Heraklion or Chania: Which Cretan City You Should Visit

Heraklion or Chania

On your way to Crete, you will pass through either Heraklion or Chania, the two main hubs of the island. Yet, those cities are a lot more than your port to Crete. They can be the very reason you visit the island.

If you’re still unsure whether to visit Chania or Heraklion, I bet this post will help you decide!

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Chania or in Heraklion?
Which is Best for Your Holidays?

Chania or Heraklion in Crete?

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If you are wondering where to go, this article can help you choose the best city. Although there is no such thing as one answer for everyone, there is an ideal place to be for you.

Keep reading and see for yourself. 

The First Impression is Different for Each City

Heraklion at night

It is difficult to compare two cities, especially when they are as different as Heraklion and Chania.
Preferences and expectations matter. But so does the first impression.

And when you get to Heraklion, you first see a typical Greek town with its fair share of concrete and congestion.

Yet, its incredible architecture and many impressive buildings make it one of the most beautiful cities in the country.

Chania’s atmosphere is charming and unique. It has two distinct sections: the modern one on the slope of the hills and the old one on the coast.

Heraklion or Chania

No matter where you go, you will love its stunning architecture and cheerful vibe. Not to mention the lovely coffee houses, taverns, and restaurants on almost every corner.

In short, Chania can feel more alive and authentic, although also more touristic.

With just one-third of the population and size of Heraklion, Chania is more walkable and fun to walk around.

But this does not mean Heraklion is not worth a visit—the opposite. Do not forget that this is only about the first impression. There is a lot more behind the scenes.

You might also want to read this comparison guide between Chania and Rethymnon.

Exploring Heraklion or Chania?
Both Cities Have Many Sites Worth Visiting

Detail architecture Saint Mark Basilica Heraklion Crete
Heraklion, detail Saint Mark’s.

Scattered around Heraklion, outstanding architectural buildings decorate the city. To the east of the port, admire the Venetian city walls and the fortress.

Alternatively, walk to the impressive Saint Titus Church or the fantastic Minas Cathedral to the west.

The town also has picturesque fountains like the Bembo and the Morosini Lions Fountain.
Not to mention, street art is evident in every neighborhood. 

This Self-Guided Outdoor-Escape-Game Tour is an affordable and fun way to explore Heraklion independently.

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Just like Heraklion, Chania boasts a unique selection of sights worth exploring. This time, however, everything is almost next to each other.

Start your stroll at the old Venetian Port and explore the Ottoman Mosque of Hassan Pasha from the 17th century.

Then, as you head to the lighthouse of Chania at the tip of the port, embrace the beauty of the Venetian Fortress in the distance. 

Heraklion or Chania
The Mosque of the Janissaries, Chania.

Look for the Orthodox Cathedral on the central plaza, a block from the port. From there, walk searching for Saint Nikolaos Church, a Venetian church with an Ottoman minaret.

As you do, you will fall in love with the city’s vibe. In short, Chania has a few more tourist sights than Heraklion, although this does not necessarily mean they are better or worse. 

The Old Town of Chania is Second to None

Heraklion or Chania
A church and a minaret, Splantzia.

As you may already know, what stands out in Chania is its Old Town. Finding another city in Greece with such a vibrant and picturesque old town is difficult.

Although you can walk from one end to another in less than 15 minutes, you can spend days exploring it all. Every corner hides a surprise that is worth finding out.  

Although not as colorful, the Old Town of Heraklion deserves a visit. Most of it is pedestrian so that you will enjoy its peaceful beauty.

Begin your walk at the Venetian Port and climb a small hill with fantastic views. Then, take your lunch at a traditional tavern or enjoy your cocktail in a lively bar in the Old Town

Heraklion or Chania
The Venetian Harbor, Chania.

Remember to turn off your GPS and allow yourself to be lost no matter which Old Town you are exploring. Literally! There is no better feeling than discovering beautiful buildings and neighborhoods you never expected to see. 

Most importantly, do not worry about finding your way back. Relax, search for incredible architecture, and enjoy the cheerful vibe.

The locals are always welcome to guide you to your destination whenever you need help. But before you ask, explore and have fun. 

Heraklion Carries a Richer History 

Fresco, Minoan Palace, Heraklion, Greece

Although both cities have a rich history that dates thousands of years ago, Heraklion has the upper hand in that area.

The island’s capital was once home to one of the most magnificent and ancient human civilizations: the Minoans. No matter what, you need to visit the Minoan Palace of Knossos when you are in Heraklion. 

Purchase the ticket to Knossos in advance to skip the line at the entrance.

To dive deeper into prehistoric history, spend a few hours, if not an entire day, exploring the artifacts and other historical exhibits in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

If that is not enough, you can see traces of Venetian and Byzantine influence throughout the city.
And there is no better way to discover everything than wandering around the Historical Museum of Crete. 

Heraklion or Chania
Kondilaki Street, Chania.

Although lesser in glamour, the history of Chania is still impressive. Byzantines, Venetians, and Turks have all left their marks on the city.

Visit the Cathedral of Trimartiti to see Venetian architecture and paintings. Or take a tour through Etz Hayyim Synagogue to learn about the former Jewish community in Crete.

Above all, stop by the city’s new Archaeological Museum to discover its rich history.   

Check out this super budget-friendly Self-Guided Scavenger Hunt and City Highlights Tour.

As the Bigger City, Heraklion has More Things to Do

What to do in Heraklion Crete at night
Heraklion at night.

If history does not fascinate you (yet), worry not. You can do more activities on the island than can fit in your schedule… Even if you spend three months or more in Crete!

This is true for both Heraklion and Chania. However, as the island’s capital, Heraklion has more things to do.

Whether you want to relax on the beach, have a romantic evening, take a lesson on horse riding, try rock climbing, or have fun at a water park, Heraklion has you covered.

You do not need to search for long to find the best activity. Just visit a travel agency or ask your hotel receptionist. Your next adventure will be a few phone calls away. 

Heraklion or Chania
Chania old town.

Chania also has a variety of activities if you want a break from sightseeing. Choose one of the many coffee houses overlooking the Venetian Port and enjoy your drink with an unparalleled view.

Or order a takeaway coffee and get to the Botanical Park of Crete for a change of scenery. If you are looking for shopping therapy, Chania will feel like heaven. Its many boutiques and specialty streets will leave you in awe. 

Heraklion or Chania for Food? You Will Adore the Cuisine in Both Cities

Heraklion or Chania

As you stroll around either city, you cannot but notice the myriad smells from the many taverns and restaurants you pass by. You will be craving a Greek meal sooner than later.

Thankfully, both cities offer the traditional and modern cuisines you would expect from any typical Greek getaway. 

Whether you are after fast food and gyros or want a complete fine dining experience, Heraklion is the perfect match.

Hundreds of traditional taverns, takeaway eateries, and luxurious restaurants are ready to cater to your every need. Get ready to treat yourself to fresh seafood, modern plates, and organic produce.  

Heraklion or Chania
The Five is one of my favorite restaurants in Chania.

Similarly, Chania boasts a rich selection of establishments serving Cretan and international dishes. Alternatively, you can head to the street markers and try any typical Greek snack.

Spoiler alert: snacks may often look like proper meals size-wise.

No matter your taste, you will not regret visiting the restaurant The Well Of The Turk.

More of an experience than a plain tavern, this establishment is praised for its ethnic food and laid-back atmosphere.

Do not forget to order and try one of the many local or international wine varieties. 

Prepare to Walk or Drive to Reach a Peaceful Beach

Heraklion or Chania
Ammoudara Beach, Heraklion.

Once your appetite is satisfied, you will look for a beach in no time. Although the city beaches are around the corner, you would do yourself a favor if you drive a few kilometers toward the outskirts.

However, if everything you want is a quick swim to cool off, you won’t have to walk far.

On the eastern part of Heraklion, Karteros Beach is a clean and sandy beach. However, it is also next to the airport so it can get a bit noisy.

For a more peaceful location, drive six kilometers west of the city and reach Amoudara Beach.

Platanias Beach, Chania.

Popular with the locals, this long and sandy beach is full of fancy resorts, big hotels, and all sorts of eateries. You will love this change of scenery a few kilometers away from the bustle of the city. 

Just like in Heraklion, you cannot bathe in the heart of the Old Town. However, there is a long stretch of sand with organized facilities, less than a kilometer away.

Although often crowded, Nea Chora Beach is the place to go if you are looking for an escape from the Cretan heat without leaving the heart of Chania.

If you want to avoid the crowds, walk further toward the north and reach the quieter beaches of Chrissi Akti and Agii Apostoli. Or book a bus trip to Elafonisi, Crete’s famous pink sand beach, for a day out of Chania town.

Compare the best beaches in Chania and the beaches in Heraklion before you choose.

You Will Love the Road Trips From Both Cities 

Heraklion or Chania
Road in South Heraklion.

Although you will fall in love with the cities, arranging a day trip could be one of the best ways to explore Crete. Fortunately, both towns can be the starting points for road trips you are bound to remember.

If Knossos Palace has fascinated you, as is usually the case, consider visiting the Phaistos Archaeological Site in the south. You can combine your trip with a stop at Gortyna, one of the oldest cities on the island during the Hellenistic period. 

beach, sea, caves, Matala, Crete
Matala Beach.

If you drive further south, you can reach Matala, one of the most famous beaches in southern Crete.

The journey there will take you through exotic landscapes and this will be as rewarding as the destination.

Alternatively, head around 30 kilometers east of Heraklion and embrace the party vibe on the beaches of Hersonissos and Malia. 

Balos, Crete in Spring
Balos in Spring.

The west is also home to postcard-like beaches you never thought existed. Everyone has talked about or seen pictures of the pink sand from Elafonisi and Balos Beach.

If you prefer something off the beaten path, attempt a descent to the idyllic beach of Seitan Limania, only 10 kilometers from the center of Chania. 

Nature lovers out there should make sure to spend an entire day hiking Samaria Gorge, the longest canyon in Europe.

Seitan Limania.

If you are up for an adventure, rent a car and explore the White Mountains, known for their majestic landscape and breathtaking hiking routes.

>> Discover what to pack for a road trip in Crete.

Getting to Crete is Slightly Easier Through Heraklion 

Heraklion or Chania
Airport, Heraklion.

If all that matters to you is getting fast to your destination, you will love both cities for their international airport. Several flights connect many countries around the world to Crete through those airports.

And if your flight gets to Athens, note that there is usually more than one connection per day with either Heraklion or Chania. 

Heraklion or Chania

If getting to Crete by flight is easy, using the ferry can be more convenient and straightforward.

You can get the ferry from Athens or any of the Cyclades, it won’t take long to reach Crete. And your destination can be both Heraklion and Cyclades.

You might also want to read about the best Greek islands near Crete.

As the capital of the island and the bigger city, Heraklion has a few more flights and ferry connections around the year.

Only for that reason, Heraklion may be a bit easier to reach.

Yet, the ideal scenario would be to land in one city and leave through the other. You will get the most out of both worlds!

✈️ Find cheap flights with Skyscanner.

The Verdict: Heraklion or Chania?

Heraklion or Chania

As you can see, there is no definite answer as to whether Heraklion or Chania is a better destination. To be honest, the only reason to have this dilemma is time constraints.

If you have enough time, you would be doing yourself a favor and go to both places. But this is not always possible.

Heraklion or Chania

You will love Heraklion if you are interested in archaeology and Minoan history. On the other hand, an architect would fall in love with the Old Town of Chania.

In the end, the choice is yours. No matter which city you visit, you will remember your holidays for a long time. You will soon make plans to come back. 
Are you planning to visit Heraklion, Chania, or both?

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More resources to enhance your Crete adventure

Start by checking out my ultimate guide to planning your trip to Crete, packed with helpful essential information. Explore the articles on prices in Crete, common mistakes to avoid, and insider secrets for an unforgettable experience.

Use this comprehensive Crete packing list to ensure you have everything you need. Explore the best places to visit on Crete Island, discover my tours and activities, be amazed at Crete’s incredible beaches, and check out the best times to experience its beauty.

If you are exploring specific areas like Heraklion or Rethymnon, I’ve got detailed guides to help you make the most of your time.

Suggested accommodation in Heraklion

No time to read all my accommodation guides? Check out these hotels in the city:

More useful travel resources

  • Check out all the digital travel guides I’ve specifically written about Crete. They are affordable and practical to check from your mobile.
  • Find convenient ferry tickets with Ferryhopper.
  • Welcome Pickups offers a convenient pre-paid airport transfer service, while Discover Cars is the engine I use to find a rental car on the island.
  • To book adventures, tours, and cultural experiences, I recommend Get Your Guide.
Heraklion or Chania

Written by Dimitrios Tsevremes
Passionate about travel, spirituality, and sports, Dimi divides his time between Chania (Crete) and other countries. Writing is a way for him to express himself and his creativity. You can find out more about him and his work here.

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Heraklion or Chania

About me:

Gabi Ancarola | The Tiny Book

Gabi Ancarola

I have lived in Chania, Crete, since 2016. As a local, I have an intimate knowledge of the Crete. I host culinary and concierge tours and experiences in Crete and write about the island for several travel media. During the last five years, I have helped many travelers plan the perfect holiday in Crete. I co-authored DK Eyewitness Top 10 Crete and had more glasses of frappe than any regular person could ever handle.

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