Should you choose Rethymno or Heraklion to base yourself when spending a week in Crete? Here's a look at the pros and cons of Rethymno vs Heraklion.
Rethymno vs Heraklion
I'm often asked whether Rethymno or Heraklion is the best town to stay in Crete for a one week vacation.
It's not an easy question to answer. I find that Heraklion has way more to do than Rethymno, and also has many advantages. Personally though, I would choose Rethymno over Heraklion any time.
I find Rethymno to be much nicer, easier to get around, quieter (at least comparatively speaking), and generally more relaxing than Heraklion. The main drawback to Heraklion is that it has a big city feel, and to be honest, I'm not really that much into cities. Which is kind of ironic, as I live in Athens!
As choosing the right base for your one-week stay in Crete can significantly enhance your experience, I've put together this quick guide to whether Rethymno or Heraklion might be best for you.
Rethymno and Heraklion Transportation
Both cities are positioned on the north coast of Crete, the largest island in Greece. Rethymno is located to the west of Heraklion, although both places are pretty much central in terms of being in a good position to explore more of Crete.
Rethymno only has a small ferry port with limited ferry connections. Interestingly, there is a twice a week ferry from Rethymno to Santorini, providing a handy Greek island hopping option.
Rethymno and Heraklion have bus connections to other major places of interest in Crete. You can also make similar day trips from both to key highlights such as Spinalonga, and Elafonisi beach.
When it comes to car rental in Crete, there is more choice in Heraklion which means prices may be lower. Not that there is a shortage of car rentals in Rethymno, there's just not the sheer volume of Heraklion.
All in all though, Heraklion is the main transport hub of Crete. In addition, even if you do decide to stay in Rethymno, you may end up transiting through Heraklion first.
Put simply, getting to Rethymno is likely going to be an extra step and add an extra 1.5 hours in your travel journey if you arrive by plane or ferry at Heraklion. You could also land in Chania airport and travel to Rethymno.
Rethymno: A Charming Coastal Escape
Rethymno, despite being the third-largest town in Crete, maintains a compact size, making it easy to explore on foot. It features a beautiful old city with narrow streets, nestled between the sea and the rugged Cretan landscape. I particularly loved exploring some of the backstreets in Rethymnon, and some of the old abandoned buildings were fascinating!
While some might say it lacks the charming allure of Chania, what sets Rethymno apart is its beach. It stretches along the east side of the town, offering stunning views and easy access to the sea. Rethymno is a far better town to combine a beach and sightseeing holiday in Crete than Heraklion.
Heraklion: Where Past Meets Present
Heraklion, the capital and largest city of Crete, presents a mishmash of buildings combining historical and modern structures. Most tourists will only want to spend time in the historic center and will avoid the urban sprawl completely.
If you are looking at where to stay in Heraklion, you'll want to be as close to the center as possible.
Its old town is characterized by large avenues and pedestrian streets, making navigation slightly more challenging than in Rethymno. The cityscape might not be as picturesque as Rethymno's, but it holds its own allure for those who appreciate the blend of old and new.
There's no beach to speak of really, which means you'd need to take a bus to Ammoudara Beach nearby to get some sun and sea time.
When I last stayed in Heraklion, it was in an apartment just on the outskirts of the old town, but not too far into the modern city. The reason for this, was that it would have been impossible to park a car anywhere near the heart of the historic center. That's something to keep in mind if you go ahead and rent a car.
I recommend Discover Cars for vehicle rentals in Crete.
Monuments and Museums
Both towns boast impressive historical landmarks which include Venetian architecture, castles, and museums.
Rethymno: A Glimpse of History
In Rethymno, you can visit the Gate Porto Guora, Rimondi Fountain, and the Venetian harbor. As for museums, the Archaeological Museum, and the Paleontological Museum are worth checking out.
The main landmark in Rethymno is the Fortezza castle. It is a nice place to walk around, but not particularly well signed with information.
Heraklion: Grandeur and History
Heraklion takes the lead when it comes to grandiose monuments and important museums. The Venetian port, city walls, and Agios Minas Cathedral are must-see landmarks.
The Archaeological Museum, with its impressive collection, and the Koules Fortress, are highlights in the city's museum offerings. On place that surprised me in how good it was, is the Natural History Museum of Crete in Heraklion.
It goes without saying that the nearby archaeological site of Knossos is the main attraction of Heraklion. Visually superb, the drawback is that its reconstruction is highly controversial. A lot of concrete has been used to fill in the gaps, and artistic licence has gone into what it may once have looked like.
This reconstruction which stems back nearly a hundred years is one of the reasons that Knossos is not to be found on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Greece.
Vibe, Food Scene, and Crowds
Both cities have a good food scene, and in addition to tourists, also have reasonable student populations. This means that outside of obvious tourist areas, prices are reasonable and the quality of food high.
Heraklion does suffer from cruise boats though, which means crowds swell on the days they arrive. Rethymno does not suffer so badly in comparison.
If you plan to visit Crete in the off season like October, the difference in pace between Rethymno and Heraklion is like night and day!
Day Trips and Activities
Both towns provide easy access to various day trips and activities. From Rethymno, you can visit Balos Lagoon and Gramvousa island, Arkadi Monastery, and Preveli beach. You can also take a day trip to Heraklion, so if you wanted to see the city but didn't want to stay there, this could be a way to do it.
From Heraklion, options include Knossos, Spinalonga island, Chrissi island and even Vai Beach.
Rethymno and Heraklion have their unique charms and attractions. All I would say is that while Heraklion on paper has far more to do and see, Rethymno is a far more pleasant town to spend a week in than Heraklion. In fact, Rethymno has made my shortlist for Greek beach towns I'd consider moving to permanently if I leave Athens!
Dave is a travel writer from the UK who's been living in and writing about Greece since 2015. As well as writing this travel comparison of Rethymnon vs Heraklion, he's also written hundreds of other travel blog posts about destinations in Greece. Follow Dave on social media for travel inspiration from Greece and beyond: