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Take in a bit of history and enjoy the vibrant pace of Crete’s largest city- Iraklion- Heraklion. Historically, the city was also called Chandax and Candia. Iraklio boasts an exciting history that includes everything from the Minoans, the Arabs, pirates and the Venetians. To understand the sights in Heraklion a little history goes a long way or you will be wondering why there is a Venetian fountain in the middle of a Greek city.
A super quick history
The city started out as a port for the Minoans until it was destroyed by the aftereffects of Santorini’s volcanic explosion. Rebuilding was begun by the Romans, but it was the Arabs who built the fortress walls around the city. After a brutal siege, the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople-current day Istanbul) took control of the city until the Venetians took power over Crete. The Venetians made many additions to the city such as the famous Lion fountain that brought fresh water to the city as well as the Koules Fortress. After one of the longest sieges in history (21 years) the city fell to the Ottomans and eventually in 1913 became part of Greece.
One of the best things that we loved about Heraklion was the walkability of the city. Everything was within a comfortable walking distance. It was also lively with locals. as Greeks love going out and there were great cafes and restaurants everywhere.
Cretan food is delicious. Some restaurants will even give a complimentary dessert, drink, or fruit after your meal. Our kids loved this extra special part of the meal. All the places we visited were friendly towards families. My favourite café-bakery here was To Paradosiako - it was so fresh and the ice coffee was fantastic. However, most cafes and restaurants served great food. So even if your accommodation has a kitchen, you are going to want to eat out at every opportunity. Our whole family loved the food an extra bit more in Crete.
Top Places to Visit in the city
Koules Venetian Fortress- This imposing fortress was built by the Venetians. The view from the rooftop is fantastic.
Morosini Lions Fountain- This Venetian fountain is in the center of the Herakion’s busy town square. Take a few photos with these famous lions and then relax at one of the many restaurants or ice cream shops here.
Venetian Loggia- Beautiful city hall that is still being used today. Enjoy a few photos on the outside.
Agios Titos Church- Dedicated to St. Titus, this church, which also served as a mosque during the Ottoman occupation, has lovely stained glass that beautifully colors the inside of the church. It also has the skull of St. Titus.
Agios Minas Cathedral- Patron saint of Heraklion – Saint Menas. The cathedral has beautiful paintings in the domes. It’s worth visiting. When visiting churches in Greece, keep in mind, that you may be refused entrance if you are wearing shorts.
Knossos Tickets > Here
A short drive outside of Heraklion is the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos. Set in a beautiful rolling hills and the home the minotaur, the whole family will enjoy exploring this palace. We arrived in the early morning before it was too hot and enjoyed exploring the sight. It was excavated by Arthur Evans and while there has been controversy about his rebuilding of the archeological site, the reconstruction enhances the experience for general tourists. The bright frescoes are impressive. Combination tickets (Knossos & Archeological) are available for an extra Euro. Try to go in the morning before it becomes too hot and bring hats and sunscreen as there are very few shady areas here.
The museum is top notch and should be a definite on your list. It’s jam packed with ancient Minoan artifacts and is great complement to a Knossos visit. The museum also includes items from several other times periods in Crete’s history such as Neolithic and Roman. They offer a leaflet for children to help keep them interested. They do a security check at the entrance, so plan your time accordingly. We went in the later part of the afternoon and it wasn’t busy. You can get a combined ticket with Knossos.
Now, a very honest parent to parent note---- the museum will be very dry for younger kids. The museum staff are sticklers for quiet, control, and are very watchful of everyone. Even with my older kids (who were quiet and not touching) we had to stand far back from glass cases as staff kept approaching us and telling us to back away. If you have a young child who loves to run and touch everything you may not enjoy the museum as much. If you would like to visit (it’s definitely worth it) I would limit it the visit to about an hour. There is an interactive display at the front of the museum that our kids enjoyed. That said, our girls liked the museum.
If you have time then make a point to stop by as your kids will really enjoy this museum. Specializing in dinosaurs and Crete’s natural history, kids will appreciate the huge life-size dinosaurs and large dioramas. There is also an earthquake stimulator that runs once every hour, so check the timetable when you arrive. For all the holding back that kids must have in formal museums, they can fully enjoy this one as it’s catered to them.
And, finally while you are in Greece, if you see these delightful honey covered donut-like puffs, order a plate or two for the family. They are delightfully, delicious!