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silversea mediterranean cruise heraklion greeceHaving been controlled by Arabic, Venetian and Ottoman empires over the years - it's no surprise that Heraklion is a diverse patchwork of exotic cultures and historical treasures. Celebrated as the birthplace of the Spanish Renaissance artist, El Greco, you can visit to explore the storied ruins of the Minoan empire's capital, and unearth the rich cultural treasures that Crete’s bustling modern capital has to offer.

Exploring Heraklion

While mention of the Greek Islands may conjure up images of tranquil island paradises and pearly white villages, it's best to be prepared for Heraklion beforehand – as there’s no escaping the fact it’s one of Greece's biggest and busiest cities. If the chaotic buzz of everyday life here takes you unawares on arrival, acclimatise by finding a shaded café to sit and sip a coffee in, or by taking a seafront stroll beside the lapping waves of the Aegean Sea.

While your first impressions may be a little muted, there's a real wealth of complexity and history to unwrap once you get your hands dirty and start digging. Top of your list should be the buried treasures of the Bronze-age Knossos site, which is believed to be the ruins of Europe’s oldest city. The attached Archaeological Museum of Heraklion provides a thorough introduction to the Minoan Civilisation, and displays a startling collection of antiquities and frescoes, recovered from the soils nearby. Even in the unlikely event that the exhibits leave you cold, you'll love the cool air conditioning, which provides welcome relief from Crete's generous sun.

Reminders of the other empires that have ruled these shores are on display at the harbour, where a stunning Venetian fortress juts out over the smooth ripple of the rich blue waves. Mind your step as you walk out along the seawall - strolling beside apple-red and ink-blue fishing boats – to reach the imposing fortress, which was constructed to protect the harbour from the Ottomans in 1540.

Heraklion is a busy, bustling city, and it’s hard to beat the atmosphere in its cafes as you wake to breakfast on Greek Bougatsa - a semolina filled pastry - or enjoy al fresco dining at delicious restaurants, which serve up salmon in grape sauce and fried squid sprinkled with feta, olives and parsley. Pedestrianized streets like Daidalou offer charming discoveries as you potter, while the city's famous lions prowl the main square, taking the weight of the glittering Morosini Fountain’s basin, and spurting water from their growling mouths.

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