Photo by Leonhard Niederwimmer from Pixabay
Seamlessly fusing past and present, Chania has a long and turbulent history that’s imprinted in its every photogenic nook and cranny. From sea-gazing Venetian mansions to Ottoman minarets and Jewish mosques, the old town’s architecture captivates the world’s aesthetes, history buffs and culture aficionados. Are you one of them? Planning to visit Chania and wondering what to do to maximise your time there? Pack a camera and comfy shoes – you’ll be walking a lot, that’s for sure! – and get ready to delve deep into ancient mysteries and experience ageless mystique.
What to do in Chania: history buffs & culture lovers
Visit the New Archeological Museum
The latest landmark that has been added to Chania’s already potent arsenal of attractions, is the spectacular new Archaeological Museum. A masterpiece of contemporary architecture, it is located in the historic, mansion-lined neighbourhood of Halepa and houses a comprehensive collection of artefacts from the Minoan civilization, through to Roman times.
Excavated from around the city of Chania and the surrounding regional unit, as well as from Axos and Lappa in the Rethymno regional unit, the antiquities on display highlight aspects of commerce, social organisation, religion, entertainment and war; but also explore the inhabitants’ daily lives with snapshots of their occupations, homes, utensils, toiletries, customs and attitudes. The museum experience is enhanced by specialised representations and digital media, while provisions have been made for the visually impaired with tactile exhibits and braille captions.
Explore the Monasteries
15 km from Chania on the Akrotíri peninsula, the 17th-century Monastery of Agia Triada Zangarolon is one of the wealthiest and most beautiful in Crete, with marked Renaissance architectural influences. Aside from the Instagrammable ornate church exteriors, there is also a museum with a large collection of woodcarvings and icons, for those interested in ecclesiastical art. You’ll also have the opportunity to shop for local goodies, as this Patriarchal monastery has found its way into the present with the production and distribution of organic olive oil, wine, honey, vinegar, and premium olive oil soap.
Continue your trip down Crete’s history lane with a visit to the Monastery of Gouverneto, which is just 4 km away from Zangarolon and 19 km north of the city of Chania. Built in 1537 this is one of the oldest Cretan monasteries, resembling a Venetian fortress, with Renaissance and Baroque influences. Inside there is a small museum with ecclesiastical art and relics. Outside to the north, there is a paved footpath leading into the Avlaki Gorge, running down to sea level. Walk for some 20 minutes to discover the famous Αrkoudospilios (Bear Cave). Legend has it that a bear was turned to stone and then became a great rock inside the cave. Venture a bit further down to find Katholiko Monastery and the church of St John the Hermit. Far-flung and eerily charming, the whole area was one of the most important centres of asceticism in Crete in the 11th century. The former hermits’ caves and remnants of a quite elaborate 17th-century ecclesiastical complex are still visible nowadays, painting a picture that’s beautifully evocative.
Stroll around the scenic old town & harbour
Fusing Venetian, Byzantine, Ottoman and Jewish influences, the old town of Chania is as jaw-dropping as it is bustling with life. Explore the cafes, tavernas, restaurants and bars lining the iconic waterfront promenade, and walk up to the 21-meter-high Egyptian lighthouse at the end of the pier. Originally built in the 16th century by the Venetians, it acquired its minaret-like structure in the 1800s when it was reconstructed by the Egyptians who came to help the Turks against the rebellious Cretans. Across the lighthouse, there is the Venetian Firkas Fortress, which houses the Maritime Museum – a great place to learn about Crete’s fabled nautical tradition, starting in the Minoan era and moving through to the Byzantine, Venetian, and Turkish periods, up to the German invasion during WW2.
Head into the maze-like, bougainvillaea-clad cobblestone alleys to discover a mix of artisanal traditional products – from leather boots to ornate knives and musical instruments; sip coffee – or raki – in Splantzia Square; and walk it off with a stroll in the Cathedral of Chania and Ahmet Ağa Minaret. Traipsing around is as scenic as it gets in Chania.
Experience a Cretan panigiri
Traditionally connected to a religious celebration, panigiria in Crete have a centuries-old history. Spiritual element aside, they also served an important social purpose – this was a great chance for young women and men to flirt (and maybe even meet their future spouse), and for all locals to take a break from their everyday troubles and let it all go.
Today, panigiria might not be even related to a religious cause – instead many of them are dedicated to a type of food or drink, such as honey, olive oil, graviera cheese or wine. But as in the olden days, a successful panigiri must also have good music, tasty food and plenty of local wine and raki – which typically lead to ecstatic dancing until the early morning hours.
Attending a Cretan panigiri is an immersive, authentic experience that’ll linger long in your memory. Some of the most popular panigiria in Chania include:
- The Parigiri of Xirosterni in Apokoronas on August 5th & 6th, held in honour of the Lord’s Transfiguration with live music and traditional homemade dishes.
- Giortes Rokkas on 25 July – 12 August, held in multiple spots in the villages of Rokka and Kera including the archaeological site of Rokka. Popular with locals and visitors alike, this multi-day festival brings together society and culture and celebrates arts and science.
- The feast of Agios Ioannis on August 29th with traditional music and dancing, as well as a large market selling local products.
- The feast of Panagia (Virgin Mary) on August 15th – this is the largest of them all and includes a procession through the streets of Chania, traditional music and dancing, and a large market selling local products.
- The Panygiri of Panagia Koukoularia in the small homonymous village near Chania, which takes place in early August and includes traditional dancing, live music, and a religious procession. Visitors can also enjoy authentic local dishes such as lamb roasted on a spit and homemade wine.
- The Panygiri of Agios Ioannis in the village of Vrysses which takes place in late August and includes traditional Cretan music and dancing, as well as a street market selling local handicrafts and souvenirs. Visitors can also sample grilled meats and honey-soaked pastries.
Got your appetite whetted? Our concierge can help you plan a bespoke itinerary that’ll inspire everyone in your party. Make sure to pick their brains for more tips and advice on what to do in Chania! Stay tuned to our blog for more insights and tips on what to see, shop, eat and pack for Chania and the island of Crete!