The Koules Fortress, or “Rocca al Mare” as it was known during the Venetian era is one of the main landmarks in Heraklion, Crete.
Koules Venetian Fortress Heraklion
Koules castle is an impressive fortress, built on a natural rocky outcrop and located by the old Venetian port of Heraklion. With a history of over 1200 years, the fortress of Koules has transformed in design, size, and importance.
Today, Koules Fortress is a popular tourist attraction for visitors spending time in Heraklion. It's well laid out as a museum with various exhibits, and the walls give great views over to the new ferry port, Old Venetian Port area, and part of Heraklion itself.
I personally found the exhibitions inside to be very useful in learning more about the history of the city, but also love the views from the top.
You'll want to include some time at Koules fortress when planning what things to do in Heraklion you want to get up to.
Before I go into what you need to know before visiting Koules fortress though, we need to address the name issue!
What's in a name – Koules, Rocca a Mare or Castello a Mare
If you look on Google maps, you'll see that Koules Fortress is named as Rocca a Mare Fortress. This was its Venetian name, given when the Venetians turned up around 1204 AD.
When the Ottomans gained control in around 1669, they renamed the fortress Koules.
Today, it is still commonly known as Koules Fortress, however, Google Maps has it as Rocca a Mare, and some Greeks would prefer it to be called that rather than use the Turkish name for it.
Even the official site is ambiguous about it's name to a certain extent! You'll see the url is: https://koules.efah.gr/koules/Page?name=index&lang=en but you'll also see at the top left of the page, they call it: ROCCA A MARE | KOULES.
Anyway, let's move on to what you need to know before visiting!
Visiting Koules Fortress /Rocca a Mare
The first thing you need to know before visiting, is that that Koules fortress is closed on Tuesdays. If you do try to go on a Tuesday (like I did the first time!), you don't find out it's closed until you've walked all along the entrance gangway to the gate, where you'll only then see a small sign.
Why don't they put a sign before the entrance gangway indicating it's closed on Tuesdays? Beats me! Seems the simplest thing in the world to do, but hey, Greece!
There are also some seasonal opening hours which look a little like this:
- 15/4-31/8: Wednesday-Monday 08.00-20.00
- 1/9-15/9: Wednesday-Monday 08.00-19.30
- 16/9-30/9: Wednesday-Monday 08.00-19.00
- 1/10-15/10: Wednesday-Monday 08.00-18.30
- 16/10-31/10: Wednesday-Monday 08.00-18.00
- 1/11-31/3: Wednesday-Monday 08.30-15.30, closed on 25-26/12, 1/1, 25/3
- 1/4-15/6: Wednesday-Monday 08.30-16.30
When I last visited in October 2023, entrance ticket prices were 4 Euros, with 2 Euros the reduced rate.
Most people will walk to get there as part of their day in Heraklion. A stop here is also included on the Hop On Hop Off Heraklion bus. A good next stop after here would be the Natural History Museum of Crete.
Ground Floor Koules in Heraklion
Koules is a massive fortress, originally designed to guard the entrance to the port. Visitors today approach it first along a causeway, and then a walkway.
The first thing you see before entering, are the marble reliefs featuring winged lions on the outside walls. Then, once past the ticket office, you are into the castle itself.
The castle is spread out over two floors. The ground floor is where you'll enter, and you'll find different exhibitions and displays in the rooms which once served as storerooms, prisons, dining halls, and residences.
The various displays and exhibition areas give an insight into not just the fortress through the ages, but also the city of Heraklion itself.
Upper Floor Koules Fortress | Rocca a Mare
Going up the stairs from the first floor, you enter what could be called the roof area. By the way, it's here you'll find the toilets as well!
Once up on the walls, you'll get a better idea of how the Koules fortress is located to defend the Venetian Harbor area.
Opposite Koules, you'll see the new ferry port where ferries depart to to Piraeus Athens, and other destinations in Greece. You also get a nice view onto the Venetian Harbour.
All in all, you should probably set aside about an hour to explore Koules fortress in Heraklion. If possible, time your visit to avoid cruise ship passengers who will also want to go there in massive numbers!
You might also want to read:
- Where to stay in Heraklion
- Natural History Museum of Crete in Heraklion
- Do You Need to Rent a Car in Rethymnon?
- Heraklion Ferry Port To Heraklion Airport Transport
- Where to travel in Greece
- Is Chania or Heraklion Better For First Time in Crete?
- Rethymno vs Heraklion
Dave is a travel writer from the UK who's been living in and writing about Greece since 2015. As well as writing this travel guide to the Koules Fortress in Heraklion Crete, he's also written hundreds more travel blog posts about other destinations in Greece. Follow Dave on social media for more Greece travel ideas: