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The attractive, bustling capital of Crete and the Minoan site of Knossos – allegedly home to legendary king Minos – are well worth a visit. Heraklio is Crete’s biggest city and the island’s main gateway. Although it won’t easily cast off its disorderly image, the historic quarter inside the old city walls is anything but that. Here, traces of the past go hand in hand with a modern, cosmopolitan way of life: Modern shopping precincts with boutiques, mainstream shops, alluring cafeterias and taverns, alternate with beautiful historical buildings, sight-seeing attractions and museums. You will leave Heraklio with only the best of impressions.

A Short History

Today's city of Iraklio is about 1,200 years old and was built by the Arabs that conquered Crete in the beginning of the ninth century. However, already since Minoan times there had been a small settlement and today's Venetian harbour served as one of Knossos' ports named Herakleio. This little settlement continued to exist up until the Roman period, while in the first Byzantine period we see it mentioned with the name Kastro. The Arabs turned it into Rabdh el Handak (Castle of the Ditch) because of the ditch they had dug around the city. Nikiforos Fokas, leader of the Byzantines, regained power in 961 AD after a struggle of almost a year, after which he catapulted the defeated’s heads over the fortress walls. The city became known as Handakas until the island was sold to the Venetians in 1204, who then adjusted the name to Candia, "White".

Investing largely in the city by building magnificent buildings and churches and erecting fortification walls and a fortress, Candia thrived and became a centre of arts and letters, especially after Constantinople’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453, when a flood of immigrants arrived from the east. In 1648 the Turks also knocked on Crete’s door, quickly gaining control of a large part of the island. However, it took a siege of 21 years to obtain Candia, the name of which was turned into Candiye now.

The Turkish yoke was a harsh one and everyday and artistic life pined away. It wasn’t until 1823 that the city regained its original name of Iraklio and in 1898 Crete finally gained autonomy, to be united with mainland Greece in 1913. Iraklio resumed its position as the island’s capital in 1971, taking Hania's place. Heavily bombed during World War II, most of the old Venetian and Turkish buildings were destroyed, only to be replaced by impersonal concrete-block buildings.