It’s no wonder legendary writers like Homer and Shakespeare used the Greek Island of Corfu as a backdrop for their epic tales. Just as it served the crafty shipwrecked Odysseus as a refuge and respite from his journeys, the island today welcomes travelers with open arms and a warm heart.
The second largest of the seven Ionian Islands, this magnificent sun-kissed archipelago is known as the “Emerald Island” because of its lush greenery and breathtaking beauty.
The island encompasses 230 square miles and 60% of its hilly, mountainous surface is covered with olives, cypress trees, citrus trees, and vineyards. The olive oil produced on Corfu is widely considered to be Greece’s best.
As a port stop on our 7-night Mediterranean cruise, we were determined to experience what we’d missed on our first visit to the island many years ago. And that entailed thoroughly exploring Corfu’s historically evocative Corfu Town.
Corfu’s stunning natural landscape, crystal clear tourmaline seas, and lapping rocky coves greeted us as our ship entered port. Catching a local transport, we headed directly to the beautifully preserved Corfu Town. We quickly discovered why the town’s designation as a UNESCO world heritage site is so richly deserved.
Imbued with a myriad of grace and elegance the town is situated at the half-way point on the island’s east coast. Built on a promontory, the town’s diverse architecture is a fascinating historic blend of its Sicilian, Venetian, French, and English influences.
It’s the melding of all these cultures that seems to bring a unique charm and character to Corfu Town. Coupled with the fact that it’s located right on the sparkling azure Ionian Sea, you have the recipe for the perfect Greek Island experience. With so much to see and do, it can feel a bit overwhelming without a plan. Here are some of Corfu Town’s not-to-be-missed highlights.
Exploring Historic Sights & Landmarks
Known as The Old Castle by locals, the 16th century Old Fortress is a medieval Venetian fortification perched on a rocky peninsula surrounded by a boat-lined moat. Its strategic location has harbored a fortified redoubt since the Byzantine period.
The fortress, built to withstand Ottoman sieges contains the historical records of more than six centuries of history, the Byzantine collection of sculptures, images of the Byzantine era, and the public library.
But it’s the massive central gate and arched entranceway with the Greek flag flying overhead that’s the showstopper of the fortress.
Nearby, the New Fortress is a massive well-maintained citadel hailing from the same century. It defended Corfu Town port entrances and is connected to the town and the Old Fortress by a series of underground tunnels. Its most notable feature is its impressive gate guarded by classic Venetian lion sculptures.
The Palace of St. Michael & George in the heart of town once served as the official residence of the Governor. Known as the Royal or City Palace, it was built with Maltese limestone. Constructed in the Georgian style in the early 1800s, the palace features gardens and fountains fronting the palace courtyard.
The maze of narrow streets in Corfu Town contain numerous historic mansions, secret garden squares, and churches that pay homage to its multi-cultural heritage. And somehow it all melds together in one incredibly magical architectural feast for the eyes.
It’s quite impossible to miss the Venetian-style Church of Saint Spyridon towering over the center of town. Its massive bell tower is Corfu Town’s highest tallest structure. Inside the church rests the mummified remains of the saint. According to legend, he saved the island four times from Ottoman invasions and performed numerous miracles.
Dining in Old Town
There’s no shortage of restaurants here and given Corfu’s temperate climate, outdoor dining is immensely popular.
Traditionally, Corfiats as the locals call themselves, eat their main meal midday, enjoying lighter foods in the evening. After perusing a few menus, our group agreed on the highly recommended Restaurant Rex. It was an excellent choice.
Family owned and operated, the charming eatery has been serving tourists and locals alike since 1952. Rex occupies the ground floor of a historic building in the heart of Old Town.
Yes, they offer traditional foods like Tzatziki, Greek Salad and Moussaka. But, they’re prepared with a creative twist. Our shared green salad was a superb explosion of flavors from locally grown figs, hazelnuts and Corfiela cheese, tossed in a Tsipouro (Greek brandy) vinaigrette.
Fresh seafood is immensely popular here, especially the octopus. Our deliciously slightly warmed delight was accompanied by a Greek salad “stew” of tomatoes, cucumber, capers, olive oil, vinegar and oregano.
Stopping for a drink or cocktail at the Bristol Cafe was a real treat. For us, it was like discovering a secret treasure. With its eclectic turquoise walls, colorful prints, and stylish décor, it’s a favorite with locals and we could see why. It’s one really cool place.
Browsing and Shopping in Old Town
Old Town is a tightly-packed warren of meandering lanes and timeless back alleys where clothes hang from above stretching from balcony to balcony.
Even for those who are not really into shopping will find themselves, like us, first browsing, then looking, and then, yes, buying at the classy unique boutiques of Corfu Town.
Maybe it’s the quaint alleyways; each one more alluring than the last, or the scent of fresh leather or aromatic spices wafting through the air that enchanted us. Or perhaps it was the glimmer of the fine pieces of jewelry, the colorful scarves and bags, or the eye-catching and soft-to-the-touch cotton and linen clothing that was seducing our eyes and yes, our wallets.
In celebration of Corfu’s amazing olive production, the aromatic and savory oils are sold everywhere, along with every other olive-related item imaginable.
But unlike other towns we’ve been to highly frequented by tourists, Corfu Town’s merchants are there with friendly help with no pressure on shoppers to buy. This made our browsing even more enjoyable.
As we stood on the deck of our cruise ship departing the Isle of Corfu’s harbor, our friend mentioned that to his surprise, Corfu was an unexpected delight.
How fitting. For it was ancient Heraclitus of who once said that “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not recognize it when it arrives.”