The fifth-biggest city in Greece, Crete’s capital buzzes with energy, mixing ancient origins and modern-day big-city bustle. Away from Heraklion there are beaches for relaxing, ancient ruins to explore, lovely villages and one of the world’s most famous gorge hikes.
Day 1: Heraklion
Follow the encircling Venetian walls to soak up the city’s medieval past, then spend a few hours boning up on Minoan history at the city’s archaeological museum. With your head spinning with images of bulls and topless goddesses, make your way to the excavated ruins of the legendary Palace of Knossos, just outside Heraklion. The reconstructions of the original courtyards, private apartments, baths and, in particular the lovely frescos, brilliantly convey palatial life in Minoan times. If you just can’t get enough ruins, head to Archanes in the late afternoon, to explore the ruins of the summer palace and necropolis.
Day 2: Around Crete
Next day, head out of the city to visit a classic example of a Venetian castle at Frangokastello, or explore yet more Minoan ruins to the east of the capital at Malia. Then get a taste for big town life on Crete at Hania or Rethymno. Both towns boast a stunning mix of Venetian and Ottoman architecture, with lovely old town centers to explore, Venetian harbors, museums, churches and mosques. Perhaps the best thing to do in Hania and Rethymno is to sit back and soak up the village atmosphere from a waterfront taverna looking onto the port.
Day 3: Hikes and beaches
For active types it’s time to dust off your hiking boots and walk Europe’s longest gorge hike, the Samaria Gorge. The legendary trail follows a riverbed enclosed by soaring cliffs, and the trail’s end is marked by a welcome beach at Agia Roumeli.
Or take your pick from a string of lovely beaches to reward your efforts. If you’re holidaying on Crete with the family, pack a picnic and head to Golden Beach near Hania, with everything you need for a day at the beach. For a more secluded swimming spot, choose Makriyialos on the south coast.