Things to Do in Heraklion
The best place to capture the mystery and magic of Crete’s ancient Minoan civilization is the ruins of Knossos, just outside Heraklion. The secrets of this enigmatic civilization were only unraveled in the 20th century, by the man who would go on to restore the palace ruins, Sir Arthur Evans.
The Palace of Knossos was built at the height of the Minoans’ glory, in around 3400 to 2100 BC, reflecting their wealth and sophistication. Best known for their incredibly naturalistic frescos and exquisite ceramics, the Minoans traded with other contemporary great powers in Egypt and Asia Minor.
The original palace was destroyed by an earthquake in around 1700 BC, and a more sophisticated complex was built over the ruins. Knossos was eventually destroyed by fire in 1400 BC.
Minoan pottery, jewelry, frescos and sarcophagi from Knossos are displayed in Heraklion at its fabulous archaeological museum.
Samaria Gorge is legendary amongst hikers, with more than 1,000 walkers hitting the rugged river valley trail daily in summer. Europe’s longest gorge offers a wildflower-bedecked river trail with cliff-top views of Crete’s endangered wild goat, the kri-kri. The walk begins at Xyloskalo, where a steep stone pathway with wooden rails enters the gorge. It finishes 16km (10 miles) later on the coast at Agia Roumeli. Along the way, the stone walls of the gorge close over the trail, at some points reduced to only a couple of feet wide. At their most impressively narrow, the craggy canyon walls are known as the Iron Gates. Water fills the stream in spring, while in summer the riverbed rocks become stepping stones. And at the end of the trail, in Agia Roumeli, the beach offers hikers a chance to revive with a refreshing dip in the sea. Samaria Gorge and its rare wild kri-kri goats are protected by national park on Crete’s southwest coast, between the towns of Agia Roumeli and Sougia.
For centuries the island of Spinalonga has been known for its Venetian fortress, and more recently it was the setting for the 2005 novel 'The Island' by Victoria Hislop.
The now-abandoned island is the perfect place to lose yourself for half a day. You’ll discover how the island was once part of the mainland, and was created by the Venetians to protect the Gulf of Mirabella. You’ll also see where salt was harvested by the Venetians, but the main attraction and dominating landmark is the fort.
The Venetian fortress was built in 1579, and over the years it’s been used as a Turkish bastion and leper colony. Built to watch over the neighboring mainland port of Elounda, the massive fort is surrounded by a circular walk passing ruined churches, homes, fortified structures and turreted walls.
Along the shore there are sheltered pebbled beaches for paddling, but that’s about it when it comes to facilities.
Crete’s gleaming white sea aquarium opened in the island’s former American Base in December 2005 and is the largest in Greece, showcasing the magical fish and marine ecosystems of the Mediterranean Sea. As well as educating visitors on the mysteries of the deep, the aquarium plays a serious role in researching and conserving sea life and 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.