This 5th largest city of Greece (behind Patras), the capital city of Crete is full of culture, history, beautiful architecture, and traditional charm. It is also centrally located on Greece’s largest island, and a perfect base from which to explore the natural and cultural wonders of Crete.
Everything about Heraklion, Crete
Where is Heraklion, Crete Located?
The regional unit that holds Crete’s capital is located roughly in the middle of this long island on the north coast. Chania is in the far west, then Rethymnon, then the relatively central Heraklion, then far to the east is Agios Nikolaos.
How to Get to Heraklion
Heraklion has a harbor serviced daily by ferries from Piraeus and Rafina and many Greek islands. It also has an International Airport. If Heraklion is your starting point for a Cretan adventure, you’ll be able to pick up your hire car at Heraklion Airport or at the Heraklion car hire branch located right downtown.
The History of Heraklion, Crete
Heraklion’s history starts in the Bronze Age and it was glorious. Nearby the city we love today is the palace of Knossos, restored with enthusiasm by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century. The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion is filled with original frescoes and other magnificent findings. The Port of Knossos was in Heraklion. A tsunami from the eruption that created the Caldera of Santorini ended the civilization abruptly, and it was covered with ash. A quiet period ensued, when the city was a haven for roving pirates.
The Saracens – the name given to Arabs during the Roman Empire – took the city in the 9th century AD and it continued to be a haven for pirates as they raided ships of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines took control in 961, naming it Chandax, and they held it until it was sold to the Republic of Venice in the 1204. The city was renamed again – Candia, seat of the Duke of Candia. The Italian Renaissance was felt on the island in literature, art and architecture, a period known as the Cretan Renaissance.
When the Ottoman came in the 17th century, the city underwent a siege lasting from 1648 to its eventual fall 21 years later, in 1669. After being occupied by the Great Powers from 1898 to 1908, when it was named Heraklion, the city along with the rest of Crete joined the Kingdom of Greece in 1913.
What to See and Do in Heraklion, Crete
The showpiece of this beautiful harbor town is the majestic Venetian Castello a Mare, or Rocca al Mare – the Koules Fortress.
Koules Fortress, was built by the Venetians to protect the harbour from enemy attack. On its three side parts of the reliefs of the Lion of St Mark built into the walls have survived. Its interior was used for warehouses, a prison, and accommodation for the guards. The fortress is open to the public, while there is an open-air theatre on top of it.
The Venetian walls are the most important monuments dating from this part of the city’s history. They were first built in the 15th century, with additions and improvements in the 16th and 17th. Their principle designer was one of the most distinguished military engineers of the 16th century, Michele Sammicheli from Verona. The total length of the triangular walls is three kilometres and they were protected by seven bastions, all of which have survived. Of its four gates, three can still be seen.
Fountains in Heraklion
The city as a whole has beautiful traces of Venetian romance, like the Morosini Fountain in Lion’s Square, the Benbo Fountain, the Sagredo Fountain, and the Palmeti Fountain. There is also a Venetian Loggia – now housing part of the Town Hall of Heraklion – , and the Basilica of St. Marks, which now houses the Municipal Art Gallery.
The Basilica of St Mark stands on Venizelou Str. or Krinis Square, to which 25 August Str. leads to. It was built in 1239 by the Venetians and dedicated to their patron saint.
Museums to visit in Heraklion
The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion holds many recognisable treasures from Knossos, making it a must visit. The Historical Museum of Crete also makes a fascinating visit, taking you through nearly two millennia of Cretan history, from the early Christian era to World War II.
Chania Gate, Pantokrator Gate & Jesus Gate
The Chania Gate on the western side of the walls dates from 1570. On its inner facade a medallion containing a relief bust of Christ as the “Ruler of All” with the inscription “Omnipotens” (“Almighty”) has been preserved. It is this which has given it its alternative name of the Gate of the “Pantokrator”. Pantokrator’s Gate now hosts art & crafts exhibitions all year round.
On the outer facade there is the winged lion of St Mark in relief and above this another relief bust of the Pantokrator, with an inscription in Greek. This was the gate from which the whole of western Crete was reached. The other surviving gate is on the south side, The Jesus Gate or New Gate, dating from 1587.
Nikos Kazantzakis Tomb
On its inner facade it has architectural decoration consisting of an entablature, triglyphs and metopes. In the middle can be seen an inscription giving the date of its construction and the name of the Governor of the day, Mocenigo. As the wall continues to the south, we come to the Martinengo Bastion. Here, on a platform, is the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, with its simple inscription:
“I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free”
– Nikos Kazantzakis
Church of St Titus
About midway along 25 August Str., which stretches from the harbour, is the square containing the Church of St Titus, the patron saint of Crete. Its architecture combines various Eastern and Western features, reflecting its troubled history. Here is preserved the head of St Titus, which was returned to the church in 1966 from Venice, where it was taken when Heraklion surrendered to the Turks.
Cathedral of St Minas
The Cathedral of St Minas, with fine carved wood decoration and 18th century icons, and the old Church of the Presentation of Christ. Other buildings of interest include the Vikelaian Library, which is housed in the “Aktarika” Municipal building, the Public Services Building – once the Turkish barracks and now the prefecture offices and low courts – and the picturesque Public Market of Heraklion.
Is there a beach in Heraklion?
The vast sandy beach Ammoudara starts just a kilometer from the center of Heraklion extending another 6 km to the west to the Almyros river. 4km away to the east of Heraklion is Karteros beach and 14 km firther is the famous beach Gouves, a popular resort at the foot of Mt. Ederi. The secluded Bay of Ligaria, 21 km northwest of Heraklion has a beautiful beach – semi-protected from the winds, it makes a nice choice when the Meltemi is blowing. But for the very best beaches, you’ll want to drive to the south coast on the Libyan Sea. Here you will find the world-famous Matala whose caves were a countercultural home for the international hippies in the 1960’s. Gorgeous white Kommos Beach is right nearby. The Perivoliano Gorge leads to magnificent Kaminaki Beach.
Activities around Heraklion, Crete
The fantastic Thalassocosmos / CretAquarium is a wonderful destination for learning about the vast Marine Biodiversity of the Mediterranean- a fantastic educational and beautiful Aquarium experience that is not to be missed.
So much water, so many beaches. Do we really need a waterpark? Well, if you’re travelling with children, you might- the enormous Aqua Plus guarantees a really fun day out that will absolutely thrill the kids and an experience you will all enjoy.
Cultural Excursions around Heraklion, Crete
Knossos is one of the world’s most fascinating archaeological destinations.Thanks to its vivid and colorful restoration, it is an accessible, concrete experience of archaeology and history that truly transports the imagination. Knossos is just over 5 km from Heraklion town.
The Boutaris winery in nearby Skalani, Acharnes, just a few kilometers outside of the city. The winery offers a complete multimedia wine experience as well as tastings and an excellent restaurant.
23 km east of Heraklion is the Agarathos Monastery, at a refreshing elevation of 523m above sea level. This was one of the wealthiest Monasteries during the Venetian period. 20 km southwest of Heraklion is the Paliani Monastery, near the Venerato gorge. The monastery – actually a nunnery – celebrates on the day of the Assumption of the Virgin- August 15th- a wonderful time to visit if you are the island.
Explore Heraklion, Crete
Sometimes the best destination is the one you didn’t plan and couldn’t imagine. Did we mention the mountain villages, the olive groves, the famous gorges? The whole regional unit of Heraklion is a delight to discover by car. Do make a schedule so you don’t miss any must-visit places, but definitely leave time to just explore and discover.
Where to eat in Heraklion?
Here is a list of restaurants we recommend for lunch or dinner in Heraklion
This authentic Cretan restaurant has been ranked top 10 restaurant in Europe for “Restaurant & Bar Design Awards”. Located in tasteful surroundings on one of the cobblestone streets of Heraklion Town, Peskesi serves traditional food with a creative touch.
📍 Kapetan Charalambi 6-8, Iraklio 712 02
This restaurant is in love with meat, right in the center of Heraklion.
📍 Agiou Tito & Evropis 13, Iraklio 712 02
- 7 Thalasses
If you are craving fresh seafood and sushi dishes, you must try 7 Thalasses which has been rated as one of the top restaurants in Heraklion. Serving a gourmet Mediterranean and Greek menu which comprises mainly of seafood and fish dishes. The restaurant features an indoor and outdoor seating with a playground for children.
📍 Irakleitou & Irodotou, Nea Alikarnasos, Iraklio 716 01
This Creative Bar Restaurant is an all day venue serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Set on the picturesque square of Agios Titos it is a great place to enjoy weekend brunch and is also a perfect choice for casual dining.
📍 Pl. Agiou Titou 1, Iraklio 712 02
When is the Best Time to Visit Heraklion?
As with any other region on the island, summer is the best time to visit Heraklion. The season starts in June and lasts till September. The weather is hot and sunny, the waters are warm, various water sports are available, the city is full of parties, folklore events, and other festivities.
However, It is also possible to come during off-season (spring and fall), when the weather is still beautiful (though the sea may be too cold for extended swimming) and there are fewer people. These are ideal seasons for nature walks, excursions, trips to archaeological sites, and museums. Plus, prices for accommodation are usually cheaper too so it can be a more economical option.