Santorini is the crown jewel of Greek tourism. It has spectacular cubist white villages spilled precariously onto the volcanic caldera’s edge, and a rich history to boot. If you only have time to visit one island in Greece, Santorini will be a most memorable experience.
In Santorini (also called Thera; Greek: Σαντορίνρι, Θήρα), the cycladic cubist homes take a whole new meaning as they cling precariously to the caldera.
The volcanic explosion that some say destroyed the Minoan civilization, was one of the largest in human history.
The legends, the history, and the landscape it left behind are some of the most spectacular on earth. They made Santorini one of the most visited islands in the world.
It’s a small island, and tends to get way overcrowded in places, but everywhere you look, there is a spectacular top-of-the-world view that make you feel as if you are floating in the clouds.
Things to Do and See
Strolling and Chilling on the Caldera
First things first: You are in Santorini to take in the views and relax. This isn’t Disney World. You won’t be standing in line for a few moments of excitement, and – save for the donkey ride to the top – you won’t get much adrenaline flowing.
The best thing to do in Santorini is literally, nothing.
Well, almost nothing. Wake up early in the morning and stroll leisurely around the cobblestone streets at Fira or Oia towns. Enjoy the cubist architecture around the winding alleyways, and snap a few photographs and selfies.
Chill at a cafe and take in the spectacular caldera and the expansive horizon beyond. Loose your gaze in the gleaming sunshine on the surface of the Aegean sea, and let the cool breeze blow the whole world away from your thoughts.
You will do a lot of exciting things when you visit Santorini, but in the end, walking and sipping a beverage on the caldera will be your most memorable activity!
By Greek beaches standards, Santorini is less of a destination for swimming. But it has plenty of beaches of good quality to keep you cool in the summer heat.
Most famous are the “black beach”, named for the volcanic black pebbles that line it, and the “red beach” that takes it’s name from the red rocks that make up the whole landscape around it.
Most of the beaches of Santorini are lined with black volcanic smooth pebbles. The black color retains an incredible amount of heat and as a result most swimmers end up high-stepping as they speed through the short distance between their parasol and the cool waters.
Kamari Beach Is the only beach within walking distance of an upscale town. It’s wide enough to dictate the crowds, and it’s lined with cafes, restaurants, and bars from one end to the other. Since this is one of the best beaches in Santorini, there are plenty of hotels, shops, and restaurants in the adjacent town.
Perissa is large enough so it does not feel crowded, a nice sandy sea bottom shallow enough at the shore for children to play, and more pebbles than sand which left our feet clean at the end of the day. It is lined sparsely with fish tavernas, beach shops and cafes, and the south end of the beach continues around the bend far beyond the road’s end.
Red beach offers good photo opportunities of the red volcanic rock that frames it. The novelty of swimming on a “red” beach made it a major destination on the island. But in our recent visit it was signposted as dangerous due to falling rock. Despite this, and the difficult access to it, it’s packed with bathers, and boats.
Day-Cruise to Kameni Island
Kameni are the little islands in the middle of the crater and there are several boats that offer day-visits to it.
The biggest attraction of the island is that it is the living manifestation of how active the volcano is. There are hot springs where the boat will let passengers swim, and a footpath through the charred landscape to the top of the little island where guides explain the volcanic activity.
The island grows though the volcanic activity, and is completely black. It’s dark color retains a great deal of the summer heat, so be prepared with hat and sturdy shoes. Most of the cruises from Skala Fira harbor also include two hours of lunch and swimming in the little island of Thirasia after visiting Kameni islands.
Thirasia is a small, and very quiet island opposite the main island of Santorini and it too is part of the volcano’s caldera.
Watch the Sunset
Once the sun begins its descent, the west part of Oia town becomes packed with people who gather to enjoy a beautiful view of the sunset.
This vista is a rite of passage for all visitors to Santorini, especially young couples who get to enjoy a romantic sunset and an unforgettable view of the sea, the island, the volcano, the sky, and the sun.
You have never seen crowds unless you’ve been to Oia for a sunset!
Every cobblestone street that faces west, every single restaurant chair, every terrace, balcony, and rooftop are inundated with people patiently waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon water line.
Traffic to the town of Oia is heavy during these hours, and the romance is somehow dampened by sharing it with so many people. But it a fun thing to do, so if you go, do go an hour early to find a good spot.
Alternately, you can watch the sunset from Santo Wines Winery sampling a tray of local wines and appetizers. It’s not as popular a sunset-spot as the town of Oia, but it does get crowded in the afternoon, so going early is not a bad idea.
Speaking of wine, Santorini is renown wine-producing land. If it is true that the best wine comes from vines that suffer much, Santorini gives its vines plenty of suffering to produce such exquisite wine.
The island is so windy most of the year that local wine producers have developed a unique technique to keep them protected: The vines are braided into a wreath shape low to the ground to protect them from blowing around too much.
There is a wine Museum near the village of Messaria, and several companies that offer tours of the island’s wineries.
Who would pass along the opportunity to get married with the spectacular landscape of Santorini caldera as the backdrop?
Santorini has become one of the most popular places to get married, and many hotels on Fira and Oia town offer wedding services on their terraces.
You can arrange the whole thing yourself, but you’d be better off hiring a wedding agent in Santorini. They can help you complete the necessary paperwork, and they shield you from the Greek bureaucracy.
Having an elaborate wedding in Santorini and then heading off to a more quiet island for your honeymoon would make for the ideal wedding experience! The nearby islands of Folegandros, or the more secluded Koufonisi would be excellent honeymoon choices.
Archaeological Sites and Museums
Santorini is blessed with a history that goes back 3500 years.
The archaeological site of Akrotiri is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular in Greece, and Ancient Thera provides some of the best views of the island.
Santorini also has two museums to go along with the two different archaeological sites: Ancient Thera Museum, and the Museum of Prehistoric Art, which houses finds from Akrotiri. Also, there is the Thera Foundation that has recreated some of the bronze age buildings from Akrotiri in Fira town.
If you don’t have time to visit all of them, you should definitely visit Akrotiri and the museum of Prehistoric Art.
The Archaeological site at the location Akrotiri encloses the excavations of a Bronze age town that was buried under volcanic material sometime between 1627 and 1600 BCE.
It is similar to the better promoted Pompeii, but it’s worth noting that Akrotiri predates the Italian town by about 1600 years!
The volcanic ash that buried Akrotiri also preserved it in pristine condition for us to enjoy. The fact that there are no casualties or portable valuables indicates that the island’s inhabitants probably had ample warning and fled before the volcano exploded.
But their homes remained as a silent witness to a joyous and affluent life. The best known artifacts from Akrotiri are the exquisite wall frescoes that decorated the prehistoric buildings.
The best frescoes are on view at the Archaeological Museum of Athens, but many, equally beautiful, can be found at the Museum of Prehistoric Art in Santorini.
The excavated city of Akrotiri and it’s artifacts are rare and very valuable for our understanding of life in the Bronze Age Greece.
Even though the archaeological site called “Ancient Thera” or “Ancient Santorini” cannot match Akrotiri’s historical importance and uniqueness, it offers evidence of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine cultures through the ruins exposed on the barren rock they call Mesa Vouno on the South shore of the island.
To put things in perspective, Ancient Thera’s ruins represent a time between 500 and 2000 years after Akrotiri was buried in volcanic ashes. And by that time Thera island was not considered an important center of Ancient Greek civilization.
It was by no means insignificant, but other centers dominated Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic eras (Delos, Paros, Naxos, Rhodes, Kos, and Crete were all more important cultural and economic hubs of that era).
But what it lacks in archaeological prowess, Ancient Thera makes up with spectacular views of the island and the Aegean. It’s ruins occupy the highest (and geologically the most ancient) mount on the island, and the Aegean sea itself betrays its importance as it provides the dramatic blue backdrop for the excavated ruins.
The little theatre on the site is very picturesque, and invites the visitors to imagine how beautiful the plays must have been for ancient Greeks who watched them against such a dramatic, deep blue background.
The artifacts from Akrotiri are housed in the Museum of Prehistoric Art in the town of Fira. It’s a large museum, unique in its scope, and well worth a visit.
It houses exquisite frescoes, art, and every day objects, as well as thematic entities that shed light on the island, it’s people and their lives in the Bronze Age.
The museum also has several displays that shed light on the island’s connections and commercial ties to other Greek centers around the Aegean, with Egypt, and the Levant. You can browse it’s exhibits comfortably within half hour.
The Ancient Thera museum is much smaller, and the artifacts date from the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic/Roman eras, most of which were unearthed in the Ancient Thera site. It’s a tiny provincial museum, so you can comfortably browse it’s halls in about twenty minutes.
The third attraction of the island, is the Thera Foundation, also in Fira town. It’s not an archaeological site, nor a museum, but a display of three dimensional reproductions of wall paintings from Akrotiri.
High resolution paintings adorn interior room reproductions to give visitors an idea how the interiors of the buildings felt with the wall frescoes. It’s a complement to visiting Akrotiri (where the interiors of homes are off limits) but not a substitute for it. As such it’s worth a visit for anyone who is interested in gaining a better understanding of Bronze Age life and culture.
Santorini, or Thera island has a long illustrious history. It’s strategic location in the southern center of the Aegean sea made it the cultured hub of prehistoric Greece. The island was most active during the Bronze Age, and remained relevant all the way into Hellenistic and Roma era.
Thera Volcano Explosion
But one of the most spectacular events that marked the island was beyond human control. Santorini island is the top of one of the most destructive volcanoes in human history, and it’s shape today was formed in the 17th century BCE when a colossal volcanic explosion blew much of the island in the air.
What we see today is the result of that explosion and the subsequent build-up of ash, lava, and other material that percolated from the earth’s depths.
All the spectacular villages you see clinging precariously to the edge of the cliff are built at the rim of the volcano’s mouth. The sea below you is the sea that filled the enormous crater after the volcano subsided it’s activity.
Thera volcano is still active and the most visible manifestation is the tiny island in the center of the volcano that is slowly growing through the constant volcanic activity.
Santorini is a popular island, and it’s in the middle of the Aegean, so ferry connections with Piraeus are plentiful. Many passengers that sign up for group packages fly to the Santorini airport directly.
Getting to Santorini By Ferry
Santorini’s position as well as her popularity allow for multiple connections to the mainland and the other Cylcades islands. In high season there are two or three ferries that leave Piraeus for Santorini every day, and there are daily ferries to Paros, Naxos, Mykonos, Ios, and Anafi. Connections to Crete are spotty and less frequent though.
Somehow many ferry names in Greece imply “high speed”, but that’s not always the case, so check the amount of time they take to get to Santorini when you book your tickets. For example, “Highspeed1” ferry makes the trip Piraeus-Paros-Santorini in 5.5 hours, and costs almost twice as much as a regular ferry that makes the trip in about 9 hours.
The travel agents around the port of Piraeus and around Santorini can provide the tickets which must be purchased in advance. Some agents do not accept credit cards, so check before you purchase the tickets, or have cash available for the transaction.
Embarkation and disembarkation is very speedy and efficient, even if it looks chaotic to newcomers. The boats usually make a stop at Paros before reaching Santorini or Piraeus. Passengers and cars disembark and embark within ten minutes, so if you catch the boat from Paros, don’t delay when you see the boat docking because it might take that much time to reach the gangway from the waiting area. Onboard, you can eat your own food and drinks at any bar and lounge but not in the restaurants.
If you take the slow ferry and don’t have an assigned seat, get to the boat early before it embarks and pick a comfortable seat for the whole trip. A comfortable couch in one of the boat’s lounges is the preferred spot, especially one with a table.
Many passengers choose to sit on the open decks, but remember that the wind can be annoying in the open sea, and the sun can be relentless if you are not in shade. If you choose to sit the trip out on the open decks, remember that the boat will turn during the trip and you might find yourself in a very hot and sunny spot.
The high speed ferries don’t have any open deck space, and you’ll be indoors for the whole trip, but the regular ferries have ample open deck space and even a swimming pool that gets filled if the sea is calm. Passengers lying on their own sleeping bag or foam mattress is common, as is sunbathing at the top decks.
One of the highlights of sailing to Santorini is the moment when the ferry enters the caldera and is engulfed by the entire island with it’s tiny white houses hanging precariously above, at the edge of the cliff. Ferries dock at the Athinios harbor which is not near the main destination towns of Santorini.
From the harbor you need to catch a taxi or a bus to the other towns around the island, so keep some cash available for the ride (although, there is an ATM at the peer). If you take the bus, be prepared to be packed like a sardine on most days.
Getting to Santorini by Air
Santorini has an International airport. It’s a small affair, but it connects the island to Athens and Thessaloniki, with regular flights. Charter flights from other international cities fly directly there during the summer.
The flight from Athens to Santorini only takes about twenty minutes and you must book your ticket well in advance. Aegean is the main airline company that offers flights to Santorini.
Getting to Santorini by Cruise Ship
Every single cruise ship that sails around the Aegean will make a stop at Santorini for a few hours.
Such a short visit is never enough to absorb everything the island has to offer, but it will give you a good idea of the character, culture, and unique beauty of Santorini. If nothing else, your photos from Santorini will probably be the highlight of your trip.
Another highlight of visiting Santorini is taking in the view of the volcano when you wake up and in the evening.
Cruise ships never dock at the island’s commercial harbor. Instead, they use the old port. They drop anchor somewhere in the middle of the caldera and passengers disembark through an armada of large tenders.
Getting to those tenders early should be your mission. Cruise ships give priority to those who have purchased one of their offered excursions, and you may find yourself waiting for over half hour to get to the island. This major bottleneck can diminish your time in Santorini, so make sure you get your tender number early so you get out as soon as possible.
The ride from a cruise ship to the tiny fishing harbor of Skala Fira’s, right below Fira town takes about five minutes and the way to get to the town on the cliff above can be part of your cruise highlights.
Although we would not advise it, you may walk about 45 minutes up the cobblestone path. If you take that route, keep in mind that you will be sharing the narrow path with many aggressive mules that walk up the cliff unattended. They have no regard for pedestrians and tend to leave large, ahem, pieces of their processed meals all over the place.
If you don’t want to walk through such a minefield you may hire one of the mules at the harbor, or you may opt for a more comfortable, and modern cable car.
Both the mules and the cable car are more of an adventure than a ride and definitely not for the faint of heart.
We recommend riding a mule up, and catching the cable car on your way back to the cruise ship. Be aware that the queue to the cable car on the way down will be very long, and your cruise ship crew will ask you to head for it at least half-hour before embarkation time.
In terms of shore excursions, they are yet another way for cruise ships to make some money so they promote them like crazy. In other islands such excursions are necessary, but in Santorini they are of little value during a short visit.
If you opt for a bus tour to Oia, most of your time in Santorini will be taken with the bus ride, and if you opt for a boat trip to Kameni island you’ll miss out on Santorini altogether.
Neither would be a bad experience, but the best attraction of Santorini is walking through the cobblestone streets of Fira or Oia, and enjoying a drink overlooking the caldera and the sunset.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of hotels and apartments for rent in Santorini, but staying at a place with full view of the volcano caldera is the best way to experience the unique character of the island.
Of course, you’ll pay a premium price for a room with a caldera view in Fira, Imerovigli, and Oia towns, but there are bargain accommodations if you are willing to look around a bit.
In high season you should book your hotel in advance, but with the exception of late July and August, there will be plenty of hotel and room owners who will meet passengers disembarking at the harbor to offer them their services.
Fira is the most popular town to stay at. It has many hotels, restaurants, and shops, and the views of the caldera are beautiful. Imerovigli town, is really an extension of Fira and just as beautiful of a place to spend your vacation.
Oia town at the northern part of the island has the reputation as the most romantic vacation spot in Greece and many couples choose it for their wedding or honeymoon. Oia is the town with the blue church domes you constantly see featured on countless postcards and Santorini posters.
If price is not an issue, you can opt for some of the more luxurious hotels on the caldera. They offer fantastic views, and some have swimming pools that would make your stay even more memorable.
For the budget conscious, you’ll get much better prices in other villages around Santorini, especially in Kamari and Perissa where beds are plentiful and there is no shortage of bars and beaches. This being Santorini, one of the most popular islands in the world, the prices will still be higher than other Greek islands, but not forbidding.
If you opt for a hotel on the east side of the island, you can still get to the best views of Fira and Oia via bus or by a moped or car rental with ease. You can drive from one end of the island to the other in about one hour, and between the main towns in about half-hour.
We had good experience with Hotel Keti in Fira town (excellent views of the caldera), and with Hotel Dilino (for budget-minded travelers), and Villa Kamari Star for a more comfortable stay near the best beach on the island.
What, Where to Eat
There is no shortage of restaurants in Santorini, and most of the ones that line the caldera in the towns of Fira and Oia are of the expensive variety. As a rule of thumb restaurants with a view are pricey all over the world, and Santorini is no exception.
If price is not an issue, having every meal overlooking the caldera would be a wonderful option every time and every day. But if you are on a budget, there are ways to stretch your money by choosing special days to enjoy dinner with a view, and days when a meal without the view would keep your expenses low.
The restaurants at Amoudi harbor, right below Oia village have excellent fresh fish dishes at very good prices, and the Just 4 Beer Restaurant in Kamari has an expansive collection of beers from all over Europe.
Other sites of interest nearby
In fact, most ferries to Santorini will make a stop on several of these islands.
Take a look at our suggested island hopping itinerary.
Click here to see it on the map and to get directions in a new window.