From the outside, Heraklion is an unattractive city of concrete buildings. At second glance, the capital of Crete reveals its flourishing past, excellent museums and cosy tavernas with typical Cretan cuisine amidst mighty city walls.
Heraklion is the capital of Crete and therefore also the economic, cultural, administrative and tourist centre. The largest city on the island has the most inhabitants, the most reinforced concrete and asphalt, the most museums, the most hotels, tavernas and bars, the most boisterous nightlife and the most tourists. Heraklion, especially its old town, is one of our top 10 sights of Crete.
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Journey to Heraklion
For most travellers to Crete, Heraklion, with Crete's only international airport, is the gateway to an island holiday. There is a bus from the airport to the city centre about every 10 minutes (much cheaper than a taxi).
Numerous excursion boats and cruise ships also stop daily in the island's largest harbour. After passing Agia Pelagia on the national road in a rental car and the road slowly slopes towards the sea, the view falls over the comparatively gigantic sea of houses.
History of Heraklion
The origin of Heraklion dates back to the Minoan period. At that time, about 3500 years ago, Heraklion was the seaport of nearby Knossos, whose famous palace of King Minos is today one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece.
However, Heraklion owesits present location to the Arabs, who built Crete's present capital in 824. The Venetians and Turks further expanded the city, then called Candia, and built mighty fortifications, such as the massive Venetian fort at the harbour.
The city has only been called Heraklion since 1898, when Crete was liberated from the Turks. At that time, all Ottoman buildings were destroyed, and the bombers in the Second World War again destroyed two thirds of the historic old town. The following reconstruction took place without much regard for historical structures, yet a certain magic and charm has remained in Heraklion.
PICTURES: Old Town of Heraklion
Photo gallery: Heraklion in Crete
Sights in the old town of Heraklion
The historic city centre is the most important sight of Heraklion and can easily be explored on foot in one day. Apart from the old town, Heraklion consists largely of unattractive concrete facades. Enclosed on three sides by the historic fortifications, orientation in the city centre is easy - if in doubt, always walk along the city wall.
In the winding cul-de-sacs, there are numerous pretty town houses to discover, and in between there are always remains from days long gone in the form of ruins, fountains or statues. Numerous cafés and tavernas provide refreshments during a stroll through the town, and nice shops and souvenir shops offer typical Cretan souvenirs to take home.
Tip: Parking spaces are scarce in Heraklion, and most of them are very expensive, especially in the centre. It's best to park outside in a side alley and walk into the old town (which is unfortunately easier said than done). A good tip is the "Central Parking" at the Archaeological Museum.
Old port and Venetian fortress Koules
The historic port of Heraklion was built by the Venetians together with the mighty Koules fortress at the end of the long breakwater. It was then one of the most important ports of the Republic of Venice. Its interior is reminiscent of a medieval castle with thick wooden doors and gloomy vaults full of loopholes. Today, in front of the cosy cafés and tavernas, fishing boats bob alongside sleek sailing yachts on the gurgling waves. The only drawback: the wind is always blowing along the promenade.
The associated city wall is over 5 kilometres long and almost completely preserved with its moats, towers and bastions. For 21 years, the Turks had no chance of taking the city. It is wide enough to march on and even cycle on - and thus ideal for orientation and to experience the worth seeing old town of Heraklion "from above".
From the harbour to Platia Venizelou
Crossing the pedestrian zone of the classicist-influenced 25th of August Street, we pass the 17th century Loggia, today's town hall and the most beautiful building in Heraklion.
Continue past the two churches of Agiou Titou, with the revered skull of St Tito, and Agio Markou, with its ornate wooden ceiling and the stump of a minaret, to Platia Venizelou, one of Heraklion's two main squares.
The two bakeries on the south side are said to have the best "bougatsa" (variously filled strudels) in the whole city.
Morosini Fountain (Lion Fountain)
In the middle of Platia Venizelou sits the Morosini Fountain. It was built in 1628 by Venetian governor Francesco Morosini to improve Heraklion's drinking water supply. The so-called "Lion Fountain" is considered the unofficial centre of Heraklion's old town.
Ekaterini Square and its churches
Three blocks southwest of Platia Venizelou is Agia Ekaterini Square, which is framed by three churches. The massive Agios Minas Cathedral from the 19th century is the first to catch the eye. It is one of the largest cathedrals in Greece, is today the episcopal see of Crete and impresses above all with its imposing interior.
Also called Agios Minas is a small two-nave church slightly below the cathedral. However, it is usually closed to visitors. The third in the group is Agia Ekaterini Sinaiton, built in 1555. Today, no Holy Masses are held under its domes; instead, the church serves as an icon museum with pieces from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Museums in Heraklion
It is almost impossible to visit all the museums in Heraklion during a two-week holiday in Crete, especially as most travellers only spend one or perhaps two days in the capital. However, the National Archaeological Museum with the world's largest collection of Europe's first advanced civilisation is a must-see.
National Archaeological Museum
You should plan at least 2 hours for a tour of the world-famous National Archaeological Museum of Crete. After the National Museum in Athens, the museum in Heraklion houses Greece's most important collection of ancient artefacts and the world's largest exhibition of Minoan culture. Its highlights include the Phaistos Disc with the oldest inscription in the world, the 4,000-year-old snake goddesses made of faience and the intricately crafted bull's head rhyton.
Historical Museum of Heraklion
The History Museum is located only a few minutes' walk from the centre and presents Crete in the course of history from the 4th century AD to the present day. It thus follows on chronologically from the exhibits in the National Archaeological Museum. Among the exhibits are Cretan folklore art and Crete's only painting by the painter El Greco. A separate room is dedicated to Crete's famous writer Nikos Kazantzakis.
Natural History Museum of Heraklion and Cretaquarium
Besides the interesting flora and fauna of Crete and the Mediterranean, 10m high dinosaur statues impress here. An earthquake can be experienced up close in the simulator. Animal lovers will also find the Cretaquarium interesting. The largest aquarium on the island presents the underwater world of the Mediterranean.
Icon Museum in the Church of Agias Ekaterinis
The Agias Ekaterinis church houses the most beautiful collection of icons in all of Crete. Not far away, in Odos Chandakos, is the studio of Voula Manoussakis, a well-known icon painter, who is happy to let you look over her shoulder as she works. A few very nice cafés can also be found in the same alley.
Shopping and dining in Heraklion
The best place to go shopping in Heraklion is Odos 1866. The traditional market street of Crete's capital is bursting with typical Cretan shops and is almost lost in the crowds in the mornings.
Souvenirs from kitschy to artistic, fragrant island herbs, the finest olive oil, freshly roasted Greek coffee and much more can be bought here. And where there are so many market stalls, the quaint tavernas are not far away. The small Odos Theodosaki offers the best Cretan home cooking with vegetables, fish and meat.
Tip: There is an organic market twice a week in Georgiadi Park with a wide range of fruit and vegetables, olives, sheep's cheese, fish, meat, dried fruit and nuts.
Odos Daidalou, which branches off at the Morosini Fountain and leads to Platia Eleftherias, also attracts shopping enthusiasts with numerous shops that give Heraklion the atmosphere of a modern city. For hearty meals, Odos Marinelli is also the right address.
Here are some rakidika, named after raki, Greece's typical aniseed liquor. They are perfect for gourmets who want to taste their way through Cretan cuisine, because the portions are so small and cheap that you order two or three of them right away - served with open wine and a perfect sunset.
Gravesite of Nikos Kazantzakis
A little further from the city centre (about a 15-minute walk), on the Martinengo bastion, the southernmost point of the city wall, lies the final resting place of Nikos Kazantzakis. Because of his unorthodox views, he was denied burial in an ecclesiastical cemetery.
The Cretan writer became famous above all with his novel "Alexis Zorba", which was also made into a film. The simple grave is not fenced and bears the inscription he chose himself: "Den elpiso tipota. Den fowame tipota. Ime leftheros." ("I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.") The view of Heraklion alone is absolutely worth seeing!