Things to do in

Heraklion

Crete's capital combines ancient Minoan gems, Venetian architecture, and blue, crystalline waters.

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Insider tips: Planning a trip to Heraklion

Thomas Dowson is the founder of Archaeology Travel, a website for those seeking adventures in archaeology and history. As a professional archaeologist Thomas enjoys visiting archaeological and historical sites around the world. And sharing these experiences so that others can explore the world’s pasts more deeply. On his blog, you can find more information and all the details for planning a trip to Heraklion.

What should I do on my first trip to Heraklion?

Heraklion is dominated by a defensive 16th century Venetian fortress. It is still in very good condition and well worth a visit. Heraklion, however, is better known for the Minoan site of Knossos, just on the southern outskirts of the city. Widely referred to as a palace, it is an important archaeological site. Although not a palace, certainly not in the way we think of palaces today. The use of reinforced concrete to reconstruct parts of the site was the first use of concrete in Crete. Once you have finished exploring these impressive Minoan ruins, make your way to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Here you will find artefacts from around the island, but also the best collection of artefacts is from Knossos.

What are some hidden gems to see in Heraklion?

In the centre of Heraklion is Eleftheriou Venizelou Square, named after the politician eight times elected as Prime Minister and still called the Father of Modern Greece. But the square is more commonly known as ‘Lion Square’. At the centre is a Venetian fountain made up of four beautifully carved lions holding up a basin. The square and its 16th century fountain should not be missed. It is a great place to stop for a while and have an iced coffee.

How much time should I spend in Heraklion?

There are many good places to stay in Crete, and Heraklion is definitely one of them. But unless you are a studious historical traveller, two days is more than enough to see most of what Heraklion has to offer. Most visitors tend to use Heraklion as a base to explore the island beyond its capital. And in this sense Heraklion is the perfect base from which to explore Crete - for anything up to 7 days.

What food is Heraklion known for?

Crete is especially well known for olive oil and cheese. And one or both of these are used in many traditional cretan dishes. One speciality most visitors to Crete remember are ‘dakos’, usually served as a starter or a snack. Sun ripened tomatoes are chopped and placed on a ‘paximadi’ (dried bread) and drizzled with lots of olive oil and sprinkled with fresh herbs and the typical Cretan cheese ‘myzíthra’. This cheese is everywhere and used in lots of cold and hot dishes - especially pies.

What is the best way to get around Heraklion?

Getting around Heraklion on foot will be enough for most visitors. Although Knossos is only an hour’s walk from the city centre, you will probably want to use a bus if you do not have a car, particularly in summer. You will definitely need a car to explore sites on the island away from Heraklion, or take organised day trips where transport is included. There are a lot to choose from, whether you enjoy hiking in Samaria Gorge or wine tasting at a Cretan winery.

What are the best months to visit Heraklion?

Heraklion, and Crete more generally, is best visited in the spring and autumn. During summer there can be too many tourists and during the winter months a lot of attractions are either closed or have restricted opening times. For me, spring is by far the better option. Many people come at this time specifically to see the wild flowers of Crete. Of which there are many, including wild tulips and many varieties of wild orchids.

What are the best neighborhoods for food?

Heraklion has a lot of very good restaurants, whether you are looking for something simple or something a bit more extravagant. Of course there are places to eat scattered all over the city, but the area surrounding the Venetian Lion Fountain and then north to the port is where you will find some of the best restaurants.

What are the best neighborhoods for shopping?

The area around Lion Square is the main shopping area in Heraklion. Both Daedalus and Chandakos streets have been pedestrianised, and this is where you will find designer stores and luxury boutiques. Although not pedestrianised, Dikeosinis is another street to explore. The area has a lot of good cafes for when you just want to relax with a cold drink!

What are the best areas for outdoor activities around Heraklion?

Whether exploring Minoan and Roman ruins, or wine tasting on a Cretan farm, visitors to Crete are spoilt for choice when it comes to outdoor activities. Most of these involve a day trip from Heraklion. Popular outdoor activities include Land Rover Safaris to more remote parts of the island, or sailing trips that leave from the Heraklion harbour. A popular boat trip is to the island of Spinalonga. A Venetian fort was used to house people suffering from Leprosy. Because of the ruins and the history, the island has been used frequently as a set for film and television productions.

What are the best beaches around Heraklion?

Heraklion is located on Crete’s northern coastline. As much of the seafront immediately next to the city centre is taken up with maritime activities, there are no decent beaches there. For sandy beaches with facilities (such as sunbeds, umbrellas and drinks kiosks), you will need to go further out, east or west. To the west Ammoudara Beach is a popular beach with both locals and visitors alike. Going to the east, and a bit further out is Arena Beach. On a rocky promontory from a wide sandy beach you will find the ruins of a Minoan shipyard. If having a beach is important for your stay, choose a hotel that has private beach facilities.

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What people are saying about Heraklion

Overall rating

4.4 / 5

based on 3,373 reviews

A bit stressed about my arrival-I did the trip on my own (with bus), meeting Ioanna in front of the entrance gave me comfort and after the introduction, I realized it will not be an usual sightseeing tour. Ioanna transports you in an ancient world, where people were living in full communion with nature, making rituals, reading signs, and passing through cycles with awareness and understanding. The place has a fabulous story, full with lot of symbols which you can actually see all around the site. Because of my missed trip one day before (trip bus making a huge delay and me giving up), I've booked this tour, and I'm happy it turned out this way, otherwise I wouldn't have taken part into this fabulous experience. Still thinking about Knossos days after, and how those people of those ages ago could have live in a world full of communion and creativity . At Ioanna's recommendation, I've also visited the museum afterwards, and this completed the picture harmoniously. Book an early hour !

Amazing trip! I highly recommend this tour to anyone that visits Crete! Very insightful information provided by the guide, pleasant boat ride, nice tour. And when it comes to Balos and Gramvousa… literally speechless. I beg you to try this tour!

Our our guide was fantastic! She was so knowledgeable and really explained the history in an interesting way and at a good pace. Would highly recommend this tour.

Brilliant guide. Brought the Labyrinth to life. Very informative. So glad I did the tour. Highly recommend

This was an amazing experience, the tour guide was very knowledgeable and professional.