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Heraklion: Discover the Capital of Crete

The spectacular harbor of Heraklion, Crete. Credit: Greek Reporter

Heraklion, the capital of the Greek island of Crete, is an ancient city that perhaps is under-appreciated for its many attractions for the international traveler. From first-rate hotels with swimming pools and bars on roofs that look out over the city and the many villages around the ancient city, the Heraklion area has much to offer.

Perhaps best known for its stunning cathedrals, picturesque old towns, and first-class restaurants and boutiques, Crete is an island at the heart of Greece’s ancient history, and the place where the Minoan civilization flourished. It boasts traditions that go back into time immemorial.

Europe’s oldest known civilization, which flourished on Crete between 2,700 BC and 1,450 BC, served as a trading center for gold, ceramics, and the precious spice and dye saffron.

Koules Fort
The Koules Fort, or Castello a Mare, guarding the entrance to Heraklion Harbor, was built in 1540 by the Venetians. Credit: Greek Reporter

The Koules Fort (Greek: Κούλες) or Castello a Mare, (“Fort on the Sea” in Italian), a fortress located at the entrance of the old port of Heraklion, is a place anyone who visits this ancient city must see. It was built by the Republic of Venice in the early 16th century, and is still in good condition today.

It is the perfect backdrop for all your city adventures and offers tours to travelers every day.

Venetian Loggia
Heraklion’s Venetian Loggia, from 1626–28. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / public domain

In ancient times, Heraklion served as the port of Knossos, where the Minoans traded their valuable wares. Today, visiting the Minoan Palace of Knossos is undoubtedly one of the top things to do in Heraklion. However, many of the most fascinating ancient artifacts from the site of Knossos are now on display at the Archeological Museum of Heraklion.

But for those who would like to soak up the Greek sun and just relax on their vacations, there are a number of fine beaches in and around the city, including Matala, with its cliffs with caves, and surf; Star Beach, known for its water sports and palm trees; Kommos, with its Caretta turtles and ruins; and Gefyri Beach, boasting sandy shores and jade colored waters.

Heraklion fountain
Morosini Fountain in Heraklion. Credit: C messier – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Recently ranked as Europe’s fastest growing tourism destination, Heraklion, the capital city of Crete, never stops surprising visitors.

At one time considered the ugly duckling of the island, Heraklion recently topped the list of European city-break destinations, showing the highest growth in international arrivals.

The main gateway to the largest of all the Greek islands has deservedly become a hugely popular destination in and of itself. Once home to Europe’s oldest civilization, the Minoans, Heraklion hosts impressive archaeological sites and some of the finest museums in Greece.

These combine with eclectic examples of architecture and, of course, the healthiest diet in the world.

Daidalou Street, right next to the Capsis Astoria Heraklion, is the most famous shopping street in Heraklion, where you can find the boutiques of all the well-known clothing brands. When you stroll along, it is hard to imagine that you are on an island because of the great variety of what is on sale there.

The stunning natural landscapes just outside the city, welcoming all those who would like to experience a more relaxed holiday, paired with a vibrant nightlife, are just some of the reasons why Heraklion has turned into the ultimate Greek destination for tourists with varied interests.

Must-See Beaches in the Heraklion area

Amnisos Beach, located 8 km east of the city, is one that offers not only swimming and sunbathing galore, it was also the site of a great Minoan mansion which had a renowned mural of lilies (now exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion). The beach has all the necessary facilities and there are a range of nearby seafood restaurants featuring the catches of the day.

Hani Kokkini Beach, located 12 km east of the city, boasts a range of water sport activities with multiple beach bars and restaurants nearby.

Ammoudara Beach, located just five kilometers west of Heraklion, is one of the longest beaches in the area. There are well-organized tourism amenities there, as well. Due to its near-constant winds, it is considered an ideal location for wind surfing and kite surfing.

Linoperamata Beach, located eight kilometers west of the capital, is another area that would please any traveler, with an assortment of hotels, restaurants and cafes nearby.

Palaiokastron Beach is a well protected pocket beach located ten kilometers (six miles) west of Heraklion. The area owes its name to the old Venetian fortress which looms above it.

Agia Pelagia Beach, which is situated just west of the city of Heraklion, is renowned for its pristine beaches with crystal clear water. There are any number of cafes, beach bars and traditional tavernas in the area from which to choose.

Lygaria Beach, located just a little further out, at twenty kilometers west from the center of Heraklion, is renowned not only for its beautiful setting, but also for its fish tavernas, which all serve authentic Cretan fare.

There is much more to Heraklion and its surrounding areas than meets the eye, and there are a number of places to see and places to dine that are easy to get to from the city center and are must-visit places in and of themselves.

Swing Thing
The Swing Thing Cocktail Bar in Heraklion serves up creative cocktails and espressos all day and all night. Credit: Facebook/Swing Thing

Wine & Brunch Bars

Inviting cafes are scattered all across the city, offering the best of Heraklion’s new vibe. Try more authentic Greek venues for local live music and flowing raki, the ubiquitous spirit of the island.

The Swing Thing Cocktail Espresso Bar, a recipient of the Athinorama 2020 BarAward, is a place you will surely want to add to your itinerary in Heraklion. In business since 2014, it’s not only a great place to while away the evening, but is also an ideal place to stop for a refreshing espresso while taking a daytime stroll around the city.

Located at Arcolontos 13th Street, next to Theotokopoulos Park, on one of the most famous pedestrian streets in Heraklion, Swing Thing makes the nights memorable with live music served up with the best classic and signature cocktails in the city.

Some of the most creative cocktails you could ever sample based on Raki or Mastic are created at Swing Thing.

The Lakkos Neighborhood

Lakkos neighborhood
Lakkos, a corner (photo courtesy: The Lakkos project).

Get your camera ready to explore one of the most curious districts of the city, venturing along the picturesque alleys of the former underground area of Lakkos. Here, interesting wall art accompanies stories of the port city’s old brothels and the characters who once haunted its streets.

The cultural milieu here is rich, with renovated tavernas from times past offering rebetiko music which echoes through the neighborhood.

Be sure to enjoy a round of Cretan tapas at any popular kafeneio there.

Home to “The Lakkos Project,” an initiative in which local artists groups and the Heraklion Municipality work together to upgrade Heraklion’s previously most neglected area, the neighborhood is set apart from the many apartment high-rises of the capital city.

With brightly painted homes that preserve the original character of the place, it is located in the center of Heraklion’s old city next to the new Cultural Centre.

According to the initiative’s founder, Mathew Halpin, Lakkos has “in some ways been lucky because of neglect. Many of the narrow streets have not been widened in the name of ‘modernization’ like the most of the old city.”

As the project works its way around the area, special attention is given to try and preserve any original features of the buildings.

Street Markets In Heraklion

Street market, Heraklion
Street market (CC0 Creative Commons).

On Saturdays, the gypsy atmosphere of Pateles’ street market reflects the sounds, smells, and colors of the town’s melting-pot character.

The market on 1866 Street offers fresh produce and a closer look at the island’s culinary treasures. Shop for herbs and spices as well as interesting souvenirs of your stay on Crete.

Cretan Culinary Tradition is Strong in Heraklion

Cretan food
Cretan foods. Credit: Facebook/Peskesi.

Food is a serious business for Greeks and an extremely significant affair on its largest island of Crete, home to one of the country’s healthiest and tastiest diets.

To sample the most authentic foods, book a table at the legendary Peskesi to try local dishes and ancient Minoan cuisine.

Villages around Heraklion offer a glimpse into earlier times

Dimitrios Pachalakis, a farmer from the ancient Cretan village of Archanes, at the gates of his farm just outside Heraklion. Credit: Greek Reporter


A quiet town today on the outskirts of the city of Heraklion, Archanes had a glittering past that is now coming to light once again. The discovery of ancient roads leading from Archanes to Juktas, Anemospilia, Xeri Kara and Vathypetro prove that Archanes was an important hub in the region during Minoan times.

Sir Arthur Evans was the first to declare that Archanes was likely a summer palace for the Knossos kings of Minoan times. In 1964, Yannis Sakellarakis dug trial trenches at the Tourkoyeitonia site and uncovered the first evidence of a palace site. Since 1966, Archanes has been excavated by the Greek Archaeological Society, and more and more discoveries continue to be unearthed at the site.

Chrisoula Kiriakaki at the entrance to her home in Archanes, just outside Heraklion, Crete. Credit: Greek Reporter

Walking down its roads today you can come upon farmers who continue their ancient way of life just as their forefathers did.

Archanes also has a rich history from Byzantine times. In the year 961, Nikiforos Fokas defeated the Arabs who were ruling Crete at the time. The Venetians, another great maritime power, controlled the island starting in the year 1205.

Beautiful churches were built in Archanes during the Venetian period. Later, Archanes distinguished itself by becoming a hotbed in the revolt of 1897 against the Ottomans.

A defense committee coordinated military operations against the Ottomans throughout eastern Crete from the village, which ultimately led to the liberation of the island in 1898.

Archanes outdoor scene
Men of Archanes enjoying an afternoon together at an outdoor table. From right to left: Nikos Pachakis; Michalis Protogerakis; Michalis Michelakis; Andreas Vlachakis. Credit: Greek Reporter

Archanes was an important center of the resistance during the Second World War. It was from here that the German commander General Kreipe was abducted by the Andartes, the Cretan rebels.

Later commemorated in the book and subsequent film titled Ill Met by Moonlight, this daring exploit was one of the finest moments in Cretan history.

Archanes is located in the Heraklion regional unit of Crete, approximately fifteen kilometers from the city of Heraklion. Its spectacularly mountainous terrain between the peaks of Mt. Psiloritis and Mt. Spathi lies at around four hundred meters (1,312 feet) in altitude.

The town is ideally located for exploring both the fascinating interior of Crete and for easily accessing the many beaches along its coastline, both north and south. Archanes commands a stunning views of all the surrounding countryside.


In a vertical world clinging to the slopes of Mt. Psiloritis, Anogia is one of the most popular places to visit amongst all the villages of Rethymnon. At an altitude of seven hundred meters (2,296 feet), the mountain village is a hotbed of the arts of weaving, music, and all other folk arts and traditions.

Where to Stay

The Capsis Astoria Hotel, Eleftherias Square

Heraklion’s Capsis Hotel, located in the city’s central Eleftherias Square stands out above all other accommodations in the city. Offering a swimming pool and bar on its roof, its amenities offer the best of the best to any traveler spending time in Heraklion.

Capsis Pool
The rooftop pool at the Capsis Hotel Heraklion. Credit: Facebook/Capsis Hotel Heraklion

At 11 Eleftherias Square, in the historic center of Crete’s capital city and right next to one of Europe’s most important museums, the renowned Heraklion Archaeological Museum, the Capsis Astoria Hotel offers upgraded and sophisticated services to both corporate and leisure travelers.

Capsis Hotel Room
Capsis Hotel Room. Credit: Facebook/Capsis Hotel

The hotel features beautifully decorated rooms, state-of-the-art conference facilities, restaurants, and a gym as well. With more than fifty years of welcoming travelers from all over the world, the Capsis delivers upscale services that generate an ambiance of warmth and intimacy.There are three  modern and fully equipped, multifunctional meeting venues, as well as a restaurant, Erofili, in the breakfast area, along with the Café Bistro Capsis.

The Capsis 360° RoofTop Bar on the Roof Garden are not to be missed anytime during your summer stay in the hotel. Offering stunning views of the ancient city of Heraklion, it is a one-of-a-kind experience.

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