behind you cannot miss visiting Lychnostatis, the museum of traditional life and folklore heritage of Crete. The museum was created by the adjunct professor of ophthalmology and collector-folklorist Yiorgos Markakis. The Museum was built thoroughly with raw materials (rock - wood - clay) while the use of mechanical means was avoided. Due to its many open-air areas, it can be visited from April1st to October31st. The museum comprises the following sections: a farmer's house("Portego", sitting-room of Kostis Fragoulis), a Cretan urban residence, a "Fabrika", i.e. old olive oil press, a wind mill, a chapel, a shepherd's shelter, a threshing-floor, a wine-press, a distillery for ' raki ' (alcoholic beverage ), a wood oven for ceramics, a weaving and plant-dying workshop, a ceramic workshop, a herbarium, a garden with Cretan fruit - trees, a herb - garden, a flora and cactus – garden as well as a metal resources open air exhibition. There is also a permanent gallery of Cretan folk artists and works of art inspired by the Cretan nature, a 150-seat multiple-use auditorium where seminars, presentations and audio-visual projections are held, and, finally, an 250-seat open-air theatre hosting artistic events.
Nikos Kazantzakis Museum
The Museum of Nikos Kazantzakis was founded in 1984 by the stage designer Yiorgos Anemoyiannis and is housed in the residence of the famous writer (1885 -1957). The interior of the residence has been designed in such a way that it presents the life and work of the writer in eight languages. Exhibits include personal items, letters, manuscripts, the first editions of his books in Greek, as well as audiovisual material in five languages presenting his life and work.
Cretan Ethnology Museum
The museum was established by the Messara Cultural Association in 1973. The exhibition opened its doors in 1988 and in 1992 it received the special award from the Council of Europe. The museum exhibits come from all over Crete. The research center of the museum undertakes various research activities in Crete since1980 and operates as a coordination unit for the study of the Cretan ecosystem (man and environment) covering a period span from 1000 BC until today.
The Paliani Monastery is located 20 km away from Heraklion. It is one of the most ancient monasteries of Crete and dates back to the First Byzantine period. Its first reference as Palaia dates back to 668 A.D. At first, it was a stravropegic monastery and was affiliated with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but was occupied by the Latin archbishop of Crete in 1304, probably due to its great wealth. The Monastery was burnt by the Turks in 1821 and 1866. According to the oral tradition, the icon of Panaghia Myrtidiotissa was found at the roots of a great myrtle tree located at the southeastern end of the island. A fair in honour of Panaghia Myrtidiotissa, which you should not miss if you are around, is organised on September 24th.
The Monastery of Aghios Georgios Gorgolainis, 22 km away from Herakleion, is situated about 1 km W of Kato Asites village. The exact date of construction is still unknown, but it is considered to have been built at the end of the Venetian occupation in Crete, as in the precinct there is a Venetian lion bearing the inscription "MDCXVII" (1617). During the Turkish occupation, the monastery was destroyed three times by way of reprisal for the rebellions against the Turkish occupation. It was rebuilt each time. The two-aisled church of the monastery is dedicated to Aghios Georgios Gorgoeleimonas and Aghios Nikolaos. Finally, in the courtyard you will find the grave of fighter Fragkios Mastrachas, who was killed there during the 1866 rebellion.
The Odigitria Monastery is located 65 km away from Herakleio, after the valley of Messara, on the west slope of Asterousia mountain range. It is a stavropegic monastery, where you can find remarkable icons and canonicals. In 1862, the Holy fathers Parthenios and Evmenios took their monastic vows here and reconstructed the Koudouma Monastery.
The Karas or Kardiotissa Monastery is located 50 km away from Heraklion. It is a Stavropegic monastery and its first written reference dates back to 1333. In Kardiotissa there was a miraculous icon of Virgin Mary (Panaghia). In 1415 Florentine priest Cristoforo Buontelmonti writes about the monastery: "We arrived at Panaghia Kardiotissa Monastery that performs innumerous miracles for the believers".
However, the icon was stolen in 1498 and ended up in Saint Alfonso church in Rome. The one that can be seen today in the Monastery is considered as much miraculous as the other one and dates back to 1735.
The male Monastery of Agkarathou is built on a rocky hill, probably in the place of an older monastery, between the villages of Sgourokefali and Sampas located 23 km SE of Heraklion. It dates back to the 15th century, when it belonged to the Kallergis family. The construction of fortifications which began in the middle of the 16th century transformed it to a fortress. Remains of these fortifications have survived up to date.
It is believed that the name of the monastery derives from "agkarathia", a common bush of the Cretan countryside, as according to the tradition the icon of Panaghia, to whom the church of the monastery is dedicated, was found at that location under a bush of that kind. The Agkarathou monastery was a major cultural center of Crete during the Venetian rule. Scientists of that time studied there, while some documents dating back to 1559 and nowadays exhibited at the British History Museum prove that it housed an extremely remarkable library. Patriarchs Kyrillos Loukaris and Meletios Pigas went to school there. During the Turkish occupation it experienced decline, as the Turks imposed heavy taxes and prohibited its reconstruction.
At that time the most important heirlooms of the monastery including the icon of Panaghia were transferred at Kythira, homeland of several abbots and many monks of the monastery. They remained there until 1970, when the authorities of Kythira handed back to the monastery the heirlooms that had been preserved including the icon of Panaghia, known as Panaghia Orfani while it was far from the monastery. Nowadays, this icon decorates the sanctum of the church, which is dedicated to it.
The beaches located in the north side of the island are the most visited ones as there beats the heart of touristic industry of the whole island. The most known beaches are Amnisos, Gouves, Analipsi Chersonisou, Chersonisos, Malia, Linoperasma (the closest beach to Heraklion city), Aghia Pelagia and the nearby Ligaria beach. The south coasts are not that organized but are less crowded and have unique beauty. The most known beaches are Kommos, Matala and Lentas while remarkable are also Koloi Limenes and Aghia Galini beaches. In these beaches there is a variety of sports activities: Water ski, surfing, Jet Ski, sea parachuting and diving are just few of the activities you can try there. For people who are fonder of classical sports they can visit the modern facilities of the large hotel complexes.
In the area operate also four Water parks: Aqua splash located close to Chersonisos on the way to Lasithi plateau, which is also the oldest and most famous, Star golden beach located in Chersonisos where among others you can try bungee jumping from 30 m height, Bravo located in Ammoudara beach few kilometers outside Heraklion and Water Ski Park in Anopoli approximately fifteen kilometers east of Heraklion on the old road to Aghios Nikolaos.
You can also visit the Jockey Club located in Pitsidia village 4.5 km NE of Matala. Visitors can go around the nearby beaches areas on horses (Matala, Messara valley, Aghiofarago, Kommos beach and other). Lessons are also given to amateur riders as well as programs with ponies are offered for children.