You have just booked your trip to Crete? I am sure you are looking forward to plenty of sun, the idyllic beaches, the good food, the friendly people. But are you wondering if there is anything else on the island that you should see?
If you are looking for a day trip destination in Crete, check out the city of Chania on the north coast of the island. It is the second largest city in Crete. Boasting not just tons of historic sights it also comes with a very particular charm.
Let me inspire you to explore this beautiful city further by sharing with you 20 of my most favourite photographs.
The Venetian Lighthouse
Even though it is called the Venetian Lighthouse it is actually not as old as you might think. It was re-build in the 19th century during the time of the Ottoman occupation, hence it is also known as the Egyptian Lighthouse. The original, however, was indeed built by the Venetians when these had a trading base here in Crete.
In former times, the harbour could be closed with a chain which would connect the lighthouse to the fortress on the opposite side. We didn’t walk the mole to the end but I’ve been told you get outstanding views from here. Unfortunately, the lighthouse itself is closed to visitors.
You will see a few of those when you visit the harbour. Animal rights aside, I think they look really pretty and pose an excellent photo opportunity. There is some history to them too, because what you see here is an old-fashioned Cretan taxi service.
Today of course, these rides are reserved for tourists wanting to see the city from a new and, dare I say romantic, perspective.
Ancient streets of Chania
Chania’s old town is picturesque and pretty. A maze of old laneways, confusingly aligned and connected via stairs and walkways that are often too narrow for motorised traffic. Explore this charming part of the city in your own time. Just pick a street to follow and lose yourself in the maze of laneways and quiet backstreets.
Notice the flowering plants in the pots, the pretty Juliet balconies and the closed shutters. Escape from the hot summer sun in the deep shadows of the narrow lanes, hear your footsteps echo in the silence of the old town.
These streets have been built by the Venetians and the Ottomans, and many buildings still show traces of the former inhabitants. Inscriptions and building styles copied from elsewhere add a distinctive feel to the ancient city, unmatched anywhere else in the Mediterranean region.
Pay a visit to the sunbaked grounds of Firkas Fortress which is gating the entrance to the Venetian harbour. Built by the Venetians to defend the city and harbour from Ottoman attack, the fortress is a worthwhile stop on your exploration of Chania.
As with many Venetian buildings that you will find around the Mediterranean you will see a fierce looking lion carved in stone here. It is the symbol of the Venetian Republic. Underneath, see the cells that used to hold generations of Cretan prisoners during the Ottoman occupation.
Note the cannon spaces which overlook the harbour entrance. Have the cool sea breeze caress your face as you look north over the blue of the Mediterranean Sea and listen to the rolling waves that wash over the rocks down below.
This must be the most beautiful of all areas in Chania’s old town, the place where the Venetian merchants built their mansions. Casting long shadows on a hot summer day, these tall and elegant buildings are the perfect backdrop for a Greek coffee.
Order it traditional style and it will come in a small cup, strong and bitter. The grounds will be still on the bottom, a foam on the top will hold the aromatic fragrance. Have a glass of water with it to refresh you even more, and enjoy the views of Chania’s beautiful ancient harbour.
The Venetian Harbour
This is the beating heart of Chania’s tourist centre. A pretty collection of all building styles, painted in vivid colours and seemingly jumbled together. Stroll along the waterfront and past the tourist restaurants and souvenir shops.
Remember that these buildings used to make up a busy harbour. They used to be merchant houses with storage facilities downstairs and living quarters upstairs. In between, notice the tiny alleyways that stretch like fingers into the old town, now obscured by tables and chairs of the restaurants.
It can get really busy here in the evenings, so if you want to explore without the crowds it’s better to check it out in the morning hours before lunch service kicks off.
The houses lining the harbour are today mostly converted into hotels. You can stay in these boutique hotels, of course. We recommend Elia Zampelio Boutique Hotel (Affiliate Link), a pretty 3-star property that is overlooking the harbour from its rooms.
But in former times this must have been a grand house of worship, built to impress. Note the Arabic inscriptions as you walk by.
Follow the waterfront towards the east where you will find a small marina. I just loved the tiny swimming souvenir shops here, stuffed with bracelets and natural sponges and craft made from shells and coral. A befitting location for this kind of merchandise. So tempting to just take home some memorabilia for cold winter days at home.
I just love Greek food. The fresh flavours and vegetables and seafood, the grilled meats and the cool taste of yoghurt and olive-oil based dips are for me synonymous with hot sunny days and relaxing evenings under the stars.
When you are in Greece do try the local food. Greek dishes are traditionally prepared with tons of good quality olive oil, using just very basic but tasty ingredients. Wash it all down with a fruity red wine and finish it off with a glass of raki.
Climb the hill to the east of the harbour, past the old dockyards and arsenal. To get there follow the hidden steps from Afentoulief Street next to the Grand Arsenal. Between the crumbling towering walls that the Ottoman rulers erected here a couple of hundred years ago, make your way to the next bay.
Under the shady trees of a park, enjoy the most amazing views of the coastline. The shallows that are gleaming in shades of blues and greens. The cobble stone beaches and the long stretch of coast that is dotted with houses overlooking the sea.
The Knife District
Rather interestingly, knives have been a very important part of Greek culture for many thousands of years. They were the proud possession for any young Greek man, intricately decorated with ornate writing on the blade and distinctly shaped like a piece of art.
Handmade knives from Chania’s Knife District are probably the very best you can find in the country. The quality and the artistry is legendary. Whether for a stroll to check out the designs or to actually buy a beautiful handcrafted souvenir, you need to visit the Knife District. Watch the artisans as they are busy at work and take note of the wonderful sheaths, blades and animal horn handles.
The City Walls
Chania was once a heavily fortified city. The walls were up to 20 metres high and surrounded by a 60 metre wide ditch. You will find them everywhere, connecting the fortresses and bastions that secured important strategic sites around the city.
Some of the most impressive remains can be found in the Street of Knives. The Venetians would use anything they could find to build these fortifications. In some parts you can even make out the round shape of millstones.
To think that Chania has been in existence since Minoan times still sends shivers down my spine. Not only that, you can actually still see the remains of this ancient occupation. Walls and stairs and foundations some 3,500 years old. They are right next to a busy city street in the Kasteli district, sparingly explained and illustrated with signs and shielded from the elements by a roof.
From these basic structures, historians were able to reconstruct the appearance of whole houses. It is definitely worthwhile to check out the signs with illustrated reconstructions of the architecture.
The Minoans of Crete were quarrelsome people, and they are even mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey.
As you can see, Crete’s Chania is well worth a visit. From ancient sites to fantastic views, from romantic streets to great food there is a lot to explore that will make your stay in Crete an unforgettable experience.
For guided walking tours in small groups check out our friends from Urban Aventures Crete. They have kindly shown us around the city in a complimentary tour and we are more than happy to recommend their wonderful walking tours.