Heraklion (Greek: Ηράκλειον) is the major city and capital of Crete, the largest of the Greek islands. Its Archaeological Museum holds the remains of the 4000-year old Minoan civilization, which centred around the nearby palace of Knossos, with its Minotaur legend. The city has several Byzantine churches and a well-preserved Venetian wall and harbour fortress from the 15th century.
Around 1900, the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began excavating a site just south of the city, thinking to find remains of Mycenaean culture. He quickly discovered a much older, more powerful civilisation, which he called “Minoan” after the Minotaur legend. 4000 to 3000 years ago, Crete dominated the east Mediterranean from this site, Knossos. These discoveries changed our ideas of the ancient world – and Crete’s modern fame and tourist industry were born.
Heraklion (in Greek Ηράκλειον, also transcribed as Herakleion, Iraklio, Irakleion) has been much fought-over down the centuries. From 1204 it was held by the Venetians, who built a great wall around the city, and a harbour fort, to defend against the Ottoman Turks. But the Ottomans won in 1669 and held the island until 1898 when their empire was crumbling. Crete for a time was independent, then was incorporated into Greece in 1913.
Modern air transport brought huge numbers of tourists, mostly heading to resorts further along the coast, and the city sprawled out way beyond its historic centre – the population is now some 140,000. Many developments were ugly and ill-planned. Then came recession, and turmoil in the Greek economy. Heraklion today is an interesting city and a good tour base but is not particularly pretty, and much needs to be done the better to showcase its rich heritage and potential, and to reclaim it from the traffic.
Like the rest of Crete, Heraklion has a Mediterranean climate. Summers are hot and dry with clear skies, but often with stiff breezes to relieve the heat. Winters are mild with little rain and rare frosts.
1 Heraklion International Airport (IATA: HER) has frequent flights from Athens and Thessaloniki, the main carriers being Olympic Air and Aegean Airlines. Heraklion is the base for Sky Express, which flies to several Aegean islands. There are no flights within Crete, eg Heraklion to Chania. Easyjet has regular flights to Heraklion from several UK and German cities plus from Milan. From April to November charter airlines (eg Thomas Cook) fly in from many European airports.
The principal ferry route is from Piraeus, the port for Athens. These ferries mostly sail overnight, leaving in each direction around 9 pm to dock next morning at 6 am. Heraklion ferry terminal is near the KTEL bus station just east of town centre. The operators are Minoan Lines, Anek Lines and Superfast Ferries
Other routes are:
- to Thessaloniki and Dodecanese by G.A. Ferries
- to the Cyclades by G.A. Ferries, Sea Jets and Hellenic Seaways.
- to Santorini by Anek, Seajets and Hellenic, links above.
Most ferries take vehicles and run year-round – trucking is an important part of their business, especially since so many people nowadays fly. But frequency is much reduced in winter, so for island-hopping you may find you have to double back via Piraeus.
See below under “Get around”.
Heraklion is connected with the rest of Crete by regular bus lines operated by two KTEL companies , . The coaches are modern, comfortable and air-conditioned. Fares are reasonable. The main inter-city buses run hourly.
There are two bus stations in Heraklion:
- 1 Bus station A (just east of city walls near the ferry port), ☎ . The main inter-city station, with buses west to Rethymno and Chania, and east to the airport, Malia, Agios Nikolaos and Iarapetra.
- 2 Bus station B (at the Chania Gate (Chanioporta) at the western edge of old city), ☎ . For buses south to Zaros, Matala and Phaestos.
In and around Heraklion, use the public city buses. The main bus stops have routes and schedules posted, lcd displays for the next buses, and ticket machines, which are cheaper than buying aboard the bus. Small stops may have none of these, so consider buying two tickets, keeping one for your return. At bus stops, signal the driver by raising your arm. Orange ticket (A zone whole, B zone students) costs €1.10, blue ticket (B zone whole) costs €1.70, all tickets have a QR code, directing to Astiko KTEL website.
When you get on the bus, hold the bottom half of your ticket in your right hand. The driver will take the top half (side with ticket price) and the two of you will rip it in half. Tickets are available inside buses but cost more (2€ Zone A, 2.50€ Zone B).
- Line 1 goes to the airport
- Line 2 goes to Knossos
- Line 7 goes to Amnissos
- Line 8 goes to FORTH (Foundation for Research & Technology Hellas)
- Line 12 goes to TEI (Technologiko Ekpedeftiko Idrima Kritis)
First think whether you really need a car for your trip. Traffic in Heraklion is bad and parking is worse. You can see the main central sights on foot, and take the bus for Knossos, Rethymno and Chania.
Hiring a car is easy with the usual documentation (a standard UK or EU driving licence is fine.) Get prior permission in writing from the rental company if you plan to take the car away on a ferry.
Petrol stations often close around 21:00, particularly in villages. Most petrol stations expect you to pay cash - they serve you, so you can choose for them to fill the tank or put in fuel to a cash value. On the National Highway, there are service stations, but they are often 50 km or so apart. Fill up before public holidays and Sundays when you may have more difficulty finding an open station.
Lots of taxi ranks in all the main locations, downtown and at the airport & ferry port. Usually they’re looking for trade and will spot you before you spot them. If they’re sparse, call (+30) 2810 210102) or via their website.
The must-see sights are the Archaeological Museum downtown, and the Palace of Knossos 5 km south. Their combined ticket is the best buy.
Take a stroll along the city’s Venetian wall (Greek: Τείχη). It’s 4.5 km long, with seven bastions jutting out. On the southernmost of these, the Martinengo Bastion, is the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis with its moving inscription, "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free." From the wall head towards the harbour, taking in the Historical Museum, which picks up the story where the Archaeological Museum leaves off. The Koules or fortress stands over the inner harbour but the mole continues for almost 2 km, with views back over the city and the ferry port. You don’t need to enter the Koules to go on the mole, but you may need to dash where the waves are breaking at its base.
- 1 Heraklion Archaeological Museum, 2 Xanthoudidou St, ☎ , , fax: . summer daily 8 am to 8 pm; winter Mon 11 am to 5 pm, Tues-Sun 8 am to 3 pm. Houses the most important and representative finds from Minoan civilisation and excavations across the island of Crete. Highlights include statues of the Snake Goddess, the Bull-Leaping Fresco, the Phaistos Disk, and Minoan seals and jewellery. Also includes a number of finds from Classical Greek and Roman periods. €10 full, €5 concessions; combined with Knossos €16 & €8.
Knossos: first the myth. The god Zeus disguised himself as a white bull and carried off Europa to Crete, where they founded a mighty kingdom. Their son King Minos had a wife Pasiphae, who had an affair with another bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. This angry beast needed a lot of feeding, so he was kept in a labyrinth and from time to time fed a sacrifice of seven young men and seven maidens from Athens. Theseus volunteered to enter the labyrinth, reeling out a twine; he killed the Minotaur and used the twine to find his way out, where his adventures continued . . .
It’s a terrific story but it’s led to a retro-mythology whereby the palace ruins are said to be evidence of the labyrinth, and thus of the whole pile of bull. Sir Arthur Evans played up this link for all he could, and to some extent reconstructed the site to fit. But the simple truth is just as impressive: about 4000 years ago, this site was the core of a large and powerful city. The ruins visible today were mostly built between 1700 and 1400 BC. Minoan civilisation declined from around 1450 BCE, when there was a major earthquake.
- 2 Palace of Knossos (take bus 2 to the end of the line), ☎ , e-mail: , , , firstname.lastname@example.org. daily, summer 08.00-18.00, winter 08.00-15.00. If you see just one ruin on Crete, see Knossos (in Greek it’s Κνωσός, stress is on the second syllable). The site is fairly compact, and much of it is accessible with restricted mobility. But 30 minutes will do it. Full €10, concessions €5; combined with Archaeological Museum €16 & €8.
- 3 Koules (Rocca a Mare), ☎ . daily 8 am to 3 pm. Koules (Greek: Κούλες) was built by the Venetians in the 16th C. From the parapet, enjoy the view towards Dia Islet, where Jacques Cousteau found many sunken remains of Cretan sea trade. €2 full, €1 concession.
Historical Museum of Crete, 27, Sofokli Venizelou Ave. Tel: (+30) 2810 283219, 288708, : covers the story of Crete from the Byzantine era to the present day. This includes material on World War 2 and the German occupation – this was formerly displayed in the “Museum of the Battle for Crete and National Resistance” but this has now closed.
- 4 Loggia (Greek: Λότζια), 25 August Str.. elegant city meeting place, built in 1628
- 5 Morosini Fountain (Lions Square; Greek: Λιοντάρια).
- 6 St Minas Cathedral (Agios Minas Cathedral), ☎ . (Greek: Άγιος Μηνάς)
- 7 St Titus Church, Pl. Agiou Titou, ☎ . (Greek: Άγιος Τίτος) Known for housing the skull of St. Titus himself.
- St Catherine of the Sinaites Church. (Greek: Αγία Αικατερίνη Σιναϊτών)
- St Mark's Basilica. (Greek: Βασιλική Αγίου Μάρκου)
- Dominican Church of St Peter. (Greek: Άγιος Πέτρος Δομηνικανών)
- Natural History Museum of Crete, Sofokli Venizelou Ave, ☎ .
Take the main highway east towards Malia to reach the Cretaquarium and the folklore museum.
- 8 CretAquarium Thalassocosmos (15 km east of Heraklion on main highway to Malia), ☎ , (for bookings: +30 2810 337888)fax: . daily from 9.30 am, to 9 pm summer, to 5 pm winter. The biggest aquarium in the Eastern Mediterranean. €9 full; concessions plus winter reductions.
- Lychnostatis, ☎ . April to Oct Sun-Fri 9 am to 2 pm, closed Sats, closed Nov-March. Open-air Cretan folklore museum. €5, concessions €2-3.
Nikos Kazantzakis Museum, in the village of Myrtia (Varvari) 20 km south of Heraklion, focuses on Crete's most prominent modern intellectual figure. (In early 2017 its links are dead, so whether and when it’s open cannot be confirmed. Enquire locally before planning a trip.)
- Heraklion Summer Arts Festival - from June to September
- Amoudara the city's beach area; a 3 km strip of sandy beach, lots of cafes, bars and hotels and the site of "Technopolis", a modern multiplex cinema and open-air theatre.
- Horseback riding, experienced and amateur riders can ride at the beach of Karteros, or take riding lessons at Ippikos Omilos Hrakliou, located 6 km east of Heraklion, in Karteros.
- Rock climbing, locals and visitors can climb a 15 m rock at the suburb of Karteros, east of Heraklion. Safety equipment is provided
- Water fun, at the nearby Water City and Aqua Plus water parks.
- Sailing (Heraklion Sailing Club ~ Ιστιοπλοϊκός Όμιλος Ηρακλείου Tel:2810242120 - email: email@example.com) - take sailing lessons, enjoy sailing trips, charter a yacht and discover the Aegean islands. Located in the former premises of the port refrigeration plant, east of the Port Authorities.
- The University of Crete is the leading higher education institution on the island of Crete. The University was established in 1973 and operates under the supervision of the State. The seat of the University is in Rethymno, with Heraklion hosting the School of Sciences and Engineering and that of Health Sciences.
- Visit the central open market in Meidani square and buy mountain herbs, spices and folk natural remedies.
Throughout the city centre, it is easy to find cheap tavernas (ταβερνα) offering full meals for under €20 for two people. A strict budget can be met by sticking to the supermarkets which provide the usual array of fruits, vegetables and cheese for modest prices (€5/day is quite feasible.) Central cafes serve the local breakfast treat bougatsa, a local pastry with cottage cheese, served with honey, or cinnamon and sugar. Also available are the usual complement of pastry shops for standard meals such as spanakopita (spinach pie) and various cheap deserts.
- Heraklion Sailing Club (Greek: Istioploikos or Ιστιοπλοϊκός) (In the harbour), ☎ . Classic seafood restaurant facing the Venetian Castle. Specialities include charcoal grilled fish, seafood salads, clams, and the award-winning mussel risotto. Located in the former premises of the port refrigeration plant, east of the Port Authority. Sailing Club membership is not required for the restaurant.
- Pagopiion (Ice-Factory) is a "quirky" restaurant and cafe/bar, at St Titus square, by the church. You can sit outside and enjoy the setting, or you might be tempted by the dramatic decor to sit inside. The food is excellent, and the menu different and interesting.
- Herb's Garden (The Roof Garden of Lato Boutique Hotel) The name has been inspired from the traditional Cretan herbs. Offers a spectacular view to Heraklion’s Venetian fortress and Cretan Sea. Opens from early afternoon and serves fresh fish and salads accompanied by local aperitifs and a variety of fine wines. Later in the afternoon there is special coffee and tea arrangements, fresh fruit juices, ice cream and cocktails.
- Raki, also known as Tsikoudia, is the trademark of Cretan day and night life, a strong clear drink similar to Grappa in Italy or Orujo in Spain. It is made from the 'must' of grape skins and twigs after the local production of the white wine. It doesn't taste like aniseed, as opposed to the Turkish raki. Most raki is standard spirit strength of 40% or 80 o proof, but some are much stronger. It's often served in small glasses after dinner with a plate of fruit or other dessert.
- Cretan Wine: Try the distinctive Cretan wine, produced in the island for at least 4000 years. Labels: Sitia, Peza Union. The Cretans themselves drink so called 'open' wine, straight out of the barrel, like fresh white wine, and the sometimes very old dark rusty red wine, a bit like port. Typical Cretan wine varieties are Marouvas and Kotsifali (both red wines).
There are two hostels in Heraklion, both in the city centre, a 10-minute drive from the airport and a 5-minute drive from the port. A taxi from the airport to either hostel should cost less than €10, and from the port less than €6.
- Heraklion Youth Hostel, Vironos 5, ☎ . Read the online reviews before booking: fairly disgusting and not for the faint hearted.
- Prince of Lillies Hotel, Old National Road, Karteros, ☎ , fax: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 12:00. An excellent family-run hotel in Karteros, about 7 km east of Heraklion beyond the airport. (On bus route to Ag Nik with hourly buses.) singles from 30€, doubles from 35€.
- 1 Mirabello Hotel, 20, Theotokopoulou, ☎ , fax: , e-mail: email@example.com. Good value, friendly atmosphere, very helpful staff. Rooms from €30-55 with discounts during low-season. Centrally located in a quiet part of the city. Nice views from the balcony.
- Life Hotel, 50, Ikarou Ave, ☎ . , This hotel is walking distance to the port and very close to the bus station. Double €70. A good option if staying near the port and walking distance to the centre. It is also a 25-min walk from the airport and the directions are simple: Remain on Ikarou Ave until you see the the hotel on the left. Staff are helpful and speak fluent English
- Lato Boutique Hotel, 15 Epimenidou St, ☎ , fax: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Accommodation within a modern, friendly and luxurious environment with panoramic views of the Venetian fortress. double 90-112€.
- Aquila Atlantis Hotel, 2 Igias St, ☎ , fax: , e-mail: email@example.com. Centrally located in a quiet area. Double €179-380.
- Astoria Capsis Hotel, 11 Eleftherias sq., ☎ , fax: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 14.00, check-out: 12.00. €73.5-250.
Free WiFi provided by municipality, and some cafes. 3G & 4G networks are also available
Road safety is wanting and generally the attitudes of all road users are poor and reckless. For pedestrians, there are haphazard pavements, usually entirely obstructed by parked cars and bikes, meaning the road itself has to be used by pedestrians. Other roads lack pavements. Road crossings for pedestrians do not seem to be recognized by motorists, making crossing difficult in busy roads. Drivers and bikers may even drive through junctions when the "green man" is indicating it is safe for pedestrians to cross. The bikers seem to be the worst, usually wearing no helmet and happily talking on a mobile phone or reading a text message while driving. Sometimes bikers ride on the pavements, and expect pedestrians to move out their way.
There are many stray cats and dogs in the city. The dogs can often be seen in small packs, and may bark and growl but do not attack if they are left alone.
Heraklion can seem traffic-choked, polluted and crowded with chain-smokers at times. A visit would not be advisable for those very sensitive to cigarette smoke (e.g. asthmatics), as smoke is everywhere. Even no smoking rooms in hotels are likely to have the smell of cigarettes drift from the corridor or the window. Fortunately anywhere near the sea front there is a refreshing mild sea breeze.
Within reach of a day-trip, but worth longer, are Rethymno (the most charming old town on the island), Chania, and Agios Nikolaos. Chania is the best base for exploring the Samaria Gorge, and Agios Nikolaos is your base for seeing Spinalonga. You’ll need your own car to see Anogia, or Phaistos Palace and Matala beach, on a day trip.