Spring is right around the corner, and it can’t come quickly enough for those of us living in areas pummeled by snow and chilly winter temps. As travelers plan their upcoming vacations in search of warmer weather, many hotels, restaurants and bars on the Greek islands are opening for business after closing for the winter. The isles are one of the most popular European destinations this time of year, offering culture, delicious food, plenty of beautiful beaches and an overall respite from daily life.
But with more than 1,400 islands, choosing which ones to visit, can be a daunting task. Two of the most popular are the neighboring Santorini and Mykonos islands in an area known as the Cyclades. This cluster sitting southeast of mainland Greece, draws the most amount of visitors between the months of April and October, but the weather is warmest from June to August and cools down again in October.
These two islands are the perfect pair because geographically they are compatible and accessible via a high-speed ferry that takes approximately two hours. Both beautiful in their own right, they offer two very similar experiences yet are very different in many ways, so we’ve placed them side-by-side and broken them down by category to help travelers decide which one best fits your travel wants.
Mykonos — Its beaches are some of the most picturesque in Greece featuring clear blue water to swim in, pristine sand and plenty of models. Celebrities and beautiful people from all over the world visit it for its wild beach scene that’s much like Ibiza, but on a smaller scale. Each beach has its own vibe and they are somewhat close together, which makes beach-hopping via scooter or open-air Jeep fairly easy and fun. You’ll be hard pressed to find many visitors without a cocktail in hand during the day; and dancing on rentable cabanas and lounge chairs is typical behavior. Mykonos is a seasonal island that opens in April and closes in October, so visiting in the beginning of the season and toward the end guarantees less crowds and loud music but may not guarantee temps high enough for a swim.
Try — Ornos is one of the most beautiful beaches, offering plenty of fabulous lounge furniture, including white couches in the sand, and a variety of upscale restaurants to choose from for a mid-day snack, the most notable being Kuzina with its modern, art deco theme, located in the Ammos Hotel. It is also one of the windier beaches because of how open it is on all sides, so try visiting on a calm day.
Santorini — This island offers a beach experience apart from the norm. With black sand and red-sand cliffside areas formed from volcanic rock, its beaches are quite different from the typical white sand beaches you’d find in other places. Take in the island’s eye-popping views by exploring the various options via car or ATV, but plan ahead and consult a map because the roads are somewhat confusing and the beaches are very spread out. Depending on what part of the island you stay in, some are 45 minutes to one-hour away, but they are all worth the trip.
Try — Red Beach in particular is a must-see with its deep auburn color, but you can only reach it by foot or by boat. If you decide to go by foot, it’s an adventure getting there that requires a short climb. Some people label it a “hike,” and for extra caution they bring sneakers for sturdier footing and then change into flip-flops once they reach the sand, but if you tread carefully that’s not exactly necessary. There is also the option of seeing the beach by boat, but access is only available by swimming to shore. This beach offers many photo opportunities but no food or drink options. Instead, bring a picnic lunch or grab a sandwich and a buy some Fix (the local beer) from the cart at the top of the hill before your descent.
Mykonos — Having a bad meal in Greece in virtually impossible, and Mykonos is no exception. The food here is light, fresh and very seafood-focused, and there are plenty of options to choose from whether it’s an upscale dining establishment in Mykonos Town (also known as Chora by the locals) or casual beachside café you are looking for. Remember to make reservations well in advance, especially in the peak season, as most places are very small and fill up fast.
Try — Kiki’s is a tiny, hidden lunch spot atop the quiet Agios Sostis beach on the eastern side of the island that is not to be missed. Choose which whole fresh fish you want and then watch it cook on an outdoor grill built into a stone column. For starters, saunter into the kitchen and choose two or three of their fresh salads ranging from curry chicken to chickpeas with jalapenos.
Photo Credit: Mylos Bar Restaurant
Santorini — The fare in Santorini is some of the best in the world whether you decide on a fine dining option or a typical Greek taverna during your stay. Add in breathtaking views from Oia, friendly, efficient service anywhere you go and meals fit for king no matter which restaurant you choose.
Try — Mylos Bar Restaurant in the quiet village of Firostefani is a feast for the eyes and senses. The chef’s modern interpretation of Greek flavors and ingredients is a gastronomic experience, and the addition of science-based cooking and presentation techniques makes for a fun night. To start, don’t miss the shrimp three ways, one of which is broth creatively-sipped from a test tube.
Mykonos — The island is world-renowned for its beaches, parties and nightlife, including some of the best-dressed people in the world from the most elite social circles. So it’s no surprise that another popular activity on the island is shopping in Mykonos Town, where plenty of high-end options can be found, including Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo and Gucci, among others.
Try — Shop ‘til you drop but take a break and stop for lunch at Jimmy’s, a casual gyro joint near all the stores that has the best gyros and souvlaki on the island (and maybe anywhere for that matter).
Santorini — Being a beach bum is just one option on Santorini. The island is also known for its wineries as well as its rich history and ruins.
Try — Akrotiri, an indoor archeological site featuring one of the most important prehistoric settlements of the Aegean, is an entire city slowly but surely being unearthed. It’s approximately five minutes down the road from Red Beach so it makes sense to visit both in the same day. For wine tasting, Santo Wines has arguably the best view of the island’s famous sunset, and Domaine Sigalas has won many prestigious awards which is evident in the quality of their wine sampled at their indoor/outdoor tasting room.
Photo Credit: Boheme
Mykonos — There are many luxurious options here, and the majority of people stay either on the beach or in Mykonos Town. Both, however, can be very loud at night.
Try — Boheme is a quick five- to 10-minute ride via cab or car from most of the beaches and a three-minute walk into town. With a beautifully-appointed outdoor pool, lounge area, bar and breathtaking views of the famous sunsets over the island’s iconic windmills, the hotel is a destination unto itself. Be sure to throw in a traditional Greek breakfast served on a private balcony every morning. Modern, clean, whitewashed rooms and impeccable personalized service makes this hotel the perfect home base in Mykonos.
Photo Credit: The Aisling Micro Hotel
Santorini — The island is best known for its many whitewashed hotels tucked into the side of the cliff, otherwise known as the Caldera, with their breathtaking views of the sea. Even though there are several ideal villages to rest your head at night, for maximum peace, quiet and luxury, travelers flock to Oia. Its sunset views, restaurants and shopping are unparalleled, making choosing a hotel there difficult.
Try — The Aisling Micro Hotel is located in the middle of Oia (with a second location in neighboring Imerovigli) overlooking the Caldera, so guests can enjoy the gorgeous views without having to hike up and down dozens of steps each time they leave or return to their room. This property features a mere three split-level suites, appropriately named the Daydream, Numinous and Lucid suites. They come with a private Jacuzzi, balcony for fabulous people-watching and breakfast served al fresco every morning. Guests of each residence get treated like royalty by their personal 24/7 concierge who not only handles their every need, but leaves surprises in the room throughout their stay. Some examples include: a handwritten note and bottle of Vinsanto, the traditional sweet dessert wine; or candles arranged to spell the word love for honeymooners and couples. The personalized attention received at this hotel not only makes planning your itinerary easy, but adds a touch of magic to the stay as well.
Mykonos — The lively beachside restaurants and bars that host daytime parties keep the celebrations going long after the sun goes down, blasting music into the wee hours of the morning. Mykonos Town, a labyrinth of quaint—but somewhat confusing—small streets and alleys, also comes alive at night with a slew of small bars and clubs within the town. But don’t drink too many Mythos beers or you might not find your way home.
Try — By the beach, try Nammos, which is one of the most famous places to rub elbows with celebrities. Located on Psarou Beach, this beach club and restaurant hosts world-renowned DJs and is the place to see and be seen. In Mykonos Town, clubgoers have been flocking to Caprice in the Little Venice section for over 25 years.
Santorini — There are only a handful of bars on the island, mostly in the capital of Fira, and clubs are nonexistent. Because Santorini is not generally known to be a clubbing destination, most of the villages are fairly quiet after midnight. Instead, try visiting a restaurant with live music for low-key but authentic entertainment.
Try — Santorini Mou is hidden on the main road in Oia with zero caldera views, but this typical Greek Taverna not only serves up some of the best food in all of Santorini but attracts celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Billy Joe Armstrong, whose photos hang on the walls. The owner holds court at a table by the door and entertains diners with his guitar playing, singing, hearty laugh and warm smile. Brave patrons can even dance the traditional Zorba around the restaurant, making for a memorable night.