Holidays to the Heraklion area of Crete have something to offer around the clock, starting with early morning sunbathing stints on the beach and ending in dusk-til-dawn clubbing.
The Heraklion area’s bragging rights begin with its beaches. The stretches of sand in this central part of Crete’s north coast are impossible to pigeon hole – they range from the lively 18 to 30s hangouts in Malia to the rugged bays of the deserted island, Dia.
The Heraklion area has the first word when it comes to nightlife in Crete. Hersonissos has a stockpile of bars and nightclubs, but even this pales in comparison to what Malia has to offer. Thanks to foam parties, shooter bars and nightclub booze cruises, the after-dark scene in this town can easily turn into after-dawn action.
The Palace of Knossos
While half of the Heraklion area’s visitors come here to live in the moment, the other half come to explore the past. The Palace of Knossos is just a few miles from Heraklion city centre. According to legend, the foundations of this Bronze Age city were filled with an inescapable labyrinth, which was guarded by a vicious Minotaur.
Things to See and Do in Heraklion area
The full spectrum of sands
Heraklion has a comprehensive catalogue of beaches. There are busy bands of sand with the full list of facilities, like Hersonissos Port Beach. There are rugged island bays, like the one on Dia. And there are bar-backed beaches, like Malia Central Beach, which attract the 18 to 30s crowd.
The big beach
Malia tots up 6 kilometres’ worth of beaches. The one that gets the most lip-service, however, is Malia Central Beach. It’s 600 metres long and topped with sunloungers and parasols. Visitors come here for the watersports and the beach bars that line the sand.
The secret beach
St George’s Beach isn’t exactly a secret – if it was, you wouldn’t be able to catch a boat here from Heraklion harbour – but it does fly below the radar of most tourists. This rugged bay is on the uninhabited island of Dia, 12 miles off the mainland. A handful of sunloungers have recently been added to the sand, but apart from these, the trappings of tourism are few and far between.
For souvenir shopping that won’t break the bank, head to Eleftheriou Venizelou Street in Hersonissos. The gift shops here sell everything from Crete-branded candles and shot glasses to ceramics and t-shirts, and prices start at just a few euros. For something a bit more traditional, try Heraklion’s open-air market on Odos 1866 Street. It’s open every day except Sunday, and the stalls are stacked with the likes of thyme honey, pumice stones and olive oil.
Quite a few high street brands put in an appearance in the Heraklion area. On Daidalou Street in Heraklion town, you’ll find stores like Zara and Benetton. On Malia Beach Road, meanwhile, you’ve got shops selling brands like Nike and Puma. Make-your-own t-shirt places are also popular in Malia.
As a rule, visitors don’t come to the Heraklion area to shop. If you can’t get through your holiday without a shopping splurge, though, you’ll find the shops of several Greek fashion designers in Liberty Square in Heraklion. Alternatively, check out the jewellery shops on Malia Beach Road in Malia and El Venizelou Street in Hersonissos.
There are plenty of restaurants along Hersonissos’ waterfront. If you want a more authentic Greek experience, however, try Koutouloufari village, a couple of kilometres away. Head for A Minoti Street and you can’t go far wrong. Stalis, 4 kilometres east of Malia, is another good choice for traditional tavernas. The restaurants along Beach Road and Grammatikaki Street specialise in classics like stifado and kleftico.
You can set the midnight oil on fire in Malia. Malia Beach Road is fenced in by bars, karaoke joints, and clubs. Drinks are served in all shapes and sizes – from fish bowls to yard glasses – and the foam parties and bar crawls carry on until sunrise. In Hersonissos, meanwhile, nights begin in the bars of 25 Martious Street and end in the nightclubs of Agias Paraskevis Street.
Different parts of Crete put a different twist on the onion pie. In Heraklion, it’s made by mixing mashed potatoes with onion, before frying the mixture in eggs and flour. In other parts of the island it’s enveloped by a pastry casing, and sometimes looks a bit like quiche.
This dish was born of Crete’s love affair with courgettes. It’s made by mashing courgettes, flour, eggs and other vegetables together, shaping them into patties, and frying them. They’re usually served fresh-from-the-pan as part of a warm mezze platter.
You might think ostrich would stick out like a sore thumb on a traditional Greek menu, but over the past decade or so it’s become commonplace on certain Heraklion area menus. It’s all because of the ostrich farm, which has been set up outside Kokini Hani, a few miles from Heraklion. The meat is usually served up as souvalaki or steak.
Paximadia is a traditional Greek bread. It’s pretty hard when it comes out of the oven, and needs to be softened up with a splash of water and olive oil before serving. Its taste comes into its own when it’s topped with tomatoes, oregano, olives and cheese, and served as the bedrock of a Greek salad.
If you only learn one Greek word while you’re in Greece, make it ‘yamas’. It means ‘cheers’, and you’ll need to use it every time you’re given a shot of tsikoudia. This clear, grape-based spirit is often served compliments-of-the-house in traditional restaurants.
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The peaceful village of Gournes is a relative newcomer on Crete’s northern coast. That said, its unhurried, laid-back vibe leads you to believe it’s been around much longer. Pint-sized guesthouses and apartments are sprinkled across the rugged landscape, which centres around a charming waterfront and a pristine stretch of sandy beach. And the better-known tourist spots of Gouves and Kokkini are within strolling distance.
With a name that translates to ‘huge sand’, it’s no wonder Amoudara’s main draw is its beach. This caramel-coloured stretch unravels as far as the eye can see. Bars are dotted all the way along it, so you’ll never have far to go for an ice-cold drink. And when it comes to watersports, you’ve got everything from body-boarding to snorkelling.
When you go to Gouves, you actually get two places for the price of one. The old village of Pano Gouves, with its whitewashed houses and churches, is built into the side of Mount Ederi. Then, at the bottom of the hill, there’s the seaside town of Kato Gouves, where you’ll find the bars, restaurants and hotels. It’s all just 25 minutes from Crete’s capital Heraklion, and 15 minutes from the island’s biggest resort, Hersonissos.
Hersonissos is a big, glossy town on the north coast of the island. It’s one of the liveliest places on Crete, with restaurants, bars and clubs keeping the nightlife upbeat in the centre and along the waterfront. There’s more to this place than big nights, though. It comes with a couple of waterparks, not to mention a trio of rather lovely beaches.
Kamilari is a peaceful hilltop village in southern Crete. It's shouldered by the green Messara Valley on one side and the blue Libyan Sea on the other, meaning the views are hard to beat. It’s an unhurried place with authentic tavernas and kafenions on the quaint village square. Kamilari's narrow alleyways are lined with low whitewashed houses and shutters draped with bougainvillea. This rural escape pairs up nicely with Kalamaki Beach, just down the road.
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