Travel Insider: Rethymno
Crete is often forgotten when people think of the best destinations for sunshine and culture in Europe. Maybe you associate it with grim drinking destinations like Malia, maybe you think there’s nothing there, maybe you don’t think about it at all.
But four hours away from Gatwick, with direct flights from EasyJet and connecting flights off-season with Aegean Air, is one of the most beautiful places in Europe, brimming with Venetian architecture, breathtaking beaches and stunning countryside.
Our favourite part of the island is around the city of Rethymno – a picturesque small city around a tiny port, with bustling cafes, great accommodation and wonderful beaches.
Where To Stay
When you arrive in Crete, you will land at either Chania or Heraklion – both great cities, and well worth spending your first or last night in – especially Heraklion – to experience their relatively cosmopolitan atmosphere. The airport in Heraklion is practically in the city centre, and a late night arrival is no problem – stumble into a taxi and you can be in any city hotel in 10 or 15 minutes, ready for a quick shower before heading out for food. Arriving after midnight? You’re probably still fine for dinner in Heraklion, where nobody goes out before 10pm anyway!
The next day you can drive to Rethymno in less than 90 minutes on the idiot-proof National Road – a new motorway with dramatic views that runs East/West along the North coast of the island, linking the three cities.
Rethymno offers all kinds of accommodation from luxury resort hotels along the beaches to either side of the city like the stunning Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort to the atmostpheric and historic Rimondi in the old city centre. There is also a huge amount of choice on Airbnb, always our first choice when travelling with children, and you can find astonishing cheap, gorgeous apartments on tiny winding streets in the old centre – perfect for exploring the city.
Where To Eat
The city centre of Rethymno is full of fantastic traditional places to eat. It’s quite tourist oriented, so you will find a lot of restaurants will position over-friendly staff outside to try to get you to come inside, and to be honest, the meal will still always be great, but we think you should check out To Pigadi, if only for the romantic and atmospheric setting, never mind the great food. Not hugely cheap – there are plenty of other options for that – but completely worth it.
Outside the city, carefully hidden away on the edge of the town of Episkopi, you will find one of the best restaurants in all of Crete – Arkoudaina Garden. With locally produced and organic food, including the best stuffed courgette flowers you’ve ever had and a famous salad with 49 ingredients, there is no menu – the owner will talk you through what is on offer and ask you to trust him. Trust away! More expensive than local tavernas, it’s still astonishingly cheap – our last bill there was €60 for three adults and two children.
If you fancy something quick and cheap, or you have children who have finally rebelled and won’t eat any more local food, there is the wonderful Italian Job. You can’t miss it, right in the heart of the old city, and with gigantic pasta dishes for about €6 and huge, delicious and authentically Italian pizzas for about €11 (as well as cheaper take-out slices) it can make a nice change, especially if you are on the go.
Where To Drink
You can while away the evening at a restaurant or bring wine or local beer to the beach and watch the sunset, but there are great places to drink in Rethymno if you want something a bit different.
In the old city, along the seafront to the East of the Venetian Port, is a strip of trendy, bustling outdoor bars. Take a stroll down the boardwalk to pick your favourite, but we always end up in Fraoules – watch out for the rotating strawberry on the balcony above! People don’t go to bars in Crete to get drunk – they go to chat, have fun and enjoy the balmy evenings. That said, there’s a great cocktail menu to explore…
Brand new and super cool is Cavo, which must be the chicest bar in all of Crete, and certainly the one with most dramatic location. It’s an upmarket bar and restaurant right at the Western tip of the city, perched on rocks with the waves crashing below. It’s not cheap, but after a day of exploring the old city in your Birkenstocks and sunning yourself on the beach, it’s a nice contrast to glam up a bit and enjoy the attention from the fantastic staff. They also do fantastic food if you want to make a whole evening of it.
If you’re after a great coffee, micro-roasters have come to Greece with Crop in Heraklion supplying the cool Home cafe right on the seafront. Sit in their outdoor area across the road with your V60 and watch the waves crashing below.
Where To Lie In the Sun With a Pina Colada
Just to the West of the city is a long, golden strand with powder soft sand that stretches for miles. While big hotels have snapped up the parts nearest the city, go further along (by car, of course) and you’ll find more open beach and several beach bars. They’re all very low-key and unpretentious, so grab a lounger and bask in the sun with a Freddo (local iced coffee) or that Pina Colada…
Tip: During the day Cretans live on “toast”, which is a cheap and cheerful ham and cheese toasty, usually €2 – €2.50. Embrace it.
Where To Swim
You can swim on the long beaches outside the city, but if you are after a more engaging experience, get on the Spili road and make your way to the south coast, where the real action is.
Whether you want to camp overnight at dramatic Agio Farago, learn to snorkel at Shinaria or abandon your bikini altogether for a day on the stunning (and largely nudist for non-Cretans) Ammoudaki, there are endless opportunities for snorkelling and even scuba diving, or just bobbing on the waves and admiring the spectacular views that these coves offer. Everywhere in Crete is child-friendly, and all of these beaches will have couples of all of ages, and lots of families large and small. Our favourite beach on the whole island, as well as being very family-friendly, Ammoudaki is also gay-friendly.
With the exception of the remote Agio Farago, during the season most of these beaches will have loungers and a snack bar, which will be very welcome if you want to stay for more than a few hours, although they are deserted off-season, which can be equally wonderful.
A snorkel and flippers are well worth bringing with you to Crete if you like swimming (you can get cheapies in the supermarkets, of course), because once you find the south coast beaches, you’ll want to go every day.
Where To Explore
The southern part of Crete immediately south of Rethymno is scattered with dramatic gorges, some of which are deserted and pristine, such as the part of the E4 walking route that passes by the village of Moundros, while others are relatively well developed, with tavernas at either end, such as the famous Samaria Gorge and the less well-known but beautiful Imbros Gorge. Seasonal, these gorges are only passable during summer as they become dramatic torrents during the winter.
If wine is more your thing than hiking boots, wine-growing is a rapidly expanding industry in Crete, thanks to some recent changes in the law. While the big names are mostly centred near Heraklion, there are two great wineries to visit outside Rethymno that offer tours and tasting – Klados and Dourakis.