When choosing a Mediterranean cruise, I was drawn to one that would stop at Crete (Kreta). Since I was a child, I have been interested in Minoan history. This ancient civilization captivated me with its grand architecture (Knossos) and bull themes—bowls with horns, a fresco showing a Minoan leaping over a bull, and other artifacts. My heart raced at the idea that I would visit the island where this great culture reigned. Most of my knowledge of Crete centers on Knossos, which was too far away for a day trip so I set about researching. Chania (Hania) was once ancient Kydonia and Minoans occupied the area from 2800-1150 BCE. Settlers from mainland Greece started arriving in 1100 BCE and Crete grew into an important city-state. After periods of Arab and Byzantine rule (9thc-1254 CE), Venetians commanded the region leaving their architectural fingerprint all over Old Town Chania. Ottoman Turks also contributed to the cultural landscape after they laid siege to Chania in 1645. I didn’t locate a prolific guide, but my interest was definitely piqued by the tidbits I found. Foolishly, I thought there wasn’t too much to see and grew excited about visiting a port manageable in one-day. Little did I anticipate how enchanted I would become with Chania, how many things there were to do, or how much there would be to experience.
As we pulled into port, rain was pouring down and I was glad that we had no pressing tours to catch. My husband studied the weather radar and predicted that the rain would let up in 20 minutes or so—just enough time to catch the bus and get into the center marketplace. We jumped on board the rather crowded bus and made the fifteen-minute drive into town. The rain was starting to let up when we arrived at the Municipal Market. The covered agora in the shape of an orthodox cross provided a nice respite while we waited for the last of the inclement weather to pass.
Tip: If you’re arriving in Chania, I highly recommend using the bus. For a few Euro roundtrip, the ride takes you from the port to the start of my walking tour of things to do and places to see in Chania, Crete. Also, if you’re looking for additional information on the city, I would recommend searching under its different spellings, such as: Hania and Chania, Kreta.
Roaming Historian’s Old Town Chania Walking Tour
The Municipal Market (located in Sofia Venizelou Square) provides the perfect location to start this tour. With your back to the front of the building you are facing new Chania; once you walk through the market you will exit into old town. We passed by stalls teaming with the day’s fresh catch of seafood, including snails moving about. Some vendors offered mass-produced souvenirs, others charmed us with hand-crafted items, aromatic spices, and emollient olive oil products. We sampled olive oils at one stall and I purchased the finest, purest oil I’ve ever tasted. When purchasing soaps from one merchant, he put so many generous samples of cream in my bag that I couldn’t believe the value. From a maker of olive wood products, I bought wonderful cooking spoons. Interestingly, those almost didn’t make it home when an Italian customs agent questioned their nature (oil had leached out of the wood and moistened the bag the spoons were wrapped in).
We walked out the back of the market and turned left onto Skridlof Street (Boot Makers Row). Cretan leather boots are for sale along this lane, as are lots of other leather products and some geared towards tourists (tee-shirts, tchotchkes, etc.). The vendors’ wares sprawled into the narrow street. It felt like a Moroccan bazaar. If you like to shop, there are many charming stores throughout Old Chania. It’s Venetian influence is apparent in the multitude of narrow lanes that sprout off the main thoroughfares. It’s fun to get a little lost and meander through the paths to see what shopping treasures can be uncovered.
Skridlof Street ends at Halidon (Chalidon), which is a main thoroughfare to the harbor and where several points of interest on this tour are located. Turn right on Halidon to go towards the harbor. On your right, you will see the Orthodox Cathedral or Church of Trimartyri. A temple has stood on this site since the 13th century; the current church was completed in 1862. If by chance you are lucky enough to visit after rainfall, you will get to experience the square in front alive with color as precipitation brings out rich terra cotta and crimson hues.
Back on Halidon, to your left, is the Chania Archaeological Museum (there is also the Bikaki Folklore Collection next door, which we didn’t visit). The museum is a well-curated gem. Housed in a former Franciscan church, the buttressed ceilings, grand arches, and iron windows provide a splendid showcase for the exhibits. The collection is filled with historical treasures. The Chania Archaeological Museum hits all my marks. Shows artifacts from the past in a historic structure? Check. Collection represents area’s history? Check. Manageable size for a short visit? Check. Reasonable admission fees? Check.
The exhibits are divided into two sections: one part with finds from the Late Neolithic to Late Minoan Period (3500-1100 BCE) and the other with antiquities from the Iron Age on (end of 2nd millennium BCE forward). Impressive pottery, clay writing tablets, bull artifacts, weaponry, coins, military regalia, jewelry, and mosaic floors depicting Poseidon are some of the highlights. While roaming through the exhibits, I peered out a window onto a tranquil garden and reflected on the austere beauty in which the Franciscan monks lived, worked, and worshiped.
Leaving the museum, I was not immediately jarred back into the modern era, which I found quite refreshing. History was all around me and with the exception of a few food delivery trucks the area was relatively free from traffic. The nearby Venetian harbor beckoned so my husband and I strolled past Old Town Hall to reach the water’s edge. The Venetian Harbor was built between 1320 and 1356 to facilitate commerce and protect against piracy. With only the choices of left, right, or swim, we chose to go left along the water first. Reminding me of a fishing village, restaurants touting fresh seafood and providing an excellent view of the sea lined the harbor. I still regret not tasting their delicacies. At the tip of the wharf is Firkas Fortress, a Turkish fortification constructed in 1629 to protect against invaders. You can climb atop Firkas Fortress and peer through cannon holes at the sea. I scaled the lookout tower imagining sentinels standing guard to protect Chania from marauders. From atop the Chania fortress is a gorgeous view of the Venetian Lighthouse at the end of the pier. Venetians first constructed the Chania lighthouse in the late 16th century, but Egyptian reconstruction in the 19th century refashioned the design with a minaret. For hundreds of years, the structure stood as a beacon of light to ships coming into the port. Today, it is one of the oldest lighthouses in the world. Visitors are not allowed to enter the tower so we didn’t make the long walk down the pier, but instead enjoyed viewing it from several different vantage points. At the base of the fortress is the Maritime Museum of Crete with exhibits that include a replica of a Minoan ship, naval artifacts, and battle information including those of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.
In back of the fortress is the Topanas neighborhood. Venetian influence is apparent in this area that boasts stunning mansions. Stroll through the narrow, cobbled lanes and you will feel transported to another time and place. I loved seeing the multi-story homes with their charming flower boxes. Topanas leads to Evraiki (Jewish Quarter) and the Jewish Synagogue. Both areas have enticing shops and tempting cafes. I encountered the most wonderful family of jewelers who welcomed us into their two shops. We talked more about family and travel than jewelry, but their jewels didn’t disappoint either. I left with a pair of earrings and a ring with stones of greenish blue that reminded me of the Aegean waters surrounding the island.
From Evraiki you will come upon the back of Old City Hall and Eleftherios Venizelou Square; this was the point where we first chose to go left. This time we went right to see the Turkish Mosque (Hassan Pascha) and explore the Kasteli district. The mosque was erected in the 1640s after the Turks captured Chania. It’s Arabic architectural style stands in stark contrast to surrounding Venetian structures. The Chania mosque currently is used for exhibitions; recent research suggests that the area had housed a small church before the construction of this grand structure.
Continuing along the harbor in the opposite way of the fortress, you will encounter Byzantine walls that surround the hill of Kasteli—a district built upon the ruins of ancient Kydonia, a Minoan town. On top of Kasteli hill, is 5th Merarchias Square where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the harbor and old Chania. In the heart of the Kasteli neighborhood is a Greek-Swedish excavation where archaeologists have uncovered almost 5000 years of history. Linear A tablets suggest that Kydonia had a powerful centralized administrative system, an important pottery workshop whose products were distributed from Sardinia to Cyprus, and a thriving Minoan society. Tourists cannot enter the site where Minoan houses have been unearthed, but Kydonian artifacts are exhibited at the archaeological museum. Kydonia continued to thrive after the destruction of Knossos and the arrival of the Mycenaeans reserving it an important place in Cretan history.
Having been unprepared for how many rich historical sites we would uncover, we ran out of time to thoroughly explore the rest of this area. From the Kasteli neighborhood though, one can visit Venetian dockyards—large, stone structures with arched facades where ships were repaired. Arkoleontos Street will lead you to the fine knife makers that Crete is known for, especially on Sifaka street. Meander back towards the Municipal Market passing more shops and the Splantzia neighborhood. The photo of our map will help you on your journeys, as will the interactive map on the Explore Crete site. After touring much of Old Town Chania, I realized that I had barely scratched the surface of this city. Having thoroughly enjoyed the cacophony of cultural footprints present through existing Turkish, Venetian, Byzantine, and Greek architecture, Old Town Chania put me under its spell and I’m excited to return some day.