Santorini, Greece was firmly at the top of my bucket list for oh, years and years before I visited. When I finally did, it was just as beautiful as I’d imagined. Clifftops clustered with whitewashed buildings, a sparkling indigo sea, and sunsets that are widely renowned as among the best in the world… there is a reason Santorini is as famous as it is.
With fame comes a lot of tourist traps though, and Santorini has them in spades: Bad overpriced restaurants, bad overpriced souvenirs, and hordes of tour groups disembarking from hordes of cruise ships. Despite this, the island manages to retain its charm, and the pure beauty at every turn overwhelms those few pitfalls. Here is a guide for what to see and do in Santorini.
Where to stay
Everyone from the mega rich to backpackers descend on Santorini in the summer, and there is accommodation to suit both budgets and everything in between. Choose from hostels, traditional “cave” rooms, and suites in one of the many luxury boutique hotels. For those incredible views you’ve seen on postcards and pinterest, you’ll want to stay on the caldera side of the island.
There are a few caldera-side towns to choose from. Fira is the capital of the island, above the main port when cruise ships dock, and therefore the busiest. It’s narrow walkways are crammed with restaurants, shops and hotels.
Firostefani, a ten-minute walk along the picturesque cliff path from the capital, is a quieter option for those still wanting to be within walking distance to Fira.
Oia is at the northernmost tip of the island, and is reputed to be the best vantage point for watching the sunset.
Imerovigli is between Fira and Oia and also offers breathtaking sunset views, as well as of Oia at the magic hour when the whitewashed buildings turn a golden pink. It is called “the balcony of the Aegean”.
What to do
Watch the sunset
Oia is widely known as the best spot to witness the sunset. This reputation, though, means that all vantage points are crammed with tourists every evening, particularly the old castle. Many of the hotels in Oia actually don’t enjoy the full spectacular sunset view, so if you want to sit back and take it in from your balcony, choose carefully. This website names hotels with ideal sunset locations.
Fira’s sunset view is partially obstructed by the island of Thirassia in the caldera. Those in the know name Imerovigli as the prime sunset spot – less crowded than Oia, with uninterrupted views. The Lighthouse at the bottom of the island is also a beautiful vantage point. This is nitpicking though – I was easily impressed by the sunset from pretty much everywhere on the west side of the island.
See the sights on wheels
A quad bike (ATV) or scooter are a cost-effective, independent way to explore the island. There are rental stores everywhere, though your hotel concierge may have a trusted rental company. You’ll need your passport and driver’s license.
Over 200 steps below Oia is this picturesque little bay. I ate one of the best meals of my life there at Katina’s – fresh lobster spaghetti right on the edge of the terrace overlooking sparkling aquamarine sea. This a stunning spot to take in the sunset.
Dinner with a view
Any restaurant with a sunset location will generally cost a bucketload more than those that don’t, but it is worth splashing out on at least one special sunset meal during your visit. Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants that enjoy views of the caldera rely on their prime location to attract diners and make little effort with the food. There are a few exceptions: Katina’s, mentioned above, is one. 1800, Ambrosia and Kastro, all in Oia, are spectacular (and pricey). Argo in Fira and Vanilia in Firostefani are both slightly more reasonable and offer great views and food.
Find idyllic hidden coves
From Amoudi Bay, walk around the rocks away from the restaurants with the water on your right, until you find the little cove with the island a few hundred metres away. Stake your claim on a rock for the day, dive off into the clear blue water and swim out to the island for some daredevil cliff jumping.
There are a number of sail companies offering day trips out to the hot springs in the caldera, which personally, I found underwhelming – but anchoring in isolated bays and watching the sunset from the sea were incredible experiences.
See the beaches
Santorini’s beaches aren’t postcard perfect stretches of white sand, but they are unique. Perissa beach has black sand and is particularly popular with backpackers. Red Beach is a pebbly beach with an incredible backdrop of red cliffs where you can rent sun loungers. White Beach is tiny and only accessible by boat (and a wade through the water!)(image)
This ancient town was buried when the volcano erupted 3,500 years ago. It continues to be excavated but is now open to the public to walk around for a €5 admission fee.(image)
Visit a winery
There is some wonderful wine tasting on Santorini. Santo Wines‘ stunning cliff top location means you can drink in the spectacular view while drinking wine. Perfect!
Sunbathe and swim
When most people envision Santorini, they picture themselves gazing out over the caldera from their pool. The epitome of the perfect holiday setting, and totally achievable in Santorini. Select a hotel with an infinity pool for the best photo op! Some of the best include the Grace Santorini (which I mentioned in my round-up of the world’s best hotel pools), Cosmopolitan Suites, Astra Suites, Katikies Hotel, and The Tsitouras Collection. The views are jaw-dropping (and so are the room rates).(image)
While there are bars and nightclubs on the island, Santorini is far more low key and has less of a party vibe than its neighbours like Mykonos, Ios and Crete. There are bars that cater to backpackers, but as the vast majority of visitors are honeymooners, destination weddings, and cruise ship tourists, the focus is on relaxation, romance and sightseeing. If you’re island hopping, save the party for another island and use your time on Santorini to unwind.
When to go
Peak season is June to September, when the temperature hits high 20s to 30’c. The later in the summer, the warmer the sea is for swimming. July to August is when the tourists descend en masse and the prices are the highest, so choose the shoulder months for a calmer experience and better deals.
How to get there
Santorini has its own airport for direct flights from Europe and connecting international flights, usually via Athens. There is also a ferry port – you can catch a ferry from Athens, which will take 8 hours on the slow service and 4-5 hours on the fast ferry, or island hop around the Cyclades; ferries from Santorini go to Mykonos, Paxos and Crete.
All images in this post my own, unless otherwise stated.