Heraklion – Capital of Crete with Great Museums, near Beautiful Resorts

The busy capital of Crete, Heraklion, is not to be compared with the beautiful, quaint towns of Chania, Rethymno, and Agios Nikolaos. It has though, some well-preserved buildings and ancient remains worth seeing, but the main reasons to visit Heraklion should be its museums where you will see the most significant findings from all the Cretan ancient sites. Near Heraklion you will find plenty of beautiful holiday resorts, like Malia, Matala, or Hersonissos.

Heraklion harbour and shipyards, Crete, Greece
Heraklion harbour and shipyards, Crete, Greece

Heraklion is the largest town in Crete with a population of 130.000 inhabitants. It is also the commercial, administrative, industrial, and agricultural center of the island. Most inhabitants are occupied with tourism, agriculture, and trade. Not far from Heraklion lies the ruins of the Minoan palace of Knossos, which were excavated and restored by Arthur Evans. Heraklion is a busy port, and it has gone through a tremendous development since WWII, and therefore it also has many problems with its infrastructure.

Heraklion harbour and waterfront

Historical periods of Heraklion

Sprinkling water from a lion's mouth in a water fountain in Heraklion Crete, Greece
Detail of the Morozini Fountain at Lions Square in Heraklion
  • 2600 – 1400 BC – Minoan civilization
  • 4th to 9th AD – Early Byzantine period
  • 824 – 961 AD – Occupation by Saracens
  • 961 -1204 – Restored Greek Era
  • 1204 – 1669 – Venetian control
  • 1669 – 1898 – Ottoman Era
  • 1898 – 1908 – direct occupation of the island by the Great Powers, part of the British zone
  • 1913 – Greece

The founding of Heraklion

Minoan rhyton in form of a bull; Heraklion Archaeological Museum

In the Minoan (prehistoric) times there must have been houses scattered in the current center of Heraklion and some small communities living in the surrounding hills. The area east of Heraklion (Poros, Katsambas, Bodrum and the airport area by the river and Karteros Amnissos) show signs of habitation both because of its geomorphology and because it was the natural outlet of Knossos to the sea through Kairatos river. Kairatos river is flowing into the sea at Katsambas – east end of the current port of Heraklion. This is evidenced by recent excavations in the area of ​​Katsambas, which brought to light part of the Minoan port facilities.

Heraklion under the Byzantine Empire

In the early Byzantine period (4th to 9th AD), the small town Heraklion, was known by the name Castle, a name suggesting some form of fortification. Crete was then a province of the Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople, while the administrative, military and religious center of the island was Gortyn. The cities in northern Crete appear less developed as the sea routes passed south of the island.

The Castle of Moat

The Arab raiders (Saracens) from Andalusia who founded the Emirate of Crete moved the island’s capital from Gortyna to that of a new castle they called ‘Castle of the Moat’ in the 820s.  They built a moat around the city for protection, thereby the name “Castle of the Moat”.
The Saracens allowed the port to be used as a safe haven for pirates who operated against Imperial shipping and raided Imperial territory around the Aegean.
After the Byzantine reconquest, the city was locally known as Megalo Kastro (the Big Castle in Greek).
The ancient name ‘Irakleion’ was revived in the 19th century and comes from the nearby Roman port of Heracleum (“Heracles’ city”), whose exact location is unknown.

Travel to Heraklion, Crete, Greece
View of Heraklion City

Things to see in and near Heraklion

Travel to Heraklion, Crete, Greece
The Fortress of Koules – the Venetian castle at Heraklion Habour
  • The Fortress of Koules – is the Venetian castle of Heraklion and Koules means “fortress” in Turkish. The imposing construction surrounds the harbour of Heraklion and is a massive two storey castle built for protecting the port entrance. It was constructed by the Venetians in the early 13th century when the conquered Heraklion. The earliest description of the Fortress of Koules is found in the work of the Florentine monk Cristoforo Buondelmonti in 1429.
The Venetian loggia (1626–28) in Heraklion, Crete
The Venetian Loggia (1626–28) in Heraklion
  • The Venetian Loggia of Heraklion is in the centre of Heraklion Town, in the square of Saint Titus, along 25th August street. It is a beautiful building of the Venetian rule which has survived fully functioning till this day. It has been renovated and today it hosts the Town Hall of Heraklion.
Knossos palace at Crete, Greece Knossos Palace, is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture.
Knossos palace at Crete, Greece Knossos Palace, is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture.
  • The Minoan Palace of Knossos covers more than 20,000 m2 and is the largest of all Minoan palaces. It must have been a spectacular sight in its days built of ashlar blocks with many floors and decorated with stunning frescoes. It was built around 2,000 BC but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1700 BC. The newer palace, which was more complex, was built soon after the destruction of the first one. The Achaeans conquered Crete in the middle of the 15th century BC and settled in the palace. In the middle of the 14th century BC the palace was once again destroyed, this time by a fire, and since then it ceased to function as a palace. Read more about Knossos here.
Kofinas, the highest peak of the Asterousia mountains, at sunset. Crete, Greece



Panoramic view of the Old Harbour in Heraklion, Crete
The old harbour in Heraklion
The island of Dia, Heraklion, Crete



Where to stay in Heraklion town?

Panoramic view of the harbour, Heraklion, Crete
Heraklion harbour
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Where to eat in Heraklion town?

Empty greek cafe terrace in Heraklion, Crete overlooking the sea with typical wooden chairs
Greek terrace tavern in Heraklion, overlooking the sea with typical wooden chairs
Young woman reading a book at the beach while the sun rise, Hersonissos, Crete Greece

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Museums to visit in Heraklion

The snake goddess (c.1600 BCE) in Heraklion Archaeological Museum
  • The Heraklion Archaeological Museum – is one the great museums of Greece and the best in the world for Minoan art, as it contains the most notable and complete collection of artifacts of the Minoan civilization of Crete.
    The museum began in 1883 as a simple collection of antiquities. A dedicated building was constructed from 1904 to 1912 at the instigation of two Cretan archaeologists, Iosif Hatzidakis and Stefanos Xanthoudidis.
    After three destructive earthquakes in 1926, 1930, and 1935, the museum nearly collapsed. The director of the Heraklion Museum was then Spyridon Marinatos, who made tremendous efforts to find funds and persuade the locals and the central government alike that a new solid building was needed. In 1935, Marinatos succeeded in engaging Patroklos Karantinos to build a sturdy structure that has withstood both natural disasters and the bombing that accompanied the German invasion in 1941. Although the museum was damaged during World War II, the collection survived intact and again became accessible to the public in 1952. A new wing was added in 1964.
    Besides the Minoan collection, the museum covers other periods of Cretan history, with artifacts from the Neolithic to the Greco-Roman period. The museum is currently under renovation, but a temporary exhibition is open in the main building.
    Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Cretaquarium - the main entrance
  • Creteaquarium or Thalassocosmos (Greek “sea world”) is a public aquarium located near the town of Gournes in Crete, Greece, 15 km east of the city of Heraklion.
    The Cretaquarium project was conceived by employees of the former Institute of Marine Biology of Crete (IMBC) to create the first large aquarium in Greece, as part of a marine park for research, education, culture and recreation. Cretaquarium first opened its doors in December 2005 and went through a major expansion during the winter of 2008-9, when 25 new tanks were installed. The aquarium is currently operated by the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research, a public research institution. Its exhibits focus on the marine fauna of the Mediterranean region and include sea organisms from over 250 species in more than 60 tanks.
"Modena Triptych" by El Greco exhibited at the Historical Museum of Crete
“Modena Triptych” by El Greco, Historical Museum of Crete
  • The Historical Museum of Crete is also to be found in Heraklion. The museum presents a comprehensive view of Cretan history from early Christian times to the present day. It was founded in 1953 by the Society of Cretan Historical Studies, which had been established two years earlier. The founders’ goal was to collect and preserve valuable archaeological, ethnographic and historical material deriving from the medieval and modern periods in Cretan history. The museum is housed in a two-storey neoclassical building, which was constructed in 1903 on the site of an earlier mansion.
    The Museum exhibits a number of notable works of art, such as the Modena Triptych, a 1568 painting by the artist El Greco, whose real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos.
    Historical Museum of Crete
Exterior view of Natural History Museum of Crete
  • The Natural History Museum of Crete (NHMC)  in Heraklion is operating under the auspices of the University of Crete. Its aim is the study, protection and promotion of the diverse flora and fauna of the Eastern Mediterranean region. The museum is based in a restored industrial building that used to house an electricity power plant.
    Natural History Museum of Crete
  • The Municipal Museum of the Battle of Crete and the National Resistance – Among the Museum’s exhibits are thousands of authentic photographs, paintings and drawings of the Battle of Crete and the national resistance, about two hundred books, monographs, essays on the historic events from 1941 to 1945, hundreds of documents and a great many newspaper cuttings. The Museum also includes a variety of objects related to the war (arms, accessories, uniforms, items of everyday use etc.).
    Municipal Museum of the Battle of Crete and the National Resistance
The Cretan philosopher and writer, Nikos Kazantzakis
  • The Kazantzakis Museum is situated in Varvaroi, about 20 km south of Herakleion. It was founded to preserve the work and to record the life of the Cretan writer. It includes some of the writer’s personal belongings and those of his family, documents, letters, the first Greek editions of his books. There is also radio and television material as well as a collection of press reviews which refer to Kazantzakis and have been published in Greek and foreign newspapers. Finally, there is an audiovisual presentation in five languages, Greek – French – English – German – Dutch, to illustrate the development of this universal writer’s life and career.
The adoration of the Magi, portable icon of the 16th century, painted by Michael Damaskenos
  • Collection of Agia Aikaterini of Sinai – The preserved katholikon of the Monastery and the chapel of Agioi Deka today house a collection of representative works of the Cretan Byzantine and post-Byzantine art, which functions under the auspices of the Communication and Education Department of the Holy Archbishopric of Crete. Among the exhibits are the icons attributed to the painter Angelos, one of the most famous painters of the 15th century, as well as the six icons by Michael Damaskenos, some of the most important works of the Cretan School during the 16th century.
  • Collection of Agia Aikaterini of Sinai
Museum of Visual Arts in Heraklion, Crete
  • The Museum of Visual Arts is located on Nymphon Street in Heraklion. It was established in order to support cultural and artistic activity and to promote the work of Cretan artists. The museum organizes educational seminars and lectures on art, as well as conferences, concerts, and publications.

Heraklion – How to get there?

By ferry

Heraklion port is an important shipping port and ferry dock. Travelers can take ferries and boats from Heraklion to a multitude of destinations including Santorini, Ios, Paros, Mykonos, and Rhodes. There are also several daily ferries to Piraeus, the port of Athens on mainland Greece.

Agriculture field and mountain by sea, Heraklion, Crete Greece
Agriculture field and mountain by sea, Heraklion, Crete Greece

By plane

Heraklion International Airport “Nikos Kazantzakis” is located about 5 km east of the city. The airport is named after Heraklion native Nikos Kazantzakis, a writer and philosopher. It is the second busiest airport of Greece, due to Crete being a major holiday destination.

There are regular domestic flights to and from Athens, Thessaloniki and Rhodes. Cyprus Airways and Aegean Airlines fly to and from Larnaca, in Cyprus. Furthermore, Sky Express operates direct flights to Aegean islands such as Rhodes, Santorini, Samos, Kos, Mytilini, and Ikaria.

Aegean Airlines has an international schedule to and from London and Paris and EasyJet flys direct from London Gatwick. During the summer, the number of scheduled and chartered flights increase as do the number of airlines that fly direct from all over Europe (mostly Germany, UK, Italy, and Russia).

Traveling in Crete by car

The European route E75 runs through the city and connects Heraklion with the three other major cities of Crete: Agios Nikolaos, Chania, and Rethymno. There are a number of buses serving the city and connecting it to many major destinations in Crete.

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Weather and climate in Heraklion

Crete has a warm Mediterranean climate. Summers in the lowlands are hot and dry with clear skies. Dry hot days are often relieved by seasonal breezes. The mountain areas are much cooler, with considerable rain in the winter. Winters are mild in the lowlands with rare frost and snow. Because Heraklion is further south than Athens, it has a milder climate.

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Night11° 11° 12° 14° 17° 21° 23° 24° 22° 19° 16° 13°
Average monthly temperatures in °C and average rainfall in mm in Heraklion, Crete

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Heraklion old town port with colorful boats, at sunny day, Crete Greece
Heraklion old town port with colorful boats on a sunny day