There’s a reason why Santorini is so popular – dreamy white cave houses that cascade down the side of its rugged cliffs, infinite views across the Aegean Sea, delicious Mediterranean food and those oh-so-famous sunsets that the island is known for. It’s officially called Thira in Greek but is more commonly known by its Venetian name Santorini, after Saint Irene. A product of its volcanic past, the Cycladic island can be likened to a phoenix rising from the ashes, a trait that has helped it soar to the top of tourism rankings and bucket lists alike.
Yet it would be hard to shy away from the fact that Santorini is one of the most expensive places I’ve visited, especially if you choose to stay in a hotel with a caldera view (you’ve come all this way, so the experience would be hard to pass up). It’s also more touristy than other Greek islands, and at times felt like one big honeymooners resort where you can’t drink the tap water (buy bottled water at the mini-mart versus the hotels mini-bar) and getting around requires extra patience (the buses are crowded and may or may not arrive on schedule). Despite these “trade-offs”, Santorini does not lack in charm – there really is no other place like it in the world. So if you aren’t into sitting poolside at your hotel all day, here are my top 5 things to see and do to get the most from this beautiful and unique island.
1. Photo Safari in Oia
Santorini is arguably one of the most photogenic places in the world and the best place to break out your camera is in Oia. The island’s northern-most town on the caldera is a maze of white-washed balconies enveloped in pink bougainvillea flowers, blue-domed churches, distinctive “doors to nowhere” (as I liked to call them) that lead to dramatic ocean views. Oia’s crown jewel is its famous windmill, which graces countless postcards and wall calendars and is actually a 3-floor suite where you can stay. For another photo op travel down the 300+ steps to Amoudi Bay, a fishing port where you can go for a swim in the inviting blue-green waters or grab a drink at one of the tavernas (just watch where you step as the path is also used by donkeys). The best advice is to get to Oia early to beat the crowds and the heat, and then let your sense of wonder lead the way.
2. Shopping in Fira
Fira may be considered the most touristy of Santorini’s towns due to its proximity to the port, but that actually works out in your favor when it comes to shopping. Beyond the usual t-shirts and magnets, you’ll also find items that are specific to the island like volcanic rock jewelry, olive oil everything and tiny ceramic churches and windmills, hand-painted by the local art teacher and his students. Plus, I found prices to be lower here than in Oia. You can easily make an afternoon out of browsing the shops, and then take a break to enjoy a slouvaki or gyro at Meat Corner Grill, or cool off with authentic frozen Greek yogurt at Selatrevo. Fira is also the main hub for buses, so chances are you’ll have many opportunities to pass through the town as you explore the island.
3. Hike to Skaros Rock in Imerovigli
It’s hard not to notice the assuming black rock jutting into the caldera near Imerovigli, but few may realize that it was once topped by a 13th century Venetian fortress. The fortified settlement at Skaros Rock was eventually abandoned after sustaining damage from earthquakes and today remains uninhabited except for scant ruins and a small chapel. It’s an a light 20 minute hike from Imerovigli to the top of the rock (figure about 1 hour round-trip with time to take photos and look around), which will reward your effort with a killer 360-degree view of Santorini’s rugged cliffs, snow-capped by its iconic white towns, and seemingly endless horizon where land meets water meets sky. If you plan to hike to Skaros Rock it’s best to do so in the morning when the temperatures are cooler, just as the sun begins to peek over the island, although some people like to go at the end of the day to catch the sunset from the former castle in the sky.
4. Make It a Beach Day
Going to the beach is a given in the Greek islands, and you’ll find many options along the island’s eastern side (opposite the caldera), most of which can be reached by bus from Fira. Many people flock to the organized black sand beaches like Kamari and Perissia along the south east coast like, which offer full-service chairs that are essentially “rented” from the tavernas that line the shore. Most will have a guy outside to lure beachgoers to their spot, so make sure you understand the full cost before setting up shop. Then you can park yourself at your chair all day if you so desire and order food and drinks from waitresses that circulate the beach. If you’re looking for something a little more active, you’ll find water sport companies at beaches like Perissia and Agios Georgios with options ranging from jet skiing and parasailing to scuba diving and stand-up paddle boarding.
The most distinctive beach along Santorini’s south coast is the Red Beach, with an otherworldly landscape like something right out of a sci-fi movie. It’s a short walk from the bus stop at Akrotiri, and is connected by water taxi to other nearby beaches like Kambia Beach and White Beach. For a fun way to see the colorful beaches and dramatic rock formations along this part of the island, you can also book a kayaking tour with Santorni Sea Kayak.
5. Catch a Sunset
A quintessential Santorini experience is to catch one of its jaw-dropping sunsets. And while there are many vantage points to take in this fiery performance, most people flock to Oia. Throngs of camera-clad tourists crowd every available inch of viewing real estate, so it’s essential that you get there early to secure your spot. As the sun makes its final appearance before disappearing into the Aegean Sea, a wave of applause will erupt and the sunset selfie session will conclude. To avoid some of this mayhem you can also make a reservation at a restaurant with a caldera view.
Most places will specify a reservation time so you can get situated before the big show, and as expected the best restaurants will book up in advance so the sooner you know your plans, the better. As an alternative, if you’re staying at a hotel on the caldera you can also view the sunset from the privacy of your own balcony. We stayed at Iliovasilema Suites in Imerovigli and enjoyed the peaceful and unobstructed experience from the pool area outside of our room. If you’ll be in Santorini for a several days, consider watching the sunset from different parts of the island – Oia, Imerovigli, Fira or even the lighthouse near Akrotiri – each night.