Heraklion Prefecture (Greek: Perifereiaki Enotita Irakliou) is one of the four regional units of Crete. The capital is the city of Heraklion.
The regional unit of Heraklion borders on the regional units of Rethymno to the west and Lasithi to the east. Farmlands are situated in the central and the northern parts, at the coast and in valleys. The mountains dominate the rest of the regional unit, notably the south. The main mountains are parts of Ida or Idi Mountains to the west and Asterousia in the south. The regional unit includes the island of Dia to the north.
Except for the mountains which receive mild to cool winters unlike northern Greece, the warm to hot Mediterranean climate dominates the regional unit.
Within the Heraklion regional unit’s boundaries are a number of significant Neolithic and Minoan settlements, most notably the ancient palace complexes of Knossos and Phaistos. While both archaeological sites evince Neolithic habitation, it is the rich finds of Minoan civilisation, which flourished approximately 2000 to 1600 BC, that command the greatest scholarly attention. Important ancient cities are: Knossos, Phaistos, Gortys, Tylissos, Malia.
During the Minoan period, the centre of the region was Knossos. Heraklion was inhabited from the beginning of the first millennium BC. Quoted by Plinio as being a small city. Throughout the Minoan period, it was one of the harbours for Knossos (Heraklia). The Venetians built the settlement and called it Kastro (castle). The Arabs selected Heraklion to be the capital of Crete as it had a well-fortified harbour which they used as an operations base for their raids in the Aegean. It was to remain the capital until 1851 and then again from 1971. The Arabs called her fortress Tafrou (trench/moat) in Arabic Hantiak which is where the name for the town Handakas originated and it kept this name until the 19th century.
Nikiforos Fokas after occupying the town in 961 AD tried to move the capital more southerly but Xandakas was to keep her role. Megalo Kastro (Big castle) will keep its name throughout the second Byzantine period. After the occupation of Costatinopolis Crete will surrender, but the pirate Enriko Pescatore is able to seize Crete. The reaction of the Venetians will bring Xandakas into their possession in 1207 where it will become the capital of Crete and her name will be changed to Candia. The arrival of the Venetians will mean a period of growth for the town and a need for new fortifications. The economy will develop along with industry, manufacture of luxury items and literature which bring with them a new order, the order of intellectuals which originated from the Venetians or from the Cretan aristocracy.
After the 16th century was the Cretan rebirth of Handakas, Famous painters such as Theofanis, Kris, Mahial Damaskinos and the great Dominique Theotokopoulos left their mark. The Cretan rebirth reached its climax with the growth of Cretan literature and the works of pioneer Giorgos Hortatsis and Vitsenzos Kornaros the Erotokritos. Other important men of literature are Markos Antonios Foskolos from Handaka with his theatrical work Fourtounatos.
The fortifications of Handaka along with its bastion and its only means of access by the sea made it difficult for the Turks to take possession. Nevertheless, the Turks managed to finally seize the town in 1669. The town suffers major damage and the population falls dramatically.
A new period of growth will begin from the 18th century up until the 19th century and many new buildings will be added. In 1865 a big earthquake will destroy most of the town. The next big catastrophe to hit Heraklion was on 25th August 1898, when the English arrived, the Turks attacked causing the death of many English soldiers, this resulted in a change of attitude from the Great Forces who subsequently removed all of the Turkish soldiers from the island.
The city begins to develop dynamically; with the arrival of many refugees from M.Asia in 1922, this played a big role in the development giving the city a new aura.
From 1971 up until today, Heraklion has been the capital of the island, the seat of important faculties such as the University Of Crete, the Institute of Technological Research and one of the biggest urban centres in the country.
Places worth going to see
The first thing which draws the attention of the visitor is the walls. The fortifications of Heraklion are unique with wide walls, deep ditches and big bulwarks, additional fortifications outside the ditches are the bases for large firearms.
Beginning the tour of the town at the old Venetian harbour going in a clockwise direction you will first come to Promachona (fortress wall) Sabionara, Promachona Vittouri, Eleftherias (Liberty) square, Promachona Isou, Promachona Martinengo, Promachona Bethlehem and Promachona Saint Andrea. Following the coastal road and returning to the harbour you will see the fortress/jetty out to sea known as “Koules”. Walking up 25th August Street from the old harbour you will come to the church of St. Titos and a little further up the elegant Venetian Loggia then the Eleftheriou Venizelou square (AKA Lion’s Square) with the famous Morosini fountain and opposite one of the most characteristic monuments of Heraklion the Royal Saint Marcus. As you continue you will come to the big Heraklion market on 1866 street which leads up to Kornaros square and the Bembo spring. Also, close by you will find an Ottoman pavilion, Sembil Hanes.
Other significant springs are Priouliu spring, Delimarkou close to the area Agia Triada and the Idomenea spring close to the history Museum.
In the square of St Katerina, you will find the temple of Saint Minas which will impress with its size, in the same square is the temple of Saint Aikaterini which dates back to the 16th century.
Apart from the Venetian monuments, it is well worth paying a visit to the archaeological museum, one of the most important museums in the country, Freedom square along with Justice road where you will find the Court mansion/palace, police station and the Town Hall. The Grave of the great writer Nikos Kazantzakis in the city’s fortifying walls (Martinengo).
Although Heraklion is renowned for being a town of anarchy with inelegant buildings it has many beautiful areas where you will be able to see old distinguished houses which still give the town the feeling that you are back at the beginning of the 20th century.
Popular Resorts of Heraklion Prefecture
The village of Agia Pelagia (approx. 20Km from Heraklion), caters well to tourists from all over the world, with excellent Tavernas serving up some of the best fresh fish dishes in Crete. There are plenty of shops and souvenir stalls to browse and a few bars and pubs. Agia Pelagia is the perfect destination for a family holiday, with watersports to keep the kids entertained, calm safe waters, and your only a stone’s throw from Watercity. The first place most people head is to the beach of Agia Pelagia, it’s a nice sandy beach, and the seas around here are perfect for fishing and snorkeling. Investing in an underwater camera is well worthwhile to capture the sea life here. If your really interested in the sea life of Crete and Greece then pay a visit to CretAquarium in Gouves just an hour or so drive down the road. There are other beaches in the area of Agia Pelagia, one is called Mononaftis, a quiet beach sheltered by a large rocky outcrop. Also try Psaromoura beach, which is nice and sandy with sunbeds available and a small beachside cafe. Another popular choice is Capsis beach, a beach situated on the peninsula, with its own private beach for guests of the Capsis resort. See Excursions from Agia Pelagia.
Amoudara is a beach resort in Gazi approx. 5Km from Heraklion city center. Amoudara Beach has been awarded the Blue Flag, certifying its excellent waters. As a tourist resort is very vibrant during the summer season. Lots of hotels, nice restaurants, cafes & bars. There are also many shops, big supermarkets & mini markets, pharmacies for your convenience. It’s the ideal place for families & couples, that can combine both, staying and enjoying their relaxing holidays or use it a “base” to explore Crete.
Archanes is a picturesque village built on the slopes of mount Giouhtas, 15 km and only 7 km from the Palace of Knossos in central northern Crete, part of the Heraklion region. Situated in the center of the most important wine-producing region of Crete, it has a 5000 years old history, while excavations conducted in the last 50 years have brought to light a lot of sites dating back to the Minoan period. The village is also very famous for its typical Cretan architecture. Most of the village has been restored, with many neoclassical and traditional buildings and churches lending a charismatic architecture to the scene, winning the second award as “the best-restored village in Europe”. Traditional homes have been created into warm gracious guesthouses and pensions. The area is dominated by the large mountain Giouhtas, and gorges, forests, and nature abound. The local agriculture produces delicious wine, raisins, and grapes. Local sites reveal there has been continuous habitation in this area for 5000 years. The Minoan culture is one of the most fascinating subjects of local sites. The village has Minoan, Byzantine, and Folklore museums to explore. Local hiking and walks include a section of the E4 European Walk Path and hikes in amongst sycamore forests to Fourni forest, Silamiano Gorge, or Mount Giouhtas.
Besides this well-developed tourist resort with long sandy beaches, the area has some traditional villages and archaeological sites. Kato Gouves, just a couple km north of the village Gouves, with its long sandy beach, is the summer resort. There is a variety of accommodation, from large hotels to boarding houses and self-catering apartments, and there are many restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops. There are also remains of an ancient Minoan ceramics workshop which is worth seeing, as well as the Christian remains, like the Church of Zoodochos Pigi, patron of the village, the Eileithyia caves. Within a short distance are picturesque villages and sights, such as the monastery of Saint John “Theologos”, the Skotino cave, and Eileithyia cave. The most important archeological sites of the area are the Minoan villas of Kokkíni Háni and Amnísos. The access from Heraklion to Gouves (approx. 20Km) is very easy due to regular and frequent bus itineraries & taxies. See Excursions from Gouves.
Hersonissos (approx. 28Km from Heraklion city). A beautiful Mediterranean town that stands over the ruins of ancient Hersonissos, next to a green-blue charming sea, 25 km east from the city of Heraklion. Here was the center of Roman Crete. Search for the remains of the ancient theater, the mosaics, the streets and the ancient constructions, the paleo-Christian Basilicas, the Roman port, and the ancient fish reservoirs. Traditions, history, culture, in complete harmony with the large modern hotels, built with imagination and taste. The port of Hersonissos is a modern tourist destination that satisfies every visitor with the numerous activities and choices it offers: snorkeling, conference centers, Cretan and international cuisine, sea sports, night clubs, bars, pubs, discos, and much more for a fun nightlife that keeps going until the early morning hours. See Excursions from Hersonissos.
Malia is located 37 kilometers east of Heraklion, on the way to Agios Nikolaos. The main road seems to divide the town in two, the old Malia at the foothill of Mount Selena and the newer part towards the shoreline. In Malia, you will find many apartments and studios for rent, both in coastal Malia and in the narrow streets of the old town. There are tavernas and restaurants on every corner of every street, of all types and prices for every taste. On the north side of the main road is the newer part of Malia, mainly consisting of hotels, apartments, restaurants, and bars. Dimokratias Street, running north from the church of Agios Nektarios to the shore, is better known as the Malia Beach Road. What you see here is a completely different image of Malia compared to the old town. Filled with clubs, bars, cafes, English and Irish pubs, and fast food joints, serving anything from souvlaki to pizzas. Visit the old town of Malia behind the large church of Agios Nektarios. In the late afternoon, you can stroll through the narrow streets, admire the old houses that remain, and sit down for a meal at one of the restaurants bedecked with flowers and greenery. Some of these play live music. Walk along the beach road to shop, have a coffee, eat or enjoy the nightlife. Public transport is very good in general. Bus services run along the main street of Malia in both directions (from/to Heraklion, from/to Agios Nikolaos, Sitia & Ierapetra). See Excursions from Malia.
A safe natural harbor on the Bay of Messara, blessed with gently sweeping sand and pebble beach, the place in legend where Zeus swam ashore in the guise of a bull with Europa on his back. The beach is 250m long and 45m wide. Matala has something for everyone. Although it has become a popular tourist destination it still retains the charm and character of the quiet fishing village it started as at the beginning of the 20th-century, and the laid-back lifestyle of the hippies of the ’60s and ’70s lives on. Half the beach is fringed by tamarisk trees, leading the eye on impressive formations of sandstone rock cliffs with their famous caves sliding into the sea at an odd angle, creating one of the most unusual beachscapes on the island. There have been many pages of history here. Nobody knows quite who started caves but it seems likely that they were first hollowed out as Roman or early Christian tombs. There are other ruins at the eastern end of the village and if you go snorkeling in the clear waters of Messara Bay there are ancient ruins to be seen in the depths. Matala is one of just over 400 beaches in Greece that have been awarded a Blue Flag. Near the beach are opportunities for learning about environmental projects, such as with Archelon, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. At the beach, there are sports facilities as well as activities for children. Yet all this is only 65 km from Iraklion.
Situated in one of the most beautiful areas with its sandy beaches on the north coast, Stalida (as well as Malia), offers the ideal starting point by its central geographical location (30km to the airport and the capital of the island, Heraklion), to discover the whole island. Stalida offers a wide range of accommodations in all kinds of categories. From simple accommodation up to luxurious hotel suites there surely can be found something in all price categories. Most accommodations and bigger resorts are nearby the beach. Many of them provide their own pools and partly offer entertainment programs and sports facilities. But also on the hill opposite the sea, different kinds of accommodations from pension to apartment resorts can be found. From here there is a splendid panoramic view over the whole bay. The most “free view“, no matter from which resort you enjoy it, is guaranteed by the local building regulation which is not permitting to spoil landscape by multi-storey, skyscraper-like concrete buildings. In any case, it is worth paying attention to the garden architecture of most resorts. Food and Drink in Stalida Many nutrition experts praise the “Cretan cuisine” (Cretan-Diet, a standard concept in professional circles) and you definitely should not miss it. In the numerous taverns and restaurants offering national and international cuisine, you surely will find dishes for everyone’s taste. Have a good glass of Cretan wine (produced in many areas on Crete), enjoy the sunset at the seaside, and let dangle your soul… See Excursions from Stalis.