So, it’s a heads up: Santorini vs Crete. That’s not a bad decision to have, folks. These are undoubtedly two of Greece’s most amazing islands, offering oodles to all sorts of traveler, no matter if you’re the sun-seeking beach goer or the adventure-hungry hiker.
On the one hand, there’s Santorini. There’s probably no more photogenic an isle in the Aegean than that, what with its soaring cliffs and whitewashed towns. Then there’s Crete, the largest isle of the whole bunch in Greece. It’s a land of soaring mountains and Venetian-era towns, but also long-lost hill villages that ooze authentic charm.
In this guide, we’ll delve into both places to unravel some truths that we hope will help you decide which destination suits you and your travel crew better this year. We’ll weigh up the cost of vacations in each, the quality of the beaches, the sorts of hotels on the menu, and a whole load more. Ready? Let’s go…
Santorini vs Crete for ease of getting there
There are only two ways to get to both of these islands: By boat or by plane. The vast majority of people choose the latter these days. For that, Santorini has its own international airport, the appropriately named Santorini International Airport (JTR). It sits on the eastern side of the island, about 10 minutes from the main town of Fira. Loads of flights head over there, though most are seasonal, so you’ll be limited to options between May and August. That said, there is a good range of options with budget carriers like Ryanair and the like.
Crete can trump that by offering not one but two fully-fledged international airports. One is on the western side of the island in Chania. The other is in Heraklion, the island capital. Both are served by a host of both seasonal and all-year links on budget and flag-carrying airlines. There are some bargains up for grabs, too – we recently jetted in and out of Crete via Chania from northern Europe for something like $50 per person!
Winner: Crete is the more accessible of these two islands.
Santorini vs Crete for beaches
Santorini is famous for lots of things but beaches aren’t one of them. Nope, this rugged island is actually the top of an ancient volcano, which means it hardly has the topography for long runs of golden sand. There are options, like Monolithos and Perissa on the flatter eastern coast, but they’re mostly dark-sand. You can also swim around the marina of Oia up north, but that’s more about jumping off the quaysides straight into the Aegean. Arguably the most famous beach on Santorini is Red Beach, a wild bay hemmed in by rust-tinged cliffs in the south.
Then there’s Crete. There are hundreds and hundreds of options here. That’s mainly down to the sheer size of the island. Both the south and the north coasts clock up over 150 miles each. The latter is more populated and peppered with resort beaches like Bali and Rethymno. But the south is a wild montage of mountain-topped beaches that have the clearest water this side of the Maldives – check out Tripiti and Agios Pavlos to see what we mean. Basically: Choose Crete if you’re hunting beaches.
Santorini vs Crete for nature
Santorini offers a very specific type of wilderness. Namely, it’s all volcanic. In fact, IT IS a volcano. Yep, the island is the top of a collapsed volcanic cone that erupted way back in ancient times. Today, half is flooded by the shimmering Aegean, but you can still explore the backcountry to find frozen lava chutes and whatnot. The piece de resistance of adventurers here has to be the hike from Fira to Oia. It’s one of the best hikes in Greece, offering broadside views of the caldera the whole way along.
Again, though, it’s the sheer size of Crete that helps it top the list here. A backbone of rugged mountains that rise to over 2,450 meters above sea level cut their way through from west to east, peaking out at the barren summit of Mount Ida, which is a challenging climb. Below, Greece whittles away into striking gorges, among them the UNESCO-tentative Samaria Gorge and the steep-sided Aradena Gorge. You’ll also find palm forests in Preveli, highland lakes in Kourna, and snorkeling coves in Koutalas.
Winner: Crete beats Santorini again here.
Santorini vs Crete for towns and cities
Santorini hosts some of the loveliest little towns in the Aegean region. You’ll see them stringing along the edge of the caldera rim of the island like wisps of white smoke. The capital and the busiest of the lot is Fira. That’s just above the port, where you’ll catch glimpse of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist with its domed roof, not to mention the beautiful terrace walk of Agiou Mina. Go north from there to reach whitewashed Imerovigli, a vision of traditional Cycladic architecture that’s quiet and great for couples. Go north again to hit Oia, which we’d say is the nicest town overall.
Unlike Santorini, Crete has real, lived-in Greek cities. In fact, it has three. There’s Rethymno, a moderately sized town with Venetian roots on the north coast. There’s Chania, a maze of winding alleys and Byzantine-era churches with a gorgeous marina. And there’s the capital: Big, boisterous Heraklion – head there for local nightlife and great coffee shops. Smaller villages await up in the mountains, too, while hippy towns like Matala and Hora Sfakion beckon on the distant south coast.
Winner: Crete probably does it again, mainly because it has real, lived-in cities.
Santorini vs Crete for price
If it wasn’t for Mykonos then Santorini would probably be the single most expensive Greek island of the lot. Don’t just take our word for it. Budget Your Trip – an online travel price collator – estimates that travelers will need something like $131 per day in Santorini. Compare that to the relatively measly $81 per day required in Crete. Plus, we think the extra number of flight connections that go to Crete will mean that you’re more likely to get a bargain on travel over the island in the first place.
A lot of the extra cost for Santorini is down to the extra cost of hotels on the caldera rim of the island. They are the famous pads with the best views, and they can easily set you back over $300 a night in the peak season. Talking of seasons, Crete is also further south than Santorini, meaning it stays warmer late into the year, helping budget travelers make the most of September to October deals.
Winner: Crete again.
Santorini vs Crete for hotels
Santorini offers up some of the finest hotels in the whole of land of gyros and feta. We’re talking about the legendary caldera-rim stays, which perch at the top of the 300-meter-high clifftops to offer 180-degree views of the Aegean Sea. Many are now proper boutique affairs with private plunge pools and boho-cool interiors. Check out…
- Athina Luxury Suites ($$$) – Private plunge pools carved into the cliffs meet Art Deco and edgy interiors in this truly wonderful hotel.
- Pasithea Suites ($$) – A non-caldera option with class, this one has units with private pools.
- Aroma Suites ($$$) – Aroma Suites have options with perhaps the finest caldera views on the island.
Crete has a much wider array of hotels than Santorini, which means something to suit every budget. Mhmm…you can come here to seek out those family-owned B&Bs but also catch large-scale resort hotels within walking distance of a private beach. Here’s a look at some of what we think are the best ones on the island…
- Aelios Design Hotel ($$) – A very nice art hotel with historic vibes and quirky rooms, set in the very heart of the amazing Chania old city.
- Thalasso Resort ($$) – Get yourself a pad overlooking Matala Beach. Really…open the window and there’s the Libyan Sea washing in.
- Inotropes Boutique Suites – Adults Only ($$$) – One for the honeymoon crowd, this one’s a romantic option that channels traditional Cretan architecture into something modern and special.
Winner: Santorini has amazing hotels.
Santorini vs Crete for romance and honeymoons
There’s no doubt that Santorini has plenty to offer honeymooners. We’ve already mentioned the never-forget-me hotels that beckon on the steep sides of the caldera. They table spas, outdoor Jacuzzi baths, and – of course – stunning sunset views. Loved-up duos here can also put romantic meals in traditional tavernas on the menu, along with boat trips out to explore hidden beaches and smaller volcanic islands by day.
Crete is the multi-valent island of the Greek Aegean. It’s known to have something for all sorts of travelers, from families to honeymooners. If you are looking for something romantic here, it would be wise to steer clear of the party strips of Malia in the east – they are largely for the 18-30s crowd. We think the south coast is the best choice overall. Hippy towns like Matala have real chill factor there, along with some clothing-optional beaches to boot.
Santorini vs Crete – our conclusion
You might have noticed that it’s Crete that comes out on top in the majority of the categories here. It’s the easiest of the two islands to get to, has by far the best beaches, and offers incredible backcountry for hikers and explorers. We’d say it should be the number one choice among most travelers. Where Santorini wins out is on the luxury front (it has some of the finest hotels in Greece) and when it comes to honeymoons (the sunsets and romance factor are off the hook!).