Mykonos and Santorini are two of the most famous and most visited islands in Greece. Although both are located in the Cycladic chain of islands in the Aegean Sea -- a group that boasts over 20 islands -- and they’re both beautiful in their own right, there are some key differences to bear in mind when choosing which island destination to visit.
1. Location And Distance
The islands are popular enough to warrant having an airport that receives year-round domestic flights from the Greek mainland, especially Athens, plus some charter flights in the summer season from several European destinations.
They’re also both reachable by ferry from the Athenian port of Piraeus, but Santorini is further, the journey taking between 5 and 8 hours depending on whether you take a slow or fast ferry, while Mykonos is 2.5 to 6 hours away, again, depending on the speed of the ferry.
Pro Tip: It’s worth noting that slow ferries are all part of the travel experience in Greece because they have many facilities such as restaurants and shopping onboard, plus you can walk around on deck outside whereas a fast ferry -- sometimes a hydrofoil -- means merely sitting down in an airline-style seat for the whole journey.
2. The Beaches
If it’s a beach holiday you’re after, Mykonos has to be your choice. There are many golden sandy beaches on the island that suit all tastes. Worth noting is that Mykonos has a reputation as a party island, so stay away from Paradise Beach -- 4 miles south of the capital, Mykonos Town. Instead, hire a car and head to the beach of Lia -- 9 miles east of the capital -- or Fokos -- 8 miles northeast of the capital. Both are completely non-commercialized and have no sunbeds or facilities, just fantastic golden stretches of sand and crystal clear swimming.
Pro Tip: Take your own water, food, and an umbrella as there’s no natural shade nor any concessions.
By contrast, Santorini does not have the white stretches of beaches one usually equates with Greece. As it’s a volcanic island, expect to find black and red sand and rocks, such as Red Beach with its red rocks. The beach’s small size means it gets very busy in season and is only accessible by walking down from the car park at the top; hence, many people decide to photograph the beach by taking one of the many boat trips from Akrotiri Port.
Pro Tip: If you do choose to frequent the beaches of Santorini -- and if you’re into snorkeling, you should because there are many fascinating underwater rock formations here -- then bring aqua socks or waterproof sandals.
Red Beach is located near the Bronze Age archaeological settlement of Akrotiri, a place worth including in a day trip.
3. The Sites
Greece is covered in ancient sites to visit, the islands being no different. Mykonos has the wonderful UNESCO World Heritage island of Delos, 2 miles and 40 minutes by boat off the coast of Mykonos and one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. Mythology tells us that Delos was the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo, twins who the human Leto gave birth to. It’s reputed that Zeus had an affair with Leto and the twins were the result. Zeus was a god, Leto a human, and gods were forbidden to mix with mortals. Zeus’s jealous wife Hera banished Leto from Earth, but Poseidon -- God of the Sea -- took pity on her and crashed his trident down, thus the island of Delos formed as a safe haven for Leto to give birth in peace. It’s an island dedicated to the ancient gods with many artifacts on show outside, plus a small museum.
Pro Tip: It’s not possible to stay on Delos, so a morning trip is better to avoid the heat of the day. There’s not a lot of shade and water and the canteen in the museum is expensive, so pack a small lunch or ask your hotel in Mykonos to. Take plenty of sunscreen and a hat.
Santorini’s claim to fame has to be its volcanic islands, in particular, the bay of Agios Nikolaos on the small black rock island of Nea Kamini is surrounded by therapeutic sulphuric yellow waters and hot springs. The oldest volcano is Paleo Kamini, which also has hot springs.
Pro Tip: Take a boat trip from Santorini to Nea Kamini and a 20-minute walk through lunar-like scenery will bring you to the volcano’s steaming crater. Go in the morning or late afternoon because it gets extremely hot.
4. The Romance
Sunsets are always beautiful, but hands down, Santorini is the place to visit if it’s romance you’re after.
The sunsets over the caldera are famous the world over, and many of the luxury hotels have capitalized on this with their locations offering 180-degree sunset views. It’s the place to come for honeymooners and couples seeking a sophisticated level of tourism with fine dining and winery tours, for example.
Pro Tip: The best place to view the sunset is from the clifftop village of Oia, but it gets busy so it’s a good idea to get there early. There are plenty of restaurants and viewing spots on offer if you get there early enough.
Mykonos isn’t without its romance. Its golden sandy beaches -- whether an organized one with beds and facilities or a remote one -- offer plenty of opportunities for relaxing and watching the sun set. Mykonos is better if you’re into designer shopping or rubbing shoulders with the “in” crowd as it attracts several famous jet setters.
Pro Tip: Agios Sostis beach, a 19-minute taxi ride from Mykonos Town, is a beautiful underdeveloped spot with a small beach and the blue-domed church of Saint Sostis. Here you’ll find Kiki’s Taverna, which is delicious in its simplicity with a huge selection of fresh salads and meat from the outside grill. It’s a perfect spot to eat and watch the sun set.
5. Scenery And Architecture
Santorini’s villages are perched atop the cliff-top, offering spectacular volcano and sea views. Think blue-domed churches and colorful houses, all with the curves and arched architecture that Santorini is famous for. Many of the boutique hotels have designed their abodes to fit into the nature of the island in order to blend in well.
Mykonos is more gentle on the eye with its golden beaches, plus Little Venice in Mykonos Town with its striking windmills is a great place to wander any time of the day or night.
Pro Tip: For more dramatic scenery, with black volcanic sands and sunsets, head to Santorini.
For winding alleyways and traditional villages, coupled with sandy beaches, Mykonos is the place to go.
6. The Off-Season Experience
As Santorini is more famous for its views and sunsets, there’s never really an off-season to visit. It gets exceedingly busy in the summer months of June, July, and August, but both islands have the best weather from May to October, so head there in the spring or fall to appreciate a quieter time and still see the year-round sights.
Mykonos is busy in the summer and more of a beach/shopping/jet setter island, so whilst there’s not a lot to do in the offseason, it’s much quieter in the spring and fall, so this would be a time to wander the streets and get a flavor of the local lifestyle.
If you choose to visit both islands, it’s suggested to fly into one, take a ferry between the two, and then fly out of the other. Allow for at least five days in Santorini to really appreciate the sites and a volcano visit.
Of course, which island you choose to spend the most time on should depend on your preference of things to do:
- Mykonos for shopping, beaches, quieter off-season, and if you don’t mind a lively nightlife, quieter bars can also be found -- along with potentially bumping into the rich and famous.
- Santorinifor natural beauty, sunsets, and romance, plus archaeological sites -- although Mykonos also has the nearby island of Delos.
Due to their popularity, both islands are expensive, but it is possible to find some small, affordable family-run establishments that will welcome you with open arms.
For more Greek vacation advice, consider:
- Why Little Venice In Mykonos Is One Of The Most Charming Places On Earth
- 7 Gorgeous Greek Villages To Add To Your Travel Bucket List
- 10 Reasons To Put Northern Greece On Your Bucket List
- 7 Incredible Boutique Hotels In Athens, Greece
- 6 Amazing Historic Sites To Experience On Kos, Greece
- Why The Diapontia Islands Are Greece’s Best-Kept Secret