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Discovering Chania, Crete’s charming ancient capital

Walking along the harbour arm affords a seafarer’s view of Chania, one of Greece’s prettiest cities. From the weathered stone Venetian lighthouse, you look back to the great domed mosque at the centre of the waterfront: flanked by yellow and orange Venetian houses and Ottoman mansions with overhanging wooden balconies and set against the backdrop of the White Mountains.

Crete’s historic former capital is steeped in Minoan, Ottoman and Greek history. On the surface, little has changed since local author Nikos Kazantzakis penned Zorba The Greek there in the 1940s.

But immerse yourself in the maze of quaint cobbled back streets in the ancient walled pedestrian zone and you’ll discover a city transformed in recent years into a thriving tourist destination with a burgeoning foodie, drink and hotel scene.

Centrepiece: Chania’s harbour was built by the Venetians in the 14th Century

Tourists here now seek out a combination of city life and culture, beaches and boat trips. Chania is often dubbed ‘Greece’s Venice’ on account of its seafaring history, but to call it a ‘Cretan Capri’ seems more fitting.

The harbour is its centrepiece. Built by the Venetians in the 14th Century, it’s lined to the west of the Mosque Yiali Tzami with a continuous row of cafes and restaurants, and to the east the grand stone arched Venetian dockyards now houses trendy bars, tavernas and craft shops. Where once 40 vast Venetian galleys dropped anchor, today the water is filled with wooden fishing boats offering excursions to nearby beaches and islands.

Behind lies the residential area of Kastelli, where excavations have uncovered settlements dating back to about 3650 BC. The Venetians, who ruled Crete from the early 13th Century, built the imposing Firkas Fortress (now the maritime museum) at the end of the harbour to protect their capital from the looming expansion of the Ottoman Turks. In 1645 it fell, eventually gaining independence and uniting with mainland Greece on 1898.

This history of unbroken occupation is evident in its blend of culture, cuisine and architectural styles and lends Chania much of its contemporary charm. Nearly every building tells a story: the Archaeological Museum, halfway up the main street Halidon, is housed in the church of a former Franciscan monastery and contains a treasure trove of Minoan clay figures, decorated ceramics, gold jewellery and a Roman mosaic floor.

Nearby, the church of Saint Nikolaos is extraordinary for its belltower on one side and minaret on the other.

Originally a church, it became the city’s main mosque in the 17th Century and a Christian basilica dedicated to the patron saint of sailors in 1918. Thirty years ago, the alleyways behind the harbour housed a mixture of residential buildings and brothels. Now these are boutique hotels, shops and restaurants.

Picturesque: One of Chania’s pretty backstreets

Picturesque: One of Chania’s pretty backstreets

Casa Delfino is one of the first Venetian houses to be turned into a hotel. It was once the property of Giovanni Delfino, an Italian ship owner who set up home there after being shipwrecked in 1835. Badly bombed during the war like much of the city, it was restored by a fifth-generation Delfino with 24 rooms set around a courtyard.

Alarmingly, a female family member fell to her death in the courtyard, toppled by gravity acting on her fulsome bosom while she hung sheet from an upper- floor window. Or at least that’s the story.

My room once belonged to a sea captain, so as I stepped out on to the balcony in the morning I’d catch the same view of the harbour and horizon as he would no doubt scan for sailing conditions. On the top floor, beside the rooftop bar, is the Presidential Suite, which has housed Al Gore, the queen of Spain and Jean Paul Gaultier, to name but a few.

Streets behind Casa Delfino lead up to the old Jewish neighbourhood and synagogue, through alleyways lined with restaurants and shops selling traditional Greek pottery and leather goods.

Just outside the old town, the Agora (covered market) is stuffed full of stalls bursting with fresh fruit and vegetables, Cretan cheeses, Greek mountain tea, herbs, honey and olive oil.

A mosaic at the Archaeological Museum, which also contains a treasure trove of Minoan clay figures, decorated ceramics and gold jewellery

A mosaic at the Archaeological Museum, which also contains a treasure trove of Minoan clay figures, decorated ceramics and gold jewellery

Chania is also a great base for excursions: head to the Samaria Gorge, Europe’s longest, which cuts deep through the White Mountains, or to Elafonisi Beach, which is a small island with pink sand that you can walk to from the main island through clear, shallow waters. 

Chania also has its own beach, Nea Chora, a functional stretch of sand with sunbeds and umbrellas. But just three miles west you’ll find the golden sandy cove of Agii Apostoli, with its clutch of restaurants and hotels, including the newly built adults-only resort Domes Noruz.

Most visitors to western Crete visit Chania for a day or evening trip – or circumvent it altogether after landing at the airport. They’re missing out. Given time to wander through the city’s multi-layered past, or unwind in a boutique spa hotel, you can’t fail to be charmed.


British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair all offer direct flights to Chania from the UK. Rooms at Casa Delfino ( cost from £110 per night in low season, and from £132 per night at the Domes Noruz ( These prices are per room, including breakfast.



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