Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Heraklion
Once the glorious capital of Minoan Crete and one of the most powerful cities in the eastern Mediterranean, ancient Knossos is a place steeped in legend. Today, it’s Crete’s largest and most important archaeological site, crowned by the hilltop Palace of Knossos—built around 2,000 BC—which reveals a fascinating history that stretches all the way back to the earliest European civilizations.
Samaria Gorge, in southwestern Crete, is one of Europe’s longest canyons. A popular hiking destination, its rugged river valley trail runs 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Xyloskalo in the White Mountains to he coastal village of Agia Roumeli. The gorge is part of Samaria Gorge National Park, which enjoys a seat along the Libyan Sea coast.
The now-uninhabited island of Spinalonga (Kalydon) sits in the Elounda Gulf along Crete’s northeastern shore. During the 16th-century Venetian occupation, the invaders built a defensive fortress here protecting Mirabello Bay. Today visitors can tour the massive structure and the abandoned buildings that sit along its turreted walls.
Part zoo and part rescue center for marine and amphibious life, the privately run Aquaworld opened in June 1995 and was Crete’s first aquarium; it was the brainchild of Scotsman John McLaren, who started rescuing injured marine animals in the early 1990s and runs the aquarium with the support of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research. This is a children’s wonderland showcasing Crete’s indigenous sea life in 15 vast tanks, combined with a collection of reptiles from all over the world, housed in terrariums and pools. Many of these have been injured or abandoned and the aim behind the center is that all have been nursed back to health and all have a safe home for life. A visit gives the chance to get up close to and handle snakes – even enormous pythons – tortoises and lizards as well as joining in feeding sessions, having a selfie taken with the reptiles and learning about their conservation. The
undoubted star of the show at Aquaworld is Stephania, a blind turtle who has lived in the center since 2000.
The third-largest settlement on the Greek island of Crete, the port town of Rethymno (Rethimno) has been occupied since the Late Minoan period. Its Venetian- and Ottoman-era old town—a knot of narrow, flower-bedecked lanes overlooked by a fortified Venetian castle—oozes history and character. A series of sandy beaches stretch out along the coastline to the east.
It might not be as famous as the Palace of Knossos, but in its day Malia was a thriving Minoan city with an impressive palace complex.
These days, however, Malia is perhaps better known for the resorts and Ibiza-style nightlife of the site’s neighboring Malia town.
The seafront palace and town were destroyed by the earthquake that also toppled Knossos, and the ruins you can see on a tour of the site today were built following the disaster.
Walking around the compact site you’ll see the central courtyard of the palace, its ceremonial steps, storage rooms and workshops. One of the excavations reveals an impressive residence with a luxurious bath.
Some of the ancient sculptures and relics unearthed from Malia have been relocated to Heraklion’s archaeological museum. Perhaps the most beautiful and best known is the lovely pendant of golden bees holding drops of honey.
Cretaquarium (Thalassokosmos, or "Sea World" in Greek), Crete's gleaming white sea aquarium opened in the island’s former American Base in December 2005, is the largest in Greece and showcases the magical fish and marine ecosystems of the Mediterranean Sea. As well as educating visitors on the mysteries of the deep, Cretaquarium plays a serious role in researching and conserving sea life, as well as in caring for injured fish and marine life.
More than 2,500 fish from more than 250 indigenous species, ranging from sand tiger sharks to microscopic sea horses, can be seen in 60 tanks filled with 1.7 million liters of seawater, each carefully themed for a local Mediterranean marine environment. The aquarium has walk-through tanks with sharks, loggerhead turtles, comical groupers, and velvety rays floating overhead, as well as 100 observation spots where entertaining and informative information is laid out for children as colorful shoals of fish flit in front of their eyes. Specially designed "touch pools" allow for interaction with marine invertebrates and there are daily workshops and lectures for families.
A compact water park with a varied range of slides, Watercity Water Park is located midway between Heraklion and Hersonissos. Slides include a long, slow “Crazy River” raft ride, a boomerang ride, a vortex-style slide, a Tarzan swing, and more. You can also enjoy a wave pool, a lazy river, two children’s pools, and a selection of children’s slides.
Like its impressive fortress, Heraklion’s 16th-century walls are amongst the most obvious relics of Crete’s former Venetian rulers.
The fort and walls were constructed by the Venetians to protect their valuable island possession, and withstood the Ottomans’ 21-year siege of the city. The Venetians ruled Crete from 1204 to 1669, when the Ottomans took over.
Crete thrived under the Venetians, and the island was a refuge for Byzantine scholars and intellectuals retreating from Constantinople after the great city fell to the Turks in 1453. Dramatic painter El Greco was born in Crete, though it was in Spain that he found fame.
To retrace the footsteps of these and other eminent Cretans, take a walk along the city walls and into the past. Seven bastions and four gates make up the massive fortifications, dwarfing everything around them, including much more modern structures. The bastions are like mini forts, triangular in shape, while the sea forms the structure’s base.
The walls were built over the century between 1462 and 1562, and they take you right through the heart of the old city. The fortress, known as the Rocca al Mare, is away from the walls on the tip of harbor promontory, with the Venetian arsenal opposite the fort on the harborfront.
Travelers to Greece don’t need to head out on a cruise to get a taste of the waters, given that Star Beach Water Park offers up family-friendly fun in a festive environment.
Visitors who want to relax and unwind can chill out as they float along the rolling Lazy River. Intrepid adventurers can test the laws of gravity on the thrilling Trampolino and four giant slides offer plenty of options for water-lovers seeking high speeds. Mini pools, water mushrooms and mini slides mean globetrotters traveling with the younger set will have plenty of kid-friendly options, too.
More Things to Do in Heraklion
The ruins of Archanes speak poignantly of Crete’s Minoan past.
The archaeological site and museum here exhibit coffins and musical instruments, ornamental pieces, pottery shards, cooking pots, lamps and even such domestic objects as tweezers.
It’s thought that Archanes was the location of a palatial summer palace, with evidence of aqueducts, a reservoir and theater. Excavations begun in 1964 have also revealed two dozen funerary buildings at the necropolis at nearby Phourni. Monumental tombs have unearthed sarcophagi and funeral offerings of jewelry and ornaments.
Editor's Note: Photo courtesy of AWI via Creative Commons