Rethymnon is Crete's third-largest town, after Heraklion and Hania. The population (about 30,000) steadily increases as the town expands—a new quarter follows the coast to the east of the Old Town, where the beachfront has been tastelessly developed with large hotels and other resort facilities catering to tourists on package vacations. However, much of Rethymnon's charm perseveres in the old Venetian quarter, which is crowded onto a compact peninsula dominated by the huge, fortified Venetian castle known as the Fortezza. Wandering through the narrow alleyways, you come across handsome carved-stone Renaissance doorways belonging to vanished mansions, fountains, archways, and wooden Turkish houses with latticework screens on the balconies to protect the women of the house from prying eyes.
The name means "seascape," a poetic notion for this romantic gathering spot that spreads across a series of terraces wedged between the Fortessa and the azure waters below. This is the best place in town for a cocktail, and if you want to stay to enjoy the sunset, you can dine lightly on such delicious mezedes as hohlioi (snails fried in rosemary-infused butter) and fresh salads.
This stone, barrel-vaulted dining room and a multitiered garden are part of the gorgeous Avli hotel —the most luxurious accommodations in town—and are attractive settings for creative interpretations of Cretan cuisine: in addition, the grass-fed lamb, fresh-caught fish, and garden vegetables are all organic and natural. Even a simple horiatiki (Greek salad) and grilled lamb chop can be transporting here, as is the excellent selection of the island's finest wines. Reservations are a good idea in summer.
Nyn and Aei
Cretan favorites, expertly prepared, are served in a simple tiled room and a few tables in the narrow lane out front. The best way to dine is on the house specialty platter that includes a selection of eight or so offerings that vary with the seasons but often include patzarosalata (beetroot salad), keftedaki (meatballs), and kolokithokeftedes (fried zucchini).
At this simple, family-run taverna in the center of the Old Town, good home cooking of the moussaka and pastitsio variety is served from a small menu of traditional Greek specialties. Neighborhood life buzzes around the tables set beneath an arbor in a narrow lane. This place is open from breakfast through late-night dinners daily.
The stone-walled garden of this popular mezedopoleio
(meze restaurant) near the minaret in the Old Town is filled with fruit trees
and is the perfect spot to linger on a summer night; an attractive room
decorated in a pomegranate theme is a cozy retreat in colder months. The focus
is on dozens of tempting small plates that range from homemade dolmades to such
local creations as cabbage cooked in red wine.
Omodamos Clayart sells charming ceramic pieces from artisans throughout Greece, whose creations range from hand-thrown pots to whimsical figurines.
For a souvenir that will be light to carry, stop in at Kalymnos, filled to the rafters with sponges harvested off the eponymous island and in other Greek waters.
Archaeological Museum Shop
Handsomely housed in the Venetian loggia, this store has an excellent selection of books, as well as reproductions of artifacts from its collections and from other sites in Crete and throughout Greece.
Avli sells many of the herbs, spices, oils, and other ingredients that flavor the cuisine at the eponymous restaurant around the corner, as well as fine Greek wines.
Rethymnon's small Venetian harbor, with its restored 13th-century lighthouse, comes to life in warm weather, when restaurant tables clutter the quayside. Fishing craft and pleasure boats are crammed chockablock into the minute space.
Historical and Folk Art Museum
A restored Venetian palazzo almost in the shadow of the Neratze minaret houses the delightful Historical and Folk Art Museum. Rustic furnishings, tools, and exquisite weavings provide a charming and vivid picture of what life on Crete was like until well into the 20th century.
The most visible sign of the Turkish occupation of Rethymnon is the graceful minaret, one the few to survive in Greece, that rises above the Neratze. This large stone structure looming over the narrow lanes of the city center was a monastery, then church, under the Venetians, and was subsequently converted to a mosque under the Ottomans before being transformed into today's concert hall.
The carefully restored Venetian loggia was once the clubhouse of the local nobility. It is now enclosed in glass and houses the Archaeological Museum's shop. Just down the street, at the end of Platanos Square, is one of the town's most welcoming sights, the so-called Rimondi Fountain, installed by the Venetians and spilling refreshing streams from several lions' heads. You'll come upon several other fountains as you wander through the labyrinth of narrow streets.
The west side of the peninsula is taken up almost entirely with the Fortessa, strategically surrounded by the sea and thick ramparts. Climbing up to the fortress is a bit of a letdown, because the high, well-preserved walls enclose not much more than a vast empty space occupied by a few scattered buildings—and filled with wildflowers in spring. Forced laborers from the town and surrounding villages built the fortress from 1573 to 1583. It didn't fulfill its purpose of keeping out the Turks: Rethymnon surrendered after a three-week siege in 1646.
Just outside the entrance to the Fortessa, Rethymnon's Archaeological Museum will impress you again with just how long Crete has cradled civilizations: a collection of bone tools is from a Neolithic site at Yerani (west of Rethymnon); Minoan pottery is on display; and an unfinished statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is from the Roman occupation (look for the ancient chisel marks). The museum building used to be a Turkish guardhouse and prison.