Heraklion (Greek Ηράκλειον, also transliterated as Heraklio, Iraklion or Irakleio) is the major city and capital of the largest Greek island, Crete. Its Archaeological Museum holds the remains of the 3000-year old Minoan civilization, which grew around the nearby legendary palace of Knossos (of Minotaur fame), as well as Byzantine churches and a well-preserved Venetian wall and fortress from the 15th century.
Heraklion (or Herakleion, Iraklio, Irakleion) is the capital of Crete and an industrialised city of around 155,000 residents. The modern city is densely populated and traffic-choked, at first overwhelming the visitor. However, in recent years, things have begun to change and efforts are being made to bring out the beauty of the city's rich cultural history. Strolling along the coastline, the city wall, or down a park can reveal various historical remains of potentially immense interest to the watchful eye. The knowledgeable visitor will be able to trace the past under the urban sprawl of the present. The core of the city is still enclosed and defined by the Venetian wall, which includes seven outjutting bastions. In the southernmost of these, the Martinengo Bastion, is the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis standing on a windswept hilltop with its moving inscription, "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."
Heraklion has a Mediterranean climate. Summers are hot and dry with clear skies. Dry hot days are often relieved by a system of seasonal breezes. Winters are mild with relatively little rain and rare frosts.
Located in the middle of the island, all roads lead to Heraklion. Heraklion has a busy harbour and very busy airport and usually is the starting point of travels to Crete and nearby islands.
1 Heraklion International Airport (IATA: HER) receives daily flights from Athens airport and other major Greek cities via Olympic Air and Aegean Airlines. The recently established Athens Airways [dead link] also connect Heraklion with Athens. During summer, Sky Express flies to several Aegean islands.
From April till early November charter airlines fly directly to Heraklion from many European airports.
There are two bus stations in Heraklion:
- 1 Bus station A (near the Heraklion port), ☎ . The main station used by lines to/from other prefectures (Chania, Rethymno, Lasithi) and lines to the eastern part of Heraklion prefecture.
- 2 Bus station B (at the Chania Gate (Chanioporta) at the west border of old city), ☎ . Used mainly by lines to/from the southern part of Heraklion prefecture.
There are ferries from:
- Athens (Piraeus): Minoan Lines, Anek Lines and Superfast Ferries
- Thessaloniki and Dodecanese - G.A. Ferries
- Cyclades: G.A. Ferries, Sea Jets and Hellenic Seaways. The frequency is reduced in the winter.
- Santorini (See here.)
Hiring a car is easy, as long as you have your driving licence with you. 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 - make sure you fill up with fuel before bank holidays and Sundays when you may have more difficulty finding an open station. Also, remember that you need a written authorization of the car rental company to travel with the car in a ferry.
You can use public city bus network to get around Heraklion but you have to figure out the line to your destination. There are usually no routes or schedules posted at the bus stops. Buses do not stop at bus stops, unless you signal the driver by raising your arm. Orange ticket (A zone whole, B zone students) costs €1.10, blue ticket (B zone whole) costs €1.50, 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 bus driver will take the top half (side with number value of ticket) and the two of you will rip it in half. Tickets are available inside buses with increased prices (2 & 2.5 € respectively):
- Line 1 goes to/from the airport
- Line 2 takes you to/from Knossos
- Line 7 goes to Amnissos
- Line 8 goes to FORTH
- Line 12 takes you to TEI
Locations of taxi ranks include:
- Liberty Square
- Dikeosinis (near Lions square)
- Kornarou Square
- Misotaki (bottom of 25th August)
- Amoudara (Agapi Beach/Marilena)
The local taxi company can be contacted by telephone (+30 2810 210102) or via their website.
- 1 'The Minoan Palace of Knossos', ☎ , , , , fax: , e-mail: email@example.com. Winter: Daily 08.30-15.00 Summer: 08.00-19.30. Knossos (Greek Κνωσός, the accent is on the second syllable) is the site of the most important and best known Minoan palace complex in Crete. It is located 5 km (3 mi) south of Heraklion. According to tradition, Knossos was the seat of the legendary Cretan king Minos. The palace is also connected to other legends, such as the myth of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, as well as the story of Daidalos and Ikaros. Excavation has revealed that the site was continuously inhabited from the Neolithic period (7000-3000 B.C.) until Roman times. Full ticket: €6, Reduced: €3; Special ticket package: Full: €10, Reduced: €5, valid for: Heraklion Archaeological Museum and Knossos Site.
- 2 Koules (Castello a Mare), ☎ . Koules (Greek: Κούλες) is a Venetian fortress in the harbour. It is a long walk out to the end of the pier which extends past the fort, but it offers nice views out to Mediterranean and back to the harbour.
- Venetian Walls (Greek: Τείχη). It takes over an hour's stroll to circumnavigate the city walls, stretches of which have been turned into parkland. It is frequented by people running and walking dogs.
- 5 St Minas Cathedral (Agios Minas Cathedral), ☎ . (Greek: Άγιος Μηνάς)
- St Titus Church (Greek: Άγιος Τίτος)
- 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)
Museums and Galleries
- 6 Heraklion Archaeological Museum, 2 Xanthoudidou St, ☎ , , fax: . 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 famous Bull-Leaping Fresco, the enigmatic and mysterious Phaistos Disk, and Minoan seals and jewellery. Also includes a number of finds from Classical Greek and Roman periods. The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is one of the world's great museums, embodying a whole splendid vanished culture. At least two hours should be allowed to see it, and it could easily take longer. For those particularly interested in that culture, it will be worthwhile to make two visits to the museum, one before, and one after, visiting Knossos and other Minoan sites: seeing the museum first will enhance your understanding of the sites, and after seeing the sites, you'll be better able to understand the artifacts in the museum when you return.
- Museum of the Battle for Crete and National Resistance - Recounts the tale of Cretan and Allied resistance against Nazi invaders in World War II.
- Museum of Natural History, University of Crete, S. Venizelou Ave, fax: .
- Historical Museum of Crete, 27, Sofokli Venizelou Ave. /7, Lysimachou Kalokerinou St., Tel: (++30) 2810 283219, 288708, .
- Lychnostatis, ☎ . Su-F 00:00-14:00. Open-air Cretan folklore museum. €4,50.
- 7 CretAquarium Thalassocosmos, ☎ , (for bookings:+30 2810-337888)fax: . June-September 9:00-21:00 October–May 9:00-19:00. The biggest aquarium in the Eastern Mediterranean. Located about 14 km east of Heraklion on the National Road (signposted) or by Cretan Intercity Bus (tel +30 2810 246530); for more information call the Reception number, above.
- Nikos Kazantzakis Museum [dead link]. Open daily from 09:00-19:00 (Mar-Oct); 10:00-15:00 (Nov-Feb), €3, tel +30 2810-741689, in the village of Myrtia (Varvari) 15 km. south of Heraklion, directions on the museum's web site  [dead link] focuses on Crete's most prominent modern intellectual figure.
- 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: firstname.lastname@example.org) - 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 most of the city centre, it is easy to find cheap tavernas (ταβερνα) offering full meals for under €20 for two people (eating alone in Crete would be a bizarre affair.) 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.
- Pagopieion (Ice-Factory) is a "quirky", very different 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 out of 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 80 o proof, about the strength of most vodkas, 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).
- Alimeli, Alikarnassos (near the main road ikarou), ☎ . From 07:00 to 00:00. Sweets, crepes, waffles, ice cream.
There are two hostels in Heraklion. Both are situated in the city centre, a 10-minute drive from the airport and a 5-minute drive from the port. One can go there by taxi. The taxi fare from the airport to the hostels at the city centre 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.
- [dead link]Prince of Lillies Hotel, Old National road, Karteros, ☎ , fax: , e-mail: email@example.com. Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 12:00. An excellent family-run hotel in Karteros, about 7 km outside Heraklion. (On bus route with hourly buses.) Cost €25 for a double room with balcony in December 2011. Double 25-60€.
- 1 Mirabello Hotel, 20, Theotokopoulou, ☎ , fax: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
- Knossos Beach (Hotel in Kokkini Hani), Kokkini Hani, Kato Vathia, ☎ , , fax: , e-mail: email@example.com.
- 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.