CHANIA, CRETE CITY GUIDE
Following our Athens warmup, well rested and ready for island adventures, we set off for Crete, the largest and most southern of the Greek Islands (150 miles long and 25 miles at its widest point). There are 2 airports in Crete; Chania, on the northwestern coast and Heraklion in the northeast. If you're into archeology and want to visit the old world spots like the ancient capital and palace of Knossos (pr: Kuh-nuh-SOS), you may want to stay and fly into Heraklion. Otherwise, for all things nature and hikes and beautiful aqua blue coves slightly cooler than bath water over pink sand beaches, go west to Chania. As with Athens, our friend Constantine gave us so much advice on what to do and see in Chania and sold us on visiting when he said "The beaches here are like the Caribbean minus the humidity and unpredictable weather". Crete was the highlight of our Greece trip in my case (Alicia might say Santorini). It was also where we had the best meal anywhere in Greece, hands down.
Book your trip into Chania (pr: Ha-NYAH), which will be your home base here in Crete, and you'll get a feel for the colorful Italy meets Greece, 14th century Venetian harbor and it's surroundings. The colorful palette and architecture of Chania has a little slice of Venice but with the culture and port city character of the ancient Cretans. Prices here, unlike popular Santorini or Mykonos, are more affordable. Rather than search for a hotel, try and find an Airbnb somewhere within walking distance to the center of Chania and book a rental car at the airport for 3-4 days. This gives you plenty of time to experience Chania and the surrounding coasts to the north and west, although we could have absolutely stayed 2+ weeks if we wanted to explore all of Crete. When we looked for AirBnbs there were countless that were amazing and affordable, it was hard to choose but we absolutely loved ours and would book it again in a heartbeat.
AIRBNB | If you’re interested in our airbnb, this is where we stayed, couldn’t recommend it enough.
BEACHES + TO DO
Crete is all about the Insta-pretty beaches, coastal hikes, and the local cuisine. The days here will usually start and end in town, getting prepped or winding down with a walk and a meal while the majority of your time will be driving to key spots during the day, all within 30 minutes to 2 hour drives.
Fly into Chania early, take the quick drive into town, and check into your Airbnb. Seitan Limania, a little hidden paradise cove just a 30 minute drive away, is a great first day activity. You won't regret it. Head into town and grab some food for a picnic you can take with you and enjoy later on. Grab a spinach pie, canned gigante beans or fava puree, pita bread, and some seasonal fruit. Peaches and figs here in the summer are perfectly ripe. Wear your swimsuit but bring a pair of sneakers, a towel and a blanket. Right where you park, you'll pass an old Orthodox church, there's a short hike down a steep trail down to the beach that requires little a maneuvering but it's worth it. Note: The red sand on the rocks going down is slippery so sneakers are a must.
If you see (or hear) goats on the way down, you're in the right place. They flock to the food and know the beachgoers are more than willing to hand over a bite of their food stash for a close group selfie. Warning, this isn't their first rodeo. If you give them an inch, they will take your whole basket when you're not looking. Depending on the time of year, as all gems are in Greece, it can get a hair crowded but nothing you can’t handle for an afternoon here. So many countries and colors and accents (and goats) under one tiny umbrella - it made for a gorgeous afternoon. Alicia caught up on her tan lines while I dove from the high cliffs.
Gouverneto Monastery is just a few miles away. If you can fit it in before the sunset, it's worth a look. Down the trail, past the wild and biblical looking landscape of gnarled olive trees, you'll come to the 16th century Greek Orthodox Venetian fortress. Check out the relics in the tiny museum and learn all about the Turkish invasion that happened here. (Double check the Monastery hours before going). For slightly more adventure, follow the footpath north about 20 minutes and you'll find another monastery, the ancient Katholiko Monastery. Like the ruins out of Machu Picchu, built into the walls of the mountain, it's also worth a look. We didn’t have enough time to catch it since we soaked up the beach until the last moments before sunset, but it’s definitely on the list for next time.
ELAFONISI AND KEDRODASOS BEACH DAY
Elafonisi Beach, the pink sand wonderland on the west coast of Crete, is a good activity for day 2. Roads here, unlike the U.S, don't cut through mountains, so many trips that look close on a map, take roundabout ways to their destinations. It makes for a fun journey. If you've ever driven through Big Sur in Central California, it feels very similar.
For the adventurers, rent a kayak or a paddle board for an hour or two and paddle around the string of volcanic rocks dotting the horizon for a good panoramic view of the beach.
Combine it with a trip to Kedrodasos Beach after, just 20 minutes up the road, and you have a good full day itinerary.
*Note on roadside stands | Along the road you'll pass old mountain villages and makeshift roadside stands selling honey, pickled capers in water bottles, and the local moonshine, Raki. You might also notice mini dollhouse-like shrines shaped like churches on the side of the road. They start popping up everywhere once you start noticing. They are often built, a local told me, by a survivor of an accident or deadly disease or in thanksgiving to a saint. Who knew?!
Another beach excursion is a day trip to Balos Beach on the NW tip of Crete. If you aren’t the type to get sea sick, there's a fun boat tour from Kissamos to Balos. We didn’t get a chance to make it to Balos on this trip but it’s on our list for next time, it looks absolutely amazing!
For hikers, the Samaria Gorge comes highly recommended. You would have thought I would have done this hike since I’m always up for one but for some reason this one just didn’t call my name after doing research. I have certainly only heard amazing things, so if it interests you, you should give it a go! Maybe if I was traveling with some of my buddies I would have been more into it, even though Alicia said she would be down if I wanted to. Anyway, I know it’s a popular activity in Crete so I wanted to pass on the knowledge I have about it. Try to avoid the swarms of crowds during the peak season in summer. The hike through the rugged interior is 10 miles and the reward is supposed to be worth it. Pack a picnic lunch and catch the earliest bus from Chania to Xyloskalo. You'll start at the top and make a 10 mile downhill trek some 5000 feet through some of the most beautiful scenery in Greece (I've been told) to a black sand beach on the south coast.
Samaria Gorge tips from our friend Constantine: “You will have to google the K.T.E.L Chania bus times from Chania to Omalos, the peak where you start the hike. I would try to get to Omalos no later than 8/8:30am. Bring WATER and LUNCH from Chania. You’ll need to buy it the day before as nothing will be open at 6am when you leave for Omalos. There is no food on the hike. Wear good shoes! Stretch before and that night so you’re not limping around the next day. The hike takes about 4-6 hours depending on your pace. The hike ends in the small village of Ayia Roumeli. Take a well-earned swim and have lunch in one of the tavernas. As soon as you get to Ayia Roumeli, find a kiosk, and ask them the times that the ferry departs for Sfakia. Buy your tickets as soon as you arrive in Ayia Roumeli. The ferry from Ayia Roumeli to Sfakia takes about 30-45 min. Once there, you’ll need to board a bus back to Chania which takes about 90min - 2 hours. You’ll be back in Chania by 5pm most likely, and still have an evening in Chania.”
OLD TOWN OF CHANIA
Every evening (and most mornings) started with a walk to the old town since it was very close to our AirBnb. Once at the old venetian harbor, we loved strolling around all the tiny side streets. The Turkish and Venetian influences on the architecture and food here are everywhere. Grab some feta cheese and figs at the Mercato Agora ‘Ago-RA’ (central market). Behind The Agora, on the street parallel, are converted old Venetian homes turned bars where all the local Cretans hang. Have a sip of Ouzo and then stroll around the National Garden ‘Ethni-KOS KI-pos’ on the edge of town.
If you’re Jewish (or not) you might find the Jewish Synagogue worth a peak inside, also in the old town.
A 10-minute taxi ride away is the neighborhood of Halepa, where you’ll find beautiful Neo-Classical mansions. Google Halepa walk for a good route.
*Note on walking in the old town and food (also from Constantine): “I use the Starbucks as a landmark (it’s the only Starbucks in all of Chania, so ask anyone where it is, and they’ll know). When you’re at the Starbucks, facing the water, to your right along the water is the tourist side of the Old Harbor. Don’t eat here! But it’s great to stroll around all the way to the end of the harbor and up into the winding side streets. It’s called ‘Little Venice’ for a reason. To the left of the Starbucks along the water, past the Turkish rounded domed buildings and another 5-10 min walk, is the Greek side of the harbor with really good food.”
TAMAM Save this spot for dinner one (or ALL) of your nights. The food here, and the whole vibe, a converted Turkish hamam bath, added to the experience. Easily our favorite food through our trip in Greece. Nothing fancy or pretentious, the food here, a blend of Turkish and Cretan, is familiar as it is super homey. Make sure to book a reservation, we didn’t but luckily they fit us in and we were happy to wait at the bar sipping on cold ouzo until our table was ready. It felt like the servers were walking around with grins, like they knew their food would be doing all the talking, we could tell we were in for a treat. Try the gigande beans lightly stewed in tomatoes, honey, and dill (this restaurant is the reason we became obsessed with these beans), the roast fish, zucchini fritters, and avocado salad.
Honestly no meal was as good as Tamam so no other restaurant had a fighting chance. If we had known, we would have gone back every night of our trip and ordered something new. We also ate at Glossitses which was pretty good and we made a reservation so we would be there for the sunset which was lovely since it sits facing the habor. We didn’t eat here, but Oinoa is rated number 1 on tripadvisor, so we thought it was worth mentioning.
As soon as we landed in Chania, I could feel there was something special about this place and knew it wouldn’t be our last visit. Next up and our final Greek Island is Santorini! FYI: Chania is a very family friendly city, so great for little ones which I don’t feel Santorini is, in case you’re looking for a trip with your children. And of course perfect for a romantic getaway as well!