The city of Rethymno has all the perfect ingredients for wonderful holidays in Crete. It’s as close as you can get to the unique, perfect package – one of the best beaches in Crete, a picturesque old harbour and one of the most beautiful towns in Greece, all within a few minutes’ walk.
You could whizz around the main things to do in Rethymno in a couple of days, but that would be missing out. Also known as Rethymnon, it’s a place to be savoured slowly. It’s beautiful medieval Old Town is full of great restaurants and buzzing every evening. We were completely seduced by Rethymno and extended our stay.
it’s one of the best places to stay in Crete. It’s in an ideal location, roughly halfway between the Crete capital Heraklion and the western city of Chania. Most of the best things to do in Crete are within easy reach, whether by bus, hire car or guided tour.
Here’s the full lowdown on what to do in Rethymno. Enjoy.
The Fortezza is the Venetian fortress overlooking the old town of Rethymno. The castle dates back to the late 16th century, and was captured in 1646 by the invading Ottoman Turks.
The low, stout walls of Rethymno fortress still dominate the town, although the high, narrow streets mean that you only see it up close or from the harbour and beach.
We paid our first visit to the Fortezza an hour before sunset. It was a wonderfully evocative time to be there, with the low light making the old mosque and church glow orange as the sun disappeared behind the mountains to the west.
Much of the space inside the Fortezza is now empty, after houses within were demolished around a century ago. Now it’s quite empty and spacious, and the best thing to do there is to walk the ramparts and admire the superb views. It’s fairly low key, but one of the must see Crete attractions.
The beach in Rethymno city is one of the biggest beaches in Crete. It starts a five-minute walk from the eastern edge of the Old Town, and continues eight miles (13 km) to the village of Skaleta.
It’s also a very wide beach in places, with a 30 to 40 metre walk from the beach entrance to the shoreline. Many different local hotels, guesthouses and restaurants operate sections of the beach. Greek beach etiquette dictates that you hire one or two sunbeds and an umbrella. This sets you back between 5 and 10 euros – the closer to the shoreline you go, the higher the price.
The beach continues to the edge of Rethymno town to villages beyond. Confusingly, some travel websites refer to these villages outside Rethymno as Rethymno. Look at the location carefully before booking. They all look out onto the same long beach, but some of them are a 20-minute bus ride or drive away.
It’s pretty easy to find your way around this area if you don’t have a car. The #20 bus route is one of the most popular in the area, running from Rethymno bus station to Panormos, a fishing village around 20 km to the east on the Heraklion highway. The bus passes through Platanes, Adelianos Kampos and Sfakaki en route to Panormos.
RETHYMNO OLD TOWN
Old Town Rethymno is gorgeous. It’s one of the best places in Crete to wander and explore. It’s quite extensive, stretching from the modern harbour and port to the Fortezza.
Most of the old town dates back to Venetian times (until the 17th century), and there are also some distinctive overhanging Ottoman houses around the streets as well.
Rethymnon old town is so attractive because most of it is pedestrianised, so everyone can slowly amble around the streets. It’s not as if there are that many specific Rethymno attractions to see as such – rather it’s the overall effect of exploring such a beautiful place. Many of the best restaurants in Rethymno are concentrated in this area.
In summer season many of the tables outside are full, throngs of people are out for the evening, eating out, walking or enjoying an ice cream from one of the many gelaterie around the town. If you’re tempted to try some of the latter, try Angeli Gelato on Vosporou, just down the hill and to the right of the Porta Guora.
The streets of the Old Town and along the harbour are often busy until midnight and beyond. Most Rethymno nightlife seems to consist of eating out, or perhaps having a drink or three at one of the many bars and cafes. Not to mention stopping off at one of the many patisseries around the town.
RETHYMNO VENETIAN HARBOUR
Rethymno’s late medieval harbour is small and impossibly picturesque. Waterfront restaurants occupy two sides of it, while the harbour wall and lighthouse occupy another. The views towards the town and mountains are unforgettable. The lighthouse was built by the Egyptian occupiers around 1830.
THE BLUE STEPS OF RETHYMNO
Your Rethymno sightseeing isn’t complete until you’ve tracked down the city’s famous Blue Steps.
They’re on an alleyway next to Vassilis restaurant, which is on Chimaras, itself one of the most beautiful streets in Rethymno. Tables are usually set there – a lovely place to dine. Or just photograph.
We dined at numerous restaurants and tavernas in and around Rethymno over the course of our extended stay.
Our rule of thumb is that if it’s packed, it’s got to be pretty good, and this was very much the case in Rethymno.
Nostos is a new seafood restaurant on the main beach strip (Sofokli Venizelou 73), serving a mixture of Greek and Mediterranean dishes. I stumbled upon this one by chance as I was looking for somewhere shady to walk! Chance discoveries are often the best, and this was especially serendipitous, as the food was outstanding. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a contender for one of the best restaurants in Crete.
There are two Barrio cafes in Rethymno, one across the street from the Miunicipal Garden, the other on Portaliou, just up from the beach. They serve a range of pasta dishes, salads and burgers. We visited the Portaliou branch several times as it was at the end of our street, and gave it a massive thumbs-up every time.
Casa di Haris (Mosologiou 22) serves great Italian food. Faye said that her lasagne was one of the best she had ever had, and my beetroot risotto was of a very high standard.
One of our favourites is Kokkinos, on Iroon Square, which serves a huge range of Greek and Italian food. They were also happy to cook something not on the menu for our little man, which is a big plus point.
One of the most popular Rethymno things to do is to stop by at the Rimondi fountain. It’s an ornate stone Venetian fountain with the water passing through three lions’ heads near the base. It’s a popular spot for photographs, and is surrounded by busy restaurants.
One of the most prominent Rethymno landmarks is the Neratze mosque, on spacious Petychaki Square. The Turks took over what was originally a Venetian church, adding the soaring minaret which is the tallest structure in the Old Town.
After the Turks left, the building reverted to church status, but it wasn’t used as such again. It’s now used as a concert venue. Petychaki Square is a lovely spot, especially on balmy evenings and after dusk. Local families tend to hang out there, sitting on benches around the edge of the square, while the kids burn off energy and play.
The funfair in Rethymno is set up on ground very close to the port, only a few minutes’ walk from the Old Town. There are only about six rides, and most of these are suited to under-5s. The most popular ride is the dodgems, or bumper cars. Our little fellow loved it, causing a ten-car snarl-up by reversing in circles and running into everybody.
RETHYMNO MUNICIPAL GARDEN
The main Rethymno park is located on the edge of the Old Town, a two-minute walk from the Porta Guora archway. It’s mostly visited by locals in the evening. There’s the largest playground in the city, and a most convivial café, Le Jardin, next to the park’s central fountain.
The only drawback with the main Rethymno beach is that northerly winds sometimes rough the sea up. This can lead to conditions being unsuitable for swimming.
We discovered Koumbes beach, around 1 km from the Old Town and a short walk west from Rethymno bus station. There are two small sections just below the main road, one with sand, the other without. The two stone breakwaters take the brunt of the waves, so it’s a safe alternative to the main beach. The water is crystal clear, and you get a great view back to the Fortezza.
OTHER RETHYMNO BEACHES
There are many other beaches near Rethymno to discover, both to the east and west.
Spilies beach is one of the first you reach once you leave the long Rethymno beach behind. It’s a tiny, pebbly cove with stunning cliffs either side. It’s hidden down a valley off the main Heraklion to Rethymno highway, and has a pleasant little taverna.
Geropotamos beach is close to Spilies – you can walk between the two, along the track running alongside the highway. It’s a lovely sweep of sand, with the stunning Kamara sea arch at the end.
Bali, Crete is another village popular with tourists. There are five different Bali beaches in all, and four of them are fairly sheltered coves. Karavostasi beach is particularly beautiful.
The beaches to the west of Rethymno, on the road to Chania, are also rather special. One of our favourites is Georgioupolis, another long, broad sweep of golden Mediterranean sand. It also has a lovely little white church built on the sea wall.
There’s also the question of where to stay in Rethymno, Greece. You can opt to stay somewhere along the beach strip in Rethymno city itself, or go further out, either driving or using the #20 bus route.
If you’re looking for a Rethymno beach hotel, the five-star Aquila Porto Rethymno is a great place to start. It’s right across the road from the broadest section of Rethymno town beach, and runs its own section of beach. It’s one of the best hotels in Crete for luxury and location, with the Old Town a ten-minute stroll away.
The same chain also runs the Aquila Rithymna Beach at Adelianos Kampos, 10 km (6 miles) to the east off the road to Heraklion. It’s one of the best Rethymnon hotels, overlooking a fantastic section of beach.
Rethymno has some of the best luxury hotels Crete has, and the Kriti Beach Hotel, overlooking the Rethymno town beach, is another great option. Many rooms and suites have views over the beach, out to sea and across the harbour towards the Fortezza. It’s also only five minutes’ walk from the Old Town.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.