Choosing between Crete and Kefalonia is no easy task. One is the largest Greek island and the most southern, located at the very edge of the Aegean Sea. The other sits just west of the mainland, in the beautiful waters of the Ionian Sea. Both are known for their natural beauty, stunning beaches, and glorious climates. However, there are a few differences between them that might just affect which one you fancy for a holiday.
Crete is so large that it can sometimes not feel like an island at all. It has several vibrant cities, wild nightlife, and rich history, which hits a zenith with some seriously incredible archaeological sites. Kefalonia is smaller and generally more peaceful, with no real nightlife, but a location that’s perfect for island hopping amidst its Ionian fellows – Zante, Corfu, Paxi.
This guide to Crete or Kefalonia will run through seven key aspects of both islands to help you pick the one that’s right for you this year. It will outline where is easiest to get to, where has the best nightlife scene, and where offers the most beautiful beaches. Let’s get started…
Crete or Kefalonia: Getting there and around
With two major airports, arriving in Crete is as easy as boarding a plane. However, as Greece’s most southern island, connections by boat take a little more effort. A ferry from Athens will take around 6 hours but some even go overnight. And, while there are direct ferries connecting Crete to historical Rhodes, romantic Santorini, or beautiful Karpathos, those journeys are not short. The upshot? Crete doesn’t make the best base if you want to spend your vacation touring the other beautiful islands of the Aegean Sea.
Getting to Kefalonia is almost as easy. There’s one airport on the island and regular ferry links to the mainland taking about 90 minutes each way. Unlike Crete, it does make an excellent starting point for island-hopping, with several of the other Ionian Islands only a couple of hours away. Visitors to Kefalonia can easily visit Zakynthos, Lefkada, or mythical Ithaca, the fabled home of Odysseus. You’re also likely to find it a little easier to negotiate and explore, because, even though it is the largest of the Ionian Islands, it is still only 780 square kilometers, compared to Crete’s 8,450!
Winner: It’s a draw, because Crete’s easier to reach but Kefalonia is easier to get around.
Crete or Kefalonia: Beaches
The Greek Islands are known for their stunning beaches, and Crete does not disappoint. With its extensive coastline and over 300 sand stretches to choose from, you’ll be spoilt for options. Will you visit Elafonissi, with its gorgeous pink sand and aquamarine water? Or will you take a boat to Balos, home to a glittering and famous lagoon? There’s also the windsurf mecca of Falassarna and the cave-backed coves of Matala in the south, bolstered by river-carved Preveli Beach and tropical-feeling Vai.
Kefalonia’s beaches are famous for their dazzlingly blue waters. The cobalt blue of the Ionian Sea just cries out to be swum in and explored. Many people choose to parasail, sail, snorkel, and cove hop here. Myrtos is Kefalonia’s most celebrated beach, known for the pure white of its pebbles and the dramatic pine tree-studded cliffs surrounding it. Or, visitors can get a free spa session on Xi Beach, where the orange sand holds clay renowned for its therapeutic properties. Finally, there are oodles of fish to see in the waters around the Bay of Argostoli, not to mention a chance to encounter loggerhead turtles.
Winner: Crete wins this one because it’s by far the larger island and a great place to explore new beaches every day.
Crete or Kefalonia: Nature
The stunning coastlines of these islands are not the only natural wonders worth coming for. It might surprise you to know that Crete is a mountainous island where snow-capped peaks are a relatively common – if unexpected – sight. Yep, you can climb the 2,500-meter-high Mount Ida, then hike through Samaria Gorge, the largest gorge in Europe and one of Greece’s must-see sights. To avoid the crowds, walk the shorter, quieter, Imbros Gorge or Aradena Gorge, which both run parallel to Samaria but have equally beautiful views. On top of that, you get freshwater lakes at Kournas and subtropical groves of date palms at Preveli.
Kefalonia’s Mount Ainos might not be as tall as Crete’s, but it does reign as the highest peak in the whole of the Ionian region. It’s possible to hike or drive to its 1,600-meter summit, passing through groves of rare Kefalonian pines. You could also opt to catch a concert inside the stalagmite-filled Drogarati Cave, visit Kefalonia’s tranquil Melissani Lake (a stunning lake that sits 20 meters below the ground and is steeped in mythology and legend), or trek the capes of Neochori to get views of Ithaca across the strait.
Winner: Crete – it’s just altogether wilder what with those gorges and mountain ranges.
Crete or Kefalonia: Food and wine
Even within Greece, a country of culinary wonders, Crete has a reputation for excellence and some delicious signature dishes. These include dakos, a crunchy rusk topped with fresh tomatoes and herbs, similar to bruschetta, and the endless varieties of Cretan cheeses made by almost every village. Head to a local market to sample as many as possible, then take a food tour into the hills and learn to gather the wild greens that are so prevalent in Cretan food. You can also visit a working olive farm to taste some of Greece’s finest oil, or one of the wineries continuing the island’s 4,000-year-old wine-making history.
But you won’t go hungry on Kefalonia, either. This island has its own specialty dishes, like pies filled with spiced meat, spinach and mountain herbs, or salted cod. Try aromatic chicken cooked in a traditional clay tserepa, or mantoles, caramelized almonds flavored with cinnamon. The island is also known as the premier producer of Robola wine, but its most famous export is thyme honey, which you should try on sticky pastries or with yogurt for breakfast.
Winner: A draw. Both Crete and Kefalonia offer all the beautiful elements of Greek cuisine plus many wonderful specialties of their own.
Crete or Kefalonia: History
If Greece was once the center of western civilization, then Crete was the center of that center. It was home to the Minoans, one of the oldest advanced civilizations of the lot, who left traces of their Bronze Age existence throughout the island. The piece de resistance is the Palace of Knossos, the home of the labyrinth from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Visit the Heraklion Archaeological Museum to find bronze age sculptures, jewelry, pottery, and weapon, alongside relics from the Roman and Venetian eras, all recovered from the site. Elsewhere, you’ll find Venetian palaces, Roman fortresses, and Paleolithic ruins. Oh, and be sure to take a trip to Spinalonga. This islet just off of Crete has a fascinating history and was one of Europe’s last remaining leper colonies.
In Kefalonia, it was the Venetian era that left the most significant mark on the island. Although many of the Venetian buildings were destroyed in an earthquake in 1953, enough remains to delight architecture enthusiasts. History lovers shouldn’t miss the Mycenaean Royal Tombs, only discovered in the 1990s. And you should also be sure to visit the Monastery of Saint-Gerasimos for the story of an aristocrat who gave everything up to help heal people, later becoming the patron saint of Kefalonia.
Winner: Crete wins. Both islands have rich and fascinating histories, but Crete has a few more impressive sights.
Crete or Kefalonia: Nightlife
Crete is an island that knows how to party, and many people visit to do just that. The undisputed hub of the nightlife is Malia which draws thousands of tourists from all over Europe to enjoy hedonistic nights on its neon-lit, alcohol-fuelled party strip. But it’s not the only place to go. You’ll find even more club-hubs in Elounda and Stalis, and some excellent bars tucked into the pretty streets of Chania and Heraklion. For something more mellow, try quieter resort areas like Agios Nikolaos, where you can enjoy sunset drinks without the pressure to party till dawn.
Kefalonia is not known for its nightlife, certainly not to the same level as Crete. But it does have its own brand of relaxed, nighttime fun. It’s a place to sip excellent local wine at a late-night taverna playing traditional Greek music. Or to sample classic cocktails on the coast with stunning sunset views. Those looking for a little more buzz will find some lively bars in Sami, Skala, or Lassi, and a couple of good clubs on the outskirts of Argostoli. Just don’t expect the Ibiza-esque vibes of Malia. That said, nearby Corfu and Zante brim with some of the best nightlife in Greece.
Winner: For thriving nightlife, it’s got to be Crete.
Crete or Kefalonia: Cities and towns
It’s rare to find a proper city on a Greek island, but Crete is home to several. Heraklion, the capital and economic hub, is a great place to stay if you want easy access to trips and activities, or if you like a little urban buzz on your vacation. Picturesque Chania is one of the most beautiful cities in Greece. It’s home to a colorful old town and many artistic and cultural sights. Then there’s aristocratic Rethymno, which shows off 16th-century architecture while Sitia is a peaceful base perfect for exploring the east of the island. Finally, arty Matala is known for its street murals and hippy festivals.
Kefalonia doesn’t have cities. Nope, it’s an island of fishing villages, resort towns, and working ports. Argostoli, the island’s capital, is a busy, modern town and a good place to stay if you’re looking for shops, bars, restaurants, and boat tours. The second biggest town, Lixouri, is a busy resort where you’ll find all the tourist amenities and beaches filled with sun loungers and parasols. But it’s the pretty little fishing port of Fiscardo that you should be sure to visit. This tiny town is where celebrities drop anchor when they come Kefalonia’s way, and it’s a beautiful and cosmopolitan spot to match.
Winner: As much as we love Fiscardo, Crete wins for having actual cities and a wider variety of towns.
Crete or Kefalonia? The conclusion
Both Crete and Kefalonia have so much to offer in terms of beauty, activities, sights, natural wonders, and culinary delights that there’s very little to pick between them. We genuinely believe that you could have a wonderful holiday on either of them and never be disappointed in your choice.
There are endless opportunities for activities and entertainment on both islands, and hikers, bikers, nature lovers, sunbathers, snorkelers, history hunters, and foodies will be in their element on either island.
But if we have to make a choice, we’d say that if it’s archeology, history, urban exploring, or nightlife that you’re after, you should make Crete your destination. But if you want a peaceful, smaller island that’s easier to explore and ideally located for island hopping, well, then it should be Kefalonia.