Choosing between Corfu or Santorini, on the face of it, should be easy. After all, the two islands are very different in many ways. Corfu is the place for package tours, beach lovers, and party people, whereas Santorini is for romantics, explorers, and lovers of sunsets.
But the choice is not that simple. Because although Santorini is arguably Greece’s most photogenic island, Corfu’s old town offers plenty of Insta-worthy views as well. And Corfu might well boast a choice of over 100 beaches, but Santorini’s Red Beach is world-famous and unique to Greece. Moreover, both islands make it into the UK Telegraph’s “Top 10 Must-Visit Mediterranean Islands” list, so you can be sure of a great vacation wherever you choose.
Deciding between these two Greek islands, as you can see, is not that clear-cut. So over the next 10 minutes, we’re comparing them head-to-head, so you can finally make a choice: will it be Corfu or Santorini for your next Greek Island vacation?
But first, let’s make a quick introduction…
A Quick Introduction
To many, Santorini is the archetypal Greek Island, with white cave houses, blue-domed churches, and perfect weather. Officially called “Thira,” Santorini is the southern-most of the Cyclades Islands, which sit 120 miles west of Greece’s mainland. The island was formed through a massive volcanic eruption about 3,600 years ago, triggering a tsunami that some say sunk Atlantis. The volcano, known as the Santorini Caldera, is still active and last erupted 160 years ago.
Fira is the capital, which sits on the edge of the caldera. Looking west from Fira allows you amazing views of magical sunrises and sunsets, for which Santorini Island is so famous. It’s also where a horde of twenty-somethings spend their vacations, with popular nightclubs like Casablanca and Enigma as the main attractions.
Three hundred seventy-five miles (600 km) to the northwest of Santorini Island, with the whole of mainland Greece in between, Corfu is the second-largest Ionian island. Known as Greece’s “emerald island,” due to the presence of more than 2 million olive trees, Corfu is green all year round. The island hosts many coastal resorts, such as Ipsos, Kavos, and Glyfada, which are party-central for clubbers.
Corfu Town, the island’s capital, is a charming clash of Venetian, old British, and colonial French and full of Instagrammable boulevards and cul-de-sacs. But it’s the uninterrupted 135-mile (217 km) coastline that keeps visitors coming back, with the choice of over one hundred stunning beaches meaning there really is something for everyone.
Corfu or Santorini, Round 1: Beaches
We’re starting with the beaches because they’re one of the main reasons people choose to vacation on the Greek Islands. And first up are the beaches of Santorini, which are unlike any others in Greece because their sand is black. This course sand, and the small pebbles that sit up from the beach, come from volcanic rock eroded by the sea, which gives the unusual color. Add to that the soaring cliffs surrounding most of Santorini’s beaches, and you get a stark yet uniquely beautiful ambiance.
That said, the most famous beach in Santorini doesn’t have black sand — it’s red, again due to volcanic rock. The sheltered location of the aptly-named Red Beach makes it challenging to get to, but it’s definitely worth the effort, as you can see from our picture above. Other favorites in Santorini are Kamari beach, which is family-friendly and always very busy, and Perissa and Perivolos, which are essentially two ends of one large, black sandy beach. They’re great places to swim, it’s easy to rent beach chairs, and there are many good places to eat.
Corfu, on the other hand, has an almost endless supply of stunningly beautiful beaches. Nobody knows precisely how many beaches there are along Corfu’s 135-mile coast, but the best guess is 115. Many of the smaller ones haven’t ever been named, but ask any of the water taxi guys to recommend a secluded beach, and you’ll find they all have their favorites.
You’ll find long, golden, white sand beaches with warm waters that are shallow enough for kids on the north shore. Most of these are dominated by Corfu’s resort hotels, with popular beaches including Acharavi, Sidari, and Roda. You’ll also find the Canal d’amour (“Chanel of love”), a uniquely shaped inlet where couples who swim together are said to stay in love forever. Beaches in the northwest, such as the six examples at Palaiokastritsa, are rockier, with dense vegetation that comes down to the water’s edge and cold but very clear water.
Our Opinion: With Red Beach as the star attraction, Santorini has some amazing-looking beaches. But though they’re nice to look at, the beaches themselves are hot and stony and not great for sunbathing. Corfu, on the other hand, has every type of beach you could hope for.
The winner: Corfu
Corfu or Santorini, Round 2: The Weather
The weather in Greece is typically mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and mild winters. But with a landmass of almost 51,000 square miles (132,000 km²), you can expect some significant deviations from the national average, depending on the area you visit. During the winter, some parts of Greece even get heavy snow: it’s so thick that the locals often ski to work!
Corfu is one of the farthest north of all the Greek islands, meaning the summer weather doesn’t last as long as on the mainland. In June, July, and August, temperatures reach an often uncomfortable 32°C but start to fall off quite rapidly for the rest of the year, picking up again through March and April. According to data from weather-and-climate.com, the best times to visit Corfu are either side of the temperature peak, meaning May/June or September/October.
Santorini lies 375 miles from Corfu, so there are notable differences in climate. The warmest month in Santoríni is August, with an average maximum temperature of 26°C, making it cooler than Corfu. Again, the best times for a vacation are May/June and September/October, with temperatures described as “pleasant” (between 20 and 25°C).
Our opinion: To be honest, there’s no opinion to give, as we’re just “following the science” and quoting facts. As long as you avoid the wettest months (January in Santorini and November in Corfu), both islands will give you great holiday weather.
The winner: It’s a draw.
Corfu or Santorini, Round 3: Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
We usually don’t include ‘Snorkeling and Scuba Diving’ as a category when we write these comparison articles. But, if you don’t find the time to explore the underwater landscape in Greece, you’re missing out. The reasons are twofold.
Firstly, the warm, nutrient-filled coastal water means there’s a greater variety of underwater life around the Greek islands than anywhere else in the Mediterranean. And secondly, the clarity of the crystal blue water gives excellent visibility of 20, 25, or sometimes even 30 meters, meaning you can view all those amazing sea creatures from a distance, as well as close up.
In Corfu, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to dive sites. One of the most dramatic is at Paradise Beach, or “Chomi” as it’s known locally. Accessible only by boat, the beach is flanked by giant chalky-white cliffs, making the place seem like a separate island.
If you dive for fun, try Nissaki Bay, a rocky beach cove on the upper east corner of Corfu Island. The gentle shelving of the sea bed means all dives are done as ‘shore dives,’ which are super-safe for kids. Also, the dive site here is free of marine currents, making it one of the best beaches for snorkeling in Corfu.
Santorini, on the other hand, offers far fewer dive sites; but every one of them is superb. The absence of sand means there’s nothing to cloud the waters — so the already crystal clear views are given an “HD boost.” One of the most spectacular dives is to Adiavatous Reef, situated inside the caldera rim. According to legend, this could well be the resting place of the lost city of Atlantis — so be on the lookout for shiny coins!
Unfortunately, Santorini doesn’t offer much for snorkelers. After 10 meters (30 feet) out, the seabed drops sharply and quickly becomes very deep water, which is impractical with just a mask and snorkel. However, plenty of PADI-accredited dive instructors are on the island, so why not take a few hours to master a SCUBA tank?
Our opinion: For snorkelers, the choice of Corfu or Santorini is easy: it has to be Corfu, with its endless variety of gently sloping beaches that are perfect for snorkel and flippers. Scuba divers can choose either island and be sure of a great dive. But though Corfu may have Paradise Beach, Santorini offers the rare opportunity to dive into an ecology created by a still-active volcano.
The winner: Santorini.
Corfu or Santorini, Round 4: Where To Stay
Santorini Island has that one thing that nowhere else in Greece can beat: the sunset, looking out across those iconic blue and white buildings. Therefore, the best places to stay in Santorini are the hotels with caldera views, which are mainly concentrated around the towns of Imerovigli and Oia. One of our favorites is the Aspaki Exclusive Suites hotel, which gives a perfect, uninterrupted 360-degree view.
For the smart set and trust fund kids, Corfu’s northeast coast – nicknamed “Kensington-on-Sea” – is the up-and-coming place to be. For everyone else, there are two basic choices. If your main interest in Corfu is the party scene, you need to find a place in Kavos.
But if you’re looking for somewhere quieter, we suggest somewhere closer to Corfu Town. The old part of the town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its stunning architecture, so you can start exploring as soon as you set foot outside your hotel.
Our opinion: Both islands offer a decent range of accommodation options. Corfu caters very well to the package holiday crowd with large resorts, but Santorini is smaller, and so it focuses more on the high-end villas and suites. Although there are budget deals to be found on Santorini, it’s undeniable that your money travels further in Corfu.
The Winner: Corfu
Corfu or Santorini, Round 5: Food and Restaurants
In this, the last of our head-to-heads, both islands start with a significant advantage. Because being Greek, the food is already some of the best in the Mediterranean. But we’re committed to a bit more detail, so here it is.
Corfu’s cuisine mixes ingredients and styles from nearby southern Italy and the Balkans. The meals are well-balanced and flavorsome, taking full advantage of fresh vegetables, local produce, and plenty of olive oil. As well as traditional Greek salads, Corfu serves meat dishes, such as the hearty stifado: a beef stew in a rich tomato sauce. And Corfu has its signature dish known as bourdetto, a fish stew (scorpionfish is best!) cooked with onion and sweet and spicy red peppers.
Santorini, as with every other aspect of island life, does things a little differently. The mainstay of the island is fava me koukia: mashed-up fava beans served with everything. The next dish to try is also vegetarian — tomatokeftedes, which are fritters made from delicious cherry tomatoes that only grow in Santorini’s volcanic soil. Also benefiting from the nutritious volcanic ash are 40 different grape varieties, which go to produce wine that’s praised the world over. We suggest a bottle of the Assyrtiko.
Our opinion: If we were judging this on food alone, it would be a draw. But we also need to look at the restaurants; after all: presentation and service are everything. There’s no doubting that Corfu has some great places to eat, such as the Cavalieri Hotel Roof Garden, which looks out over Corfu’s Old Town. But, although we’ve used this ace before, Santorini’s incredible view tips the balance. The Athenian House Restaurant in Imerovigli is only in Santorini’s top ten for food, but it’s known as the best for caldera views. Which is why you need to book at least six months in advance.
The winner: Santorini
Corfu or Santorini: The Final Verdict
Well, a quick tally of the scores should show you that it’s a draw. And although that might seem like a cop-out, we think it’s only fair. Because although both islands share some of the best Greece has to offer, they are inherently different. Corfu is larger, cheaper, and a favorite with partygoers, whereas Santorini is just a little more special. Corfu is a place you’ll want to go back to again and again; Santorini is a place you need only see once.
If you need a bit more persuading, then check out our more detailed guide: 7 Reasons That Make Santorini Worth Visiting.