In Minoan times, Crete's largest city, the fifth-largest city in Greece, was a harbor for Knossos, the grandest palace and effective power center of prehistoric Crete. The Bronze Age remains were built over long ago, and now Heraklion (also known as Iraklion), with more than 150,000 inhabitants, stretches far beyond even the Venetian walls. Heraklion is not immediately appealing: it's a sprawling and untidy collection of apartment blocks and busy roadways, often cast as the ugly sister to Chania's Cinderella. Many travelers looking for Crete's more rugged pleasures bypass the island's capital altogether, but the city's renowned Archaeological Museum and the nearby Palace of Knossos make Heraklion a mandatory stop for anyone even remotely interested in ancient civilizations.
Besides, at closer look, Heraklion is not without its charms. A walk down Daidalou and the other pedestrians-only streets provides plenty of amusements, and the city has more than its share of outdoor cafés where you can sit and watch life unfold. Seaside promenades and narrow lanes that run off them can be quite animated, thanks to ongoing restoration, and the inner harbor dominated by the Koules, a sturdy Venetian fortress, is richly evocative of the island's storied past.