Heraklion is a multifaceted seaside city in Crete that embraces both past and present. The vibrant city of today, with squares and pedestrian walkways, is filled with youthful energy, restaurants and bars, but so much of its charm still concentrates around the Old Town and its romantic Venetian harbour.
Heraklion has excellent museums and one of the largest aquariums in Europe. And for history buffs, without doubt the most fascinating ancient treasure of the region (also known as Heraklion) lies just beyond the city limits. Knossos Palace wasn’t just the most important centre of Minoan civilisation but it was the home of the legendary Minotaur and its labyrinth. Sound interesting? Well, let’s introduce you to the best of Heraklion.
What to do in Heraklion, Crete
Explore a seaside city full of life and history
History is everywhere in the city once known as Candia. As you walk around the Old Town, you’ll savour the sights, like the impressive church of Agios Titos in the square originally built by Byzantine emperor Nicephorus Phocas in 961. Or the Armeria (armoury) next to St Titus, and The Loggia (City Hall) with its 82 metopes and beautiful arcades. Directly opposite, you’ll find the lively Morosini (Leondaria) Square with its Lions’ Head Fountain. Moving on to Eleftherias Square, the most striking building here houses the administration for the Prefecture of Heraklion and the region’s Law Courts.
Travel back to Heraklion’s Venetian past
At the entrance of the Venetian Harbour, the Koules Fortress (also known as Castello Del Molo or Rocca al Mare) gazes proudly out to sea. It took its final form between 1523-1540 and served as a prison during Ottoman rule. Across the harbour, the Venetian shipyards make for a romantic backdrop.
Take a walk along the walls of the old city
Walking along the Venetian Walls of Heraklion, you will see how beautiful this city looks from afar. You’ll pause in small shady parks and admire the genius of the famous Venetian architect, Michele Sanmicheli, who designed the walls and bastions more than 400 years ago. Demarcating today’s Old Town, they made Heraklion the best-fortified city in the Mediterranean.
Visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
Back in the city centre, the Archaeological Museum is considered one of the most important museums in Europe. The exhibits include representative samples from all periods of Cretan history, covering 5,500 years. The most famous frescoes of Knossos Palace are housed here, including the Bull Leaper, the Prince with the Lilies, the Monkey Saffron Collector, the Blue Ladies and especially La Parisienne. A separate wing includes exhibits ranging from the Geometric, Archaic and Classical periods as well as the Roman era.
Be introduced to the local sea life in the aquarium
Sharks, seahorses, jellyfish… you’ll be astonished by the variety of Mediterranean marine life on display at the Cretaquarium, which includes 60 tanks with 1.7 million litres of seawater. One of the largest aquariums in Europe, it houses more than 4,000 creatures of all different colours, shapes and sizes.
Prepare to feast like a Cretan king
The dining and entertainment options in Heraklion are limitless. You can enjoy dishes from Crete’s celebrated cuisine in the many cafes, tavernas and restaurants, accompanied by traditional music, local wine and tsikoudia (the local firewater). Then it’s time to move on to one of the trendy cafes and bars, where the fun begins all over again.
The most important centre of the Minoan civilisation is just 5km from the centre of Heraklion. This is where master craftsman Daedalus built the labyrinth for the mythical King Minos to isolate the Minotaur, a creature that was half-man, half-bull. Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, slew him and found his way out of the labyrinth with the help of Minos' daughter, Ariadne.
What we know for sure is that the palace was the headquarters of King Minos and flourished during the Minoan period (2000-1350 BC) as the most important socio-economic and religious centre of Crete. Its complex architecture gave birth to the myth of the labyrinth. Thanks to the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans’ excavation and careful restoration, it is now one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in Greece, where you can experience exactly what life was like inside the palace.
Admire the Throne Room at the heart of the palatial complex, consisting of the central court and the main chamber; the Processional Way, decorated with frescoes such as Prince with the Lilies; the Propylaea and the famous Bull’s Horns, one of the sacred symbols of Minoan religion; and the Royal Apartments, consisting of the Hall of Double Axes and the Apartments of the Queen, with its Dolphins mural.