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The Best Things to Do in the Historical Region of Heraklion

Agia Pelagia Beach ● Crete ● Heraklion ● Heraklion Town ● Knossos ● Malia ● Matala ● Myrtia ● Phaistos ● Skoteino Cave ● 02 August 2021
 
Heraklion is the principal town and the capital of the lovely and celebrated island of Crete. Heraklion is not beautiful in the traditional, conventional way that Greek islands are - it reminds more of a busy, vivid city. However, this does not mean that it doesn't have much to offer to its visitors. And that is precisely why it is a very fast-growing tourist destination. The broader region of Heraklion also has many things to do and many attractive places to visit. This includes areas of great historical interest, as well as magnificent beaches. Below, you can see a guide to the most exciting things you can see while being in the Heraklion region. 


The enchanting port of Heraklion


Knossos

The Archaeological site of Knossos is by many the most important and fascinating sight of Heraklion. It is located just 5 km away from Heraklion Town. Knossos Palace used to be the centre of the Minoan Civilisation. According to evidence, the area was inhabited from the Neolithic period. The first palace was built around 1900 BC on the ruins of the Neolithic settlement. This palace was destroyed in 1700 BC, probably by an earthquake, but a new, more enormous palace was immediately built in its place. The date and conditions of its final destruction and abandonment are not very clear. Many scholars claim, though, that it was around 1375 BC. The first excavation was carried out by Minos Kalokairinos in 1878. Further, long-term excavations took place in 1900 by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and lasted for many years.

The impressive Knossos Palace has been associated with some well-known stories of Greek Mythology. One of them is the myth of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur. Many believe that this is the place where this fascinated tale took place. According to the legend, Minotaur, which was a creature half-man and half-bull, was kept in the Labyrinth (a maze) by King Minos of Crete. The creature was fed on humans, enemies of the king that were sent into the maze and couldn't find their way out. After the tragic death of Mino's son Androgeus in Athens, Athenians were obliged to send seven men and women to Minotaur every year. Theseus, a prince from Athens, decided to go and fight against Minotaur in order for all this cruelty to be over. Things seemed difficult for him, but he was lucky as Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, fell in love with him and decided to help him. Before he entered the Labyrinth, she gave him a ball of thread that he could unravel in order to find his way out. Theseus killed Minotaur, found his way out, and escaped with Ariadne from Crete. 

The other myth is the one of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus was an acclaimed architect and the creator of the Labyrinth. He was actually the one who told Ariadne how to help Theseus. After the escape of Theseus, King Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth. Daedalus realised that the only way to escape was by air, as Minos controlled every land or sea route. So he decided to construct wings for him and his son and use them to fly away to freedom. The wings he made were similar to bird wings, and they were made of feathers and wax. Before leaving, he warned his son that he should not fly too high as the sun's heat would melt the wax in his wings. The two men managed to escape, but unfortunately, as they were flying, Icarus forgot his father's advice due to his excitement. He flew too close to the sun, the wings were slowly melted, and he fell and drawn into the sea. After that, the part of the Aegean that Icarus fell was named Icarian sea, and the island close to this spot was named Ikaria. 


The imposing and colourful Palace of Knossos


Matala

Matala is a seaside village in southern Crete and probably the most well-known beach in the Heraklion area. It is 75km away from Heraklion Town. Before becoming a tourist attraction, Matala was just a tiny fishing village. It has a large beach, 250 km long, which is mostly sandy. The beach is famous for the unique landscape it offers - it has several  impressive caves located on a cliff on the right side of the beach. Moreover, it is well-organised, and you can also find some beach bars and restaurants in the area. 

The place has a rich history as it was inhabited from ancient years. It became widely known during the 60s and 70s as it was very popular among hippies who used the caves as their home. Matala is also mentioned in the song "Carey" by Joni Mitchell, who spent some time there. Nowadays, you can still visit the caves, but no one is allowed to live or spend the night in them.


Gorgeous view of Matala beach from one of its caves 


Malia

Malia is 34km away from Heraklion Town, and it is located in the northern part of the island. It is one of Crete's major tourist destinations and offers many tourist facilities. It attracts mostly young people from many countries, as it is particularly famous for its nightlife. For this reason, it is not suitable for those seeking peaceful vacations away from the crowds. Apart from its nightlife, though, it is also of archaeological interest as you can visit the ruins of Minoan Palace close to it. This is the third-largest palace, following Knossos and Phaistos. The town also offers a long, sandy beach with water sports facilities available. 


Cretaquarium

Cretaquarium is an impressive aquarium located in Gournes, just 17 km away from Heraklion Town. It is one of the most amusing things to do in Heraklion, especially when travelling with children. The aquarium is mainly dedicated to the incredible biodiversity of the Mediterranean sea. There is also a section devoted to tropical species. This is because, after the construction of the Suez Canal (which connects the Mediterranean with the Red sea), some tropical species crossed the canal and started living in the Mediterranean waters. In the aquarium, you will have the chance to meet a significant amount of species and learn fascinating information about them. It is open every day throughout the year. It also offers a range of educational programmes and activities. 


A dusky grouper fish swimming in the Cretaquarium


Skoteino Cave (or Agia Paraskevi Cave)

This cave is located on a hill at an altitude of 225m. It is close to Skoteino village, 25km away from the town of Heraklion. It is also called Agia Paraskevi Cave because of the church of Agia Paraskevi that is built there. It worths a visit as it is one of the largest caves in Crete. The cave entrance is easy to access, but keep in mind that it can be dangerous to explore much further due to its depth. The cave is also famous because of the impressive formations of stalactites and stalagmites. It has been used since the old times, and it is believed that people used it as a place of worship in the Minoan period. It also appears that it was a place where sacrifices were executed. Finally, there is a theory by the archaeologist Pual Faure that the cave was the Labyrinth of Knossos. 


Phaistos

Phaistos Palace is located in the plain of Messara in the Central Southern Crete, 55 km away from Heraklion Town. It is one of the most important archaeological sites of Crete and the second largest palace after Knossos. Phaistos was a  significant centre of the Minoan civilisation. Therefore, it attracts many tourists every year, and many of them prefer it to Knossos. Phaistos has been inhabited since the late Neolithic area. Similarly to Knossos, Phaistos had been through many disasters and had to be rebuilt. Although its architecture is beautiful, it is simpler than the one in Knossos. Phaistos is supposed to have been the home of Radamanthis, brother of Minos. 

The first excavations of Phaistos  took place around the beginning of the 20th century by the Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherr. On the archaeological site, you can visit the ruins of the old and the new palace. Another reason that makes Phaistos worth visiting is that it is built in a beautiful location and offers fantastic views over the valley. 

The place is also associated with Phaistos disc, one of the most famous archaeological enigmas. Phaistos disc was discovered during an excavation in the palace of Phaistos in 1908. The disc has a size of around 15 cm in diameter and has stamped symbols on both of its sides. There are 45 different symbols on it that don't belong to any known language or alphabet. Many archaeologists have tried to decipher the code of the signs that are written on it. The theories vary, and some suggest it is a prayer, a poem, or even a board game. There are even some that believe that it is a hoax. Despite the number of theories, the mystery remains unsolved until now. You can see the disc in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. 


The mysterious Phaistos disc in the Archaeological Museum


Myrtia

Myrtia is a lovely, small, traditional village in the region of Heraklion. It used to be known as Varvari. It is approximately a half-hour drive from the town centre. It has become famous primarily because of the Nikos Kazantzakis Museum, a museum dedicated to the work and life of this great Greek writer who was born in Heraklion. Nikos Kazantzakis was one of the most acclaimed Greek writers of the last century. He became known to the rest of the world with the movie Zorba the Greek (1964), which was based on his novel "The Life and Times of Alexis Zorba". The village was the birthplace of his father. Nikos Kazantzakis museum was founded in 1983. Its exhibits include first editions of books, other published texts, as well as letters and personal items.


Agia Pelagia Beach

Agia Pelagia is a lovely beach located in the village of Agia Pelagia, just 24 km away from Heraklion Town. The village has lately become a tourist resort with many facilities. The main beach is long and sandy. Another plus of the beach is that it is well-protected from the winds, so the water is almost always calm. Furthermore, It is organised, and some water sports facilities are available. 


The stunning blue waters of Agia Pelagia Beach


Heraklion Town

One of the must-sees of the town is its Archaeological Museum. The present building was built in 1937 on a site that a Venetian monastery used to stand before it was destroyed by an earthquake. It is conveniently located in the centre of the town. It is considered to be one of the most excellent museums in the country. It houses exhibits from all the periods of Cretan history, starting from the Neolithic period. Its most known collection is, of course, its Minoan collection. Apart from the essential Phaistos disc, other famous exhibits of the museum include the Bull's Head Rhyton, the figurines of Snake Goddess, the Bull-Leaping Fresco, the Prince of the Lilies and others. The museum also offers educational programmes and houses cultural events. 

The Natural History Museum worths paying a visit. In this museum, you will have the chance to become familiar with the flora and the fauna of Greece, with a particular focus on Crete island. The museum also offers the experience of an earthquake simulator! This will give you the chance to experience various earthquakes in a safe environment. Another entertaining section, especially for the younger ones, are the dinosaur exhibits. Moreover, it has a special section for children that offers educational activities. 

Finally, another museum worth visiting is the Historical Museum. There you can see the exciting history of the city from the early Christian times till nowadays. 

Apart from cultural and entertainment options, in the town of Heraklion, you will also find great beaches for swimming, close to the town's centre. One of the most well-known is Amoudara Beach. It is a very convenient option if you are looking for something in close distance. The beach is long, sandy and organised, and you can find cafes and restaurants nearby. It is also an excellent choice for windsurfing as it often gets windy. Another beach option close to the town is Amnissos beach, another lovely sandy beach that is well-organised. The water is clear, it is easily accessible, and it is popular among both locals and tourists. 

Apart from the beaches, there are also many water parks close to the city that you can spend your day, for example, the Acqua Plus Water Park where you can find many fun activities. 


The sandy beach and waves of Amnissos Beach

Where to Stay

Hotel in Heraklion, Greece Park Hotel
Park Hotel
19, Evrou Str., 71303 Heraklion, Greece

Park Hotel is located in Heraklion, close to Ammoudara Beach and only a 10-minute drive from the city centre. Heraklion Port is 4.8 km away and Heraklion International Airport is 7.7 km away.


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