Things to do in Heraklion

Things to do in  Heraklion

Where old meets new

Crete’s capital of Heraklion is bustling and energetic, where the hubbub of contemporary life bumps up against thousands of years of history. To learn about its storied past, venture to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum (home to ancient Minoan treasures) and the ruins of the Palace of Knossos (associated with the Minotaur legend), before wandering in the Old Town and discovering the recently restored Koules Fortress on its harbor. The city isn’t just about sightseeing, though, and other top things to do in Heraklion include exploring the buzzing cafés, busy nightlife, and varied shopping.

Top 15 attractions in Heraklion

Plaka

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Built around the ruins of the ancient agora, Plaka is among the oldest residential areas in Athens and was considered the Turkish quarter during Ottoman rule. Much of it burned down during a fire in 1884, exposing many ancient sites below the neighborhood, and archaeological research has been carried out in the area ever since.More

Palace of Knossos

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Once the glorious capital of Minoan Crete and one of the most powerful cities in the eastern Mediterranean, ancient Knossos is a place steeped in legend. Today, it’s Crete’s largest and most important archaeological site, crowned by the hilltop Palace of Knossos—built around 2,000 BC—which reveals a fascinating history that stretches all the way back to the earliest European civilizations.More

Heraklion Archaeological Museum

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With artifacts covering some 5,000 years, from the Neolithic era (c. 7000 BC through to Roman times (c. 300 AD, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete is second only in size and importance to Athens’ National Archaeological Museum. It’s also widely regarded as one of the most important historical museums in Europe.More

Koules Fortress

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Built in the 13th century when Crete was under Venetian rule, Koules Fortress is known by many names. Sometimes called Rocca al Mare, or simply the Venetian Fortress, it was initially designed to protect Heraklion from invasion. Today it houses exhibits on the history of Heraklion.More

Samaria Gorge

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Samaria Gorge, in southwestern Crete, is one of Europe’s longest canyons. A popular hiking destination, its rugged river valley trail runs 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Xyloskalo in the White Mountains to he coastal village of Agia Roumeli. The gorge is part of Samaria Gorge National Park, which enjoys a seat along the Libyan Sea coast.More

Archanes

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Discover one of Crete’s most important archaeological sites during a visit to the ruins of Archanes. Along with learning about the area's history and seeing evidence of aqueducts, a reservoir, and a theater, you'll see more personal remnants, such as ancient musical instruments, pottery shards, and cooking pots, at this archaeological site and museum.More

Spinalonga

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The now-uninhabited island of Spinalonga (Kalydon) sits in the Elounda Gulf along Crete’s northeastern shore. During the 16th-century Venetian occupation, the invaders built a defensive fortress here protecting Mirabello Bay. Today visitors can tour the massive structure and the abandoned buildings that sit along its turreted walls.More

Rethymno (Rethimno)

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The third-largest settlement on the Greek island of Crete, the port town of Rethymno (Rethimno) has been occupied since the Late Minoan period. Its Venetian- and Ottoman-era old town—a knot of narrow, flower-bedecked lanes overlooked by a fortified Venetian castle—oozes history and character. A series of sandy beaches stretch out along the coastline to the east.More

Lions Square & Morosini Fountain

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Lions Square is a popular Heraklion meeting point. Here visitors cross paths with locals on their way to work, to meet friends, or go shopping. Although the official name is Eleftherios Venizelos Square (after the former prime minister), the area is known as Lions Square thanks to the four stone lions gracing the ornate Morosini fountain.More

CretAquarium (Thalassocosmos)

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CretAquarium (Thalassocosmos) takes visitors on a trip through the Mediterranean, from its seabeds to the coastal habitats of the Greek Islands. Visitors young and old come to take in a variety of sea life on display, everything from stingrays and octopus to jellyfish and clownfish.More

Acqua Plus Water Park

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Just a short drive from the beaches of Heraklion, Acqua Plus Water Park is the largest and most popular water park in Crete. With more than 50 different slides, games, and activities, the park has plenty to do for all ages and preferences, from daring water slides to a scenic lazy-river cruise.More

Chrissi Island

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Measuring just 4.35 miles (7 kilometers) long and 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) at its widest point, Chrissi Island, also known as Gaidouronisi, is small but undoubtedly lovely. This protected nature reserve off Crete’s south coast is blessed with pristine beaches, shallow snorkel-friendly waters, and swaths of old cedar forest.More

Malia

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Expand your knowledge about local history in Crete during a visit to Malia, once a thriving Minoan city with an impressive palace complex. The small site is home to excavations that reveal fascinating details, such as a luxurious bath, but Malia today is perhaps best known for the resorts and Ibiza-style nightlife of neighboring Malia town.More

Venetian Walls

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Go for a stroll along the 16th-century walls in Heraklion, the capital city of Crete, to get a sense of the island’s Venetian history. The walls were constructed during the time of Venetian rule over Crete, and they withstood a 21-year siege of the city by the Ottomans. Seven bastions and four gates make up the massive fortifications.More

Loggia

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Once a clubhouse for Venetian nobility, the 17th-century Palladian-style Loggia is now home to Heraklion Town Hall. Designed by Francesco Morosini, it is one of the best examples of Venetian architecture in the city. Visitors come to roam its covered walkway and courtyard.More

Top activities in Heraklion

Ecobike tour in historic Heraklion with Greek meze
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Ecobike tour in historic Heraklion with Greek meze

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4x4 self drive adventure

4x4 self drive adventure

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Heraklion Private Cretan Cooking Class at a Traditional Village
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Plateau of Lassithi and Caves

Plateau of Lassithi and Caves

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All about Heraklion

When to visit

Heraklion is a very popular summertime destination, thanks to its almost unbroken sunshine as well as its highs around 86°F (30°C). You can expect to encounter lots of fellow travelers in its Old Town and at major attractions, including the ruins of the Palace of Knossos. If you’re more sensitive to temperatures and crowds, spring and autumn provide a calmer and more temperate experience.

Getting around

Heraklion International Airport serves Crete’s capital, and it’s one of the busiest airports in Greece. Bus services and taxis link the airport with the city, and Heraklion itself is also served by numerous bus routes. Inter-city buses also connect the capital with other destinations like Chania. Taxis and car rentals offer the greatest flexibility, while guided tours make it easy to explore the region’s top attractions.

Traveler tips

If you’re looking to complement your trips to Heraklion’s ancient ruins with time spent on the beach, Matala is among the most celebrated stretches of sand on the island. It is, however, located roughly an hour-long drive from Heraklion, on the island’s south coast. For closer stretches of shoreline, look to Ammoudara Beach and Chelidoni Beach (also known as Palaiokastro Beach), both of which are just a short trip outside of the city.

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People Also Ask

What is Heraklion known for?

Crete’s capital and largest city, Heraklion forms part of the prefecture that bears its name. It’s best known for the island’s two star attractions—Heraklion Archaeological Museum, one of Greece’s oldest and best museums, and Palace of Knossos, the 4,000-year-old ruins where the mythical Minotaur is said to have roamed.

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Is there a lot to do in Heraklion?

Yes, Crete’s capital of Heraklion has plenty to offer, including a wealth of museums (most famously the Heraklion Archaeological Museum) and archaeological sites like the Palace of Knossos. There are also markets, restaurants, bars, clubs, and the Venetian Castello del Molo fortress. Dia Island is a popular day cruise.

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How many days do you need in Heraklion?

History buffs will want to spend several days in Heraklion. Besides Knossos and the museums, it’s a great base for visiting the ruins at Malia, Pyrgos, Gortyna, and Phaistos. Other travelers may be happy with two days: one for Knossos and the museum and one for city sights and wineries.

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Does Heraklion have a beach?

Yes, Heraklion sits on Crete’s north coast, and beaches within the city limits include sandy Ammoudara Beach. Heraklion is a port city, so most travelers will want to head out of town. Agia Pelagia Beach is an attractive sand beach, while many love the clear waters of pebbly Paleokastro.

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Is Heraklion better than Chania?

The two are different, with Heraklion better for history buffs and Chania better for beach bums. As the island’s capital, Heraklion has more happenings than Chania, but it’s not nearly as beautiful as Chania’s lovely old town. Heraklion is more central than Chania, making it a better base for exploring.

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Is it worth visiting Heraklion?

Yes, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum is a world-class museum with a top-notch collection of Minoan art and artifacts. And don’t miss out on exploring the Palace of Knossos that birthed the myth of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Just keep in mind that the city itself is modern and not particularly attractive.

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Frequently Asked Questions
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