Nestled against the sea, on the north-west coast of Crete, you'll find the beautiful town of Chania. The second largest town on the island, Chania has a history stretching back over 4,000 years, and for a short period was even the capital city of Crete. Chania is famed for its diverse cultural heritage, with many archeological ruins, classical buildings and fascinating history to attract visitors.
Chania is located at the base of the Akrotiri peninsula, with the sea to the north and also a short distance away to the east in the bay of Souda. Like the whole of the island of Crete, the surrounding countryside is characterised by lush green vegetation on the Apokoronas plain. Deep shaded gorges cut into this plain, creating many picturesque locations such as the nearby Samaria Gorge. Overshadowing all of this are the stunning White Mountains, which are snow-capped in winter. Pachnes, the highest peak, rises to over 2,345 metres.
People have been living on the site of Chania since the Neolithic period (5700-2800 BCE), and the area has had a chequered history of rulers. The ancient Minoans first built a settlement here (known as 'Kidonia'), and over the centuries Chania has been ruled by the Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, and Byzantines, amongst others. More recently, it fell under Nazis rule during World War II.
The evidence of these various occupying powers can be seen in the architecture of the town, which shows an especially strong influence from the Venetians and the Turks. The classical lines of the buildings, as well as the haphazard winding streets, have been compared with cities like Florence and Venice.
With such a rich history, it's perhaps not surprising that the Old Town area is hugely popular with visitors. Located around the ancient harbour, the Old Town occupies the area previously enclosed within the Venetian-era walls that were built in 1538 – some stretches of the ruined walls are still visible today.
Although this area was subjected to heavy bombing during World War II, fortunately most of the historic buildings survived, and the area remains extremely beautiful and atmospheric. It's relatively small area makes it ideal for exploring on foot, although a horse-drawn carriage makes a memorable alternative choice.
Like many old cities, the Old Town of Chania is characterised by narrow winding streets and higgledy-piggledy red-roofed buildings, many now housing local cafes and tavernas. It's the perfect spot for some leisurely exploration.
The Eleftherios Venizelos square forms the heart of the Old Town, and is the main centre of activity for tourists. The remainder is divided into five different districts, including the Ottoman Christian quarter of Topanas to the west and the old Jewish quarter to the north-west. Other districts include the Santrivani, Splantzia and Kasteli areas.
As well as the beautiful Venetian, Ottoman, and neoclassical buildings, the Old Town also has many shops aimed at tourists, selling traditional goods such as crafted leather artefacts and souvenirs.
This is the main residential area of Chania, but although architecture here is more recent than in the Old Town, it still boasts many very beautiful buildings. The oldest area of Nea Hora (ironically, meaning 'new town'!), extends out from the Old Town in a westerly direction, and here some of the buildings date back as far as the early 18th century.
Many buildings in this areas were used as foreign embassies, but were abandoned during the latter years of the last century, and had fallen into a state of disrepair. However, a recent concerted effort to renovate some of these lovely old buildings has returned them to their former glory, with successful results.
Some of the architectural jewels to be found in this area include:
The old harbour area probably ranks as the number one must-see attraction in Chania. The sweeping arc of the harbour wall is lined with little stalls selling a variety of wares, set with a backdrop of some of the most beautiful buildings in the whole city.
Construction on the original harbour was started by the Venetians around 1320 and completed in 1356. It quickly developed into one of the most significant commercial ports in the eastern Mediterranean area, as well as providing safe anchorage for Venetian military vessels.
During the 16th century, invasion from the Turks was considered to be a significant risk, so the harbour was strengthened with new fortifications as part of a city-wide defence scheme. Further bastions were added to the existing breakwater, and the Firkas Fort was built on the opposite side of the harbour. This was specifically designed to enable a protective chain to be tethered from the newly constructed lighthouse to the fort, sealing the mouth of the harbour and preventing entry by marauding invaders.
Further historical monuments are dotted around the harbour area and throughout the network of narrow streets that wind their way back from the waterfront.
Nowadays, the harbour area is home to a vast array of tavernas selling local fare, cafes and bars, and restaurants. Little local bakeries sell delicious pastries such as the famed 'bougatsa' – a rich pastry filled with cheese or cream filling. There are also a number of art galleries.
One of the most unique attractions in Chania is the Venetian Lighthouse. This lovely structure is one of the oldest lighthouses in the world and stands at a mere 21 metres tall. It was begun by the Venetians in 1570, and has a very distinctive design, consisting of an octagonal base, a 16-sided column and a circular top. It also has a minaret, added by the Egyptians, making it a totally unique structure.
Gradually, over the years, the lighthouse fell into disrepair. For example, the original base contained a carving of the Lion of St Marc, but this is no longer there. In 1830, the Egyptians reconstructed the lighthouse, but it was further damaged during the invasion of Crete during World War II, leaving it leaning precariously to one side. However, it was repaired again in 2005, and now sits proudly at the end of the long sweeping breakwater which almost encircles the harbour.
Although the lighthouse is no longer operational, and it's not open to the public, it's still worth walking along the breakwater to the base. The views across the harbour area to the Old Town, with the majestic White Mountains behind, makes the effort well worthwhile.
The harbour is also home to the Maritime Museum of Crete. Opened in 1973, this museum won an award from the Historical and Ethnological Society, and is located next to the Firkas Fort.
The museum contains a wealth of historical artefacts, dating from the Bronze Age onwards. These include: model ships, nautical instruments, maritime paintings, historical photos and war relics. There is a scale model of the Venetian town as it looked years ago, as well as more modern maritime items such as information about the Hellenic naval ships and a full-scale reconstruction of a destroyer bridge. And there's also a complete gallery devoted to the German invasion of Crete.
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Naturally, with such a rich archaeological history in the area, the Chania Archaeological Museum is another important stop on the tourist trail. Home to a great variety of artefacts (including many from the Roman and Minoan periods), this museum has archeological exhibits from many surrounding excavations, including those from Kydonia, Idramia, Aptera, Polyrinia, Kissamos, Elyros, Irtakina, Syia and Lissos.
There is a clay sealing from Kasteli, which represents a Minoan city and its accompanying deity, that has been dated from the second half of the 15th century BCE. A clay pyxis (small box or casket), depicting a kithara player, was excavated from a chamber tomb in Koiliaris at Kalyves-Aptera. This has been dated to 1300-1200 BCE. There are several clay tablets with both Linear A and Linear B script, which are over 3,000 years old. And the museum also has a variety of other artefacts, including coins, jewellery, vases, sculpture, clay tablets with inscriptions, commemorative stone slabs, and mosaics.
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This museum is the only one in Greece (and possibly in the world), to be dedicated to the national football team. It contains an interesting range of football-related artefacts, including team shirts, replica cups, souvenir balls, and vintage tickets.
This museum is housed in a former Franciscan monastery (built 1605), which has also served as a mosque and a cinema.
The Centre for Mediterranean Architecture is located in the former arsenal building in the old harbour area. Here you can find out all about the various architectural heritages of the area.
This Christian cathedral has a somewhat chequered history. Dedicated jointly to the Virgin Mary, St Nicholas, and the Three Heirarchs (hence the name 'trimartyri' meaning 'three martyrs), the actual date of construction is unknown, although it was begun in the Venetian era.
The Ottomans converted it into a soap factory, although it's believed that an icon of the Virgin Mary was always kept there. However, following a reported miracle in which a child was saved after falling down a well, the cathedral was re-dedicated.It was damaged during the 1897 revolution, but repairs were paid for by the Tsar of Russia as recompense for Russian involvement in attacking Akrotiri.
Entrance is free, and the cathedral celebrates the feast day of the Presentation of Mary on 21 November.
By the start of World War II, there had been a Jewish presence in Chania for around 2,300 years. But during the German occupation all Jews were removed and the community, along with many architectural features, was destroyed. This beautiful synagogue lay in ruins until the World Monument Fund funded its renovation, beginning in 1996. It was re-dedicated in 2000 and is now open to all.
As well as being restored to a place of worship, the synagogue also houses a reference library consisting of around 4,500 books. Staff are on hand to offer guided tours. Entrance is free, but donations are welcomed.
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Music plays an important part in the cultural life of Chania. There's a wide range of options available, including classical music ensembles, jazz, contemporary and indie music, as well as local Cretan music. Look out for local festivals.
There are five cinemas in Chania. Two are open-air venues, and all show a range of Greek and international films. There are occasional film festivals. If you prefer live performances, you've a choice of two theatres, which offer plays by national and international writers.
There are also a number of art galleries, which host exhibitions from time to time.
Chania is famous for its water sports, including the less well-known sport of water polo. Football and basketball are also popular, and Chania also has a national stadium (constructed in 1935), which is home to the annual Venizeleia athletics competition.
Hiking in the mountains is also a favourite tourist activity. Maps and equipment can be bought locally, or join one of the many guided treks for easy access and to meet other nature lovers.
Chania is well served by a host of different shops, ranging from traditional stalls selling locally made goods and souvenirs, to high end fashion and gift shops.
Whether you're seeking traditional Greek fare, a contemporary menu, or international cuisine, you can find it easily in Chania. The Old Town has a plethora of small restaurants and tavernas, but a little exploration will reveal a wide range of different dining options, and many smaller places offering coffee and snacks.
As well as a wealth of fascinating places to visit in Chania, it's worth venturing further afield around the island of Crete, as there are many other interesting attractions.
A short journey of 15km brings you to the ancient walled city of Aptera. The city originally dates back to 3500BC and the Minoan civilisation, when it was one of the most important city states in the region. Strategically placed on a 200m high plateau for easy defence, it has unparalleled views across the area, including a stunning panorama towards Souda Bay.
Legend says that this is the site of the mythical contest between the Sirens and the Muses. When the Sirens lost their feathers and became 'white', they threw themselves into the sea, leading to the name 'Aptera', meaning 'without wings'.
Most of the ruins here are from the Geometric Period (1000-685BC), Hellenistic Period (623-67BC), and Roman Period (67BC – 324AD). They include fortifications, aquaducts, public baths, and graves. There's also a group of Roman reservoirs, several deep wells, a 3-vaulted Roman cistern, and a selection of other tanks, that all formed part of the water supply system. A theatre is currently being excavated.
Although Aptera was largely destroyed by earthquake in 7th century, around 4km of the ancient wall can still be seen.
The monastery of St John Theologos is also found at Aptera. This was a working monastery until 1964, and the buildings include a chapel and a two-storey monk's cell block. It's situated high up on a small mound, but it's well worth the climb to enjoy the extensive views across the region.
There are also several temples in Aptera, including one dating from the 5th century.
Admission is free. Opening hours are 08:30 – 15:00, but the site is closed on Mondays.
A short distance from Chania is the little village of Agioi Apostoli, which boasts three separate sandy cove beaches. These are especially popular with winter swimmers, as well as the locals who love to swim and enjoy the water sports facilities here.
The best known of the beaches is is Chrissi Akti ('Golden Beach'), which is famed for it's beautiful golden sand. The second beach is a horseshoe-shaped cove, with its 50m wide beach stretching for 500 metres. There are wooden boards and ramps for easy access to the sands, and the beach has Blue Flag status. The third beach is smaller, stretching for about 300m and being about 20m wide. It also has access ramps and Blue Flag status.
Agioi Apostoli hosts a beach volleyball contest in the summer, as well as a sardine festival where you can enjoy fresh-caught fish, local drinks and traditional music. The beaches are also environmentally important, because loggerhead turtles breed here.
These beautiful gardens are located around 18km from Chania in the foothills of the White Mountains. The 20 hectare site contains a wide variety of plants, which naturally change according to the seasons. There are also fruit trees, herbal and medicinal plants, and ornamental varieties to be seen.
One of the most poignant specimens is an olive tree, planted in memory of a devastating fire which swept the region in 2003, and as a celebration of the subsequent regeneration of the garden.
Signposted paths offer visitors a chance to wander between different areas, including citrus groves, herb gardens and tropical plants. There's a lake, a stone amphitheatre for hosting events, and a restaurant. Wildlife lovers will also have a chance to see many species of birds, including water birds, ducks and geese, and even rare raptors, which are all attracted to the park's lush vegetation.
The Park is open from 23 March to the end of November. Opening hours are 9:00 until dusk (last entrance is one hour before dusk). Adults: 6€, Child over 6 years, 4€, under 6 years are free.
The Samaria Gorge is the longest gorge in Europe, stretching for around 18km, and descending from a height of 1200 metres. This is a spectacular hike, giving wonderful views of the area, as well as offering beautifully shaded pine and cypress forests for walking. The national park is home to 450 plant species, and sightings of the famous kri-kri (wild goats) are common. The park also contains the ruins of the village of Samaria – the residents were rehoused when the area was designated as a national park in 1962.
Hiking the full length of the Samaria Gorge is not for the faint-hearted. You'll need good walking shoes and you must be fairly fit. It's also important to start early in the day, as the last section offers little shade. However, the rewards are definitely worth the effort! But if you prefer a shorter visit, there's a truncated route available.
Entrance to the gorge is 5€, and it's possible to do the route independently, but many people prefer to take an organised tour. The gorge is served by local buses, with a ferry service at the exit linking with other local bus routes.
The traditional tourist season in Chania lasts from April to October, when charter flights and package deals are easily available. Days are hot and dry, with the average temperature around 26C and 12 hours of sunshine daily. There's often a cooling northerly breeze to take the edge off the extreme heat.
Winters are generally mild and humid, with temperatures around 9C. Improved transport links mean that Chania stays open throughout the winter, when other smaller resorts are closed.
There are direct daily flights from Athens to Akrotiri airport (15km away) several times daily, and in season there are many charter flights from the UK, Scandinavia, and other European countries. The airport is currently under expansion.
The Port of Souda is only 7km away, where there's a daily ferry service from Piraeus.
There's a wide variety of accommodation in Chania, ranging from basic hostels to 5-star hotels. Many of the beautiful old Venetian buildings have been converted to hotels. Self-catering villas and apartments are also available. However, not all the accommodation is advertised online, so outside the high season it's often possible to find somewhere to stay on arrival.
Local buses are an affordable option. There's a good network around the whole island of Crete, using modern, air-conditioned buses. Routes to and from the airport are organised to coincide with flight times for convenience, and timetables are generally fairly accurate.
Local taxis are reasonably priced and offer a more personal service – airport transfers can be booked in advance.
However, the favoured option for many tourists is local car hire. This is the best way to get around, as it enables you to set your own agenda and get to places that are off the beaten track, such as some of the smaller surrounding villages. There's a good road (E75 A90) that runs the length of the north coast of the island.
There's a wide choice of sizes and models to suit your budget and needs, and vehicles can be picked up and returned at the airport. You can hire a car for the day, or reserve one for the whole of your stay – various packages for multiple days are available.
Car hire services generally include features such as protection against accident, fire, theft and vandalism, as well as the usual choice of fully comprehensive or third party. Accessories like child seats, roof racks, and GPS devices can be hired for a small extra charge, and local maps are usually provided.
Chania boasts beautiful surroundings, stunning views, and a rich cultural heritage, all combined with a wonderful climate in which to enjoy them. So whether you're seeking to explore historical archeological treasures, enjoy some retail therapy together with delicious food, or get active with some hiking and water sports, Chania is the perfect holiday destination.