Heraklion Travel Guide: History, Customs, Festivals and More

Discover Heraklion: vibrant history, rich customs, local festivals, and travel tips for your unforgettable Greek adventure.

Heraklion Travel Guide: History, Customs, Festivals and More

Heraklion Travel Guide: History, Customs, Festivals, and More

Welcome to Heraklion, the vibrant capital of Crete and one of Greece's most fascinating cities. This travel guide will provide you with a thorough understanding of Heraklion's rich history, unique customs, vibrant festivals, and much more. Prepare to embark on a journey that marries antiquity with modernity in a city that never fails to captivate its visitors.


Ancient Period

Heraklion's roots trace back to the Minoan civilization, one of Europe’s earliest advanced cultures. The city has a profound historical significance due to its proximity to the palace of Knossos, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and considered Europe's oldest city.

The myths surrounding the Minoan civilization are as enchanting as the ruins themselves. The legend of the Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull, ostensibly dwelled in the labyrinth of Knossos, built by the ingenious craftsman Daedalus.

Venetian and Ottoman Periods

Following the decline of the Minoan civilization, Heraklion saw a succession of rulers, including the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, and Ottomans. Each culture left its mark on the city's architecture and culture. The Venetian period, in particular, gifted Heraklion with magnificent fortifications that stand to this day.

The Venetian Walls, constructed in the 15th century, encircle the old town and exemplify Gothic military architecture. The Venetian Loggia, built in the early 17th century, functioned as a social and political hub for the Venetian leaders. The Ottoman rule introduced several mosques and houses, adding yet another layer to Heraklion's rich architectural tapestry.

Modern Era

In the 20th century, Crete became part of modern Greece, and Heraklion evolved into a bustling urban center. Today, it serves as a crucial economic and cultural hub of Crete, blending a storied past with a vibrant present.

Customs and Traditions

Hospitality (Philoxenia)

Greek hospitality, known as 'philoxenia,' is legendary, and Heraklion is no exception. Visitors can expect warm welcomes, generous offers of food, and an eagerness from locals to share their culture and history. Acts of hospitality are deeply embedded in Cretan society, reflecting an enduring sense of community and respect.

Traditional Cuisine

Heraklion's culinary landscape is a delectable blend of traditional Cretan dishes and Mediterranean flavors. Don't miss out on tasting:

  • Kalitsounia: Small pastries filled with cheese or greens.
  • Chochlioi Boubouristi: Fried snails with wine, vinegar, and rosemary.
  • Lamb with Stamnankáthi: A savory lamb dish cooked with wild greens.
  • Bougatsa: A sweet or savory pastry filled with custard or cheese.

Local taverns and restaurants often prepare meals using locally sourced fruits, vegetables, and herbs, ensuring a fresher, more authentic experience.

Music and Dance

Cretan music and dance are integral to Heraklion's cultural identity. The lyra, a three-stringed bowed instrument, and the laouto, a type of lute, dominate the music scene. Traditional dances like the syrtos and pentozali are performed during festivals and social gatherings. Watching or participating in these dances offers invaluable insight into the local way of life.

Festivals and Events

Carnival (Apokries)

Celebrated in the weeks leading up to Lent, Heraklion's Carnival is a lively mix of parades, masquerades, and public celebrations. The celebrations culminate on the "Clean Monday," which marks the beginning of Lent.

Greek Orthodox Easter

Easter is the most significant religious festival in Greece. In Heraklion, the entire Holy Week is filled with liturgies, processions, and communal feasts. The Easter Sunday feast usually features lamb roasted on a spit, embodying the communal and familial aspects of the event.

Matala Beach Festival

Held in the nearby village of Matala, this annual three-day festival celebrates music, art, and the unique hippie history of the region. The festival attracts thousands of visitors and features performances from local and international artists, workshops, and various activities.

Heraklion Summer Arts Festival

From June to September, the city hosts the Heraklion Summer Arts Festival. This event covers a broad array of cultural activities, including theater performances, concerts, dance, and art exhibitions, providing a rich, immersive experience for locals and tourists alike.

Points of Interest

The Palace of Knossos

The archaeological site of Knossos is a must-visit. Believed to be the birthplace of the first European civilization, it offers a glimpse into the Minoan way of life. The site, excavated by Sir Arthur Evans, includes structures like the Throne Room and the vibrant frescoes that depict scenes from Minoan daily life.

Heraklion Archaeological Museum

One of the most significant museums in Greece, it houses an extensive collection of artifacts from the Minoan civilization, including the celebrated Phaistos Disc, exquisite pottery, jewelry, and frescoes. The exhibits provide an in-depth look into Crete’s ancient history.

Koules Fortress

Situated at the entrance of the old harbor, Koules Fortress is a Venetian-built structure dating back to the 16th century. Visitors can explore its formidable walls and enjoy panoramic views of the sea and the city. The fortress also hosts various cultural events and exhibitions.

Venetian Walls and Tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis

Walking along the Venetian Walls offers a scenic and historical perspective on Heraklion. The tomb of the famous Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, located on Martinego Bastion, is inscribed with the poignant words, "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

Travel Tips

Best Time to Visit

The ideal times to visit Heraklion are during the spring (April to June) and autumn (September to October) when the weather is pleasant, and tourist crowds are thinner. Summer months are hot and bustling, making it perfect for beach activities but often crowded.

Getting Around

Heraklion’s city center is relatively compact, and many attractions are within walking distance. For longer distances, the public bus system is reliable and affordable. Taxis are also readily available, and renting a car can be a good option for exploring the broader region of Crete.

Local Etiquette

Respect for local customs and traditions is crucial. Dress modestly when visiting religious sites. A friendly “Kalimera” (Good morning) or “Kalispera” (Good evening) goes a long way in establishing good rapport with locals. Observing and participating in local customs respectfully enhances your travel experience.

Interesting Facts

  • Heraklion is named after Hercules (Herakles), the mythological hero, rather than the ancient goddess Hera.
  • The city has a blend of Venetian, Byzantine, and Ottoman architecture providing a rich tapestry of history in its structures.
  • The “Old Harbor,” overlooked by the Koules Fortress, is a picturesque spot where visitors can enjoy stunning sunsets.
  • Crete is known for its olive oil, considered some of the best in the world. Sampling local olive oil is a must.
  • Heraklion is a university city, home to the University of Crete and the Hellenic Mediterranean University, infusing a youthful energy into the city’s ambiance.

In conclusion, Heraklion offers a rich blend of history, culture, and vibrant modern life. From ancient ruins and fascinating museums to bustling markets and delightful local treats, a visit to Heraklion is a journey through time and tradition, ensuring an enriching and unforgettable experience.