Santorini Travel Guide
An island of a fiery past, Santorini lets a traveler tap into archaeological sites from the Minoan era, the volcanic caldera with ruins from a cruise ship, black-pebble beaches, crystal-blue seas, lovely sunrise and unforgettable sunsets, Cycladic churches, and remarkable Greek architecture etched on precipitous cliffs. Whether you prefer a deep plunge into Minoan culture, want to enjoy metropolitan Fira, or fancy a climb on the steep Pyrgos, Santorini’s unparalleled beauty screams to you for a first-hand experience of it. Then you’ll know it’s a place like no other.
In a Nutshell
Santorini is a remnant of a volcanic caldera, the largest of a circular archipelago in the southern Aegean Sea. From its historical names of Thera, Thira, Kalliste, Strongyle, Santurin, Santoron and Santorini, it earned prestigious recognition as “the world’s top island” by the Travel + Leisure Magazine and “the world’s best island” by BBC. This southern part of the Cyclades Islands is made up of 15 villages. While it is known as Santorini, its official name is Thera.
Best Time to Visit
Autumn, which falls in the months of September to October, is the best season to visit Santorini because the weather is comfortably warm and there are no big crowds that mass around popular spots. Like the rest of the Cyclades, Santorini is most crowded during the summer months, which is also when bargains and room deals are most difficult to come by.
Springs from March to May are great for sightseeing and touring the island when temperatures are mild. Summer in Santorini is heavy with tourists, predominantly coming from Europe, from June to August. The breeze is warm and so is the water, and is great for swimming and beach frolicking. Traditional and contemporary music festivals occur mostly in summer, too. Most days in autumn are sunny, and the Aegean water is still great for swimming. The months from September to October are great for tourists who wish to avoid the crowd and enjoy Santorini with lower hotel, restaurant, and admission rates. Some establishments, however, close from late October to the whole duration of winter in November through February. Winters are quite cold and rainy, too.
Things to Do
Santorini is known as an island of marvelous beaches and stunning sea views, but it is not all about sea and beaches. It is also about the caldera that it sits on after that catastrophic volcanic eruption around 4,000 years ago; as it is a Minoan community buried under tumultuous molten lava, to mention a couple of things that Santorini is. There are more, and make sure that you don’t miss out on what Santorini essentially was and is, and how a quintessential traveler like you will discover.
1) Visit Archaeological Sites and Museums
Take Santorini slow, one site at a time. Check out the remains of Akrotiri, a Santorini ancient settlement that existed in 3000 B.C., buried under molten lave and unearthed by a Greek archaeologist. Wander into Santorini’s prehistoric civilization by “discovering” how Santorini and its people lived in the Minoan era. Relics are exhibited at the Archaeological Museum, the Ancient Akrotiri, Prehistoric Thira, and Ancient Thira for an admission ticket of USD 10. This way you learn about Santorini, and when you look at the other sites, you will see with the eyes of one who has seen the past.
2) Take a Hike and Watch the Sunset
Walk along the coast from Fira to Oia to witness sunset like you’ve never seen before. Walk back to Fira, the archipelago’s main city, for the bars and nightclubs if you long for the night life. If an old-fashioned entertainment is desired, go to Kamari’s seaside bars and taverns. The latter would be more in character to a vacation in Santorini.
3) Take a Rejuvenating Early Morning Walk to Witness the Sunrise and the Town Square
Get those legs ambling out into the streets and saunter to Thira. In the early morning, the tourists are still dozing on their beds and the town belongs to the island people. You see them at the baker buying warm loaves that smell of sesame grains. What a sight! You don’t see that any other time of the day. Find a café for your early morning beverage and see them mill you by.
The hot lavas and the eruption did not only shape the archipelago, they also left their scorching mark on the coastline. Multi-colored sand has become the base for Thira’s blue crystal waves, the 5.5-mile blackened shores streak along Perissa, Perivolos and Kamari, vertical cliffs line the edges of the caldera, and the azure waves of the Aegean Sea splash on red sands in Akrotiri. Pick your beach; the beaches vary in character as they vary in color.
4) Shop and Bring Home Something of Santorini
While this is not your typical metro, the island does have boutiques and shops that sell novelty items that are great as souvenirs. Besides, you don’t go to a Greek isle every day. Oia and Fira have busy commercial centers that sell jewelry, ceramics, leather items, wallets, and many others.
In making your list of sites to visit, always consider that Santorini has a culture that dates back from the Archaic to the Roman eras. A long and rich past made these sights a wonder to behold. It is important that you learn and explore. The following are suggested destinations to put your travel in the proper context.
1) Akrotiri Archaeological Site
This site exhibits an ancient city with multi-storey buildings, and fairly advanced technology. There are details of the find and significance to civilization.The archaeologists have dug 12 meters under, showing a significant picture of the ancient culture. What is amazing is the fact that what you see represents only 3% of what lies beneath. What a treasure! It is eerie walking through 3000 B.C. paved streets and plaza lined with mansions. And you get to travel back to ancient time at only USD 6.50 admission fee.
Address: Akrotiri, Fira
2) Museum of Prehistoric Thera
The museum holds finds from separate excavations that trace civilization as far back as prehistoric Thira to the late Cycladic period. The exhibit includes utensils and other domestic items, frescoes, tools, pithi jars and pottery. Admission fee is USD 5.20. Nearby is Red Beach and restaurants where you can idle by and enjoy the view.
Address: Mitropoleos St., Fira
3) The Santozeum Museum
This museum displays documentation and replicas of the real thing found in Akrotiri. There are video presentations and blown up copies with descriptions of frescoes and artifacts. Admission fee is USD 6.50.
Address: Caldera Path, Fira
4) Santorini Volcano
A trip to the Santorini Volcano is a fitting highlight of a travel to a volcanically-shaped island. For USD 5.20, take a cable ride and a boat trip to the small port at the base of the volcano. Trek about 2 miles to the volcano’s rim and walk along the ridge of the crater. Stones will be hot to the touch and smoke will smell of sulfur, so prepare a mask if you are sensitive. There is a stop at a hot spring and lunch at Thirasia. The tour involves arduous walking and climbing, but the awesome views and giddy excitement are incomparable. The boat will sail back and you will have a good view of the traditional Ia settlement. Partake of meze, a traditional Greek appetizer, and Santorini’s wine, assyrtiko. Guided tours cost around USD 40.
Address: take off at the picturesque port of Fira
5) Incomparable Sunsets
The people of the world might be looking at the same sun, but Santorini definitely has the best sunsets. Sun-worshippers gather at Oia Castle to gaze and clap, yes clap, at the sun’s setting performance. It is one of nature’s spectacular shows and you shouldn’t miss that for anything. While you’re at it, plan the next day to end with the same sunset but from other points in Santorini. See it from Skaros Rock in Imerovigli and the highest point in Profitis Ilias in Pyrgos. You can also have a view of the sunset in the background with the whole of Santorini framed on it in Faros in Akrotiri. Or you can watch it by the cliff side from Firostefani near Fira. And yes, sunsets are free.
6) Monastery of Profitis Ilias
Reach the highest mountain of Santorini, Profitis Ilias, by trekking. This is where panoramas are the most outstanding. Sweep through the view of the caldera past the white and blue houses against the monochromatic orange sunset. Dress properly if you intend to go to the chapel and the monastery. If you are lucky, the chapel will be open and you can light a candle. But open or not, the view is yours free. The trail will be carpeted with flowers if you climb in spring. You can climb from Ancient Thera and down to Pyrgos. Halfway down, you can flag a bus to bring you to your hotel if your legs can’t take you any farther. Except for the energy and time you spend, this wonderful experience will cost you nothing.
7) Open Air Cinema Kamari
For a lazy night, go to this Open Air Cinema Kamari just off the entrance to the town. There is a full bar of cocktails, local beer, snacks, and ice creams. You won’t go wrong with Mojito. And in case you forget, this is a movie house showing films in English. If you have seen the movie being shown then you can enjoy reading, if you can, the Greek subtitles that go with every scene. Admission fee is USD 9. Enjoy!
Address: Main Road, Kamari
8) Perissa Beach
Splash and have fun in Perissa Beach. It prides itself for its black sands and crystal-clear water. There are shops and restaurants along the beach where you can order cool drinks and make use of their facilities like sun bed, tables and sheds. Cocktails are around USD 6.50. Admission is free.
9) The Yposkafas and Churches of Oia
You’ve passed by Oia, maybe you have seen its gorgeous sunset, but Oia deserves another look. Oia is not as touristy as Fira, and only those who appreciate excellent art that is unique and distinct walk the streets of this village. The picturesque yposkafa, residences carved out of cliffs to weather storms and earthquakes, are monuments to the resilience and resourcefulness of its people. These aesthetic houses are actually structures built to ergonomically exist with the difficult conditions in Oia. Also called cave houses, yposkafas were built by the lower class of the society of Santorini to endure harsh winds and the elements. These vaulted caves usually had 2 to 3 rooms inside, and efficiently insulated from summer through winter. Many hotels have adopted this architecture. Oia also has many churches – some big, and some small.
Try St. George Church in the Perivolas district, and St. Spyridon and Resurrection Churches in Monastiri district. Spend one afternoon just browsing through Oia and have one of your most memorable discoveries. These are free treats, but will cost you more calories than you can ever imagine.
10) Maritime Museum
Before witnessing the great fireball dipping into the vast Aegean, go to the exhibit at the Maritime Museum of Oia. It fully documents the maritime history of Santorini. It is housed in the kapetanospito, or captains’ residence, and displays books, maps, sailors’ chests, sextants, models of old vessels, charter agreements, wills, photos, figure-heads, and many more. Indeed, a sailor’s treasure. Minimal admission fee of USD 4 is collected.