You know that feeling when you have a few extra days in a city you love? It’s the excitement, the joy, and the anticipation! I was set to attend a friend’s wedding in the lovely Santorini, and I had 3 delightful days to spare in my favourite city of Heraklion.
Crete is one of the finest spots in the world to enjoy a city break. Of course, Heraklion has a host of popular hotspots and tourist attractions, but the city has so much more to offer if you only know where to look. Four days gave me ample time to get out and discover the real Cretan culture that can be found among the vibrant shopping markets, local walks, and enchanting traditional villages. I’ve gotten to know Heraklion quite well and had a few ideas in mind, but the wonderful concierge at my hotel shared my passion and enthusiasm for the local vibrance, and we scheduled my time in this historic city!
Discover city walks and relaxing spots in Heraklion
Relaxing in Georgiadis Park
Another day, another blissful blue sky, Crete has such lush weather all year round, so it’s never a bad time to get out and enjoy the outdoors on foot. On the morning of my first day, I found myself sipping fresh orange juice on a bench in Georgiadis Park; a peaceful spot to enjoy the scenery as recommended by my concierge. There are a few other ‘almost park’ spots in Heraklion, but Georgiadis is the only truly green space. It’s the perfect little park to spend an afternoon reading. Or soaking up some sunshine on a city break in Heraklion.
Sitting in the splendour of nature in Georgiadis Park on a Monday meant market day. The local organic market was in full swing. After perusing the colourful shelves and smelling the sweet scent of juicy citrus fruits on the air, I picked a succulent apple. It was delicious, as though picked ripe from the tree almost moments ago. The market is open every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday from 10:00 till 3:00. It’s a fantastic place to pick up some unique products straight from the producers and enjoy the freshest ingredients. Being the sweet tooth that I am, I couldn’t help but pick up some traditional mpougatsa sweet, from the corner pastry shop Koumakis, for my walk around the city.
Walking the Venetian Walls
Every time I visit Crete, I’m astounded by the elegant mix of scenery that’s always on offer in dynamic cities like Heraklion. The blocky and colourful effect of the 16th-century fortification architecture blends so beautifully against the backdrop of the winding landscape.I had planned the perfect route along the famous Venetian wall trench. Starting from Bastion St Andrew and ending at New Gate (or ‘Venetian City Wall’ point on the map).
With the city at my feet and the ocean at my back. I felt like an ancient Venetian marvelling at the beauty of my city. Walking along these once impenetrable walls is like taking a stroll through history, a little piece of the past revealed to you with every step. The municipality of Heraklion has planted bushes of lavender and thyme, and has placed benches all along the path!
Some of the moats below have evolved into delightful play areas such as Efkalyptos park. From the top, you get sweeping views across the bustling streets below and beyond the harbour to the entire Gulf of Heraklion. The walls surround the inner city in an embrace of brickwork, as though the walls were built with an appreciation for the architecture of the city in mind and not the purpose of keeping out foes. It’s a fine place to stop for a minute or two and soak up the joyous atmosphere, and I passed a merry few minutes sitting on the highest fortifications and dangling my legs through the gaps in the wall.
Walking along the coast
I didn’t want to stop there, and since I’d walked the entire wall from the Venetian Port to the lighthouse and back, it seemed only natural to carry on. The sea air beckoned for me, and so I went on my merry way. A walk along the coast is the perfect afternoon pick me up, and even better when I discovered the best coffee at a luxurious little cafe along the strip. The walk takes only 25 minutes from the Venetian port to the Fountain Karavola, but I’m sure I took almost double to marvel at the glistening sea below and watch as the birds flew in and out of formation. It seemed to be rather famous walk as there were teenage skaters, cyclists and families heading to Karavolas Park.
A walk of Art
Unexpectedly, I found myself meandering through the winding streets in the southwestern part of Heraklion. After coming upon a particularly beautiful piece of street art, I discovered that the city is so full of these rich and colourful surprises! Art isn’t only found in galleries in the vibrant city, graffiti art reigns supreme. It’s times like this that I am reminded why I love to travel so much. To discover such beauty where you least expect it, is always warming to the heart. On my way around, I got talking to a wonderful group of people who were also admiring the art, and we ended up venturing around the streets together in search of hidden gems…such as on the ‘road’ to the lighthouse..which is revealing the greek mythology and the contemporary concerns to the passers-by!
As if by fate, my friends from the walk had planned an evening get-together on the local beach, and I was overjoyed to be invited to the fun. Usually quite busy, the popular Amoudara was quite tranquil in the evening, and we all watched as the sun gently set, glowing against the flames of our fire. There’s nothing like a relaxing evening on the beach, with new friends that are kindred spirits, and a perfectly cooked souvlaki on the beach-fire.
Shopping & Swimming
Shopping in Heraklion
Since I had a wedding to attend, I just had to find something unique in the city, and I made it my mission to find the perfect gift in the morning. I started at Central Market on 1866 Street, where my concierge assured me I was sure to find something. The market is a treasure in itself. It has that charmingly old-world feel like you’re shopping for your fruits and veggies in the 1950s. Smelling the ripest apples, and purchasing handmade cotton for your evening sewing class – divine.
The main shopping roads pepper the city centre, so it was easy to hop from one to the other on the hunt for that special souvenir. Crete is famous for favourites like leather shoes and bags. I found a wonderful array of handmade items of quality you can rarely find on the high street. I was tempted by beautiful local embroidery at the Kastrinogianni store, local hand-made crafted knives at the Vassilakis store, and the wonderful intricate pieces like ceramic pottery, fragranced natural soaps, cotton design bags, at the ZALO. Ah and the wooden souvenirs that all kids love from the stores of 25th August. In the end, I chose an exquisite bracelet for my friend made of pure Greek gold – this time I don’t mean that wonderful sumptuous olive oil, but actual gold. I couldn’t help but purchase one for myself too, so we would each have a wonderful gift to represent the memories from a trip of a lifetime.
The main shopping streets in Heraklion are:
- Dikeosinis Str., where you will find Zara, Golden jewelry shops, Vodafone, Parabita women’s ware, MAT fashion, Bershka, and Horaitis store with the best nuts and dried fruits I have ever tasted!
- 25th August Str., with H&M, Hondos Center (the local Lafayette store), souvenir shops, bio-cafés, DaVinci ice cream store, local pastry stores…and souvlaki take away shops, and banks.
- Chandakos Str., with great boutiques like KYMO, Imatio and Maroudas, and designer’s shoes at Marron and Mortoglou.
- Dedalou Str., the most crowded Pandora store, Public store, Massimo Dutti, and a little one with great cloths called Innsaei!
- Kalokerinou Str., is the place for MaxMara, Tommy Hilfiger, kids fashion boutiques, and a great loukoumades (dumplings) shop
- 1821 Str.,where I found Zinni Boutique, Intimisimmi lingerie, and Antonella boutique…rather interesting.
- 1866 Str., where you will find everything local…from souvenirs to fruits, fish, meat and cheese.
A trip to the Agia Pelagia Peninsula
I was running short of time with one more day to go until The Big Day, and I wanted sunshine, sea, and sand. It wouldn’t hurt to get a little glow on my face for the wedding. There are some amazing beaches just outside of the city. As lunchtime arrived and I was so close to the freshwater, I found myself craving a wholesome seafood platter. I drove out to the enchanting bays of Agia Peninsula on the West side of Heraklion in search of dinner.
The small and enchanting bays of the Agia Pelagia peninsula are a rarer spectacle – which is why there are some gorgeous villas built on the slopes of the opposite hill! Bays are blessed with azure waters that are great for diving. The crescent-shaped bay keeps the waters calm. I sat quietly on the terrace of the restaurant as I ate, watching the fish dart in and out of the water below. I almost wanted to dive in myself as I watched, the scent of freshly cooked seafood wafting by on the air, and sailboats bobbing gently on the water. My pirating dreams had me in mind to just leave it all behind, charter a boat, and sail off into the open sea. I decided at that moment that as soon as I got back to the hotel, I would ask my new friend how to book a trip to become a fully-fledged sailor on my next visit to the city.
Visiting the local villages on a city break in Heraklion
I had an early start on day 3. I packed a hearty lunch and lot’s of iced herbal tea for a day of village wandering and beach hopping. I was itching to get back to my favourite Cretan village – Archanes. Worthily hailed as the prettiest village in Europe. The small mountain village is outstandingly quaint in spring and early summer. When colourful houses around the eccentric little streets bloom with flowers, filling the air with the most glorious aroma. It’s a lovely place to get away from it all, and I enjoyed a spot of lunch on a quiet terrace, gazing out at the mountains beyond. I knew I would be back again soon, and those mountains would be my next adventure.
Koutouloufari, Krassi, and Choudetsi Village
Crete has some of the most charming villages that lay just outside the city, and as I slowly tick them off the list, I earn a new favourite each time. Koutouloufari is a touristic but still traditional little village, Krassi is preferable for it’s a meal under the plane trees. There’s also the lovely Choudetsi, South of the city. A cultural centre of Crete and famed for summer music events. During the winter you can also enjoy traditional food and local bands in Semeli restaurant.
The last and most exciting part of my plan was a trip to a new place, so I left Archanes with a heavy heart, but with pure excitement to see Fodele. Another small mountain village I had yet to explore. Just 30 minutes away from Heraklion city centre, Fodele was the Birthplace of famous painter Dominikos Theotokopoulos, otherwise known as “El Greco”. When I asked the concierge for a recommendation, I was sold by her description of Fodeles scenery, and the chance to find some art history in the little museum dedicated to El Greco and the superbly preserved Byzantine Church of Panagia.
It was love at first sight. The stunning village had a warm, welcoming feel that makes you just want to move in and unpack for a life among the fruit trees. Time in the Cretan villages moves a little slower than in the inner city, with its fast-paced lifestyle amongst Venetian delights. It’s here in these wholesome little villages that I can soak up the true feeling of what it’s like to be a Cretan. My favourite thing to do is take a stroll through the numerous alleyways and tiny streets full of wonders. Or sit in a traditional cafe to do some people watching. Then head to a local family-owned taverna for some authentic home-style cooking that never fails to be delicious!
Fodele is surrounded by stunning olive groves and copses of orange and lemon trees. Making it a verdant oasis of Mediterranean charm. It also boasts one of the most stunning beaches around. As the sun began to set, I took the short walk from the village to the foreshore, and I was rewarded with the most blazing sunset I had seen yet. A fiery orange glow was just settling on the horizon line, and I knew what I must do. I dropped my bags, and threw everything off except my bikini, and charged headlong into the cold, refreshing waves. I don’t feel at home in a place until I have baptised myself in the cold sea. It was incredible!
After this 4 day city break I got the feeling that I want to know more of this culture, more of the villages, more of the food, more of the summer festivals, more of the people. Whether you’re here for a few days or a few weeks, there’s always something new to discover! Lucky me! London Gatwick is just 4hrs away from Heraklion International Airport!
Featured image source: www.Patris.gr