Crete is the largest of the Greek Isles and with it’s beautiful beaches fringed by the clear water of the Aegean it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Greece. But it’s more than just pretty tourist beaches. Crete is stunningly beautiful, drenched in thousands of years of history and so diverse in terms of culture, nature and landscape that it’s more like a country in it’s own right than just another Greek island. Which of course it has been in the past!
Crete’s capital, Heraklion, also known as Iraklio, lacks the architectural charm of some of Crete’s other cities, but it’s still a beautiful city with plenty of history, culture and family friendly things to do. Most of the highlights of Heraklion are within the confines of the old city walls. It’s a relatively compact area so you can easily explore it on foot with children, although sections are quite hilly so you may need to take a few breaks. That’s OK there are plenty of coffee shops and ice cream stores to stop in along the way.
Flights to Heraklion from within Europe and the UK can be very cheap, thanks to a number of budget-friendly airlines flying directly there, including Thomas Cook, WizzAir, EasyJet and Aegean Airlines. If you are visiting the Greek mainland or other nearby islands, you can also choose to take a ferry across to Crete.
If you are coming to Crete in the off-season like we chose to, Heraklion is a good place to base yourself as it’s a large enough city in it’s own right to not shut down when the tourists leave, unlike some of the smaller towns. Heraklion is the perfect base in winter to explore Crete from and enjoy local life. In summer I’d recommend only a few nights in Heraklion and spending the bulk of your time in one of the more scenic smaller towns or staying in one of the smaller nearby towns and taking daytrips into Heraklion.
Wander the waterfront and town centre
The waterfront in Heraklion is like walking through a living museum. The Venetian Harbour and Koules fortress with it’s gorgeous walls that withstood 21 years of siege, not to mention the following 500 years, are a lovely place to start. There are plenty of seats to enjoy morning tea at while you watch the birds and colourful boats, and it’s usually not to hard to find a stall selling ice creams.
Nearby you’ll see the Arsenali with arches that once housed not only weapons and gunpowder but boats under repair, the giant overnight ferries that look more like cruise boats and layer upon layer of ruins being uncovered along the boardwalk that’s perfect for kids to explore. There’s even a playground right outside a restaurant and coffee shop!
From the waterfront it’s easy to walk up into the centre of town along the car free 25 August Streettowards Lions Square for lunch. There are some lovely buildings to look at along the way.
The restaurants here in the centre of town are a little expensive, but there are some nice places to eat where your kids can explore. The fountain in Lions Square has water that flows continuously around the base in a loop. A great spot to sit and enjoy a coffee while the kids build boats from leaves and race them around the fountain. Nearby there are several restaurants opening onto wide green spaces.
Before walking around this area be sure to read up on some of Heraklion’s history. Heraklion’s official website is a great place to start as it has a nice overview of the history and buildings in this area.
If you find yourself down the port end of town just one street back from the waterfront is a McDonalds with a great playground.
Explore the walls
Largely intact, the ancient walls surrounding the old centre of Heraklion are the largest fortifications in the Mediterrean.
There are many great spots to explore along the walls. We really enjoyed the section of the walls near Eleftherias Square, just outside the Archaeological Museum. It offers a great view of the harbour and the ferries waiting to head to Athens. Eleftherias Square also often has markets or festivals taking place so if you are lucky there will be something going on to entertain the family.
From the top of the wall you can walk under the wall through one of the gates and cross the road to the park at the base of the wall. Or keep walking down Ikarou St towards the chocolate factory and McDonalds.
The Natural History Museum will be the highlight of your time in Heraklion if you have young children. The exhibits themselves aren’t that interesting, focusing mainly on taxidermy versions of Crete’s native wildlife but there’s a fantastic children’s museum with hands on activities and incredibly helpful, passionate staff. Children can dig for dinosaur bones, explore a cave, pretend to sail a boat, learn about local wildlife, touch different animal skulls and take part in craft activities. On the lower levels of the museum is also an earthquake simulator, which is great fun and educational.
If you plan on visiting Knossos be sure to go to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Showcasing 5500 years of history, many of the most important artifacts from Knossos are housed here. Even toilets! It’s well worth going to the museum first to learn more about Knossos before heading to the site. It’s a great way for the kids to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired at the museum.
The Historical Museum of Crete won’t interest younger children, but older children might enjoy the ancient books and weapons on display, as well as the exhibit on Crete’s roll in World War i and World War II.
Keep your entrance tickets from any museum you visit as often showing the tickets at your next museum will give you a 50% discount on entrance fees.
On the foothills just outside Heraklion are the grand ruins of the Palace of Knossos. Thousands of years before toilets and plumbing appeared in Britain, the people of Knossos had flushing toilets and three separate water management systems. Today they remain one of the most complete and amazing ruins from the Minoan civilisation, with beautifully restored frescos illustrating the life and times of the people who lived there.
Knossos is the source of many of our Greek myths. King Minos, sitting in his palace at Knossos protected by the Minotaur and the labyrinth, which was designed by famed architect Dedalos who King Minos there so he could never reveal the labyrinths plans. That was until Dedalos built wings for himself and his son, Ikaros, to fly off the island with. And we all know how that ended, with Ikaros flying too close to the sun and tragically falling into the Aegean after his metal wings melted.
Just twenty minutes from Heraklion, you can catch a public bus from the main station near the port. There are also regular organised tours leaving from in town. Knossos is closed on public holidays and in winter the site is closed on Sundays.
Have Fun at a Water Park or Aquarium
A trip to Crete doesn’t have to be all scenery and historical excursions. Thirty minutes east of Heraklion is WaterCity, a 80,000 square meter waterslide park and the Crete Aquarium.
Hire a Car and explore
Crete is stunning and with great roads it’s a very easy island to explore. From Heraklion you can head east, west or south – it doesn’t matter what direction you choose as each is equally beautiful.
If you are driving be warned – while driving around most of Crete is easy thanks to great roads, driving through Heraklion, even in winter when it’s quiet, is almost as hair-raising as attempting to drive through a Vietnamese city. The inner city is filled with small narrow lanes where the only rule seems to be ‘anything goes’.
A short drive west of Heraklion is some of the most stunning coastline on the northern coast. Just drive to the waterfront in Heraklion and follow the coastal road to the west. The road takes you over an amazing headland overlooking Heraklion before winding through bays, beaches, tourist villages and headlands. It’s incredibly scenic and a great short day trip with kids.
If you stay on the western highway rather than the coastal road, Rethymnon is an easy 2 hour drive from Heraklion through mountains and pretty coastal areas.
Rethymnon is a nice day out with kids. The beach is the centre of town isn’t the prettiest beach you’ll find in Crete but it’s long, wide and a great place for kids to run. There are plenty of restaurants and bakeries to suit all budgets. The harbour with it’s ancient lighthouse and the nearby fortress shouldn’t be missed.
The 1.5hr drive to Agios Nikolaos east of Heraklion was our favourite daytrip. Along the way you’ll pass through lovely mountains and villages, and even see some of Crete’s famous windmills.
Surrounded by crystal clear water on three sides, including a lake surrounded in mythology, Agios Nikolaos is one of the prettiest towns you’ll find in Crete. Take your pick of the many cafes and restaurants that surround the lake while the kids run around the wide spaces, enjoy the playground and check out the boats. In summer an outdoor cinema is set up on the shores of the lake, often playing family friendly movies.
With the stunning blue clear waters, Agios Nikolaos has a number of rocky beaches right in the centre of town with calm shallow water perfect for kids. With the stunning cliffs and mountains of Crete in the distance, Agios Nikolaos is a lovely place to spend the day.
From Agios Nikolas you can take a number of boat trips to one of the nearby islands or even visit the sunken city of Olous near Elounda. You can drive to Elounda and check out the ruins yourself but it’s a bit hard to find the turn to the ruins and the ruins themselves. The best vantage spot is near the old ruined windmills, but without a guide to tell you what to look at there’s not really a lot to see. I’m not really one to recommend paying for a tour if there is the option of doing it yourself, but this is one time I wished we had of paid the money for the tour.
If you enjoy mountain drives and would like to reach the south coast, the drive to Timbaki is an easy day trip from Heraklion. It’s a very picturesque drive over the mountains and a great way to see the inland villages of Crete. Timbaki itself is not that interesting but the markets are a fun place to visit and some of the nearby beaches are spectacular.
It’s well worth hiring a car for several nights and exploring further afield. You can get great discounts on weekly car rental prices in Crete, particularly in the off season. In the off-season we paid 100 euros for a 7 night car rental with unlimited kilometers. The southern coast and far west coast are breathtaking but most of the best places are too far from Heraklion for a single day trip. You really need to stay a few nights or even longer if you are hoping to make it to the far west coast.