Chania or Heraklion in Crete – Which One to Visit?

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The only reason why you should decide between Chania or Heraklion is time constraints. If you have enough time, do yourself a favor and go to both places. As you probably know, we moved to Greece a couple of years ago. Since then, we’ve been traveling extensively around the country, both on the continent and the islands. Though we really wanted to go to Crete, we never had the time; until now. The island is a feast to the senses and exceeded our high expectations. The same can be said about Chania and Heraklion. Both cities are fascinating, quite different, and for sure worth a visit.

Chania or Heraklion

Chania or Heraklion

Quick Comparison

Let’s take a look at both cities. Heraklion is the capital of Crete, Greece. As such, is a much bigger city, 150,000 inhabitants, while Chania has some 50,000. Chania is famous around Crete and Greece for its incredible architecture. Though Heraklion has several impressive buildings, it pales in comparison to Chania. On the other hand, Heraklion is more authentic, for lack of a better word. Both have a lively local population, but Chania is more touristy. Take note that both cities are on the north shore of Crete, Chania to the west and Heraklion to the east. Most people agree that Crete’s best beaches are in the south.

Heraklion or Chania

If You Have to Choose

Remember that both cities are just 150km away. Thus, you can go from one to the other on the same day. Several buses a day connect them in about 3 hours. That said, if you have to choose between Heraklion or Chania, we strongly recommend Chania. Nothing compares to Chania. The mix between Ottoman, Greek, and Venetian architecture will blow your mind away. Likewise, you won’t believe the number and quality of the restaurants that dot the city. You will step back in time while enjoying luxurious hotels and incredible restaurants. However, go to Heraklion if you are into archaeology. Heraklion offers some of the best archaeological remains in the Mediterranean.

Chania or Heraklion

Chania City

We traveled from Rethymnon to Chania City by bus. As you approach the city, you notice two distinct sections: the modern one, on the slope of the hills, and the old, on the coast. The bus station is in the center, next to the Old Town, so the magic begins as soon as you exit the bus. The city is simply stunning, impeccably clean, and with a wonderful atmosphere. Lovely plants line the streets and provide shade. There are coffee houses, taverns, and restaurants everywhere. What we liked the most is that Chania is a real city, not built for tourists and Disneyesque. The place is pretty much alive and real!

Chania City Crete

Chania Old Town

Chania’s Old Town is not that big. That said, you can spend days discovering gorgeous houses hidden amongst its leafy streets. There isn’t a single ugly building. Everything is in great shape and you feel safe while walking about. It is easy not to get lost since the port and the fortress are great orientation points. However, getting lost without a rush is totally advisable. You will feel the rhythm of the city conquer you. Take note that you cannot bathe in the heart of the Old Town. For that, you must walk a couple of minutes north to a lovely beach.

Chania Old Town

Main Sights

Do not forget to take a closer look at Chania’s main tourist attractions. The Old Port is Venetian and boasts the one and only Küçük Hasan Pasha Mosque, built by the Ottomans after conquering the city in 1649. Gorgeous Venetian palaces surround the mosque. At the tip of the port, you will find the Lighthouse of Chania, built by the Venetians in the 16th Century but reconstructed by the Egyptians in the 1820s. On the other side of the port, you will find the Archaeological Museum and the Venetian Fortress beneath the Salvatore Bastion. A block from the port, look for the Orthodox Cathedral on the main plaza. From there, walk searching for Saint Nikolaos Church, a Venetian church with an Ottoman minaret.

Chania Sights - The Cathedral

Chania City Beach

Chania has a fantastic city beach. Nea Chora is a long wide sandy beach just off the center of Chania. To get there, you can walk north along the port and loop around the fortress and marina. The best sunsets in Chania are here, on a sidewalk overlooking the sea. You don’t need to worry about a thing. Several restaurants, coffee houses, and hotels line the beach. You can rent your umbrella and sunbed from your favorite one. Further north you will find Hrisi Akti and Agii Apostoli, some of the best beaches near Chania. Since they are not really urban beaches, they tend to be less crowded. Both offer sunbeds and places to eat.

Chania Beach - Nea Chora

Chania Regional Unit

The Chania Regional Unit is the westernmost administrative region in Crete (there are four). Chania is the only city in the region. Once you exit the city, you’ll find yourself in the middle of some of the best natural places in Crete. Chania Region is known for its wonderful hiking routes. Some of the best are around Mount Pachnes, the highest of the White Mountains. Getting to the top requires a night’s sleepover. That’s why most people follow the track from Anopolis (closer to the coast) to Roussies (closer to the peak). However, Crete’s most famous natural spot is Samaria Gorge, on the southern coast of the Chania Regional Unit.

Chania Regional Unit

Best Beaches in Chania Region

The best beach in Chania is Elafonisi. In fact, it is one of the best beaches in Crete, Greece, Europe, and the World. Nothing can compare to its pink sand, thousands of blues and greens, and relaxed atmosphere. We could have stayed there for a month! Some consider Balos the best beach in Chania, while others Falassarna, or Frangokastelo. So clearly, many of Crete’s nicest beaches are here, in Chania Regional Unit. What we loved about these beaches is how raw and natural they feel. However, you are in Greece, so you will enjoy comfortable sunbeds, umbrellas, delicious coffee, and a peaceful environment.

Elafonisi Beach

Where to Stay in Chania

The best places to stay in Chania are Chania’s Old Town and Elafonisi beach. Take note that you can’t stay on the beach proper, but just a short walk away. That is why the beach is so pristine. The best place to stay in Elafonissi is the grand Elafonisi Resort by Kalomirakis Family: perfect facilities, unbeatable location, and wonderful views. In Chania, we strongly advise you to stay in the Old Town. To us, the best hotel is the Domus Renier Boutique Hotel: 9 luxurious suites in a historic mansion you will never forget. Since it’s so small, it may be fully booked so we also recommend the Vilelmine Hotel, on the main plaza.

Where to Stay in Chania

Heraklion City

Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis, begins describing gorgeous Mount Juktas presiding over Heraklion City. The city has changed a lot since Kazantzakis times, but the gorgeous mountain is still there. Heraklion is a typical Greek city. Nondescript buildings from the 60s onwards coexist with outstanding historic ones. Heraklion is the heart of Crete and is essential in understanding Greek and European history. We are talking about a history that goes back thousands of years! Some of the oldest archaeological remains in the world are a step away.

Heraklion City Crete

Heraklion Old Town

The jewel of Heraklion is its fantastic Old Town. Most of it is pedestrian, so you will enjoy its beauty in peace. Begin your walk at the Venetian Port and climb a small hill that offers fantastic views. Continue along car-free 25th of August Street, the lifeline of the Old Town. This is the place to people watch and mingle with the locals. The number of restaurants and coffee houses in the Old Town is surprising, so foodies and coffee lovers will be in heaven. Once there, all you have to do is relax, search for incredible architecture, and enjoy the lively vibe.

Heraklion Old Town - Saint Titus Church

Main Sights

As mentioned above, outstanding architecture dots the city, so lose yourself in its leafy streets. Nevertheless, you must not miss Heraklion’s main tourist attractions. Most of them are in the Old Town proper and close enough for you to discover walking. To the east of the port, you’ll find the Venetian City Walls and the Castle. Walk along 25th of August Street to get to the impressive Saint Titus Church, the Morosini Lions Fountain, the Venetian Loggia, and the Archaeological Museum. Further up the street to the east, you’ll find the Bembo Fountain. The fantastic Agios Minas Cathedral is to the west.

Heraklion Sights - The Cathedral

Heraklion City Beach

There are no beaches in Heraklion city proper. The closest beach to the east of the city is Karteros Beach. Though it is a nice semi-bay sandy beach, it’s next to the airport, so we do not recommend it. It’s better to go to Amoudara Beach, approximately 6 kilometers to the west of the city. Amoudara is a long wide sandy beach popular with the local Heraklion crowd. Fancy resorts, big hotels, and all sorts of eateries line the beach. Consequently, out of the two best beaches near Heraklion, we strongly recommend Amoudara.

Heraklion Beach

Heraklion Regional Unit

Heraklion is the capital of the Heraklion Regional Unit, the most populated one out of the four in Crete. Likewise, it’s the one with the most spectacular archeological sites in Crete. To the south of the Unit, we find Gortyna, one of the oldest cities on the island during the Hellenistic period. To the east, you’ll Agia Triada, the ruins of a small Minoan palace. No, we have not forgotten Knossos, the best archaeological site in Crete. Some consider it the oldest city in Europe. The place dates back to the Bronze Age. It’s just some 5km from Heraklion center so you can take a public bus. Get the ticket that includes a visit to the Archaeological Museum in the city.

Heraklion Regional Unit - Knossos

Best Beaches in Heraklion Region

Matala is the best beach in Heraklion, some 70km to the south of the city. It’s on the southern shore of the island, where most of the best beaches in Crete are. The journey there takes you through the mountains and close to a lake, an area known for hikes. Matala is a small beach, flanked by beautiful rocks. The other two famous beaches in the Heraklion Region are Hersonissos and Malia, some 30 km east of the city, on the northern shore. These are nice enough beaches, but mostly for the young to party.

Matala Beach

Where to Stay in Heraklion

The best places to stay in Heraklion are in the Old Town. For us, the best hotel is the GDM Megaron Hotel, built in 1925 and registered as a National Monument. Located in front of the port, this absolutely gorgeous building was meticulously updated to include modern-day amenities. The lobby is a masterpiece, and the pool up on the terrace, a dream. The best place to stay in Matala is Nikos Hotel. They offer super comfy and clean rooms, a lovely garden, and impeccable service. They have a couple of splendid villas too.

Where to Stay in Heraklion

Other Places to Stay in Crete

Granted, Chania and Heraklion are the most famous cities in Crete. However, Rethymno and Agios Nikolaos are two of the best places where to stay in Crete. We fell in love with Rethymno. It’s the third-largest city in Crete and the one with the best city beach. The Old Town is pretty impressive too, a mix of Greek, Ottoman, and Venetian architecture. The biggest university in Crete is in Rethymno, so it’s fun and upbeat. Agios Nikolaos is a tiny port east of Heraklion with a lake in the middle. We weren’t expecting much and were so pleasantly surprised! You can stop there on your way to Vai, one of the best beaches in Crete.

Other Places to Stay in Crete - Rethymno

How to Get to Chania and Heraklion

Flying to Chania and Heraklion

Crete has three airports: Heraklion and Chania, both international, and Sitia Public Airport, a small regional one. Several flights a day connect Athens to Heraklion and Chania. International destinations to both cities include Germany, England, and France. During high season flights operate to other international destinations, so be sure to check beforehand. We strongly recommend arriving in one city and leaving from the other. Remember that Rethymno is in the middle, so be sure to stop. Both airports are close to each city’s center and served by public buses and taxis.

Other Places to Stay in Crete

Ferries to Chania and Heraklion

As you probably know, island hopping around Greece is extremely popular and totally worth it. Once again, you can arrive in Heraklion and leave from Chania (or vice versa). The trip from Athens to Chania lasts approximately 8 hours. To Heraklion is 9 hours. Going to Crete from Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Syros, Milos, and Tinos is a brilliant idea. You can combine your trip as you want, there is no wrong route. Ferryhopper is the best place online to check for different routes and prices. We always use it and love it! Be sure to grab a window seat. The journey is truly beautiful.

2 Responses

  1. Dory Merriman
    | Reply

    Thank you for a wonderful, informative and interesting article. I only wish I had found it first when I was researching Crete! It will be of enormous help when we visit later this month.
    Best travelling wishes
    Dory

    • happyfrogtravels
      | Reply

      Hi Dory,
      Thank you for your comment. September is a great month to visit Crete, you’ll have a blast!
      Safe travels,
      Milos

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