Harbour in Heraklion, Crete, Greece
Photo by Elisa Triolo  –  Link

Heraklion

Greece

Heraklion, also known as Iraklio, is the capital of the island of Crete and the fifth largest city in Greece. Although first impressions of this city may not be the best (don't go there expecting a small, picturesque island town), if you look beneath the modern concrete buildings and busy traffic you'll discover that this mini metropolis actually has loads of great features that will squash any initial preconceptions.

The city is home to two of the best-loved sights on the island: Heraklion Archaeological Museum and the Palace of Knossos, as well as a Venetian fortress and a number of churches, all celebrating the historical side to this modern urban centre. There are also a number of long sandy beaches on the coast surrounding the town offering water sports and sun loungers, and a great foodie scene adding even more holiday value to this underrated city.

The best cultural sights in Heraklion

One of the most important sights in Heraklion is the state-of-the-art Archaeological Museum which is one of the most important museums in the whole of Greece. It houses an impressive collection of historic artefacts, including pottery and jewellery, spanning over 5,000 years of Cretan history all in a light and airy revamped 1930s building. The layout of the museum is also super satisfying, with everything colour-coded and arranged chronologically, so it's a very pleasing way to spend a few hours discovering Crete's rich history.

After a short five kilometre drive south of Heraklion city you'll stumble across the Palace of Knossos, the remains of a Minoan building which is arguably the most popular historic attraction on the whole island. The palace today is more of an archaeological site of beautiful ruins, reconstructed in the early 20th century to bring the main areas of the building back to life. Although lots of the palace is crumbling rock, there are a few re-built rooms to explore including the Throne Room which has a simple stone seat and walls painted with mythical beasts thought of as sacred by the Minoans. Get here early to avoid the tour buses.

The Koules Fortress is another of Heraklion's identifying sights as it tells the story of the city's Venetian history. The fortress was recently reopened after six years of restoration, and is an atmospheric place to learn about milestones in this city's history, and have a look at some Venetian cannons and shipwreck treasures. The eerie light filtering in through the old cannon holes adds to the atmosphere, making it feel a touch more exciting than your average museum.

Where to eat and drink in Heraklion

For a snack - For a quick bite to eat head to Morosini Square and order tyrópittes (cheese-filled pies) or bougátsa (custard-filled pastries) from Kirkor, an informal cafe. Take a seat outside and enjoy the view of the fountain as you indulge in these traditional snacks.

For lunch - Pedeski restaurant in the old town is inspired by Crete's fertile land, and showcases a range of local dishes. Opt for a selection of mezze, including traditional dakos (a slice of crispy dried bread topped with tomatoes and feta cheese), kolokithanthi (courgette flowers stuffed with cheese), and fava (a yellow split pea puree). This restaurant is simple and traditional, and the perfect place for a light Cretan lunch.

For seafood - Head right to the sea front to Ippokambos for the freshest fish, being sure to try some hokhlí (traditional Cretan snails). The menu is fresh and simple, celebrating the beautiful coastline the restaurant overlooks, but get there early as it's pretty popular and doesn't take reservations.

For an evening drink - Pagopoieion is the ideal spot for a relaxing cocktail away from the the busy urban vibes of the city. Overlooking a quiet square, this spot is chic and cool; the ideal place to wind down after a long day of eating and exploring.