Situated on the north coast, Heraklion is the capital and largest city on the Greek island of Crete. It is a hugely popular travel destination. Fine buildings, culture, delicious food, natural beauty, welcoming people, and vibrant nightlife, are just a handful of the reasons why it is so well visited.
Once the home of Europe’s oldest civilization, the Minoans, who lived on the island between 2700BC and 1450BC, the city is packed with history and archaeological ruins. But Heraklion perfectly balances its ancient identity and traditional customs with a modern and energetic vibe.
Let’s dive into the best things to do in Heraklion, Crete.
- 1 Visit Koules Fortress
- 2 Adventure in Turquoise Water
- 3 Explore the Colorful, Vibrant Markets
- 4 Shop Until You Drop
- 5 Soak in Some Sun at the Gorgeous Beaches
- 6 Learn about Crete’s History
- 7 Admire the Ancient Architecture
- 8 Go Cafe and Bar-hopping
- 9 Discover a Whole New World Underwater
- 10 Sail the Mediterranean Seas
- 11 Participate in Some Land Adventures
- 12 Soar through the Cretan Skies
- 13 Eat All You Can
- 14 Discover the wineries in Heraklion
- 15 Where to Stay in Heraklion
Visit Koules Fortress
Guarding the entrance to the old port is the formidable and impressive structure of Koules Fortress that was built by the Republic of Venice in the 16th Century.
Designed for defense, some parts of the walls are nearly 9m thick. The building is in good condition, and you should climb up to the battlements for extraordinary views over the city and harbor.
Closed on Mondays, Koules Fortress is open from 8.00 am until 3.00 pm during the winter and 8.00 am until 8.00 pm in the summer. The entrance fee is just €2. There are also art exhibitions, cultural activities, and music concerts often held here throughout the summer.
Adventure in Turquoise Water
Are you up for some action on the water? A jet ski safari and snorkeling tour awaits!
Race through the beautiful waters around Heraklion, and stop in remote beaches such as Tripiti, Panagia, or Thiseas for a swim or snorkel. This is a fun way to explore, and the activity even includes photography so that you’ll never forget this awesome day.
Explore the Colorful, Vibrant Markets
Wander around the bazaars of Heraklion and take in the rich colors, tantalizing smells, and intense flavors.
The Pateles open market is a melting pot of Heraklion society and sells everything from spices to books to leather. It’s loud and lively chaos is a must-have experience when visiting the capital of Crete, and it is frequented by long-term travelers and tourists alike.
There are a number of other popular markets dotted all over the city. Another great option is the fish market on 1866 street.
Drop into the nearby, highly spirited taverns to try the fresh catch of the day. Of course, wash down your meal with the traditional and potent aniseed-flavored drink of ouzo -you have to try it once!
Shop Until You Drop
Filled with stylish flagship stores, Daedalou Street, which runs between Lions Square and Eleftherias Square is the epicenter of Heraklion designer shopping.
Famous for unusual jewelry designs and beautiful folk art, the side streets all around this area are the best spots in Crete to pick up beautiful and authentic souvenirs.
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Soak in Some Sun at the Gorgeous Beaches
To the east of the city are the vast golden sands of Kateros, Florida, and Amnissos beaches. They are stunning! This area is home to some of the best beaches in Greece. The water is really clear, calm, and great for swimming.
To the south of Heraklion is the beautiful and famous Matala beach with the natural caves, notoriously home to a community of backpacking hippies in the 1960s which included Joni Mitchell.
Learn about Crete’s History
There are a number of fabulous museums in Heraklion if you are interested in learning more about Crete’s past.
The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion houses an expansive collection of Minoan artifacts and the admission fee is €10. If you are planning to visit here and the ancient Palace of Knossos, buy a combined ticket for the two at €16 which is valid for 3 days.
The Historical Museum of Crete runs through the complete history of Cretan society up to modern-day. The Natural Museum of Crete focuses more on the natural environment and is unusually based in an old electricity station with an earthquake simulator, which is an interesting (if not slightly disturbing) experience.
Admire the Ancient Architecture
The opportunity to visit the awe-inspiring Palace of Knossos is often the reason that many tourists choose Heraklion as a travel destination. The grand and complex building is a must for anyone interested in Ancient Greek history.
The Palace of Phaestos is another nearby Minoan palace. It is, however, more of ruins rather than a full structure, but the views from the site are incredible.
Go Cafe and Bar-hopping
Cafe lovers rejoice: there are so many cute and inviting cafes dotted all over the city!
Try a few around the picturesque squares and along the port to find your favorite. The coffee in Heraklion is phenomenal and the tables spilling onto the pretty streets are a perfect for a spot of people-watching, taking in the hustle and bustle of the city.
When the sun sets, it’s time for a taste of the nightlife. Heraklion has lots of cool bars with buzzing atmospheres for a great night out. They range from more international feels with vast cocktail and liquor selections, to more authentic Mediterranean dives with live Greek music and flowing ouzo.
The areas of Agios Titos Square, Lions Square, and Korai Street are the best places to start. Most venues are open pretty late.
Discover a Whole New World Underwater
If you’ve always wanted to try diving, why not do it in Heraklion? You can get a taste of diving in this half-day diving program suited for beginners.
After a short theory lesson on the basics of diving, you’ll get a hands-on diving experience, with an instructor always by your side. With a ratio of 3 instructors to 4 guests, you can be assured that safety is the top priority during your underwater excursion.
With guidance from the instructors, you’ll then get to experience a 45-minute dive of up 8 meters! You’ll get a closer look at the marine life in the Mediterranean sea; maybe you’ll even spot barracudas or dolphins if you’re lucky!
And if you get hooked by the underwater life, you can take other dives with the company within 14 days without having to re-do the theory lesson. Win-win!
If you’re already certified, there are some amazing adventure dives in the area.
Sail the Mediterranean Seas
Want less action, more relaxation? Indulge in a half-day cruise from Heraklion to Dia Island!
You’ll get an intimate sailing experience on an elegant sailing boat, which includes a delicious Mediterranean meal. Once the boat drops anchor at Dia Island, you can spend some time relaxing on the boat, swimming, or snorkeling.
What an idyllic way to spend an afternoon!
Participate in Some Land Adventures
The vast and stunning natural landscapes of Crete island mean there are also lots of hiking options around Heraklion, ranging from independent single day ones to multi-day guided treks. If you’re a hiker, definitely don’t forget your walking boots here.
Impressive gorges, remote villages, ancient sites, and secluded beaches are just some of the impressive sights you’ll see while exploring Heraklion on foot.
Soar through the Cretan Skies
Want to see Heraklion from a different vantage point? Take to the skies and get a bird’s eye view of the city!
After take-off from a mountain in Avdou, this tandem paragliding experience will have you on a smooth flight over Heraklion. You’ll get beautiful aerial views of the entire area including Minoan ruins and the stunning coastline.
After 30 to 40 minutes in the air, you’ll land safely on the beach, ready for a dip in the ocean.
Eat All You Can
Eating out is a pleasurable and leisurely national pastime in Greece.
Cretan cuisine is traditionally Greek where moussaka and mezze of stuffed vine leaves, tzatziki dip, and meatballs abound. But you’ll also find lots of delicious fresh seafood, grilled lamb and plenty of cheese.
Oh my, the cheese! Be sure to eat your fill of the flaky pastries filled with cheese and honey at the Bhougatsa Cafes in Lion Square.
If you want to learn more about food- why not take a cooking class in Crete? It’s the ultimate travel souvenir!
Discover the wineries in Heraklion
Did you know that Crete has been producing wine since Minoan times? Discover their ancient tradition of wine-making on a full-day wine tour.
With a local guide, you’ll discover two of the top wineries in the area, where you’ll get a tour and learn more about the wine-making process. Along the way, you’ll savor 15 (yes, 15!) different Cretan wines. To round off the experience, you’ll enjoy a tasty Cretan meal at a local establishment and another half bottle of wine.
Wine lovers, this is an indulgent experience not to be missed!
Where to Stay in Heraklion
Finding value-for-money accommodation in a city as big as Heraklion can be a bit of a challenge.
Here are a few suggestions on where to stay in Heraklion, Greece.
Budget Hotels in Heraklion
Sofia’s House: This family-run hotel is a favorite for its clean, modern rooms and signature customer service. The hostel also serves really good breakfast, and there’s also a pool for you to take a dip on a hot day. You can also head out to the beach, which is 5 minutes away. Heraklion and the main airport are just under 15 minutes away by car.
Private House Heraklion: If you like to stay close to the airport, this apartment is a great option for you. The apartment is located on the main road, which is lined with bakeries, supermarkets, and taverns. Families appreciate the fact the apartment is spacious and comfortable and has a lot of toys to keep the kids occupied.
Mid-Range Hotels in Heraklion
Heraklion Countryside House: Past guests think this is one of the best value-for-money properties near Heraklio Town. This minimalist, self-sufficient apartment comes with a patio and an outdoor area perfect for a barbecue party. You may need to rent a car to reach this place, but it’s accessible to popular attractions and the airport.
To compare prices and read reviews, check: Booking.com
Lato Boutique Hotel: Situated right by the harbor, this boutique hotel has everything you need and more, including a rooftop bar with views of Heraklion’s Venetian style fortress. Apart from comfortable rooms, guests can also enjoy buffet Western and local style breakfasts every day.
Luxury Hotels in Heraklion
Galaxy Iraklio Hotel: If you’re looking for a dash of luxury, this 5-star hotel is a great option, featuring 2 gourmet restaurants along with a wellness center. The rooms are incredibly comfortable and well-designed, and they offer 24-hour room service.
Olive Green Hotel: This hotel is a great pick if you’re looking for something modern, stylish, yet comfortable. Centrally located, this hotel is right in the middle of the main shopping district and the rest of Heraklion’s main attractions.
There you go! Hopefully, this list has helped you put together the perfect itinerary for your stay in Heraklion, Crete.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Heraklion and if you have any of your own tips for the best things to do there.
Additional content contributed by Liza S.
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