Heraklion is not just the capital of Crete, but also the capital of the Heraklion region, the most important area on the island. Heraklion is home to the most visited landmark in Crete, the Minoan Palace of Knossos. There are hundreds of hotels and tourist resorts on the northern coast of the region, but if you move a few kilometers towards the south, you’ll be able to discover a more authentic side to Crete. In this article, you can check the most fantastic things to do in Heraklion.
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What to do in Heraklion, Crete
Discover Heraklion, the capital of Crete
Heraklion, also known as Candia, is the capital city of Crete, a gate to one of the most beautiful Greek islands. Yes, we can all agree that Santorini is stunning and Mykonos is mesmerizing. However, in my personal opinion, there’s no place like Crete.
Not only the city offers dozens of things to do, but also coming across villages such as Zaros and Krasi, or the seaside town of Matala are worth a drive through the mountains and gorges of the region.
Not far from town, you can visit the vineyards of Peza and Archanes and the centennial green olive groves. Other must-sees are famous landmarks such as Knossos Palace or lesser-known gems, including the pottery village of Thrapsano, where ceramic factories produce vases that are very faithful to the Minoan tradition of the island.
When is the best time to visit Heraklion
One of the top-rated things to do in Heraklion is to visit the many museums and the fantastic archaeological sites in the region. And in order to avoid crowds, spring and autumn are the best moments to explore the capital and the region.
During both seasons, you’ll avoid the extreme temperatures of July and August, as well as skip long lines to access the venues you want to visit. Besides, prices are always more convenient off-season.
Visiting Heraklion in winter can account for a genius city break if you live in Europe. Since Heraklion is Greece’s fourth most important city, it is always alive and it never closes for winter. Shops, hotels, restaurants, and museums are open all year long.
How to get to Heraklion, Crete
There are two ways to reach the capital of the island. You can either fly to Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport. Or you can sail to the Port of Heraklion all the way from Athens, the capital of Greece.
During the high season, it’s also possible to board a ferry from the Cycladic islands, including Mykonos and Santorini.
For more tips and suggestions, as well as for alternative routes to reach Crete, check my article describing how to travel to (and from) Crete.
Where to stay in Heraklion
The capital of Crete is home to an endless list of hotels for all budgets. From budget accommodation to boutique hotels, from family rental homes to luxury resorts.
There is a huge choice often at convenient prices. If you’re looking for a detailed accommodation guide, head to this article. If you’re in a hurry, check the following box featuring top reviews.
BUDGET FRIENDLY ACCOMMODATION IN HERAKLION
Hostel: So Young is in the center of town, just 4 minutes from the Archaeological Museum and only 5 km from Knossos. You can book a room with shared or with private bathrooms and take advantage of the free shuttle to Amoudara beach. The property has a 9.4 rating on Booking and you can book here.
Value for money: Sofia Hotel is one of the few hotels in town with a swimming pool and its just minutes from Heraklion Airport. Sofia Hotel has an 8.3 rating on Booking and you can check the fees and book here.
Airbnb: This is a beautiful studio in the center of town, perfect for a couple, for a very convenient fee per night.
MID-RANGE ACCOMMODATION IN HERAKLION
Boutique Hotel: Check the convenient location, good fees, and beautiful atmosphere at Veneziano Boutique Hotel. The suites are rated 9.3 on Booking, check the latest fees and deals here
Airbnb: Check this fantastic penthouse overlooking the port of Heraklion, it’s a gorgeous place to stay in town.
LUXURY STAYS IN HERAKLION
Luxury hotel: Who wouldn’t love to enjoy a stay at the most iconic hotel in town? GDM Megaron is a landmark hotel in the center of Heraklion. Check prices, reviews, and pictures here.
Beaches in Heraklion
There are no beaches in the city center, but you can visit Amoudara beach located about 15 minutes west of the port of Heraklion. It’s a nice sandy beach fairly wide and long, however, the sea can be rough at times. If you’re visiting with kids, pay good attention as the sea tends to be quite deep even close tot he shore.
There are several small restaurants in the area for those who want to spend the day in Amoudara. If you want to learn more about other beaches you can visit when staying in town, read on for a few suggestions.
Top things to do in Heraklion
Visit Knossos Palace
The Palace of Knossos, in Heraklion, is the most famous archaeological site on the island. Some agree that the Palace of Knossos was the largest of the Minoan palaces in Crete.
The most important fact is that Knossos was the center of a sophisticated civilization that lived on Crete thousands of years ago.
The best way to understand the palatial complex is to combine a tour of Knossos with a visit to the Archaeological Museum, better if previous to the visit to the site.
Opening hours & closing dates (2019)
Winter: January 7 to March 31 (2019) 8:00 – 17:00. (Last admission at 16:45)
Summer: 8:00 – 20:00. (Last admission at 19:45)
Tickets & special fees
Full €15, Reduced €8.
A special pass also includes access to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, for 1 more euro: Full €16, Reduced €8.
>> Read about the most remarkable archaeological sites in Crete <<
Discover the Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion is one of the most important museums in Greece.
With exhibits that go from the Neolithic until the Roman times, it gathers important pieces from the Minoan civilization found in Knossos, as well as in Phaistos, Malia, and other ruins.
One of the most important pieces is the well-known Disc of Phaistos.
Check the Museum of Natural History
The Museum of Natural History includes different collections. The place is particularly appealing for kids as it exhibits an impressive Deinotherium giganteum, a fossil found near Sitia.
Another thing that both kids and adults love is the earthquake simulator, which lets you experience a real earthquake situation in a safe environment.
More museums to check in Heraklion
The Historical and Folklore Museum of Heraklion exhibits objects from the early Christian times until the Second World War. There is a collection of ceramics and sculptures, personal items that belonged to the Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis and paintings by the famous Cretan artist, El Greco.
The Museum of Nikos Kazantzakis preserves the works of the famous Cretan author. It features personal letters, manuscripts, photographs, and first editions of his books. A valuable presentation of the life and ideas of the brilliant writer and his impact on modern literature.
Explore the Koules and the city skyline
One of the best views of the city landscape is the one you can enjoy from the rooftop of the Venetian Fortress in the old Port of Heraklion. The building dates back to the 16th century and it was erected by the Republic of Venice.
When you visit, do check the ammunition room as well as the impressive amphorae that was found under the sea in a shipwreck off the coast of Crete. The Koules, also known as Rocca a Mare, is a massive, square building with thick defensive walls and an entrance with heavy wooden doors. As you access the castle, look up to admire the Lion of Saint Mark over the main gate.
The entrance fee is 2 €. It can be visited from 08.00 to 19:00 in summer, and from 08.00 to 18.00 in winter – closing hours vary in the shoulder season (September-October). The fortress is closed on Tuesdays. Check here for a detailed timetable.
>> Extend your stay in Heraklion! Best Airbnbs in town <<
Check the stunning architecture of the Loggia
On the pedestrian road 25th of August, there’s an imposing Venetian building known as the Loggia. The building is a fine monument in the style of Palladio and a legacy of Crete’s Venetian past.
The construction of the building was an idea of Francesco Morosini. It dates back to 1628 when it functioned as the city’s meeting place for nobles and rulers. The building has a remarkable architectural style, combining Doric and Ionian influences.
Wander the open markets
If you’re looking for the right present to take back home, or even a memento of the legendary Cretan diet, head to 1866 Street and wander the streets of Heraklion’s famous open market.
While wandering the alleys, pick a traditional café and ask to be served a cup of authentic Greek coffee.
Have a coffee at Lions’ Square
This beautiful square is simply the best place to start exploring the capital of Crete. Sit at a table of the traditional Kirkor’s to sample a bite of one of Crete’s most traditional desserts, bougatsa, and admire the unique architecture of the fountain. Also known as Liontaria, the square dates back to the Venetian times when it was known as Grain Square or Piazza delle Biade.
Every day and night, any time of the year, the Square is the most vibrant place to be in Heraklion, where both locals and visitors gather to hang out and enjoy the magic atmosphere of the city.
Take a snapshot of Morosini Fountain
This 1628 fountain was built during the Venetian times to be Heraklion’s source of drinking water which reached the center of the town all the way from Archanes, now a picturesque village more than 15 km away.
The Fountain remains quite well-preserved and it still works at its best. Water gushes from the four lions that decorate the central area. The fountain has eight lobes and features carved mythical water beings and Venetian coats of arms.
Visit Kazantzakis’ Tomb
The famous Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Heraklion. Although he reached worldwide fame for his work Alexander Zorbas (on which the well-known movie, Zorba the Greek is based).
Kazantzakis, who was also the author of more complex and controversial books, such as The Last Temptation of Christ, was ex-communicated from the Orthodox church in 1955.
It’s for this reason that his final place of rest is not a cemetery, but the top of Martinengo Bastion, a high point on the Walls of Heraklion, which at the time, marked the outskirts of the city.
Take some time to visit his grave with a simple wooden cross. From this high point it’s possible to get a unique panoramic view of Heraklion’s skyline.
Don’t miss the beautiful church of Agios Titos
Just a few steps from Morosini’s Fountain, walking towards the sea, you will come across the beautiful church of Agios Titos, a very important religious building on the island. The church was originally build during the Byzantine Empire, it also functioned as a mosque during the Turkish rule, and it underwent a complete renovation in 1925.
The Orthodox church features unique stained glass windows which produce a magnificent colorful effect inside the building.
Less than 200 meters from the church, devote some time to explore the former Venetian church of Saint Mark which today works as an art gallery and exhibition center. It’s located right opposite Morosini.
Check the magnificent cathedral of Heraklion
Another church worth a visit in town is Agios Minas Cathedral, the most important church on the island and the seat of the Archbishop of Crete
The Cathedral is a Greek Orthodox church dedicated to Agios Minas, a martyr and wonderworker, as well as the patron saint of the city.
Get lost in the alleys of the old quarter of Lakkos
The mysterious neighborhood of Lakkos is a wonderful place to walk around to discover stories from the recent past of Heraklion. Forget about the Minoans and discover how the capital of Crete was like during the last years of the nineteenth century.
It was back then when hashish, prostitution and crime were part of everyday life in this quarter, which was home to rebetiko music and bohemian artists as well.
During the exchange of population between Greece and Turkey (the 1920s), Lakkos received many refugees from Asia Minor. Years later, during the Nazi occupation of Crete, the prostitutes of the area were sent to a central hotel to attend the needs of German soldiers. And, little by little, the district was abandoned.
Today, and thanks to the Lakkos Project, the district has become an amazing place to hang out in the countless small bars and tavernas the populate the alleys.
Take a day trip to Archanes, Peza, and the wine region
Most of the economy in the areas of Peza and Archanes revolves around the production of grapes. About seventy percent of the wine produced in Crete comes from these areas of Heraklion. Grapes have been harvested in Crete since the Minoan times. The varieties used for wine production are Vilana (white), Kotsifali, and Mandilari (red) and Liatiko (dry and sweet red).
Schedule a visit to a local winery. Gavalas Winery, a family winery in the village of Vorias, is my absolute favorite. At Gavalas, they believe that organic products protect the environment from the pesticides’ contamination so their vineyards are part of an organic cultivation system.
Check the nightlife in Hersonissos and Malia
Hersonissos (also Chersonisos) is one of the most famous seaside resorts in Crete famous for package holidays, all-inclusive hotels, beach life, and cheap alcohol.
Those looking for videogame arcades, crowded seaside restaurants, and not very original souvenir shops can walk along the main road of the village to find this not-so-authentic atmosphere, yet Hersonissos remains a popular spot among many Europeans. Avoid if you’re interested in real Crete.
For nightlife, beach clubs, discos, bars, and the Cretan movida, move to the nearby Malia. The small town is another trendy seaside resort near Heraklion, ideal for a night out, but a bit less authentic than other seaside villages.
If you plan to spend a day visiting, do not miss the Minoan Palace of Malia. You can read more about it in this article.
Explore the pottery village of Thrapsano
Not far from Peza, about 30 kilometers from Heraklion, lies the Thrapsano, known as the pottery village of Heraklion. Thrapsano has long been related to the manufacture of traditional Cretan ceramics, in particular the Minoan pithoi, which you can still buy and even learn to produce pottery during a visit to one of the many factories.
Many of these will put your work in a kiln and send it to your hotel a few days later.
Beach day at Agia Pelagia
Another most popular beach on the northern coast of the region is Agia Pelagia. A small and quiet fishing village which coast features different tiny bays and coves, some of them not really crowded.
In the area, you can enjoy water sports or can rent a boat and go sailing. This way, you can discover the beautiful transparent waters in the area of Paleokastro, and even jump from your boat for a refreshing swim on a lonely shore.
Visit the small village of Fodele
Not far from Agia Pelagia, Fodele is a wide and calm sandy bay where you can go swimming or simply relax.
A few minutes from the coast, pay a visit to the village amid lush orange trees. Have lunch in one of the few Cretan tavernas, and then go all the way to the gorgeous Byzantine Church of the Panagia from the11th century.
The orange bricks of the church make it easy to spot in the green landscape that surrounds it. Inside, the church features beautiful frescoes and ancient marble floors.
Opposite the Church of the Panagia, take some time to explore the El Greco Museum. According to the locals, Domenikos Theotokopolous, El Greco, the important mannerist painter, was originally born in Fodele in 1541.
El Greco Museum opens daily, from 9.00 to 19.00 (from April until the end of October) and the entrance fee is 2.00 € for adults. Kids enter for free.
Drive south to discover Matala
The unique caves in Matala Beach became really famous during the sixties when hippies from all over the world choose the island, and this particular beach, to live a different, more simply kind of life. The occupied the caves and made a legend out of the once quiet fishing village.
Today, the beach and the village still retains some of that bohemian flower-power atmosphere, and it’s a great day trip from Heraklion. For many tourists, Matala is a fantastic holiday destination and they choose to stay in this small village rather than in the noisier and busier Heraklion.
In the area, you can also visit the Minoan Palace of Faistos, the archaeological sites of Gortyn and Agia Triada, and other beautiful beaches such as Kommos and Red Beach.
>> More about the things you can do in Matala in this article <<
When planning a road trip to Matala, car rental is one of the first things to consider. Go ahead and use a powerful search engine that is able to compare different companies and get you the best price. Discover Cars usually makes it really easy.
Getting to Matala from Heraklion: The road from the capital, on the northern coast, takes you to the opposite side of the island in a little more than one hour (about 66 km). From the center of Heraklion, you must head to the north up to Gazi, and once there, take the national road Heraklio-Festos (also written as Faistos and as Phaistos on the road signs.
Check the Archaeological Site of Faistos
One of the best things you can do near Matala is to pay a visit to the Minoan Site of Faistos in the Messara plain, roughly in the south-central portion of the island. Faistos is a little more than 50 kilometers from Heraklion and it’s one of the most important archaeological sites in Crete.
This Minoan Palace corresponds to a flourishing city which arose in this fertile plain from 6000 BC to the 1st century BC.
According to the legends, the palace has a history of endless turbulent episodes and myth. According to Greek mythology, the first Palace of Faistos was founded by King Minos while his brother, Radamanthis, was the first king in the Palace.
Remember that you can see all the artifacts and findings from Faistos in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, including the enigmatic Disc of Faistos.
The Archaeological Site of Festos is open with the following timetable:
On Mondays from 13.00 to 19.30
From Tuesdays to Fridays, from 08.00 to 19.30
From November 1st to March 31st, from 08:30 to 15:00
Full price 8€, Reduced fee 4€. Reduced fees apply to the following categories:
– Greek citizens and citizens of other European countries over 65 years old (ID card or passport needed)
– Escorts on educational visits (primary schools)
– University students (high education institutes or equivalent, student ID card needed)
– For free admission categories, check this site.
Where to eat in Heraklion
Peskesi: The restaurant is one of the most famous on the island, known for its traditional dishes served in a wonderful old house in the center of the town. Their wine list highlights some of Crete’s best vineyards, and dishes are simply superb.
Kafenio O Tempelis is my favorite place to try the unique variety of mezedes (or Greek tapas) and even enjoy some music. Located on Milatos street, this is one of the most convenient places in the area for a nice evening out with friends, enjoying some of the most authentic flavors of Crete.
Krasas: Perfect for typically Greek street food. Try their meat sandwiches, their gyros, souvlaki, and burgers. There are two restaurants. One of them is in the center of town, right in Plateia Eleftherias (Heraklion’s main square). The second one is in Nea Alikarnassos close to the airport. Prices at Krasas are very convenient.
Yannis’ Taverna: About half an hour from the center of Heraklion, in a village known as Kyparissi Yannis’ taverna serves great local food and homemade wine. The place is knowns for its unique atmosphere given by no electricity whatsoever. You will enjoy your dishes in a candlelight dim-lit dining room, surrounded by fragrant house wine barrels and Cretan music.
How to move around in Heraklion
You can drive along the fast northern highway which connects the capital to the other regions of Crete.
To go south, there’s a road connecting the city to the Messara Plains and the villages near Matala. Another important road passes right in front of Knossos Palace and goes through Heraklion’s wine region.
The best way to move around is driving your own car. Check these tips to rent a car and drive safely in Crete.
By bus: There’s an extensive public bus network connecting the most important towns and villages in the region all year round. Of course, the frequency is even higher during the summer.
>> Check this article to learn how to travel from Heraklion to Chania by bus <<
You can take buses to reach Chania, Rethymnon, Agios Nikolaos and other towns at the new bus station on Efessou Street. To reach the airport by bus, you have to walk to the back of this new station, the stop is right at the Shell gas station.
The buses for Knossos Palace depart from the old bus station, right opposite the Megaro Hotel.
>> More time in Crete? Check this 3-week itinerary <<
How to reach the airport of Heraklion
How to travel to the Airport of Heraklion from the city center:
- Reach the new Bus Station of Heraklion, walk past it and just around the corner, cross the street.
- At the gas station, you will see a wooden booth. This is where you take the bus to the Airport (Bus number 1). The bus coming from the airport to the city stops right across the street.
- Buy the ticket either on the vending machine (€ 1,20) or on the bus (€ 2,00).
- The ride takes from 10 to 15 minutes under normal traffic conditions. If you’re traveling with several bags or heavy luggage, it might be wiser to ride a taxi or book a private airport transfer.
Would you like to visit Heraklion?
Let me know in the comments below!
Coming to Crete any time soon?
These resources will help you organize the trip!
Start by reading these helpful tips to plan a trip to Crete or check family holidays in Crete if you travel with kids. To visit Crete’s heavenly beaches, check my guide to the best beaches. Discover what region is best to stay in or check what to do in Crete.
Get in touch if you need extra help to plan your trip. If you want to tour West Crete, check my guide. Want more? Join my Private Facebook Group to connect with like-minded travelers who love Crete as much as you do!
Make sure you’ve got everything for a hassle-free trip!
I never move around Crete without my Osprey backpack, a sturdy but light travel partner I just love. For short trips, I carry this little crossbody bag. If I’m driving around, I pack my Michelin map and my Nikon.
For accommodation, I personally use Booking.com and Airbnb.
Traveling to remote places is easier with Discover Cars. Other times, I join organized tours with GetYourGuide, which features anything from cooking lessons to airport transfer!
- This is a pin-pin situation!
About the author:
Gabi has been living in Crete for the last five years. Here, she juggles being a solo mom, hosting culinary tours in the summer, translating, and working as a tech advisor.
She’s written for Greek Reporter, published two travel guides about Greece, and drunk more glasses of frappe than any regular person would be able to handle.
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