Rethymnon is one of the most popular towns to visit on the West coast of Crete. It has everything you could need for an amazing holiday. You can relax on the white sandy beaches of the town or surrounding villages, explore the imposing Fortezza Fortress or barter for silver and gold jewelry.
It is an ideal base to explore the rest of Crete including the quiet southern villages like Sfakia and Loutro. The town itself is popular with visitors from all over the world with stunning restaurants and Tavern’s serving up everything from traditional Greek dishes, freshly caught fish all the way through to the best of European cuisine.
Below the guide details what you can see and do in Rethymnon when on your summer holidays and gives you a chance to see a select few photos from the harbour, fortress and more.
Rethymnon General Information
The town of Rethymnon has some interesting sights which are covered here, but also some excellent beaches, Tavern’s and waterside cafe’s that you can visit on the duration of your holiday. You can also take advantage of Rethymno nightlife, once this small city is popular also for its bars and night clubs.
Some of the sights you may want to visit are Fortezza Castle, at the top of a low hill named "Palaiokastro" it dominates the town. It was built in 1590 to protect the city from the pirates raids and the Turks. It has played many roles in the protection of Rethymnon.
To see the Fortezza castle today you can easy access it through the alleyways of Rethymnon Old Town or following the coastal road for the Venetian Harbour. Most of the fortress remains intact and you can see the original cannons that protected Rethymnon from bandits and pirates. More than that the fortress is huge and you can go inside and see the mosque and other areas of interest.
If you have chance visit The Venetian Loggia, a very elegant building of the 16th century that used to be a Venetian gentleman´s club but today houses the information office of the ministry of culture and a sales point of the archaeological museum in Rethymnon.
If you want to enjoy a bit of greenery and a place to relax in the hustle and bustle of Rethymnon then try the Municipal gardens, which are absolutely stunning and very tranquil and picturesque. Throughout the year various activities are organized which draw people from all over Crete. The biggest of these is the Wine Festival which is held here annually at the beginning of July. Another festival is held on 7-8th of November, in memory of the destruction of Arkadi Monastery.
Another well-known building in Rethymnon is The Archaeological museum of Rethymnon is opposite the entrance of the fortress, exhibits objects from the Neolithic to the Roman period, found at the prefecture of Rethymnon. Clay figurines, funerary coffers, jewelry, grave offerings, statues, glass vases, grave steles, red-figure vases, frescos and bronze vessels are just some of the many items on view. The museum is open all year round and access to the museum only costs a few euros to support its upkeep.
If all the sightseeing is a little too much then why not explore the town of Rethymnon famous for its exquisite gold and silverware, the shops sell at prices lower than that of the UK and the quality is excellent. While wandering through the town center you may come across the Rimondi fountain which is situated at Platanos square, the center of the Venetian town. It was built in 1626, by A. Rimondi, in order to provide the people of Rethymnon with drinkable water.
Next to the Rimondi fountain you can relax in the small cafe bar Vasiliko and enjoy a frappe or two. This is the perfect place for a photo opportunity, although small the Rimondi fountain played a huge role in Rethymnon history and culture.
The old town of Rethymno
The old town of Rethymno is one of the best-preserved towns of the Renaissance. Lying in the heart of modern Rethymnon, it combines the oriental features of the Turkish period with Renaissance-style Venetian architecture.
After the Venetian conquest of Crete (1204), the town of Rethymnon was built according to the rules of Venetian architecture. The original craftsmen were Venetians, but these later were replaced by Cretan murari, Venetian-trained master builders.
The layout of Rethymnon is directly linked to the sea, with the main Venetian street, the Ruga Maistra (today´s coastal Venizelou Avenue) running parallel to the sea. The opposite is true of Heraklion and Hania, where the town is closed to the sea for reasons of defense and the main street is at right angles to the coast.
The private mansions of Rethymnon are not as impressive as those of Venice, mainly for financial reasons. Furthermore, the strong traditions of Cretan architecture could not be overcome, and Renaissance influences are most apparent on building facades.
Finally, as opposed to Heraklion and Hania, Greek features are predominant in Rethymnon because most nobles were Greeks, known as "Archondoromeoi" (noble "Romans", that is, inhabitants of the Eastern Roman Empire).
Many buildings with gothic features were lost in the destruction of the town by Ulu Ali in 1571, while Rethymnon was rebuilt almost in its entirety in the third quarter of the 16th century. Many fine examples of Turkish architecture are preserved scattered around the narrow streets of the old town.
Their main feature is the heavy use of wood. Building styles changed during the years of the Turkish occupation (1646-1898) and the dressed stone of the Venetians was replaced by a wooden frame filled with rubble and mud (bagdati). The walls were then thickly plastered.
In Rethymnon the Turks made full use of the existing Venetian public and private buildings, which they modified according to their needs.
Today the old town of Rethymnon is a living museum of monuments of past centuries. Despite the damage sustained in the Second World War, many Venetian and Turkish monuments still stand, especially as the town has not been struck by major earthquakes.
Built in 1590 to protect Rethymnon from the Turkish and Pirate raiders of the day, the castle is an imposing landmark which dominates a large area of the Rethymnon seafront. It was built on Palekastro hill, which is rumoured to be the site of the ancient Rithymna Acropolis and the Temple of Apollo.
The fortress is actually of Venetian origin, and was built more to protect the Venetian populace that currently held rule of this part of Crete. The Cretan people were forced into labour to build this fortress which took many years.
The castle has passed through many hands over the years, and the buildings have been razed and built countless times by each set of rulers that controlled Crete. At one point a large Turkish army controlled the fortress and had used the fortress for their own arm garrisons and homes.
If you want to tour the castle or fortress of Fortezza, then you can reach it through Rethymnon Old Town, or by following the Venetian harbour up to the entrance. There are many different sights to see within the fortress, some are still under reconstruction but the “must sees” of Fortezza have to be The Church of Agios Theodoros, Gunpowder Magazines, Councillors residence, Fortezza Storerooms and the East and West Gates of Fortezza.
The history of Fortezza fortress
According to one theory, the hill on which the Fortezza is built was once, in a time lost in the mists of history, an island joined to Crete by a narrow strip of land. Over the centuries the channel silted up and the hill became part of the Cretan mainland.
The hill of Paleokastro ("Old Castle") was probably the site of the acropolis of ancient Rithymna with its Temple of Apollo and Sanctuary of Artemis, although this has not been proven to date. In the 3rd century AD, in the Roman period, there is a reference to a temple of Artemis Roccaea on the hill. In those times Rethymnon was an independent city with its own coinage but not a particularly powerful one.
During the Second Byzantine Period (10th-13th c. AD), a small walled settlement was established east of Paleokastro hill, the Castrum Rethemi or Castel Vecchio or Antico Castello ("Old Castle") as the Venetians later called it.
In the early 13th century the Genoese pirate Enrico Pescatore, an enemy of the Venetians who claimed Crete for himself, seems to have repaired the Byzantine fortifications surrounding the buildings of the small town near the harbour. The Castrum Rethemi was preserved after the Venetian occupation of the island in the 13th century, but unfortunately nothing remains today of the fortifications with their square towers and two gates.
The Venetians, as a marine power, intended to use Rethymnon as a shelter and intermediate base between Heraklion and Chania by building a harbour, even a small one. This led to Rethymnon becoming a city whose expansion necessitated the construction of new fortifications.
The events that followed in Crete from the first half of the 16th century onwards - the Turkish threat and the development of artillery after the invention and widespread use of gunpowder - led Venice to embark on the organisation of Crete´s military defences and demonstrated the need for the Fortezza in Rethymnon. It was decided to build walls according to the plans of the Veronese architect Michele Sanmicheli. The foundation stone was laid on 8 April 1540 but the walls were only eventually completed just before 1570.
The walls of Rethymnon were only token defences, which were unfortunately not strong enough to withstand the attack of the corsair Ulu Ali Reis. He was an Italian who had been captured by Barbarossa´s men and later become a Muslim, who rose to become Pasha of Algiers and fought many battles against the Christians in the Mediterranean. In 1571 Ulu Ali attacked Rethymnon with 40 galleys. The Venetians had abandoned the city, leaving behind only a skeleton guard of 100 men who were unable to resist for long. Ulu Ali easily scaled the defences and razed the city to the ground.
This destruction demonstrated the need for more effective fortifications. The local authorities, both Venetian and Cretan, the people of Rethymnon and the Venetian Senate, decided to build a fortress which could shelter all the houses in Rethymnon. The hill of Paleokastro was chosen as the most suitable site and work began on the Fortezza, one of the largest and most complete fortification works built in Crete under Venetian rule.
The Fortezza was built according to the bastion fortification system, with bastions joined by straight sections of thick curtain wall, inclined outwards to make enemy missiles bounce off without damaging the fortress. The original plans of the military engineer Sforza Pallavicini were used, with some necessary modifications, improvements and extensions to complete the fortress.
The foundation stone of the Fortezza was laid by the Venetian Rector (as the Governor was called) Alvise Lando on 13 September 1573. Work on the walls and the public buildings within them was completed by 1580.
During the years it was being built, 107,142 Cretans took part in compulsory labour and 40,205 pack animals were requisitioned to work on the Fortezza, under the direction of master builder Giannis Skordilis.
The role of the Fortezza in Venetian Rethymnon
As soon as the Fortezza was completed it became obvious that there was hardly any space left for private homes, so the fortress was declared a public area, only to be used as a last resort by the inhabitants in the event of a siege.
It is reported that, even though the Rethymniots themselves had requested the construction of the Fortezza, once it was finished they refused to abandon the razed town with its weak walls and gain the security of the Fortezza.
One explanation for this strange refusal is that the inhabitants of Rethymnon had already started to rebuild their houses in 1571 using material from the old walls. When the Fortezza was eventually completed nine years later, they were reluctant to start all over again.
It seems, however, that this is only part of the truth; contrary to their assertions, the Venetians had not built the fortress for the protection of the inhabitants. There are many reasons supporting this view:
It was logical for the Venetian conquerors to look after their own people first and the Cretans second.
No building inside the Fortezza appears from its construction to have been intended for the subject Cretans. For example, the only church within the Fortezza, that of San Niccol, was Catholic and therefore meant for the Venetians themselves rather than the Orthodox Rethymniots.
Based on the well-known census of Castrofylax, in 1582 the town of Rethymnon had a population of 5,202. It was objectively impossible for the available space in the Fortezza to house them all along with the garrison and administrative staff.
In effect, the Fortezza was never a particularly secure fortress. Even in 1602, a report by the Venetian Benetto Moro mentions various flaws, such as the lack of a ditch (the outer burgh, the area just outside the walls of the Fortezza, was a residential zone) or buttresses (the walls were low, without sufficient support), making the fortress easy to scale with ladders.
At the same time, the contours of the hill, the small size of the fortress, financial difficulties and constant modifications of the original plans led to the application of general rules governing the construction of bastioned fortresses. Combined with the fact that the small, unfortified harbour of Rethymnon did not suit the Venetian galleys, the following conclusion may be drawn: the Fortezza of Rethymnon was not used for the defence of the island but simply to cover the needs of the Venetian garrison and administration, while in case of danger - in other words the Turkish invasion - the inhabitants used it as a refuge.
The Fortezza during the Turkish Occupation
Rethymnon fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1646. The layout of the Fortezza does not appear to have changed significantly during the Turkish occupation, although there is insufficient information on the subject.
Fairly early on, the Turns converted the Venetian cathedral of San Niccol into the Mosque of Sultan Ibrahim Han. More houses were also built, mainly on the south and east sides of the fortress, for the Turkish garrison and administration.
At the turn of the 20th century almost the whole of the interior of the Fortezza was full of residential buildings. Immediately after the Second World War, however, the inhabitants of the Fortezza began to move out to other parts of Rethymnon.
This extension of the town led to the almost complete disappearance of the landward walls and the small ditch surrounding them. Inside the Fortezza itself, all the ruined buildings - mostly houses - were demolished, destroying any remaining traces of the Turkish period.
The constant and varied use of the Fortezza over the centuries altered its original form both internally and externally. It took about twenty years to repair the damage to the fortress and remove the brothels of Rethymnon established there. It is worth noting that for a long time the Fortezza even housed the local prison.
Today the outer fortifications of the Fortezza are preserved intact and some buildings are still being restored, allowing visitors to gain a good impression of life in the Fortezza in Venetian times.