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Crete vs Athens: Which Greek Destination is Better to Visit?

Crete vs Athens
Photo by JRF/The Surf Atlas

Crete vs Athens shouldn’t be too tricky to decide. Yes, both of these places are among the bucket-list spots of Greece, there’s no doubt about that. However, they could hardly be more different. For starters, one’s a buzzing, sprawling megacity, complete with suburbs and cafés and gritty ports. The other, meanwhile, is a sun-kissed isle fringed by beaches and washed by the Libyan Sea.

But before we get carried away with what’s not the same, it’s worth noting that there are lots of things that tie Crete and Athens together. Both offer a taste of that wonderful Greek cuisine. They’re both among the most accessible places in the country – good news for travelers after a no-stress break. And they each come with their own stand-out attractions.

If you’re feeling a little confused about which is the better destination for you this year, you’ve come to the right place. This guide to Crete vs Athens will run through all the various facets of each. It reveals the sort of hotels, the type of activities, and the kind of vacation you can expect overall from both, the lively Greek capital and the country’s largest isle…

Crete vs Athens: The overall vibe

Photo by JRF/The Surf Atlas

There’s not much more to say here than Athens is a city, while Crete is an island. The first trades beaches and bath-warm seas for traffic-choked streets, museums, and electrifying neighborhoods like Koukaki and alternative Exarcheia. The latter prefers vacation resorts with hotels by the lapping Mediterranean Sea, and boasts quaint villages and towns filled with tourist souvenir shops and tourist-orientated tavernas. To put it another way: Crete is for classic R&R holidays, while Athens is for culture trips and shopping.

There are some interesting crossovers where Athens and Crete become pretty similar, though. We’re thinking of down on the so-called Athenian Riviera, where crumbled sunset temples await on Cape Sounio and the sands of Vouliagmeni Beach stretch across the Attican coast. Then you’ve got Heraklion, on Crete. It’s perhaps the closest thing the islands come to a true metropolis, with happening nightlife and loads of shopping and museums.

Winner: Draw. These places are just so different.

Crete vs Athens: Hotels

Crete vs Athens flag
Photo by JRF/The Surf Atlas

There are some seriously wonderful hotels in both Crete and Athens. If we had to pick a strong point, we’d say Crete excels in family aparthotels close to the sea. There are all sorts of those, particularly in the main resort areas west of Chania and close to the Rethymno beaches on the north coast. Check out the likes of Georgioupolis Beach Hotel and the Hotel Creta Princess Aquapark & Spa if that’s what you’re looking for. Crete can also offer a whole kaleidoscope of other accommodation options, though: Rustic cottages in the mountains (Mike Omalos Houses), romantic honeymoon hotels (Infinity Blue Boutique Hotel & Spa) and party pads for Malia-bound 18-30s (Danelis Studios & Apartments).

Then it’s over to Athens. The capital boasts some of the most luxurious places to stay in the whole of Greece. We’d say the key is to score somewhere with a rooftop garden that has views of the Acropolis – both the elegant Stanley and the very, very chic Grand Hyatt Athens are worth looking at if the budget allows. That said, there’s also been lots of talk about the uber-boutique Coco-mat Athens BC, even with rumors of new regulations requiring them to knock the roof off. We also really like the range of serviced apartments in the hip area of Koukaki (2 bedroom flat next to Acropolis) and the super-chic, jet-setter hotels down the riviera (Somewhere Vouliagmeni). 

Winner: Athens

Crete vs Athens: Things to do

Chania, Crete
Photo by JRF/The Surf Atlas

Here’s the crunch of Crete vs Athens: Holidays in these two destinations are likely to be very different indeed.

Most people come to Crete to explore the beaches and soak up the sun. For that, you have the wonderful Balos Lagoon (the majority do a boat trip, but we like the rugged cycle path on the headland) and the pink-tinged shores of Elafonisi. For wilder adventures, pierce inland to the Lefka Ori mountains, where hiking paths take you around Mount Ida or through the Samaria Gorge, complete with wild thyme blooms and mountain goats. And you can get hedonistic nightlife down in Malia or chilled R&R sessions in the resort areas west of Chania.

Trips to Athens should be more about checking off lines from that bucket list. The city hosts some of the most towering monuments in Europe. We’re thinking of the Parthenon on Acropolis Hill, the ancient Athenian Agora, and the eye-watering Temple of Olympian Zeus – all of which date back around two millennia or more. There’s a cracking museum duo, the Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum, to back that up. Oh, and you get gritty bar districts like Exarcheia and hipster cafes down in Koukaki to boot.

Winner: Crete

Crete vs Athens: History

The Parthenon
Photo by JRF/The Surf Atlas

Athens is famed around the globe as the place to go for that hit of ancient Greek history. Some of the most totemic sites in Europe make their home here. A trip to the Acropolis – the onetime hub of the Athenian Empire and the birthplace of democracy – is a must. It costs €10 in the summer season, but you’ll get to see the iconic Parthenon, the huge Theatre of Dionysus, and the great Propylaea gateways that once protected the site from invaders. Free-to-enter Filopappou Hill sits opposite, offering amazing views and a number of other 2,500-year-old ruins. Then you get the wealth of museums, like the award winning National Archaeological Museum (for the real classics buffs) and the shiny new Acropolis Museum (one of the best museum cafés in the world, we’d say!).

Crete also boats a truly rich and enthralling history. Here, however, it’s not all in one place. Instead of whizzing on the metro from site to site, you’ll almost certainly need a car. Knossos is the place to start. It offers a glimpse into the Bronze Age (that’s older than Athens) Minoan Civilization through painted palaces and great marketplaces that date back to 3000 BC. The adjoining Heraklion Archaeological Museum is a must too, with its bronze daggers and haunting snake-god figurines. There are more modern stories to be told on the marina of Chania, a town with a long Venetian past, and at the erstwhile leper colony of Spinalonga in the east.

Winner: Athens. But Crete shouldn’t disappoint history lovers, either.

Crete vs Athens: Traveling to and around

Traffic in Crete
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You might think that Athens, as the capital and main transport hub of Greece, would win this one hands down. But there’s actually a lot going for Crete when it comes to ease of travel. Because it’s such a popular summertime vacay destination, the island is served by a whole load of flights coming in from major cities across Europe. It’s got two airports – one in Chania and one just east of Heraklion. That means you can access pretty much any resort in Crete within about three hours’ drive. One downside is that the roads are nowhere near the best in the country. A particularly wayward sat nav took us on a gnarly mountain track without asphalt back in 2014. We’re still here to tell the tale, but we did learn that Cretan maps might not be the most trustworthy.

Athens has no such problem with infrastructure. As you might expect of a capital city, all the streets are tarmacked and modern. The traffic isn’t ideal, but the truth is you probably won’t be driving all that much. The Athens Metro is uber-efficient and links up the main sites – the Acropolis, Piraeus port, Syntagma Square – to the airport (the ride there takes no more than 40 minutes). Piraeus itself is also worth noting because ferries from all over Greece come into the docks there. It’s a good point of access if you’re hopping back from Santorini, Mykonos, Milos – the list goes on. Then there’s the airport: Athens International Airport Eleftherios Venizelos. It’s a major international hub, hosts both long-haul and short-haul flights, and has far more non-seasonal connections than its compadres in Crete.

Winner: Athens.

Crete vs Athens: Costs

Athens temple
Photo by JRF/The Surf Atlas

The age-old rule of city versus country applies here. Basically, Athens is considerably more expensive that Crete simply because it’s the capital. You’ll pay more for almost everything, especially food and drink. Overall, travel costs collator Budget Your Trip says that an average daily budget in the metropolis is around €72 ($87). We’d say the costs will be particularly high if you want to stay in famous tourist areas like the Plaka. Even an artisan ice cream there can set you back more than €5 ($6), while beers in Acropolis-view bars tend to be the same! The only thing that might be cheaper in Athens compared to Crete is accommodation. That’s because there are some wonderful backpacker hostels that can be had for a bargain, meaning you can pay just €15-30/night for a dorm room.

Crete is cheaper, but it’s not exactly Eastern Europe cheap. Remember that much of the stuff here needs to be imported because you’re on an island. That’s what cranks the cost of a 0.5-liter beer to around the €4,50 mark. Food is generally better value than in Athens. We’ve eaten fantastically well in Chania (in the wonderful Tamam) for €15/head including wine. That’s something you could only dream of back in the big city. When it comes to hotels, the rates on Crete vary loads. There are some hostels but they’re not usually in the locations that really hit the headlines. What’s more, the cost of villas and resorts skyrockets between June and August, so there’s those seasonal trends to factor in.

Winner: Crete. It’s just all-round cheaper for most things.

The verdict

The rugged isle of Crete and the vibrant, historic city of Athens are two very different places. For that reason, we’d have to say that there’s no runaway winner here. It all really depends on what you’re after from your holiday. For enthralling ancient sites, shopping and nightlife, Athens is almost certainly top of the bill. For lazing on beaches, hiking in empty mountain ranges, and swimming in bath-warm seas, Crete’s the option to go for.

Our best suggestion would be to tie both spots into a Greek island-hopping itinerary. There are actually direct ferries from the capital’s port in Piraeus to Crete. They go approximately 30 times per week in the high season and take between seven and 12 hours in total. There are also flights, which can be had on regional carrier Aegean Air.