Chania City walk around
Tell any Greek you live in Chania and they will say "ti oraia" - how lovely! Little known outside Greece, Crete's cultural capital has long been Greece's favourite city. A gentle and sparkling mix of historical beauty and seaside charm.
Chania divides quite neatly into the Old Town and the modern City. The modern part is similar to any Greek city, though perhaps a little more laid back: for those who enjoy bustle and shops it is worth exploring but has few noteworthy locations except, perhaps, a handful of wickedly magnetic “zakharoplasteia”, sweet and pastry shops. We propose instead an introductory walk around the old town where the pastry shops are perhaps less tempting but there is more to see for those less drawn to sugar.
The Old Town is tidily contained with remarkably intact Venetian defensive walls. It is compact and extends no more than 10-15 minutes brisk walk in any direction. With the exception of a handful of inconspicuous post-war buildings (the city was heavily bombed), all its houses are old: mostly Venetian and Ottoman with a few dating back to the Byzantine period.
La Maison Ottomane is located at the epicentre of the Old Town, Kastelli Hill, occupied since Neolithic times – a remarkable period of some 6000 years of continuous habitation. In fact, any walk from the hotel takes you past impressive remains of multi-story Minoan settlement dating back to 1400-1600 BC.
On the flip of a coin, let us turn right down Kanevaro Street and head towards the Venetian harbor, 100 metres or so away.After the remains, well worth a linger to read a short synopsis and a view a reconstructive drawing, you have a choice of a left turn towards Splanzia or a right towards the Venetian harbour and the areas of Topanas and the old Jewish quarter.
Venetian Harbour, Topanas, Old Jewish Quarter
The first entry into the old harbour is spectacular – a beautiful and largely unspoiled space, lined with Venetian mansions and warehouses, opens before you and beckons you to a gentle stroll or a peaceful stop in one of its many cafes.
The Venetians brought one sixth of the population of Venice to Chania in the 1250’s. This was a serious and long term commitment and is reflected in the architectural efforts they undertook to develop a city reflecting the glories and beauty of la Serenissima, Venice itself.
Many of the shops and restaurants on the round, western harbor front are typical of any seaside town around the world and merit little time or attention (though one should mention the book and press shop at the West end of the harbour) – it is however, worth lingering over a coffee or a beer to watch the world go by. Cafes vary in quality of offerings and of service – good ones are Aroma on the East side and the café of the Alcanea hotel sloping down a small hill on the West. Restaurants on the round, Western Harbour are best avoided - those on the long Eastern harbour front are mostly good.
At the very west tip of the round harbour is the nautical museum. It is a little provincial but none the worse for it, and not strictly nautical – more of a Chania/Crete historical museum with a maritime flavor. The upper level is largely dedicated to Crete during WWII. Particularly interesting is a large model showing how Chania looked in Venetian times.
This is a good spot to start exploring the narrow lanes of the old town. A walk up Angelou Street (by the Alcanea Hotel) takes you past Costa’s carpet shop on the left - a wonderful treasure trove of antique fabrics and carpets (as well as Turkish kilims and other). Among Crete’s greatest finds are antique wall or bed covers in bold red wool with hand embroidered flowers or geometric patterns. Further attractive luxury beckons down the road at Carmella’s – one of Chania’s institutions - a classy collection of all that is best in modern Greek jewellery making (plus the remarkable black pottery she creates in the back room).
Now is a good time to get lost – the area within the town walls is relatively small so you will not stay lost for long. The area is full of largely unspoilt (and in many cases unrennovated and crumbling) Venetian and Ottoman period houses – they have great charm. We are fortunate, in a sad way, that Chania was desperately poor in the ‘60s and ‘70s when most of Greece was ravaged by uncontrolled and unprincipled building development. In that period Cretan Capital status was lost to Heraklion and with it went money and architectural ugliness. Bomb sites remained bomb sites, but crumbling Venetian walls are a great deal more attractive than 1970’s high rise.
At some point you are likely to come back to the harbour front and if you are already thinking of lunch you could do worse thanTammam, one street back from the harbour (see Recommendations Section).
Nearby is Halidon Street where you can visit the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Cathedral Church of Chania. Those less concerned for their souls can visit Halidon's plethora of shops for the tourist shopper – there are certainly two or three good jewelers as well as several fashion shops worth seeking out – and, recently opened, a glitzy fur shop complete with shiny sign in Russian script. Otherwise Halidon and two or three tributary streets are dedicated to the usual choice of leather, ice cream (Kayak is heavenly), worry beads, feet-gnawing fish, frozen yoghurt and sandals. A little farther afield, towards the central market, a couple of outlets offer cutting-edge jewellery and handbag design, custom made perfumes, etc.
Starting back at the hotel and the Minoan ruins, a left turn would have taken us to Splanzia in about two minutes. Splanzia is a more bohemian side of Chania and where many locals go to find relaxation. It is particularly popular with students. Splanzia’s main street is Daskalogianni, well served with shops of all kinds (chemist, bakery, groceries, etc). It also boasts Chania’s loveliest Square, officially called 1821 but known by everyone as Splanzia Square. It is a relaxing spot to take a coffee, enjoy a light meal at one of two outdoor mezze restaurants, a calorific and tasty cholesterol-bomb souvlaki at Kosta’s, or a tasty cake at Glimidakis bakery.
Worth a visit is the beautiful St Nicholas Church, on the square, which was converted by the Turks into Crete’s main mosque and still has one of two remaining minarets in Chania. In the middle of the Square is an old plane tree with a history – the makeshift gallows from which Bishop Despotakis and other clerics were hung by a Turkish mob during the 1821 uprising.
On the corner of the square with Daskalogianni Street is the smaller and very pretty Venetian church of St Rocco, now used as an exhibition gallery.
Heading North from the square will take you to the seafront, of which more later – heading south takes you past Maridaki, a good seafood restaurant (also in our recommendations).
Shortly after Maridaki, to the right, you come to two parallel pedestrian streets. The first, lined with restaurants and trendy cafes & bars, is Chadzimichali Daliani. Here you also find the fine design handbag, jeweler and perfume shops mentioned above.
The second street, Tsouderon, leads you to the Chania Public Market, a handsome old structure normally filled with a mix of serious food shops (excellent cheeses, groceries, a good bakery, butchers, fishmongers etc) and also 4 or 5 modest but excellent restaurants (the second on the right from the East entrance is a personal favourite and serves some of the best food in Chania – look for a team of mother and tall son)... BUT at end 2021 the market closed for rennovation expected to last two years.
Chania is also served by an open air market that moves from location to location on different days of the week. Local farmers bring their produce to the city and it is possible to find excellent, fresh, unusual, local vegetables, fruit, cheeses, olives, olive oil, etc. Ask at reception and we will direct you.
The bit in the middle
It is characteristic of the typical Cretan to know the absolute truth about most things, though that truth tends to vary from Cretan to Cretan. It is therefore difficult to tell you with any certainty where Topanas district stops and Splanzia starts, or whether the area in the middle belongs to neither. In any case, it is a warren of lanes and well worth exploring for its beauty and the occasional restaurant one finds there. The area is bordered to the south by the market and to the north by Sifaka Street and the inner City walls.
Tombazi harbor Front
This esplanade runs the length of the Western section of the Venetian Harbour. It is a wonderful area to walk, drink and eat and where many Greeks will spend much of their time in Chania. Ta Neoria is a particularly pleasant place to enjoy seafood and watch the world go by (their fried koutsomoures – like a small red mullet – are excellent if in season), while ta Halkina is memorable for its lamb.
Bars abound – on the adjacent street the incredibly noisy Baraki is popular with local carousers.
Heading West down the harbor front takes you back, via more bars and restaurants, to the Topanas section of the old harbor.
Koum Kapi had lost some of its glitz over the years but is a popular place for locals to walk on a quiet promenade by the sea and take a coffee or a bite. It has a pleasant sea front with a number of bars with good views. Also at Koum Kapi is the nearest swimming for the Old Town, though belongings are best not left unattended there.
Nea Chora is effectively Chania’s city beach area. It is some 10 minutes’ walk from the Western edge of the Old Town. The beach is clean and sandy and is lined with a number of pleasant seafood restaurants, the best being Achilleas, the last one (see recommendations).
Although outside the city, Venizelos Graves are very much part of the soul of every Chanioti, indeed of every Cretan. Eleftherios Venizelos, Greece’s much celebrated statesman who led Crete to independence before becoming Prime Minister, is buried along with his brother on a hillside overlooking Chania from the East. The café next door is an ideal place to watch spectacular sunsets over the city.