Perhaps the most famous Greek island, Santorini is at once beautiful and also overrun with tourists. There are other islands to visit and they all get the same Aegean sunset, more or less. And, yet, there is something pretty spectacular about the island, especially if you get out of the two main tourist centers. What follows are the suggestions I give friends and family about visiting Santorini.
The lay of the land
The thing that really struck me about Santorini is its geological history. It used to be a large round island (see dotted lines below) until about 2000 BC, when a massive eruption caused the island to collapse, forming the caldera (A) the flooded with water from the Aegean Sea and leaves us with the steep cliffs all around the inside of the island, that create such dramatic scenery. Santorini today is basically the eastern edge of what used to be a much larger island.
The largest city is Thera (alternatively spelled “Fira”, marked B on the map). This is where passengers from most cruise ships arrive. It is also the hub for the island’s bus network. Just like you must connect in Atlanta to get to heaven, you must connect in Thera to get anywhere on Santorini by public transit. More on that later. I wouldn’t advise staying in Thera.
Oia (pronounced “ee-ya” and marked C on the map) is the place you’ve seen the postcards of. The stunning white block buildings stacked on each other down the side of a cliff, with the stunning sunsets and the blue-domed churches with the sea in the background. Jam-packed for the sunsets but otherwise charming. If you are staying only a night or two on Santorini, staying in Oia is not a bad idea. You’ll get the charm and sunset views without the challenge of having to drive into Oia from somewhere else on the island.
The beach action in Santorini is all on the outside of the island – there are only steep cliffs on the caldera side. The most developed beach area is Kamari (marked D on the map) which is near the airport and has pleasant black sand beaches. The sand is quite coarse on Santorini, some of it looking like small pebbles, in fact. You could stay in Kamari for your whole trip and have a decent time, if you love the beach.
Along the south side of the island, you will find Emporio and other small towns (marked E on the map). This is the historic part of the island, with charming maze-like villages of whitewashed houses dating back to the 19th century. We stayed at a beautifully-restored house in Emporio and felt like we had a much more local experience than if we had stayed in Thera, Oia or Kamari.
The high point of the island rises from the village of Pyrgos. (Marked F on the map) There are some stunning views to be had from here as it has a view of most of the island spread before it. The picture above was taken in a vineyard by the side of a quiet road on the north side of Pyrgos. We pulled over and watched the sun sink into the Aegean Sea. Like the Emporio area, Pyrgos would be a good place to stay if you want to be away from the tourist masses.
The southwestern end of the island (marked G on the map) is more rugged and much further off the tourist path. Along the caldera’s edge, you will find smaller, more exclusive resorts with great views, especially looking back at Thera and across the caldera at Oia. While I wouldn’t stay in this area, it makes a decent half-day trip to explore.
How much time to spend on Santorini?
Santorini is not the cheapest place to stay in Greece and the popularity with tourists means that, year-round, you are paying a premium to visit the island. Still, it is a pretty nice place to visit. If you will have a chance to see other Greek islands and explore more of the culture, then two nights on Santorini may be fine. If Santorini is your only Greek island, then I would suggest four nights, so you can explore more of the island.
We stayed five nights and five full days and that was probably one too many – and we were traveling with three generations and intentionally keeping things slow.
Where to stay
If you are staying two nights and especially are looking for something romantic, staying in Oia (“C” on the map) is probably the easiest option. You won’t be on the island that long, no need to travel to other parts of the island, so just settle into your luxurious room with a caldera view. That said, if you are going to stay in Oia, I’d splurge a bit and stay somewhere that has a view either from your room or from some common area on the property – restaurant, swimming pool, bar, etc. Otherwise, you’ve paid the premium to be in Oia and will still have to jostle with the crowds to see the sunset. What’s the point?
If you are staying a few more nights or are more budget-conscious, stay in Kamari (especially if you want to spend time on the beach), on the south side of the island near Emporio, or near the center of the island in Pyrgos. This reduces your costs considerably and, frankly, I feel like we had a bit more sense of staying among locals instead of a tourist trap.
Transportation and logistics
Short answer: unless you are staying two nights in Oia and traveling nowhere else, rent a car. The bus system is overcrowded and you will spend too much of your valuable time waiting for busses at a desolate bus stop, only to have to connect in Thera – thus more waiting – to reach your final destination. The island is not that large – it usually takes 20-30 minutes to get just about anywhere.
Note that you do need a valid International Driving Permit to rent in Greece – an English-language license is not sufficient.
What to see and do
Walk from Thera to Firostefani to Imerovigil. Thera is the main city and is really touristy – not in a good way. It has vegan gyro and frozen yogurt shops, which is when you know there is a problem. The path along the caldera’s edge is spectacular and the further north you walk, the better it gets. If you look in the picture above, you’ll see the crowds on the right-hand side. Watch out for pick-pockets.
As you walk past the cable car station (which saves people from walking up or down the hundreds of steps to the harbor) the crowds thin and the walk to Imerovigil is very pleasant. Wear a hat and put on some sunscreen. Also in Thera, stop by the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral. The artwork inside is beautiful.
Explore Oia – and maybe stay for the sunset. The picture above will give you an idea of what is charming about Oia. It really is this spectacular construction of white Lego-block buildings hanging on to the steep cliff face overlooking the caldera. Unlike Thera, Oia has maintained a bit of character and has many cute shops (check out the fantastic Atlantis Books). Spending some time to explore the town will yield amazing views that take your breath away.
The picture below will give you an idea of the drawbacks of Oia. Hordes of tourists descend each afternoon, lining every available space to watch the sunset. (And a note, please don’t annoy the locals by doing stupid things to catch the perfect Oia selfie, like stepping onto roofs or entering private property.)
So do you go to Oia for the sunset? First thought: if you want an Oia sunset and are staying only a night or two, make sure you stay in Oia and pay for a place that has a view. Otherwise, why did you bother paying to stay in Oia?
We made the drive across the island one afternoon to watch the sunset. And it was amazing. But the sunset we watched from Pyrgos was amazing, too, and we didn’t have to share it with literally hundreds of other people. If you are not staying in Oia and want to visit for the sunset, your best bet is to walk a ways down the 291 steps from Oia to the Ammoudi harbor. Here’s why:
Most people are lazy and they stay up on the high part of Oia. But as you walk down the steps, you immerse yourself in the scenery and have a lot fewer people around you. The photo above (no filters or editing, by the way) was taken about 50 steps below the previous photo. A little bit of effort made for a lot better experience.
Enjoy the sunset somewhere else. There are plenty of places on the island to watch the sun set. I was especially fond of Pyrgos, which is nearly at the highest point of the island. You see the entirety of Santorini spread before you. On the north side of the village, there are vineyards by the roadside, which made a pretty point from which to watch the sunset. There are plenty of other areas, too. And watching a sunset just with your travel companions is so much more enjoyable.
Watch a movie under the stars. The CineKamari is the island’s only outdoor cinema and offers a great al fresco move-watching experience. It isn’t very large, so come early to get in the queue. Dress warmly because after the sun goes down, it can get a bit nippy and their supply of blankets can run out. The snack bar includes a full cocktail menu, too, so you will surely have a good time.
Beach time in Kamari or Perissa. We aren’t big beach people, so spent a minimum of time at the beaches. A few things to know: most of the beaches have black sand, which gets scorching hot in the sun. Bring sandals or flip-flops. The water is not very warm, at least it wasn’t in June. Most of the beaches have beach clubs, which set up restaurants, deck chairs, etc. You can go directly to the water – it is a public beach – but if you want to camp out, you will pay a fee or, at least, have a minimum order. This seems reasonable.
Wander around Pyrgos, Emproio and the other villages. The more local a place you go to, the more worthwhile it is to just wander the alleys, pop into coffee shops and churches, browse the markets, smile at the Grecian aunties, and just get a feel for the place. Santorini has a vibrant agricultural history and learning about it, makes the visit more enjoyable. In fact, stop by the Tomato Industrial Museum to learn more about the pride of the island: Santorini tomato paste! If you are curious about locally-made art and ceramics, a stop by Galatea’s Pottery and Art Gallery is worthwhile. She also does classes where you can learn to throw your own pottery. We went home with a few beautiful items.
Drive to the Akrotiri Lighthouse. The southwestern corner of the island is much less developed and we stopped in many places – often just as the side of the road – to take in the stunning views. At the lighthouse itself, you are truly at the end of the road and can take in the vertiginous views of the azure sea below.
And one you maybe can skip – the caldera cruise. We didn’t take the caldera cruise, but it seems like a really expensive way to waste time. You can get spectacular views from many points in the island – spending part of the day on a boat with strangers doesn’t seem like a lot of fun. But maybe for you, it would be. Your choice, of course.
Where to eat
Okay, I have only two recommendations and one “please avoid”. We ate mostly at whatever local places were available. As we stayed in Emporio, that included the local taverna with its grilled meats and Greek salad. We also cooked our own dinner, going to the market and buying local ingredients, whipping up some rustic, yet tasty, food. Which is a great way to experience any place you stay.
Theoni’s Kitchen – if you are in Thera and need to eat, Theoni’s Kitchen is reasonably priced with good food and service. The seafood pasta above was from there. Still, we were amazed at how much more expensive the meal there was, compared with what we paid for a similar meal the night before in Kamari. This isn’t about Theoni’s Kitchen; this is just a reflection of the touristy nature of Thera.
Seaside – a beach club in Agios Georgios, this is a bit more upscale place with exceptional service and equally exceptional fresh seafood. You will pay a bit more for this one – it is a splurge restaurant – but if you are combining it with a day at the beach, it will be fun. It was a recommendation of our hosts and I was impressed.
The one restaurant I would steer you away from is Selene. This high-end restaurant has won many awards but we had such a lousy experience. Given how pricey the restaurant is and how much good, reasonably-priced food is available on Santorini, it was a disaster. Safe to say, one of the worst dining experiences I have ever had.
Would love to hear from you
I hope you have a great time in Santorini. Please share your feedback on the places listed here along with any other suggestions you have.