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Why go now?
Summer arrives earlier on the largest Greek island than elsewhere in the Med, and this year the lovely western city of Chania is easier to reach than ever – with British Airways launching flights from Heathrow on the last day of April.
New arrivals will find little changed from 70 years ago, when the local author Nikos Kazantzakis published Zorba the Greek. Crete’s historic former capital is still steeped in Minoan, Venetian, Ottoman and Greek history. The main difference is a blossoming of great places to eat, drink and sleep.
BA from Heathrow (ba.com) competes to Chania against easyJet (easyJet.com) and Norwegian (norwegian.com) from Gatwick; and Ryanair (ryanair.com) from Bristol, East Midlands, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester and Stansted.
The airport is 10 miles north-east of the city centre. The public bus from the airport into town costs €2.50; buy your ticket from the KTEL kiosk across the road from arrivals. It takes half-an-hour to reach the bus station (1). Departures are sporadic, at intervals of anything from 30 minutes to two hours, so you may prefer to share a taxi with other travellers; the standard fare to the city centre is €20.
Get your bearings
Chania is in the far west of Crete, about 100 miles west of the island’s capital, Heraklion. Its bay is protected by a pair of peninsulas: Rodhopou to the west, Akrotiri to the east. The old city walls more or less define the area of interest to visitors. The inner core, known as Kastelli, includes Minoan ruins. Just to the east, Splanzia is the former Turkish quarter. A harbour arm wraps around from the north-east corner of this district.
The main thoroughfare, Halidon, runs south from Venizelos Square (2). At its southern end it meets the main east-west road, which takes on a succession of names – Yiannari for its central part.
The tourist office (3) at 29 Kydonias (00 30 28213 41665/6; chaniacrete.gr) closes at weekends, and opens only 9am-3pm from Monday to Friday – though these hours may be extended in the height of summer.
The Hotel Splanzia (4) at 20 Daskalogianni (00 30 28210 45313; splanzia.com) fills an impressive townhouse that was formerly the home of the Turkish mayor during the Ottoman era and is now an elegant boutique hotel with a lovely courtyard. A double room costs €67, with breakfast an extra €6 per person.
Casa Delfino (5) is a 17th-century Venetian mansion reinvented as a luxury hotel at 9 Theofanus (00 30 28210 87400; casadelfino.com). The roof terrace offers a breathtaking view across the city and harbour. A double room costs €166, including breakfast.
Take a view
The Venetians consolidated the harbour, and built the sea wall that defends it against Mediterranean storms. The lower part of the lighthouse (6) at the end was built over 400 years ago, and has been embellished since. From all along the sea wall there are marvellous views, best at the start or end of the day. Across the water, the prominent Mosque of the Janissaries (7) was the first act of the Ottomans when they seized control of Chania in 1645.
Take a hike
From the lighthouse (6), walk back along the arm of ancient stones. Where it connects with the mainland, walk past Chania Yacht Club (8) and cut across the car park. On the far side a slope rises to the bastion (9) which provides a panorama of the eastern bay.
Head south down Minoos, on the inside of the city walls. Take the second right, an unlikely looking alley, and thread through to Vourdouba. This leads past ancient cloisters on the right to 1821 Square (10), with the handsome and interesting Agios Nikolaos church on your left and a tempting location for coffee adjacent to it. On the corner is a crumbling Venetian chapel. Turn right onto Daskalogianni and pause at the Ride Cycle Cafe (11).
The northward street becomes Arheleon. Turn left along Kanevaro for the Minoan excavations known as Ancient Kydonia (12), which extend back five millennia – Chania is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. Continue west to Venizelos Square (2), and turn right at Starbucks along Zampeliou – filled with souvenir shops and places to eat.
Lunch on the run
Hammam (13), the cafe at 43 Zampeliou, is an excellent bakery serving spanakopitas, spinach-filled pastries, at just €1.60 each – with a beer for an extra €2. For a more substantial meal, a few doors further west, Tamam occupies the old Ottoman baths and serves reliably good Cretan cuisine.
Just along Zampeliou, the Exantos Art Space (14) is full of works that distil the local colour. Across the city centre in Splantzia, the Vineria delicatessen (15) at 70 Daskalogianni (00 30 28210 27068) hosts tastings of wine and other local produce. Stores tend to open 10am-3pm and 6-9pm in summer.
Chania’s market (16), on the site of the ancient Agora, has been a raucous retail venue for centuries; the current edition, was modelled on the main marché in Marseille and takes in the shape of a cross. It opened in 1913, the same year that Crete was united with Greece. The hours are roughly 7am-9pm daily except Sunday.
As the sun dips, the harbourside bars and restaurants begin to sparkle. At the venues around the horseshoe-shaped outer harbour tourists may feel coerced into taking a table, but politely decline and continue around the waterfront towards the inner harbour – where you can join the locals as they drink in the scenery. At Pallas (17), you can sip an island-brewed Septem India Pale Ale, its name derived from the 7 per cent alcoholic strength. Then wander further along to the Chania Yacht Club (8) at the eastern end of the Inner Harbour, where the outdoor tables catch the last rays of sunshine.
Dine with the locals
Away from the waterfront, the highest concentration of restaurants is along Chatzimichali Daliani. For excellent salads, grilled meat and homemade panacotta, try Mesogiako (18) at number 36 (00 30 28210 57992; mesogiako.com); a feast for two, including wine, should come in at around €35.
Sunday morning: go to church
The Orthodox Cathedral (19) was completed in 1860, during Ottoman rule – when Christian worship was tolerated by the Islamic occupiers. From outside, with its lop-sided facade it looks oddly Latin American – in contrast with the intensely atmospheric interior.
Out to brunch
Theotokopoulou is a handsome Venetian street, and the Kormoranos Bakery Café (20) at number 46 (00 30 6974 714226) serves fresh croissants, yoghurt and fruit, omelettes and toasted sandwiches from 8am each day.
The Archaeological Museum (21) on Halidon (00 30 28210 90334; culture.gr) is housed in the former church of San Francisco, which was later a mosque and then served as Chania’s first cinema. The contents are from excavations at sites in the west of Crete, ranging from Minoan relics to an impressive third-century AD mosaic floor decorated with a representation of Dionysos and Ariadne. It opens 8am-8pm daily, admission €4.
Further down Halidon, the Municipal Art Gallery (22) at number 98 (00 30 28210 92294; pinakothiki-chania.gr) displays paintings, engravings and sculpture of local and Greek artists from the 18th century. It opens 10am-2pm on Sundays, additionally 6-9pm on other days, admission €2.
Take a ride
Chania has one of the best-value bike-share schemes in Europe. Register in advance at www.chania.gr/bikes, pay a fee of €1 and you can use a bike for up to three hours without extra charge.
A walk in the park
For the ideal cycling target, go east out of town following the signs for the airport – but after a steep, swerving climb, turn off when you see a sign for the Venizelos Tombs. This leads you to an area of parkland that includes the impressive tomb of Eleftherios Venizelos (23), one of the most long-standing Greek premiers. There are excellent views back across the bay to Chania; for the very best position, get a table on the open terrace at the adjacent Koukouvaya restaurant (koukouvaya.gr).
The icing on the cake
Before your flight home, explore some of the Akrotiri peninsula — in particular, the village of Stavros (24) at the northern tip. It has an excellent beach and a few bars, but crucially also a place in movie history. Beneath the 1,000ft-high slab of limestone that dominates it, the closing scene of Zorba the Greek was filmed – with Alan Bates and Anthony Quinn dancing the Sirtaki. The best plan is to get a taxi to Stavros, and ask the driver to wait before taking you on to the airport; you should be able to negotiate a fare of around €40.
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