Exploring ancient palaces and hidden caves, wine tasting, boat trips, blue skies and feasting on authentic Cretan cuisine. Say hello to the best things to do in Heraklion, Crete, where ancient history meets incredible food, beautiful landscapes and the warmest of welcomes.
I’ve just spent an unforgettable break in Heraklion, Crete delving into the island’s culture, cuisine and natural beauty and already I’m aching to go back to this captivating Greek island.
An Introduction to Heraklion, Crete
Crete is the largest and most southerly island in Greece. Heraklion is the capital city of Crete and also the largest of Crete’s four regions. The other three prefectures are Rethymno, which I’ve stayed in and also loved, Lasithi and Chania.
We stayed just outside Heraklion, Crete’s capital city, which sits centrally on the island’s northern coast and makes a great base for exploring Heraklion’s attractions and the rest of Crete.
Before we dive into the best things to do in Heraklion, let’s take a look at its history. This coastal city has roots that stretch back thousands of years. Heraklion was once known as Knossos, and it was the centre of the Minoan civilisation, one of the earliest advanced cultures in Europe. The Palace of Knossos is a top Heraklion attraction and exploring it will transport you back to the time of the Minoans.
Heraklion’s history doesn’t stop with the Minoans. The city has been shaped by countless civilisations, including the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and the Ottomans. The Venetian influence is particularly evident in the Old Town, where Venetian buildings, elegant architecture and fortifications remain today.
In this guide I’ll be sharing the best things to do in Heraklion city and further afield in the larger Heraklion region. We’ll also dip our toes into nearby Lasithi because there are some must-see attractions which make for a wonderful day trip from Heraklion. So, let’s start in the city of Heraklion and ripple our way out from there.
Things to do in Heraklion City
Visit Knossos Palace
Knossos Palace is the best place to start your historical discovery of Heraklion and if you do one thing during your visit to Crete it should be a visit here – it’s incredible. I could almost feel the lingering mists of time as we followed in the footsteps of the Minoans. Knossos is one of the most popular things to do in Heraklion and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Minoan Palace of Knossos sits about 5km (3.2 miles) south of the centre of Heraklion. The well-preserved palace of King Minos dates back as early as 2000 BC and is a fascinating insight into the lives of the Minoans. Knossos is Crete’s most famous monument and one of the most visited Heraklion attractions.
The vast complex of buildings and courtyards cover over 20 000 m² and was made up of more than 1300 rooms, reception rooms, living areas, halls and passages with four wings surrounding the central courtyard. It had a water system, drainage, baths and heating systems and as well as a palace it functioned as a government centre.
There are many highlights to see at the palace including the Throne Room, Corridor of Procession, Sacred Repositories and vivid frescoes (the originals are now in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion). The Minoans loved bulls and the Horns of Consecration and other bull symbols can be found all round the site.
I loved wandering through the complex and learnt loads about the palace, the Minoans and Greek mythology from our excellent guide Popi Kotsifi who brought history to life. I was especially taken by the frescoes and the remains of the Royal Road which is said to be the oldest road in Europe which originally ran from the sea, through the town to the palace.
Knossos opening times: varies through summer to winter so check the Knossos Palace Website
Getting there: Buses depart from the Old Town every 15-20 minutes during the summer on bus line 2 or it’s a short drive from the city centre.
Where: Knossos 714 09, Crete, Greece
Tip: Go early to beat the crowds and book a skip the line guided tour to make the most of your time at this popular Heraklion attraction.
Immerse yourself in history at the Archaelogical Museum of Heraklion
Heraklion Archaeological Museum is home to a collection of over 5000 artefacts, all beautifully displayed over 27 rooms. It’s one of the most important museums in Europe and a top Heraklion attraction.
The exhibits are arranged by size of the settlement where they were found so we started with objects from small hamlets working our way up to villages, towns and, of course, finds from Knossos Palace.
We were mesmerised by beautifully decorated pottery, intricate jewellery, everyday cooking utensils and frescos from Knossos and other places around Crete. We spent about 1.5 hours in the museum but I’d have happily stayed longer.
Highlights of the museum are the Snake Goddesses, stone bull’s head rhyton, gold bee pendant, Phaistos Disc and the bull leaping fresco but I really loved the more human elements like bowls, jugs and and cups.
Where: Chatzidaki 1, Iraklio 712 02, Greece
When: Times and prices vary according to season so check the Heraklion Archaeological Museum website. Admission is free on the first Sunday of the month from 01 November to 31 March.
Head to Heraklion Old Town
The Old Town of Heraklion is rich in history and culture and there’s a lot to see there just by strolling through its lively streets and alleyways. Don’t miss…
The Venetian Loggia
The Venetian Loggia is an elegant 17th century Venetian building that was a meeting point for nobility and is now home to the Town Hall. Step through the arcade to gaze up to the sky through the open roof which is near to the old port of Heraklion.
Saint Titus Church
The church of Saint Titus, dates back to the 10th century and is just steps from the Loggia. The church started life as a Byzantine Temple, was then used as a Catholic temple by the Venetians before being converted to a mosque by the Turks. Today St Titus is a Greek Orthodox Church and one of the most striking buildings in Heraklion. The beautiful interior is calm and atmospheric with icons, candles and stained glass.
The beautiful Morosini Fountain dates back to 1628 and is a popular meeting place in Heraklion surrounded by cafes, restaurants and shady trees. The fountain was under repair during our visit so you’ll have to imagine it filled with water and spouting lions.
A walk down 25th August Street leads to the sea and the old harbour passing some good souvenir shops en route. We stopped at one which was packed with beautifully tactile olive wood products like bowls, spoons and just about anything you could fashion from wood. We all bought a souvenir from this shop!
At the end of the street you’ll reach the old harbour and the Venetian fortress of Koules which has guarded the city since the 15th century. The fortress is an impressive sight and makes an apt logo for the city of Heraklion.
Old Harbour and city walls
Heraklion is surrounded by fortifications and thick Venetian walls dating back to the 16th century. Walk or bike the walls for great views of the city and out to sea.
Where to eat in Heraklion Old Town
We were able to see all of the above sites in just one day. We finished the day with a fabulous dinner at Peskesi Restaurant which served up fabulous authentic Cretan food sourced from their own farm just outside the city. Farm to fork at its best. Peskesi is located in a restored mansion and has a gorgeous ambience and friendly service.
Where: 6-8 Capetan Charalampi Street, Heraklion
Things to do in the Heraklion region
Heraklion prefecture is the largest in Crete and the third largest in the whole of Greece. The green, fertile land is surrounded on three sides by mountains and has coastlines on both the north and south of Crete.
Hit Heraklion’s beaches
You’re sure to want some beach time during your holiday in Heraklion and there’s a wide choice of good beaches and small coves just outside the city and further afield. Water is crystal clear and warm and most have sunbed and parasol rental. If you’ve got a hire car then go explore and find a beach that suits.
Ammoudara is the nearest beach to the city at 5km away. It’s 7km long and sandy (Ammoudara means big sand) with water-sports facilities. It gets very busy during high season.
Ligaria, and Agia Pelagia are also popular choices.
If I’d had free time I’d have been happy to kick back on the small and sandy Aleko’s beach near our hotel (more on our gorgeous hotel later) although I did manage to pop down to catch sun rise on our last morning!
Experience authentic Cretan villages
I love to go in search of the authentic when I travel and Archanes village which is about 20-min from Heraklion city ticked all the boxes. It’s less than 10km from Knossos Palace and makes an excellent lunch stop after visiting the palace, which is what we did.
Archanes is a beautifully restored traditional Cretan village which is incredibly pretty and surrounded by agricultural land and vineyards. We enjoyed exploring the village and strolling past colourful houses which line the tiny lanes of this rural settlement. It’s all very Instagram worthy!
The Folklore Museum of Archanes is a fascinating insight into how a traditional Cretan house would have been and is crammed with household items and furniture from Cretan days of old. There’s a small gift shop and if you’re lucky the owner will offer you a shot of a delicious homemade liqueur! There’s also a small archaeological museum in Archanes.
Stop for a delicious locally grown lunch by Mrs Ketis in the village square at Likastos Tavern. You’ll have the friendliest of welcomes and some fabulous home-cooked locally-grown food.
We started with traditional meze made up of tomato fritters, hortapitaki (small pies filled with wild greens called horta), fava dip and smoked aubergine sprinkled with feta. Next came aromatic smoked pork, stuffed peppers and a tasty farm salad. Although completely stuffed at this point we managed one or two loukades drizzled with honey and finished with a cheeky Raki.
If you want to know more about Cretan cuisine and What to eat in Crete I have a whole post dedicated to the food. It’s that good!
For an authentic meal head to Old Hersonisson’s town square. The atmospheric square and its central fountain is lined with small tavernas lit up with fairy lights, Greek music, chatter and laughter float on the air. I can highly recommend dinner at Stou Stereou where we enjoyed traditionally, locally grown, home-made Cretan fare paired with locally produced wine.
Many small shops sell local goods and products like honey, herbs, spices, pottery and leather goods. There’s are large population of local cats which’ll keep you entertained too.
Day trips from Heraklion
While Heraklion attractions are many and the wider prefecture offers a wealth of cultural and culinary experiences, there are some equally captivating attractions further afield in Crete. Here are some day trips and activities that you might like to add to your itinerary.
The Cave of Zeus and Lasithi Plateau
The region of Heraklion is surrounded by three mountain ranges and we took to the road heading up into the mountains to visit the Zeus Cave (Diktaion Andron). The landscape en route is surprisingly green and we passed miles of fertile agricultural land, olive groves and vineyards.
We had a quick photo stop for the views and the Venetian windmills at Lasithi Plateau before heading upwards on the serpentine road to the cave near the village of Psychro.
Once at Psychro there’s a very steep walk up a 250m path to the cave which some might find challenging. The last part isn’t paved and you’ll need shoes with a decent grip.
Be sure to stop at the entrance of the cave to check the stunning views of Lasithi Plateau surrounded by mountains. We descended down steps into the cave following a pathway with hand rails.
The main chamber is filled with stalactites and stalagmites lit with an eerie green light. It wasn’t easy to get good pictures without a tripod but this should give you an idea. The Cave of Zeus is also known as Psychro Cave and Diktaion Andron.
If you’ve got kids then you’ll also want to visit the Greek Mythology Thematic Park in Psychro. The small park will educate about Greek mythology and the Minoans in a fun and enaging way that kids will love.
The drive from Heraklion city to the cave is around 1.5 hrs. If you don’t have a hire car there are day trips that include Zeus’ Cave and Lasithi Plateau.
Watch traditional potters at work
It’s amazing to learn that the jars and urns we saw in Heraklion Archaeological Museum are still being made by hand today using the same methods as in Minoan times.
The village of Thrapsano, located 30km from the city of Heraklion has been the centre of the pottery industry in Crete for thousands of years. The name Thrapsano comes from the word ‘thrapsala’ which means smithereens of ceramics and you’ll find dozens of potteries in the village.
Pay a visit to Cretan Ceramics to see giant jars and pots being hand made by master potters Nick and George Ploumakis. You might even have a chance to make your own pot which is nowhere near as easy as the Ploumakis’ make it look. Ellen from our group, who had a go at the potter’s wheel, will vouch for this!
There’re some gorgeous pieces for sale in the shop which make nice souvenirs. I may have bought one or two home with me!
Go wine tasting at Agelakis Winery
Thrapsano is surrounded by olive groves and vineyards and you’ll find Agelakis Winery just a few minutes down the road from the pottery. The first thing I noticed was their logo as we entered the tasting room. It’s the shape of an olive tree made up of fragments of pottery – a nice nod to the town’s history.
We took a quick look around the winery where some of the fermentation process happens in terracotta jars. I love how traditions going back thousands of years continue in Thrapsano to this day.
Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll tell you more about our wine tasting at Agelaki Winery and other authentic Cretan food experiences.
Take a boat trip to the island of Spinalonga
We’re hopping over the border into Lasithi Prefecture for one of Crete’s top attractions. The island of Spinalonga was one of my favourite experiences on Crete so I’m including it here even though it’s not actually a Heraklion attraction.
Spinalonga is a small barren isle and started out as a Venetian stronghold before being taken over by the Turks. From 1903-1957 it was home to Greece’s leper population who were imprisoned there. If you’ve read the book The Island by Victoria Hislop then you’ll already know about Spinalonga, the beautiful island with a dark history.
The visit starts with a short ten-minute boat trip from Elounda over the clearest, bluest seas. The island is small so you’ll get round it all within two hours. The best way to see it is with a guide who’ll bring the island alive with the history and lives of the people who lived and suffered there.
Visit the lake at Agios Nikolaos
Near to Spinalonga, 15km along the coast, is the beautiful seaside town of Agios Nikolaos. Stop for stunnings views en route.
A highlight of the town is Lake Voulismeni which is surrounded by pretty shops and bars overlooking the water. It makes a nice lunch stop. A new archaeological museum has just opened in the town. If you didn’t have time to see the one archaeological museum in Heraklion then this is a good, smaller alternative.
Now that I’ve given you an insight into the the best things to do in Heraklion, you’ll need some practical information to help you plan your own trip.
How to get to Heraklion, Crete
Heraklion airport (HER) is the largest airport in Crete with many international flights and plenty from the UK. Transfer time to Heraklion city is around 10-minutes drive.
Our flights to Crete were with Jet2 who I’ve enjoyed flying with before to both Paphos, Cyprus and to Menorca, Spain from London Stansted. They have many other routes and you can check all flights from Stansted here.
Where to stay in Heraklion
We stayed at King Minos Retreat Resort and Spa with Jet2 Holidays which is a 30-minute drive from Heraklion town centre and 20-minutes from Heraklion airport.
This gorgeous 5 star hotel is brand new and opened in May 2023 and has a laid back, contemporary vibe with a minimalistic island aesthetic.
There are 142 rooms, suites and family rooms in various styles. Some have their own private plunge pool or Jacuzzi. The large main pool has plenty of sunbeds, parasols and bali beds with beanbags and cabanas in the surrounding gardens.
The main restaurant offers a fabulous breakfast from cold buffet to cooked full English and everything in between. The a la Carte restaurant is Greek themed and the pool bar where we had lunch on arrival which was excellent with a choice of salads, gyros and other snacks. The pool bar was a good place for a nightcap with live music and comfy lounge chairs.
If you’re into wellness there’s a spa with small indoor pool, sauna, relaxation room and treatment rooms, including a couples treatment room. There’s also a small gym with sea views.
Aleko’s small beach is less than a 5-minute walk from the hotel.
The staff are super helpful and friendly and it’s a hotel I’d love to return to.
When to visit Heraklion, Crete
While Heraklion can be great at any time of year, visiting in the shoulder seasons has some distinct advantages. I found mid-October to be the perfect time of year to visit. The following reasons helped…
Crete weather in October
The weather in October in Crete is still warm and sunny, but not too hot, making it perfect for outdoor activities. We visited in mid-October and were blessed with sunshine, blue skies and temperatures of 24-29°C. Shoulder season is an excellent time to visit because it’s not stiflingly hot but still warm and balmy making it much more pleasant to explore the city and its surroundings.
The sea temperatures in Crete are at their warmest in October because they’ve had the whole of the summer to warm up. Beaches are less crowded with more sunbed and parasol availability.
Heraklion is less crowded in shoulder season
October is considered shoulder season in Heraklion. There are less tourists – I know pot, kettle, black… Attractions are less crowded and the summer crowds have thinned out allowing you to explore the city’s cultural sites and eat at its tavernas and restaurants without the clamour of peak tourist season. Everywhere is generally more relaxed and laid back and it’s a time to enjoy a more relaxed, authentic experience.
Shoulder season is also easier on the pocket because flights and hotels can be cheaper.
Harvest time in Heraklion
October is the peak of the harvest season in Crete. The markets are brimming with fresh produce, and many local festivals celebrate the grape harvest.
Festivals and events
The Cretans love to celebrate, and October is no exception. Many cultural events and festivals take place during this time, allowing you to experience the local culture. One event is the “Raki Festival,” where you can sample the local grape-based spirit. Additionally, the Feast of Saint Dimitrios, the patron saint of Heraklion, is celebrated on 26 October with parades and religious ceremonies.
Planning a trip to Heraklion, Crete?
I hope you’ve found my guide to Heraklion, Crete helpful. It’s a fabulous place to visit and I had a wonderful time. I’d like to go back and explore Chania next time.
If you’re planning holidays to Crete and have any questions about visiting then do feel free to drop me an email or message on social media. I’ll be happy to help. Alternatively the Jet2 travel agent finder tool might help.