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Chania: A Cretan Slice of Life

By Sindhu V Roy

Last Updated: 20 Apr 2024

“Cooking classes by Vegera on Zaros, Greece.” This is what drew my attention as I was randomly surfing the net, looking for diets using Mediterranean ingredients like olives and fresh greens and olive oil, which promised longevity and health. Hoping that the vibrant colors would interest the two little customers at home.

I clicked the link idly, little knowing that it would lead to what is possibly one of the most fulfilling journeys of my life. A few quick emails to Vivi, the owner of Vegera, for instructions to reach the village, and I had booked my ticket to Athens. I spent the next week researching the best places to visit on the island of Crete, where the mountainside village of Zaros was located. Since this was not a trip that was planned much in advance, the challenge was to pack in as much of a Greek experience as I could with limitations of budget and time. And the good news? It is entirely possible to have a perfect Cretan experience in a very reasonable budget, as long as you are ready to walk, grab some street gyros and hunker down in well-reviewed hostels or budget stays.

Crete, the island in Greece

This beautiful island floats in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and is at the crossroads of the commercial routes between Asia, Africa and Europe. Making it a port of tremendous importance, buffeted by the different civilizations that invaded it. All of these influences, violent as it may have been at the time, have resulted in a fascinating mix of architectural styles and monuments that reflects each phase of Cretan history. Not to mention the cuisine that has evolved from all of these influences.

Of cobble-stoned pathways and old Venetian homes in Chania

Of cobble-stoned pathways and old Venetian homes

While Crete had a lot to offer, I had limited time away from home and had to pick between the towns of Chania (pronounced Hania) and Heraklion. Heraklion is famed for its archaeological wonders and heritage sites, including the Knossos and Minoan history. However, Chania had the appeal of being a picturesque city with wonderful food options. There was also a wide variety of cooking classes in Chania that was just a click away. Since this started as a trail of the senses, Chania it was!

Panoramic waterfront view of Chania

Panoramic waterfront view of Chania

Athens to Chania by Ferry

I spent a couple of days getting acclimatized to the laid-back Greek culture in theis ancient and yet vibrant city of Athens, roaming the streets and having strong black coffee in the cafes studded all across Athens and visiting the Acropolis.

You may travel to Chania from Athens by air or ferry, the flight being much shorter of course though more expensive. Chania has its own airport, and is about 50 mins from Athens by air. Aegean Air, Olympic Air and SKY Express are the airlines that offer direct flights to Chania.

At the Piraeus, Athens port

At the Piraeus, Athens port

I chose to travel by ferry, the lure of the blue Aegean Sea being irresistible, even though most of the journey would be in the night. There are daily ferries that take you from the Piraeus port in Athens, to the Souda port in Crete. It typically takes 8 to 9 hours, although there are some slower ferries that take up to 17 hours but are cheaper. There are frequent water taxis and ferries connecting Crete to other parts of Greece as well.

Fast ferry from Piraeus, Athens to Souda, Chania

Fast ferry from Piraeus, Athens to Souda, Chania

You may book the ticket in advance from the different ferry operators - Anek Superfast, Blue Star, Minoan Lines. The Blue Star ferries are more modern and faster though Anek Superfast offers larger boats.

Inside the Economy seating in the Ferry to Souda, Chania

Inside the Economy seating in the Ferry to Souda, Chania

You do get food options on the ferry, reasonable in taste and price - there are also 24 hour cafes around the Piraeus port. You may want to opt for the additional cost of renting a cabin as the economy seating is not entirely comfortable for an entire night's sleep, though they do pull out into lounge chairs - at least the ferry I took had this.

We docked at Souda port very early in the morning.

Souda port early in the morning was very silent, serene, with lots of empty spaces. With the blue, blue Aegean sea rolling softly in the foreground, I caught up on a much needed strong coffee as I waited for a bus to take me to Chania.

Charming, green, wistful Chania

The bus let me off at the main Chania bus stand, and immediately the charm of the pretty streets with green trees and picture-postcard booths, vegetable vendors and breakfast cafes, washed over me.

A typical charming Chania street

A typical charming Chania street

I grabbed a fresh, fresh orange juice and a ham-pastry and was immediately transported to food heaven. How flaky was the pastry, how delicate the ham. The Greek bakeries are indeed the best in the world - made with delicacy and skill.

Fresh orange juice and ham-pastry at a Chania cafe

Fresh orange juice and ham-pastry at a Chania cafe

Since I was traveling solo, I had booked myself into a single room in the Niriis hotel, through Hostelworld, which was a minute's walk away from the beach. Of course, I had screened it through reviews and against feedback about the area, as I was female traveling solo - ensuring secure accommodation in a safe area is always of high import. True to the reviews, the accommodation was lovely - did not feel like a typical European hostel. It was very clean and comfortable and my single room even had a small balcony. Exhausted from the journey, I took my key from the very hospitable owner Georgios (and yes, every second man in Greece is named Georgios), and crashed.

It would be advisable to rent a car in Chania to comfortably visit the beaches and areas around the city, but the city itself is entirely walkable.Do plan to stay around the Old Town if you don't intend renting a car. Chania offers various car rental options for exploring Crete. Choose from international chains like Hertz, Avis, or Europcar, or opt for local agencies like AutoUnion or Rental Center Crete. Do compare prices, book online, and consider insurance coverage for a smooth rental experience.

At the Crossroads of Civilisation

Even without its history, Chania will charm you with its pretty streets and waterfront restaurants and ancient Lighthouse. However, knowing a little about the ancient civilisations and their motivations may add to your experience as you tour the magnificent structures. You may prefer to skip to the highlights of Chania, below!

Colorful, clean Chania crossroads

Colorful, clean Chania roads

Chania, as I was to discover, is a magical coming together of ancient landmarks and present-day attractions. The city reflects in equal measure the influences of the Venetians who built the city, the Ottomans who invaded it in the 17th century, and the Jews who settled here until they were deported back during World War II.

Originally known as Kydonia, it was a site of Minoan settlement, and emerged as an important city-state in Classical Greece. Many of the portside fortifications that you will see were erected during the subsequent Byzantine period to ward off Arab invaders. It was then sold to the Venetians, who fortified the structures, built important monuments and promoted music and writing.

Venetian influences in the railings above

Venetian influences in the railings above

Then came the Ottoman Turks, bringing influences of the Islam religion and architecture. Mosques such as the Kucuk hasan pasha and Yull mosques on the harbor were built, and the Dominican Church of St Nicholas was converted into the central Sovereign's Mosque.

Of Venetian fountains and Artisan shops

Chania, with its rich tapestry of Venetian and Ottoman influences, offers up treasures in every turn. Ancient structures to remnants from the Venetian way of life, from artisan crafts shops to choicest dishes - you will find it all in the alleys of Old Town.

The Ancient Venetian Harbour

Since it was already late afternoon by the time I had eaten and rested, I first headed out to explore the Old Town segment of Chania in the north (the new urban settlements extend south of this section) - and was instantly spellbound. Imagine sepia coloured minarets and domed buildings reflected on the waves of a golden sea. This is the sight that met me as I walked along the promenade - I was to discover soon that this sight was equally stunning in the daytime. I sat on a bench just soaking in all the history that lay thick in the summer air. Not even the buzz of tourists around me dispelled the feeling of having stepped back in time to 16th century Crete when the Venetians created a bustling center of commerce right here.

Beautiful old harbor at the Old Town area of Chania

Old Harbor at the Old Town area of Chania

The Venetian Lighthouse

The 21m Venetian Lighthouse stands tall and magnificent against the harbor at the edge of the breakwater, testimony to the different civilizations that have influenced Crete. Originally built by the Venetians it was later reconstructed by the Turks in the 19th century, along with the addition of the minarets typical of Islamic architecture. Entry into the Lighthouse is not permitted. A great way to see the Lighthouse in all its lit-up glory is to take one of the sunset cruises that ferry you around the main sights, along with a really pleasing Greek dinner and wine.

The magnificent Venetian Lighthouse at the Old Harbour

The magnificent Venetian Lighthouse at the Old Harbor

You can venture around and into the bubble-shaped Mosque of Hassan Pasha, the Fortress of Firkas and the bastion of St Nicholas, all representative of the vision and skills of the Venetians. The Grand Arsenal shipyard where the ships used to dock for repairs was fascinating to my mind as I imagined great ancient ships dropping anchor here. It has since been restored since German bombing, and used for functional purposes. You can also see a replica of a Minoan boat on it, which was built for the Athens Olympics held in 2004.

The Grand Arsenal buildings that serviced ancient ships

The Grand Arsenal buildings that serviced ancient ships

Artisan Shops and Venetian Wells

Early the next day, I put my suntan on, tucked bottles of cold orange juice and water into my backpack, and set out excited for the day. Georgios was incredibly helpful and not only listed the major attractions, but lent a bike (cycle) and tipped me about a gorgeous natural path that led to the sea.If you wish you can explore Chania on a guided bike tour, which is a great way to get to know the city.

Cyclable, walkable Old Town of Chania

Cyclable, walkable Old Town of Chania

I cycled down the path and found a secluded spot with a ringside view of the blue seas, where I read, day-dreamed and manifested a future that looked just like this. A couple of hours later, I tucked the cycle back at the hostel and set out towards the alleys of the Old Town once again, in search of Cretan seafood and culture. Cycling can be a great option to walking around the Old Town - there are taxis available too for that post too-much-sightseeing exhaustion. Car rentals are also an option, especially if you plan to drive to the beaches around Chania.

Trinkets and treasures at Chania artifact shops

Trinkets and treasures at Chania artifact shops

At the heart of the Old Town is the Eleftherios Venizelo Square, also known as Syntrivani (of the fountain) - I simply loved hearing and repeating Greek names for things! I roamed these alleys for hours, looking up at the colorful buildings with their frail wrought iron railings and peering into little shops set on the cobble-stoned lanes. Cretan men and women are some of the friendliest souls you will meet, ready with a cheery hello or to show you directions. I remember two beautiful young women who ran the travel outlet where I had gone to get bus passes and directions to the sites. They served me the quintessential Greek coffee, chattering about everything from the impact that tourism has had on Chania to how women run the businesses in Greek families!

The pretty, vivacious women of Crete

The pretty, vivacious women of Crete

Walking along these alleys, you will also find hidden treasures of leather goods, specialty food items like cheeses, herbs, honey and the local spirit raki. I did not realize the hours slipping by as I sampled everything Chania had to offer - from the traditional arts of boot-making (Stivania) and knife-making to partaking of great Cretan pies and Ouzo - strong Greek coffee served in little white cups. You don't mind that these stalls and artisan shops were obviously touristic, because they were so skilled and authentically Cretan. You are sure to pick up arms full of mementos that bring back a little of the Cretan history with you, like I did. Be it the colorful yet delicately knitted shawl I brought back or the elegant glass bottles that the olive oil came in - they are conversation starters to this day.

In fact, a lot of beautiful old Venetian mansions have been restored as boutique hotels in areas like Topanas, transporting you back to regal times.

The hues, the charm of the alleys of Chania

The pretty, vivacious women of Crete

You may also want to keep an eye out for the ancient Venetian wells that supplied fresh water to Chania during times of siege. For me, these reminders of the daily lives that ancient civilizations have led on these very lanes - eating, chatting, conversing around the wells or fountains - these are what set Chania apart from any other urban tourist destination!

Beaches around Chania

And then of course, there are the beaches around Chania. Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world are spread out along this coast, the truly blinding blues of the Aegean sea framing white sandy shores. Small wonder then, that people from around the globe flock to Crete's stunning shoreline.

Elafonissi Beach

The Elafonissi Beach with its brilliant seascape and pink sands has been consistently voted as one of the top ten beaches in the world. It is about an hour's drive from Chania. It is 70 kms south of Chania and easily accessible by car and offers facilities like beach umbrellas and water sports. It is known for its famously pink sand, which comes from crushed shells of the shellfish mixed with the sand. Definitely, Instagram-worthy!

Elafonissi - Soft sands, blue waters and the Mediterranean skies

Elafonissi - Pink soft sands, blue waters and the Mediterranean skies

Balos Lagoon

The Balos beach is a gorgeous lagoon with the mountain in the backdrop and warm shallow waters that are perfect for swimming in. Truly spectacular, with white sands and turquoise waters, it is a natural reserve with rare flora and fauna.

It is a little difficult to get to by road, but you have an option of taking a ferry from the Kissamos port. The same ferry can take you to the Gramvousa Island - definitely do not miss out on this snorkeling heaven with crystal clear waters and maritime life. Guided tours to the beaches of Balos and Falassarna may be a relaxed way to get there.

The Balos cove - stunning beauty and marine life

The Balos cove - stunning beauty and marine life

Falassarna Beach

The Falassarna Beach consists of five linked beaches, of which the most popular is the Pachia Ammos. The white sands and blue, blue waters make it a tourist hotspot, but it is large enough to not get over crowded. It can get quite windy at times, so while it is ideal for wind-surfing, you may want to check with the weather guide before heading out. This place also hosts many parties during summer nights.

The beautiful Falassarna Beach in Chania

Falassarna Beach - beauty that stretches on

Around Chania - Museums and Gorges

If you have an additional day or two, you will want to cover the Maritime/Nautical Museum of Crete at the entrance of Fortress of Firkas, for its artifacts that date from the Bronze age, like models of shops and ancient navigational instruments and other nautical exhibits that represent Crete's valiant fight against Germans in WWII.

Maritime Museum in Chania

Maritime Museum in Chania is open daily 9 am to 4 pm (April to October) and 9 am to 2 pm (November to March)

Do try and get to the Mosque of the Janissaries, a historical landmark and now a modern art gallery.

Also, I recommend that you walk around to the site of Ancient Kydonia, (Proto-Minoan settlement), and The Archeological Museum of Chania, for the archaeologist buried (no pun intended) in you.

The ancient domed history of Mosque of Janisseries in Chania

Mosque of Janisseries - ancient domed history

There are many tour operators who will organize treks to the really stunning gorges around - Gorge of Samaria, Gorge of Therissos and the Gorge of Imbros.

The Streets of Taste

As an epicurean and a passionate home cook, I was indulged and feted and pampered by the sheer finesse of Cretan food. Mediterranean food has always represented for me the happy marriage of health, taste and colors. You will not be lost for food choices in Chania. Wonderful Tavernas are spread out along the city, each offering the best of Cretan cuisine made with the spectacular olive oil that the region is famed for.

Octopus drying out in time for dinner at a Taverna in Chania

Octopus drying out in time for dinner at a Taverna

The waterfront restaurants are more picturesque but the ones inside the Old Town were better in flavor, to my taste. You can delve right into exquisite fish or roasted lamb or snail boubouristi at any of the Tavernas - the most average of the restaurants will still be highly palatable.

Quaint, cozy Old Town restaurants of Chania

Quaint, cozy Old Town restaurant

What's more, vegetarians have an unusually large selection to enjoy - from delectable Cretan salads to stuffed vegetables and pastries stuffed with cheese. Many of the chefs will be happy to step up and recommend a dish or explain the intricacies of a recipe if you show interest - there are curated food tours which include a special menu by the chef. I definitely recommend it as worth the cost when the chef whips up a creamy light cloud of a sauce around freshly stir-fried calamari, pairing it with a light wine and a syrupy cake!

Fresh, flavourful Dakos Cretan Salad

Fresh, flavourful Dakos Cretan Salad

Oh, and Greek desserts are all that they are described as - flaky, light, and irresistible, with many variations of spiral sweet pastries and cheese pies.

Chania - The Best of Then and Now

What I will carry back with me are not just the beautiful Turkish and Venetian artifacts I picked up, but the sense of being completely fulfilled at Chania with its beautiful cuisine, spectacular beaches, vibrant local life and enough history to fill up your soul.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Is Chania safe for a female traveler?

Chania is extremely safe for female travelers. One, Cretans are not only hospitable by nature but also tourism is a great revenue generator for them. Police are approachable, and the crime rate is low. The night life of Chania is vibrant and it wont get isolated at most times.

How to get to Chania from Athens?

You may fly directly into Chania from Athens (Aegean Air, Olympic Air and SKY Express) in a 50 minute flight. Or, you could take the scenic ferry across the Aegean sea in a slow (up to 17 hours) or fast ferry (8 to 9 hours).

What are some of the things to do in Chania apart from the beaches?

Chania has a lot of historically and architecturally relevant sites like the Venetian Lighthouse, the Grand Arsenal, the Venetian wells, apart from stunning Ottoman mosques, and synagogues and ancient churches. You may also do Cretan food exploration, or explore the lesser known Minoan ruins.

What kind of food is there in Chania?

You find the best of Cretan food in Chania, offering up splendid Mediterranean dishes. While their salads and seafood are famed for taste and health, vegetarians also have a great choice from vegetable savory pastries to stuffed eggplants and zucchini. They are all served up in the most flavourful pure olive oil.

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Things To Consider

Sporting a Mediterranean climate, June to September is hot (ranging between 22 & 32 C), sunny and perfect for the beaches. It is also the tourist season. The shoulder seasons of late spring or early autumns offer a more temperate climate and less crowded.
Chania's cultural heritage is a rich tapestry of diverse cultures. It spans the richness of its musical lyres and lutes, the traditional dances of syrtos and pentozali, and the traditional arts of ceramics, mask-making and jewelry-making and knife-making.
Cretan cuisine is a blend of Mediterranean flavors featuring the seafood, pure fruity olive oils, delicate herbs and olives, vegetables bursting with flavor and tender meats. What sets Cretan cuisine apart is that it is as healthy as it is delicious!
Chania is extremely safe for tourists, even solo female travelers. The crime rate is low and Cretans are helpful and friendly. The police are quite responsive and aware. Since there is an active night-life, the roads are well-lit and populated.
There are many secret locations and experiences tucked aways in the gorges, beaches and villages around Chania. Including Aradena, a ghost-village in the Sfakia region; the charming village of Kastelli with a perfect sunset vantage point.
Chania, like all of Crete, can get quite sunny in the summers. You should carry lightweight summer clothing, swimwear and beach accessories of course. Winters can get cold and you will need a proper winter jacket.

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