Rethymno is a wild beauty. Endless ribbons of mountain roads wind through the timeless interior, passing fields of wildflowers and tiny, traditional hamlets cradled by olive groves. It’s a region peppered with historic sites and natural wonders. Descend into the spooky darkness of grotto-like caves; explore steep, lush gorges; and rest in the shade of lofty Mt Psiloritis, Crete’s highest peak. Visit enduring monasteries, Minoan tombs and Venetian strongholds. Rethymno is also a magnet for artists, many practicing age-old trades with modern twists.
The eponymous capital on the northern coast is a bustle of atmosphere-soaked, cobbled lanes, laden with shops, restaurants and bars and flanked by a wide, sandy beach. The southern coast is graced with bewitching beaches in seductive isolation. Weave your way through this spellbinding land from shore to shore.
Basking between the commanding bastions of its 15th-century fortress and the glittering azure waters of the Mediterranean, Rethymno is one of Crete’s most enchanting towns.
Rethymno’s southern coast is bookended by the resort towns of Plakias and Agia Galini, which are linked by a string of marvelously isolated beaches, including the famous palm beach at Preveli.
Set beside a sweeping sandy crescent and accessed via two scenic gorges – Kotsifou and Kourtaliotiko – Plakias gets swarmed with package tourists in summer (when it can be very windy)
Once you clear the resort strip, the coastline east of Rethymno is indented and pockmarked with watery caves and isolated coves that are accessible only by boat.
The Hinterland & Mt Psiloritis
Rethymno’s mountainous hinterland offers lots of options for interesting routes and detours. In a single day, you could easily combine a visit to the historic Moni Arkadiou with a poke around the pottery village of Margarites
Agia Galini is an erstwhile picturesque fishing village where package tourism and overdevelopment have diluted much of the original charm. With aging hotels and restaurants clinging densely to a steep hillside and hemmed in by cliffs, small beaches, and a fishing harbor, the town can feel claustrophobic in high season, but it definitely has its charms at other times.
Coast to Coast
From Rethymno, the fastest and most direct route to the southern coast is via Armeni and Spili. For a more leisurely pace, travel via the almost ridiculously pastoral Amari Valley, a part of Crete that seems frozen in time.
Bali, 38km east of Rethymno and 51km west of Iraklio, has one of the most stunning settings on the northern coast, with a series of little coves strung along the indented shore, marked by hills, promontories, and narrow sandy beaches.
Perched aside Mt Psiloritis, 37km southwest of Iraklio, Anogia has a legacy of rebellious spirit and determination to express its undiluted Cretan character. During WWII, it was a centre of resistance and suffered heavily for it
Spili is a pretty mountain village and shutterbug favorite thanks to its cobbled streets, big old plane trees, and flower-festooned whitewashed houses.
Panormo, about 22km east of Rethymno, is one of the few relatively unspoiled beach towns on the northern coast. Despite a couple of big hotel complexes, it retains an unhurried, authentic village feel
When the summer heat becomes too intense, you’ll find a natural cooling system at Argyroupoli, 25km southwest of Rethymno.
West of Rethymno
The villages southwest of Rethymno, in the foothills of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains), make for a lovely afternoon drive.The main destination is the mountain village of Argyroupoli, built on an ancient settlement and famous for its springs and waterfalls.
Tiny Margarites’ well-regarded pottery brings droves of tour buses in the morning. By the afternoon, all is calm and you can wander through the studios.
Serene Ligres is a long sweep of greyish sand with some good swimming. Access to Ligres is via a tiny winding road. Get off the main highway at Akoumia and follow the signs.
At 2456m, Mt Psiloritis, also known as Mt Ida, is Crete’s highest mountain. At its eastern base is the Nida Plateau (1400m), a wide, fertile expanse reached via a paved 21km-long road from Anogia.
A smooth, curving ribbon of a road winds from the bottom of Kourtaliotiko Gorge towards the southern coast, soaring up to Moni Preveli and plunging down to palm-studded Preveli Beach.
The postcard-pretty village of Myrthios draped across the hillside above Plakias, makes for a quieter and more village-like alternative to staying beachside.
Heading away from Rethymno, it would be easy to fly right through Armeni, 10km south. With modern architecture and not much going on, it’s not a natural draw.
Beaches Between Plakias & Agia Galini
No amount of hyperbole can communicate the dramatically rugged beauty of Rethymno’s pristine southern sandy beaches. East of the more popular Preveli Beach, remote and peaceful Ligres, Triopetra and Agios Pavlos.
If you’re into herbs, aromatherapy, organic teas or natural beauty products, make the 10km drive southeast of Rethymno to Maroulas, a pretty, higgledy-piggledy village with panoramic sea views.
The village of Axos has the kind of lazy Cretan ambiance that has made it a popular stop for tour buses. During the day, the village is quiet, but at night the tavernas with open-air terraces are hopping.
Triopetra is a big beach named after three giant rocks jutting out of the sea. A headland divides the sandy strip into ‘Little Triopetra’ and ‘Big Triopetra’ – both have tavernas with rooms.
Cradled by cliffs, Agios Pavlos is little more than a couple of small tavernas with rooms and a beach bar set around a picture-perfect crescent with dark, coarse sand and the distinctive silhouette of Paximadia Island looming offshore.