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Heraklion Travel Guide - Island of Crete

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Map of Cretan Districts Chania Rethymnon Lassithi


Located between the prefectures of Rethymno and Lassithi, on the eastern side of Crete, Heraklio is the largest city and the administrative capital of the island of Crete. The regional unit of Heraklio hosts many busy places with intense nightlife, including Malia, Hersonissos, Ammoudara and Agia Pelagia, but also many peaceful family places, particularly on the southern side. As Heraklio was the main field where the Minoan civilization flourished, you should not miss a visit to the Minoan Palaces of Knossos and Phaestos. A drive around Heraklio in Crete will also bring you to traditional villages, Medieval castles, Byzantine monasteries and nice beach places to relax.

Knossos Palace

Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and probably the ceremonial and political center of the Minoan civilization and culture. The palace appears as a maze of workrooms, living spaces, and store rooms close to a central square. Detailed images of Cretan life in the late Bronze Age are provided by images on the walls of this palace.

The city of Knossos remained important through the Classical and Roman periods, but its population shifted to the new town of Handaq (modern Heraklion) during the 9th century AD.

The great palace was built gradually between 1700 and 1400 BC, with periodic re-buildings after destruction. Structures preceded it on Kephala hill. The features currently most visible date mainly to the last period of habitation, which Evans termed Late Minoan. The palace has an interesting layout - the original plan can no longer be seen because of the subsequent modifications. The 1300 rooms are connected with corridors of varying sizes and direction, which is different than other palaces of the time period which connected the rooms via several main hallways. The 6 acres (24,000 m2) of the palace included a theatre, a main entrance on each of its four cardinal faces, and extensive storerooms (also called magazines). The storerooms contained pithoi (large clay vases) that held oil, grains, dried fish, beans, and olives. Many of the items were created at the palace itself, which had grain mills, oil presses, and wine presses. Beneath the pithoi were stone holes used to store more valuable objects, such as gold. The palace used advanced architectural techniques: for example, part of it was built up to five stories high.

The centerpiece of the "Mycenaean" palace was the so-called Throne Room or Little Throne Room, dated to LM II. This chamber has an alabaster seat identified by Evans as a "throne" built into the north wall. On three sides of the room are gypsum benches. A sort of tub area is opposite the throne, behind the benches, termed a lustral basin, meaning that Evans and his team saw it as a place for ceremonial purification.


It is another palace of the Minoan civilization built around 1600 BC. Its ruins (a maze of walls and courtyards) are second only to those at Knossos. The site of Phaestos is preserved in its natural state. The unique clay disc from Phaestos (dating from 1600 BC) is one of the most valuable exhibits in the Museum of Herakleion since it is one of the oldest examples of hieroglyphic writing ever found and it is believed to record a hymn to the goddess Rhea.


As stated above on the history part, according to the Greek mythology, Zeus and Europa (whose name has been applied to the continent, Europe) made love at Gortys and conceived the kings of Crete, Rhadamanthys, Sarpedon and Minos. According to Book III of Homer's The Odyssey, Menelaus and his fleet of ships, returning home from the Trojan War, were blown off course to the Gortyn coastline. Gortys is an archaeological site on the Mediterranean island of Crete, 45 km away from the modern capital Heraklio.

It was also the Roman capital of Crete, was first inhabited around 3200 BC, and was a flourishing Minoan town between 1600-1100 BC. Placed in the valley of Messara in the north of the Psiloritis mountain in the current position of the settlements of Metropolis and Ten Saints (Hagioi Deka), and near the Libyan Sea. There is evidence of human occupation in Gortys as far back as the Neolithic era (7000 BC). Many artifacts have been found from the Minoan period, as well as some from the Dorian (circa 1100 BC).

Gortys had excellent relations with Ptolemy IV of Egypt, and had a new flourish on the Roman period. As it had allied with the Romans, it avoided the disaster that happened to many other Cretan cities, when invaded by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus in 68 BC. Gortys continued to rise under Roman rule, and became the capital of Crete and Northern Africa.

The city was destroyed in AD 828 by invading Arabs. One of the first Christian temples was built here and the remains of an important Christian cathedral of Crete can still be seen today. This cathedral, dedicated to St. Titus, the first Bishop of Crete, was erected in the 6th century AD. Built with large isodomic stones, this cathedral keeps its intended height only in the areas of the Holy Bema and in pastophoria. The church structure is a cruciform with a dome which is based on four pillars.

Archanes village

Arhanes is a large village located 16 km south of Heraklion Town, on a fertile and verdant hillside with abundant running water. The village is very beautiful with picturesque streets, flowered yards and balconies and several superb neoclassical houses. Epano (Upper) Arhanes is located 4, 5 km from Kato (Lower) Arhanes. The whole area is famous for its excellent wine. During the Turkish rule Arhanes (Epano and Kato) was attacked many times by the Turks. In the wider region some interesting archaeological findings have come to light and have revealed a Minoan construction including a small palace which is believed to have been the summer residence of the king of Knossos. Other excavations have brought to light the richest and most extended prehistoric (2500-1250 BC) graveyard of the Aegean. It has been found on the hill of Fourni, 1 km north-west of Arhanes, and includes domed tombs which are carved on the rock, a group of graves and burial chambers. Some seals, stone plates with ivory, gold jewels, copper urns pots and statuettes have also been excavated. The large village (and a large agricultural centre as well) has been restored and beautified with European Union funds, as well as private initiative, and has won awards - 2nd best restored village in Europe and 1st in long term development prospects. Streets have been newly stone-paved, there are more splendid displays of blooming flowers, fruit trees and plants in the yards, terraces and balconies of the houses - a walk around the back streets is a pleasure as a result.


A sample of the best beaches of Heraklio can be found below:

Matala beach

Matala is a unique seaside resort between rocks in the Central South of Crete, in the Heraklion department. The seaside town of Matala is one of Crete’s biggest attractions. Matala has a unique location between the chalk cliffs, where the holes in the rocks give this place its characteristic famed look. The beautiful bay of Matala is narrow and opens to the west, so visitors and residents of Matala have a breathtaking sunset from the beach. Matala was very popular in the sixties as it was a meeting point for hippies from all over Europe and it still has a hippy character to this day.

Agiofarago beach

This beach takes its name from the gorge that it ends at. The Agio Farago gorge is located near Matala and terminates on one of the best beaches in Crete. From Matala, you take the direction of the monastery and walk towards the gorge. At the entrance of the gorge is a small canteen. The gorge offers beautiful views of the high rocks. Halfway through the gorge, you will also find a beautiful church with a cave. The walk ends with the magnificent view of the beach with the sea. This is a trip well worth making, and you will soon forget about the long walk.

Malia beach

The beaches of Malia are located in a beautiful bay and are also called the most beautiful and best beaches in Crete. There are a total of six different beaches with a total length of 4.5 kilometers. The beaches of Malia are ideal for families with children because the water stays shallow at the shore. Beach beds and umbrellas can be rented on the beaches. There are also many bars and restaurants. The largest beach of Malia is Malia Beach, this 700-meter wide beach is also called Golzanie Beach or Pleasure Beach. It is easy to reach via the main street from Malia center to the beach and it usually is a much preferred destination among young crowds as it combines a wide variety of modern facilities and traditional layout. A small part of the village actually remains untouched by tourism and a couple of kilometres from the village you will also find the archeological site of Malia.


Please click on the map to read more about the individual regions of Crete

Map of Cretan Districts Chania Rethymnon Lassithi


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