A year-round destination, Crete is more than just a sunbed by the sea, coconut-scented cocktails, and beachside adventures. Plus its gems shine brighter in the offseason, without the summer tourist masses. Discover one of its brightest, Chania, in the winter.
If you are one of these summer-loving types, who’d do anything to avoid the cold –including migrating to the opposite hemisphere– the good news is that you can still spend winter in Europe but not freeze. Unlike other smaller Greek islands which seem to shut down during the colder months, Crete, the largest of them all, remains very much alive and kicking. With a robust agricultural production and an economy that’s not relying solely on tourism, Crete has a population of more than 600,000 inhabitants: Permanent residents and University students, alike –living, breathing, working and playing here, throughout the year.
And if you choose to visit in the offseason, you’ll get the extra benefit of experiencing the island’s icons, without the hordes, in their most original, authentic form. Take Chania for example. Crete’s former capital and arguably most picturesque town is quiet but far from desolate; with plenty of sunshine and temperatures that allow even swimming for the bravest at heart. Without the –often appalling– summer traffic, now it’s your chance to really see Chania and to get involved in activities that not many tourists get to be a part of.
Is this piquing your interest? Here are some fantastic things to do in Chania in the winter.
Experience Chania on foot
With an exceedingly charming and super walkable historic old town, Chania is best experienced on foot. Head to the impossibly quaint Venetian Old harbour that dates from the 14th Century for pictures, strolls and romancing: Lined with fancy cocktail bars, seafood restaurants and old school tavernas, it is brimming with instagrammable corners like the small Ottoman mosque from the 1600s. Its hallmark of course is no other than the emblematic Venetian lighthouse –one of the oldest in the world, it was erected around 1595 and redesigned by the Egyptians in the 1800s to resemble a minaret. Surrounding the port, the old town has labyrinth-like, bougainvillaea -clad, narrow alleyways worth getting lost in. Admire the beautiful Venetian mansions; wander around the Jewish quarter and the Muslim area; enjoy food and drink in the various eateries and cafes, or go shopping: There is a leather goods alley, gorgeous jewellery and pottery shops, and the characteristic, cross-shaped municipal market, which is a veritable foodies paradise.
Chania’s Maritime Museum in the Firkas Fortress on the port is also a great place to learn about Crete’s fabled nautical history, starting in the Minoan era and moving through to the Byzantine, Venetian, and Turkish periods, up to the German invasion during WW2.
Likewise, history buffs will appreciate the Archaeological Museum with exhibits dating back to 2200BC when Chania was called Kydonia by the Minoans.
Aspiring and accomplished photographers, on the other hand, will relish the Tabakaria area, a bit further away from the old town’s walls: Home to the largely abandoned 19th Century leather tanneries, this evocative neighbourhood has an eerie appeal. It’s also home to some remarkable restaurants with awe-inspiring sea views.
Discover the local gastronomy
Crete is one of the few strongholds of longevity in the world –and it’s the diet of its people that’s responsible for that. Largely unchanged since Minoan times, the Cretan diet is based on the produce of the land and the sea: Fruit, vegetables, whole grains and pulses, loads of olive oil, honey, sheep and goat cheese, some wine and raki and on rarer occasions fresh seafood and meat. Nowadays the famed Cretan nutrition finds an excellent manifestation at Ntounias at the village of Drakona some 18 km away from Chania. Way up in the countryside, on the slopes of the White Mountains, this is more than just a quaint, little taverna surrounded by stunning views. Owned and run by Stelios Trilirakis and his family, this is a paradigmatic Cretan gastronomy centre where everything is homegrown –Stelios has his own orchard and even his own cows– and home-cooked in traditional cookware, over a wood fire.
No wonder a favourite of the savvy locals, a visit to Ntounias, which involves the added bonus of a scenic drive through Therisso gorge, is one of the most memorable things to do when you visit Chania in the winter.
The storied Samaria Gorge might be off-limits at this time of year, but if you find yourselves in Chania in the winter, there are plenty of other attractive hiking options. Nature enthusiasts with an interest in history will enjoy the easy and incredibly scenic 8km hike from Imbros to Komitades. Traditionally this was how people travelled from the south part of Crete to Chania, while this route also played a significant role in World War II.
Indeed there are many hikes in Crete, even in the offseason, of varying degrees of difficulty and for different levels of skill.
Explore virgin beaches
How about having Crete’s paradisiacal beaches all to yourself? These uber photogenic shores that are every year featured in the world’s top travel magazines are packed in the high season. But in the winter you can enjoy the iconic beauty of Balos, Elafonissi or Seitan Limania with nary a selfie stick in sight. Without the strong, northern summer winds, even the sea is calmer in the winter and swimming is quite bearable too, as the temperature does not easily fall below 14 °C.
Wave sports lovers can moreover surf or kitesurf in Chania in the winter: The waves in Falassarna go up to three meters, and the windless conditions that often prevail at this time of year are ideal for surfing.
You might not even be aware of the skiing scene in Crete, but there is one and it’s rapidly gaining momentum. Inaugurated by a handful of local pioneers, ski mountaineering – a sport that combines mountain climbing and skiing is nowadays practised on the snowy peaks of the White Mountains, Dikti and Psiloritis from mid-January until mid-April. Alpine ski is not for the faint-hearted and you need to come prepared with the right equipment, but the whole experience will certainly recompense those who dare. Plus there is some lively apres ski activity, with mountain refuges playing host to snow enthusiasts and their friends.
At the Oscar Suites & Village, a family-style, family-run hotel complex of studios, apartments, and suite in Agia Marina-Platanias, just 9km from Chania, we love the place we are lucky enough to call home. With a view of showcasing its year-round delights to the world, we have rounded up some of our favourite things to do in Chania in the winter. This list is nevertheless far from exhaustive. Stay tuned to our blog for more tips and insights!