If you love Greece, then you’ll adore the island of Crete – it really is an island that begs to be explored. But where do you start? Most travellers will arrive at either of the island’s two main cities: Chania or Heraklion. They both provide great bases for exploring Crete and are worthwhile destinations in their own right.
Crete is an island etched into the imagination of many. Steeped in mythology, littered with history, and nourished by fantastic cuisine, Crete is a top holiday destination. But it’s not just about ancient history – Crete is full of living, breathing towns and cities that have tonnes to offer.
Chania is more romantic and has better beaches than Heraklion, though Heraklion might have the edge for historical attractions and dining options.
However, there is a lot more to consider when deciding which city to visit or stay in during your trip to Crete.
Looking for a place to stay? These are some of the best choices in both cities:
Chania: Cocoon City Hostel (Budget), Casa Leone Hotel (Mid-Range), Porto Veneziano Hotel (Luxury) & Suites Pandora (Self-Catered)
Heraklion: Intra Muros Hostel (Budget), Artion Boutique (Mid-Range), Metropole Urban Hotel (Luxury), & Pavo Art Hotel (Self-Catered)
Chania evokes images of a multicultural past – Venetian dockyards, Ottoman Mosques and an Egyptian lighthouse are all within eyeshot of each other as you stroll along the idyllic harbour.
But make no mistake, this city has evolved into a premier tourist, business, and educational destination – its modern-day culture is unmistakably Greek.
Easily accessible from much of Europe, Chania’s international airport is located only 14 km from the heart of the old town. There is a convenient shuttle bus which costs just a few euros. Private taxis are also easily available for €20-30, but as always, make sure the metre is switched on or agree on a price before jumping in.
Chania’s nearest port is Souda which sees one daily ferry from Athens (you can check schedules here). Cruise ships will also dock here in the summer months and there are public buses available, but fewer taxis than there are at the airport.
The old town is highly walkable, and many of the most interesting sights are an easy stroll. One of the great pleasures of Chania is simply following your eyes, ears and nose, and seeing where you end up. In the decision of Chania vs Heraklion, this is definitely where Chania shines.
The greater city region is well-linked with public buses, and taxis are plentiful. As this is a living, breathing city, as well as a tourist destination, public transport runs year-round but routes can be confusing.
For heading further afield, KTEL runs buses along the coast to the main beaches and towns like the beautiful Rethymnon.
If you’d like to visit these destinations on your own, then renting a car is an affordable and easy option. There are several rental agencies at the airport, meaning you could forgo taxis and public transport. You can browse Rentalcars.com to compare prices across various companies.
Do keep in mind that parking is difficult in the old town, and you certainly don’t need a car for Chania itself.
Chania is a lovely place to visit, but its popularity with tourists means that it is likely to be more expensive than Heraklion.
Don’t let this put you off though, Chania is still an excellent value tourist destination. It is cheaper than many of the Greek islands like Mykonos or Santorini, and it can even be cheaper than Athens.
As per most areas in Crete popular with tourists, restaurants and bars with a view will usually come with a premium price tag.
Some tavernas and bars will definitely fall into this category, head a few streets back and find where the locals are. Prices will shrink and the quality will increase! Chania is a renowned spot for foodies, so make sure you indulge accordingly.
As with the rest of Greece, there is an excellent and very affordable street food scene here. You’ll find all of the Greek classics like pork and chicken gyros and spanakopita.
But be sure to try some Cretan specialities like sfakian pites – tiny pastries filled with tangy mizithra cheese, or chochlioi, which are snails cooked in red sauce or rosemary.
You’ll find many excellent, affordable and local eateries just a short walk from the old town. You must try Daglas, with its cutting-edge (and affordable) take on burgers.
Or if you want to try something more traditional head to Iordanis Bougatsa, to try delicious cheese or custard-filled pastries that made it to Greece via the Ottoman Turks. A coffee and a half-size slice is enough for an on-the-go lunch or a snack, and will cost less than €5.
Old town hotels are more expensive in peak season, but outside of the summer months there are excellent bargains to be had for accommodation in Chania.
Don’t forget, choices stretch well beyond the old town and there’s a wealth of options in the new city and in the wider Chania region – many with waterfront views!
Things To Do In Chania
We’ve already talked about some of the sights of old town Chania, but what are the must-see sights?The old harbour is the place to start. Here you will find a great example of the island’s storied past.
As you stroll along the waterfront, you’ll see two of the icons, the lighthouse of Chania, rebuilt by the Egyptians in the 19th century, and the Yiali Tzami. Known as the sea mosque, it was built in the 17th century during the Ottoman occupation of Greece and now houses unique art exhibits.
As you stroll the waterfront, you’ll see the Venetian boat sheds that now house the Maritime Museum of Crete, and a full-size replica of a Minoan ship. This boat is a replica of the bronze-age vessels that sailed the Eastern Mediterranean, millennia ago.
As you explore the streets of the old town, do look out for Byzantine and Minoan ruins. These archaeological sites offer fascinating glimpses of ages past, as well as cosy places for the town’s cats to hide away from the midday sun.
The municipal market, which dates back over a hundred years, houses a nice mix of souvenir shops and regional fare. It’s a great place to pick up local products like raki, retsina, olives and linen shirts.
Chania is an excellent base for exploring the whole western half of Crete. Many tour operators will pick you up and drop you back off at your hotel, but you can also take advantage of the public transport system.
Rethymnon, an atmospheric old town a little quieter than Chania, is around an hour drive to the east, or €6 on the public bus.
If you want to explore some of Crete’s amazing beaches you can hop on an inexpensive day tour to Balos Lagoon – a gorgeous lagoon jutting deep into the sea. A ferry will take you on a scenic tour of the coast, a stop off at an island with an old castle, before finally arriving at the beach.
Elafonissi Beach is arguably the most famous beach in Crete – the water is begging you to jump in. With beautiful pink hues and blue waters, the beach is very photogenic. You can organise a tour here.
If you’re feeling active, lace up your hiking boots and take the hike of a lifetime down Samaria Gorge. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a 14 km trek down a gorge from the mountains to the sea. Located on the south of the island, it is advisable to book an organised tour, to save yourself having to double back up the gorge to get back to your car!
Where to Stay in Chania
Casa Leone Hotel – This three-star hotel is perfect for mid-range travellers to Chania. They have a number of lovely rooms available, a great location in the city centre and breakfast is served daily. Click here to see their availability
Porto Veneziano Hotel – This waterfront hotel is a perfect place for couples visiting Chania. They have a number of lovely rooms to choose from (some boasting sea views), a great breakfast served each morning and plenty of amenities to enjoy. Click here to see their availability
Suites Pandora – If you’d like to have your own self-catering space while in Chania, this aparthotel is an excellent choice. They have a range of suites and flats on offer that are fully furnished and include equipped kitchens. Some even have wonderful sea views and the location is perfect for exploring the city. Click here to see their availability
Cocoon City Hostel – If you’re travelling on a budget, solo or are simply after a great social atmosphere, then this hostel is a great choice for you! They have a great location for exploring Chania and offer both dorms and private rooms. Click here to see their availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Chania hotels!
Also known as Iraklion, Heraklion is the huge bustling capital of modern Crete. Home to well over 200,000 people, it can appear at first glance to be a busy, gridlocked city. However, start to peel back the layers and you’ll find that there are centuries of history and culture to be explored here.
Not only is Heraklion a destination in its own right, but it is the entryway for the second most visited region in all of Greece. From here the family-friendly beaches of Malia and Eastern Crete are a stone’s throw away.
As the capital of Crete, and the biggest city on the island, Heraklion has the largest and most active airport. Located a stone’s throw from the downtown and the port, the airport is conveniently located and busy all year round. In the summer months, it is often chaotic.
One major difference between Heraklion and Chania is the port. Yes, Chania has a port, but it’s effectively a backwater in comparison to Heraklion’s massive passenger and container port. Passenger ferries from across the Greek islands find their home here – Santorini is the closest of the Cycladic islands at a little over two hours on a fast boat.
To get a taxi from the port or airport, expect to pay no more than €15 to anywhere in the centre of Heraklion.
The historic centre is within the ancient fortifications of the city, and this area is entirely walkable on foot. In fact, for this part of Heraklion you’d be a fool to recommend anything else. Traffic is heavy and the city roads are stressful, so driving in the old centre is not advisable.
Heraklion and its surrounding areas are well-linked with public buses. They run from early in the morning to late at night and are a great way to get out of the city to the surrounding coastline. Bring cash and small change, as drivers often cannot break big notes, and rarely accept cards.
If you aren’t driving and would like to go further afield without worrying about organising public buses, then you can find easy and reliable taxis throughout the city.
Heraklion can be very easy on your wallet. Even though it’s a large city, which often makes a destination more expensive, Heraklion’s student population and local vibe keep prices affordable.
Many cafes are still highly local and homely affairs – meaning coffee, pastries and small plates are still very affordable. Equally, there are some excellent and more expensive options for dining in the evenings.
If you do like to spend money on good food, then Heraklion is a great place. It has many cutting-edge eateries and a wide range of international cuisine of a high standard. In general though, it’s easy to keep your food costs low in this city.
Nightlife is quite affordable thanks to Heraklion’s large student population. If you find a sizable young population in a bar outside of the summer months, chances are they have some student drink specials. In the summer months, the beach bars are excellent, and prices are a fraction of what you’ll pay on other Greek islands.
Many of the attractions within the city are inexpensive. Wandering the old town, you’ll be greeted by sight after interesting sight, and many of these are well-signed with plenty of information and are completely free.
Heraklion is the cultural centre of the island, and as such you can find a huge host of museums. This is a big point of difference when deciding between Heraklion or Chania.
The most expensive by a long shot is the incredible Archaeological Museum of Heraklion at €12 for a ticket (though this is significantly reduced in the off-season) and, trust me, it is worth it. However, nearly every other museum costs somewhere around the €5 mark.
Things To Do In Heraklion
As mentioned above, Heraklion is filled with cool historical attractions that will help to build your understanding of the city.
A walking tour will show you lots of the big-ticket items like the city walls built by the Venetians, the imposing Koules Fortress at the waterfront and the Old Arsenal Dockyards.
Wandering from the port to the centre of town up 25th August Street, you will see hints of the city’s Ottoman past, with the intricate oriental window designs on many of the first-floor buildings.
The church of Agios Titos is a wonderful Greek Orthodox church that has been both a mosque and a present-day church. It is full of incense smoke and beautiful icons – if buildings like this are your thing be sure to check out Agios Minas, the atmospheric cathedral of Heraklion.
As you continue strolling, you’ll be sure to see the Loggia, the ornate Venetian-era town hall dating back to the 17th century before strolling up to gorgeous Morosini – also known as the Lions Fountain.
Some worthwhile day trips from the city include the Nikos Kazantzakis Museum. A 30-minute drive from the centre, it is dedicated to the pioneering Greek writer whose most famous works include Zorba the Greek.
If you like wine (who doesn’t?), you should take a trip out of the city to visit Lyrarakis Winery. Since 1966 they’ve focused on making unique wines with local ingredients and traditions. Organise a taxi or a tour so you can fully experience all of the treats that lie within.
An hour or so to the east you will find the town of Agios Nikolaos. A beautiful seaside town set around a natural lake which is now linked to the sea, it makes a great day trip.
From here you can take a boat to Spinalonga, the last leper colony of Europe. This Venetian fortress off the coast of Elounda is especially evocative if you have read the novel The Island. You can book a day tour here.
But by far and away the most worthwhile attraction (and most popular) outside of the city centre is the palace of Knossos. The largest of the ancient Minoan settlements on the island, it has been extensively excavated and has been partially ‘restored’ by British and Greek archaeologists Sir Arthur Evans and Minos Kalokairinos.
You should arrive early to beat the organised groups or aim to arrive later in the day when the heat is a little less oppressive. As you tour the ruins, which is best with a guide (you can organise one here), you will see frescoes, ancient streets, multi-story buildings, and get an excellent insight into how people lived over 4000 years ago!
Where to Stay in Heraklion
Metropole Urban Hotel – This hotel in central Heraklion is a great option for those looking for a swish place to stay in Crete’s capital. They have a range of rooms on offer and plenty of amenities, including room service and an on-site bar. Click here to see their availability
Artion Boutique by Enorme – This cool boutique hotel is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a hip and cool place to stay in Heraklion. Well-located for exploring all of the highlights of the city, they have a number of great rooms on offer and both continental and buffet breakfast options are available each morning. Click here to see their availability
Pavo Art Hotel – For those looking for their own space in Heraklion, this cool aparthotel is a great choice. Well-located for exploring Crete’s capital city, they have a number of chic flats available that range in size and are fully-furnished with everything you may need. Click here to see their availability
Intra Muros Hostel – Located in the centre of Heraklion, this hostel is an excellent choice for those looking for a great social atmosphere or are travelling on a tight budget in Crete. Offering both dorms and private rooms, they have great common areas and self-catering facilities as well. Click here to see their availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Heraklion hotels!
Chania or Heraklion: Which is Better to Visit
So, can we settle the big debate Chania vs Heraklion – which should you visit? Well to be honest that’s totally up to you but there is a difference between Chania and Heraklion.
When trying to decide between Chania or Heraklion for families I think Chania’s selection of beaches makes it a big win. When making the decision of Heraklion or Chania for couples, I also think Chania is more romantic than Heraklion.
However, Heraklion gets my vote for being an affordable multicultural city with plenty of attractions, amazing dining and delicious wine experiences.
So, there you have it – two wonderful Cretan cities, full of amazing sights, food and people. Which will it be?
Choosing between a visit to Heraklion or Chania can be a bit difficult if you don’t have time to visit both on your trip to Crete. However, both cities have something different to offer and are fantastic destinations in their own right.
Are you trying to decide between visiting Heraklion and Chania? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!