Rhodes is blessed with first-rate sights and entertainment. As an international playground and a museum of both antiquity and the medieval era, Rhodes has no serious competitors in the Dodecanese and few peers in the eastern Mediterranean. Consequently, in singling out its highlights, we necessarily pass over sights and events that on lesser islands would be main attractions. Thus in late May and early June there is now a Medieval Festival with music, performances, and pageantry. In July there has been an International Ecofilm Festival, featuring films based on environmental themes.
Exploring the Old Town
Best to know one thing from the start about Old Town: It's not laid out on a grid -- not even close. There are roughly 200 streets or lanes that have no name. Getting lost here, however, is an opportunity to explore. Whenever you feel the need to find your bearings, ask for Sokratous, the closest Old Town comes to having a main street.
Before setting out to visit Rhodes Old Town, there is at least one basic bit of history you should know: The great walls and the most impressive of the medieval buildings you will be seeing are the result of the occupation of the island by the Knights of St. John (aka Hospitallers), who were forced by the Muslims to abandon the Holy Land in 1309. These men -- known more generally as Crusaders -- were a mixed lot of western Europeans who established a combination of an occupation army and charity foundation wherever they settled. In 1522, after a 6-month siege, the Muslims forced the knights to surrender and retreat to Malta. But the magnificent structures we now see were built by the forced labor of the native Rhodians.
When you approach the walls of Old Town, you are about to enter arguably the most impressive continuously inhabited medieval town in Europe. It's a thrill to behold. Although there are many gates, we suggest that you first enter through Eleftheria (Liberty) Gate, where you'll come to Plateia Simi, containing ruins of the Temple of Venus, identified by the votive offerings found here, which may date from the 3rd century B.C. The remains of the temple are next to a parking lot (driving is restricted in the Old Town), which rather diminishes the impact of the few stones and columns still standing. Nevertheless, the ruins are a reminder that a great Hellenistic city once stood here and encompassed the entire area now occupied by the city, including the Old and New towns. The population of the Hellenistic city of Rhodes is thought to have equaled the current population of the whole island (roughly 100,000).
Plateia Simi is also home to the Municipal Art Gallery of Rhodes, above the Museum Reproduction Shop (generally Mon-Sat 8am-2pm); admission is 4€. Its impressive collection comprises mostly works by eminent modern Greek artists. The gallery now has a second beautifully restored venue in the Old Town (across from the Mosque of Suleiman) to house its collection of antique and rare maps and engravings (Mon-Fri 8am-2pm). One block farther is the Museum of Decorative Arts, which contains finely made objects and crafts from Rhodes and other islands, most notably Simi (Tues-Sun 8:30am-3pm). Admission is 2€. Continue through the gate until you reach Ippoton, also known as the Street of the Knights. Note: If you are ready for serious sightseeing, purchase a ticket for 12€ that includes admission to the Museum of Decorative Arts, Archaeological Museum, Church of our Lady of the Castle, and Palace of the Knights. It's available at all of the museums.
Street of the Knights (Ippoton is its name on maps) is one of the best-preserved and most delightful medieval relics in the world. The 600m-long (1,968-ft.) cobble-paved street was constructed over an ancient pathway that led in a straight line from the Acropolis of Rhodes to the port. By the early 16th century, it became the address for most of the inns of each nation (and known as "tongues," because if the languages they spoke), which housed Knights who belonged to the Order of St. John. The inns were used as eating clubs and temporary residences for visiting dignitaries, and their facades reflect the architectural details of their respective countries.
Begin at the lowest point on the hill, at Spanish House, now used by a bank. Next door is Inn of the Order of the Tongue of Italy, built in 1519 (as can be seen on the shield of the order above the door). Then comes the Palace of the Villiers of the Isle of Adam, built in 1521, housing the Archaeological Service of the Dodecanese. The Inn of France, constructed in 1492, now hosts the French Language Institute. It's one of the most ornate inns, with the shield of three lilies (fleur-de-lis), royal crown, and the crown of the Magister d'Aubusson (the cardinal's hat above four crosses), which is off center, over the middle door. Typical of the late Gothic period, the architectural and decorative elements are somewhat asymmetrical, lending grace to the squat building.
Opposite these inns is one side of the Hospital of the Knights, now the Archaeological Museum, whose entrance is on Museum Square. The grand and fascinating structure is well worth a visit. (As with so many public buildings in Rhodes, its hours are subject to change, but summer hours are generally Tues-Fri 8am-7pm and Sat-Sun 8:30am-3pm.) Admission is 3€. Across from the Archaeological Museum is the Byzantine Museum, housed in the Church of Our Lady of the Castle (the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Knights); it often hosts rotating exhibits of Christian art. Its hours vary but are generally Tuesday through Sunday from 8am to 7pm or later; admission is 3€.
The church farther on the right is Ayia Triada (open when it's open), next to the Italian consulate. Above its door are three coats of arms: those of France, England, and the pope. Past the arch that spans the street, still on the right, is the Inn of the Tongue of Provence, which was partially destroyed in 1856 and is now shorter than it once was. Opposite it on the left is the traditionally Gothic Inn of the Tongue of Spain, with vertical columns elongating its facade and a lovely garden in the back.
The culmination of this impressive procession should be Palace of the Knights (also known as Palace of the Grand Masters), but it was destroyed in a catastrophic accidental explosion in 1856. What you see before you now is a grandiose palace built in the 1930s to accommodate Mussolini's visits and fantasies. Its scale and grandeur are more reflective of a future that failed to materialize than of a vanished past. Today it houses mosaics stolen from Kos by the Italian military as well as a collection of antique furniture. Hours vary, but, in summer, are Monday from 12:30 to 7pm, Tuesday through Sunday from 8am to 7pm. Admission is 6€.
The Mosque of Suleiman and the public baths are two reminders of the Turkish presence in old Rhodes. Follow Sokratous west, away from the harbor, or walk a couple of blocks south, from the Palace of the Knights; you can't miss the mosque, with its slender, though incomplete, minaret and pink-striped Venetian exterior.
The Municipal Baths (what the Greeks call the "Turkish baths") are housed in a 7th-century Byzantine structure and have been considerably upgraded since 2000. They merit a visit by anyone interested in vestiges of Turkish culture that remain in the Old Town, and cost less than the showers in most pensions. The hamam (most locals use this Turkish word for "bath") is in Plateia Arionos, between a large old mosque and the Folk Dance Theater. Throughout the day, men and women go in via their separate entrances and disrobe in private shuttered cubicles. A walk across cool marble floors leads you to the bath area -- many domed, round chambers sunlit by tiny glass panes in the roof. Through the steam, you'll see people seated around large marble basins, chatting, while ladling bowls of water over their heads. The baths are open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:30am to 4pm. Their use costs 5€. Note that on Saturday, the baths are extremely crowded with locals.
The Old Town was also home to the Jewish community, whose origins date from the days of the ancient Greeks. Little survives in the northeast or Jewish Quarter of the Old Town other than a few homes with Hebrew inscriptions, the Jewish cemetery, and the Square of the Jewish Martyrs (Plateia ton Martiron Evreon, also known as Sea Horse Sq., because of the sea horse fountain). The square is dedicated to the 1,604 Jews who were rounded up here and sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. On Dosiadou, leading off just below the square (signed), is a lovely synagogue, where services are held on Friday night; it is usually open daily from 10am to 3pm. A surprisingly elegant and informative museum is attached to it (Apr-Oct Sun-Fri 10am-3pm; free admission). Those wishing to know more about this can e-mail email@example.com.
While at the Square of the Jewish Martyrs, be sure to visit the Hospice of St. Catherine (Mon-Fri 8am-2pm; free admission). Built in the late 14th century by the Order of the Knights of St. John (Knights Hospitaller) to house and entertain guests, it apparently lived up to its mission; one such guest, Niccole de Martoni, described it in the 1390s as "beautiful and splendid, with many handsome rooms, containing many and good beds." The description still fits, though only one "good bed" can be seen today. The restored hospice has beautiful sea-pebble and mosaic floors, carved and intricately painted wooden ceilings, a grand hall and lavish bedchamber, and engaging exhibits. There's a lot here to excite the eyes and the imagination.
After touring the sites of the Old Town, you might want to walk around the walls. The fortification has a series of magnificent gates and towers, and is a remarkable example of a fully intact medieval structure. Much of the structure can be viewed by walking around the outside, but to walk along the top of the walls requires an admission fee of 4€ for adults, 2€ for students. The museum operates a 1-hour tour for 6€ Tuesday and Saturday at 3pm, beginning at the Palace of the Knights.
Another possibility is the so-called Land Train, a familiar attraction in many tourist towns, which takes people on a 50-minute ride through the main streets for 5€; you join it at the main market in the New Town.
From the Outside Looking In -- Of all the inns on the Street of the Knights, only the Inn of France is open to the public (Mon-Fri 8am-noon). The ground floor houses the Institut Français, but you can see its garden as well as an occasional art show in the second-floor gallery. The other inns are now offices or private residences and are closed to the public.
Exploring the New Town
The New Town is best explored after dark, as it houses most of the bars, discos, and nightclubs, as well as innumerable tavernas. In the heat of the day, its beaches -- Elli beach and the municipal beach -- are also popular. What few people make a point of seeking out, but also can't miss, are landmarks, such as Mandraki Harbor and the "neo-imperial" architecture (culminating in the Nomarhia or Prefecture) along the harbor, all of which date from the Italian occupation (1912-44). Other draws are the lovely park and ancient burial site at Rodini (2km/1 1/4 miles south of the city), and the impressive ancient Acropolis of Rhodes, on Mount Smith. There's also a fairly decent aquarium by the harbor.
The remains of the ancient Rhodian Acropolis stand high atop the north end of the island, above the modern city, with the sea visible on two sides. This is a pleasant site to explore with a picnic; there's plenty of shade. The restored stadium and small theater are impressive, as are the remains of the Temple of Pythian Apollo. Although just a few pillars and a portion of the architrave still stand, they are provocative and pleasing, giving fodder to the imagination. The open site has no admission fee.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.