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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 their fantastic beaches. If one is planning to visit the eastern Mediterranean - which should one visit? Both islands are very different - if one has the time, perhaps it would be possible to visit both islands while there.

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 Eurozone 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 populous of the Greek islands and the 5th largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It is around 100 miles south of the Greek mainland.

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

Like many other regions in the area, Crete has a long history, with evidence of people on the island going back as far as 130,000 years ago (the Paleolithic age).

The Minoans were a Crete ancient civilization that existed between 2,700 BC and 1,420 BC (it was one of the first civilizations in Europe). While in the area, take the time to visit the Greek island of Santorini (also called Thera) and visit the lost Minoan city of Akrotiri - it was blanketed and buried by a volcanic eruption similar to Pompeii.

Throughout its history, it has been ruled by many empires that have left their marks - like the Romans, Byzantines, Andalusian Arabs, Venetians, and the Ottomans.

  • Old Harbors: Include: Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion, and Agios Nikolaos
  • Main Attraction: Beaches

Today the main attractions of Crete are its golden-sand beaches and its turquoise waters. Other attractions include the famous Minoan archeological sites, its gorges, stunning cities, fortresses, and sleepy coastal towns.

Related: Is One Week Enough To See Europe? Here's What To Consider

Cyprus - The Divided But Stunning 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 is an island steeped in myth and riddled with ancient cities and tales.

Cyprus was settled by Mycenaean Greeks in ancient times and has long had a predominately Greek identity.

  • Capital And Largest City: Nicosia
  • Population: 1.25 Million
  • Size: 9,251 km2 (3,572 sq mi)

The island's main pulls are also its stunning Mediterranean beaches and ancient history. Here visitors sunbathe, swim, and visit the many archeological sites on the island. It is also a great place to go hiking. Like other places in the Mediterranean, Cyprus is all about the outdoors. It is about the beaches, Mediterranean cuisine, and Mediterranean culture.

Plan one's trip with the Visit Cyprus tourism portal.

  • Divided: 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.

Following independence from the British, the Greek Cypriots wanted to join Greece as Crete did in 1913. But this led to a 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 split between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus (which is internationally recognized to rule the island) and Northern Cyprus in 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 dispute and is something everyone should be aware of when visiting the island.

  • Republic of Cyprus: Controls Around 59% Of The Island
  • Northern Cyprus: Around 36% Of The Island
  • UN Buffer Zone: Around 4% Of The Island

If one would like 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 kindly at people arriving in North Cyprus that it does not control. One can cross to Northern Cyprus from the main city, Nicosia, through no man's land if one would like.

Learn more about visiting Cyprus and Northern Cyprus on the Department of State's website as well as various travel websites to Cyprus.