Destination Spotlight: Heraklion, Crete

As the capital of Crete, Heraklion is a fascinating city with a rich and intriguing history that stretches back over 5000 years.

SHARE THIS:


Also known as Iraklio, Heraklion is a charming port city and one of the most popular regions on the Greek island of Crete. It has a plethora of unique experiences to offer visitors and is a fantastic base to explore golden beaches and some of the island’s best landmarks, as well as world-famous historic and cultural attractions. The Cretan capital is also a vibrant urban area with great shopping, wonderful eateries, tree-lined squares, unspoiled countryside and a thriving nightlife scene. As one of the biggest cities in Greece, Heraklion ticks all the right boxes for an unforgettable island experience. 

 

Located on Crete’s north coast, the exciting city of Heraklion has a pretty Venetian harbor that currently serves as a marina and boasts the impressive Koules Fortress, which once served as a prison during Ottoman rule. The imposing fortress dominates the entrance to the harbor and is one of the highlights of any trip to the capital. Completed in 1540, Koules Fortress is where you’ll find Venetian sculptures, treasures pulled from shipwrecks, numerous exhibits, films about the history and restoration of the fort and panoramic views over the sea and city. The fortress remained closed to the public for many years for extensive restoration work, but is now open again to visitors and occasionally hosts cultural events and art exhibitions.

Head into the city center and you’ll see the lavish Venetian Loggia, an elegant building that was constructed between 1626 and 1628 by local Governor Francesco Morosini, the same man who built the famous Lions Fountain during the Venetian rule in Crete. The Loggia was restored after the Second World War and used to be the place where Heraklion’s noblemen would meet to discuss commercial, economic and political matters. Today, the first floor has been transformed into a hall for ceremonies and weekly meetings of the Municipal Council, and the ground floor is an open arcade area with a pretty courtyard. The Loggia is considered the finest Venetian monument on Crete and it was awarded the first prize for the most successful restoration and use of a European monument by the EUROPA NOSTRA international heritage foundation in 1987. 
 

Another must-see monument in the city of Heraklion is the Church of Saint Titos. Its history dates back to 961 and the church was built to reawaken Orthodox influence on Crete. Near this majestic church on Avgoustou Street, you’ll find lots of wonderful bars and cafes, along with the very lovely Agios Titos Square. There’s also the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, which is just a 5-minute walk away from the church. The museum is one of the largest in Greece and one of the most important in the whole of Europe, bringing to life over 5,500 years of Greek and Roman history. It’s also one of the best museums in the world for Minoan art, and it houses collections that feature findings from the amazing archaeological site of Knossos, such as ancient jewelry, sculptures, Minoan frescoes and countless artefacts that belong to the Minoan civilization. Other extraordinary works include pottery, decorative weapons, Snake Goddess figurines and the magnificent bull’s head Rhyton that is dated from 1450-1400 BCE. 

History buffs will thoroughly enjoy a visit to the Minoan Palace of Knossos, Europe’s oldest city and a fascinating open-air museum that lets you step into the incredible world of the Minoan civilization. This archaeological site is located about 20 minutes south of Heraklion and is a popular trip from the port, meaning it can get very bust during the summer months. You’ll need to allow yourself plenty of time to fully explore this ancient city and to be able to take in centuries of history, art and architecture, as well as to learn about the wars, earthquakes and mythological figures (like Daedalus, Minotaur and Theseus) that are associated with it. In addition to being one of the most visited attractions in Greece, the Minoan Palace of Knossos is a huge site that covers about 14,000 square meters, so you’re going to want to do this tour with a guide. 

 

If you’re a wine lover, there are some fantastic wineries in Heraklion, which proudly produce about 80% of all the wine made on Crete. The wine valley of Peza is considered one of the most important wine-growing regions on the island, accounting for around 70% of the total volume of red and white Cretan wines. Visitors can enjoy a bus tour of the stunning countryside to see some of the island’s oldest vineyards and visit the Botanical Parterre to discover various aromatic herbs and medicinal plants that are native to the mountains of Crete. To take things to the next level, you can book an excursion to the Raki distiller of Stironas, where you’ll get to learn about wine production and bottling, then sample the wine and eat a Cretan meal while a group of traditional dancers perform a variety of popular Greek folklore dances. You’ll also be asked to join in and learn some traditional folk dances of Crete. 
 

Travel to the picturesque hillside village of Thrapsano and you’ll find Crete’s biggest pottery center, a place filled with workshops and potters who respect traditional pottery techniques. Thapsano is a small, quiet village that invites you to discover the most beautiful examples of local ceramic art and traditional pottery, including masterpieces that are identical to those produced during Minoan times. The village of Myrtia just south of Heraklion is also well worth a visit as it boasts the Nikos Kazantzakis Museum, a place exclusively dedicated to the life and work of one of Greece’s most famous writers. When here, you can look at manuscripts and first editions of the Cretan author’s works, see rare photographs, models and costumes, along with portraits and sculptures that help to keep his legacy alive.  

 

When it comes to beaches, Heraklion has plenty, with Amoudara ranking among the most popular. Because of its proximity to the capital of Heraklion, this big sandy beach with Blue Flag status is a favorite with locals who enjoy windsurfing or a relaxing dip in the sea on a hot summer day. This organized beach has something to offer most age groups, and there are lots of cafes and restaurants nearby. And while we’re on the subject of eateries, there is an endless array of dining options in the city of Heraklion, including cute tavernas with traditional music, designer cafes that stay open late and trendy restaurants that serve fine food with a great selection of wines and Cretan raki. If you’re more of a shopper than a foodie, you can go to Daedalou Street for fashionable boutiques or head to 1866 Street to stroll around the open-air market and browse a wide range of products at numerous souvenir stores. 

 

Want to join us on a cruise to visit the superb capital city of Crete? You can find our 2019 and 2020 cruise itineraries to Heraklion here.