Smaller than Chania and not as busy as Heraklion, the city of Rethymnon offers the perfect balance of history, quality local food, and ample opportunities for relaxation on the Greek island of Crete.
The city gets called a number of things - like many places in Crete. While Rethymno is how the Greeks pronounce it visitors usually use the more formal version Rethymnon with the ‘n’.
Although it’s the third biggest city in Crete, Rethymnon feels more like a town, with winding streets full of souvenirs, traditional handicrafts, and a whole host of all-too-tempting tavernas.
Many find themselves here on a day trip from nearby places, but there’s so much to do in Rethymnon that you may find yourself wishing that you’d chosen to stay here instead.
One of the top reasons to visit Rethymnon is that it’s one of the best-preserved old towns in Crete - the city's history spans over more than 4500 years. Rethymnon Old Town is mostly built in a Cretan Renaissance style, but it also has influences from Venetian Italian-style architecture as well as several intriguing remnants of the Turkish-Ottoman rule.
The Republic of Venice conquered Crete in 1204, constructing a number of the city's greatest sights like the Venetian Loggia and the Fotezza. Later in 1648, it was the Ottoman Empire that took control, remaining in occupation in Crete until 1898. The Turkish School, the Bathhouse, the mosques and opulent Turkish houses add to the rich fabric of the architecture in Rethymnon.
Head to the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon, just in front of the Fortezza’s central gate, to uncover more of the city's past. Established in 1887, the museum features finds from all over the city dating back to the Minoan, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods (open 8.30 am until 3 pm, every day except for Mondays).
Just a short walk through the old town can reveal that there’s more than enough to fill a couple of full sightseeing days here.
One of the most popular sights in Rethymnon is Rimondi Fountain, with its three columns, three water basins and the charismatic lion's head - it’s said that drinking from the fountain means that you will return to Rethymnon one day.
Another of the top things to see is the Venetian Fortezza of Rethymnon. It’s one of the best-preserved castles in Crete with views out over the city and the sprawling coastline. Then there’s the Venetian Port and Egyptian Lighthouse, with its cafe and restaurant-lined promenade that is one of the busiest spots in the city - especially at night.
Other sights in Rethymnon that are worth taking note of are the Church of the Four Martyrs, the Neratze mosque, Porta Guora and the Minaret of Valide Sultana.
There’s also the Venetian Loggia which was once the centre of power in the city. Built in the 16th century by the famous Veronese architect Michele Sanmichelli, it was later transformed into a mosque during the Ottoman occupation.
It’s true that you could spend your time here immersed in historical sights and cultural treasures, but there are a few good reasons to relax instead. Like many Greek Islands, Crete is no exception when it comes to an abundance of beautiful beaches.
The main beach of Rethymnon is a sandy 12-kilometre-long beach, stretching from the city of Rethymnon to the resort area of Skaleta. Most hotels have access to their own section with free sunbeds, shades, and a beach bar service for guests.
On a warm sunny day, it’s hard to find a reason not to find a good book and settle in for a while, occasionally taking a dip in the clear-blue ocean to refresh.
Nearby there are popular seaside resorts like Bali, Adelianos, Kampos, Panormos, and Platanias. But if you prefer to stay somewhere a little more laid-back and secluded, Agia Galini and Plakias are good alternatives.
Rethymnon is a bit of a paradise for shoppers, with streets full of irresistible souvenirs like olive wood kitchen utensils and intricately decorated mezze bowls. But there is a history of handmade in Rethymnon that goes beyond the high street shops.
An absolute must-visit while you’re in town is Mr. Giorgos Hatziparaschos’ workshop. The enigmatic 90-year-old is the last traditional phyllo master in Greece. In fact, he has been working the ultra-thin phyllo pastry by hand since World War II.
Though he mainly handles the small baklava stand nowadays, you can still see his wife, Mrs. Katerina, and his son hard at work on the pastry tables.
Another good spot to visit is Stagakis Workshop, a shop that has been making the traditional Cretan Lyra since 1945. You can also find other instruments like the Mandolin, the Askomandoura and the Bouzouki.
Komboloi beads can also be found in a small shop in town. Traditionally used for religious purposes as rosary beads, they are now more common as worry beads - as popular with locals as they are with visitors. They are made with a variety of materials such as amber, camel bone, semi-precious stones, and wood.
Somewhere not too far from the centre of the northern coastline of Crete, Rethymnon offers the perfect location for those who can’t decide between visiting Heraklion or Chania. At around an hour's drive to Chania, or an hour and a quarter to Heraklion, getting to Rethymnon from either of the ports or the two international airports couldn’t be easier.
Public transport links are good too with regular bus connections to the two major cities. It means that you can visit places like Knossos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum without having to rely on a guided tour.
Rethymnon's central location means that you can travel to pretty much anywhere in Crete in a day, but try to resist going too far as there’s plenty to see in the local area too. Remember; Crete is the largest of the Greek Islands, and many visitors underestimate just how long it takes to get around.
If you do decide to pack the most into your Crete itinerary, you won’t be short of options when it comes to day trips from Rethymnon.
One of the most interesting is the day trip to Spinalonga and the seaside town of Agios Nikolaos. Spinalonga was once home to the largest Leper colony in Greece and is now one of the most popular places to visit in Crete. Agios Nikolaos is just an hour's drive to the east of Heraklion so it’s not too far for an easy day trip.
One of the most popular trips from Rethymnon is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Samaria Gorge. As one of Europe’s longest gorges, day trips from Rethymnon to Samaria Gorge involve a taxing 14 km downhill hike along the river ending with a swim at Agia Roumeli. It’s definitely worth doing a tour here rather than attempting it on your own as it can amount to a long and logistically complicated day of driving.
If you prefer something a little more sedate, head to one of the most beautiful beaches in Greece at Balos Lagoon. The gorgeous pink beaches are the perfect spot to take holiday snaps and sunbathe, it’s not a bad spot for snorkelling either or simply go for a refreshing dip in the turquoise waters. The Balos Lagoon tour from Rethymnon is a full day trip with swim stops, boat rides, and a visit to a castle.