What is the best island in the Eastern Mediterranean?

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The two largest islands in the Eastern Mediterranean are the Greek island of Crete and the island of Cyprus. They are known for their ancient history and fantastic beaches. If one is planning to visit the Eastern Mediterranean, what should one visit? The two islands are very different – if one has the time, it might be possible to visit both islands during one’s stay.

As Crete is part of Greece, it is also part of the Schengen area. Cyprus is part of the European Union but not part of the Schengen area. If this is confusing, it is good to know something about the European Union, the Schengen area and the Euro zone before visiting Europe.

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Crete – The largest island in Greece

Crete is not an independent country. Instead, it is the largest and most populated of the Greek islands and the 5th largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It lies about 100 miles south of the Greek mainland.

  • Cut: 8,336 km2 (3,219 sq mi)
  • Population: 640,000

Like many other parts of the region, Crete has a long history, with evidence of people on the island dating back as far as 130,000 years (the Paleolithic age).

The Minoans were an ancient Cretan civilization that existed between 2700 BC and 1420 BC (it was one of the earliest civilizations in Europe). While in the area, make time to visit the Greek island of Santorini (also called Thera) and visit the lost Minoan city of Akrotiri – it was covered and buried by a volcanic eruption similar to Pompeii.

Throughout its history, it has been ruled by many empires that have left their mark – such as the Romans, Byzantines, Andalusian Arabs, Venetians and Ottomans.

  • Old Ports: Include: Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion and Agios Nikolaos
  • The main attraction: Beaches

Today, the main attractions of Crete are its golden sandy beaches and turquoise waters. Other attractions include the famous Minoan archaeological sites, its gorges, magnificent cities, fortresses and sleepy coastal towns.

Related: Is One Week Enough To See Europe? Here’s what to consider

Cyprus – The divided but beautiful Mediterranean island

Cyprus is a very different island from Crete. It is the third largest and the third most populated island in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s an island steeped in myth and riddled with cities and ancient tales.

Cyprus was settled by Mycenaean Greeks in antiquity and has long had a predominantly Greek identity.

  • Capital and largest city: Nicosia
  • Population: 1.25 million
  • Cut: 9,251 km2 (3,572 sq mi)

The main assets of the island are also its superb Mediterranean beaches and its ancient history. Here visitors sunbathe, swim and visit the island’s many archaeological sites. It is also an ideal place for hiking. Like other places in the Mediterranean, Cyprus is synonymous with the outdoors. These are beaches, Mediterranean cuisine and Mediterranean culture.

Plan your trip with Visit Cyprus tourist portal.

  • Split: Between the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus

Like Crete, Cyprus has a long history and has been ruled by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders and Ottomans. This left the island with a mixed population between the Greek Cypriot majority and the Turkish Cypriot minority.

After independence from the British, the Greek Cypriots wanted to join Greece as Crete did in 1913. But this led to war and a Turkish invasion of the northern half of the island.

Related: How to Spend a Weekend on the Iconic Greek Island of Crete

The Republic of Cyprus Vs. Northern Cyprus

Today, the island is divided between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus (which is internationally recognized to govern the island) and Northern Cyprus to the north (Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey). The rest of the world considers the northern part of the island to be occupied by Turkey. This is a matter of ongoing litigation and is something everyone should be aware of when visiting the island.


  • Republic of Cyprus: Controls about 59% of the island
  • Northern Cyprus: About 36% of the island
  • UN Buffer Zone: About 4% of the island

If one wishes to visit Cyprus, it is advisable to visit the southern part of the island controlled by the Republic of Cyprus. The Republic of Cyprus does not look favorably on people arriving in northern Cyprus, which it does not control. One can drive across northern Cyprus from the main city, Nicosia, through no man’s land if desired.

Find out more about the Cyprus and North Cyprus tour on the State Department website as well as various Cyprus travel websites.

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