Crete’s second city is nicknamed the “Venice of the East” – for the mansions, churches and walls left behind by centuries of Serenissima rule. They line the lanes around a bijou harbour of cafés and restaurants, framed by the striking Egyptian lighthouse and an Ottoman mosque. Cretan cuisine is among Greece’s finest, and beaches along the coast are a cheese-pie toss away. One of the big island’s two international airports is here, so arriving is easy-peasy. Check in at one of the best hotels in Chania, and your holiday’s already perfection.
The clear Cretan light streams through the French windows of this elegant five-room hotel, in a historic building squirreled away on a pedestrian lane in the oldest part of Chania. Run by a super simpatico family, with whitewashed beamed ceilings and beds you wish you could take home, it’s a haven from Chania’s bustle. The flowery roof terrace, candlelit at sunset, is the perfect perch to watch the city lights come on before plunging into the fun.
The frisson-giving 360-degree views over Chania, Souda Bay and the olive clad hills will be the first, second and third things you’ll notice when you drive (or ‘copter) up to this sleek contemporary villa. The design echoes ancient Cretan architecture, as light-filled indoor and outdoor spaces seamlessly flow – every turn offers a new view. The show-stopper is the year-round heated pool for unforgettable swims under the blazing stars.
After the sensory overload that is Chania, it’s a delight to retreat into one of these three calm, recently renovated suites in a historic Venetian building on the city’s prettiest pedestrian street, Theotokopoulou. Each has a private terrace, and although there’s no food available on site, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants: in the morning, the scent of the fresh French and Cretan pastries in the popular café-bakery downstairs make breakfast a no brainer.
The Ottomans occupied Crete for over two centuries. Their spirit – and more than a whiff of romance – linger in these three opulent suites, filled with antiques, paintings and carpets, all curated down to teensiest detail. Five-star creature comforts include the best showers as well as free parking – a rarity anywhere near Chania’s harbour. The charming, well-travelled owners serve a huge breakfast under the towering palm, featuring a Cretan omelette fit for a pasha.
Viewing the glimmering, colour-drenched harbour from these rooms, you’ll feel as if you’ve dived into one of those sunny paintings by Matisse. Minimalist whitewashed rooms, with wooden ceilings and wood or tile floors, occupy this Venetian building dating from 1659, but there are also two apartments sleeping six, just 20 metres (65ft) away. Have breakfast from the ground floor café delivered to your balcony, as you eavesdrop on the sounds of the city coming to life.
Here, ultra cool 21st-century design meets the magnificent stone arches and lofty beamed ceiling of a 16th-century Venetian mansion, so grand that the ruling Ottoman Aga and his harem later moved in. That explains the original Turkish hammam. Many rooms have hot tubs on private terraces (bag the rooftop one). Courtyard restaurant Mon.Es is evocative (don’t miss the glassed-in toilets, surrounded by ruins), with à la carte breakfast and exquisite Mediterranean cuisine at dinner; chocolate fondant lovers will think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
From its rose-tinted courtyard, covered in an enormous pebble mosaic, to the roof garden bar overlooking the Venetian harbour, Casa Delfino oozes elegance. Converted from a Venetian mansion, this is one of Crete’s first boutique hotels; book a massage with Apivita Greek-plant based products in the private spa. The breakfast, with the most exquisite thyme honey, yogurt, homemade breads and pies and Cretan cheeses, will supercharge your batteries, especially if you mean to do as the locals do and have a late lunch.
The Reniers, one of Venice’s most illustrious families, built this waterfront townhouse in 1608, and their names are recalled in each of the rooms and suites. Were they to return today, they’d marvel at the cocooning atmosphere, bespoke contemporary furnishings, hydromassage showers and in-room tech (fancier suites also have terrace whirlpool baths.) The à la carte courtyard breakfast features specialities such as staka (rich sheep’s milk butter) and eggs, and pies filled with mizithra cheese and apaki (smoked pork).
On a low hill overlooking the harbour, 15th-century Venetian Franciscans built a monastery encased in thick stone walls. Their church is now Chania’s icon-filled Byzantine Museum, while the former monastery holds a pair of gorgeous self-catering apartments: woodsy Maisonette Irene has a Scandinavian feel, and gobsmacking views over the harbour and the Aegean. Maisonette Michael in the chapterhouse has less glorious sea views but is filled with the charm of old stones, with a private garden patio in the cloister. Shop Chania’s fine market for groceries.
“Kumba” means home, in this case an exceptional warm and friendly hostel created by Giorgos Verganelakis and Marianna Osman. Located in a handsome Neoclassical building, 2km (1.2mi) east of Chania centre, it’s the opposite of institutional: in the dorms, sleek cubicles around each bed offer privacy, and you’ll make new friends over a fruity cocktail in the African-themed bar or on the patio – sometimes there’s live music. Iguana Beach is a 10-minute drive away. Ask Giorgios and Marianna about windsurfing, diving or any other sport you fancy.