The old Venetian seaport of Chania, on the northwest coast of Crete, oozes history - but with restaurants and clubs that are buzzing into the early hours, it's full of life, too
Don’t choose a place to stay right on Chania’s harbour promenade if you over-value peace and quiet and a good night’s sleep. On a summer evening, the music and chatter from the row of cafes along the much-photographed quayside of this old harbour town can be deafening, and it goes on until at least two in the morning.
But choose a boutique hotel or cheerful guesthouse just a block or two inland, in the narrow (and mostly car-free) streets of the old town – or just join in the laidback café life with the locals until the early hours - and Chania becomes Crete’s most appealing city.
I like Nostos
, with its colourful self-catering apartments on narrow, pedestrianised Odos Zambeliou, just far enough back from the harbour to evade the worst of the noise at night. Studios (from €80) have gallery beds and balconies, and there’s a roof-terrace shaded by vines.
, on a hillside beside the ruined Venetian fortress walls, is a collection of two- and four-bed suites surrounding a cool, pebble-cobbled courtyard. All the light, cool rooms have mini-kitchens with sink, cooker and fridge (breakfast is the only meal served) and there’s a shared rooftop terrace for cocktails and lazy afternoons. With doubles from around €90, it’s a real bargain.
Moving further upmarket, Casa Delfino
, at Parados Theotikoupoulou 20, is the epitome of boutique chic in the old quarter - a grand 17th-century Venetian mansion updated with facilities such as wi-fi, wide-screen TV and DVD players in 16 individually decorated, spacious suites set behind wrought-iron gates. Staying here costs €150-€300.
To combine rural charm with easy access to town, stay at Metohi Kindelis
.This cool and gracious space (a 10-minute drive from the harbour) was once a Venetian country manor and has been made over into two stylish apartments sleeping up to four people (from around €140) and sharing two swimming pools and a huge walled garden full of orange trees.
Though it’s surrounded by a ring of newer suburbs, Chania shows its age. The historic centre around the harbour mixes old Venetian and Turkish buildings (including a mosque and a ruined castle), some still dilapidated, some stylishly restored. Two bite-sized museums, the Archeological Museum and the Cretan House Museum (which are handily close to each other on Odos Chalidon), put more than 5,000 years of Cretan history on display, from relics of the ancient Minoan civilisation (Europe’s oldest) to clothes, textiles, furniture and tools evocative of a more recent past.
On the harbour, the domed building that looks like the Mos Eisley Cantina out of Star Wars is the old Turkish baths. It’s now a cultural centre where you’ll find changing exhibitions of photography, ceramics and other visual and performing arts. The market area, immediately inland from the harbour, is a mass of small shops selling a jumble of designer (and fake designer) accessories. Order a pair of Cretan riding boots when you arrive and they’ll be ready by the time you leave. If you’re self-catering, discover the covered market, where local housewives buy fish, meat, fruit and veg. It’s also great for stocking up on olive oil, wine, mountain honey and herbs from the Cretan hillsides.
Those hillsides aren’t far away. The White Mountains (capped with snow until May) look tantalisingly close and are in fact only 45 minutes away, so Chania is a good base for a walking and exploring holiday.
There are beaches a couple of miles west of the harbour at Kalamaki
, where summer-season bars and tavernas rent out loungers and umbrellas by the day, but for even better sand head eight miles west to Platanias and the Minoa Palace Resort and Spa
. It’s the newest luxury hotel in the northwest, with 254 rooms and suites (starting at around €135) and a modern design that is mellowed by pastel colours, flowers and palm trees.
Platanias is also the hub of Chania’s club scene, with up to a dozen great dance venues in action throughout the summer (kicking off around June and slowing down in September). Some are home-grown, others migrate from Athens for the season, and none of them really warms up until after midnight. Young Chaniots fuel up on vast quantities of frappe (iced coffee) in town before heading out for the rest of the night.
Cretans (like all Greeks) dine late, so if you sit down before 10pm at O Dinos or Karnagio (both on Chania’s older, inner harbour) your fellow diners will mostly be foreigners. Expect to pay around €25 at either of these places, which concentrate on fish and seafood. Tamam, at Zambeliou 49, is slightly cheaper, with lots of vegetarian options, and Ela, inside the ruined walls of a Venetian townhouse, is another mid-priced option.
Getting out of Chania – whether to explore or to travel on to the south coast – is easy. There are plenty of car rental companies (both local and big international franchises), good bus services in all directions and, for island hopping, there are ferries north to the Cyclades and Piraeus. But the chances are you won’t want to leave this lively town for a while.
Throughout the summer, you can fly straight to Chania courtesy of a number of charter airlines, but between the end of October and Easter you’ll have to fly via Athens.