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It's common for first-time visitors to take one look at Iraklion and marvel at how modern the city is. After all, this is the capital of Crete, the home of Europe's earliest civilization, and birthplace of countless myths and legends. Newcomers tend to expect a small village with antiquated buildings rather than the busy cosmopolitan city that occupies the same ground where Hercules, King Minos, the minotaur and other characters from ancient mythology once roamed.
The magic of Iraklion, though, is the fact that its modern amenities commingle peacefully with its ancient treasures rather than overshadowing them. The result is a vibrant town that manages to look to the future while still embracing its past.
The contemporary shops, hotels and apartment buildings might be the first things to catch a visitor's eye, but scratch the surface of Iraklion's new veneer and the town's glorious history comes shining through. Massive walls built in the 1500's circle the heart of the city like two powerful arms trying to restrain Iraklion from moving too far forward into the modern age. Lovely fountains, ornate architecture and other relics of the past lie scattered throughout the city as well, with many of these attractions dating back centuries ago to the time when Venice ruled the island of Crete.
While the blend of past and present provides a fascinating backdrop, Iraklion's true beauty comes from its simple reflections of everyday Greek life. Its small, unexpected surprises are the things that make the city such a joy to explore -- such as a tiny church with an immaculate flower garden or a hidden courtyard where an elderly man sits alone and softly strums his bouzouki, a Greek instrument similar to the mandolin. The busy public squares and festive taverns may draw more tourists, but to experience Iraklion at its best try strolling the shoreline at dusk or visit the old harbor beside the Venetian fort at sunrise and watch fishermen carefully inspecting their nets in the pink glow of dawn.
At times like these you might wonder if you've somehow stumbled backward into Iraklion's rich past, and you may also find yourself with no desire to leave it.
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Greek, although many people working in the service industry speak fairly good English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
As a member of the EU, Greece uses the euro. Banks are easy to find with several located on 25 Avgusto Street, which bisects the central part of town. Normal banking hours are 8 a.m. - 2 p.m., but most banks close a little early on Friday and hours can also fluctuate according to the season. ATM's are common in case you need cash after the banks are closed.
Ouzo may be the drink of choice in other parts of Greece, but in Crete the locals favor a grape brandy called tsikoudia. This aromatic liquor packs a mean punch but it pairs quite well with Greek salad and other local dishes.
Every shop in town sells reproductions of the Phaestos Disc, one of the prized objects from Iraklion's Archeological Museum. This ancient tablet covered with mysterious glyphs is one of the city's most famous treasures, and while tacky reproductions of it abound, a piece of silver jewelry bearing its likeness makes a unique and tasteful keepsake. The vendors on Market Street tend to offer better deals than the jewelry stores, and you can expect to pay around 20 euro for earrings or a nice pendant.
Where You're Docked
Iraklion's harbor is extremely close to the heart of the city, less than half a mile northeast of the main tourist area. Most of the town's attractions are within 20 minutes walking distance.
A Venetian fort completed in 1540 sits right next to the harbor, and exploring its massive ramparts and cavernous interior can easily occupy an hour or two. Children will especially love poking around the fort, which looks like something you'd find on a Hollywood movie set. A curving pedestrian walkway leads to the fort then snakes out into the sea, offering a picturesque place to jog or stroll. Several restaurants of varying quality line the streets across from the harbor, and during the tourist season it's common to find an outdoor carnival with a Ferris wheel and other rides set up near the shoreline as well.
On Foot: Walking is by far the easiest way to explore Iraklion. The majority of its attractions are clustered in an area five or six blocks wide, and walking from one end of town to the other can be done in less than an hour.
By Taxi: Greek taxis would be fairly inexpensive if drivers didn't tack on so many surcharges; some legitimate and others not. In theory, a cab ride to any location within Iraklion's city limits should never cost more than about 6 euros, but always agree on the fare before you enter the cab to avoid an unpleasant surprise at the end of your trip.
Note: legitimate surcharges include extra baggage, extra passengers, picking you up from the airport/harbor etc; where it becomes bogus is when drivers will try to add these on when they don't apply! Also, some will try to charge passengers the night rate (the one they use between midnight and 5 a.m.) during the day, and if you don't notice that the meter is set that way (to rate 2 instead of rate 1) you could end up paying nearly double. You'll also find the occasional driver who won't use his meter at all -- he might claim that it's broken and simply quote you a really high price instead.
By Rental Car: There are plenty of rental car agencies in town, most of them located on 25 Avgusto Street or one of its side streets. You'll find both large chains and small independent shops, and visitors should expect to pay around 60 euro per day for a small no-frills car, although it never hurts to ask about discounts.
Watch Out For
For a tourist hotbed, Iraklion is amazingly difficult to navigate. In many Greek cities, streets are identified by both the Greek alphabet (which combines characters and letters) and an English interpretation; not so here. The challenge is that guidebooks in English (including this port profile) feature the, er, English spelling.
Tip: I compared the street names and memorized a few of the Greek letters so I didn't have too much of a problem. Another quirk is that in small towns like this, the street numbers sometimes aren't posted on the shops and restaurants so you just have to wander the street until you find the place you're looking for. I'm one of those people who asks for a lot of directions when I'm traveling because it's a good way for me to chat with the locals, and I normally don't stay lost for very long.
Knossos Palace: This is one of the most important archeological finds in the world, and many visitors come to Iraklion for the sole purpose of visiting Knossos. The collection of ruins dates back nearly 4,000 years and is associated with both King Minos and the evil minotaur, who supposedly lived in a maze beneath the palace. Several of the more significant rooms have been renovated to give visitors a better idea of how the ancient royals went about their daily lives. The grounds are open from 8 a.m. - 7 p.m. April through September, and 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. from October through March. The site lies four miles outside of town and a cab ride costs about 7 euro. Buses for Knossos also leave every 10 minutes from the bus station right across the street from the harbor.
The Archeological Museum: The assortment of art and artifacts housed here is nearly dizzying and visitors should give themselves at least two hours to browse the entire collection. Colorful frescoes and statues removed from Knossos Palace are here along with an amazing collection of vases, an assortment of ancient jewelry and several ornate drinking vessels shaped like the head of a bull. Be sure not to miss the famous Phaestos Disc, which is near the beginning of the museum and can be easily overlooked among the hundreds of glass cases. The museum is just a few blocks south of the harbor and is open 8 a.m. - 7 p.m. April through September, and 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. from October through March.
Market Street: Officially known as 1866 Street, this narrow alley near the center of town is jam-packed with shops and stalls selling fruits, vegetables, wines, jewelry and local crafts. A little good-natured haggling is perfectly acceptable here, but don't expect more than a small discount. Tacky souvenir stores have begun to invade the area in recent years, but it's still a fun place to wander aimlessly while soaking up the local color.
Been There, Done That
Fountain Square: Also known as Lions Square because of the stone lions which adorn the fountain, this is the central hub of activity in downtown Iraklion. The square is lined with cafes, bakeries and ice cream shops, and although the majority of the restaurants serve mediocre food, stopping here for a cold soda or a cocktail is a nice way to escape the sun for a few blessed minutes.
The Tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis: The author of "Zorba the Greek" is laid to rest at the southern juncture of the Venetian walls which surround the city. It takes a good half hour to walk here from the harbor but the quiet, tranquil spot provides a nice panoramic view of both Iraklion to the north and Mount Iouktas to the south. The mountain's craggy outline resembles the profile of a man's head, and local legend proclaims it to be the face of the great god Zeus.
Historical Museum of Crete: This museum houses a more modern collection than the Archeological Museum, but there are some nice paintings by El Greco here in addition to Byzantine ceramics, an assortment of weapons, flags and uniforms from Crete's revolutionary days, and an extensive collection of coins and bank notes dating from the early Christian period through modern times. The museum is open 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. from April through October, with shorter hours during the winter.
Best for Families: Amoudara Beach is the largest in the area and lies less than four miles away from Iraklion. There are plenty of hotels, shops and restaurants nearby, which also means that crowds can be daunting in high season.
Best for Water Sports: Agia Pelagia is roughly 12 miles outside Iraklion and offers calm seas, a laid-back resort atmosphere and plenty of chances to enjoy activities like water skiing and wind surfing.
Best Secluded Beach: The beach at Paliokastro, about 10 miles west of Iraklion, is sheltered by the remains of a Venetian fortress. The beach is small and the sand is a bit pebbly, but the water is gorgeous and the scenery can't be beat.
Restaurants and taverns are plentiful in Iraklion, but if you're eating on the run you'll find the city's version of fast food to be some of the best in the world. Dozens of corner bakeries sell flaky pastries with spinach, ham or cheese inside, and a gyro stuffed with juicy pork and tomatoes then slathered with garlicky yogurt sauce makes an excellent portable snack.
Best Local Eats: Ippocampus (3 Mitsotaki Street, lunch from 1 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.) is just a short walk from the harbor and offers appetizer-sized portions of tradition Cretan dishes such as calamari or fried zucchini slices. The restaurant is popular with both locals and tourists so the wait can be long, but the food is worth it.
Best for an Upscale Treat: Kyriakos (53 Leoforos Demokratias, lunch from noon - 5 p.m.) is consistently touted as serving some of the finest cuisine in town. Snails are a house specialty, but for those with less adventurous appetites the lamb stew is excellent as well.
Best for Families: Pantheon (2 Theodosaki Street, lunch from 11 a.m. on) is one of several restaurants located on the picturesque street commonly known as "dirty alley." Don't let the colorful nickname frighten you, though, because the restaurants lining this narrow street offer homestyle cooking along with a wonderful view of the hustle and bustle of the nearby outdoor markets. Since Pantheon sits right on the corner its views are the best, and its seafood, stews and vegetable dishes are all simple but tasty.
Staying in Touch
Several Internet cafes are scattered near the city center, with Netcafe on 1878 Street being one of the most convenient.
Best for First-Timers: Scenic Lasithi Plateau by Coach is a four and a half hour drive through a spectacular assortment of mountains, valleys, and small villages. Being half a mile above sea level means you'll get a nice overview of Crete's landscape, and stops include a visit to an ancient monastery and a lunch of local wine, bread, cheese and olives.
Best for Families: The four-hour Creta Maris Hotel Package gives guests the freedom to enjoy all the amenities of this five-star resort including three adult swimming pools, two children's pools and a beautiful beach. Either spend the day relaxing in luxury or enjoy water sports for an additional fee.
Best for Active Travelers: Be sure to wear your walking shoes for the six-hour Taste of Crete tour because you'll be covering plenty of ground. The tour begins at Knossos Palace then moves to the valley of Peza for an in-depth look at one of the area's famous wineries. The final stop is the village of Archanes for a stroll through town and lunch in a traditional tavern.
For More Information
On the Web:The Greek National Tourism Organization
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
The Independent Traveler: Athens Exchange
--Freelance writer Ty Treadwell has written for dozens of magazines and newspapers including US Airways Attache, Skylights, Points North and The ASU Travel Guide.
Photos are courtesy of The Greek National Tourism Organization.