The capital of Crete, Heraklion is a port with a long and compelling story to tell. Over the centuries the city has been controlled by the Byzantines, Moors, Venetians and Ottomans before joining modern Greece in the 20th century.
The Venetians were in charge all through the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, when they built sophisticated, four kilometre defences that would withstand an Ottoman siege for 21 years. Much earlier, Knossos, in the hills to the south, was a centre for the Minoan Civilisation and has been called Greece’s oldest city.
The palace complex at the archaeological site is a maze of ruins, with walls still coated with colourful frescoes thousands of years old. Many Minoan treasures are kept at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, the best place in the world to study this civilisation.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Heraklion:
At semi-mythical Knossos is a Bronze Age city and palace built by the Minoan civilisation.
The site has been inhabited for around 9,000 years and reached its zenith about 2000 BC when the palace was built.
You may know Knossos from the many Greek mythological figures associated with the city and palace, like King Minos, the Minotaur, and Daedalus and Icarus.
Investigating the labyrinthine ruins of the palace on Kephala Hill, you’ll learn about ancient earthquakes and wars, and see the highly sophisticated architecture furnished with plaster, beams, light wells, drainage and water supply systems.
The Throne Room, Sacred Repositories and Pillar Crypts are outstanding in the west wing, while the east wing held the residential apartments and reception halls.
To the south is the Corridor of Procession and entrance with the Prince of Lilies fresco, while to the north is the beguiling Bull Hunt fresco.
2. Heraklion Archaeological Museum
There’s no better museum in the world to dip into Minoan history.
Finds from Minoan sites all over Crete have been brought here, and many of the exhibits are masterpieces of ancient art.
One breathtaking example is the iconic and life-sized Prince of the Lilies, from the fresco at the entrance to the Palace of Knossos, composed around 1600-1500 BC. Or there’s the Phaistos Disc from the palace of the same name, a clay disc 15cm in diameter, covered with 241 tokens, the meaning of which is still disputed today.
Other extraordinary works include the Snake Goddess figurines, the bee pendant from Malia, the mesmerising bull’s head rhyton from Knossos and a huge array of decorative weapons, pottery, frescoes, clay figurines and gold jewellery.
Recommended tour: Archaeological Museum of Heraklion: Guided Walking Tour
3. Historical Museum of Crete
If you want to fill in the gaps and find out what came after the Minoans, this museum has a complete timeline for the island beginning in the 4th century AD. In the galleries are sculptures, frescoes, jewellery, coins, manuscripts, architectural fragments, woven art, cannons, portable religious icons, ceramics and more.
A model measuring 4 x 4 metres also shows how Heraklion looked during Venetian times.
Extra attention is paid to the Battle of Crete from the 20 May to 1 June 1941, in which Axis forces conquered the island, but only after heavy losses.
Another feather in the museum’s cap is that it has the only two paintings by the Crete-born Renaissance master El Greco remaining on the island.
These are the Baptism of Christ and View of Mount Sinai.
4. Venetian Harbour
In a pocket to the west of Heraklion’s new harbour is where the city’s maritime activity happened in Venetian times.
At the mouth of the harbour is the Koules Fortress, which we’ll talk about next.
On dry land, facing the water there are two separate rows of arches, the vestiges of Venetian arsenals or shipbuilding warehouses.
These structures give a small hint of just how sophisticated Venetian maritime activity was in those times.
You can carry on along the mole, past the fortress to look back at the enormous cruise liners in the modern port.
5. Koules Fortress
Guarding the Venetian harbour is a square-shaped fort built when the island was under the control of the Republic of Venice in the 16th century.
Koules Fortress went up between 1524 and 1540 and took the place of an earlier fort built after the Venetians first took Heraklion in the 1200s.
It’s no mystery why Koules Fortress has stood the test of time, as it was built to last, and has external walls up to 8.7 metres thick.
The building was involved in the second-longest siege of all time, during the Siege of Candia (Heraklion), when the Ottomans were at the gates for 21 years from 1648 to 1669 before the city finally fell.
The fort’s upper level has a clear view of the harbour, while in the vaulted passageways below are cannons, hundreds of cannonballs, piles of amphorae, information panels and a brief film about the history of the fort.
6. Venetian Walls
Heraklion has had a wall of some kind since the First Byanzatine Period beginning in the 4th century.
This was bolstered by the Moors in the 9th and 10th centuries, and again by the Byzantines after they retook the city.
But it was the Venetians, responding to the growing threat from the Ottoman Empire, who went the extra mile.
From 1462 to 1560 they constructed an almost unsurpassable, four-kilometre system of fortifications with four gates and seven bastions, all surrounded by a moat.
Laid out in straight lines, these walls helped keep the Ottomans at bay during that 21-year siege, said to have cost 100,000 Turkish lives: They finally made their breakthrough at the western St Andrew Gate in 1669. You can find this fateful spot, and set off on an adventure over ramparts and through Renaissance arcades and passageways.
7. Agios Minas Cathedral
With room for 8,000 worshippers, the Agios Minas Cathedral is one of the largest in Greece.
It was built across 30 years in the second half of the 19th century, and the project was delayed by the Cretan Revolt against Ottoman rule in 1866-1869. An interesting side note is that construction was partly funded by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdülaziz.
Inside allow a few minutes to appreciate the Byzantine-style frescoes of apostles, bible episodes, and Christ Pantocrator in the crown of the main dome.
Another bold fitting is the iconostasis, made of marble and replacing the wooden original in the 20th century.
8. Venetian Loggia
This 17th-century Mannerist monument on St Titus’ Square is a holdover from Heraklion’s Venetian days.
The loggia was where Heraklion’s nobility would meet to thrash out political and commercial matters.
In Ottoman times the Loggia became the seat of the high finance officer, as well as the secretary general who was responsible for mediating between Heraklion’s Christians and the Turkish authorities.
By the end of the 19th century the Loggia was in a state of disrepair, and wouldn’t be restored until after the Second World War.
Since then the building has been a town hall, hosting the weekly meeting of the Municipal Council.
The Loggia is closed to visitors, but you can look around the arcade on the ground floor.
9. St Catherine of Sinai
Next to the cathedral on St Catherine Square is a former monastery church founded in the 10th century.
The surviving church building dates to the 16th century, and at that time it was also a school for science, literature and art.
It is believed that Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco) was one of the pupils.
Another, Michael Damaskinos, is regarded as one of the most accomplished post-Byzantine Cretan painters, and the star of the Cretan School.
He may well have painted the six marvellous icons that form the centrepiece of the museum for Christian art inside the church.
Also on show are paintings, manuscripts, vestments and wooden sculptures.
10. Natural History Museum of Crete
Run by the University of Crete, the Natural History Museum has a remarkable venue in a converted former power plant.
The exhibitions cover the zoology and botany of the eastern Mediterranean region, as well as Crete’s palaeontology, mineralogy and geology.
You can get a sense of Crete’s wildlife and ecosystems in highly detailed “Mega-Dioramas”, and see the island’s fish, insects and reptiles for yourself in the terrariums and aquariums at the “Living Museum”. Crete isn’t a stranger to seismic activity, and was the epicentre of an infamously destructive earthquake in the year 365 AD: At the “Seismic Table” you can experience an earthquake for yourself and get some facts about the science behind them.
11. Agios Titos Church
On the action-packed August 25th Street, Agios Titos is the oldest church in the city and is dedicated to Saint Titus, Crete’s first bishop.
It goes back to 961 AD and was ordered by the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas after the island was retaken by Byzantine forces.
The last millennium has been full of mishaps, as the church has been toppled several times through fire and earthquakes.
The most recent took place in 1856 and the Agios Titos had to be rebuilt from scratch.
An interesting thing about this reconstruction is that it took place under Ottoman rule, so the current design is actually intended as a mosque.
The minaret was pulled down in 1920, and the church was given an Orthodox renovation in 1925. Among the relics inside is the skull of St Titus, which was originally taken back to Venice in the 17th century, but has now been returned to the church.
12. Morosini Fountain
Down from the Loggia, Lions Square is one of the liveliest places in the old centre of Heraklion.
Tourists pass through on their tour of the city take the weight off at cafe tables, potter around the shops and line up for ice creams.
All eyes are drawn to this monument, unveiled in 1628 after more than a year of construction.
It was fed by an aqueduct that channelled water 15 kilometres from Mount Juktas.
Rising from the lower basin is an octagonal pedestal with the four lions that give the square its name.
That basin below has eight lobes and has reliefs with images from Greek mythology like nymphs and the god Triton.
13. St Mark’s Basilica
A few metres from the Morisini Fountain is the grand portico of another monument from Heraklion’s Venetian era.
St Mark’s Basilica was built as soon as the Venetians conquered the city in the 13th century and is dedicated to their patron saint.
The basilica was a symbol of Venetian power, and was the venue for official ceremonies and the place where the Venetian nobility were laid to rest.
The basilica became a mosque in Ottoman times, when its bell tower was replaced with a minaret that was eventually pulled down in the 20th century.
Today it’s Heraklion’s Municipal Art Gallery and opens its doors almost every day.
14. Amoudara Beach
Beginning on the western shoulder of Herakion’s city centre, Amoudara is a sandy beach that extends for another six kilometres.
Five of the bathing areas along the way are awarded the Blue Flag each year for their amenities and the quality of the water.
The beach is long enough to suit people who want some energy and crowds, and those who are happy to travel a bit further for peace and seclusion.
The beach gets moderate waves and has the right wind conditions for windsurfing.
Carry on past the western edge of Amoudara and you’ll come to the majestic Almiros Gorge, at the entrance of which is the Almiros Wetlands, a green oasis against Crete’s arid landscape.
15. Wine Tourism
One way to get in touch with Crete’s ancient history is to take a trip into the ancient, hilly landscape to the south of Heraklion.
Above 300 metres you’ll begin to see vineyards, growing grape varieties like Greek Vilana, Vidiano and Mandilaria, but also Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, to name a few.
To take things to the next level you can book a tour and tasting at three wineries near Heraklion: Domaine Paterianakis, Lyrarakis and Douloufakis.
Lyrarakis calls on local varietals and has helped to revive two ancient Cretan wines, Plyto and Dafni.
You’ll take a tour of the facilities, wrapped in idyllic countryside, hear firsthand winemaking insights from the owners and sit down to a guided tasting session.