Travelers often dream of a trip to “the Greek isles,” but as the country boasts around 200 inhabited islands, your trip planning will require you to be more specific. One of the most popular island chains is the Cyclades, home to the hotspots of Mykonos and Santorini.

 

  Mykonos Santorini
Known For Beach resorts with fine dining and nightlife Caldera views, hiking, local wine and food
Historic Sites Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis Ancient cities of Akrotiri and Thera
Crowd Primarily jetsetters, with some families at the beach resorts Mainly couples on the caldera side, with families and budget travelers along the beaches
Distance From Athens 2.5 hours by ferry 4.5 hours by ferry
Main Activities Beach clubs, strolls through town, Delos archaeological site visit Scenery scoping, hiking, wine tasting, caldera cruises

 

These famed destinations make frequent appearances on magazine covers, postcards, and Instagram feeds. As a result, you'll likely already be familiar with the traditional white and blue Cycladic architecture, winding coastlines with small hidden bays, and hillsides with low vegetation. However, how is a time-strapped traveler to choose between the two?

Known For

Mykonos

Mykonos glitters with a capital G—or maybe that’s just a seasonal Gucci pop-up. This jetsetter destination is known for its beautiful beaches and the clubs that line them, a truly deluxe dining and partying scene. It’s also the closest island to the Delos island historic site. In addition, the blue and white buildings are some of the best examples of Cycladic architecture to be found.

Santorini

Santorini is famous for its stunning sunsets as well as the caldera views from the five towns that span the edge of the volcanic crater. These villages hang off the cliffside, drawing guests who come for their dramatic architecture and stay for the excellent local wine and food scene made possible by the volcanic soil. Santorini’s cave house architecture is unlike anywhere else, built using volcanic materials that are considered some of the world’s best.

Distance from Athens

Mykonos is closer to Athens, just a 2.5-hour ferry ride away. Santorini, meanwhile, is one of the farther Cyclades, with a minimum 4.5-hour ferry distance from Athens. It is, however, closer to Crete for travelers looking to combine the two.

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Who’s There

Mykonos draws a glamorous crowd to its main town, mostly looking for a luxury experience and a place to party. The beach hotels, meanwhile, create a more family-friendly atmosphere.

You can find travelers of all stripes in Santorini. The caldera-side lodgings attract mostly couples to their romantic views, while younger travelers head to the central town of Fira. Families and travelers looking for a budget option usually stay on the beach side of the island.

What to Do

Mykonos

Stroll the winding streets of town, shop at the boutiques, and visit the captains’ houses of  Little Venice for a sundowner with the famous windmills in the background. Once the sun sets, live it up in the nightclubs and five-star restaurants of the main town by night, then venture out to the beach resorts to sleep it off in the sun the next day...and maybe sip a few cocktails on the sand.

If you need a break from the scene, take a day ferry out to the sacred island of Delos, believed by the ancient Greeks to be the birthplace of twin deities Apollo and Artemis. It's now considered one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. In addition to being a sacred religious site, it was also a buzzing trading port inhabited since the third millennium BCE.

Santorini

Once you ride the donkeys up the famous caldera, start by scoping out the streets of the island's main town, Fira, then get out on the water with a sailing tour. A voyage by boat through the center of the caldera also offers opportunities for volcanic hiking and thermal springs for a mineral-filled dip. Beach bums can lounge on the black sands of Kamari and Perissa beaches or check out the distinct geological features of the Red Beach.

You can also hike along the caldera rim, stopping in any of the five main towns along the way and ending in Oia for its famous sunset views. Head inland to see the smaller, lesser-known villages, then go wine-tasting at a local volcanic-soil vineyard. Don’t skip the tavernas afterward!

If you’re looking for history, pay a visit to Akrotiri. One of the Bronze Age’s most advanced settlements, Akrotiri flourished for centuries on the island’s southern tip before it was buried by a volcanic eruption in the mid-second millennium BCE. Then head to the Museum of Prehistoric Thera and Archaeological Museum of Thera to learn the stories of the ancient settlement, as well as murals preserved from Akrotiri.

 

Decide that Mykonos is the spot for you? Check out the Best of Mykonos guides.

Seduced by Santorini? The Best of Santorini section awaits.