Rhodes Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most well-preserved medieval settlements globally, invites travelers to immerse themselves in a captivating blend of history, architecture, and maritime heritage. Stepping into the Old Town is like entering a living museum, where every cobblestone street and historic building tells a story of centuries past.
A UNESCO Gem
Rhodes Old Town, often the first stop for visitors, is a testament to the island’s rich history. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it stands as one of the finest examples of medieval architecture worldwide. The imposing buttressed walls that encircle the Old Town create a distinct boundary between the past and the present. Beyond these walls lies the ‘new’ town of Mandraki, featuring Venetian buildings, a marina, and a bustling array of shops, cafes, and restaurants.
The Old Town of Rhodes is a magnet for global visitors, drawing them into its architectural tapestry spanning different historical periods. Navigating the labyrinthine network of narrow streets and cobbled alleys, one encounters impressive 15th and 16th-century buildings, alongside churches, mosques, fountains, and charming squares ideal for savoring coffee and local cuisine.
Exploring the City Walls and Gates
To truly grasp the Old Town’s historical significance, take a stroll along a section of the ancient city walls. Stretching for 4 km (2.5 miles), these walls boast towers, bastions, and imposing gates adorned with Venetian coats of arms. Erected between the two Ottoman sieges in 1480 and 1522, the walls surround a wide moat, enhancing the city’s formidable appearance.
Access to the Old Town is granted through seven grand gates, each with its unique charm. The Thalassini gate, built in 1478, stands out as a symbol of the Old Town’s heritage. Other notable gates include St. Paul’s, Liberty, Abouaz, St. Athanasius (New Gate), St. John (Koskinous), and Acadia, each contributing to the town’s historical narrative.
The Medieval Moat: A Picturesque Walk
For a truly enchanting experience, embark on a stroll along the medieval moat, stretching approximately 2.5 km (1.5 miles). This leisurely walk offers breathtaking scenery with lush greenery and palm trees, providing a countryside ambiance within the city. The moat showcases the ramparts, medieval towers, and ancient town walls, creating a peaceful retreat amidst historical splendor.
The Street of the Knights
Reflecting the island’s occupation by the Knights of St John for over two centuries, the Street of the Knights exudes a medieval atmosphere, especially at dusk when lights illuminate its path. Following the ancient road from the port to the Temple of the Sun, the street spans from Museum Square to the Palace of the Grand Master. Along this route, admire the residences of the ‘tongues,’ representing the seven nationalities within the Order of the Knights of Saint John. These inns, including Auvergne, Provence, France, Aragon, Italy, Baviere (Germany), and England, served as gathering places for members and guesthouses for official visitors.
The Palace of the Grand Master
At the highest point of the Street of the Knights stands the iconic Castello, also known as the Palace of the Grand Master. Constructed in the 14th century on the site of a 7th-century Byzantine fort, this building served as the administrative center for the Knights of Saint John. The Grand Master and his courtiers resided here, holding meetings with the heads of the ‘Tongue.’ The palace’s oversized wooden door and two colossal towers form an iconic image synonymous with Rhodes.
Within the palace, visitors can explore a museum that houses mosaic tiles from the island of Kos, medieval period furniture, and two permanent exhibitions chronicling the history of Rhodes from its founding in 408 BC to its conquest by the Ottomans in 1522. During summer evenings, the Rhodes Philharmonic Orchestra hosts concerts within this historic venue.
Charming Squares within the Old Town
As you navigate the Old Town, encounter charming squares such as Symi, Argyrokastro, Museum, and Hippokratous. These squares are adorned with monuments, including the Knight’s Armoury in Argyrokastro Square, featuring a swimming pool from the early Christian church of St. Irene of Arnitha (6th century). Notably lively, Hippokratous Square, accessible from the Thalassini Gate, comes alive in the evenings with bustling cafes and restaurant tables. Orfeos Street, another evening hotspot for dining, adds to the vibrant atmosphere of the Old Town.
Shopping Delights on Sokratous Street
Sokratous Street, chosen for markets by ancient civilizations, the Byzantines, the Knights of Saint John, and the Ottomans, is a shopping haven. Dozens of tourist shops line the street, offering a variety of souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, leather goods, ceramics, and more. Amidst the shops, three mosques add a touch of historical diversity.
The Ports of Rhodes and the Symbolic Deer
Rhodes boasts not one but three ports, each with its unique character. The shallow Mandraki, suitable for small boats and yachts, the Big Port, hosting passenger ships, and Akandia, the operational hub for the large Rhodes marina. The iconic bronze deer, symbols of the island, stand proudly on pillars of limestone at the entrance to Mandraki. Legend once believed that the Colossus stood in this location, with ships passing beneath its feet. Recent research, however, contradicts this notion, revealing that the rocky shelves of Mandraki could not have accommodated the colossal statue.
At the edge of the Mandraki jetty lies the restored castle of Agios Nikolaos, built between 1464 and 1467. As you walk along the pier, three windmills from the 15th century come into view, having once ground the grain unloaded by merchant ships.
The Colossus of Rhodes: A Marvel of Ancient Times
Among the many tales echoing through the streets of the Old Town, the story of the Colossus of Rhodes stands out. This monumental statue, standing at an impressive 33 meters in honor of Apollo, the god of light, was erected to commemorate the victory against the Macedonian king Demetrius I Poliorcetes around 304 BC. Sadly, an earthquake in 226 BC led to its destruction, and it was never restored. The remnants of the Colossus lay submerged in the harbor for centuries until the Arabs conquered the island in 654 AD. Legend suggests that 900 camels were used to transport the dismantled statue, although the historical accuracy of this claim remains debated.
Conclusion: A Tapestry of Culture and Heritage
Rhodes Old Town unfolds as a captivating tapestry, weaving together the threads of history, architectural marvels, and maritime heritage. As visitors meander through its timeless streets, they become part of a living legacy that spans centuries. From the grandeur of the Palace of the Grand Master to the charming squares and bustling ports, Rhodes Old Town is a treasure trove of experiences waiting to be discovered