Santorini is iconic, which is why most people can identify this destination just with a glance at a photo. There’s no mistaking the crescent-shaped island with its famous whitewashed villages, awe-inspiring sunsets, unique wines, and myths of the Lost City of Atlantis.
Countless volcanic eruptions created the island of multicolored rock, the crater of which is filled with the Aegean Sea. Officially named Thira (pronounced Thera), and with its rich history and gorgeous landscapes, it has become an extremely popular tourist destination. Most people know that a visit will entail breathtaking views and sumptuous meals. However, many don’t know what there is to do in the region. So here is our Top 10 list of must-sees and must-dos in Santorini.
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Explore Oia’s Scenic Streets
One of the most recognized and photographed towns in Santorini is Oia, with its stark white buildings that boast an interesting architectural mixture of both curvy and angular lines. It’s known for its charming alleyways and staircases, and narrow streets adorned with pottery and plants, as well as the blue-domed churches of Agios Spiridonas (Saint Spyridon) and Anasteseos (the Church of the Resurrection), which are built side by side. This entire scenic village is perched upon the cliffs at a height of 70 – 100 meters above sea level so it offers stunning views of the Aegean Sea. It’s no wonder the area is the quintessential picture of Santorini.
The best way to see Oia and capture beautiful photos — as well as memories — is to explore it by wandering the streets. Along the way, you will encounter a multitude of places that will pique your interest, such as unique stores and specialty boutiques, delightful outdoor cafes, and numerous art galleries and museums.
Oia is a popular port of call for cruise lines so it’s not unusual to see several ships at once in the caldera. It’s also one of the most visited towns in all of Greece, with tourists crowding the streets throughout the summer months. If you desire a less hectic atmosphere, the best time to visit Oia is in May, before summer vacation begins, or in the fall when the majority of travelers have returned to work and school.
Ride the Cable Car
If you would prefer more of an aerial-type view, ride the cable car that connects the Old Port to the town of Fira. The ride takes approximately three minutes so it isn’t long, but it will allow you to experience a different perspective while getting a good sense of the height of the cliff and the multicolored volcanic rock below.
Essentially, the cable car is a pulsed gondola lift that is capable of transporting 1,200 people per hour. The cable car runs seven days a week, every 20 minutes from morning till late night, with mid-day as the busiest time. During the summer months, line-ups can grow quite long so plan wisely.
Experience the Stunning Sunset
Santorini’s sunsets are world-famous due to the intensity and color in shades of red, orange, and gold. And when cast over the whitewashed and pastel buildings, the towns take on a completely different tone. Oia is noted to be the best place to watch the nightly sunset phenomenon as it lowers seemingly into the depths of the Aegean Sea. For travelers staying in Oia’s hotels, it’s easy to access the spectacle via guest room balconies. However, visitors staying only the day, such as cruise line passengers, will need to watch from elsewhere. The ruins of Byzantine Castle are a popular place for people to congregate for the sunset, and many others simply line the streets so crowding can become an issue that will detract from the experience.
A second alternative is to watch the sunset from the town of Fira, which is usually less crowded. If you can find a table in a cliffside café, you can take a load off your feet and enjoy a drink as well. Not only will this scenario offer unobstructed views but also a different perspective because from this angle the sun sets behind the volcano.
Visit the Volcano
In our first suggestion of Exploring Oia’s Scenic Streets, if you clicked our link to the meaning of ‘caldera’, you already know that Santorini and its group of four smaller islands are the geological product of many explosions from a volcano. That volcano is still active and has become a major tourist attraction. It would be a shame to visit Santorini and exclude this unique experience from your itinerary. (Photo shown here by Norbert Nagel/Wikimedia Commons – License: CC BY-SA 3.0).
Two volcanic islets —Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni — make up the tour, which can be accessed with moderately priced boat tours leaving from Santorini’s port (Athinios), Ammoudi Bay in Oia, or the Old Port in Fira. Nea Kameni provides the first stop and allows visitors the rare opportunity to stand at the edge of the volcano’s steaming crater.
Visitors can experience extras via a catamaran tour that includes all the above and adds the option of lunch or dinner (depending on the time of the tour), plus the opportunity to swim in the sulfur springs of Palea Kameni. The sulfur turns the water into a unique shade of green and helps to keep the temperature high throughout the year.
It should be noted that a 40-45-minute hike is necessary to get from the boat to the volcano, usually around midday when temperatures are highest, so a little preparation goes a long way. Travelers should bring water, dress accordingly, and ensure they wear proper walking shoes. Those with mobility issues might want to take the climb into consideration before committing to the trip. Visitors should also know that volcanic sulfur tends to smell like rotten eggs or sewer gas and can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat depending on how sensitive you are to such things. For most people, the temporary aroma is worth it for the sake of the experience. And, in the end, it is an unforgettable sight that not only offers the chance to get close to an active volcano but also provides amazing views of Santorini from afar.
Bask on the Red, Black, and White Beaches
Not only is the volcanic explosion responsible for the creation of Santorini’s islands and the multicolored cliffs, but it is also responsible for the multicolored beaches that exist here. The sand is compressed, solidified lava and three beaches stand out as unique due to their hue.
Red Beach (shown in the photo) is one of the most notable in Santorini, located near the village of Akrotiri. The sand and cliffs are both an interesting hue of red. If not for the intense blue waters of the Aegean Sea, it would look somewhat like Mars. Because of this phenomenon, the beach is a major tourist attraction so it perhaps is not the best for sunbathing and swimming. However, it is definitely worth a visit. The beach is accessible by boat as well as an easy footpath.
Perissa, more commonly known as Black Beach because of the blackened sand, is one of the better beaches to visit in Santorini. (Kamari also offers a black beach but leans more toward pebbles and grit).
In the cove directly beside Red Beach, visitors will find White Beach. It is like the Red Beach in the sense that both the sand and the cliffs are white, but with some black pebbles mixed within the sand. Once again, the beach is accessible via boat or by walking from Red Beach.
See the Akrotíri Ruins
Located near the village of Akrotíri, a historic Minoan settlement was buried beneath a thick flow of lava and volcanic ash produced from the 16th-century volcanic explosion that created the caldera. Located approximately 12 kilometers from Fira, visitors can explore the ruins of the town via corridors and pathways that meander through the extensive rubble and remains of the ancient buildings, a clay pipe drainage system, pottery, and artwork.
The Akrotiri Archaeological Site depicts what was once a well-structured city, so to keep the remains intact, they are on display under a massive, ventilated cover. Some historians believe the ruins were the inspiration for the story of Atlantis, others view it as proof that despite Minoans continuously rebuilding after earthquakes and volcanos, it was the massive explosion that created the caldera that ultimately destroyed the ancient civilization. (Photo shown here by Norbert Nagel/Wikimedia Commons License CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Tickle your Taste Buds with a Winery Tour
Santorini is well known for its unique wines – distinctive because the white grapes the region produces are grown in mineral-rich volcanic soil. The region is known as a premier wine destination in Europe, with 18 wineries on the small island boasting a whopping 60 varieties of grapes. Serious wine lovers can forego a trip to California’s Napa Valley and look to Santorini for some interesting wine tours and tastings.
Group tours with educated guides are easy to come by and can provide an interesting backstory to the glass of wine you order with dinner. It’s also possible to combine activities, such as visiting Santos Winery for a tasting and then staying for a spectacular view of the sunset.
Hike from Fira to Oia
For visitors that enjoy hiking, consider the 10-kilometer trek from Fira to Oia, or the reverse. The route mainly entails walking the rim of the caldera so it is a scenic stroll that will offer views and photos you simply cannot get anywhere else.
Shown to the left is the town of Fira and the caldera rim on which the hiking trail leads to Oia. (Photo by Norbert Nagel/Wikimedia Commons License CC BY-SA 3.0)
The trail is not particularly difficult but does encompass both uphill and downhill walks, and without any shade along the way, it can become insufferably hot if you attempt the hike at midday during the summer months. However, if you dress for the weather, wear a good pair of walking shoes, and ensure you stay well-hydrated, it is a visually breathtaking way to spend the day.
Discover Less-Familiar Towns
Oia and Fira are the most fashionable towns to explore in Santorini. However, if time permits, consider setting your sites on some less familiar destinations. For instance, Pyrgos (shown in the photo), is a fortress-style settlement that was the former capital of the island. With homes built in a circular fashion around a Venetian Castle, the town resembles an amphitheater and offers fantastic views of the whole island.
The town of Kamari creates a beachside resort setting with watersports and diving centers as well as restaurants and cafes along the stretch of black beach.
And Megalochori is a traditional village located in the heart of wine country, where visitors can view neoclassical and traditional homes, charming churches and bell towers, and a dynamic town square. Exploring the narrow streets and alleyways is a good way to find interesting boutiques and taverns.
Visit Thirassia Island with a Day Trip
At one time, Santorini and Thirassia were joined together and formed the same island. However, the same legendary 16th-century volcanic eruption that created the caldera also managed to separate Thirassia from the main island. It is now one of the five islands that make up the region. It is also the polar opposite of Santorini with only five villages and a few hundred residents.
Since it is not visited nearly as much as Santorini, tourists will enjoy much less hustle and bustle as they revel in stellar views and charming villages, local treats in old taverns, and the peacefulness of twenty-one churches and monasteries.
Getting to Thirassia for a day trip is easy via a ferry boat. (Photo shown here by Norbert Nagel/Wikimedia Commons License CC BY-SA 3.0)
Lead Photo Source – Unsplash Wallpapers
Oia Streets Source – Abyss Wallpapers by Alphacoders
Cable Car Source – Wikimedia Commons – License
Santorini Sunset Source – Pixabay
Nea Kameni Volcano Source – Photographer Norbert Nagel – Wikimedia Commons – License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Red Beach Source – Photographer TomasEE Wikimedia Commons – License
Akrotiri Archaeological Site Source – Photographer Norbert Nagel – Wikimedia Commons – License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Wine Tasting Source – Pixabay
Caldera Rim with Hiking Trail Source – Photographer Norbert Nagel Wikimedia Commons – License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Pyrgos Source – Photographer Tango 7174 – Wikimedia Commons – License
Thirassia Source – Photographer Norbert Nagel – Wikimedia Commons – License: CC BY-SA 3.0