If your island getaway for 2021 has come down to Zakynthos or Kefalonia, we’d say you’re in a pretty good place. Yep, these are two of the serious stunners of the Ionian region, an area of the Mediterranean that sort of straddles the end of the Italian Adriatic and the rugged sides of western Greece. It’s filled with precisely the sort of thing most folk are after from a vacation in these parts: White-sand beaches, empty pebble coves, pine forests, and lazy villages brimming with tavernas. Nice.
But should you pick Zakynthos or Kefalonia? That’s the question. There are a few key differences to consider when it comes to these idyllic lands. Although they’re only 12 miles apart and form the very beating heart of their own island chain, each gives a varied take on Greek island life. One might be better for hardcore partiers looking to let loose and guzzle ouzo. The other could be a top option for adventurers wanting to pull on the hiking boots and hit the eucalyptus-scented hills.
Cue this guide. It will weigh up a few of the most important factors that anyone looking to book a Greek island escape should have on their mind. From the best beaches to the main activities to the overall vibe, it gives the lowdown on Zakynthos versus Kefalonia for 2021. Let’s begin…
Zakynthos or Kefalonia: The vibe
Both Zakynthos and Kefalonia are in the Ionian island chain. That means they both offer that unique western Greek culture; something intriguingly influenced by the Balkans and Italy, which are right on the doorstep. If we had to pinpoint the main thing that sets them apart, we’d say that Zakynthos is certainly the more quintessential holiday isle. It’s got a whole southern and eastern coastline that’s whole MO is summertime package tourism. Go to those to encounter towns like Laganas (pumping bar street included) and Tsilivi (family hotels galore).
Kefalonia does have resort areas, but they’re nowhere near as hedonistic as over on Zante (the Italian name for Zakynthos). From affluent and sleepy Fiskardo in the north to the pebble beaches of Poros on the eastern shoreline, there are loads of places you can go to completely escape the crowds. And that’s not even mentioning the remote highland villages, where you might not encounter another tourist throughout your whole trip. Some places do get higher numbers of visitors – Skala, Lassi, Argostoli – but they’re still relaxed affairs, with traditional tavernas rather than beating DJ discos and shot bars.
Winner: Draw. This one’s really down to what you want.
Zakynthos or Kefalonia: The looks
Let’s start with Kefalonia. Just a mention of the name is usually enough to stir the heart strings. This is usually considered to be the star of the Ionian island chain. That might be down to the fact that it’s the largest of the whole archipelago. However, we prefer to think it’s because Kefalonia is, simply, stunning. Scarred by the 1,600-meter-high top of Mount Énos, it’s got a rugged backcountry covered in rare fir forests, dotted by time-stood-still villages, and filled with remote valleys awash with fluttering butterflies. Then you add in the coast. Wowza. The shores are true Ionia – think soaring cliffs of chalk-white stone lurching straight from still, turquoise seas.
As it’s only 12 miles to the south of Kefalonia, Zakynthos is unsurprisingly pretty similar in terms of looks. However, it manages to hit a relatively modest point of just 758 meters above sea level at the summit of Vrachionas. That mountain ridge dominates the western side of the island, which is unquestionably the hardest area to reach but also the most beautiful. It’s the home of uber-famous Navagio Beach (more on that later) and unfolds in a majestic show of sheer cliff faces that gleam pure white over the end of the Adriatic Sea. Zakynthos’s eastern and southern sides are way more developed than anywhere on Kefalonia, but the villages – which managed to survive WWII – still have age-old touches of architecture.
Winner: Kefalonia – it’s all about the nature!
Zakynthos or Kefalonia: Beaches
You’re not going to have a hard time finding spectacular beaches on either of these islands. Both have those dramatic, cliff-backed sands that Ionia is so famous for. Zakynthos probably has the most famous of the lot, though. Cue Navagio Beach. It’s also known as Shipwreck Beach and could just be the most-photographed spot in the Greek islands aside from the Santorini caldera. It’s a stunning place, no doubt, with craggy rocks topped by lush forests descending into a hidden cove where a rusting old ship still sits on the sand. You’ll need to get a taxi boat in from Porto Vromi, but the best photo ops are probably on the lookout points above. Other beaches on Zante are more relaxed, resort-style places, like Gerakas and little Agios Nikolaos.
Kefalonia has beaches with super clear water and pristine sand. They’re rarely as developed as the ones on its compadre island to the south. The chart toppers are Myrtos Beach, a cotton-white wisp of rough powder that lies beneath the rugged tops of Agia Dynati on the north-west coast, and Foki Fiskardo Beach, a secret yachter’s cove that’s entirely surrounded by fragrant pine woods. Basically, the key thing here is that the west shore is wild and breath-taking, but the east is more accessible and better for chilled sunbathing.
Winner: Zakynthos. It just has to be because of Shipwreck Beach.
Zakynthos or Kefalonia: Nightlife
When it comes to nightlife, Zakynthos and Kefalonia really do like to do things differently. Kefalonia prefers laid-back, easy-going evenings. For the most part, your nights on this pine-clad, wave-lapped isle will be about devouring big mezze dinners by the shore and watching the boats bob in the marina. That, or chilling up in your own private villa as the sun sets. Basically, even the liveliest towns on Kefalonia (Sami, Skala) only have a handful of music bars. They can be rowdy but are often packed with just as many Greek revellers as international partiers.
It’s a whole different story down in Zakynthos. Here, the town of Laganas is nothing short of legendary on the Greek island party circuit. It’s up there with Malia (in Crete) and Ios and Mykonos, pulling in 18-30s drinkers from May to September with the promise of cheap booze deals and raucous pub crawls. The action is all cantered on the Laganas Strip but the vibe has also spilled over into neighbouring towns like Kalamaki.
Zakynthos or Kefalonia: Getting there and around
Zakynthos International Airport (ZTH) is perfectly located on the south side of the isle, just a stone’s throw from the main resort at Laganas (less than 10 minutes’ drive in a taxi). In total, it handles nearly two million passengers annually and receives flights on budget, premium, and charter carriers from all over Europe. Zakynthos also has a major ferry terminal at Zakynthos Town. Boats come in there from Patras, Kyllini, and even Brindisi over in Italy. Once on Kefalonia, there are fairly decent roads linking the popular towns, but there are no motorways. Still, you can drive from one side of the island to the other in under 50 minutes, so that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Kefalonia also has its own airport. The Kefalonia International Airport (EFL) is a touch smaller than the one over on Zante. It handles just under 800,000 passengers each year, and has a reduced array of services. However, you can still arrive directly here from key European changeover hubs like London Stansted, Frankfurt, Bergamo, and Amsterdam. Argostoli, Sami, and Poros are the three main ports. They get boats from Italy and mainland Greece. It’s also possible to get national bus network tickets in from Athens, but it’s a pretty long ride! Driving around Kefalonia can be tricky. The mountain roads are windy and remote. That said, route 50 offers a loop around the whole island on very well maintained single-lane roads.
Winner: Zakynthos, but only because it’s served by more package flights in the summer.
Zakynthos or Kefalonia: Things to do
You won’t be short on things to add to the itinerary on either of these islands. They’re two of the largest in the Ionian region, so come packed with enthralling things to do and see.
Take Zakynthos. The obvious first port of call is that jaw-droppingly stunning Shipwreck Beach. There are oodles of package boat tours that can take you there, but also exciting hikes to the lookout points above the bay (that’s one of Greece’s top photo opportunities for sure). Flip to the east coast and you could dip in the waters of Xigia Sulfur Beach. It’s a stunning bay but also a sort of natural spa bath, with mineral-rich seas that get super deep just meters from the shore. Add to that party nights in Laganas and swimming with sea turtles in the Zakynthos Marine Park and there’s plenty to be getting on with.
We’d say Kefalonia has less of an overtly touristy line up of things to do; more of an authentically Greek feel. Start in the enchanting village of Fiskardo, where cheese-sizzling tavernas overlook a glorious bay of see-through water. That’s the perfect place to plan adventures deeper into the island. They could include jaunts to the awesome Melissani Cave (an otherworldly lake in a grotto) or hikes on the lovely Cypress Trail through lush coast evergreens. You’ve also got the Ainos National Park to factor in – it’s a mountain biker’s, bird watcher’s, rambler’s dream come true.
So, where should I go, Zakynthos or Kefalonia?
We hope this guide has outlined a few of the key similarities and differences between these two ever-popular Greek islands. We also hope that it’s helped you to decide between Zakynthos and Kefalonia for this year’s adventure.
To sum up, we’d put it like this: Zakynthos is more tourist orientated. It’s got a whole load of package resorts and seasoned tour outfitters that can whisk you off to see iconic Shipwreck Beach or to swim with leatherback turtles in the Ionian Sea. The nightlife on Zante is also far more hedonistic than over on Kefalonia, thanks mainly to the pumping 18-30s resort of Laganas on the south coast.
Kefalonia, meanwhile, beckons with untouched backcountry and idyllic coastlines. It’s one of the most nature-rich and adventure-ready islands in Greece, with soaring mountains of over 1,600 meters for hikers and bikers, along with enclosed bays for wild swimmers and snorkelers. The towns are charming but not traditional because a lot of them were destroyed in the war, but the vibe is more relaxed and easy going throughout.