Watch the tales of bygone days coming to life with a visit to these top 5 historical landmarks in Chania
Boasting a long and turbulent history that’s manifested with a fusion of Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and Jewish remains, the iconic town of Chania, is one of the most enchanting destinations in the Mediterranean – if not the world. Between getting lost in quaint, labyrinth alleyways, shopping for leather goods – or decadent cheeses in the trademark municipal market – strolling along the seafront or tasting divine food and drink, you’ll not have a moment’s boredom in Crete’s arguably most picturesque city. And though the best way to soak up as much of its atmosphere and vibes as possible, is just wandering around on foot, there are certain not-to-be-missed sights and attractions that’ll significantly enrich your experience.
If you are planning a visit this summer, here are the top 5 historical landmarks in Chania, you’ll be glad you didn’t go without.
Top 5 historical landmarks in Chania
At the end of the peer, the 21-meters high, Lighthouse of Chania – one of the oldest in the world – is the jewel and perhaps most photographed spot of the city. Hard to miss at any time of the day – or night when it is spectacularly illuminated – it dominates the old harbour, and is even visible from some points in the town.
The original structure was erected in the 16th century by the Venetians – but it underwent several changes over the aeons. Under Turkish yoke, the lighthouse fell into disrepair and was eventually rebuilt between 1824 and 1832 in the shape of a minaret. In its current form, the lighthouse is often referred to as ‘Egyptian’ because it was reconstructed at a time when Crete was occupied by Egyptian troops who were assisting the weakening Ottoman Empire against the rebellious Cretans. Owing to WWII bombings and earthquakes, the lighthouse was leaning dangerously but was extensively renovated in 2005 and now looks as good as ever. Though visitors are not allowed to go up to the tower, there is a long mole you can walk all the way to – and it’s quite a walk, with jaw-dropping views.
With panoramic views over Chania and the surrounding hills, this place is steeped in history and drama. During the last Cretan uprising against the Turks, the Cretan revolutionaries, led by Eleftherios Venizelos, camped on this site, next to a Venetian church dedicated to the Prophet Elias. They established the Assembly of Crete and hoisted the Greek flag. On the morning of February 9, 1897, fighting erupted and the bullets hit the flagpole which fell to the ground. Then, in a legendary act of bravery, a young Cretan named Spyros Kayiales threw himself in front of the bombs, grabbed the flag and raised it, using his body as a flagpole. This heroic deed – which actually brought a cease-fire – is nowadays commemorated with a statue representing Kayiales.
The park also hosts the resting place of Eleftherios Venizelos – a man with such profound influence on the internal and external affairs of Greece that he is credited with being “The Maker of Modern Greece”, and is still widely known as the “Ethnarch” – and of his son Sophocles, who also became Greece’s Prime Minister.
One of the top historical landmarks in Chania, at the western tip of its harbour, the Firkas Fortress circa 1620 crowns the best-preserved section of the massive 2nd wave of fortifications that were built by the Venetians from the early 16th Century – when the combined threats of marauding pirates and the rapidly expanding Ottoman empire became too menacing. The Turks invaded anyway, in 1645, and turned the fortress into a barracks and a prison – until December 1st 1913, when the Greek flag was hoisted for the first time, sealing the union of Crete with motherland Greece.
Today, the imposing bastion hosts the Maritime Museum of Crete. With over 2.500 permanent exhibits from antiquity to the present day, the museum celebrates Greece’s naval traditions, and especially those of Crete, with model ships, naval instruments, paintings, photographs, maps and memorabilia. There is a model of an Athenian trireme and a model of the first submarine named “Dolphin” among other displays. One room is dedicated to historical sea battles, while on the 1st floor there’s thorough documentation of the WWII-era Battle of Crete. If you are lucky you may get to see artists working on new model ships in the ship workroom; also keep in mind that the views from the top are simply breathtaking.
Archaeological Museum of Chania
Though not a historical landmark in the strictest sense, the just-inaugurated new Archaeological Museum of Chania is a masterpiece of modern architecture – and, with hundreds of new additions, including Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis parents’ private collection, to its already rich exhibits, it is destined to become one of the town’s principal attractions, too. Located in the former Hatzidakis camp in Halepa – a historic district, strewn with beautiful neoclassical mansions – the museum’s new single-story premises occupy almost 6000 sq.m. in a 12000 sq.m. plot. Designed by architect Theophanis Bobotis, the triangular bioclimatic building draws inspiration from the natural environment and looks out to the sea. Its impressive entrance features cobblestone and large concrete tiles, while its interiors are no less spectacular in their simplicity, with crisp, white walls, parquet floors and open spaces that encourage the free flow of movement. Among the museum’s treasures which date from the Neolithic period up to Roman times, are prehistoric finds from caves, Minoan finds from the city of Chania and from various parts of the prefecture, as well as jewellery, sculptures, inscriptions, stelai and mosaics.
One of the top historical landmarks in Chania, Gouverneto or Our Lady of the Angels, sits on the Akrotiri Peninsula 19 km north of the town – and thanks to its remarkable beauty and myths, is well worth the drive there. Built in 1537, at an altitude of 260m, this antique Cretan monastery sports renaissance and baroque influences with ornate church façades on its inner courtyard. Outside, there is a paved footpath leading into the Avlaki Gorge that runs down to sea level. According to legend, this was the abode of Saint John the Hermit, the founder of the monastery. A brisk 20-minute walk will take you to the famous Αrkoudospilios (Bear Cave) – where the massive rock inside is allegedly a petrified bear. Venture a bit further down to find Katholiko Monastery – the oldest one in Crete – and the church of St John the Hermit. This isolated area was one of Crete’s most important centres of asceticism in the 11th-century. Nowadays the former hermits’ caves and the remnants of a quite elaborate ecclesiastical complex which was constructed there in the 17th-century are still visible.
Did you like our feature about the top historical landmarks in Chania? Stay tuned to our Oscar Suites & Village blog for more local insights and tips on what to see and do on the amazing island of Crete!