For many visitors Heraklion is the gateway to the island of Crete and first impressions can count against it;It lacks the charm of flirtatious Chania, Venetian Rethymno is more alluring, Aghios Nikolaos has a more enigmatic setting, and even sleepy Sitia reminds of a Cycladic chora, all whitewash and staircases. The fifth largest city in Greece with over 170,000 inhabitants, Heraklion ( also known as Herakleion, Irakleio and Iraklion) now bulges out beyond the great city walls, a sprawling and untidy succession of concrete apartment blocks and messy streets. Indeed, many visitors see it merely as a drop-off point and bypass the city on the way to more serene environments.
However, for those prepared to scratch below the surface, Heraklion is not without charm. The excellent Archaeological Museum and the nearby Palace of Knossos are imperative for anyone who wants to explore Cretan civilisation. Much of the centre is now pedestrianised, and a walk down Daidalou passing cafes and strolling shoppers is no bad way to see the city. The Venetian city walls and waterfront fortress remind that the history of the island is storied with invasions and rule by foreign influences.
Home to a busy University, Heraklion is a young city bustling with life. Bars and restaurants seem to open weekly and the cultural scene is strong with exhibitions, galleries and theatrical performances. The extensive island-wide bus network emanates from here, and the nearby beaches on the north coast are more than serviceable, if a little windy.
Climb the battlements of the Koules fortress and take in the inner and outer harbour where passenger ferries and freight ships drop anchor, look across to the Venetian city, much lost to earthquakes and WW2 bombing, standing on the footings of the earlier Byzantine city. To the south rises Mount Louktas and to the west, the pointed peak of Mount Stromboulas. Behind, the great area of the Heraklion prefecture, all craggy valleys, fertile vineyards, sandy shores and twisting rivers awaits your searching eyes.