Chania, capital of the prefecture of the same name is Crete’s second biggest town and arguably the island’s most atmospheric city. It is a great place for going out and enjoying good life, with lots of shops to choose from and excellent restaurants. Traces of its Venetian and Turkish past, with little fountains and elegant mansions, mosques and minarets are evident everywhere as you walk through the picturesque alleys and the harbour.
Along with the beautifully restored buildings, there are also many that are left with the heavy marks of the Second War bombings which have been turned into charming shops, restaurants and ambient bars and cafes.
One has to admit that Chania carries its past with dignity, breathing an air of oriental mix where East meets the West.
A short history
Built on the site of Minoan city Kydonia, Chania has been inhabited since Neolithic times. An important centre in Minoan times and a flourishing city-state during the Hellenistic period, it lost its importance in the Byzantine years and in 828 AD it was destroyed by the Arabs. When the Venetians came in the 13th century, they changed its name to La Canea. Fearing attacks from pirates and later from Turks, the Venetians fortified the city’s defense system, only to be subjected to the Turks in 1645. The Turks made it their capital and seat of the Pasha. The city’s face became more oriental, with churches being converted to mosques, the building of minarets and wooden partitions on houses. Chania remained capital of Crete after its liberation from Turkish rule in 1898 until 1971.
Chania in one day
At the entrance to the harbour, the Gritti bastion, lies the restored Venetian Firkas Fortress, that nowadays houses the Naval museum. Opposite you see the Venetian lighthouse, built in the 16th century. Continue along the best preserved part of the city wall, from the Gritti to the Schiavo bastion. Chania's city wall, as part of fortification works against the Turkish threat, was designed by engineer Michele Sanmichele.
Here in the Topanas quarter you can see some of the most picturesque Venetian houses adorning the little alleys. Pass the Renieri gate and admire its elegant arch that is part of the palazzo of the Renieri family, complete with private chapel. Continue your way through the Medieval Jewish quarter; here lies the 15th century Etz Hayyim synagogue, renovated and reopened in the 1990s after it was closed and in a miserable state for a long time.
Head for shopping street Halidon on the way passing the Schiavo bastion. If you take the trouble to ascend it, you have a stunning view of the old houses around the harbour, the hilly Kastelli quarter and the Lefka Ori (the White Mountains) to your south. If you’re not, follow Halidon towards the Harbour, on the way practically bumping into the Cathedral, a rather plain church from the 1860s. Clustered around the Cathedral square are a whole range of cafes and restaurants. On the same courtyard, opposite, lies the Archeological Museum, that is housed in the Venetian San Francesco church, with practically next to it the Folklore museum, established in the elegant Roman-Catholic church building.
Walking further down to the harbour, you’ll recognize the Mosque of the Janissaries, with its profile dominating the Harbour view like a giant football. It is the oldest Turkish building on the island, dating from 1645, immediately after the Turks settled in Chania. Nowadays it is used as an exhibition hall. Continue along the harbour with the minaret lighthouse in its background on the other side of the quay.
It is well worth the 1.5km stroll for a breathtaking view of Chania by night.
The quarter of Kastelli, the earliest inhabited area of Chania that lies on a little hill, was heavily bombed during WWII, when next to nothing was left of the former centre of Venetian and Turkish rule. Here are also the fenced sites of Minoan Kydhonia. Passing the Arsenali, the 16th century Venetian shipyards, follow Daskaloyanni Street to reach 1821 square with its churches: Ayios Nikolaos with on its top a minaret. Built by the Venetians, it was converted into a mosque by the Turks, as most churches were, only to be consecrated again after the Turks left. The Turkish minaret seen from a distance belongs to the former Ahmed-Aga mosque and is worth a look, though it may be closed to visitors.
Continue by visiting the covered Market Hall with its many excellent eateries, and its food stalls with a wide variety of fruits, fish and meat. Take a break! From here, take the route back to the harbour by way of the Turkish Splantzia quarter with its maze of narrow streets and alleys, set in an atmospheric decor of 1001 Nights. South-east of the Market Hall in the new town you can reach the Public Garden, where there’s a mini-zoo along with a coffee house surrounded by trees and a children's playground.
Chania – a paradise for nature lovers
The county of Chania is divided by the Lefka Ori Mountains into two completely different natural landscapes. The coastal zone, with beaches 415 km long, is more densely populated. The sparsely populated inner territory is one of the most authentic parts of Crete. On most of its mountain tops, temperatures are below zero and from December to May they are covered with snow. On the mountain slopes there are many small traditional villages, forgotten by time, with their stone houses turned towards the sun, certainly interesting “green” destinations of Crete. Day after day, more and more wanderers try to explore them on foot, by jeep, horse or bicycle. It is possible for the traveler to enjoy the Cretan simple and natural life, to enjoy the Cretan diet with a glass of wine or tsikoudia, to take part in celebrations and to feel the roots of European civilization. Hospitable shelters, establishments for spending your free time and shops with handmade carpets, fine jewellery, embroidery, traditional furniture, ceramics and home-made products (cheese, noodles, marmalades, etc.) of excellent quality guarantee an unforgettable stay.