Iraklio’s main sights are wedged within the historic town, hemmed in by the waterfront and the old city walls. Many of the finest buildings line up along the main thoroughfare, 25 Avgoustou, which skirts the lovely central square, Plateia Venizelou (also called Lion Sq after its landmark fountain). East of here the hub of Iraklio’s cafe scene, Korai, leads towards the vast Plateia Eleftherias, with the Heraklion Archaeological Museum nearby.
Sight Tour: Heraklion Archaeological Museum
- Length: Two Hours
Start on the ground floor, where rooms I to III focus on the Neolithic period to the Middle Bronze Age (7000 BC to 1700 BC), showing life in the first settlements in Crete and around Knossos. In room II, don’t miss the pectoral golden pendant with bees from Malia, a sophisticated jeweller’s masterpiece depicting two bees depositing a drop of honey into a honeycomb; the finial sceptre handle in the shape of panther; and the extensive jewellery collection. The undisputed standout in room III is the elaborately embellished Kamares tableware of red, black and white clay, including a 'royal dinner service' from Phaestos, but don't rush past the extraordinary painted faience miniature plaques showcasing elaborate architectural details and the wooden scale model of Phaestos.
Rooms IV to VI illustrate life in the Late Bronze Age (1700 BC to 1450 BC). This is when Minoan culture reached its zenith, as reflected in the elaborate architecture, prolific trading practices and founding of new palaces. Not surprisingly, these are among the most visited rooms and the collection here is vast. Highlights include the small clay house from Arhanes, a stunning ivory-and-crystal inlaid draughts board and a scale model of Knossos. Most visitors home in on the Phaistos disc, a stunning clay piece embossed with 45 signs that has never been deciphered. Nearby, the massive copper ingots from Agia Triada and Zakros Palace demonstrate important units of economic exchange. Other gems include the bull-leaping fresco and the incredible bull-leaper sculpture (room VI) that show daring sporting practices of the time.
Rooms VII and VIII reveal the importance of Minoan religion and ideology, with cult objects and figurines. Don't miss the stone bull's head and the gorgeous limestone lioness vessels (said to be used for libations). Room VII houses the chieftain’s cup from Agia Triada, which portrays two men, one holding a staff, the other a sword. In room VIII, the snake goddesses and stone bull's head (inlaid with seashell and crystal) are two stunning ceremonial items from Knossos.
Rooms IX and X are dedicated to the palace of Knossos and its emergence as a centralised state (after the administrative collapse of other palaces) along with evidence of the Mycenaeans. Linear B clay tablets reveal the first ‘Greek’ script and indicate Knossos’ complex administrative system and bureaucratic processes. In room X, look for the extraordinary boar's-tusk helmet (complete with cheek guards) and the gold-handled swords, displaying the importance of the aristocratic warrior status.
Rooms XI and XII highlight settlements, sanctuaries and graves of the Late Bronze Age, including fascinating visual representations of death. The extraordinary sarcophagus from Agia Triada (room XII) is presumed to be that of a ruler, given its detailed, honorific fresco-style scenes, including the sacrifice of a bull (you can just make out the horror in his eyes).
On the 1st floor, room XIII showcases Minoan frescoes (1800 BC to 1350 BC), including recreations by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. The paintings, including the Prince of the Lilies, the Ladies in Blue, the Cupbearer, La Parisienne and the Dolphin Fresco, reflect the interest in art and nature at the time.
Rooms XV to XIX focus on the Geometric and Archaic periods (10th to 6th century BC), the transition to the Iron Age and the formation of the first Greek cities (the terra cotta rainwater channels from Palaikastro will highlight the de-evolution of gutters!). The Apollonian Triad, bronze statues from Deros, are the earliest known Greek hammered-bronze statues, while the bronze shields of the Ideon Cave are extravagant votive offerings to Zeus.
Rooms XX to XXII move to the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods (5th to 4th century BC), where utensils, figurines and stunning mosaic floors and amphorae set the scene for the foundation of the autonomous Greek city states, followed by civil wars and, finally, the Roman period. The huge Phalagari hoard of silver coins (room XXI) is thought to be a military or state fund. The cemetery finds of these periods are especially fascinating: look out for the bronze skull with the gilded clay wreath (room XXII).
Room XXIII exhibits two private collections donated to the museum,
Back on the ground floor (part II), rooms XXVI and XXVII (7th to 4th century BC) house the museum's sculpture collection. Architectural reliefs from Gortyna demonstrate the role of Crete in the development of monumental sculpture, while Roman sculptures and copies of heroes and gods of the preceding Classical era showcase art during the Roman period.