Heraklion, the capital of Crete, may not be your typical island destination but a worthwhile and fascinating place all the same. Inhabited by the Muslims, the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Ottomans -not to mention the Ancient Minoan civilization- Heraklion is bursting with diverse sites of cultural and historical interest just waiting to be discovered.
1. Palace of Knossos
Only 5 km from the city, the Palace of Knossos ruins can be reached by public transportation and should be one of the first things you see when you arrive in Heraklion. It is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site in Crete and is considered Europe’s oldest city. The site features four wings built around a spacious central courtyard, believed to have been the mythical Labyrinth of King Minos. The palace site is extensive, containing ceremonial spaces, living areas, storage rooms, and a sophisticated drainage system.
2. Old Venetian Harbor
Go back in time to Venetian rule at the harborside where old Venetian shipyards, ramparts, and the 16th century Koules Fortress still remain. It’s the most scenic walk in town and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants along the promenade to sit and take it all in. Climb the roof of the fortress for an even better view.
A good way to get a feel of the local culture is to try the food! On our Heraklion private food tour, a fun and knowledgeable guide can take you through the streets of the city and show you the best eateries for traditional Cretan cuisine. Sample foods like various kinds of Cretan cheese, herbs and pastries called "kalitsounia". Also included are traditional fried snails, loukoumades, and the freshest seafood around.
4. Historical Museum of Crete
Located in a restored mansion, the Historical Museum of Crete contains archaeological items spanning 1.700 years of history on the island, from early Christian times to the modern era. Considering the number of empires that captured Crete throughout time, there is a lot to see. Afterwards, check out the museum’s tranquil Garden Cafe.
5. Cretaquarium Thalassocosmos
Crete’s aquarium is considered to be one of the biggest aquariums in Europe with sixty tanks and 2.000 marine organisms. The most fascinating species of the Mediterranean Sea can be observed and admired here, like sand tiger sharks, flat lobsters, and sea turtles. The aquarium is located in the former American military base in Gournes, about 15 km from the city center, accessible by public bus.
6. Tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis
The famed and beloved Nikos Kazantzakis, author of many novels including Zorba the Greek, was laid to rest just outside the walls of his hometown, Heraklion. Excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church for his controversial writings on Jesus, he was not allowed to be buried in a cemetery when he died from leukemia in 1957. His tomb can be found near the Chania Gate, a minimalist stone structure with a cross over it and the words "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free" on the tombstone.
7. Religious Monuments
Heraklion is home to various religious structures with impressive architecture and rich history. The Agios Titos Church was originally Byzantine and was then taken over by the Catholics and Muslims until it remained Greek Orthodox since 1925. The Agios Minas Cathedral is one of the largest cathedrals in Greece and dedicated to the patron saint of Heraklion, Minas. The Basilica of St. Mark is an important Venetian monument and the current site of the Municipal Art Gallery, open to the public everyday.
Known as the fourth largest city in Greece, Heraklion is a crucial stop along a tour of Greece’s many island cities. There’s more to it than meets the eye; if you just explore it enough!