Heraklion is the principal city of the island of Crete and is Greece’s fourth largest city. It is Crete’s administrative centre and is renowned as a vibrant tourist destination and travel hub
Just outside Heraklion are the ruins of the ancient palace of Knossos. This was built some two thousand years ago and was the major centre of Minoan civilisation on Crete. Knossos is exceptionally well-preserved given its antiquity and is a major site of interest for both archaeologists and visitors. It is thought that there may have been a port connected with Knossos on the coastal site of the present-day city of Heraklion.
Legend has it that the name Heraklion was coined to honour a mythical hero known as the Idaean Herakles. The name Idaean is derived from Mount Ida in Crete and Heralkes is better known to English speakers as Hercules, though he is not the same person as the Hercules of Twelve Labours fame. This Herakles is said to have popularised the custom of crowning sporting champions with olive wreaths and one of his descendants, Clysmenes, founded the Olympic Games.
The present-day city was founded in the ninth century by Muslim settlers who had been expelled from Spain. Heraklion occupies an important strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and in successive centuries it was occupied by Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman forces. In 1913 Heraklion, along with the rest of Crete, was incorporated into the Greek state.
According to the census of 2011 modern-day Heraklion city has a population of just over 140,000, while the municipality numbers nearly 174,000 residents and the urban area of Heraklion has more than 225,000 inhabitants within its area of 684.3 square kilometres (264.2 square miles).
The city is situated on Crete’s north-central coast and is an important centre for shipping. The urban area is built on a coastal plain, but has substantial mountain ranges to the west and south. Crete’s highest peak, Mount Ida, is located just over an hour’s drive from Heraklion.
The coastal plain at Heraklion has two major geographical features: the Gulf of Heraklion in the north and the Gulf of Messara to the south-west. The valleys leading into these gulfs are cut by two of the region’s major rivers: the Giofyros originates near Mount Ida and flows into the Gulf of Heraklion and the Geropotamos rises in the Asterousia Mountains and meets the sea in the Gulf of Messara.
The Heraklion area enjoys a subtropical-Mediterranean climate. Winters are mild with moderate rainfall and summers are warm to hot and generally very dry. Heraklion’s hottest month is July, with average temperatures of twenty-five degrees centigrade (seventy-seven Fahrenheit). January is the coldest with an average of twelve degrees centigrade (fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit).
In terms of rainfall December is Heraklion’s wettest time, with a monthly average of some hundred millimetres of rain recorded each year. July is the region’s sunniest time with an average of twelve hours sunshine each day. For swimming in the sea, however, it is better to wait until August when water temperatures reach a peak of twenty-six degrees centigrade (seventy-nine Fahrenheit).
The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is one of Greece’s greatest museums. Located in downtown Heraklion, the museum contains the world’s premier collection of artefacts from the Minoan civilisation. Its exhibits cover a time-span of more than five thousand years of Cretan history from Neolithic times through to the Roman occupation.
The museum was closed for renovation in 2006 but reopened in 2013 and is now one of Heraklion’s prime tourist attractions.
Winter Opening Times (1st November to 31st March) are:
Summer Opening Times (1st April to 31st October) are
The Historical Museum of Crete is located in a stunning neo-classical building in central Heraklion. It houses a unique collection of Cretan art and historical objects covering a time period from the Second World War right back to the fourth century.
The museum offers the visitor an extensive permanent collection of paintings, ceramics, coins, jewellery, sculpture and icons together with a varied selection of themed temporary exhibitions. The Historical Museum of Crete is also home to a research library of books, manuscripts and historic photographs.
Winter Opening Hours (1st November to 31st March) are:
Summer Opening Times (1st April to 31st October) are:
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Knossos lies some five kilometres south of Heraklion and was the central hub of the Minoan civilisation of Crete. The site was first occupied in the Neolithic period several thousand years ago and the Minoans built their palace here sometime between 1700 and 1400 BC. The palace clearly had huge significance for the Minoans and it survived until around 1375 BC when it was destroyed and the Minoan culture was overthrown. The site was then occupied by first the Mycenaeans and later by the Romans.
The site was rediscovered in the modern era by Minos Kalokairinos in 1878. Excavations were commenced by the English archeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, in 1900 and continued for another thirty-five years. Archeological excavations and research continue but the palace and its attendant buildings are open to visitors each day.
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Agios Titos Church is Heraklion’s most important place of worship for followers of the Greek Orthodox Church. Although the present building was comprehensively renovated in 1925, there has been a Christian church on this site since the ninth century. In the intervening years the Ottomans used the building as a mosque for several decades.
The current church is dedicated to Saint Titus, the first bishop of Crete, and occupies a spot on the corner of 25th August Street and Agios Titos Square in central Heraklion. The square is a bustling public space with cafes, bars and places to sit and watch the world go by. Within the church the visitor can view a number of religious relics including a skull said to be that of Saint Titus.
Open to the public: 08.00 until sunset
Entrance fee: Free admission
Supervised by: Holy Archdiocese of Crete
Access and walking difficulty: Difficulty rating, 1
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The Natural History Museum of Crete is housed in a former power plant on the western edge of Heraklion. The coastal site covers nearly an acre and is the most significant museum of its type in the whole Mediterranean area.
The museum highlights the variety of ecosystems found in Crete and draws parallels with those of mainland Greece and other Mediterranean nations. Visitors can explore these natural landscapes in life-like detail with a number of full-scale models including an earthquake simulator. Younger visitors in particular will enjoy the large-scale reconstructions of dinosaurs and their habitats. In the Erevnotopos Discovery Centre children and their parents can dig for fossils and explore Cretan natural history at a hands-on level.
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St. Minas is Heraklion’s Greek Orthodox cathedral and is the seat of the Archbishop of Crete. It is one of Greece’s largest cathedrals and can comfortably house up to eight thousand worshippers.
A small church was previously located on the cathedral’s site but it was found to be inadequate for the city’s growing population. A new cathedral was designed by Athanasios Moussis and the foundation stone was laid in 1862. Work was interrupted by the Cretan Revolution of 1866, but was resumed in 1883 and the present building was completed in 1895.
The cruciform church has a central dome and two bell towers. The cathedral’s collection of icons makes the inside particularly worthy of a visit.
The Douloufakis Winery is located some twenty minutes south of Heraklion and nestles in a classic Cretan landscape of rolling foothills, olive groves and vineyards. Following a short tour of the winery visitors are welcomed to the tasting room where they can sample local wines and snack on Cretan bread, cheese and grapes. Tasting notes and guidance are provided and all wines are available for purchase.
The Old Venetian Harbour of Heraklion is situated at the end of 25th August Street and its approach on the seaward side is guarded by the imposing fortress of Koules. Work on the harbour was commenced by the Venetians in the thirteenth century and development continued over the next five centuries.
The harbour is now home to fishing boats and pleasure yachts while the modern port of Heraklion is located to the east of the old harbour. The area is popular with both locals and sightseers and is home to a number of cafes and bars.
One of the best ways to explore Heraklion and its surrounding area is by car. A hire car gives you the freedom to simply wander and explore as the fancy takes you and it enables you to visit places normally only accessible to locals.
With the aid of a tourist map and a GPS system you can draw up your own itinerary of the places you want to visit in and around Heraklion. With a rental car it is possible to go to the places you want to visit when you want to do so. So you never need to worry about missing the tour bus or being hurried from one place to the next when all you want to do is relax and enjoy the beauty of the Cretan landscape.
Heraklion has so many possibilities to offer the visitor: a good starting point is to take your hire car to the fishing port at the Old Venetian Harbour. From here you can explore the Rocca al Mare and the world-famous Koules fortress with its views out to sea in one direction and back towards the city in the other. From the Venetian Harbour it is easy to wander through the historic heart of Heraklion. One of the most interesting walks is to trace the course of the Venetian Walls which enclose the old town. The walls were built in the sixteenth century and form a triangular shape running to a length of 4.5 kilometres.
The famous 25th August Street takes its name from the historic Massacre of Martyrs which took place on that date in 1898. The street is pedestrianised and it is possible to wander its entire length as far as the Agios Titos Church. While you are in the old town you should also take in St Mark’s Basilica, the Municipal Art Gallery and the graceful semi-circular arches of the sixteenth-century Loggia.
A short drive from the harbour will take you to Lion Square and the ornate Morosini Fountain with its frieze of tritons, water-nymphs and dolphins. With a hire car it is also easy to venture slightly further afield to such destinations as the Natural History Museum of Crete, the Palace of Knossos and the Douloufakis Winery, not forgetting to take a drive along the area’s breath-taking coastline or up into the mountains.