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Set on the northern shores of Crete, Heraklion's streets have been filled with visitors for thousands of years. Imagine Byzantine traders and Venetian merchants landing on bright sandy beaches, and picture Ottoman conquests that brought the city to its knees. Now, visitors take up the mantle of new arrivals to Heraklion whose principal exports have shifted from trade to travel. From ancient city sites explored by foot to charming seaside hamlets that offer spectacular seafood, judge the legacies of Heraklion's myriad of conquerors and traditions for yourself on your next Cretan holiday. Whether you want to dive into the past on a guided archaeological tour or examine the city from the sea on a chartered cruise, there are plenty of things to do in Heraklion to keep you captivated.
The regional capital and one of the largest cities in Greece, Heraklion city was a major harbor for everyone from the Minoans to the Republic of Venice. Its winding streets are lined with sculptures dedicated to historic figures, along with old Ottoman mosques and Byzantine churches, and a 16th-century fortress still stands watch over the harbor.
Resting on a little crescent beach near the southern tip of Crete, Matala is a laid-back collection of campgrounds, cafes, and beach umbrellas sheltered by rough, rocky cliffs. Explore artificial caves were dug out of the bluffs in the Stone Age to be used as tombs, and look for remnants from their later residents, hippies who holed up in the same caves during the 1960s.
The region's old Roman capital rests in the valley under Crete's highest mountain, with ancient laws still engraved on the city walls. Little villages and rural churches are scattered across the countryside, along with the plane tree where Greek myth holds that Zeus had his affair with the princess Europa.
Heraklion's small size makes it an ideal place to explore on foot. With only a few main streets, any evening stroll is sure to bring you past monuments and landmarks that have defined the city's character for thousands of years. Imagine yourself as a Venetian trader and step back in time with a walk through town. Check out the rows of Venetian monuments in Heraklion city, where the fine arches of the Heraklion Loggia still hold up city hall and the Koules Fortress' remains a spectacular spot to snap photos of grand marble reliefs. Want to get out of town? Open-air archaeological sites at Phaistos and Knossos offer a fascinating peek into the heart of what remains of these ancient cities.
Don't visit Heraklion without trying out the city's unique spread of Cretan cuisine. Stop in at area cafes and restaurants on your own, or get a hand with a private food tour that will lead you to the best places to fill up on flaky pastries, like bougatsa or perfectly-wrapped grape leaves stuffed with savory filling. Wash it all down on a tasting trip through the city center where you can quench your thirst on robust glasses of Greek wine.
There's plenty to see in the island's interior even if you aren't in the mood for Minoan ruins. Take a horseback ride into the mountains to explore dusty trails and sites right out of Greek myths, or climb aboard a 4x4 for an off-roading trip past fragrant olive groves, green valleys, and rugged cliff-bordered coastlines.
If you're in the mood for sightseeing on the water, Heraklion's harbors offer easy access to some of the best sights on the Aegean. Hope on a coastal cruise to admire Crete's sea caves from a waterfront perspective, or head out on a voyage to Santorini for a day spent relaxing on the island's charming beaches. Looking for something a bit more adventurous? Jump into the Mediterranean's cool blue waters on a scuba-diving expedition through the reefs that lie just under the surface of Crete's East Bay.