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Heraklion is the capital of the Greek island Crete and for many it is the starting point for a holiday on the island. Visitors arrive either at the airport or the big harbor of the city, where many cruiseships land and also the ferries from Athens and Santorini.
At the start of the thirteenth century Crete came into the possession of the Republic Venice. Those Venetians built gigantic defense structures, including a thick city wall, most of which has been preserved, and a fort at the harbor.
Heraklion is a busy, noisy city with heavy traffic, where not everyone feels at home. Most visitors go straight to the beaches on the north coast of Crete. Yet the city itself has interesting sights. For example the Archaeological Museum which has the largest collection of objects from the so-called Minoan culture. This culture, named after King Minos, peaked around 1600 BC. You will see. amongst other things, a figurine of the Snake Goddess, originating from the Knossos Palace. Remarkably, the arms and head can be rotated.
The Historical Museum of Crete focuses on the history of the island after the era: the Roman period, the Byzantine period, the Venetian era, the Ottoman period and the short period of Crete as an independent state. On top of that there is one painting of the island's most famous painter, El Greco. Another famous son is the writer Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote the book Zorba the Greek. His office has been recreated in the museum.
At the heart of the city is the Plateia Venizelou with the lion fountain, built in the Venetian period. The square is surrounded by shops, cafes and restaurants. In the nearby streets you will find shops of designer brands, but also many jewelers. Crete is renowned for its beautiful designs of Jewelry at a reasonable price. Furthermore, you can buy the excellent oil of Crete, as well as several cheeses of the island, including xynotyro, kefalotyri and graviera.
The main attraction of Heraklion lies 5 kilometers south of the city: the Knossos Palace. Covering an area of 20,000 square meters it is the largest of the Minoan palaces. The palace has four wings built around a rectangular courtyard. This palace was a labyrinth of corridors, courtyards, reception halls, arcades, stock rooms and stairwells. According to legend, the construction was so complex that those who once entered the palace could never find their way out again. The complex dates back to about 1700 BC and was built after an earlier palace was destroyed by an earthquake. The palace was discovered at the beginning of the last century by the Brit Sir Arthur Evans, who restored parts of it with concrete. That technique is detested by modern archaeologists.
Located near the southern coast of Crete and southwest of Heraklion is the Palace of Phaistos, which is considered by some as a better example of Minoan architecture. The west entrance is particularly impressive, as are the monumental staircase and the central square.
Gortyna was the capital of Crete under the Romans. But discoveries from long before that time have been made here as well, such as a Code, carved in stone. Other highlights of this archaeological site are the St. Titus Church and Temple of Apollo.
However impressive the remnants from Ancient times are, most tourists come to Crete for the beaches. The most beautiful beaches are located east of the capital, between Kartero and Malia.
Just outside Heraklion you can find the largest aquarium in the eastern Mediterranean, the CretAquarium Thalassocosmos
The center of Heraklion is fairly small. Best is to leave your rental car at your hotel or on one of the car parks around the old city walls and to continue by foot. If you insist on driving to the center: there are parking spaces near the old harbor and at El Greko park.
Five kilometers east of Heraklion lies the most important international airport of Crete, Nikos Kazantzakis. You can easily get to the airport with a rental car via the road Makariou Dikeossinis, that connects to the highway along the northern coast of Crete further east.