The classic Greek island escape, Heraklion is an impressive city wonderfully positioned to benefit from the vast, sparkling views of the Aegean Sea. Local independent stores and restaurants abound, offering the always delicious selection of Greek dishes and one-of-a-kind trinkets, while the more adventurous can indulge in the local hiking, rock climbing and water sports.
City-centre hotels in Heraklion lie mostly inside the medieval walls, plus a few just outside. Many are overpriced, or traffic-noisy, or both; happy exceptions include two boutique choices within walking distance of each other – Lato (Epimenídou 15), which got an annexe added and a facelift in 2011, while retaining its creative rooftop diner, and Marin Dream (Epimenídou 46), with a less outré colour scheme (sea views from certain rooms in both). The Galaxy (Dimokratías 75) outside the walls is the best value luxury choice, with a pool and wellness centre.
Heraklion is one of the Greek towns hardest hit by the crisis, and abandoned shopfronts abound. Still, there are plenty of fashion outlets, both chains and small independents, along pedestrianised Dedálou, and a huge mall in the western suburb of Tálos, opposite the recommended Karnagio restaurant. For a contrasting experience, trawl the old bazaar along 1866 Street, with its mix of foodstuffs and ethnic souvenirs. Forgot to bring reading material from home? Planet (Hándakos 73) has a large stock of English-language titles. If you’ve developed a taste for Cretan music, there’s no better place to snag some CDs than Aerakis (Dedálou 37), including many of their own label.
Worthwhile, locally patronised establishments are scattered across central Heraklion. Seafood, logically enough, is best found along the seafront; try Ippokambos (Sofoklí Venizélou 3) overlooking the Venetian port, for land snails (a Cretan speciality) as well, or Karnagio (Mínoös 3) in Tálos suburb, tops for scaly fish, cephalopods, and their own-label bottled wine. Giakoumis (Fotíou Theodosáki 8 and contiguous premises) in the central bazaar is the place for succulent lamb chops and excellent bulk wine. For a quick snack or breakfast in an atmospheric setting, it has to be Kirkor (Lion Fountain Square), serving widely esteemed bougátsa (custard pie), tyrópitta (cheese pie) and coffees since 1922, at a few tables opposite the Venetian fountain.
Though now overtaken in reputation by Réthymno’s Carnival, Heraklion’s is equally venerable and recently has experienced a small upsurge, with masquers (including, some years, foreign invited troupes) parading and partying.
Sheep blessing, Asi Gonia
On 23 April – or Easter Monday if Easter falls later – takes place the major bash in this pastoral community, on the border between Réthymno and Haniá provinces. George is the patron of shepherds, who bring hundreds of their charges to the village church to be blessed, and then milked, with the milk given away to spectators.
Heraklion is the centre of Cretan wine production, and many hill villages put on wine festivals in the summer, with free tasting and various exhibits laid on. Two of the most organised are at Dafnés (first half of July) and Arhánes (mid-August).
Municipally sponsored concerts, dance and drama are staged in atmospheric outdoor theatres tucked into corners of the medieval walls.
Famed musician Ross Daly and his Lavyrinth Musical Workshop are the driving forces behind this showcase of traditional music, food and art in this hill village 23km south of Heraklion.