Heraklion holidays have it all. We’re talking bevies of beaches and a selection box of historical big-hitters, as well as some famous after-sundown spots.
You’ll find the Heraklion area on Crete’s north coast. The city itself is Crete’s capital, and it’s packed with giveaways that Heraklion was once under Venetian rule, like the city-centre Lions Square – the statue-featuring fountain gives it its name. Aghios Minas Cathedral’s another pic-friendly place. The Heraklion area’s got its own international airport, too. It’s named after Nikos Kazantzakis, a famous Greek author who was born in the city. By night, bar-spangled spots like Hersonissos have you covered, and the bright lights of Malia are 30 minutes away by taxi.
Once you’ve had your fill of urban adventures, you can explore Heraklion’s wild side. If you’re up for a challenge, strap on your boots and hike the 16-kilometre Samaria Gorge – one of Europe’s longest canyons. If you’re a more chilled-out type, you’ve got plenty of beaches to hit up, too. Amoudara’s white sand swirls out for three miles, Hersonissos has a necklace of bustling beaches, and laidback Kokkini Hani boasts a 400-metre, perfect-for-paddling swathe.
Big helpings of history are on the holiday menu in Heraklion. In the city itself, the Archaeological Museum is a must-visit. Some of the artefacts hosted here have been around for over five thousand years. The Palace of Knossos is the biggest hitter of the bunch, though. This Bronze-Age beauty has been branded Europe’s oldest city, and the complex spills out over 10 kilometres. This ancient spot was said to be the haunt of the legendary half man, half-bull minotaur.
Things to See and Do in Heraklion area
Heraklion is a please-everyone kind of place where beaches are concerned. This pocket of northern Crete packs in everything from family-friendly spots like Stalis and Agia Pelagia, to party-central Malia with its sweep of bar-backed sand.
The big beach
Stalis Beach takes the title of Heraklion’s most popular stretch. This gold slice runs right along the length of the town, so whichever spot you pick, you won’t be far from the action. There are plenty of sunloungers and parasols up for grabs, and families with little ones will love the shallow, calm waters. Lunch won’t be a problem either – the sands are lined with tavernas and beach bars.
The secret beach
If your idea of beach heaven is something a little more secluded, Paleokastro Beach should be right up your street. It’s a pebbled cove about 15 minutes’ drive southwest of Heraklion town. The beach is postcard-pretty, hemmed in by craggy cliffs and watched over by an old castle. You won’t find crowds and cocktail bars here – just bags of space and a couple of lovely seafront tavernas.
Odos 1866 Street in Heraklion is a souvenir pulse point. The open-air market here is crammed with stalls selling traditional Cretan products like thyme honey, pumice stones, and olive oil cosmetics. It’s open every day except Sunday. In Kokkini Hani, meanwhile, you’ll find a handful of souvenir shops on the main street.
You can restock your wardrobe in the clothes shops in Hersonissos. Head to El Venizelou Streetto buy everything from gym gear to designer jeans. If you’re in Heraklion, meanwhile, you’ll find stores like Zara and Benetton on Daidalou Street.
Deep-pocketed shoppers should head to Liberty Square in Heraklion to browse the boutiques of Greek designers like Bill Cost and Rococo. Alternatively, you can put a serious dent in the bank balance in the jewellery shops on Ag.Parakevis in Hersonissos.
There’s no shortage of restaurants in Hersonissos, but for something special, head to the traditional village of Koutouloufari, 800 metres away. Some of the restaurants here clock up five stars on TripAdvisor. In Kokkini Hani, the best restaurants are in the harbour. And if you want a break from the norm, the village of Anopolis, a few miles from Kokkini Hani, lays on a Greek night once a week with dancing and traditional food.
When it comes to nightlife, Hersonissos is cooking on gas. Start your night off in the bars around 25 Martious Street, AKA Beach Road, then migrate over to the clubs on Agias Paraskevis Street. If you want the ultimate night on the tiles, however, you should head to Malia. The clubs on Malia Beach Road are open ‘til dawn.
This recipe may have been born and bred here, but it’s become a hit all over Crete. Onion pies are made by mixing mashed potatoes with onion, and frying the onion in a mixture of flour and eggs. They can be served piping hot or chilled.
This is one from Crete’s ‘100 ways with courgettes’ recipe collection. This time, the popular vegetable is grated with potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and cheese and fried in a batter of flour and egg. The end result is served warm with a yoghurt dip.
Granted, you won’t find ostrich recipes in your traditional Greek cookbook, but it’s become a regular on the menus in Kokkini Hani. There’s a farm on the outskirts of town, so you’ll see the low-fat meat served up as souvlakia – a type of kebab – and steak.
Named after a pair of islands 12 kilometres off the coast of Crete, Paximadia is twice-baked bread. It’s sprinkled in water just before serving to soften it, and you’ll usually find it at the bottom of a Cretan salad, hidden beneath tomatoes, cheese, oregano and olives.
In most Cretan villages, there’s a local who’s licensed to produce Tsikoudia. The clear spirit is made from the skins of grapes, and it’s knock-your-socks-off alcoholic. Most locals keep a bottle in their freezer and sip it slowly with their meals.
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If ‘close to the beach’ and ‘sightseeing’ are your holiday must-haves, you can kill two birds with one stone in Amoudara. This beach resort brings a fat dose of sun, sea and sand, with a close-to-the-city postcode to boot. It’s practically a suburb of Heraklion, it’s that close – we’re talking 15 minutes’ drive to the Cretan capital.
Crete files itself firmly in Greece’s culture-vulture bracket, thanks to its Minoan palaces and long inventory of preserved ruins. Hersonissos, though, is a different beast altogether. Instead of promising you ancient archaeological sites and countryside where you could hear a pin drop, this place shapes up as one of the island’s liveliest customers. The bold and brash waterfront’s where most of the action happens, with bars and cafés clinging limpet-like to the promenade.
This place is by no means a sun-seeking staple, but instead plies its trade as an under-the-radar option. You’ll see tell-tale signs of its fishing-focused past, and the beach gets a lot of love, too. When the time comes for something with a little more tempo, one of Crete’s premier towns – Heraklion – is 15 minutes’ drive away.
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