Archaeological evidence shows that Iraklion probably arose during the 9th century B.C. and like most Mediterranean cities, Iraklion has a long and turbulent history. Officially founded by the Saracens in the 9th century, the Byzantine Empire invaded in 961 only to lose control to the Crusaders who sold Crete to the Venetians in 1211 for a thousand silver coins. Iraklion finally flourished under the Venetians. Throughout the city you’ll find stunning reminders of their influence: the Loggia, Venetian Walls, and Fountain of Morosini are just a few must-see examples.
It’s common for first-time visitors to take one look at Iraklion and marvel at how modern the city is. Newcomers tend to expect a small village with antiquated buildings rather than the busy cosmopolitan city that occupies the same ground where Hercules, King Minos, the minotaur and other characters from ancient mythology once roamed. The magic of Iraklion, though, is the fact that its modern amenities commingle peacefully with its ancient treasures rather than overshadowing them. The result is a vibrant town that manages to look to the future while still embracing its past.
The contemporary shops, hotels and apartment buildings might be the first things to catch a visitor’s eye, but scratch the surface of Iraklion’s new veneer and the town’s glorious history comes shining through. Massive walls built in the 1500’s circle the heart of the city like two powerful arms trying to restrain Iraklion from moving too far forward into the modern age. Lovely fountains, ornate architecture and other relics of the past lie scattered throughout the city as well, with many of these attractions dating back centuries ago to the time when Venice ruled the island of Crete.
While the blend of past and present provides a fascinating backdrop, Iraklion’s true beauty comes from its simple reflections of everyday Greek life. Its small, unexpected surprises are the things that make the city such a joy to explore. The busy public squares and festive taverns may draw more tourists, but to experience Iraklion at its best try strolling the shoreline at dusk or visit the old harbor beside the Venetian fort at sunrise and watch fishermen carefully inspecting their nets in the pink glow of dawn.
The disabled cruiser visiting Iraklion will find the terrain mostly friendly. There is low satisfaction levels, as far as transportation and tourism-related infrastructure in the island is concerned. On the other hand, higher levels of satisfaction have been revealed, with respect to service quality and employees’ response to the needs of tourists with disabilities, not only in accommodation outlets but also in transportation, museums, recreation areas, restaurants, etc. Crete could become an important accessible tourism destination, if priority was given by state authorities as well as by the private sector towards the development of accessible infrastructure and facilities that would be suitable for tourists with disabilities.
Where You’re Docked
A Venetian fort completed in 1540 sits right next to the harbor, and exploring its massive ramparts and cavernous interior can easily occupy an hour or two. Children will especially love poking around the fort, which looks like something you’d find on a Hollywood movie set. A curving pedestrian walkway leads to the fort then snakes out into the sea, offering a picturesque place to jog or stroll. Several restaurants of varying quality line the streets across from the harbor, and during the tourist season it’s common to find an outdoor carnival with a Ferris wheel and other rides set up near the shoreline as well.
Iraklion is an important seaport and a ferry dock. Regularly scheduled ferries serve the routes to the Greek islands Ios, Paros, Mykonos, Rhodes and Santorini. There are also daily ferries to Piraeus-Athens (mainland Greece).
Good to Know
Where, at one time, the number of cars in the city center would have made walking difficult, you will now find large city-center spaces cleared of traffic. You can enjoy walking in one of the most historically and socially fascinating cities facing the Mediterranean, on streets free from traffic noise and rush. The city has opened up in so many ways, making the city a place of discovery. These changes bring a harmony between the traditionally warm, considerate people of Iraklion, the fine buildings, and the open public spaces and views over the ocean. Many landmarks tell their story about the city and the island that gave birth to gods, to rebellion, and to a place that inspires everyone who feels the spirit of Crete.
On Foot: Walking is by far the easiest way to explore Iraklion. The majority of its attractions are clustered in an area five or six blocks wide, and walking from one end of town to the other can be done in less than an hour.
By Taxi: Greek taxis would be fairly inexpensive if drivers didn’t tack on so many surcharges; some legitimate and others not. In theory, a cab ride to any location within Iraklion’s city limits should never cost more than about 6 euros, but always agree on the fare before you enter the cab to avoid an unpleasant surprise at the end of your trip.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Euro (EUR), the currency of the European Union, is the official currency of Greece. Many stores and restaurants also accept major credit cards, which usually offer you a good exchange rate. When shopping, remember there is a Value-Added Tax added to most purchases.
The local language is Greek. Say “Good Afternoon” in Greek: “Kalispera.” English is spoken.
Apart from shopping and the designer clothes on Daedalou Street (“Daydaloo”), there are many small shops off all the main streets which sell those local products which normally are used when you live in Crete. Just have a look along 1866 Street and more so its side streets – you may find a curio distinctly different from more typical “gifts” offered to visitors in gift shops.
The famous tourist attraction, the Saturday market that was by the port, an almost kilometre long display of fruit and vegetables and sundry items – has now sadly moved to an obscure suburb.
Restaurants and taverns are plentiful in Iraklion, but if you’re eating on the run you’ll find the city’s version of fast food to be some of the best in the world. Dozens of corner bakeries sell flaky pastries with spinach, ham or cheese inside, and a gyro stuffed with juicy pork and tomatoes then slathered with garlicky yogurt sauce makes an excellent portable snack.
Points of Interest
- Knossos Palace – This is one of the most important archeological finds in the world, and many visitors come to Iraklion for the sole purpose of visiting Knossos. The collection of ruins dates back nearly 4,000 years and is associated with both King Minos and the evil minotaur, who supposedly lived in a maze beneath the palace. Several of the more significant rooms have been renovated to give visitors a better idea of how the ancient royals went about their daily lives.
- The Archeological Museum – The assortment of art and artifacts housed here is nearly dizzying and visitors should give themselves at least two hours to browse the entire collection. Colorful frescoes and statues removed from Knossos Palace are here along with an amazing collection of vases, an assortment of ancient jewelry and several ornate drinking vessels shaped like the head of a bull. Be sure not to miss the famous Phaestos Disc, which is near the beginning of the museum and can be easily overlooked among the hundreds of glass cases.
- Market Street – Officially known as 1866 Street, this narrow alley near the center of town is jam-packed with shops and stalls selling fruits, vegetables, wines, jewelry and local crafts. A little good-natured haggling is perfectly acceptable here, but don’t expect more than a small discount. Tacky souvenir stores have begun to invade the area in recent years, but it’s still a fun place to wander aimlessly while soaking up the local color.
- Fountain Square – Also known as Lions Square because of the stone lions which adorn the fountain, this is the central hub of activity in downtown Iraklion. The square is lined with cafes, bakeries and ice cream shops, and although the majority of the restaurants serve mediocre food, stopping here for a cold soda or a cocktail is a nice way to escape the sun for a few blessed minutes.
- The Tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis – The author of “Zorba the Greek” is laid to rest at the southern juncture of the Venetian walls which surround the city. It takes a good half hour to walk here from the harbor but the quiet, tranquil spot provides a nice panoramic view of both Iraklion to the north and Mount Iouktas to the south. The mountain’s craggy outline resembles the profile of a man’s head, and local legend proclaims it to be the face of the great god Zeus.
- Historical Museum of Crete – This museum houses a more modern collection than the Archeological Museum, but there are some nice paintings by El Greco here in addition to Byzantine ceramics, an assortment of weapons, flags and uniforms from Crete’s revolutionary days, and an extensive collection of coins and bank notes dating from the early Christian period through modern times.
- Kera Kardiotissa Monastery – Considered Crete’s most important Byzantine church, inside you’ll find remarkably vivid frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries. The monastery is equally famous for its Virgin Mary icon, which is believed to have performed miracles.
Iraklion Accessible Excursions
There are currently no organized accessible shore excursions in Iraklion.