Founded by the Arabs in 824 AD the city of Heraklion is the fourth largest in Greece (pop 160,000) and is a modern day concrete jungle, without even the small compensations of Athens such as the beauty of and character of Plaka, Monastiraki and Thiseio districts, or the large greenbelts such as Filopappou or Zappeio.
Nor does Heraklion have the character of Hania or Rethymno (the other two cities of any size in Crete), though there have been recent efforts to beautify it by restoring some of the older parts and some areas in the center, especially Platia Eleftherias, which has been landscaped with palms and eucalyptuses. Its shops, cafes and restaurants however are on the pricey side.
Heraklion is a wealthy city (with the highest per capital average income in Greece) due both to its role as trading capital of Crete, and to tourism (centering especially around visitors to Knossos only 5 km. distant).
The old city walls and Venetian fort are what one first sees on approaching from the sea. These are the fortifications that held off the Ottoman Turks during the 21 year siege that ended in 1669 with surrender. In places the walls, designed by Michele Sammicheli, the great military architect of his century, and built by the Venetians between 1462 and 1562, are up to fifteen meters (45 feet) thick.
There are four gates and seven bastions (projecting parts in shape of pentagons with bases in line with the main works). They can be walked along (though very difficult to get on top of from St. Andrew's bastion as far as the Marinengo Bastion, where the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis lies. The port fortifications (above) are more accessible, however, and one can visit the 16th century Rocca al Mare castle (Tues-Sat 8:30 am-3 pm; Sun. 10 am-3 pm; admission 1.50 euros; students .60).
The Venetians ruled Crete for more than 400 years, preceded by Byzantines who in turn conquered the preceding Arabs, who had ruled from 824 to 961 A.D. The Arabs named the city El Kandak, which became the capital of slave-trade in the eastern Mediterranean. (Venetian Lion of St. Mark above)
The walled city is in the northeast corner, with its main artery-25 Avgoustou-- joining harbor and city center and boasting some of the city's older buildings. Travel agencies and car rentals can be found here. Platia Venizelou/Fountain Square (for the Morosini Fountain (left) also known as the Lion Fountain in it) has cafes and restaurants and behind it is El Greco Park (not so large) with bars. The city market at Odhos 1866 is one of the more enjoyable places to visit in this city. The main square is Platia Elevtherias and is linked with the other square by the pedestrian walk, Dedhalou. To get to the center from the port, you can go up the steps of the alleys which lead to Platia Elevtherias or you can go west along the coast road, pass the arsenali (whose arches stand out from the modern construction all around), and then turn up 25 Avgoustou, which will land you in Platia Venizelou.