- Region: Crete
- Prefecture : Heraklion
- Municipality: Heraklion
- Population: 173.000
Heraklion or Iraklion the birthplace of El Greco and Nikos Kazantzakis can at first seem a nightmare, particularly if you arrive expecting to see a picturesque little island town.
You find yourself instead in the fifth largest city in Greece, it's ugly and modern, a maelstrom of traffic, concrete and dust. But behind this facade and - as with Athens - you can discover a vibrant working small metropolis with a great number of attractive features which do much to temper initial impressions. Stay long enough and you can even begin to like the place ...
Heraklion or Iraklion has undergone a significant makeover in recent years - this is a result of being chosen as an Olympic city ...partly bu mostly because of the city's increasing prosperity. Infrastructure works have included redevelopment of the waterfront ( have a nice walk there ), improved roads and a city bypass to ease traffic congestion and maybe the most important much of the historic centre has been turned into pleasant pedestrian strips. Let's see how you could spent one or two days in Heraklion.
You have a day or two to spend in Heraklion, the main city and key business centre of Crete. The city is also a major cruise destination. Beyond the crazed progress of moped riders, noisy scooters and a battered, out-of-control look to the city, there is much to do and plenty of things worth seeing.
Apart from shopping and the designer clothes on Daedalou Street ("DaydAloo"), there are many small shops off all the main streets which sell those local products which normally are used when you live in Crete. Just have a look along 1866 Street and more so its side streets - you may find a curio distinctly different from more typical "gifts" offered to visitors in gift shops.
The famous tourist attraction, the Saturday market that was by the port, an almost kilometre long display of fruit and vegetables and sundry items - has now sadly moved to an obscure suburb.This is a brief guide to some of the well known and some less well known enjoyments and rewards of Heraklion:
The enormous Archaeological Museum (converted from an old power station well before the idea of using the old Battersea power station in London as an art gallery) on one corner of the central Eleftherias Square, collects together many of the finds from Knossos, Archanes, Phaestos, Zakros and many other archeological sites in Crete.
The museum spans a period starting several thousand years ago, through the Minoan, post-Minoan and later periods. Popular highlights include the Phaestos disc, classic Hellenic and Roman sculptures, frescoes, jewelery, wall-paintings and pottery. A selection of guide books is available at the museum shop - best to buy one to gain some insight into the items that make up this substantial collection.
It's a good idea to start early in the morning or late in the day during the summer months to avoid a rush-hour style of viewing - this is a very popular destination.
Open: every day 08.00 to 19.30 summer, 08.30 to 17.00 winter. Monday opening is from 12.00. December to Ferbuary closing time is 15.00. Closed on public Holidays. Tel: 2810-279086, 279087. Admission: 6.00 euros. Combined museum and Knossos ticket: 10.00 euros.
Important Note: All museum surrounds and the original museum building are being completely rebuilt. The date of completion is undetermined. A temporary, partial exhibition (of 400 exhibits) is open at a new annex behind the museum. The full exhibition will be displayed again when works have been completed.
History Museum on Sophocleus Venizelou. Easy way to find it is to walk to the bottom of 25th August and at the end, turn left along the seafront - it's about half a kilometre along on your left (some nice cafes and tavernas have opened in the square beside it). Open: 09.00 to 15.00 every day, except Saturday 09.00-14.00, Sunday closed. Tel: 2810-283219.
The Battle of Crete Museum. Walk down the side of the Archaeological museum on Hatzidaki and at the end, where it meets Bofor is this small but informative gem. Open: 09.00 to 15.00 every day except Saturday & Sunday. Free entrance. Tel: 2810-346554.
The Venetian Loggia on 25th August Street ("Avgoostoo Eekosi Penday"), 50 metres down the street from "Lion Square" (Morosini or Venizelos Square on maps) on the right, is now the city hall of Heraklion. You can walk in a take a quick look.
If you take the left turn instead (off 25th August) you enter Theotokopoulou or El Greco square where the OTE (Otay) buildings house public telephone and mobile facilities. Also if you are in need of a supermarket you will find Halkiadakis on the next side of this square.
The Municipal Gallery and Basilica of St. Mark has an ever-changing variety of exhibitions from early photographs of Crete, to specific works of art - have a look to see if there is a current exhibition. Opposite "Lion Square".
The Koules Venetian Fortress on the harbour walls, built in the early 1500's. Both for the impressive stone mass of its fortification and unfathomably solid walls, the pleasure of views from its turret and roof, restored interior and exterior reliefs of the Lion of St. Mark. Open: 09.00 to 15.00. From 1 July to 31 October, open: 08.00 to 19.30. (We find that in reality their opening times seem rather unpredictable!) Tel: 2810-246211 Admission: 1.50 euros.
The Natural History Museum of Crete. 10 minutes walk along the sea front from the bottom of 25th of August street - turn left as you face the sea (same direction as for the History Museum). The museum is in the well-converted old electricity power plant for Heraklion. Has wonderful displays and good descriptive details about the flora and fauna, the wildlife, of Crete. An exciting feature is the "experience an earthquake" platform in the basement of the museum.
It's a thrill for kids and educational for adults. There is also a not-to-be-missed childrens' area with caves and all sorts of play/learning materials (it's actually even fun for adults!). You might happily spend 1-2 hours here. Admission: 5.00 euros adults, 3.00 euros children. Tel: 2810-282740. http://www.nhmc.uoc.gr
Another great place to visit with your children: the new Aquarium ("CretAquarium" or "Thalassocosmos"). A 5000 square metre structure, it is both a research centre (housing the Institute of Marine Biology & Genetics and the Institute of Oceanography) and a fun, impressive aquarium with 32 tanks (representing interesting underwater Cretan sea landscapes) and 50 viewing points. 2500 organisms of 200 Mediterranean marine species, from hunter sharks to lobsters, to colourful jellyfish.
Touch screens provide information in 5 languages. 15 km east of Heraklion, within what was the American base of Gournes (there are buses to it from the centre of town). Open 365 days/year (including public holidays), Monday to Sunday: 09:00-21:00 (1 May to 15 October) and 10:00-17:30 (16 October to 30 April). Admission: 8.00 euros adults, 6.00 euros 5-17 year olds & students. Children under 5 years: free. Personal audio guide: 1.00 euro. Parking, cafe/restaurant with sea view, souvenir shop. Tel: 2810-337788, 2810-337888. http://www.cretaquarium.gr
The Palace of Knossos. 20-25 minutes from the centre of Heraklion. For many this is a must see, and for some a major reason to visit Crete. While you are in or near Heraklion it makes sense to visit this well-restored and sprawling work of Arthur Evans who spent much of his life, and his inherited fortune to make Knossos what is is today.
A Minoan palace - this is is the closest you can get to piecing together the threads of the story of the Minoan civilisation through the structures the Minoans lived in. Many publications about Knossos are available both in bookshops in Heraklion and at the gift shop there. Knossos also has guides who will, for a fee, enlighten your visit with details and history and provide a more rewarding visit. There is a cafe just after entering the gate, and several cafes and tavernas to eat in on the Knossos road just outside the gates.
You could spend anywhere from 1 - 3 hours and more here, depending on your interest in archaeology. To get there by bus go to Bus station A near the harbour. At the bus station look for the KNOSSOS ticket office [see more info about bus stations]. By car or taxi it is a 15-20 minute ride. Open: every day 08.00 to 19.30 (to 15.00 in the winter). Tel: 2810-231940. Admission: 6.00 euros. Combined Knossos and Heraklion Archaeological museum ticket: 10.00 euros. Sundays (November to end of March) free for all!
The recently reconstructed underground Gate through the city walls, accessible from the central section of Eleftherias square. One of the best known and most important for direction finding, streets in Heraklion is 25th of August street, which has now been repaved as a pedestrian street. There is very limited car access (it is quite probable that we will see more cafes spilling onto the street now cars are forced to take second place).
On the walk down 25th August Street from Dedalou to the sea (before most of the shops are turned over to car rental offices) is the church of Agios Titos, a beautiful building, Byzantine in origin then rebuilt in the 16th century by the Venetians. The building was taken over by the Turks who converted it into a mosque and rebuilt it after the 1856 earthquake. It was renovated and re-consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Church in 1925. Fronted by a spacious square which accommodates a municipally run outdoor restaurant in the summer months and the interesting Pagopoieion restaurant/cafe/bar by the side of the church.
The church of Agia Ekaterini Sinaites - now a theological museum, is on the edge of the square surrounding the much larger and better known Agios Minas. It has some very fine Byzantine icons. (see Heraklion photo album). Monday-Friday: 10.00-13.00, admission: 1.50 euros.
See a movie at the Vincenzo Kornaros cinema with its wonderfully carved-wood-paneled interiors (theatre 1) on Malikouti Street. Tel: 2810-243921. Or, 5 minutes away by taxi, the latest movie palace has several screens, adding to your viewing choices.
Curiosity, the different, interesting cafes, a bite to eat and more:
For a quick snack or fresh croissant, walk round Eleftherias square, past the Astoria hotel and just ahead of you, across Idomeneos street, is Little Paris (Mikro Parisi), a sandwich shop for those on the run. To see the Cafe section on Korai (you could call it the "mega-socializing "centre) of Heraklion, walk down the passageway on Deadalou between the jewelry shop Gallery Deadalou and (a few doors up) Aspis Bank.
Cafes of elaborate decor, with as many tables and chairs as can be crammed outside. You can find these cafes by the dominant sound of their "dance-thump" music which is transmitted some large distance and if it provides the urge to dance, hardly useful, as people come here to sit and talk (or shout ) to each other over the high output sound levels.
All the cafes have similar pricing at the higher end of the coffee drinking scale! Just sample the atmosphere!
Back down Deadalou Street to 25th August - the street where travel agents and car rental companies abound at the port end, but at this point you find "Lion Square" - see the Morozini fountain and to your left two cafes that specialize in Bhougatsa ("Boogatsa"), a thin flaky pastry filled with a choice of cheese or sweet cream. Both versions can be ordered with ("may") or without ( "horeese"), honey ("mellee"). Perhaps surprisingly, I'd recommend having even the cheese versions, with honey - delicious! Try it! In the early mornings, many who arrive on the ferries which dock at 5 and 6 o'clock, head straight here for their welcoming Bhougatsa.
Walking past all the bhougatsa-serving cafes on Lion square, you come to Handakos street, also pedestrian-friendly, with many unique small shops - a good place for gift hunting - there are also attractively themed and decorated cafes. The street goes all the way down to the sea, passing the Road and Planet map and book shops, and near the bottom at No71, is Heraklion's Mexican restaurant, in case burritos and tacos beckon.
Just down from Lion square, off 25th August street is Theotokopoulou (El Greco) square and mini-park, where cafes now extend their outdoor seating into the pedestrianized area. This has become another "pocket" for cafe-goers. The main OTE (phone company) building is also on this square - you can make phone calls and send faxes.
For something different, but still on the cafe trail, in an old structure on the first floor - Cafe Veneto has tall opening windows each secluding a table for two to four people, with views over the harbour and Venetian Fortress. Good service, coffee and drinks and rather delicious appetizer/snacks. Price is similar to the cafe section cafes, but well worth it. There is also an outdoor terrace. Generally open from 10.30 a.m. until the early hours of the morning. Tel: 2810-223 686. Epimenidou Street (further down 25th August - toward the sea - turn right on Epimenidou street (which is immediately before the also-interesting Minoan shipping lines building on its corner - behind which is Heraklion's slab-like catholic church), it's on your left in 200 metres.
By the sea front: there are several cafes and restaurants, mostly of the "touristy" variety. But to sit by the sea, with the fortress in view may well be worthwhile. You will also see Heraklion city's commendable effort to improve the waterfront, which is now accessible, paved - even has a new square and fountain! This renewed area stretches from the marina (at the bottom of 25th of August street) going west in the direction of the Olympic Stadium and Ammoudara beach area.
Good view points. For a different point of view, to see the whole of Heraklion beneath your feet, the best views are from the roof terraces of the Astoria Hotel (on Eleftherias Square) and the Atlantis Hotel. The Astoria sometimes has a bar open up there and a swimming pool for guests.At the Atlantis the view is not complimented by the availability of refreshments! In both cases its well worth the ride up in the lift!
Kafeneia (traditional cafes where coffee is 50% and conversation the other 50% of the event). A great place of traditional nature but newer finish, is "Siga-siga" a kafeneio - it's on Minotavrou just off Theotokopoulou square.
Food is also available, largely Meze - appetizers, all very good, recommendation is to try many and share. Another kafeneio off Kalokerinou - this street runs west from the top end of 25th August Street, walk a couple of hundred metres/yards until you see a shop called "Bahamas" (it is opposite No18 Kalokerinou, near Goody's) on the left and take the small left turn, at the end of this short street you walk up to a Cafe which serves coffee, beer and some good Meze. It's popular, has an art-scene atmosphere (but probably is not part of any scene!) and is reasonably priced. A few steps down the narrow walkway on the left is another nice place called "Kabiambi"
Note that when you visit a simple, good old traditional, Kafeneio you will generally pay 1.00 to 1.50 euros for a Greek coffee ("Elliniko") - cappuccinos and frappes in the smart or trendy cafes will cost from 2.50 to 4.00 euros.
We recommend for value and good food, eating at the Amateur Fisherman's Association Restaurant. This is at the port, behind the old bus station (and opposite bus station A). It is at the base of a building on the edge of the water, that looks like a gigantic concrete slab - with a virtually washed-away mural on the side. The menu is in several languages. You may not receive many smiles when eating here, but the fresh fish is guaranteed to make you smile...
Next door is the incrementally smarter and slightly pricier Yacht club of Heraklion restaurant. Both are very good and highly popular locally.
Odos Egeou (or Odos Aigaiou - "Aegean street"). Delicious and creative seafood dishes and fresh fish. This is the premier exotic fish restaurant and the most stylish in Heraklion. Great relaxing views across the harbour, as the occasional ship glides into port. Seafood salads are all good, grilled baby kalamari with lemon is splendid. Ask for the day's fresh catch. The restaurant is elevated above the port frontage road, 3 minutes east of the centre.
For a special meal in a wonderful terrace garden or the antique interior dining area, which has the appearance of a period house, Loukoulos on Korai (by all the Cafe Section cafes) is very good. Loukoulos has interesting mediterranean dishes with a Greek flavour and wonderful eye-appealing salads. Opposite Loukoulos, is the Peri Orexeos Cretan traditional cuisine small restaurant.
Dish Bar at St.Titos square (beside the big church on 25th August street) offers Mediterranean and Cretan cuisine, wonderful crisp salads and good wines. Delightful decor inside. Outside seating available in the lovely square (candle-lit and very romantic at night). One of the few places to eat and have a drink where even the toilets deserve mention as a work of art (a Must visit!).
How to get there
By air : Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport located about 5km east of the city centre. The airport has a bank, an ATM, a duty-free shop and a cafe bar.
By Boat: The ferry port is 500m to east of the koules fortress and old harbour. Minoan, Anek and Blue Star all operate daily (two) ferries from Iraklio to Pireaus. Anek also has a weekly service to Karpathos, Kasos, Milos, Rhodes and Santorini. Hellenic Seaways goes to Mykonos, Paros, Santorini daily. The fastest boat to Santorini is operated by Sea Jets. You could reserve your tickest here XXX
Taxis: Apart from waving down a cab, there are taxi stands scattered around Heraklion. Three useful ones are Eleftherias Square opposite the outdoor cafes, on 25th August below & almost-opposite Lion square and at bus station A (see below). Radio taxi tel: 2810-210102, 210146.
Buses: There are THREE operating bus stations. (see map) Rethymno and Chania station is now included within bus station A below. Bus station A (tel: 2810-245019, 245020) is across the road from the port, near the marina. For: Chania, Rethymno and connections to Imbros, Sfakia, Kastelli and other places in west and south-west Crete, and destinations on the north coast east of Heraklion (including Hersonissos, Archanes, Sitia, Agios Nikolaos, Lassithi Plateau).
Next to it is the bus station for local, city and Knossos buses (tel: 2810-220755, 226065). Bus station B (tel: 2810-255965) at Hanioporta (part of the old city walls, at the beginning of 62 Martyrs street). For all other destinations - this means Anogia, Rogdia, Agia Gallini, Mires, Matala, Phaestos, Gortyn and places in between. See bus schedules to/from Heraklion. (Phones: see Calling Crete) And if you are ready to leave Heraklion, you can check Flights to/from Heraklion and Ferries to/from Heraklion. Or, if you want to get a better idea of the place, see the Heraklion photo album.
Where To Stay
We know some good hotels for you to stay in. However, there is a total lack of decent economical, medium price hotels or B&B's in Heraklion. When one day someone upgrades their small hotel, pension or B&B we will mention it here. Meanwhile here's what we suggest.
Heraklion (central): Lato Hotel a most desirable and stylish place to stay in Heraklion. Family-owned, designer hotel, with rotating displays of contemporary Greek art in rooms and public areas. Conveniently located between the Venetian Koules Fortress and Eleftherias Square. Most of its rooms have direct, remarkable view of the fortress, harbour and Dia island across the sea. Balconies or terraces, air-conditioning/heating , double-glazing, local internet access provided in every room, and satellite TV. The dining room serves breakfast and full meals and there is an elegant and comfortable bar for drinks and coffees. Workout room, steam room and Jacuzzi, roof terrace for guests. Open year round.
Around Heraklion (within 25 Kilometres /15 miles): Villa Kerasia is a delightful 8-room country inn, near Venerato (22 km from Heraklion). A beautiful restored farmhouse, standing on the hillside, with a pool and sweeping views to the valley below and sea in the distance. Amongst vineyards and orange groves, quiet, private, intimate - a find! Open year round.
Vergis Epavlis. 14 km from Heraklion, in Agios Myronas village, 4 extravagantly luxurious suites. With grand design themes and furnishings. Easy access to Heraklion and its airport - a world apart in atmosphere. Idyllic and "over-the-top" romantic, but also "business-friendly" (a laptop in each suite). Magnificent countryside views, heated swimming pool, delicious options for meals. Open year round.
Asion Lithos. In Kato Asites village, 32 km (35-45 minutes drive) from Heraklion. 2 traditional solid stone houses, each 4 bedrooms with large shared pool, fine views. Charming inland village, beautiful countryside, balconies, scenic routes to Zaros, Phaestos and North & South coasts. Open year round.
In Agia Pelagia, Hyperion Villas. Two neighbouring villas with spectacular sea views, overlooking Agia Pelagia beach. Each with a small pool and every room with a fantastic view. Two bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, indoor pool bar, barbecue. Wonderful balconies and terraces to enjoy the views from. Open year round.
Paradise Island Villas - an estate of 12 villas with pools in Anissaras (23 km east of Heraklion). Modern decor, easy access to town, hotel facilites (extra pools, restaurant, cafe-bar).
Agioklima in Petrokefalo, close to Heraklion (15 km), up in the hills - a really old village and a restored traditional house in 3 units, with great views. Open year round.
Fabrica House in Anopolis, traditional stone village house with character, views, near waterpark and the sea in Kokkini Hani or Hersonissos. Open year round.
Kalimera Archanes, three village houses, with warm charm, in the centre of Archanes (Arhanes). Near the small archaeological museum, with a walled garden, two-storey maisonette-style houses, with 1 or 3 bedrooms, living room with fireplace and well equipped kitchens. Open year round.
Villa Creta in Malades (near Profitis Elias). Two totally secluded big houses in hillside estate, with pools and picture windows.
Around Heraklion (By car - sometimes by bus!)
You are in luck if you'd like to get out of Heraklion (realistically you need a car, taxi or motorized wheels if you only have a day). Some very good and interesting places are nearby.
Rogdia has a panoramic view, really one of the best, of Heraklion and a lot to see besides. It's a chance to get a bit closer to the more traditional face of Crete and it's 20-30 minutes away.
Archanes has won the European award as having best long term plan for a restored village and second best restoration in Europe (there you are!). It has re-paved streets and walkways, proudly presented courtyards and balconies with beautiful flower arrangements. Also interesting archaeological sites in and outside this sizeable village. Attractive Kafeneia and tavernas. A 25-30 minute drive from the centre of Heraklion.
Achlada much of Achlada is filled with old buildings and ruins, but there are also wonderfully restored houses, two delightful small Kafeneia in the old centre and two at the roadside by the main church above the village. The views are magnificent. On the way up to Achlada from the National Road be sure to look out for the sign to the Old Fountain, a great place to sit and admire the views over the Agia Pelagia peninsula and beyond to Dia island. The old fountain, well-worn and carved with insignia and dates, still gurgles fresh water. About 25 minutes from the centre of Heraklion by car - west on the National Road and the same turn left as to Agia Pelagia (the second turn thus sign-posted after you've passed the signed right turn to Made/Athina Palace).
Karteros a few kilometres from the airport on the Old national road, east of Heraklion, you pass a BP petrol station selling large earthenware pots and if you look carefully a right turn is sign-posted (bearing the British Horse Society logo) to the Riding centre of Crete. Here you can enjoy horse or pony rides, horse and wagon tours along the nearby canyon and at certain times, wonderful traditional Cretan meals - food is cooked in a traditional oven. Also, at certain times you will see Raki (Tsikoudia), which is the Cretan equivalent of Grappa, being made. Tel: 2810-380 244. Best to telephone for times and availability.
Amoudara (or Ammoudara) west of Heraklion is home to a long and popular stretch of sandy beach and the luxurious Candia Maris hotel among others of varying standards. Restaurants, tavernas, cafes, music bars, gift and jewelry shops are available along the road, with some beach-side tavernas. You can continue from here by car to Rogdia. For movie fans, or those with the need for a big screen, there is the new 5-screen multiplex cinema "Technopolis", with cafe and fast-food offerings to quell the pangs of hunger after the excitement and drama fades. A bus to Amoudara can be taken outside the Astoria cinema (next to the Astoria hotel) on Eleftherias square. The tiny hut/kiosk there sells tickets and it's best to buy tickets for the return as well.
Made ("Mathvay") formerly part of Lygaria - let's give you a different view. Small and boasting one occasionally-open taverna, seasonally open mini market and a beach bar interestingly woven into the rocks on one side of the small bay (though this tends to play the cursed dance-thump music pleasing employees more than guests). Above the beach bar - where you can also eat, is the cliff-clinging Athina Palace hotel, with its several large swimming pools and a steep climb from most of its rooms (with expectedly fine views) to the entrance. 20 Minutes from the centre on the National Road, heading west, in the direction of Rethymno.
Banks open: 7.30 or 8.00 until 14.30 Monday to Friday Currency Converter & Euro guide Money can also be changed at the central post office (8.00 to 8.00 except Saturday, until 15.00 - closed Sunday), hotels and some places at Lion square or on 25th August. Numerous ATM machines take Visa (the most frequently available), MasterCard and other cash or credit cards. "Cash is king" in Greece - prices for many items can be lower if you pay cash and credit cards do not always receive an automatic welcome. Shops Open: 8.00 or 9.00 to 14.00 Monday to Saturday and 17.00 or 17.30 to 20.00/20.30 Tuesday, Thursday & Friday. Most shops are closed on Sunday - tourist shops (many on Daedalou street) are an exception from May until early October. In villages shops are open longer hours and often all day without a break, some also on Sundays.
Cafes and restaurants of course open much longer hours and most open on Sundays. On Sunday you can find many items available at street kiosks - the large ones are almost small convenience/drugstores (ask for what you need, they often have it hidden amongst the myriad items they sell).
There are always at least a few Pharmacies/Chemists open in Heraklion - each pharmacy has a notice in the window showing which are open out of normal hours (& where) - this works on a rota system (you way want to ask someone to help you interpret this!).
Some tourist information is provided at the re-instated EOT tourist office opposite the Archeological museum, on Xanthoulidou street. The opening hours are Monday to Saturday: 08:30-15:00.
Books about Crete, Maps and more: A great selection is available on Handakos street (the continuation of Lion square), across 25th August street from the smart shopping at Daedalos street: Road Publications shop (maps & guidebooks galore) is a little way down on the left and all the way down (at No73) is Planet bookstore, which is next to a Mexican restaurant. If you would like to buy your guides and maps before arriving in Crete, you can.
Foreign newspapers and magazines are available at Astrakianakis (look for the Parker pen sign!) which is 10 metres down from "Lion Square" on 25th August. Also, the useful Foto Express Film processing and camera shop on Eleftherias square, has a smaller selection of foreign newspapers and magazines. Foreign language general books - your language? - are best found at Planet bookstore mentioned above.