Best things to do in Heraklion, Crete
Heraklion is one of the main cities on Crete Island. It is a centre of culture, history, and tradition, where the old and the new come together, creating the ideal destination for holidays.
I am a big fan of Crete, and I am sure that you will also love it, once you visit it!
Something genuinely unique makes it one of the best islands in Greek. In this article, I want to give you tips for the best places to visit in Heraklion.
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What to see in Heraklion, Crete
Once you arrive in Heraklion, spend some time exploring the city. Unlike other cities of Crete, Heraklion is modern, and only small parts of the old town are still standing.
Even if it looks like a big and crowded city, it has lovely little corners and a hidden beauty.
Here are the best things to do in Heraklion city:
Explore the old town around the harbour. It is easy to spot the white buildings in Venetian style and the picturesque alleys with touristic shops.
The Venetian Fortress of Koules dominates the port.
It is a square building from the 16th century when the island was under the rule of the Republic of Venice. Many Venetian buildings, like this one, are still standing in Heraklion.
The fortress protected the city from hostile invasions, and according to history, it took 21 years for the Ottomans to invade it. It has historical and architectural value and is one of the city’s trademarks.
On the other side, you can see two rows of arches, known as the Venetian Arsenals. At this place, the Venetians repaired their ships. From the arsenals begins a promenade that follows the port of Heraklion and takes you to the Venetian fortress.
One of the Venetian buildings I like is the Venetian Loggia, an eye-catching building in Saint Titus’ square.
This building was always a meeting point of nobles and politicians of the city, and it keeps this character, as today it hosts the Municipal Council. Unfortunately, you cannot enter the building, but you can admire its delicate architecture from the outside.
A few steps away from loggia is the Morosini Fountain, made in the 17th century. It provided fresh water to the people of Heraklion therefore, it has always been an important meeting point for the locals.
Around the fountain is a lively square with cafés, bars, ice-cream shops, and restaurants that attracts locals and tourists.
#Shopping in the Old Town
The old town’s narrow streets are full of all kinds of shops. The main street is called Central Market. Here you can find the best souvenirs and gifts for your friends: clothes, jewellery, postcard, magnets, and local products at affordable prices.
There are also boutiques with clothes from local and international designers, so if you are interested in fashion, you can spend some time exploring these shops.
#Pilgrim in the Churches of Heraklion
In the Old town, you can find several old, historic churches, apart from old buildings, tourist shops, and taverns.
One of the things to see in Heraklion is Agios Minas Cathedral, one of the biggest cathedrals in Greece, built in the second half of the 19th century. Inside, you can admire unique frescoes painted in Byzantine style.
Next to the cathedral, on St Catherine Square, is the church of Saint Catherine built in the 16th century. It has historical value as it was a centre of science and art, and many important people from Heraklion studied there. Inside the church, there is a small exhibition of wooden art, paintings, vestments, and manuscripts.
My personal favourite is the chapel of Agios Titos, the oldest church in the city built in the 10th century!
The church has been destroyed and restored many times. The last restoration was when the Ottomans restructured it into a mosque, and therefore it does not resemble the typical Greek churches that you see everywhere on the island.
#Visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
Crete’s history begins in prehistoric times.
The island was home to one of the most important ancient civilizations called Minoan.
I could talk for hours about these glorious times of the island, but you can learn more about it by visiting the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, exhibits from around Crete!
Here you can see original frescoes taken from the palace of Knossos and admire pottery, golden jewelry, toys, clay figures, and weapons. By visiting the museum, you will be introduced to the ancient history of the island, and you will appreciate even more the land of Crete.
In the summer months, the museum is open from 8.30-15.30, and the tickets cost 12 euros for adults and 6 euros for children.
If you want to learn even more about the history of Crete, you can visit the Historical Museum and the Museum for the Battle of Crete and the National Resistance. There is also the Museum of Natural History with exhibits of the Cretan flora and fauna.
Nightlife in Crete is really special and unique! People party until the early morning hours, and there are places for all styles and interests.
You can find a traditional tavern where you can eat and drink listening to local musicians playing! In such places, you can order traditional Cretan recipes.
I suggest you try dakos, gamopilafo, kalitsounakia, and drink the typical Cretan Tsikoudia.
Do not rush to get home after your dinner -stay there and enjoy the lively atmosphere, drink tsikoudia, and surrender to the Cretan lifestyle.
There are also many options for bars and clubs where DJs play international hits and people dance and have fun until the morning.
A small tip: Cretans are very hospitable people, and they love to treat you! However, they can feel offended if you turn down their treat, so the best you can do is take it and thank them with a friendly smile!
Enjoy the Best Beaches in Heraklion, Crete
Close to the centre of Heraklion is Ammoudara beach, gold-sanded with crystal-clear waters is a paradise next to the city. It has been awarded the Blue Flag for its cleanness!
The amenities on the beach include toilets, showers, and a lifeguards’ station. There are also ramps which means that the beach is accessible for wheelchairs.
The beach bars have sunbeds and umbrellas, where you can lie and enjoy your coffee.
Ammoudara is a famous kiteboarding place, and on windy days you see many kiteboards on the horizon. If you want to try this sport, you can go to the kite school, by the beach and ask for an instructor.
#Potamos Beach, Malia
About 35 km away from Heraklion is Potamos Beach in Malia. It is a destination that attracts locals and tourists. It has calm waters, and therefore it is a family-friendly beach.
On the beach, you will find space to put your umbrella on, but if you do not have the equipment, you can rent loungers from the beach bars that are at the beach.
The beach is close to the archaeological site of Malia, and you can combine your trip to the beach with sightseeing.
Matala is one of the most famous places in Crete!
In the 1960’s it was the meeting point of hippies, and today it keeps attracting people from around the world. The landscape of this beach is truly mesmerizing.
On one side of the beach is a rocky cliff riddled with caves. The turquoise waters at the beach are usually calm and very clean.
On the other side of the beach is the village of Matala, where you can find restaurants, hotels, and other amenities.
I suggest this place to people that prefer calmer and less crowded beaches.
You need to walk through a 7km long gorge to get there, but it is worth the effort as you arrive in a beautiful cove with clear blue waters and small peddles.
Around the beach, there are caves and the chapel of Saint Anthony, built in the 14th century.
There are no amenities at the beach except for a canteen, so you need to be prepared with everything you might need.
Best activities in Heraklion, Crete
#Visit the Palace of Knossos
The city of Knossos dates back to the Bronze Age and is part of the great Minoan civilization.
At the site of Knossos, the visitors admire the remains of a great civilization that was one of the first in Europe. Many of the treasures found here are today in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
During the summer months, the site is open from 8.00 to 20.00. Tickets cost 15 euros for adults and 8 for children.
#Day Trip to the Palace of Phaestos
Phaestos is another magnificent Minoan palace which I like very much. You can walk around the courtyard and ruins of the Palace. From the highest point, you can see the Lybian sea and a panoramic view of the whole area. Follow one guided tour to learn all the historical details about Phaestos and the Minoan civilization.
During summer, the site is open every day from 8.00 to 20.00, and tickets cost 8 euros for adults and 4 for children.
#Rouvas forest and gorge
I love nature, so I could not leave out of this article the forest of Rouvas. It is in the southeast part of Psiloritis mountain, 61 km from the city of Heraklion. The gorge and forest are vital natural habitats for flora and fauna of Crete. For this reason, it is part of the NATURA project, which protects places like this. The most typical plant you see around is prinos, also called Quercus coccifera.
The gorge is 4 km long, and there are different trails that you can follow if you want to discover the area.
If you want to see what a traditional Cretan village looks like, you should drive to Acharnes.
This village has a European award for the perfect maintenance of the traditional establishment. What fascinates me about this village is its colourful houses and picturesque architecture.
You can stay here, as there are guests houses in Acharnes. The people are kind and hospitable, and they always greet you friendly.
Another village worth visiting is Fodele, 30 km away from Heraklion.
It is the birthplace of Dominikos Theotokopoulos, also known as El Greco, the great Greek painter of the Spanish Renaissance.
There is a small museum dedicated to his work in Fodele. However, this is not the only reason this village attracts tourists; it combines mountains and the sea. You can have a relaxing day by the beach or walk next to the river under the big trees.
In the village, you can also admire the old chapel of Panayia.
#Explore Sfendoni Cave
43 km from Heraklion is the cave of Sfendoni, also known as Tripa.
It is considered one of the most beautiful caves in Crete, and it has stalactites and stalagmites. UNESCO protects it as a place of exquisite natural beauty. The cave has 14 rooms, and it is 3000 m2 big.
There are guided tours during which the guide takes you through the different rooms of the cave and explains the history and the causes that created this natural piece of art.
Sfendoni cave is accessible for people in a wheelchair.
How to get to Heraklion, Crete
There are two ways to get to Heraklion: by airplane or ferry. The international airport of Heraklion is 3 km out of the city. There are domestic and international flights every day. You can also take a ferry from Piraeus or other Greek ports and travel to Heraklion.
If you wonder how to get from Chania to Heraklion, the answer is easy: you can get there by car or shuttle bus. Chania is 142 km away.
If you want to rent a car to drive around Crete, you can find many car rental agencies close to the airport and in the city centre of Heraklion.
Heraklion is a lively city with many exciting places to discover all around. One thing is for sure: you will leave full of experiences, pictures, and feelings, and you will always desire to come back!