Rhodes old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the oldest continuously inhabited medieval town of Europe. A massive wall that was built by the Knights of St. John encloses the old town and you can gain entrance by way of several gates.
If you want to experience the full effect of stepping back in time, the first time you enter the old town use the Liberty (Eleftherias) gate.
Once you enter the walled city through Liberty gate you will find yourself in Simis Square surrounded by history. The fenced ruins of the ancient temple of Aphrodite provide the first historical anchor. The Hellenistic ruins of the temple testify to a glorious Greek past, one that was subsequently transformed and built upon by a multitude of invaders who coveted Rhodes for its strategic position and resources.
A short walk beyond the temple of Aphrodite brings visitors in the midst of a stone-paved square (some maps indicate it as either Simis Square and some as Argyrokastrou Square) surrounded by impressive medieval buildings. The Folk Art museum on the right and the Byzantine museum are both worth a visit, the latter hosted in the halls of an impressive Gothic cathedral building.
A little further down the same street, through the archeway, you will have the option of continuing straight through Apelou Street but turning right will put you on a path towards the Palace of the Grand Masters through the beautiful Ipoton Street (Avenue of the Knights). In the corner, the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes is housed in the converted Knight’s hospital. The collection is definitely worth a visit and it includes Rhodian artifacts from prehistoric years all the way up to Hellenistic and Roman times. The building itself is very impressive and its thick stonewalls can provide much needed relief from the mid-day heat.
Ipoton Street (Avenue of the knights) was the place of residence of the knights and it is perfectly preserved to this day. It is about 600m long on a gentle incline towards what used to be the ancient acropolis of Rhodes, and it is unusually straight for a medieval street. The tall walls that frame it on both sides - complete with stone-carved codes of arms - are majestic and forbidding at the same time, and the old Knight’s inns are now replaced by several government offices. What is visible today is the result of the careful Italian restorations in 1913-16, and provide an accurate depiction of the original medieval street.
At the top of the hill, Ippoton Street culminates under an arched portico (Logia of St. John) and Kleovoulou square just beyond it. On the right as you reach the top of Ippoton Street you will see the very impressive Palace of the Grand Masters.
The Palace of the Grand Masters is a very imposing fort, built to be the last line of defense should the outer walls of the city be breached. Built on the site where the ancient Greek temple of Apollo stood, it was the residence of the Grand Master of the Knights, and where the Order assembled. After Rhodes fell to the Turks in 1522, it was converted to a prison and the palace was completely destroyed by an accidental explosion of stored black powder in 1856. The explosion, caused by lightning, leveled the original palace and took the lives of about 800 people. Afterwards, the Turks built a military hospital on the spot using the stones of the destroyed palace, but in the 1930’s the Italians used old drawings to rebuild the Palace.
What is visible today as the Palace of the Grand Masters is the complete Italian reconstruction that was undertaken to create the summer residence of Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III. The exterior of the Palace of the Grand Masters is a faithful reproduction of the original, but the interior was built more to accommodate modern inhabitants than for accuracy to the original plans. Nevertheless it is worth a visit to appreciate the majestic medieval lifestyle of the Knights, and for the collection of authentic antique furniture and ancient floor mosaics the Italians assembled to decorate the various rooms. The two exhibitions of the history of Rhodes through Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine times at the basement and ground floor of the palace should not be missed.
Across the palace of the Grand Masters if you continue on Panetiou Street you will pass the ruins of the Turkish Library on your right and at the bottom of the hill the Mosque of Suleiman (Suleymaniye Cami Mosque, pictured on the right) which is currently being restored. The mosque of Suleiman was built soon after the Turks occupied the city of Rhodes in 1522 on the site of the destroyed Christian Church of the Apostles.
In front of the Suleiman Mosque the old Turkish Bazaar has been transformed to a melee of the tourist shops that line Sokratous (or Socratous) Street.
Sokratous Street is a pleasant cobblestone street that is bound to be walked by every tourist who visits Rhodes. It is packed with tourist shops of various qualities that spill their wares into the street, providing a colorful (if tacky) atmosphere that contrasts sharply with the austere historical architecture. A slow walk through this street from the Mosque of Suleiman will bring you to the very lively Ippokratous Square.
Ippokratous Square (pictured below) surrounds a modest Castellania fountain, and is framed by the old Chadrevan mosque on the west and the Palace of the Castellan on the east. All around, coffee shops and restaurants burst at the seams as they spill onto the street having completely covered the old buildings.
The Palace of Castellan (on the right hand side in the picture above) is a square building restored by the Italians and its exterior staircase is a popular spot where people relax to watch the square activity in front of them. Castellinia was originally built in 1507 and was the Knight’s commercial court before the Turks converted it to a fish market, with a mosque on the floor above.
Continuing south, past Ippokratous Square the street is renamed to Aristotelous Street and leads through another mass of tourist shops to another small fountain topped by three bronze sea horses in the middle of Plateia Evraion (Jewish Square) or Martyr’s Square. Beyond the fountain the street is renamed Pindarou and leads to Port and Myllon Gates that take you to the new harbor. This was the very lively Jewish quarter that reached a population of 2000 at its height.
Right before the Port Gate, lie the ruins of the “Our Lady of the City” church and the gothic arches of the Hospice of St. Catherine that was built in 1392 as a rest stop for Italians traveling to the Holy Land.
Beyond the aforementioned places of interest, Rhodes old town is a maze filled with interesting streets, buildings, and details. You will not have experienced its magic without venturing to the least traveled streets that have been untouched by the tacky tourist shops. Getting lost in this maze of medieval streets is the norm, but you can always find your way back to the enclosing city wall and from there to a gate out, or to the main hub of activity around Ippokratous Square.
A word of caution as you walk beyond the main touristy streets of Rhodes’ old town: While wheeled traffic is forbidden from entering the old city of Rhodes permanent residents of the old town are allowed to drive their vehicles to their homes. You will inevitably find yourself clinging precariously inside a narrow door opening as the occasional car speeds by in a street that can barely accommodate its width.
The city walls of Rhodes were built in many stages over two centuries, partly on top of the Byzantine fortifications. Work on the walls began before 1330 and were completed sometime in 1522. The wall is as massive as it is beautiful. It is a continuous, 4 km. long, stone construction that supports a walking platform from which defenders could move and fight where needed. Massive towers project from several place and they are decorated with elaborate stonework, while a wide dry Moat provided the first line of defense.