Rhodes or Crete? Greece’s Largest Isle or a History Mecca?

Rhodes or Crete
Photo by 12019/Pixabay
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If your Greek island odyssey this year has come down to Rhodes or Crete, then you’re in a pretty good place. Why? Well…these are two of the southern Med’s most incredible islands. They both are baked by the sun for much of the year, have balmy temperatures from May to October, brim with history both ancient and medieval, and offer beaches and beach hotels for all sorts of travelers.

So, what’s the difference? Well, Crete and Rhodes don’t sit in the same parts of Greece. One’s the southernmost of the Aegean, while the other is very far out east (and would be the furthest east, were it not for tiny Kastellorizo!). That means a differing climate (but only slightly) and natural makeup, and it gives each island a unique cultural past.

These are the sorts of things that we’ll touch on in this list, which pits both islands against each other to help you decide if it will be Crete or Rhodes this year. We’ll go through some of the most important aspects of any vacation in Greece, from the standard of the hotels to the quality of the beaches. Let’s begin…

Rhodes or Crete for history and culture?

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Here’s a tricky one. Yep, both Crete and Rhodes are famed among all other 6,000 or so Greek islands for their rich history. They each boast UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They each have stories that go back centuries – nay, millennia!

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On Crete, the headline acts for history buffs have to be the ruins of Knossos and the related museum in Heraklion. They offer a glimpse into what was once the epicenter of the Minoan civilization, which predates the Athenian Empire by more than 1,000 years. Access to the main site of Knossos itself reveals glorious palace complexes, a throne room, and restored murals depicting ancient myths. There are relics of all sorts, from swords to sarcophagi, at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, many of which were discovered at the Knossos dig site itself. On top of all that, Crete also offers a trio of handsome Venetian-styled port towns with winding cobbled lanes and 16th-century sites. The best of them is probably Chania, which is like a living museum topped by a gorgeous lighthouse.

Rhodes, meanwhile, is crowned by the majestic fortresses of the Grand Masters. The island was once an outpost on the very edge of European Christendom, and these mighty citadels were raised by the Crusaders on their quest eastward. There’s some amazing immersion to be had. Just duck under the fortifications of Rhodes Town, which go back to the 1300s AD, and explore the crenulated tops of the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes (simply called The Kastello for short). From there, you can peer back to Classical Greece with a trip to the Acropolis of Rhodes (home to Olympic stadia and temple ruins) or head over to the eye-watering Church of the Panagia, topped by a carved belfry and adorned with beautiful Greek Orthodox mosaics.

Winner: Rhodes, but this is very tight. We’d say those interested in ancient Greek history should pick Crete instead.

Rhodes or Crete for beaches?

Crete beach
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

So, to the beaches. Don’t worry – both Rhodes and Crete are lined to the hilt with class-A stretches of sand. There are plenty to go around on both islands, to suit all sorts of holidaymakers, from coasteering adventure buffs to families looking for sandcastle building.

Rhodes can roughly be divided into two when it comes to beaches. The southeast coast that runs away from Rhodes Town via Faliraki has the softer, more developed sands and resorts. Occasionally, the shoreline there pokes out to form a headland, and there are often wonderful snorkeling spots with reefs as it does. The northwest feels the brunt of the northern Aegean swells, so it’s got rougher seas and rockier beaches, but it’s fantastic if you want to escape the crowds. We’d say the top three beaches in Rhodes are:

  • Anthony Quinn Bay – Don’t forget the snorkeling gear for a trip to this Seychelles-esque bay around from Faliraki.
  • LindosThe most popular beach of all in Rhodes, with lots of sunbeds, safe swimming, and lovely B&Bs right by the shore.
  • Tsambika Beach – Sheltered and with azure waters, this is the sort of Rhodes beach you’ve seen in the travel brochures.

Then you have Crete. This colossal isle has more than four times the length of coastline as Rhodes. And if that sounds like a clue as to where will come out on top here, that’s because it is. The beaches of Crete run the gamut from strange, pink-tinged isthmus beaches on the Libyan Sea to wave-bashed beaches on the Mediterranean. There’s something for all sorts of travelers and we especially love:

  • Elafonisi – The red-hint to the sand on this far-flung southern beach comes from eroded coral in the Libyan Sea.
  • Falasarna – Waves roll into the small coves of this western beach, while tomato plantations hide under the huge mountains behind.
  • Balos – The Balos Lagoon is a day trip for true beach lovers, swirling with white sand and turquoise water on the far northwestern edge of Crete.

Winner: Crete. There are some seriously amazing bays here that set Crete on another level, but let’s be clear – Rhodes has spectacular beaches, and enough to keep you going for weeks on end.

Rhodes or Crete for nightlife?

A beach in Faliraki
Photo by Antonio Magrì/Unsplash

There’s good news for hedonists – there’s a party place on both these islands. In Rhodes, that’s Faliraki. Known for its pumping 18-30s clubs, the town on the southeast coast is a thumping medley of pub crawls and shot parties come May. It’s got a strip that runs along the coast, replete with sunset cocktail bars and late-night discos. One thing to note is that there’s been a bit of a change in the vibe here in the last five years, seeing Faliraki calm a lot in the face of local noise complaints and whatnot. It’s been rebranding itself as something of a family resort, though there’s still wild nightlife in the peak summer.

Crete matches Faliraki with Malia. The town on the north coast is also home to a wild strip that doesn’t stop rollicking with dancers and drinkers in the summertime. It’s got sprawling mega clubs, karaoke bars, and casual sports bars alike, running south to north all the way to main Malia Beach. That’s for the 18-30s crowd, but there’s also something in the Greece for those who prefer local nightlife. You can hit Matala for hippy music shows in open-air cocktail bars. You can go to Chania to dance in rock clubs around the marina. Or there’s Heraklion, with its local-driven nightlife scene and craft bars.

Winner: Crete. It’s more varied here, what with local nightlife and 18-30s resorts.

Rhodes or Crete for towns and cities?

A street in Rhodes Town
Photo by Andrew Vvedenskij/Unsplash

One of the great things about Crete is that it’s big enough to feel almost like a country unto itself. You get the usual Greek beach resorts and the mountain villages, but you also get lived-in towns and cities. Chania in the west is a personal favorite. It’s a charming mix of winding alleys and bougainvillea-strewn tavernas that spills into a Venetian harbor. Then there’s Heraklion, the fifth-largest city in Greece, offering the vibes of a true metropolis within reach of the sands and sparkling sea. There’s also all manner of smaller towns that are lovely, from whitewashed Loutro on the south coast to low-key Rethymno with its own Venetian sites on the north.

Rhodes only really has one major town. It’s known as, simply, Rhodes Town and it’s downright gorgeous. It hugs a harbor on the eastern pinnacle of the island where it flaunts a UNESCO World Heritage tag for its medieval castles and keeps. You’re certain to be wowed by the soaring Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes and the ancient marina area. However, that’s just about it when it comes to lived-in urban areas here. There is smaller Lindos but it’s more of a resort. There’s also Faliraki, but that’s more of a party town.

Rhodes or Crete for outdoors adventure?

Hiking a gorge in Crete
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

We think there can only really be one winner here: Crete. The largest island in the country is scored from one end to the other by soaring mountains that clock up more than 2,000 meters in height. They run from the Lefka Ori (the White Mountains) in the west through to the summits that roll around Mount Ida (the highest in Crete) in the east. You can see them from both coasts, sometimes even topped with dashes of snow come the winter months.

Naturally, there’s oodles of hiking to be done within. The trails up peaks like Pakhnes and Ida itself offer trekking through Mars-like landscapes where the occasional gnarled olive tree and calling group of goats is the only company. They will take you to the roof of the island, up above old-school villages where tanned locals sit with coffees overlooking the squares.

Crete also hosts some of the most incredible gorges in Europe. The most famous is the UNESCO-attested Samaria Gorge, which carves through the western mountains from Omalos to the Libyan Sea. However, we think the Aradena Gorge is a little more dramatic. It soars to over 130 meters high on both sides and finishes with a flurry at the stunning pebble cove of Marmara Beach.

For its part, Rhodes is dashed with its own peaks. They aren’t as high as the ones in Crete but they do have some treats for explorers. You’ll want to check out the Butterfly Valley, a grove of trees that hides gurgling waterfalls and gets packed with butterflies at certain times of the year. There’s also great hiking on the Lindos Peninsula (to find secret beaches) and up amid the forests of Agia Soula (home to a protected native deer species).

Winner: Crete.

Rhodes or Crete for ease of travel?

Crete travel
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Neither Rhodes nor Crete should be a chore to get to. One of the rare upsides of being so darn popular is that there are plenty of ways to get in, whether you’re planning on hopping on a plane or going old school over the Med by boat.

Rhodes is home to the fourth-busiest airport in the whole country. It’s located in Paradeisi on the north shore of the island, about 15 minutes’ drive from Rhodes Town and 20 minutes’ drive from the resort of Faliraki. These days, the runways serve flights coming in from all over Europe, although the vast majority of connections are seasonal (they only run between May and October). Some of the most popular routes link Rhodes Airport with Paris, London, Berlin, and Munich, but there are oodles more. Look out for cheap fares with carriers like Ryanair and Wizz, which often have the most bargain seats of all. There are also a few ways to arrive at Rhodes by boat. The isle regularly figures as the eastern terminus of island-hopping itineraries, which means there are overnight trips on offer from Santorini and even Athens. Or you could also hop straight over from Turkey. It’s closer and direct boats come in from Bodrum and Marmaris.

Crete might seem like it would be poorly linked to the rest of Greece – just look at how far away it is from Athens! However, the country’s biggest island is actually one of the easiest of all to reach. That’s mainly down to the fact that there’s not just one airport here, but two. The busiest is Heraklion, while Chania also brings in loads of low-cost links from European hubs. You can seek out seasonal links from cities all across Europe, along with domestic connections from Athens and other islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas. What’s great about Crete, though, is that many of the flights continue to operate despite the end of the high season, so it’s a good choice for some Greek winter sun. Anyone traveling by boat will find good ferry links to Crete from popular isles like Santorini, along with options from Athens and the Peloponnese.

Winner: Crete. Two airports seal the deal.

Rhodes or Crete for hotels?

Lindos, Rhodes
Photo by steel902/Pixabay

There’s a touch under 10,000 separate properties up for rent on the island of Crete according to Booking.com. That’s a formidable amount to choose from, so the main worry here is likely to be picking the right one, not finding it in the first place. What’s more, hotels in Crete cover a whole kaleidoscope of different styles. You get the classic family guesthouse by the beach, along with inner-city aparthotels in Chania and Heraklion, and chic stone villas in the mountains, and deluxe honeymoon hotels with spas – the list goes on. Some suggestions to help you get started on that accommodation search would be:

  • Almyrida Bay Hotel ($$) – For us, Almyrida Bay Hotel is the perfect midrange family option. Located in a charming bay come village with tavernas and a beach, it boasts a pool and clean, contemporary rooms.
  • Carme Villas ($$) – A private home rental with a pool and a view that’s perfect for those who want a little more privacy in Crete.
  • Esperides Resort Crete, The Authentic Experience ($$$) – Pure luxury, this opulent, five-star resort offers the height of pampering on the cliffs above Hersonissos in eastern Crete.

Rhodes has no shortage of hotels, either. Nope, there’s an estimated 2,300 properties in the mix here for holidaymakers according to Booking.com. Given that Rhodes is smaller than Crete, that’s roughly in line with what you’d expect. Again, there are all sorts. Charming townhouse B&Bs nestle into Rhodes Town, while big resorts with pools string down the southeastern coastline. Here are some of our favorites:

Winner: Draw. You won’t be shy of hotel options on either of these islands, don’t worry about that.

Rhodes or Crete for things to do?

Rhodes Town Castle
Photo by manfredrichter/Pixabay

Rhodes is a byword for proper R&R for most people. It hardly disappoints on that count, offering up lazy beaches like Gennadi next to charming villages like Lindos, where you can experience the quintessential Greek-island rigmarole: Long taverna lunches, sunset cocktails, days under the sun. But Rhodes isn’t just for relaxing. There’s stacks of history (see above) and we simply love getting lost in the maze-like center of Rhodes Town, between the ancient temples and the Byzantine churches. On top of that, you can always head to Faliraki to let your hair down – it’s a pumping 18-30s resort with shot bars and DJ sets all through the summer.

Crete is similar in that it’s got a whole load of things to do for a whole load of different types of travelers. However, it takes things even further. When you’re done lazing on the sands west of Chania, head to the Lefka Ori mountains to hike above the clouds, or delve into the UNESCO Samaria Gorge to complete one of the country’s best point-to-point treks. Proper ancient history sites beckon down in Knossos, too, while the parties are wilder than ever in Malia, Crete’s answer to Faliraki and Kavos. You’ll also want to take some time to sample the unique Cretan kitchen. It’s different to Greek cuisine, best served in the hidden eateries of Chania and Heraklion – Taman, Throubi.

Winner: Crete. It’s bigger, plus the pull of the mountains!

Rhodes or Crete for food?

Taverna menu in Crete
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Being one of the easternmost isles of the Aegean Sea, Rhodes showcases a cuisine that takes a nod from Turkey and the Middle East, but is still overarchingly Greek. Mezze dining is key. That means ordering many small dishes for sharing between everyone at the table. Most tavernas have long lists to pick from – tzatziki, aubergine dip, Greek salad, stewed highland greens. Some dishes that are unique to Rhodes are the crusty rye bread that goes fantastically with local olive oil and bulgur wheat salads infused with lemon and mountain herbs.

Crete, as per usual, does things a touch differently. The island calls the local cooking “Cretan,” not “Greek.” That’s not to say that you can’t get your favorites – everything from feta-topped salad to gyros is on the menu here. It’s more that there’s a selection of dishes that are unique to Crete that are only served here. They include crispy dakos pizza breads, milky Mizithra cheese slathered in honey, slow-stewed lamb, and kaltsounia cheese pasties.

Winner: Draw. There’s no going hungry and both places have fantastic cuisine.

The verdict

If it’s come down to Rhodes or Crete, you don’t have to worry too much. We think both of these islands should be visited at least once, by everyone. What’s more, they are actually pretty similar – think rugged beaches set under high mountains, rich histories of ancient people and medieval castles, and enough hotels to cater to families, couples, and adventurers all at the same time.

The main difference really is in the size. Crete is bigger. A lot bigger. It’s the place to go if you want a long odyssey exploring lagoons and snorkeling coves and high peaks. Rhodes is more compact, so probably superior if you just want to jet in, hit the hotel, and relax with the family.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.