Whether visiting Heraklion for just a day or longer Crete's largest metropolitan area has a lot to offer culturally, historically and with vibrancy. We've used our experience of the city to capture what we feel are the sights and attractions of the city that we'd recommend you take the time to check out. We hope you enjoy our guide on what to seek out in Heraklion and we hope that our tips encourage you to take a break from the beach and seek out Crete's capital.
Heraklion Archaelogical Museum. Whether you visit Knossos, The Palace of Phaistos, Malia or beyond almost all of the major historical artefacts discovered at these sites and more are housed in the Heraklion Archaelogical Museum. Be it the Phaistos disk, the bulls head, double axes, bee pendant or the most famous Minoan frescoes there are all here within the walls of this incredible museum. And it not just Minoan artefacts you can find here as the museum takes you through all the ancient eras of the island including classical Greek and even Roman finds. To fit the museum into just one day in the city is a tricky one as you'll find at least half of your day gone in the museum alone so it might be worth putting a separate half day aside for what is one of the most significant museums in Greece.
Heraklion Archaelogical Museum can be found on the edge of Eleftherias (Freedom) Square on Stefanou Xanthoudidou Street. There's no parking on the immediate site so best to look to park a bit further out either down the other side of the walls from the museum or on the opposite side of Freedom Square.
Liontaria / Lions Square & 25th August Street. A short walk around Eleftherias (Freedom) Square and along the newly pedestrianised Dikeosinis Street will bring you to The Lions Square on the right. Officially called Eleftheriou Venizelou Square everyone locally knows it as The Lions Square because of the Venetian Morosini Fountain that dominates this lovely little plaza. The Morosini Fountain was built in 1628 by General Morosini during Venetian rule and the round stone built structure features four lions and from their mouths water spouts hence the square's name and fame. This is 'Heraklion central' and around the square's perimeter sit some pleasant tree shaded cafes and if you want to enjoy a local delicacy then to the south side of the square there are a couple of little cafes that specialise in Bougatsa. This delicious filo pastry is either filled with cream or cheese and if the fancy takes you can even have half and half! These little cafes date back around 100 years and offer the perfect shady spot to take a drink with a delicious treat and watch the tourists have photos around the fountain.
Heading north toward the sea with the Lion's Sqaure to your left next on your right will be The Municipal Art Gallery that often has fascinating exhibitions within it that change over time. However the building is not only notable for the displays as it is one of the most historic buildings in the city built by the Venetians originally in 1239 as the Saint Marcos Basilica. Earthquake meant it was re-built in 1303 and the Turkish converted it into an Islamic Temple in 1669. The building is bathed in history which adds to the atmosphere of the gallery.
Continuing North the Lions Square comes to an end and naturally flows toward the sea and the old port via 25th August Street. As you pass the cafes and restaurants that line the first rows of August Street unmistakable before you will be The Loggia. Built in 1620 during Venetian rule by Morozini the Loggia was a place for noblemen to gather and discuss local economic and social issues and that theme continues to this day as the building serves as the city's town hall. It's arches and inner arcade make for an atmospheric open covered space and you'll find some busts of famous Cretans and of an evening often local performers busking playing music or dancing.
As 25th August Street continues downhill you begin to realise that this is the main thoroughfare into the centre from the city's ports and as such is populated not only with famous international stores such as H&M but also many tourist goods shops and travel agencies. As the cruise ships come in to port this is the street the tourists generally walk up to reach the city and a little further down to the right you will find The Agios Titos Church. The original church was built in 961 during the Byzantine era after Emperor Nicephorus Phokas liberated the island from the Arabs.
Later on during Turkish occupation the church was converted to a mosque but was destroyed in 1856 by an earthquake. Re built as an Ottoman Mosque by Athanasios Mousis the minaret was destroyed in 1920 as the last Ottoman's left the island. Since it's renovation in 1925 the church has operated as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and is a stunning piece of Cretan history that denotes the long occupational story of the island.
Continuing along 25th August Street you will pass department store 'Hondos Center' to your right and more cafes and tourist shops. The high and historic buildings that line the street offer a shady break from the city sun and the streets final destination beside the sea makes it a breezy thoroughfare with refreshing gusts of sea air. A little browsing and gift shopping later at the end of August Street you will reach the old port the Koules and the sea.
The Old Port / Koules: You may have ventured down 25th August Street or arrived at the old port from the cruise terminal but however you got here it's one of the most famous sites in Crete. The old Venetian harbour and it's fortress or 'koules' are a stunning site and there has been a port of some kind here since the Arab rulers put a sheltered harbour in place in the 9th century as an Eastern Mediterranean base. During the 900's the city of 'Chandax' (as it was then known) became fortified by the Byzantines and the port further developed and when the Venetians took control of the island of 'Candia' (as the Venetians called it) during the 1200's as vthey used the port as a base at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean for trading and are thought to have upgraded the port during the 1400's.
The Venetian Arsenals can still be seen behind the new road that has been installed to take more modern transport around the harbour and despite the old port being altered a little for modern use you still very much get the flavour of old times.
Beyond the harbour lies the fortress or 'Koules' as the locals call it. The Koules was built by the Venetians in the 1500's to offer protection to what was the most important Venetian trading port to the Eastern Mediterranean. Castello a Mare or Fort in the Sea (as the Venetians called it) was armed with over 40 cannons during Venetian Rule and you can visit and go inside today and see some of the remnants of the weaponry and fortification as the koules is still in great condition and complete with famous Venetian insignia.
During the 21 year long Siege of Candia the fort was taken by the Ottomans in 1669 and more recently was used in the film 'El Greco' a multi broadcaster biopic about Cretan painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos.
As you stroll around the old port toward the Koules you will notice that the harbour is filled with fishing and pleasure boats and just at the entrance to the port wall there is a small fish market that sells the catch from the port. Reaching the Koules if you'd rather take a walk than explore the fortress the new port wall stretches over 1km beyond the castle and is a peaceful walk used by many a local as an morning stroll or evening dog walk or for a run. Whilst attached to the heart of the city the port wall feels somewhat serene and quieter than the busy town life and if you are lucky you might catch one of the large ferries coming into port from Athens or a huge cruise ship mooring for the passengers to take in the city sights.
At the port itself you'll find 'The Marina' a cafe/bar/restaurant with pleasant outside seating with views of the old harbour. The cafe has been run by the local council for many years but I believe is due to be sold to private ownership soon and comes with a small kids indoor soft play area to get a welcome break from the little ones whilst you enjoy a cool drink. You wont find a full menu at The Marina but they do offer plates or meze along with pizza and snacks.
A walk East beyond the old port will take you past the harbour masters offices with it's tug boats and port police and toward the new port where the large ferries and cruise ships dock. It's harder these days to get up close to the ships as the security has been tightened but you can get close enough to take a look. It's not the prettiest part of Heraklion you'll come across but if you are an enthusiast of ships then it's worth a look.
Heraklion Bazaar / Market: 1866 Street is where you'll find Heraklion's bazaar or market every morning until around 2pm. At the end of Dikeosinis Street Street and opposite where you'd turn for the Lion's Square the bazaar is held on a narrow pedestrian street and is populated with tourist stalls selling t shirts and souvenirs along with jewellery shops, hats stands and cafes. Half way up there is a fish market to the right along with butchers & fruit and vegetable stalls. The name of the street 1866 refers to an important uprising of Cretans to overthrow Turkish rule and the street is shady with overhanging awnings that block out the city sun.
The bazaar is not the only one in Heraklion but the only daily market. There are large bazaars held all around the suburbs of Heraklion on different days of the weeks selling clothes, homewares, electrical goods and food. The largest of the weekly markets is the bazaar held on a Saturday morning on a large tarmac square off of Itanou Street. The easiest way to find this is to turn left from the port up Antistaseos Street pass Mcdonalds on your right keep going then take the 2nd major road on your left at the second set of traffic lights you meet. Go early to avoid a challenge finding a parking spot.
Back at 1866 Street if you started your stroll through the bazaar at Dikeosinis St then it will end at The Bembo Fountain in Kornarou Square. The Bembo Fountain was built around 1552 by Venetian Governor Gianmatteo Bembo and provided the first source of running water in the city. There's a Roman statue from the Ierapetra area within the fountain's make up along with Venetian family coats of arms.
Also in Kornarou Square is Turkish Sebil. Hatzi Ibrahim Agha constructed the fountain and it provided ice cold water to the city's inhabitants. At the top of the Bazaar in Kornarou Square is a taxi stand if you need a ride home.
Heraklion's Walls & Nikos Kazantzakis Grave: The fortifications of Heraklion are hugely impressive walls that serve a multitude of purposes today. First built in the middle ages they were completely rebuilt by the Venetians when they took control of the island and managed to withstand the siege of the city by the Ottomans for 21 years.
Still largely intact the walls are one of the best examples of Venetian fortification to be found anywhere in the world and construction of the Venetian walls commenced in 1462 and took over 100 years to complete. Walking the walls you soon realise why this was the case as they are enormous. You can walk around or on the walls in large parts which makes for a scenic view of the city centre.
After the Ottoman's took Candia (Heraklion) from the Venetians they repaired the walls and even when the Germans damaged the walls with bombing during the second world war they were repaired again. Despite some locals businessman urging for the walls to be demolished completely to make way for new buildings they remain intact and quite a site.
Within the walls and their expansive grounds you can find open air theatres, sports facilities and exhibitions inside the vaults found within their cavernous structure.
The walls arch around the city centre and include 7 huge bastions. In more recent times the walls have been explored internally with tunnels, rooms and more discovered and restored. Some of these have been opened to the pubic in the form of exhibition spaces or museums which open generally for temporary exhibits so check locally before you visit.
The most famous bastion within the city wall complex is the Martinegro Bastion largely because this is the site of the grave of famous author Nikos Kazantzakis.
Nikos Kazantzakis Grave / Martinegro Bastion: It's quite likely if you are visiting or have visited Crete that you will be aware of both the story/movie Zorba The Greek along with the famous Sirtaki Dance and if you are then you are also familiar with Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote the book Zorba The Greek.
Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Heraklion and wrote numerous books and publications in his unmistakable style challenging the mind and the Greek Orthodox Church whom he became embroiled in disagreements with over the years.
The writer was hugely travelled and studied law in Athens along with philosophical studies in France whilst spending 2 years travelling Greece then moving onto Paris, Berlin, Italy, Spain, Russia, Cyprus and Egypt where he spent time at Mt Sinai. Kazantzakis stayed in Czechoslovakia and Nice in France before purchasing a villa in Antibes nearby. Visits to Asia were also conducted and these travels form the basis of his understanding of culture, people and the world that formed such fascinating works of literature that stimulate the mind.
Kazantzakis resting place up on the bastion of the Heraklion Venetian walls is a beautiful peaceful lawn with shrubs and a simple stone tomb to the centre of the bastion with a wooden cross. On kazantzakis tomb is inscribed his phrase: "Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. Δε φοβάμαι τίποτα. Είμαι λέφτερος." or in English "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."
The Historical Museum of Crete: Situated along the coast road in the city about 1km to the West of the Venetian Port The Historical Museum of Crete is a place if you're in town for a couple of days or more I wouldn't miss.
Founded in 1953 by The Society of Cretan Historical Studies the museum takes you through collections relating to the art and history of Crete since the 4th Century AD and includes ceramics, sculptures, coins, jewellery, wall paintings, portable icons, ritual objects, manuscripts, heirlooms, weaving plus the reconstructed interior of a Cretan rural home and even Nikos Kazantzakis own study and library from his home in Antibes, France.
There are temporary exhibition rooms that bring even more to look at and I have always felt that this museum does a fantastic job of bringing alive it's exhibits and wonderfully showcasing the history of the island. A part of the museum is housed in a neoclassical building dating back to 1903 which is of historical importance to the city which adds even more character to your visit.
Lakkos: More of an 'alternative' and off the beaten track suggestion the district of Lakkos lies within the city walls of Heraklion and the story of the district is long and varied. Back around 1900 the Cretan State passed a decree to set up a concentration of brothels in the area. It's said that the British barracks nearby made for plenty of custom!?! The district is away from the busy bustling streets of the main centre toward the bottom of Kalokerinou Street to the left before you reach Chaniaporta. The 'Rebetiko' lifestyle of Lakkos (A Greek musical culture akin to Greek rock and roll) lead to the region becoming a micro society of artists, hashish, music and the decreed prostitution. Two world wars came and passed forming further the districts history (both legal and illegal) including the movement of the prostitute community closer to the centre of the city to serve the occupying Germans.
The population exchange related to the Greco-Turkish war brought a new demographic to Lakkos as peoples from Asia Minor settled in districts such as Lakkos and brought new ideas and culture with them.
Today Lakkos is still not the most aspirational district of Heraklion to reside in and it's narrow streets and small houses are still partly ruined and uninhabited but slowly the gentrification of Lakkos has begun and a walk around this district will find many murals painted on the disused buildings as part of 'The Lakkos Project' along with the green shoots of new cafes and restaurants. At the square in the centre of the district you will find the superb 'Kafeneio O Lakkos' a restaurant / bar / cafe that not only provides a great drink or some high quality local meze but in addition a fantastic atmosphere for an evening meal or tipple.
If you enjoy art and developing sub culture then Lakkos is a superb place for a stroll to absorb the growing community and even if that's not your bag the districts central Kafeneio is a great choice for an evening meal.
With our guide we hope we've inspired you to leave the beautiful beaches of Crete (if only for a day) and venture into the fascinating city of Heraklion. It has much to offer and the welcome is as warm as anywhere you'll find in Crete.
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© Simon Mcilvenna 2020