Heraklion is situated on the north side of Crete and is known to be the most favored area. Heraklion Town, Crete’s stunning capital, is among the most bustling cities on the island. Two of Crete’s most significant monuments, Knossos Palace and Phaistos Palace, can be found in this region.
The Minoan Palace of Knossos, which is more than 20,000 square meters in size, is the largest among all the Minoan palaces. Inside, you can find remains of colorful murals, impressive red columns, and a magnificent throne room that will transport you back to the Minoan Era.
The Minoan Palace of Phaistos is the second most significant Minoan site, following Knossos. It is situated on the east side of Kastri Hill and features beautiful natural surroundings that attract history enthusiasts from around the globe.
The town has a fairytale vibe despite its often-crowded city center. If you take a stroll around town, you’ll encounter several attractions, including the Koules fortress at the Venetian port, Turkish and Venetian fountains, Venetian buildings, the Venetian Loggia, and museums such as the Archaeological Museum, the Historical Museum, and the Museum of Natural History.
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If you don’t enjoy sightseeing much, you can visit the stunning beaches on the northern and southern coasts of the region.
You can find some amazing beaches like Matala, Agia Pelagia, and Malia, which used to be a hippies paradise. There are many hotels near these beaches for those who want to spend their holidays by the beach.
The history of Heraklion is closely linked to the Minoan Palace of Knossos, according to ancient historians like Strabo. Heraklion was referred to as the port of Knossos and was the center of Minoan civilization during its heyday, which spanned from the 16th to the 14th century BC. Excavations have shown that society during that era was prosperous and relied on agriculture and trade.
Minoans were skilled navigators who constructed ships and created attractive pottery to transport their goods, which mainly included olive oil, cereals, and wine. Despite the lack of fortifications around their towns, archaeologists believe that this was a peaceful society.
The Minoans’ town planning was impressive, and their frescoes, found in the Palace of Knossos, were also remarkable. This civilization, however, met its demise around 1,500 BC as a result of the volcanic eruption of Santorini, which caused tsunami waves and covered these towns with volcanic ashes.
During a period of decline, Crete saw some progress during Roman times with the establishment of Ancient Gortyn in southern Heraklion. However, it was frequently attacked by pirates and enemies while under Byzantine rule.
In the 9th century, Crete was occupied by Arabs who founded a new town called Radth al Khandak (Castle of Handakas), where Heraklion is located. The Byzantines retook the island in the following century and ruled it until the 13th century.
In the 14th century, the Venetians took control of Heraklion city, which led to their rule over Crete for 400 years. This became the most successful era for Heraklion as it flourished in arts, trade, architecture, and literature.
Following the fall of Constantinoupolis in 1453, many intellectuals and artists sought shelter in the city. Defensive walls took a century to construct and proved their strategic significance during a prolonged battle between the Ottomans and Venetians.
Venetians were compelled to evacuate the town following a 25-year siege by the Turks. The Cretans continued to resist the Turks for many centuries, resulting in the island achieving its independence in 1898. It eventually became part of Greece in 1913.
Due to its strategic location, Heraklion was attacked by German forces in 1941. The resulting war caused significant damage to the city, including many destroyed structures.
However, despite the damage, a variety of remarkable Venetian monuments remain intact within the city. These include the old defensive walls that surround Heraklion, the iconic fortress, several beautiful fountains, and various artworks with a distinctly European character.
Things to Do
The Minoan palace
Minoan Civilisation was a magnificent ancient culture, and its most prominent center was Knossos. The ruins of the city, including the Palace, are the largest and most typical archaeological site on Crete.
The city is located 6 km southeast of Heraklion, surrounded by olive groves, vineyards, and cypress forests. Legend has it that it was ruled by the legendary king Minoa. In addition to serving as the home for the royal family, the Palace was also a hub for administration and religion in the area.
Additionally, the Palace is associated with exciting myths, such as the legend of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur and the tale of Daedalus and Icarus.
Minoan Palace of Knossos, which is a remarkable structure, was built in two phases – first in 1900 B.C. and then in 1700-1450 B.C. It covers an area of 22,000 sq. m. To enter the central court, use the south entrance and then proceed through three wings. The west wing of the Palace is where the throne room is located.
Royal Palace has an eastern wing with various rooms, including the royal chambers, the double axes room, the queen’s megaron with dolphin frescos, workshop areas (including the stone carver’s workshop), and storage rooms.
At the north entrance, there’s a customs house with columns and pillars. Outside the Palace to the northwest is a lustral basin, a theatre, and the royal road leading to the small Palace. To the northeast of the main Palace, you can find the royal villa and 1 km further south, there is the royal tomb.
Minos Kalokerinos, an antiquity lover, conducted the first systematic excavation at Knossos in 1878. However, it was Sir Arthur Evans, an Englishman who visited Knossos in 1894, that had the luck of discovering the Palace. The excavation work began in 1900, shortly after Crete gained independence, and continued for 35 years with several interruptions. Evans and his associates personally oversaw the excavation.
Archaeological Site of Phaistos
Faistos, also known as Festos, is an ancient city in ruins located on a hill west of Mires on the way to Tumbaki. The older Palace of Phaistos, which was constructed between 1900-1700 B.C., was built on embankments that date back to the Neolithic and Early Minoan periods (3000-2000 B.C.).
The Palace exhibits distinctive Minoan architectural characteristics such as paved yards, multi-gates, well-kept facades, and skylights. It has been destroyed and rebuilt twice. A newer palace was built on top of the ruins around 1700 B.C., which remained in use till 1450 B.C.
The Palace has a large chamber in the western wing supported by pillars and a triple pylon towards the central yard, which was possibly used for worship. Other rooms associated with worship are also located in the same wing.
The pavement in the central yard dates back to the Palaeoanactoric Period (1900-1700) B.C. and has been preserved.
The eastern wing only contains a limited area that has been preserved, including a room with skylights and purification tanks. The “royal suites” are situated in the northern wing, and their sacredness and formality are highlighted by various design features, such as the symmetrical layout of the exterior wall facing the central yard and the central entrance with half pillars nearby. Additionally, there is an altar on a small flight of stairs positioned in the corner between the north and west wings.
It is possible that a banquet hall was located on the same level as the central yard, which was supported by pillars. The rest of the area was occupied by official apartments. Two particularly luxurious rooms feature alabaster walls, floor tiles, and decorative frescoes. They are surrounded by skylights, balconies, and a spacious peristyle yard.
In addition to the Palace, there are also housing complexes and a temple dating back to the Archaic period, potentially dedicated to Rhea, that have been excavated in the northeast and southwest areas.
At the Museum of Heraklion, you can see archaeological discoveries from the Palace, including the disc of Phaistos and a vast collection of vases with various decorative colors.
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Nikos Kazantzakis Museum
A museum that celebrates the life and achievements of Nikos Kazantzakis a writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 9 times, and also wrote the book “Zorba the Greek”.
In 1983, a museum was established in Myrtia village, located only 11 kilometers away from Knossos. This museum is dedicated to the renowned author Nikos Kazantzakis and was founded by George Anemogiannis, who not only hails from the same ancestral village as Kazantzakis but is also a scenographer and costume designer.
Visitors can explore the museum, which is situated in an area where wine-lined streets meet Kazantzakis’s literature, and the calm Cretan landscape blends with traditional hospitality.
Museum is situated in the same area that was once home to the Anemogiannis family, as well as a small house where some of Kazantzakis’ relatives lived. In 2009, the Museum underwent a complete renovation, resulting in a new exhibition of its collections.
This exhibition space features 650 exhibits that are presented in a modern aesthetic, with a focus on showcasing the timeless and universal nature of Kazantzakis’s ideas.
Visitors can enjoy a captivating journey into the author’s life, words, and thoughts while exploring the alternating light and shadow of the space. At the exhibit, visitors can learn about the author’s personality by viewing his letters and diaries, personal items and souvenirs from his travels, rare photographs, models of sets and costumes, performances of his works, rare audiovisual material, and artwork inspired by his literary world.
Thirathen Museum of traditional instruments
The Museum of Greek folk music, musical instruments, research, and documentation called “THIRATHEN” is located in the mountainous village of Krousonas, just 20 km away from Heraklion. “Thirathen” is a name that refers to classical education in the Byzantine Era with a secular nature.
In a renovated traditional village house, the sounds of nature are married with traditional musical instruments and continuously compose unique melodies, reserving visitors’ trips to the charm of music.
The museum aims to introduce the Cretan Greek traditional music to the local community while also promoting awareness of traditional instruments from Greece and other countries. Through a range of festivities and activities, the museum hopes to become a hub for cultural events centered around traditional music. In addition, the museum plans to establish a Research and Documentation Centre to further explore our musical heritage.
Educational institutions in the region are welcome to visit the Museum. During these visits, various educational activities such as music-kinetic games, audio-guided tours, and video and slide projections are available. Additionally, seminars may be organized for specialists to exchange ideas and perspectives on relevant topics.
Wines of Crete
People consider wine to be one of the most powerful experiences in life. If you visit the island of Crete in Greece, you can taste unforgettable wines that will give your palate new sensations.
If you’re interested in wine tourism or agritourism, this is the right place to experience the saying, “And wine that maketh glad the heart of man…” our ancestors used to say. There are numerous options to choose from.
The European continent’s oldest continuously-used wine-producing area can be found here. If you visit Chania and Heraklion, you can explore many wineries and learn about the varieties of grapes grown in the Cretan terrain.
You can also experience the unique local cuisine and the region’s hospitality. Wine is an integral part of Cretan daily life and culture. It is always served with meals, and drinking is done in the company as Cretans don’t drink alone. They prefer to enjoy their wine while chatting, laughing, and partaking in the local food.
Do you know that Crete has a wine tradition that dates back 4000 years? Archaeological discoveries in the Kato Zakro area feature the oldest vineyard in Europe as proof. In the neighboring town of Archanes, the oldest wine-press, which is over 3500 years old, was discovered.
Wine has been an integral part of daily life on the island since its long and illustrious history. For centuries, participating in viniculture events and wine festivals has been a traditional practice that still continues today. The love for wine-making and tradition is now complemented by knowledge and technology. During your stay on the island, you will have the opportunity to taste high-quality local Cretan wine. The wine is produced using careful viticulture techniques in specifically chosen areas, where the earth’s nutrients and local climate are optimized for the best wine production.
If you love wine, you will appreciate the exceptional grape varieties grown in Crete, thanks to ideal soil and climate conditions. These wines pair perfectly with the world-renowned local cuisine made with healthy ingredients. The new generation of Cretan wines is an excellent addition to the culinary scene and will surely enhance your dining experience during your trip.
Cretan Wine Routes
To produce great wines, vineyards are essential. In Crete, the wine-producing regions are located in the island’s northern part, where grapevines grow alongside olive groves.
These vineyards are shielded from the warm winds coming from the south and benefit from the cool Aegean winds blowing over the Sea of Crete towards the north shores, creating ideal weather conditions for making top-quality Cretan wines.
For centuries, grapevines have been grown here and used in the traditional process of wine-making. This tradition is embodied in the local community’s daily life, cuisine, and hospitality. You can visit the lush vineyards where it all began and savor the unique aromas of each wine. Experience the magic world of wine by tasting old and new labels in the well-maintained local wineries, and enjoy the delightful feeling of euphoria.
Crete has a diverse wine culture with a mix of native and foreign grape varieties. Some of the island’s top white grape varieties are Vilana, Vidiano, Dafni, Thrapsathiri, Malvazia di Candia, Muscat of Spina, and Plyto. Kotsifali, Mantilari, Liatiko, Tsardana, and Romeiko are some of the renowned red grape varieties. The PGI Crete labels feature blends made using local and foreign grape varieties.
Visit the wineries on the island and indulge in the enticing scents emanating from oak barrels. Take pleasure in savoring the delightful grapevine products unique to the area. The winemakers on Crete have enhanced the old traditional methods with new techniques while keeping consumer tastes in mind. Oenologists conduct experiments and create new flavors and aromas to produce a variety of wines to please every palate.
Best Beaches in Heraklion
Matala, located 67 km south west of Heraklion town, is a well-known beach in Greece. It has light golden sand with bamboo umbrellas and sun beds that can be rented.
The right side of the beach is adorned by impressive cliffs with curved caves that hippies used as shelter in the 1960s. Interestingly, the locals of ancient times used these caves as dwellings. Currently, the prehistoric caves are fenced off.
Matala was a fishing village in the past, but nowadays, it relies mostly on tourism. Visitors can find various modern amenities and numerous accommodation options, including fish taverns and a camping site.
Malia is a well-known village situated 36 km east of Heraklion town in a productive area recognized for its windmills and local products. Its beach, composed of fine white sand and clear waters, is considered one of the best beaches on the island.
It is usually visited by young people as it has both modern and traditional elements. However, a small part of the village continues to remain unaffected by tourism. Also, a few kilometers away from the village, there exists the archaeological site of Malia.
Hersonissos is a renowned tourist resort located 28 km east of Heraklion Town in Crete. It’s a bustling hub that caters to numerous visitors’ needs every year. The resort features a vast range of facilities and lodgings. Its extended golden sandy beach is surrounded by beautiful palm trees and clear azure waters. Additionally, Hersonissos boast of an exciting aquarium.
Tobrouk Beach is a large, well-organized beach located 10 km east of Heraklion Town. Several hotels and nice taverns and tourist resorts like Hani Kokkini, Gouves, and Vathianos Kampos can be found nearby. During the summer, Tobrouk is a popular destination, offering watersports such as waterskiing and canoeing. Tobrouk features soft sand and clean waters, but because it is an open bay, it can be affected by meltemia winds in August which can create high waves.
Amoudara is a beautiful beach located in the Gulf of Heraklion, just 5 km away from the capital, on the northern coast of the prefecture. The beach boasts soft golden sand and crystal-clear waters and offers a few facilities. It has been recognized with the EU Blue Flag for its clean waters and well-organized set-up. Visitors can find accommodations in the area and plenty of taverns to dine at.
How to get to Heraklion?
If you are planning to travel to Heraklion, Greece, keep in mind that it is the capital of Crete and a popular tourist destination. It is known for its historical landmarks and impressive sights, such as the Minoan Palace of Knossos.
To make your trip more convenient, make sure to search the transportation options available in the area so that you can easily travel to your hotel and explore all that Heraklion has to offer.
Ferries to Heraklion
There is a daily ferry connection from Piraeus port in Athens to Heraklion, which runs all year round and takes between 6 to 8 hours. During the summer, you can also take a ferry from Heraklion to some islands in Cyclades and Dodecanese, such as Santorini, on a daily basis. Heraklion is connected by ferry to Mykonos, Paros, and Milos once a week and three times a week to Karpathos, Kassos, and Rhodes.
Flights to Heraklion
Heraklion International Airport “Nikos Kazantzakis” is the second busiest airport in Greece and receives flights from Athens and Thessaloniki, throughout the year. During the summer, it also welcomes flights from many European countries.
The flight duration from Athens to Heraklion is approximately 45 minutes. To travel to the Town center, located 5 km from Nea Alikarnassos region, taking a taxi upon arrival is recommended.