Offering up some of Crete’s best beaches, plenty of cosy tavernas, and a heap of ancient sights, a holiday to Rethymnon is the real Greek deal.
This part of northeast Crete is home to some of the best beaches on the island. And you only need to look as far Rethymnon town for evidence – it’s bookended by two beaches, which are both more than 7 kilometres long.
Rethymnon town is a one-stop-shop for Greek culture. The harbourside restaurants have got traditional Cretan cuisine down to a fine art. And, if it’s history you’re after, the old town is one of the best-preserved towns of the Renaissance. Juliette balconies overhang the cobbled streets and, in Platanos Square, there’s a Venetian-style fountain where fresh water flows from three lion heads.
Palace of Knossos and Samaria Gorge
When it comes to exploring, the Rethymnon area has some guidebook-worthy sights on its doorstep. It’s close to the Palace of Knossos, once the home of the famous minotaur, and the Samaria Gorge, where you can burn some serious shoe leather along 18 kilometres’ worth of walking trails.
Things to See and Do in Rethymnon area
Sandy swathes to stony stretches
With Crete being the largest of the Greek Islands, you’d expect it to deliver on the beach front. And it doesn’t disappoint. The island is edged with sandy sweeps and pebbled bays, and the Rethymnon area has some cracking ones. Most of them tick off things like comfy loungers, watersports and beachfront cafés, but there are also a handful of quieter coves where you can escape the crowds.
The big beach
Topping the list when it comes to popular patches is Rethymnon Beach. If you like your beaches supersized, this one will do nicely – it stretches out for more than 12 kilometres. Thanks to its town centre location it gets pretty busy, but if you want a little more elbow room, just head towards the west end where things are a bit quieter. Facilities-wise, this place has everything you could need – loads of sunbeds, watersports galore and enough tavernas to keep you fed all summer.
The secret beach
On the other hand, head for Gerani Beach if quiet coves are more your thing. It’s a pebbled beach in an off-the-beaten-track spot about 10 minutes’ drive from Rethymnon. You’ll find a few parasols and a little taverna dishing up drinks and snacks, but other than that it’s a pretty back-to-nature place. And although there aren’t any watersports to speak of, the underwater rocks make for great snorkelling. It gets a little breezy in summer, thanks to the Meltemi winds, so it’s a good spot if you like to keep cool.
If you want to scratch the shopping itch without breaking the bank, head to Rethymnon’s town’s Thursday morning market. It takes place on Odos Dimitrakaki Street, near the municipal gardens. The stalls are loaded with everything from leather purses to T-shirts.
Rethymnon town is choc-a-bloc with olive wood shops. You’ll find some of the best on Odos Arambatzoglou. Bowls, cooking utensils and pestle and mortars are the most common items to ring through the tills. If you’re into pottery, take a trip to Margarites. This tiny village, 40 minutes from Rethymnon town, is full of workshops where they use traditional methods to create everything from storage jars to plates.
Rethymnon town does a good line in jewellery shops. We’re not talking mass-produced stuff, either. Many of the shop owners design and make the pieces themselves. Make a beeline for Ethnikis Antistaseos Street to find some of the best stores.
Restaurants come thick and fast in Rethymnon town. If you want sea views, head to Eleftheriou Venizelou – the road runs parallel to the beach. Alternatively, take your pick from the tavernas in the old town. M. Vernadou Street is a good place to start the search. For a bit of light entertainment after dinner, you’ll find some live music joints on Radamanthys Street.
Rethymnon town is a university town, so clubs are a given. The area between the Rimonid Fountain and the Venetian harbour is the nerve centre. Clubs here play a mixture of commercial dance and Greek pop music. Most Greek students don’t show their faces until after 11pm and the clubs only start getting busy around 2am.
Made from a combination of sheep and goat’s milk, this cheese is the bedrock of loads of traditional Cretan dishes. Its crumbly consistency and nutty taste mean that it’s served in salads as an appetiser, fried to make saganaki, and baked inside gratins.
These aren’t ordinary cheese pies. Take a bite and you get a hint of aniseed – that’s thanks to the slosh of ouzo that goes in to the pastry mix – before you taste the soft and sweet myzithra cheese inside. These circular bites can be served as a meze dish or snack.
Dakos salad monopolises the starter list in the menus of Rethymnon town. The dish is a bit like bruschetta and it’s made by piling tomatoes on top on traditional bread rusks called paximadia. Then comes lashings of olive oil, freshly picked oregano and cheese.
Katafi pastry is a dead ringer for shredded wheat. The pastry starts life as a dough, then it’s rolled out and cut into vermicelli-thin strands. It earns its dessert status when it’s stuffed with a gooey mixture of egg, nuts, syrup and sweet spices.
In most Cretan villages, there’s a local who’s licensed to produce tsikoudia. The clear spirit is made from the skins of grapes and it’s knock-your-socks-off alcoholic. Most locals keep a bottle in their freezer and sip it slowly with dishes.
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Rethymnon is set between Chania and Crete’s capital, Heraklion, on the island’s north coast. It has a tangled history which shows up in its mosques, minarets and the look-at-me Venetian fortress that dominates the city’s skyline. There’s an old-town feel as you walk through the narrow streets and alleyways, though down at the harbour the busy bars and restaurants bring things bang up to date.
Panormo is a teeny fishing village on the north coast of Crete that comes with real Greek charm. In the narrow, cobbled streets you’ll see old men drinking raki in traditional kafenions, while the harbour is filled with tavernas serving up authentic local dishes. And the quiet sandy beaches make it easy to keep the tempo on slow setting.
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