Beaches, Palaces and a Hippie Paradise: The Best Things to Do in and Around Heraklion, Crete

The archaeological site at Knossos is just one of the area's delights
The archaeological site at Knossos is just one of the area's delights | © funkyfood London - Paul Williams / Alamy Stock Photo
Heraklion gives you city and island life in one. Grab a coffee and go to a Renaissance exhibition, wander to beaches and prehistoric palaces, or sample Cretan food and raki in the centre of town. Here are the best things to do in and around Heraklion.

Walk the streets of Spinalonga

Spinalonga is about an hour away from Heraklion. The island near Agios Nikolaos is a former leper colony, where the afflicted were sent to die in isolation. You can walk the eerie streets of the tiny island and imagine what it might have been like to live there. You won’t be the first to get lost in its drama: documentarian Werner Herzog made a short film called Last Words, with lingering shots of its streets and skulls. Novelist Victoria Hislop wrote bestseller The Island about it, which was then turned into a Greek hit TV series. A visit here isn’t a classically ‘enjoyable’ experience, but its aura is disturbing and intriguing – an experience that will certainly stay with you.

Experience love and peace at Matala

Matala and its beachside caves are synonymous with hippies. As a hippy bastion in the 60s and 70s, it was immortalised in Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Carey’, in which you’re invited to head over to the Mermaid Café (a new mermaid café has opened near the original). One of the original Matala hippies was poet Katerina Koutsogiannopoulou who, like many, was evicted in police raids. Headlines from the time make for strange reading (‘Hippies thrown out of caves by police in attempt to protect archaeological finds,’ for example). Today Matala hosts an annual beach festival in late June and is ideal for laying back and listening to “that scratchy rock n roll beneath the Matala moon” (in the words of Joni Mitchell), while its seafront bars can see you through the night.

Step back to Minoan Crete at Knossos

The Palace of Knossos is world renowned and it’s easy to see why. Legend links it with King Minos and the myth of the minotaur. It is over a thousand years older than the Parthenon, stretching well into the 2nd millennium BCE and its labyrinthine sprawl speaks to the imagination. Though its writing is still to a great extent shrouded in mystery, Minoan civilisation speaks through its archaeology and its vast cryptic palaces. The site was excavated by British archaeologist Arthur Evans in the early 20th century, where he painted and built on top of the ruins, bringing it alive while also arguably undermining its authenticity.

Extend your historical adventure at Tylissos

“If you want to avoid Evans’s excessive cement reconstructions,” Dr. Papadatos grumbles with a smile, “I believe Tylissos is an excellent alternative”. The Associate Professor at the University of Athens in prehistoric archaeology is frequently digging in remote spots on the island, and calls the site “a textbook of Minoan elite architecture”. Only half an hour away from Heraklion, it perfectly complements a visit to Knossos. Walk up the stairs, stare down the cistern and see what Knossos denies you: a well-preserved site, untampered with and off the beaten track, nestled in a little town and surrounded by olive groves and vineyards.

Visit El Greco and Kazantzakis at the Historical Museum

The Historical Museum of Crete is worth a visit for its variety and unique exhibits. It houses the only paintings of world-famous Cretan Renaissance painter El Greco that remain in Crete. Another famous local, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, said “I will willingly give the Museum anything valuable I have connected to my long, laborious, intellectual life” – so, if literature is your thing, go peer at his manuscripts and watch clips from the movies based on his novels, including Scorsese’s The Last Temptation.

Devour a bougatsa at the Platia Liontarion

Around the fountains of Lion Square, grab a savoury bougatsa pastry with mizithra cheese for the road. “I’ve had them since I was a child, and I love them”, proud Cretan Marianna Mavroforaki told Culture Trip.

Gorge on chocolate and coffee at Utopia

Utopia is perfect for a break during a day of sightseeing, tucked away in a quiet side street. Its coffees and teas, profiteroles and chocolates are displayed proudly, but it also serves a variety of fancy beers just right for a 4pm break between a museum and an evening at the beach. “Ideal for easy chats, gatherings, sweets and snacks all day. Remember that with your order you receive a tray full of sweet treats”, founder Dimitris Tzanakis tells Culture Trip.

Brush up on Minoan history at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

Heraklion’s archaeological museum is world renowned for its Minoan art collection and you can’t deny its ambition, covering 5,500 years of history. If you don’t have a PhD in prehistoric archaeology, pay a visit here for some context on the innumerable arachaeologial sites scattered around the island.

Dress up for a meal at Peskesi

Locals tell Culture Trip that Peskesi is the best place to sit and work your way through some seasonal culinary masterpieces. Right in the centre of Heraklion, Peskesi is in a traditional Cretan house, the restored historical mansion of captain Polyxigkis. Ranked among the top restaurants in Europe, it has made a religion out of fresh, local and seasonal food, even boasting its own farm.

Wander around the village of Acharnes

The village of Acharnes is as picturesque as they come. Wander around the traditional tavernas, peek around the churches, say hello to the old people sipping Greek coffee and climb Mount Juktas for some phenomenal views of the surrounding area.

Sip on wine at Douloufakis

Douloufakis Winery is a family business just outside Heraklion, established in 1930. With several prizes to its name, Douloufakis offers tours and tasting sessions. Have a guided tour of the facilities, the vineyard, learn about Cretan grapes and say a sweet farewell to Heraklion.