Heraklion is a multifaceted seaside city in Crete that embraces both past and present. The vibrant city of today, with squares and pedestrian walkways, is filled with youthful energy, restaurants and bars, but so much of its charm still concentrates around the Old Town and its romantic Venetian harbour.
Heraklion has excellent museums and one of the largest aquariums in Europe. And for history buffs, without doubt the most fascinating ancient treasure of the region (also known as Heraklion) lies just beyond the city limits. Knossos Palace wasn’t just the most important centre of Minoan civilisation but it was the home of the legendary Minotaur and its labyrinth. Sound interesting? Well, let’s introduce you to the best of Heraklion.
History is everywhere in the city once known as Candia. As you walk around the Old Town, you’ll savour the sights, like the impressive church of Agios Titos in the square originally built by Byzantine emperor Nicephorus Phocas in 961. Or the Armeria (armoury) next to St Titus, and The Loggia (City Hall) with its 82 metopes and beautiful arcades. Directly opposite, you’ll find the lively Morosini (Leondaria) Square with its Lions’ Head Fountain. Moving on to Eleftherias Square, the most striking building here houses the administration for the Prefecture of Heraklion and the region’s Law Courts.
At the entrance of the Venetian Harbour, the Koules Fortress (also known as Castello Del Molo or Rocca al Mare) gazes proudly out to sea. It took its final form between 1523-1540 and served as a prison during Ottoman rule. Across the harbour, the Venetian shipyards make for a romantic backdrop.
Walking along the Venetian Walls of Heraklion, you will see how beautiful this city looks from afar. You’ll pause in small shady parks and admire the genius of the famous Venetian architect, Michele Sanmicheli, who designed the walls and bastions more than 400 years ago. Demarcating today’s Old Town, they made Heraklion the best-fortified city in the Mediterranean.
The most important centre of the Minoan civilisation is just 5km from the centre of Heraklion. This is where master craftsman Daedalus built the labyrinth for the mythical King Minos to isolate the Minotaur, a creature that was half-man, half-bull. Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, slew him and found his way out of the labyrinth with the help of Minos' daughter, Ariadne.
What we know for sure is that the palace was the headquarters of King Minos and flourished during the Minoan period (2000-1350 BC) as the most important socio-economic and religious centre of Crete. Its complex architecture gave birth to the myth of the labyrinth. Thanks to the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans’ excavation and careful restoration, it is now one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in Greece, where you can experience exactly what life was like inside the palace.
Admire the Throne Room at the heart of the palatial complex, consisting of the central court and the main chamber; the Processional Way, decorated with frescoes such as Prince with the Lilies; the Propylaea and the famous Bull’s Horns, one of the sacred symbols of Minoan religion; and the Royal Apartments, consisting of the Hall of Double Axes and the Apartments of the Queen, with its Dolphins mural.
Back in the city centre, the Archaeological Museum is considered one of the most important museums in Europe. The exhibits include representative samples from all periods of Cretan history, covering 5,500 years. The most famous frescoes of Knossos Palace are housed here, including the Bull Leaper, the Prince with the Lilies, the Monkey Saffron Collector, the Blue Ladies and especially La Parisienne. A separate wing includes exhibits ranging from the Geometric, Archaic and Classical periods as well as the Roman era.
Sharks, seahorses, jellyfish… you’ll be astonished by the variety of Mediterranean marine life on display at the Cretaquarium, which includes 60 tanks with 1.7 million litres of seawater. One of the largest aquariums in Europe, it houses more than 4,000 creatures of all different colours, shapes and sizes.
The dining and entertainment options in Heraklion are limitless. You can enjoy dishes from Crete’s celebrated cuisine in the many cafes, tavernas and restaurants, accompanied by traditional music, local wine and tsikoudia (the local firewater). Then it’s time to move on to one of the trendy cafes and bars, where the fun begins all over again.
What’s it going to be today? Ammoudara, a big beautiful beach just west of the cityHeraklion; Tobruk, in the east, with its restaurants, hotels, and cafes; or the Arena or Red Hani, a beach enjoyed by a young crowd, featuring hotels, shops, restaurants and music-playing beach bars.
Consisting of five departments (Zoological, Botanical, Anthropological, Geological-Paleontological and Mineralogical), Heraklion’s Museum of Natural History features collections including samples from Greece and the wider Mediterranean area.
This impressive modern museum is housed in an elegant, 20th-century building. It has a diverse number of permanent exhibitions, including the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Collection, Numismatic Collection, Ceramics and Sculpture section, Nikos Kazantzakis rooms and the Ethnographic Collection.
The pedestrianised Daedalus shopping street, full of designer stores, connects Lionadarakia and Eleftherias squares. Walking west from the Lions’ Head Fountain, you enter the wide pedestrian Handakos Street, also pedestrianised and overflowing with even more shops and cafes.
Or we could just write: Heraklion is both a prefecture and the capital of Crete, located between Rethymno and Agios Nikolaos on the north coast. It has a population of around 310,000.
You can easily reach Heraklion by plane or boat. The airport just outside Rethymno town receives international and domestic flights (around 45mins from Athens and 1hr30mins from Thessaloniki). There are daily ferry connections from Piraeus and periodically from islands in the Cyclades and Dodecanese. The journey time from Piraeus is approximately 8.5-10hrs.
Heraklion is famous for its cultural sites and museums (Knossos Palace and the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion are landmarks) and its multicultural Old Town. There are sandy beaches on both the north and south coast (with luxurious options) and it is known for both authentic and high-end Cretan cuisine and some of the best wineries in Crete. Heraklion is a popular family summer holiday destination with plenty of fun activities for kids.
Heraklion (and Crete generally) benefits from very good weather for most of the year, with summer conditions starting earlier and ending later than elsewhere in Greece. It does get busy in the peak summer holiday months (July and August), so come in May-June or September-October if you can. Spring and autumn are ideal for enjoying activities in nature.
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