Iraklion is the biggest city on the island of Crete and the fifth biggest in Greece, with a population of about 120,000. It is located on the north coast of Crete, about half-way along. Generally considered a fairly obnoxious place by visiting tourists, the city is flourishing and its residents are the wealthiest per head in the country.
You will see many different spellings of the name 'Iraklion'. This is because the real name of the city in the Greek alphabet is Ηρακλειον. As there is no standard way of transliterating this into our alphabet you will see various spellings such as Iraklion, Heraklion and even Herakleion. In addition, road signs will usually leave out the final 'n', meaning 'to Iraklion'.
The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.
Iraklion is just down the road from the palace of Knossos, which in Minoan times was the biggest centre of population on Crete. So it is very likely that there was a port here as long ago as 2000 BC. There is, however, no trace of it now.
The present city of Iraklion was founded in 824 AD by the Saracens (an Arabic Muslim people). They built a giant ditch around the city for protection. They named the city 'Khandak', meaning 'moat', after the ditch. The Saracens allowed the port to be used as a safe haven for pirates, much to the annoyance of the nearby Byzantine Empire2.
In 961, the Byzantines had had enough. They attacked and defeated the city, slaughtered all the Saracens, looted the city and burned it to the ground. They remained in control of the rebuilt Khandak for about the next 150 years.
In 1204, the city was 'bought' by the Venetians as part of a complicated political deal that involved, among other things, the Crusaders restoring a deposed Byzantine emperor to his throne. The Venetians improved on the ditch by building enormous fortifications, most of which are still in place today, including a giant wall, in places up to 40m thick, with seven bastions, and a fortress in the harbour. The name Khandak became Candia in their language. The city retained the name of Candia for centuries, and the whole island of Crete was often called Candia as a result.
After the Venetians came the Turks. They besieged the city for 22 years in a bloody war in which 30,000 Cretans and 120,000 Turks died. The Venetians eventually handed it over in 1669. The Turks renamed the city 'Megalokastro' ('big castle'). During their occupation the harbour silted up, so they moved most of their business to Chania in the west of the island.
The city only became truly Greek with the withdrawal of the Turks in 1898. At this stage, the Greeks decided to rename the city to something Greek, so they chose the name Iraklion, meaning City of Irakllis (Hercules), after the port of Heracleum which had existed somewhere in the locality in Roman times.
Iraklion is a bustling modern city with all the problems of other cities, such as traffic jams, noise, air pollution, lack of parking and sprawling suburbs. Nevertheless, there are a few things to be seen that can make a pleasant day's outing.
The Archaeological Museum
This museum is an absolute must for any visitor to the city. It contains virtually all the artefacts recovered from the excavation of the ancient Minoan palaces and villages of Crete. This is a priceless insight into a vanished culture. Here you can see the frescoes from Knossos showing ordinary people going about their lives nearly 4,000 years ago. There are pots with elaborate decorations (including abstract designs and octopuses), there are sculptures, gold jewellery, models of houses (the models themselves date from Minoan times) and tablets containing the writing of the Minoans: Linear A and Linear B.
You can read more about the museum in the entry The Minoan Civilisation of Crete.
The Historical Museum of Crete
This museum is much less frequented than the Archaeological Museum. It deals with the history and folklore of Crete since about 1000 AD. Among other things, it contains a painting by El Greco, who was born near Iraklion.
The Venetian Fortress of Koules
The Venetian Fortress in the harbour is interesting, although there is not much to see. Built in about 1540, it was called 'Rocca al Mare', meaning the Rock on the Sea, by the Venetians. It features walls about 10 metres thick, so it is virtually impregnable, and was in fact never defeated in battle. It was restored recently, so it is very clean and new looking, belying its great age.
A Walk Through Iraklion
Starting at the harbour, walk up 25 August Street. This is a busy street that leads up to the centre of the city. On the left you will see the Loggia, an impressive Venetian building with a colonnade at the front. This is now the Town Hall. It is a fine example of Venetian architecture. Next you reach Platia Venizelou, named after the Cretan politician, Eleftherios Venizelos, who united Crete and Greece in the early 20th Century. This pleasant 'square' is actually a triangle and it is lined with restaurants. There are trees to provide shade and in the middle is the Morosini Fountain, a giant marble construction complete with lions, dating back to 1628.
Proceed up 1866 Street (named after the Cretan uprising against the Turks), where there is an open-air market every morning and early afternoon. Here you can buy fresh meat, vegetables, fish and spices, as well as leather goods, tourist knick-knacks and beautiful gold jewellery.
At the end of the market is another shady square, Platia Kornarou. Here you will find a strange hexagonal kiosk, which is now a café. Originally this was a Turkish pumphouse, with water troughs on many sides. Behind it is another fountain, the Bembo fountain, which dates from Venetian times.
Return via the market to Platia Venizelou. Now proceed up Dedhalou Street. This is a pedestrian street and has the greatest concentration of shops in the city. It is where the locals go to spend their money, with plenty of high-class jewellers and clothes shops, but lots of souvenir shops for the tourists as well.
At the end of Dedhalou street, you arrive at the other major square of Iraklion's centre: Platia Eleftherias ('Liberty Square'). This semicircular 'square' has many restaurants around the curved side. The centre of the square has many trees providing shade, but it is not particularly inviting. The entire square was recently paved and is very bare-looking, with a lot of traffic noise. The straight side of the plaza looks out over the fortifications that surround Iraklion. Here you will find a statue of the ubiquitous Eleftherios Venizelos.
At the corner of the square is the Archaeological Museum.
While many visitors' impressions of this city are summed up in the phrase 'Horrible Heraklion', there is enough here to make a pleasant day's visit.