Santorini is the stunningly beautiful Greek Island so often featured in photos of the Greek Islands. The setting dramatic, scripted in a Hollywood movie, with villages set high atop, steep jagged cliffs. To add to the drama the cliff faces are black, as it is actually the rim of a volcano or caldera upon which these precarious, stunning villages have been built.
Add the crystal clear turquoise waters, sunshine and azure blue skies and it is indeed hard to resist. However, be aware like many places that have been in the limelight for a long time, Santorini has become arrogant. It is expensive, crowded, and lacks the charm and hospitality of many of the other lesser-known Greek Islands.
But hey, if you know why you are going and what you are likely to get for your money, then go with your eyes wide open.
As a first time visitor to the Greek Islands, we decided to go as this would take it off the list and we would know what it was all about. We also figured it wasn’t going to get any cheaper or less crowded in the future and we were there right before peak season started, so we thought the timing was good.
What to Do when Visiting Santorini
Santorini, as mentioned, is built on the rim of a volcano. If you head to the North end of the island, toward Oia you can clearly see the curve of the rim. Oia is a great place to see the sunset. (It won’t be a romantic, peaceful sunset, you’ll be sharing it with hundreds of others.)
1. Take a Boat Tour
Take a boat tour. You can go out on a boat and take a look at the island from the water. Many of these tours also take you to the volcano where you can walk across the volcano and see how the island was formed. It is an interesting trip, but be aware there is no shade. We were there before summer and it was plenty hot. You will need to bring your own sunscreen, hat and water.
Our tour also stopped after the volcano for us to have a swim and visit a local hot spring, then lunch on one of the neighboring islands. These tours run daily and there is something for every price point. I would recommend it as it gives you a totally different perspective of the island and was a very pleasant day.
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2. Explore the Villages of Fira and Oio
Both Fira and Oia are picturesque, Greek Villages on the rim of the caldera.Most people will stay in one of these two villages or the small satellite villages nearby.
Fira is the busy capital of Santorini. Any exploration of Fira is best done on foot as the traffic is congested and parking is hard to find.
Oia is the best place to watch the sunset. The village is smaller than Fira. But it is also very popular and busy. If you plan to come for sunset you need to come early to find a spot.
If you want to eat dinner at a restaurant in either village, reservations are recommended.
3. The Cliff Walk Between Oia and Fira
Walk the cliff walk from Oia to Fira for some great views of the villages, including strolling through both, and some lovely scenery. You can take the bus one way and walk back the other. Depending on where you are staying and the time of day, pick which direction you would like to walk. Again, there is little shade so I would recommend morning or late afternoon for your walk. There are plenty of places to stop for a drink or a rest along the way.
4. Lounge by your Hotel Pool and Relax
Santorini is not known for its beaches, it is known for its stunning views from the cliff tops. So one whole side of the island has no beaches or waterfront to speak of. The back side of the island does have some beaches, which are volcanic.
The afternoons can be quite warm so relaxing by the hotel pool is quite pleasant.
5. Try the Gelato at Lolita’s in Oia
The best gelato we found, and the one recommended by the locals was Lolita’s Gelato near the bus station in Oia. It is fantastic. You can try any flavor before you buy. Some of them are quite different, i.e. rosewater pink pepper, all of them are good. For something local, try the Greek yogurt flavor.
If You Do Go to Santorini
Santorini is busy, and the traffic is a nightmare. While the distances are quite small, it takes a while to get anywhere and it is slow and congested. There is a bus service; it is inexpensive but also crowded.
Think about what you want to do and see on the island and stay there, then you only have to rely on transport to go to do other activities. We stayed in Oia as I wanted to be near the sunset, rather than have to travel up there in the evening to see it and then deal with returning to the hotel with crowds of other people. We were walking distance to sunset, restaurants and a shuttle came and picked us up for the brief ride to the port in Oia for the boat ride.
Book your hotel early, it is a popular spot. There are some accommodation options that are a bit more friendly to your budget if you do not stay in a hotel with a view of the caldera (and thus sunset from your hotel.) Santorini is expensive though, so keep this in mind. Meals and drinks were much more expensive than other Greek Islands we visited, including popular and well known Mykonos.
You will need transport from wherever you arrive, the airport or the ferry port, to your hotel. We came in on the ferry, and arranged a shuttle to the hotel. This worked out well as the driver knew where we were going and could call someone at the hotel to meet us and carry the luggage down the cliff side to the hotel. Due to the fact everyone arrives and departs at the same time, our pick-up to return to the ferry was several hours before the actual departure time (and then the ferry was delayed for hours.)
If you are looking for great Greek food, white sand beaches and seaside tavernas for long leisurely lunches and friendly service, this is not the island for that, try Naxos. Santorini is all glitz and glamour.