Crete Or Naxos? Which Greek Island Is Better For You?

Naxos Town, Naxos, Greece
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If you’re trying to choose between the two beautiful islands of Crete and Naxos, then you’ve come to the right place. We know how hard it can be deciding which Greek island to visit when they are all so alluring and have such different things to offer, but we’ve done our best to help you choose between these two. 

You’ll find that they have a lot in common: glorious beaches, delicious food, stunning natural beauty, and activities for days, but there are some differences to be aware of. One is the largest and most southern of Greece’s islands, known for its rich history and wild nightlife. While the other sits further north, amid the Cyclades island group, and is a perfect base for island hopping and exploring.

We’ll discuss the main differences, similarities, and highlights of these islands here to help you choose which one is perfect for your next Greek island adventure. 

Getting There

arrive at either island by plane or ferry
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Crete is undoubtedly easier to get to because it has not one but two international Airports, whereas Naxos’s airport is domestic only, so you’ll need to get a connecting flight through Athens. While that’s not the end of the world, it is a little less convenient. You could also take a ferry from Athens to Naxos in around 4 hours, but to take the boat to Crete, would take about 6 hours.

Once on the islands, you’ll find Naxos easier to explore just because it is so much smaller than Crete. Despite being the largest of the Cyclades, Naxos is only 430 km² compared with Crete’s 8,450 km2. 

Conclusion. Although Naxos is smaller and easier to navigate, we have to give this one to Crete for easy arrivals. 

Getting Away 

Naxos makes the better base for island hopping
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One of the most popular things to do on a Greek vacation is to hop around as many beautiful islands as possible. Naxos, in the middle of the Cyclades island group, is ideally located for this kind of holiday. Visitors can easily take ferries or charter boats to some of Greece’s most famous and popular islands, like romantic Santorini and glamorous Mykonos, which can both be reached in under 90 minutes. And a trip to Paros can take as little as 25 mins when the conditions are right. Or you could take day trips to the conveniently close Small Cyclades Islands, which include such lesser-known gems as barely visited Donoussa and pristine Koufonisia.

Unfortunately, Crete’s location as the most southern of all the Greek islands does not make it the best island-hopping base. Although ferries do run between Crete and some of the other popular islands, the journeys are not quick. Depending on conditions, it takes between 4- 8 hours to reach Santorini or Mykonos, and getting to Rhodes is an overnight journey. But don’t lose heart because there are several islets and uninhabited islands much closer to Crete, and a trip to see their deserted beaches and learn their fascinating histories might be all you need to quench your island hopping thirst. 

Conclusion: Naxos wins this for island hopping ease. 

Nightlife

Crete has the better nightlife of the two islands thanks to wild Malia.
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Nightlife is one of the main reasons people visit Crete. The town of Malia has a serious reputation for partying and is the chosen destination for thousands of young people who flock there every year looking to dance and drink till dawn. You’ll find the main strip packed with bars offering discounts, games, theme nights, competitions, and all manner of alcohol-fuelled debauchery. 

You can find more clubs in Sissi, Sitia, Stalis and Elounda and some lively spots in the cities of Heraklion and Chania. Most of the touristy resort towns have some after-dark activity, although it’ll be of a more mellow nature than that found in Malia. 

Naxos’s nightlife is overshadowed by its livelier neighbors: Mykonos with its Ibiza-esque club scene and wild Ios. But Naxos does know how to throw a party, mainly in Naxos Town, where you’ll find an atmospheric waterfront filled with late-night tavernas perfect for after-dinner drinks, some lively bars, and clubs dishing out a chaotic mix of Greek and European dance music. Elsewhere in Naxos, you’ll find laid-back lounges serving sunset cocktails in all of the resort towns and if you head to the busiest beaches you can dance in the sand at your choice of beach club. 

Conclusion: Naxos is no slouch after dark, but Crete takes the win for nightlife. 

History

The marble door of the unfinished temple of Apollo on Naxos, is a stunning place to visit.
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Crete, like most of Greece, is a history hunter’s dream. The most popular site has to be Knossos. This archaeological gem was once the capital of the ancient Minoan civilization and contained the Palace where the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur took place. To explore a less crowded Minoan archeological site, try the Palace of Phaistos, then visit the Heraklion Archeological Museum to see relics of the bronze age, neolithic, Venetian, and Roman eras.

Take a trip to the old leper colony Spinalonga to hear its fascinating history, visit the Venetian walls of Heraklion and Chania, and the 16th century Roman Fortress in Rethymnon. Or explore the many monasteries and religious sanctuaries that dot the island.

Visitors to Naxos might feel as though they’ve stepped into the pages of Greek Mythology, as myths and legends abound on the island. Be sure to visit Portara, the marble doorway that’s all that remains of an unfinished Temple to Apollo. This is the place where Theseus abandoned Ariadne and where she subsequently married Dionysus. 

The magnificent marble Temple for Demeter is an important site too because the people of Naxos once worshiped Demeter, goddess of earth fertility. The temple has recently been restored using as much of the original marble as possible. 

Conclusion: It’s a close one, but Crete wins for the importance of its Minoan archeological sites. 

Food and Drink

Both Crete and Naxos offer delicious traditional greek food wit their own twist.
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Naxos is proud of its agricultural prowess and with good reason, as the greenest of the Cyclades islands, it is not only self-sufficient but supplies many of the surrounding islands with produce grown in its fertile valleys. Unusually for a Greek island, the emphasis is not on seafood but on the cattle, roosters, rabbits, and goats that graze the fields, and the potatoes, citrus fruits, wild herbs, and walnuts that grow in abundance. 

You can expect signature dishes rich in flavor, featuring slow-cooked meats, excellent olive oil, silky honey, and a fierce preference for everything locally sourced. And, plenty of Kitron, a local spirit made from citrus leaves. 

Crete is another of the Greek islands with a reputation for delicious food a little different from what you find elsewhere in Greece. One of the staples of their menu is cheese. Almost every village on the island makes its own cheese from sheep or goat’s milk and sometimes a blend of the two. The varieties are endless; you’ll find it popping up on most meals and baked into delicious pies. Crete is also known for producing some of Greece’s finest olive oil, seasoning its food with wild mountain greens and herbs, and a wine-making tradition that goes back thousands of years. And if you’re feeling brave, try the Chochlioi Boubouristi, snails fried in flour, oil, and wine. 

Conclusion: Almost too close to call, but we’ll give it to Naxos because we do love self-sufficiency. 

Beaches

Greece has some of the best beaches in the world
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The Greek islands are home to some of the best beaches in the world, and neither of these islands will let you down. Crete is home to the famously photogenic Elafonissi beach with its pastel pink sand made from crushed red coral and shells. And if pink isn’t your color, how about Xi beach’s therapeutic orange clay sand or the black sand of almost inaccessible Aspes? Amongst Crete’s 300 beaches, you’ll definitely find a shade of sand and a beach vibe to suit you. Choose from beaches with freshwater rivers, tropical palm trees, rows of sun loungers and watersports stations, or deserted coves with no one else for miles. 

Naxos is all about long white and golden sand beaches with calm crystal-clear waters perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and lazing the days away. Beautiful Plaka is often named one of Greece’s best beaches, while Agios Georgios is the best for families and anyone wanting to be close to the facilities of Naxos Town. Head to Agia Anna to party in a beach club, Mikri Vigla for the best windsurfing spot, and the Aliko beaches to sunbathe amidst a protected cedar forest. Intrepid explorers should head to the east coast for some almost deserted gems. 

Conclusion: Definitely a draw, the beaches of Naxos and Crete are just stunning. 

Natural Wonders

Caves, mountains and natural wonders are abundant on the Greek islands.
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But it’s not all about the beaches; these islands have their fair share of inland wonders too. Naxos is more mountainous than the rest of the Cyclades and has a hilly green interior crisscrossed with hiking paths. The most popular trail will take you to the top of 1400m Mount Zas, the tallest mountain in the Cyclades and reputedly the birthplace of Zeus – although that claim is up for dispute! 

Because Crete has a cave that it also claims was the birthplace of Zeus, and he was supposedly raised on the 2500m high Mount Ida. Whether it’s true or not, both are impressive sights, as are the other mountains ranging through Crete’s surprisingly rugged interior. Amongst these mountains, you’ll find Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe and one of Crete’s most popular attractions. It takes around 6 hours to walk from one end to the other and offers dramatically beautiful views and an abundance of birds and wildlife. 

Conclusion: Crete wins this one for the drama of Samaria Gorge. 

Cities

Cities are rare on greek islands but you'll find a few on Crete.
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Cities are a rare commodity on Greek islands, but Crete is home to several of them, including Chania, one of the most beautiful cities in Greece with a colorful old town, fantastic architecture, and a lovely Venetian harbor. Heraklion is the largest city, the island’s capital, and the starting place for many activities, tours, and boat trips. It’s a great place to stay if you want to be in a modern hub of restaurants, shops, and bars.

On Naxos, it’s all about Naxos Town also called Chora. The main part of the island and the center of the shopping, dining, and nightlife scenes, this is where many people choose to stay to be in the middle of things. It’s a beautiful town, home to the magical Portara, and filled with white Grecian buildings. The winding streets leading up to the 13th century hill-top Venetian Castle.  

Conclusion: We love Naxos Town, but Crete wins for having a wider choice of cities. 

Crete or Naxos? The Conclusion

The stunning pink sands of Elafonissi beach, Crete.
Photo by Alexandra Tran on Unsplash

So if you’ve been paying attention you’ll have noticed that it’s 5:2 to Crete. But don’t take that win as the final word; it’s important to decide what you want from your vacation before you make your choice. If it’s history, archeology, nightlife, or a choice of city stays, then yes, you probably should head to Crete. But if your dream Greek vacation involves island hopping your heart out, immersing yourself in mythology, or staying somewhere that’s smaller, easier to explore, and feels more like an island, well then we think it should be Naxos. 

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Anita is from Wales and has been a travel addict since her first trip to Australia ten years ago. Since then she's lived and worked in Oz, New Zealand and Canada, worked many ski seasons and travelled widely through South East Asia, Morocco, India and Europe. She's a nomad, freelance writer, foodie, compulsive reader, tea addict and animal lover.