Port of Crete (Heraklion)
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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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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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
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.
Greek, although many people working in the service industry speak fairly good English.
Food and Drink
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.
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.
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.