If I had the choice to visit only one place in the whole of Greece, Crete would be on top of my list. The reason is simple – everything that Greece is famous for can be found on this island. There are museums, archaeological sites, and beautiful beaches with crystal blue water, forests, tall mountains, culture, history, architecture, and delicious food, combined with vibrant and modern facilities too. And every one of these can be experienced right here in Heraklion.
If you don’t know much about Crete and wondering what to do in Heraklion, have no fear, there are enough beautiful sights to keep you here for months. Below are just a few Heraklion attractions you dare not miss.
The best would be to take the hop-on-hop-off bus, taking you straight to the main sights, without the stress of finding your own way. One of the first places to visit in Heraklion, is the ancient and unique palace complex at Knossos.
Things to do in Heraklion, Crete
1. Visit Knossos
Situated on the southern outskirts of the city, and covering an area of over 20 000 m², Knossos is Crete’s most famous monument. This was the palace of king Minos, a descendant of Zeus, the head of the Olympian Gods.
The first palaces were built around 2000 BC (let that sink in for a while) and rebuilt several times over the next 600 years, having been destroyed by earthquakes, fires and invading armies. Intricately interwoven with mythology, King Minos is linked with the dreaded Minotaur, a half-man-half-bull beast, which was eventually killed by a young Athenian prince.
The one thing that is certainly not a myth, is that Knossos reveals a highly sophisticated civilization, with stunning architecture, vividly coloured frescoes, paintings and pillars, spread across the palace complex, consisting of 1300 rooms, halls, courts and passages all with running water, drainage and heating systems and even a theatre.
There is so much to see here, with the highlights being The Throne Room, the South Propylaeum, and the Hall of Frescoes.
Getting to Knossos from Heraklion – Knossos is easily reached by car, and public buses from anywhere in the city. Buses run regularly and cost around €1.5 (bus line 2).
Knossos entrance fee – It’s best to book a tour, which costs around €15-€20. Worth every cent. You can also choose a skip the line guided tour. It’s a bit more expensive, but you won’t have to worry about the crowds.
Knossos opening times – 8 am – 8 pm in summer and 8 am to 5 pm in winter.
2. Stop at the Archaeological Museum
For history buffs, the Archaeological Museum is another must-see in Heraklion, and it’s recommended to come here before visiting Knossos. It will give you a wider overview about Crete’s history.
Situated in the heart of the city, it’s one of the finest museums in Greece, exhibiting the largest collection of Minoan artefacts in the world, many of which were discovered at Knossos.
A two-storey building, packed with thousands of relics dating back from Neolithic to Roman times, including a huge concentration of Minoan items ranging from figurines, sculptures, vases and sarcophagi, to incredible frescoes and intricate gold jewellery. Of special importance are the Harvester’s Vase dating back to 1500 BC, the Snake Goddess figurine from 1700 BC and of course its most famous item, the Phaistos Disc. Covered on both sides with hieroglyphic script that has not been deciphered yet.
Archaeological Museum entrance fee – Combined tickets (Museum + Knossos) cost around €20 and can be purchased from the Archaeological Museum or online (it’s best to book them online to save time), while tickets for the museum only cost €6-€12.
Archaeological Museum opening times – 8 am – 5 pm, Tuesdays 10 am – 5 pm
3. Admire Koules Fortress
Situated at the entrance to the Venetian Harbour, this imposing fortress was built by the Venetians in the 16th century on the ruins of a previous fort. Initially named Rocca a Mare, it became Su Kulesi, under the Ottomans, until changed to Koules, by the Cretans. It’s one of the top attractions in Heraklion!
A tour through this two-storey fort, reveals a maze of quarters, passages, and halls, dotted with cannons and artefacts, while spectacular views of the harbour and city can be enjoyed from the upper floors, courtyards and defensive walls. The dungeons deep below housed many Greek revolutionaries. Surprisingly, three sculptures depicting the Winged Lion of St. Mark carved into the walls, still remain despite Crete being under Ottoman rule for over 200 years.
Koules Fortress entrance fee – 4 euros
Koules Fortress opening hours – 8 am to 6.30 pm, closed on Tuesdays
4. Visit St. Minas Cathedral
St Minas Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Crete, the biggest church on the island and one of the biggest in the whole of Greece. Built during the late 19th century in the middle of a paved square in the town, it is dedicated to the patron saint of Heraklion, who has a fascinating story of courage and faith, having been gruesomely tortured and eventually beheaded by the Romans for refusing to denounce his Christian faith.
This building has a rich history, including a heart-warming event that occurred during its construction. When building materials arrived, the committee was unable to pay workers to offload the material. Schoolchildren then arrived forming a human chain from the harbour to the site, singing as they worked.
The church is exquisitely decorated with beautiful architecture, paintings, and Christian ceiling frescoes. You cannot escape the presence of God inside this place. You need to go there, it’s one of the top things to do in Heraklion! It’s also free to visit.
5. Grab a gyros at Hovoli Restaurant
You cannot claim to have been in Heraklion without grabbing a gyros at Hovoli Restaurant. End of discussion.
Centrally situated, cool atmosphere, delicious and generous helpings of authentic Mediterranean food loaded with Cretan flavours and hospitality, all come standard here. Gyros and souvlakia of all types plus all the other Greek delicacies will have you spoilt for choice. Just come hungry here because the gyros are the size of your head.
6. Visit Agios Titos Church
If you’re needing some calmness after a hectic day through the busy streets of Heraklion, just come here. Its interior is beautifully adorned with a massive candelabrum, icons and bright glass mosaics on the windows, throwing colourful reflections into the church, creating a peaceful atmosphere.
Originally built during the 10th century by the Byzantines, it was dedicated to Agios Titos (St. Titus), the patron saint and first bishop of Crete, and a disciple of the Apostle Paul. It was converted into a mosque during the Turkish occupation, and after being severely damaged by an earthquake in 1856, it was rebuilt in 1872, and today serves as an Orthodox Church. The skull of St Titus is housed in the chapel.
As with all churches in Greece, there is no entrance fee. This place must be included in your Heraklion sightseeing itinerary.
7. Visit one of the nearby beaches
As one would expect to find on any Greek island, there are no shortages of gorgeous beaches in and around Heraklion. You can find long sandy beaches, fringed with hotels, bars and cafes serving meals and drinks, sunbeds and umbrellas to rent, or less-frequented secluded coves to escape the tourist masses.
Sea is mostly calm and clear turquoise-blue, ideal for small children, although it can get a bit choppy when the winds blow, creating perfect wind and kite surfing conditions.
Some beaches are pebbly and rocky, so it’s best to wear beach shoes or slops. Some of my favorite beaches near Heraklion are Panagia Beach, Paleokastro Beach and Amnissos Beach.
8. Grab a coffee at Mosaico (the most colorful building in the city)
A good day starts with a good cup of coffee, and nowhere better to get your favourite fix, than at the most colourful building in the city… The Mosaico! Situated in the centre of town on the ground floor of a three-storey building covered in colourful drawings, you just cannot miss it! It’s definitely one of the top attractions in Heraklion.
Whether you’re into skinny-cappuccinos, or like it extra-strong and extra-sweet (varyglyko) where you won’t sleep for a week, they’ve got you covered. They also provide a packed menu of snacks, breakfasts, fruit drinks, wines, cocktails and spirits, to cater for all tastes.
9. Learn more at the Natural History Museum
Situated on the edge of the sea, a few hundred metres west of the Venetian Harbour, the Natural History Museum offers a welcome break from the serious archaeological stuff, showcasing the island’s fauna and flora, in a way to be enjoyed by both adults and children. It’s one of my favorite places to visit in Heraklion!
Children will enjoy exhibits of live animals and marine creatures as well as interactive screens focusing on Crete’s unique ecosystems and their importance to the welfare of the island. The highlight for children and adults, is the educational earthquake simulator.
Natural History Museum entrance fee – €7.5 for adults and €4 for children.
Natural History Museum opening hours – 9 am to 3 pm Monday-Friday and 10 am to 6 pm on weekends.
10. Stop at Loggia (Town Hall)
Located in the centre of town, this elegant building was built during the Venetian rule in the early 17th century and designed by the architect Morosini, who is responsible for various historical landmarks in Heraklion.
Built in Ionian and Doric styles, this impressive building was used by Venetian intellectuals to meet daily and discuss economic and political affairs, but fell into serious disrepair during the Turkish occupation of Crete, until beautifully restored during the 20the century. Today it stands as a proud reminder of its Venetian heritage, and serves as the Town Hall.
11. Shop at Central Market (for souvenir shopping)
Less than 200 metres south is the Central Market, a most charming place for souvenir shopping and a magnet for tourists. Here you can walk down delightful arcades filled with cute little shops and kiosks that sell virtually everything, from exquisite jewellery and vintage items, to cheap souvenirs, and yummy Greek delicacies.
A lovely way to spend a few unhurried hours, despite the constant bustle of the tourist crowds, with numerous eating joints scattered in between. A far different shopping experience to the modern over-commercialised malls we can find anywhere. The Central Market is one of the must-see places in Heraklion!
12. Admire the Morosini Fountain
Nothing epitomises the heartbeat of Heraklion, quite like this famous and iconic fountain. Centrally situated in a beautiful public square near the harbour, surrounded by elegant Venetian architecture, tall cathedrals and hundreds of souvlaki and bougatsa joints, bars and delicatessens, this ornate 17th century fountain adds even more charm and character to this ancient city.
Built in 1629 by the architect Morosini, the fountain was the end of an aqueduct, bringing fresh drinking water to the thirsty city from Mount Youchtas some 15 km away. It is elaborately decorated with four lions gushing water from their mouths into eight lobes, each adorned with figures from Greek mythology.
There used to be a colossal marble statue of Poseidon holding his trident on top of the fountain, but nobody knows what happened to it. The government renamed this square after a local politician and Greek Prime Minister, but the locals would have none of that, and prefer to call it Ta Liondaria, (The Lions).
At night the fountain and surrounding buildings are lit up creating a truly majestic and festive atmosphere. Food tastes so much better around here.
13. Admire the Venetian Dockyards
Old harbours tend to draw people, and these Venetian Dockyards, do exactly that. Much history exists between the long mole and wharfs we see today, with the massive Koules Fortress, a clear testimony of its warring past.
What once was a working harbour filled with ancient galleys and trade ships, is now a most picturesque marina with small fishing boats, yachts and lined with charming eateries.
One of the most relaxing things to do in Heraklion is to take a stroll along the two kilometre mole all the way to the lighthouse for spectacular views of the passenger harbour, the city and the tall Mount Youchtas in the background.
The locals have named the mole, By-pass Avenue, being frequented by many heart by-pass patients following doctors’ instructions.
14. Take a walk along the shoreline
Taking a walk along the shoreline at the end of the day allows one to wind down and discover little gems, easily missed when rushing through the touristy Heraklion attractions. There are long beautiful beaches, rocky coves, along the entire seashore, with charming little tavernas to sit down with a refreshing drink or snack and watch the sea as the sun goes down.
15. Take a day trip to Agios Nikolaos and Spinalonga
Agios Nikolaos is a beautiful seaside town, located about 60 km away from Heraklion. One of the most popular places in this town is Lake Voulismeni. Around it you can find countless shops and bars, the most vibrant area of Agios Nikolaos.
The next stop is Spinalonga Island, a beautiful place with a dark history. At the beginning of the 1900s, the island was used as a home for people who had Leprosy. At the beginning, the conditions for the people living on the island were inhumane, but slowly improvements were made. Learn more about the island’s history in this tour!
Where to stay in Heraklion
Heraklion is the biggest city in Crete. Here you can find a wide range of accommodation option, starting with hostels and ending with 5-star luxury hotels. If you’re looking for a good value-for-money option, here are my recommendations:
- Budget – Rooftop Cosy Apartment – beautiful spacious apartment, good location, friendly owners, good amenities
- Mid-Range – Kastro Hotel – close to the beach, clean rooms, good amenities, great rooftop
- Luxury – Ibis Styles – modern rooms with excellent amenities, sylish hotel with friendly staff, good restaurants
Heraklion is a most tourist-friendly city with so many of its attractions being so close to each other, most of them in the historic old town district and close to the harbour and shoreline. This cuts down the time and costs of getting to and from your chosen destinations, leaving more time to enjoy this beautiful city.
May the travel bug bite you!