Of Crete’s four beautiful prefectures, Rethymnon is the smallest. But it offers tremendous variety. Here, the island is at its narrowest, giving you great access to the south coast for a varied experience.
All You Need to Know about Rethymnon, Crete
Rethymno, capital of the Prefecture by the same name and the administrative and commercial centre for the surrounding area, is the smallest of the historic cities of Crete. The picturesque town has been untouched by earthquakes and has retained its blend of Eastern mystique and Western grandeur. There are numerous venetian houses and churches; the latter were converted into mosques during the period of Turkish rule. Clustered around its Fortezza (fortress), Rethymno will make an immediate and lasting impression on visitors, to which its disused minaret will undoubtedly contribute.
Rethymnon’s topography is full of interest. There are mountains and natural wonders, like amazing caves. And there are cultural treasures, such as two of the most famous monasteries on the island. Some of Crete’s best known villages are here, too, and also some of its very finest beaches. And the capital city is enchanting.
Where is Rethymno located?
Rethymnon is the second regional unit from the west, between Chania in the west and the central regional until Heraklion to the east.
How to get to Rethymno, Crete
There is frequent ferry service to Rethymnon from Piraeus and in the high season also from other islands, like Santorini. You can rent a car in Rethymno once you arrive to explore the region to the fullest.
Rethymnon does not have its own airport. It is 67 km to the east from the International Airport of Chania – a beautiful drive of just over an hour. It’s 90 km west of Heraklion’s International airport, which is a slightly longer but also very beautiful coastal drive of an hour and a quarter. You can pick up a car at our rental offices in either airport.
If you would like to take a bus from either Heraklion or Chania, you will find everything you need to know here. There are frequent departures throughout the day.
The History of Rethymnon, Crete
Crete is home to a legendary Bronze Age civilization- the Minoans. This complex civilization flourished in Crete for six centuries (2000 BC – 1400 BC). The region of Rethymnon is full of Minoan history, and the city of Rethymnon (then Rhithymna) was powerful enough even to mint its own coins.
The city itself fell into decline, and was not significant throughout the years of Byzantium.The second era where Rethymnon really began to flourish was in the 13th century AD, with the arrival of the Venetians. The city of Rethymnon was the seat of the Diocese of Retimo. Much of the city’s elegance and romance derives from the centuries of Venetian rule.
The Ottomans arrived in the 17th century, capturing Rethymnon in 1646 and holding it until 1898, when the Great Powers intervened and created the Cretan State, under Prince George of Greece and Denmark. Crete was occupied once again during WWII and the Cretans were known for their heroic acts during the resistance.
What to See and Do in Rethymnon, Crete
Rethymno consists of two parts, the Old Town and the New Town, the latter being an extension of the former towards the south. Since 1970, the town has also spread along the coast to the east, in the direction of the village of Perivolia. The town is carefully laid-out, with multi-storey buildings and an adequate number of parks, but the seafront is largely hidden by large hotels.
Even if you are in Crete for a beach holiday or to enjoy the mountains, caves, and hiking through its beautiful terrain, you will want to take a little time to enjoy the city of Rethymnon. Take a romantic stroll through the old town. The gorgeous Fortezza Fortress, built in the 16th century, overlooks the town and the port and it sets the tone. This is the spiritual and cultural heart of Rethymnon. The Archaeological Museum is near the entrance to the Fortezza Fortress, and the Folklore and Historical Museum of Rethymnon is close by in a restored Venetian building. You can even learn about modern Greek art from the 1950’s to the present at the Contemporary Art Museum of Crete. The Folklore Collection of the Lyceum of Greek Women is housed in a building belonging to the Lyceum at 18 Mesolongiou Str. The collection was founded in 1963 and consists of embroidery, woven goods, wood-carvings, local costumes, pottery and utensils.
As you walk through the old town, we will see – among other buildings – the Loggia, built in the sixteenth century. This is a fine, square Venetian structure, which was originally used as a meeting and recreation place for the local nobles and aristocrats. Now it houses the Archaeological Museum. The Fortezza, Rethymno’s fortress, stands on Palaiokastro hill to the north of the town. It was built in 1573 by Venetian commander Alviso Lando. Today only the walls have survived (restored), together with cisterns and a mosque with a huge dome: this was originally the cathedral of St Nicholas, which the Turks converted into a mosque. The Rimondi Fountain, on the north side of Petychaki Square, was erected in 1629 on the site of an earlier fountain by Rimondi, governor of Rethymno.
Among other interesting buildings is the Bishopric, a neo-classical style; built in 1869, it has a large number of windows on two storeys. A Turkish school has survived next to the church of St Francis, built in 1796 as a girls’school, as has the Turkish baths, at 25 Radamantous St. The church of St Francis, a single-aisled wooden-roofed basilica which was used as a poorhouse in Turkish times, was restored in 1971 and impresses the visitor with its architecture and sculptural ornamentation.
The Church of Our Lady of the Angels dates from the closing period of Venetian rule. It is also known as “Our Lady the Lesser”, and is located in the old town. Our Lady of the Angels is a three-aisled church without a dome, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene by the Dominican order of monks. The Cathedral of the Presentation of the Virgin, a new church modelled on the Church of the Annunciation on Tinos, has a fine carved wooden screen and good modern wall-paintings. It also preserves an outstanding portable Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Passion, unsigned and undated.
But perhaps the very best thing to do in Rethymnon is just to wander through the jasmine-scented alleys, admire the traditional architecture covered with colorful bougainvillea, and relax with a coffee in shady Platonos square (“platanos” by the way means plane tree- every respectable town square in Crete has a great plane tree).
Enjoy a Beach Holiday: Gorgeous Beaches near Rethymno, Crete
The north coast of Crete is dotted with many fantastic beaches. In the north of Crete, the waters are often shallow and warm, and the beaches are of soft sand. This is a popular area with travelers and you will find full service beaches, with umbrellas and sun loungers, beach-side snack and drink service, and many opportunities to try your hand at a host of fun watersports.
Favorite beaches along the northern coast include the beaches of Bali– this is actually a chain of gorgeous beaches. Livadi beach is the largest and busiest of these, followed by Varkotopos on an enclosed bay. Its shallow waters make this popular with families. This is followed by Limani, which means port, so you will find restaurants and shops here as well. The last of the four is Karavostasis, which is also the smallest and loveliest.
One of the most famous beaches of the southern coast – Preveli – was a local secret for years. You’ll need to hike about 15 minutes along steep cliffs through dramatic scenery from the parking lot of the Kato (“lower”) Preveli Monastery, or just 5 minutes from Drimiskiano Amoudi. Thereward is a palm grove where a river flows into the Libyan sea and a swim in the brisk clear waters of the south coast.
Slightly less wild and with full touristic facilities is Agia Galini, 60 km south of Rethymno. This gorgeous beach of smooth pebbles has lovely water.
Activities around Rethymno, Crete
Did you know that Crete is fantastic for caving? Crete’s caves offer something more than natural beauty. They have been used for practical and spiritual reasons since ancient times. One of the finest and most famous caves of Crete is the Sfendoni cave, with an area of over 3,000 square meters, and a 270 path leading through its many chambers and colorful and dramatic rock formations. Sfendoni cave’s entrance is at the village Zoniana, 52 km from Rethymno.
There is also some terrific hiking around Rethymno, notably the Petres Gorge to the west, and Mili Gorge – which is named for its watermills(!) – and Prasano Gorge to the east.
Cultural Excursions around Rethymno
This region of Crete also has plenty in the way of cultural excursions. The most beautiful of all the monasteries of Crete is the 16th century Baroque Renaissance-style Arkadi Monastery, set in a lush plateau rich in vineyards and olive groves. The Preveli Monastery near the south coast by that remarkable beach is also interesting to visit.
This part of Crete also as some wonderful villages. Anogia, high on the slopes of Mt. Psiloritis, is possibly the most famous village of Crete, for its brave role in the resistance against the Ottoman and later the Germans.
It’s also famous for music- the most famous Cretan lyra players are from Anogia- and no one pays the lyra like the Cretans.
The Village of Margarites is popular for its charming traditional architecture and also for its tradition of ceramics. This village is famous for its pottery – you can visit the studios and of course shop for beautiful and authentic souvenirs.
The mountain village of Spili is shady and cool and has a wonderful fountain, with icy mountain water spilling from the mouths of 25 lions. It gushes with great force at a constant temperature of 13 degrees C. The town square os a lovely place for a coffee or a traditional meal.
This smallest of all the regional units of Crete is packed with things to do, and with beautiful drives. It is mountainous, full of beaches along both coasts, and diverse in cultural activities and natural wonders. It’s a joy to explore by car.
Best Time of the year to Visit Rethymnon
When visiting Rethymno, summer is the most ideal season to visit. The beaches are at their best, the weather is warm and sunny, and there are plenty of activities to keep you occupied, especially on the northern and southern coasts.
However, visiting from February to March is also a great idea. You can enjoy the legendary Carnival of Rethymnon, which attracts thousands of visitors each year with its charming Venetian ambiance.
If you visit during the spring or autumn seasons, pleasant weather is still guaranteed and the tourist crowds will be noticeably smaller. This is a great time for solo travelers or those who don’t enjoy large groups of people. Plus, prices for hotels and other tourist services will be cheaper during these off-seasons.