Athens or Santorini – how to choose where to go?

Athens or Santorini – how to choose where to go?

Athens and Santorini are Greek destinations topping every visitor’s list and two of my favorite places. They are also the best places Greece has to offer, so if you don’t have the time to visit them both, read check out my comprehensive guide on how to pick the right one for your next holiday, including history and monuments, landscapes, beaches, nightlife, activities, gastronomy, culture, and general atmosphere.

Quick answers and general tips

Athens is the capital city of Greece and one of the largest cities in Europe. Contemporary Athens is a very lively city, bustling with a Mediterranean lifestyle and constantly leaning on its historic and ancient heritage.

Looking up to the Acropolis from the Roman Agora, Athens, Greece
Looking up to the Acropolis from the Roman Agora, Athens, Greece

It’s a fantastic place for sightseeing, people-watching, museums, galleries, and shopping. After all, the famous Acropolis is in Athens!

Santorini is a volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, world-famous for its architecture, landscapes, romantic atmosphere, and stunning sunsets, a place with rich maritime history turning towards luxury tourism nowadays.

It has some of Greece’s most breathtaking vistas and the world’s most photographed sights. It is also great for beaches, diving, sailing excursions, and hiking.

Quick pick and general tip:

  • Go to Athens for sightseeing, history, culture, fun, and authenticity.
  • Go to Santorini for landscapes, architecture, romance, and photos.

Athens vs Santorini– Overview


🎭 Huge city – the economic, maritime, cultural, and gastronomic center of Greece

🎭 Historic city with some of the world’s most significant ancient landmarks

🎭 A beautiful bustling city with a lively Mediterranean lifestyle and historical gems

🎭 Very well connected with metro and public transportation

🎭 Cheap compared to other European capitals

🎭 World-class museums, galleries, and events are available year-round

Acropolis Museum Entrance, Athens, Greece
Acropolis Museum Entrance, Athens, Greece

Good for:

  • History and sightseeing 
  • Museums, galleries, and shopping
  • Fantastic gastronomy
  • Several beaches in the vicinity 
  • Fun and active city by the coast
  • Great nightlife  
  • Good for Family visits

Not good for:

  • August – too hot and empty
  • August – too hot and empty


🏞️ One of the most peculiar islands in Greece due to its volcanic origin and landscape

🏞️ Set on the caldera of a destroyed volcano, offers the best sea and sunset views in Greece

🏞️ Home to the quintessential Aegean architecture with sugar-cubed or domed whitewashed houses hanging on the cliffs above the sea.

🏞️ Interesting beaches, not among the best in Greece

🏞️ Ideal for Romantic getaways and luxurious weekend breaks

🏞️ Best avoided during the peak season (July and August), gets too crowded.

Acropolis Museum Entrance, Athens, Greece
Oia, Santorini, Greece

Good for:

  • Stunning island landscape and beauty
  •  Unique vistas and architecture
  • Romantic, preferred by couples
  •  Sailing trips

Not good for:

  • Gastronomy and food scene
  • Too touristy in the summer
  • Museums and ancient sites (compared to Athens)

Location and how to get there

Both Athens and Santorini are well connected to the world with international airports. They are also connected to other places in Greece via airplanes and ferry boats.

Actually, these two locations are the best-connected places in the whole country. Getting to Athens and Santorini is easy and comfortable.

Getting to Athens

Athens is served by Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport. Athens airport is connected by buses, metro lines, and suburban railways with the rest of the country.

Athens airport departures board, Greece
Athens Airport (Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport) departures board, Greece

Metro lines will bring you directly from the airport to the city center (Syntagma Square – 45 min, 9€) or Athens’ main port of Piraeus (60 min, 9€) for island ferry connections.

Getting to Santorini

You can fly to the Santorini airport or take a ferry to the Santorini port. There are many international flights directly to the island, so check that before booking a layover in Athens.

Santorini airport (JTR) Terminal building in Santorini, Greece.
Santorini Airport (JTR) Terminal building in Santorini, Greece.

The airport is small but very functional and the busses are constantly commuting between the airport and the island’s capital – Fira.

The wind gets up late morning in the Cyclades and so your flight might be moved forward or backward, or canceled if the wind is strong, so keep an eye out for travel alerts from your airline on the days that you fly to or from Santorini.

Flights between Greek cities and Santorini are frequent and cheap, so if you worry you might be seasick, you’d better fly.

On board the ferry leaving Santorini for Athens, Greece
On board the ferry leaving Santorini for Athens, Greece

Ferry boats depart from the port of Piraeus in Athens and take anything between 5-8 hours to reach Santorini. Check my ferry page for detailed explanations and schedules.

You can also do wonderful island hopping from Santorini – it is a regional ferry hub, so plenty of connections are available.  

The wind up on the open decks is wild but I love watching the volcano and Santorini come into view from the deck!

Athens and Santorini – can you even compare them?

Scenery and Natural Environment

Is Santorini or Athens better for beautiful scenery?

Santorini has the most stunning island volcanic terrain in all of Greece.

The Clifftop Walk between Fira and Oia on Santorini Island, Greece
The Clifftop Walk between Fira and Oia on Santorini Island, Greece

Its cliff-hanging settlements of Fira and Oia, its black sand beaches, and its copperish-red volcanic soils against the azure Aegean make up one of Europe’s most peculiar places.

The scenery is second to none and surely beats Athens in any contest, even if they play in different leagues.

Athens, on the other hand, offers a unique urban patchwork of ancient ruins, neo-classical mansions, and modern concrete apartment buildings alongside small and big parks, street farmers’ markets, and busy streets that, combined, give out a feeling of a very lively city.

Best for scenery: Santorini, by all means.

Historical Sites, Museums + Mythology

Is Santorini or Athens better for history, museums, and mythology?

Athens, although an ancient settlement and a birthplace of democracy, became the capital of Greece only in the early 1800s. Back then it was a dusty village with glorious ruins around, topped with the magnificent Acropolis.

Photo of the side and front of the Parthenon with the front covered in scaffolding on a grey early evening at the Acropolis of Athens, Greece
The Parthenon on a cold evening in April, Athens, Greece

Nowadays, it is one of the best places globally to explore historical sites and museums dedicated to ancient and classical Greece, with mythology interwoven in both museum exhibitions and daily life all around the city.

The Acropolis Museum, the National Archeological Museum, the Ancient Agora, the Temple of Hephaestus, the Stoa of Attolas, the Temple of Olympia Zeus, Eleusis, and many smaller museums, together with open-air sites around central Athens are must-see attractions.

Santorini proudly exhibits its share of the ancient past, notably the Minoan settlement of the ancient city of Akrotiri, one of the most important archaeological excavations around the Aegean.

Ancient Akrotiri archaeological site, Santorini, Greece
Ancient Akrotiri archaeological site, Santorini, Greece

The Museum of Pre-Historic Thera is a very interesting experience with pre-historic marble Cycladic figures and Akrotiri frescoes and finds.

In fact, Ancient Akrotiri is a hidden gem that has three-story buildings excavated and ancient streets you can wander through. It is second only to the Palace of Knossos as the best Minoan archaeological site in the world.

Best for archaeology, museums, and mythology: Athens, definitely. It’s one of the best places anywhere for UNESCO World Heritage treasures (but don’t skip Ancient Akrotiri on Santorini!)


Does Santorini or Athens have better beaches?

Athens is one of the very few capital cities that has Blue-flag beaches with crystal clear waters and sandy shores just a stone’s throw from the city center.

Perissa Beach, Santorini, Greece

The coastline of Glyfada, Voula, and Vouliagmeni offer fantastic opportunities for beach days during the city visit. Even better – you can take public transport from any part of the city and get there within an hour.

Hidden jewel? Saltlake Vouliagmeni – one of Athens’ most fascinating natural wonders.

TIP: My favorite beaches are Astir Beach (hefty entrance fee, but worth the pampering you get there) and Athines in Voula.

Santorini is not renowned for its beaches. They are more interesting and peculiar, due to the volcanic soil, than they are the quintessential beautiful Aegean sandy beaches that everyone loves.

Black sands, red rocks, and sometimes a blurry seabed are a far cry from the stretches of golden coastline found around other islands. Perissa Beach is a must when in Santorini!

Best for beaches: it’s a tie! But if Athens were an island, it would win this one.


Is Santorini or Athens better for romance?

Santorini is the number one wedding and honeymoon destination in Greece and stands side by side with the colossus like Paris and the Amalfi Coast.

Romantic dinner in Fira, Santorini, Greece

Couples will love Santorini as the list of romantic activities available is the most extensive of any of the Greek islands.  

Unparalleled sunset views, great restaurants and bars, private photo-shooting opportunities, luxury hotels with hanging infinity swimming pool mazes, romantic cruises, and scenic walks will make memories you will love for years to come.

TIP: Santorini is also a great place for wedding proposals due to its stunning views over the caldera.

View of the Acropolis from the 6th floor rooftop bar, Olympia Hotel, Athens, Greece
View of the Acropolis from the 6th-floor rooftop bar, Olympia Hotel, Athens, Greece

Athens is also a great setting for couples to visit as it offers a lot of exploration opportunities, history, and museums along with a fantastic gastronomy and bar scene.

A rooftop bar or pool deck on a summer night with a view of the Acropolis is certainly romantic and there are many hotels in Athens with Acropolis views.

Best for romance: Santorini

Food and Wine

Is Santorini or Athens better for food and wine?

Athens is the gastronomical hub of Greece, together with its second-largest city, Thessaloniki.

The melting pot of cultures, both historically and contemporary, Athens has not only rich autochthonous Greek cuisine but many ethnic tastes all around.

Pork dish, Athens, Greece
Pork dish, Athens, Greece

As food culture stands central to what it means to be Athenian, you will find everything from street food, to traditional Greek tavernas with wooden wicker chairs to Michelin-star restaurants in shady citrus courtyards of neoclassical townhouses.

Snacks are also a big thing in Greece, so expect to loosen up the belt a bit after this trip.  

Shopping for food is a ritual in Athens. You’ll find open-air farmers’ markets all around the city (each neighborhood has its own on a specific day of the week).

There are fishmongers’ stalls, butcher counters, and fruit sellers in Varvakeios market, fancy deli shops (particularly along Evripidou Street) selling the best Greek cheeses, prosciutto, olives, and much more.

Athens offers an unparalleled foodies’ paradise.

Santo Wines tastings area with a sublime caldera top location, Santorini, Greece
Santo Wines tastings area with a sublime caldera top location, Santorini, Greece

The wineries of Santorini are very old with several indigenous grape varieties. Wine-tasting tours and visits to the two wineries with panoramic views from the edge of the caldera are fun a must-do experience.

TIP: The best fava and some of the wine grapes in Greece comes from Santorini, due to its volcanic soil. Make sure to try Assyrtiko while on a wine-tasting tour, a variety indigenous to the island of Santorini.

Santorini’s restaurant scene is budding with more and more good restaurants opening up. However, it is no match for Athens.

Best for Food: Athens.


Is Santorini or Athens better for shopping?

There are ample shopping opportunities in both Athens and Santorini.

Monastiraki in the evening, Athens, Greece
Monastiraki Square in the evening, Athens, Greece

Villages and towns of Santorini have a big selection of everything from everyday picks to luxurious clothing, jewelry, art, and souvenirs.

Don’t expect shopping malls or big brands’ flagship stores, but personal boutiques with handpicked selections.

Athens has it all – from the flea markets of Monastiraki to the busy main shopping artery of Ermou Street lined with international and Greek brands, to luxury boutiques of Kolonaki.

TIP: Don’t spend your shopping time and money in Santorini if going to Athens afterward. Enjoy the spectacular views while on the island.

Best for shopping: Athens


Is Santorini or Athens better for nightlife?

Athens is synonymous with nightlife.

Athens cafes at night, Greece
Athens cafes at night, Greece

Athens is an internationally established destination for big concert and music events, art festivals, street art, and everything in between.

Best of Greek bouzouki (folk music) clubs are in Athens, as well as dance-till-the-sunrise clubs and small local bars.

If you stay in a central area, be prepared for nightclubs blaring music until 2 to 3 am several nights a week.

Unlike the party island of Mykonos, Santorini offers calmer evenings and romantic settings for couples on pool decks, private terraces, and beach clubs and bars.

Best for nightlife: Athens   

Family Holidays

Is Santorini or Athens better for family holidays?

Families will find more opportunities for a fun-filled holiday in Athens. Depending on the age of your kids, exploring the ancient Greek heritage, mythology, and history is everyone’s favorite.

Syntagma Square Christmas decorations, Athens, Greece
Syntagma Square Christmas decorations, Athens, Greece

Theme parks, open-air cultural centers, floating warship museums, cable cars to hilltops in downtown Athens, together with visits to local craftsmen and street markets will make sure everyone has a great time.

Santorini is a couple’s island, but everyone will love discovering the narrow alleys of Fira and Oia or a wide variety of water sports.

Sailing around the island, hiking, open-air cinemas, and cliff jumping at Amoudi Bay, are all memorable experiences for teens, as are the black and red sand beaches.

There are dozens of boat tours and adventure trips your kids will enjoy.

Best for families: Athens

Most Walkable

Is Santorini or Athens more walkable?

Wherever you are in Greece, there is a lot of walking involved.

Athens has very good public transport with metro, busses, trams, and trolleys. Also, taxis are very cheap, so you can always hail one and get yourself teleported elsewhere for 5-10 €.

Bars and tavernas are in Athens always within walking distance.

Anafiotika area of Plaka in Athens. You can get here only on foot.
Anafiotika area of Plaka in Athens. You can get here only on foot.

TIP: An Athens walking tour or Athens sightseeing tour is a great way to explore the central areas on foot and you might also like to try my self-guided walking tour of the Acropolis which thousands of people use every year.

Santorini is only walkable once you enter its most picturesque villages and towns, but you will need a car or Quad/ATV rental to get around the island and go to its beaches.

The exception is the spectacular Firo to Oia clifftop hike along the spine of the caldera – another must-do Santorini activity.

Best for walking: it’s a tie!


What’s the weather like in Athens and Santorini?

One is a megalopolis and the other is an island and so it makes sense that Athens and Santorini have different climates. Santorini is 300 km south of Athens.

Athens has very warm summers, so best avoided during July and August. Even the nights can be tropical, with temperatures above 30C during the night.

The hottest time on the year in Santorini, Greece
The hottest time of the year in Santorini, Greece

Santorini is also hot during the summer, but with more moderate temperatures and benefits from winds that cool the island.

As an Aegean island, Santorini is prone to Meltemi winds that sometimes make the seas choppy and beaches windswept during the summer.

Best for weather: depends when, if in spring and autumn – Santorini, if in winter – Athens

Off-Season Experience

Off-Season Experiences in Athens and Santorini

Athens is a busy beautiful big city all year round.

One can enjoy it during the winter, when the temperatures are mild and the sunshine is in abundance, as well as during any other month of the year (except perhaps August due to high temperatures).

Athens is magical during the Christmas period with Christmas markets, ice skating, lighting displays, and religious and cultural festivals and celebrations like Epiphany.

The ice rink in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Athens, Greece
The ice rink in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Athens, Greece

Santorini is quiet but industrious during off-season months.

Locals turn their focus to fixing everything on time for the season’s opening in April and do quite a bit of agricultural work (especially vine pruning).

Many people split their time between Athens and Santorini, traveling to homes and businesses on the island during the summer season, so this also contributes to the quietness of the island during the off-season, when many hotels and restaurants are closed.

The weather might be harsh with plenty of rain during the December-March period when the island doesn’t get many visitors, and windy in April and the first half of May.

Best for an off-season visit: Athens, by all means.

Day Trips

Is Athens or Santorini better for day trips?

Both destinations are transportation hubs, so plenty of options are available.

In Athens, you can choose from nearby famous islands of Hydra, Spetses, or Egina, or a mainland option – either Nafplio with Mycenae, Ancient Corinth, Epidaurus, and Olympia’s UNESCO World Heritage sites nearby, or visit the Delphi archaeological site, or even the Meteora monasteries.  

Hydra Island, Greece
Hydra Island, Greece

From Santorini, plenty of ferries go around the Aegean. The closest one is Anafi but you can choose to see Crete, Paros, Milos, Mykonos, Tinos, Naxos, and many other of the Cycladic Islands in high season.

Note that any excursion from Santorini on a ferry almost always involves an overnight stay, unless you book a day trip tour.

Best for day trips: Athens

How long to spend in Athens and Santorini?

Athens is wonderful and can be seen in anything from 1-3 days, but if you want to scratch below the surface of tourist attractions, I would say 7 days is a perfect trip length.

Temple of Hephaestus, Athens, Greece
Temple of Hephaestus, Athens, Greece

Santorini is similar – you can experience the charms of island life in 1-3 days, but an ideal length to soak up that island life is 5-7 days.

So, which is better – Athens or Santorini?

The verdict would say Athens Greece, but they both are so beautiful and so different, it really depends on what are you looking for.

If you love history and archaeology, then definitely Athens is the better destination. If you are looking for Romance and Greece’s most spectacular scenery, go to Santorini.

There are arguably no two better destinations that are easily accessible, where other travelers seek the same experiences, where you can spend days by the beach and visit ancient history in the same afternoon and get a direct flight home.

So, ideally, you would split your 10-day trip between Santorini and Athens, Greece, and have the best of both worlds!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Santorini or Athens Better for Couples?

There are romantic places in Athens to visit and many couples’ activities, but for the sheer romance, uniqueness, and beauty of an island holiday, you simply can’t go past the Cycladic island of Santorini in the

Is Santorini or Athens Better for Nightlife?

There is no question at all that the Athenian nightlife is much, much better than the small amount of nightlife during the summer season in Santorini.
Athens nightclubs are scattered through the central suburbs and keep pounding out music until 2 or 3 am, several nights each week.

Is it better to go to Athens or Santorini?

It’s better to go to Athens if you love museums, history, culture, or street art and food. If you’re looking for a spectacular and romantic island holiday, then Santorini is one of the very best places in the world.

Should I go to Athens first or Santorini first?

In general, Santorini is a relaxing holiday break and if it’s your first time in Greece, it’s a wonderful place to fall in love with Greece.
If you are interested in history, culture, mythology, nightlife, and shopping, then Athens is where you can spend considerable time.
If, however, you’re looking for a summer island holiday full of beauty and romance, then Santorini should be where you spend most of your time, with a shorter stop in Athens on the way home.

Is it better to go from Athens to Santorini or Mykonos?

If you are planning on Greek island hopping, then it makes sense to get a ferry from Athens to Mykonos which is mid-way between Athens and Santorini.
If you are looking for a party island, head to Mykonos. If you are looking for a romantic holiday with unique architecture and scenery, head to Santorini.

How many days in Santorini is enough?

It’s possible to take a tour of Santorini that takes the whole day and sees most of the island’s main sites. Two full days allow a meal at a vineyard or wine-tasting, as well as hiking the Fira to Oia clifftop trail and even squeezing in a romantic sunset cruise around the island.

How many days in Athens is enough?

The minimum time to spend in Athens is two full days. It’s possible to spend a half day shopping and seeing the central area and two half-days seeing the many archaeological sites of Athens.
That leaves a half day for an incredible museum such as the National Archaeological Museum or the Acropolis Museum.
In two nights you can take an evening tour to the Temple of Poseidon in Soounion and spend an evening with dinner and drinks at a rooftop bar overlooking the Acropolis or in one of Athens’s many nightclubs.

How many days to spend in Athens and Santorini?

The perfect holiday that includes Athens and Santorini is five days in Athens and five days in Santorini. At the very least, two full days in both is the

How long is the ferry from Athens to Santorini?

The Jet ferries make the crossing from Athens to Santorini in 4 hours and 45 minutes, with the slower regular ferries taking up to 7 hours and 25 minutes for the direct route.