For sun-seekers, the city of Chania was once a means to an end—a stopover en route to the world-class beaches of Crete, Greece’s largest and southernmost island. Now, this bustling city on Crete’s northwest coast has earned the spotlight on its own merits. Just an hour’s flight from Athens, Chania (pronounced “hahn-yah”) is both a destination, thanks to a historic harbour and local delicacies, and an ideal jumping-off point to explore the culture, geographic diversity and this lush island’s Instagrammable beaches.
For admirers of history and architecture, Chania itself is an irresistible draw. First inhabited around 1700 B.C. by the Minoans it was later claimed by the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans, which helps explain the city’s wide-ranging historic architecture. Walking into town from the Venetian lighthouse (a listed archaeological site) at Chania’s port, you’ll pass a fascinating mix of neoclassical buildings, Byzantine castles and monasteries dating back to the 11th century.
It’s at the new Archaeological Museum in the nearby suburb of Chalepa that you begin to understand how the city’s traditional spirit and contemporary edge coexist so comfortably. Here, inside a modern building designed according to sustainability and bioclimatic principles, you can view artifacts and learn about Cretan life from prehistoric times.
MARKETS AND SHOPPING
Though the city’s historic covered central market is closed for renovation until late 2023, there are open-air farmers’ markets to discover and picturesque alleys to wander, all populated with shops purveying local delights—artisanal leather goods, ceramics and hand-embroidered textiles, olive oil, tea and honey.
Kurkuta is a fun souvenir shop full of kitschy novelty items, while Mitos Art has more sophisticated offerings that range from modern gold and silver jewellery to ceramics and bronze sculptures created by local artists and designers. Roka Carpets Weaving Shop is where master weaver Mihalis Manousakis and his wife, Annie, craft intricate traditional rugs on their 400-year-old loom.
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK
Don’t miss the chance to sample Cretan delicacies, like kalitsounia, a salty or sweet cheese pastry, and dakos, a fresh salad of tomatoes, creamy sheep’s- or goat’s-milk cheese atop barley rusks soaked in olive oil. Kolokithokeftedes is another item you’ll see on menus—traditional zucchini, feta and mint fritters popular on the island. Raki, a Cretan brandy distilled from grapes, is served at just about every taverna and enjoyed neat alongside mezes (a selection of small appetizers or snacks).
One of Chania’s most famous pastry shops is a family business that has been baking fresh bougatsa—a phyllo pastry with a sweet or savoury filling—for 100 years. Stop by Bougatsa Iordanis any time after 6 a.m., when the oven gets fired up, for the original sweet version—with a creamy custard filling—dusted with cinnamon and sugar, and best enjoyed with a strong coffee.
For a more modern take on breakfast (or lunch or dinner), head over to Ginger Concept, a chic bistro in the Old Town— and an idyllic place to start the day with kagianas (an eggs-and-tomato dish) and people-watching. And for the freshest seafood and best sunset views, book a dinner reservation at Thalassino Ageri, or try Salis, where the creative chef reimagines old classics with seasonal local twists.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Take your pick of accommodations—coastal, city or countryside—to suit your personal preference and itinerary.
Just outside of Chania, on an organic farm, is Metohi Kindelis, with its rose-coloured exterior and three spacious guest houses, replete with fully equipped kitchens (and fridges stocked with local goodies) and private saltwater pools.
With its clean-lined beach house interiors punctuated by primary colours and cheeky pop art, Ammos hotel is the physical embodiment of a wink. This beachfront favourite just five kilometres from the Old Town features cozy studio rooms as well as larger suites to accommodate families of four.
Boutique luxury hotel Casa Delfino is housed in a refurbished 17th-century Venetian mansion and has 24 elegant guest rooms with stunning views of Chania’s Old Harbour.
Contemporary accommodations are available at the centrally located Samaria Hotel, which is close to the Old Town and shop-lined cobbled streets.
IT’S WORTH THE DRIVE
Rent a car and venture out from Chania to view more breathtaking landscapes and explore the local attractions. The roads can be narrow and winding, but most are clearly marked with signs in English—and you’ll find plenty of friendly locals who will help steer you through a tight spot.
FOR THE HISTORY BUFF
The jewel in Crete’s historic crown is Knossos, believed to be Crete’s largest Bronze Age archaeological site and Europe’s oldest city. You can still experience the tiered platforms of the palace, the restored fresco depicting a charging bull, and the majestic Minoan columns constructed from the trunks of cypress trees—all just a scenic two-hour drive away. Break up the trip back to Chania with a stop at the Arkadi Monastery, a 16th-century church that blends Roman and Baroque elements and was a refuge during the Cretan resistance to Ottoman rule in 1866.
FOR THE ACTIVE HIKER
A hike at Samaria Gorge is a must. The 16- kilometre trail will lead you past abandoned villages, tight passages (one is only three metres wide and 100 metres high) and 450 species of plant and animal life, which makes the gorge a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve. For a shorter hiking alternative, check out the Imbros Gorge, an 11-kilometre canyon trail about an hour’s drive from Chania.
FOR THE TREASURE HUNTER
Crete has a deep tradition of pottery and nowhere is it more evident than the village of Margarites, in the centre of Crete’s rolling Rethymno region. Stroll the winding streets and you’ll notice artists’ hand-thrown pots displayed outside, spilling onto the sidewalks and window sashes, and indoors. At Keramion, you can observe Minoan-era firing techniques and embellishments on the humble-yet-stunning vases, jugs and plates. And if you’re artistically inclined, consider taking a short workshop to learn how to throw clay on a wheel or hand-build a pottery piece.
When you’re ready to cool down with a swim at the beach, Chania offers bountiful options. There are lots of lovely beaches near the city, but the real gems are just a short trip away. Many beaches are family-friendly but some are hard to access— do some research if you’re travelling with small children or have mobility issues.
Prepare to swoon at the shimmering pink sands (thanks to crushed shells) and crystalline waters at Balos. Apart from its otherworldly appearance, what sets Balos apart is its shallow lagoon that’s perfect for wading. Though you can drive the 51 kilometres to Balos, some of the roads are rough, as is the final hike to the beach. The easiest arrival is via the Kissamos ferry. There’s a beach bar, but items are limited and go fast, If one pink beach isn’t enough, venture to Elafonisi. Shallow turquoise waters dotted by islands and coves make the one-kilometre-long coastline a popular spot. Elafonisi offers sunbeds and beach umbrellas, beach bars and, during the busy summer season, lifeguards.
Falassarna, located at the western base of the scenic Gramvousa Peninsula, is another crowd-pleaser, thanks to an abundance of rental umbrellas, snack bars and volleyball courts.
Where there are great beaches, there are bound to be great water sports. With a plethora of equipment-rental companies operating at most sites, you can easily find canoes, stand-up paddleboards, windsurfers and jet-skis. If you’d rather enjoy the ocean by boat, head to nearby Hora Sfakion and take a trip to Loutro, a charming seaside village inaccessible by car. Or drive to Kalypso Beach in Rethymno—a rocky cove with inky blue waters that once served as a pirate hideaway. Rent scuba or snorkel gear and marvel at marine life in the Libyan Sea.
Whether you’re Greek island-hopping or plan to spend your whole vacation on Crete, you’ll find plenty to do and see—with sweeping seaside vistas so stunning, it can be hard to keep your eyes on the winding cliffside roads.
Minimize currency exchange fees and buy euros before your trip—you can order currency online at amatravel.ca/currency-exchange and pick it up at your local AMA Centre or any airport in Canada with an International Currency Exchange location. While in Greece, pay with cash or use a credit or debit card with low or no foreign transaction fees. No matter what, avoid airport kiosks at both the beginning and end of your journey; they charge a premium for the convenience.
Don’t Forget a Permit
Since some foreign car rental agencies may require an International Driving Permit (IDP), check with your intended provider before setting out on Crete’s winding roads. The IDP is valid for one year after purchase, so it’s handy if you plan to extend your trip to other destinations—or have additional trips planned in the coming year.
AMA International Driving Permits (IDP)
AMA is the exclusive provider of IDPs in Alberta, whether you’re a member or not. Get more information at amatravel.ca/articles/what-is-an-international-driving-permit.
Traveling light is an art form. Here’s how to carry-on the essentials and still explore your destination in style:
Wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane: jeans, sweater, jacket and comfortable walking shoes or boots.
Limit packed footwear to a pair of casual shoes or shoes that can be dressed up, plus flat sandals or flip-flops for the pool and beach.
Check what amenities your hotel provides, so you can leave unnecessary toiletries at home.
Choose versatile clothing—lightweight trousers, skirts, good-quality tees—that can be layered to suit the temperature or occasion.
Bring a selection of small accessories (think scarves, jewellery, sunglasses) to smarten up your basics. And don’t forget a hat for sun protection!
AMA Travel can help you book flights, cruises, hotels, cars and activities for your next big adventure. Learn more at amatravel.ca.