print version

Toggle English/Dutch

Heraklion ()

(updated August 4, 2007)

Heraklion is the capital of Crete in all respects. The city houses a population of just under 150,000 inhabitants and is located in the center of the northern coast of Crete.


In the ancient past the place of the current Heraklion was the port to the city of Knossos. The Romans called the place Herakleion, because according to them God Heracles landed on this spot. The next time Heraklion comes up in the history books is in the year 824, when it was occupied by the Saracens / Arabians. They called the place Rabdh el-Khandak (fort of the canals). Heraklion was at that time the slave trade capital of the eastern Mediterranean Sea area. The Saracens in Heraklion were mainly engaged in piracy. They made raid on ships which past beyond Crete. They sold the loot and made the sailors to their slaves. In the year 961 the Byzantines made an end to these practices. Under the leadership of Nikiforas Fokas they chased away the Saracens. The also beheaded all the Arabs they could capture. The heads were thrown over the walls of the city. The Byzantines called the city Chandakas. When Crete in the year 1204 was sold to the Venetians, Heraklion remained the capital of the island. The Venetians called the city Chandia. The city was used as a harbour for merchant ships and was a major trade settlement. The Venetians performed a lot of effort to build up the city. They built all kinds of buildings, churches and, of course, a fort and city walls. After a fight, which lasted for 21 years, the Turks captured the city in the year 1669. This happened after a Venetian colonel showed the weaknesses of the fort to the Turks. During the fight a total of approximately 150,000 people died. Just as many people as live in the city today! The Turks called the city Megalo Kastro. The Turkish domination put an end to everything the Venetians build and many Cretan people were killed. Despite heavy resistance from the Cretans the Turkish domination lasted for over 200 years. When the Turks killed hundreds of Cretan people, 17 British soldiers and the British consul on August 25, 1898 the British navy was forced to interfere. The British fleet sailed to the port of Heraklion and made an end to Turkish domination. An independent Crete was proclaimed, which made Chania the capital of the island. Heraklion was hit hard by a severe earthquake in 1923 and by the Second World War. The old center became very heavily damaged. In 1971 Heraklion received its present name and became the capital of the island again.

Heraklion is a busy city. There is a lot of traffic and the old city nearly bursts out of its boundaries. It therefore is a little attractive city for tourists. Cities such as Chania and Rethymno are much more attractive. However, Heraklion itself has much to offer. Especially the nearby palace of Knossos attracts many tourists, but also a visit to the archaeological museum of the city is something serious tourists may not skip. The walls around the city were built by the Venetians between the year 1462 and 1562. You can walk over the walls around the city boundaries. Another remnant of the Venetians is the Morosini Fountain from 1628 at the Plateia Venizelou (Venizelos). Over there you can also find the Basilica di San Marco (Agios Markos basilica), which is a former a mosque from the Turks. Today it houses a music room and exhibition space. The Venetian built Brembo-fountain from the sixteenth century is also worth a visit. It contains a number of special excavations they had done. Also the seventeenth-century Venetian Loggia is worth visiting. Previously it housed an aristocratic gentleman's society. Today, it houses the government. In the Old Port you will find the Rocca al Mare (or Koules), which is a Venetian fortress. It took the Turks 22 years to take this fort. They made it a prison, where rebels were imprisoned. There are a number of shipyards of the Venetians remaining, the so-called Arsenali.

During the Olympic Games in 2004 in Athens, Heraklion was one of the Olympic match venues. In the Pankritio Stadium, a number of the Olympic football tournament matches were played.

There are a lot of places where you can eat or have a drink. Especially at the Odos Chandakos and Platia Venizelou you'll find many terraces. Restaurants in Heraklion are often closed on Sunday. Although tourists Heraklion usually stay in other places on the island, there are enough hotels in the city. They are primarily built for businessmen. However, the hotels in the lower comfort class are reasonably affordable. In the Vyronosstreet you'll even find a youth hostel.

Heraklion is easily accessible by bus. The main bus routes start or terminate at Heraklion. The biggest lines are the buses from Agios Nikolaos, through Malia and Chersonissos to Heraklion and the line between Chania and Rethymno to Heraklion. The buses on these routes drive on a very frequent schedule.

Most tourists come to Crete using the airport of Heraklion. From the airport you can take a bus to the center of Heraklion. This bus goes to the bus terminus where the buses in the direction of Agios Nikolaos and Chania leave. Near the bus station is the port where the ferry from Piraeus moors. You can also take a cab from the airport or port to go to your destination on the island.