Things to Do in Chania
Minoans lived near Chania’s harbor at Ancient Kydonia, and today’s beach lovers head to the modern seashore at Nea Hora. There are waterfront cafes to relax in at Koum Kapi, the old Turkish quarter.
The Archaeological Museum of Chania traces the history of this part of Crete since Neolithic times, and it’s housed in a 16th-century Venetian church that’s an impressive sight in itself. If you like ships, head to the Naval Museum in the headland fortress, once an Ottoman prison, and the Venetian shipyard museum by the harbor. Both museums exhibit maritime displays from the Bronze Age onwards, including memorabilia from WWII. You’ll also find displays of Byzantine jewelry, mosaics and artifacts in the fortress’ Byzantine museum.
Wander around the Old Town, and walk the fortified walls leading from the fortress for views of the old quarter. Amid the church towers are the minarets of mosques, along with the great Venetian arsenal, a synagogue and the excavated remains of Ancient Kydonia. Chania is also the place to plan and organize adventure activities, from hiking Samaria Gorge to mountain-bike tours, rock climbing, kayaking and diving.
Chania’s spectacular Venetian Harbour is a symbol of the town’s rich and varied history, built between 1320 and 1356 when it was first under control of the Republic of Venice. Made of butter-colored stone and with its walls stretching for just under a mile (1.5 km), it provided sheltered waters and safe anchorage and was originally a thriving trading port with berthing room for up to 40 galleys. A breakwater was constructed to the north of the harbor to protect the ships from storm damage, and on this St Nicholas Chapel and bastion were built. During Venetian times condemned criminals were executed on this spot. The Firkas Fortress (now the Maritime Museum of Crete) at the entrance to the harbor was built with the dual purpose of safeguarding Chania from invasion and housing Venetian troops.
However the most striking of the edifices along the Venetian Harbour is the lighthouse (no public access), which dates from around 1570 and looms majestically skywards at the harbor entrance to this day. It is Chania’s most-photographed monument and was restored to its original splendor in the 1840s; the lighthouse is magical when illuminated at night.
Today, the Venetian Harbour offers mooring for local fishing boats and pleasure craft; in summer it is a romantic spot to stroll and then enjoy eating and drinking in the many harbor-side restaurants, tavernas and ouzo shops. Even in winter, it’s usually warm enough to sit outside in a café while sipping coffee and enjoying the Cretan sun.
Comprising two sandy stretches extending from either side of a pier, Marathi Beach overlooks the vivid blue waters of Souda Bay and the White Mountains of Chania. The beach is well sheltered from the elements, meaning the waters are waveless and calm. Traditional tavernas near the sand serve fresh fish to hungry beachgoers.
Perching on the end of the breakwater, the Venetian Lighthouse is the most striking of all the buildings around Chania’s imperious Venetian Harbour, and was constructed around 1570 when the town was under control of the Republic of Venice. It is one of the oldest lighthouses in the world and its spindly, butter-colored stone tower stretches up 69 feet (21 m) high. Last renovated in 2006, the tower was modified several times in the intervening centuries, gaining the mini-minaret above its light in 1839, when Ottoman Turks occupied Crete.
Although it’s no longer operational and closed to the public, the lighthouse is the landmark building in Chania and has an unusual three-part construction; its base has eight sides and its middle section has 16, while its upper reaches are circular. There’s an enjoyable stroll along the walls of the Venetian Harbour to admire its spectacular architecture and this is a romantic spot to linger when it’s illuminated after dark; better still, enjoy the view over an ouzo in one of Chania’s many harbour-side tavernas.
Chania’s most popular water park, Limnoupolis Water Park (Aqua Creta Limnoupolis) offers 11 large slides, including steep “free-fall” options, plus a lazy river, a kids’ pool with smaller slides, and a big central pool with a zipline. The park also has sun loungers, a bar, a restaurant, fast-food options, and a minimart.
The Firkas Fortress at the entrance to Chania harbor was built during the Venetian occupation of Crete between 1204 and 1669; it was originally used as a barracks and prison. Since 1973, it has housed the Maritime Museum of Crete (sometimes translated as the Nautical Museum of Crete).
Spread over two floors of the Maritime Museum are 13 chronological displays starting with models of ships from Prehistoric times, passing through ancient navigational equipment, and ending with models of destroyers and landing craft from Greece’s modern-day naval fleet. Highlights along the way include plunder from ancient shipwrecks, such as amphorae and cooking utensils; reproductions of Minoan galleys; a Bronze Age trireme; and a model bridge from a World War II torpedo boat. A section is also given over to the German invasion of Crete in 1941, illustrated with photographs and personal testimonies.
The museum offers a small exhibition of shells showcasing the diversity of Mediterranean sea life and a well-stocked library of maritime books. A visit to the museum is easily combined with a walk around Chania’s Venetian Harbour or can be visited as part of an electric Trikke tour of its Old Town.
With its sawtooth walls and square crenellated towers at each corner, the well-preserved Venetian castle of Frangokastello is straight from the pages of a medieval fairytale. The Venetians built the castle fort in the 1370s, when their empire ruled the seas and the island of Crete. You can still make out the carving of the winged lion of the Venetian Republic, above the entrance to the castle.
The imposing structure lies on the coastal plain, strategically positioned to ward off pirates and protect the Venetian nobles who called the island home. It was originally called the Castle of St. Nikitas, but eventually took on the name given to it by unhappy locals: Castle of the Franks (as in foreigners). The battlements and buildings within the wall date from the island’s Ottoman occupation.
Nearby, Frangokastello’s beaches are a modern-day draw and the small town offers remote seaside accommodation
The vast archaeological site of Aptera lies on the northwest coast of Crete, 20 minutes from the charming seaside town of Chania. Believed to date back to the 14th century BC, Aptera was a powerful ancient city with its roots in Minoan times.
From its all-powerful position high on a plateau overlooking Souda Bay, Ancient Aptera had its own currency and thrived for millennia as a trading post with two natural harbors. Its eventual downfall came in the 7th century AD, when the city-state was repressed by Arabs and then destroyed by earthquake. It fell into long decline and lay undiscovered until Nazi troops occupying Crete during World War II started to excavate the site in 1942. Work still continues, and slowly the remains — dating from Minoan, Greek and Roman times — of an aqueduct, cisterns, public baths, temples, graves, houses, palaces and a small hillside theater have resurfaced, all cradled inside a protective walls that stretches for 2.5 miles (4 km).
Surrounded by olive groves and sleepy villages such as Maheri and Arhanes, where traditional rural life creeps on as it has for centuries, Ancient Aptera is one of the most important archaeological sites on Crete but — wrongly — flies under the tourist radar. As the hordes head for Knossos, Aptera is often relatively deserted.
Close by is the austere Itzedin Fortress, overlooking Souda Bay and built by the Turks in 1866-69 to crush the Cretan Revolution. The Aptera ruins can be visited on day trips from Heraklion or Rethymnon, and explored as part of a half-day walking tour of Arhanes and its environs; the views of the snow-capped White Mountains are spectacular in spring.
Tucked behind the façade of the former Venetian church of St Francis, the Archaeological Museum of Chania can be visited as part of an electric Trikke tour of its charming Old Town. Displays cover the periods from Neolithic and Minoan to late Roman times, and exhibit treasures found during excavations around the town and across western Crete.
The collections are elegantly displayed under the soaring vaulted ceiling of the church’s nave and include models of ships, clay seals, battered Classical statuary and a bust of Emperor Hadrian. Highlights are a bird-shaped Minoan drinking vessel dating from 3000-2300 BC; gold discs from a Neolithic burial site, thought to be from the 9th century BC; an almost-complete mosaic of Dionysos and Ariadne, which was uncovered during building work in Chania and dates from the 3rd century AD; and a charming clutch of carved animals. The Mitsotakis Collection, donated to the museum in 2000, is also on display and encompasses Minoan pottery and jewelry.
The Turkish Fountain in the courtyard outside the museum originally stood in Eleftherios Venizelos Square down by Chania’s Venetian harbour.