Away from Crete’s 18-30 hotspot of Malia, the island has several beautiful old towns, including Rethymnon. Situated almost exactly equidistant between Heraklion and Chania airport, the hour’s journey places you centrally in this beautiful north coast town with plenty of scope to explore.
Things to Do
The beaches are what draws many a visitor to Crete, and Rethmynon boasts golden sand as far as the eye can see. You’ll find endless sunbed companies all neatly arranged, and, as is becoming the norm these days, many with changing huts, Wi-Fi and even waiter service to make your stay even more relaxing.
For the more adventurous, the beach has several watersports on offer from various companies. Whether it be jet skis, banana boats, inflatable sofas or paragliding, there’s something for everyone. In the high-season these are very popular so best to book ahead.
While the beachfront slowly evolves into an ever expanding vibrant area for youngsters, the Old Town of Rethymnon caters to the more cultural traveller. Step a few streets back from the sand and you’ll find old charming streets and a much slower pace of life. Aside from the usual tourist outlets, there’s a myriad of churches, museums, architecture and cobbled streets, with many excellent hidden local bakeries, restaurants and shops.
The Venetian Fortress sits proudly above Rethymnon Old Town, and offers fantastic panoramic views across the whole area. While once the fort housed many citizens, today most evidence of this is gone, but the walls still house the remnants of several churches and mosques which are gradually being restored.
If after all the eating, sunbathing and exploring you fancy something a little more taxing, Rethymnon has embraced the cultural phenomenon of escape rooms. Enigma sits in the heart of the Old Town and has three different room puzzles on offer.
Where to Eat
With hundreds of restaurants in such a small area, you’ll never go hungry in Rethymnon. The beach strip is jam-packed with endless identikit outdoor restaurants, all with fairly indistinctive menus and staff desperately trying to usher you in at any opportunity. (If you are particularly adverse to this, avoid the small harbour area, where the enclosed nature of the path makes the hassling particularly hostile).
That said, the Greeks are incredibly generous people – often offering free drinks to dine with them, shots after every meal (ouzo is recommended, raki and retsina more of an ‘acquired’ taste – and a small dessert on the house. There is also, if you choose wisely, an abundance of fresh ingredients – olives, feta, tomatoes, lemons, honey and seafood all being particularly good.
The menus can be overwhelming, with many restaurants seemingly offering every dish in order to compete with their neighbours. You’ll always find the same tapas starters, salads, grilled meats, omelettes, ‘oven dishes’ (moussaka, lamb kleftiko, beef stifado) and a selection of seafood.
Civitas Hotel (Tripadvisor)
One of the best beachside eateries, with excellent staff and customer service. Not the cheapest, but ranks above many others because of its selection of sharing seafood platters, made to your specification. The chargrilled octopus is a must.
1600 Raki Ba Raki (Tripadvisor)
Easily the most hipster eatery in Rethymnon, with a tapas style menu and faux vintage decor. While the attentiveness of the service has been criticised, the food is excellent with plenty of sharing options for groups.
La Boheme (Tripadvisor)
A gem of a ‘French’ restaurant hidden amongst the winding streets. While the menu isn’t especially Parisian, it does offer something different to the usual Cretan fare. Run by a wonderfully eccentric Algerian native, you are guaranteed a unique experience whether you eat in the beautiful floral courtyard or on the mezzanine above.
It wouldn’t be a holiday without ice cream, and this beachside gelato parlour has every flavour under the sun. For the chocoholics, there’s seriously rich cocoa options and many based on popular chocolate bars, in addition to lots of fresh fruit sorbets and other delights.
Only 30km South-East of Rethymnon, this village sits amongst the rolling hills and is home to many pottery studios. Built on a steep slope, you can wind your way up (or down) and explore the various skills and crafts from rustic hand thrown pots to beautiful contemporary clay pieces. A tavern sits around halfway up, and there’s also a Byzantine church and plenty of Venetian architecture. While it is the perfect short trip, due to its limited size it’s best visited outside of the normal tourist peak times.
At just over an hour’s drive, Chania is a great day excursion from Rethymnon. Although similar in style, its expansive Venetian harbour is the focal point, with old buildings, churches, museums and crafts shops a stone’s throw away. The walk to the ancient lighthouse is also well worth the views.
This beautiful beach is the making of its own downfall, in that during peak season it becomes incredibly crowded. If you can visit during quite times though, the 40km trip from Rethymnon is well worth the surprise of the incredible exotic palm beach lagoon and river gorge. The best route is to park at the top and walk down the steep but well-maintained steps to the beach. There is a small cafe during normal hours, but be sure to take supplies.
One of the most popular activities in Crete, but one that takes a very early start and a lot of commitment when travelling from Rethymnon. Over 1,000 people per day regularly trek through this incredible gorge in Crete’s White Mountains. Your best bet to keep away from the tourist crowds is to start at dawn, and do plenty of research before you set off – it is not for the faint hearted, especially in hot weather.
Places to Stay
Pepi Studios (website)
In the heart of the Old Town, Pepi Studios is a beautiful boutique hotel centred around a small courtyard with plunge pool and several sunbeds. The best noise-free rooms are towards the back of the complex, with an upgrade to one of the suites well worth the extra cost. The welcoming staff are helpful both before and during your stay, as is the adjoining Bistro 22 where you can enjoy breakfast in the morning. Parking is a ten minute walk away (note – while there is parking at the nearby market square, this is often in use and your car will be towed if necessary), but a taxi can drop you at the door at certain times when traffic is allowed through the Old Town.
Rithymna Beach Hotel (website)
For those wanting a slightly more extravagant experience, this longstanding hotel on the edge of Rethymnon offers its own private strip of beach, as well as all-inclusive options. Designed in the style of its own Cretan village, there’s three outdoor pools, an indoor pool and spa, a huge buffet dining room and plenty of room options from cheaper tower block accommodation to luxury cottages with private pools.