Santorini Travel Guide

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Santorini Travel Guide

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Ah, Santorini, that breathtaking Greek Isle that you know from websites, billboards and brochures. It’s the epitome of the romantic notion of Greece and the sparkling Aegean Sea. Certainly the most recognizable of the Greek Isles, Santorini (officially called Thira), is the largest and arguably the prettiest of the Cyclades (two million visitors flock here annually), with its white-washed villages, dramatic beaches and unique caldera. If you’re daydreaming of a sun-splashed vacation here, this Santorini travel guide will help you plan, decide where to stay, highlight what to see and get your imagination soaring.
 

How do I plan a trip to Santorini?

Here are a few tips when you’re planning a trip to Santorini that will help improve your experience:

 

  • You can get to Santorini via a direct flight from within Europe between April and November, or via a direct flight to Athens and then a 5- to 8-hour ferry ride, or via a direct one-hour flight from Athens to Santorini.
  • Plan to book your hotel at least eight months in advance.
  • For the best views, stay in Oia, Fira, Imerovigli or Firostefani; for beaches, stay in Perissa, Perivolos or Kamari.
  • Consider renting a car or scooter to get around. The bus service can be crowded and unreliable in the summer.

 

How many days should you spend in Santorini?

If at all possible, try to spend three to four days in Santorini. If you’re limited to one day, prioritize the Fira-Oia hike, explore the caldera in Oia or take the walk from Fira to Imerovigli. Take a boat or a wine tour and watch the sunset from Fira, Oia or Imerovigli. Have more time? Do both a boat and wine tour. With three days, you can add on a visit to the ruins at Akrotiri, exploring Pyrgos or the Kamari or Perissa beaches. Have a week? Add on Emporio and watching a film at the open-air cinema in Kamari.

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Can you walk everywhere in Santorini?

Santorini is larger than you think, so it’s a good idea to rent a car, scooter or quad bike. There is bus service, but it can be crowded and unreliable in the busy summer months. Within the towns and villages themselves, walking is one of the best ways to get around to see everything in an immersive and efficient manner.

 

Why is Santorini so expensive?

Santorini is undeniably expensive – it’s the quintessential Greek Isles experience, making it extraordinarily popular. However, there are ways you can save. Avoid the months of June, July and August, the hottest and busiest time of the year. Consider staying in the capital town of Fira instead of popular Oia. Take the bus instead of taxis. Eat one meal only (or skip altogether) the picture-perfect cliffside restaurants, where the views come with a hefty price tag. Look, instead, for smaller, family-run tavernas and eateries more inland. Instead of a guided tour, take the bus or use a scooter or quad bike to zip around the island, from the beaches, to the Minoan ruins of Akrotiri to the village of Oia.

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Which is better: Mykonos or Santorini?

Whether to visit Mykonos or Santorini is purely a personal decision, but here we run down a few key comparisons:

 

Views: Santorini is undoubtedly the winner for scenery, sunsets and views. Of course, the other Greek Isles – including Mykonos – are gorgeous, but Santorini just hits this one out of the park.

 

Romance: Santorini is a perfect spot for a couple’s vacation or honeymoon.

 

Beaches: Choose Mykonos for golden sand and turquoise water. Choose Santorini for more unique black and red volcanic rock beach, pebbles or sand.

 

Nightlife: Mykonos offers a vibrant club scene, with plenty of dancing and partying opportunities.

 

Sightseeing and Activities: If you’d like to do more traditional sightseeing and have more on your agenda, choose Santorini. There are archaeological sites, winery tours, village visits, boat tours around the volcano and more. Mykonos has lots of do as well, but it is more focused on the beautiful scenery and walks. One exception is that Mykonos is close to Delos – an important mythological and archaeological site – which is an easy day trip.

 

Off-Season: Although both Santorini and Mykonos get quiet in the winter, if you do find yourself in the region, choose Santorini, where the cliffs, views and caldera are still there and still impressive.

 

Accessibility: Both islands have airports and direct flights arriving from Athens and western Europe. Neither have direct flights arriving from the USA. If you are traveling by ferry, Mykonos is closer to Athens by a couple of hours.

Which month is the best to visit Santorini?

The hottest, busiest months in Santorini are June, July and August. To avoid the crowds, but still enjoy beautiful weather, visit in September-October or April-May. During the winter, you’ll save quite a bit of money, but sunbathing is not going to be your prime activity – the temperatures usually only reach the 50s and it can be rainy.

 

Do you need a car on Santorini?

In the busy summer months, the KTEL bus service on Santorini can get congested. Consider a car unless you are staying in one of the more densely packed villages. Rent a moped if you have a motorcycle license or an ATV. There are rental agencies located in Fira and at the airport.

 

What is the best location to stay in Santorini?

This is a tough question to answer – every location in Santorini has its benefits. Here are few points to consider when choosing where to stay on the island:

 

Views: For the best sunset, volcano and caldera views, stay in Fira, Oia, Imerovigli or Firostefani.

 

Romance: To kindle the flame, stay in Oia or Imerovigli (or, if you want some nightlife with your romance, consider Fira).

 

Shopping: Stay in Fira.

 

Nightlife: Stay in Fira.

 

Dining: Stay in Imerovigli. 

 

Beach Life: Stay in Kamari.

 

Budget: Stay in Firostefani or Fira.

 

Families: Stay in Fira, Oia or Kamari.

Is Fira or Oia better?

Again, both have their benefits and drawbacks. Oia is popular as the epitome of Greek Isle life and beauty, while Fira is livelier and a bit less expensive. Let’s compare:

 

Fira: More bustling nightlife and shopping scene, more casual restaurants, caldera views, direct sunset views over the caldera, walking, boat and wine tours, more central island location and hub for all bus routes, easier access to rental car agencies, closer to airport and ferry port, closer to beaches

 

Oia: More luxurious, high-end shopping, fine-dining restaurants, caldera views, less direct sunset views, walking, boat and wine tours

What should I see and do in Santorini?

Hike from Fira to Oia

This free activity is also one of the most incredible things you’ll do on the island. Make a day of it – the 6-mile hike will take between two and five hours. Kick off your walk in Fira, then head north through Firostefani and Imerovigli (part village sidewalk), then onto a rural path from Imerovigli to Oia. Follow the edge of the caldera toward Oia and the tip of the island. Along the way, you’ll pass Skaros Rock, the blue-domed St. Gerasimos Church and the Byzantine castle ruins in Oia. There is no shade along the route, so it is suggested that you start early in the morning and bring plenty of water.

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Caldera

The focal point of Santorini, the sea-filled volcanic crater – caldera – is about 7.5 miles by 4.5 miles and home to two islets with sulfur fumes and hot springs that speak to the area’s continuing volcanic activity. The caldera was formed approximately 3,600 years ago by massive volcanic eruption.

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Fira

Bustling Fira is the capital of Santorini and occupies one of the island’s best settings, on the edge of the caldera. Along Fira’s streets, you’ll find shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, all vying for your attention. There are winding alleyways, tiny squares and white cubic houses everywhere you look. If you’re a cruise ship passenger arriving by sea, you will anchor in the caldera and be transported to Skala by tender. You can climb the staircase up to Fira village or take the cable car to the top of the cliff.

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Oia

A little quieter than Fira – but also a little more expensive – Oia is known for its fab sunsets, blue-domed churches, white-washed buildings and impressive cliffside setting. Sit on one of the many sunny verandas about town and drink in the views. Perhaps you’ll choose to stay in one of the postcard-perfect homes that have been converted into boutique hotels, complete with infinity pools overlooking the caldera.

 

Kayak or Jet Ski Tour of Caldera

Two fun, unique ways to see the caldera! Set off by kayak in the morning or at sunset, or take a “Round the Lighthouse” tour that goes into the caldera. Several jet ski tours are offered, including those that visit Red Beach and White Beach, those that go into the caldera and stop for swimming in the hot springs and those that tour the caldera, the volcano and Thirassia and Amoudi bays.

 

Trek on the Volcano

Walk 20 minutes to the top of Nea Kameni, the island in the middle of the caldera and home to the island’s active volcano. You’ll pass sulfur vents along the way.

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Visit Ancient Akrotiri

Go back in time to the ancient Minoan Bronze Age Akrotiri, which was buried by the island’s volcano in the 16th century BC. Book a tour in advance to learn the most about the history of the island, the abandonment of the village, the eruption and the ensuring destruction of this important prehistoric settlement. Some tours of Akrotiri can be expanded to include local wineries.

 

Museum of Prehistoric Thira

Been to Ancient Akrotiri and want to know more? Visit the small Museum of Prehistoric Thira to see up close some of the frescoes and other art that has been excavated from the site. Many of the pieces here date back thousands of years, with some pottery you’ll see dating back to 3,000 BC. To make the most of it, visit Akrotiri first, then spend time at the museum.

 

Kamari Beach

This striking, black-sand beach is one the largest on Santorini. Kamari village sits above the beach, with plenty of options for accommodations, dining and shopping. The southern portion of the beach offers fantastic views of Meso Vouno hill and Ancient Thira.

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Perissa Beach

Mirroring Kamari Beach, Perissa is slightly less crowded. The sand is finer here than at Kamari Beach, making for lovely walking conditions. There is a dive center located in the village in case you’d like to venture out for snorkeling or scuba diving.

 

Amoudi Bay

If you take the time to descend the 300 steps from Oia to Amoudi Bay, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful caldera views. Indulge in fresh seafood at one of the many tavernas in the village, then go swimming or cliff diving. If you’re daring, climb the stairs from the water onto the small island of Saint Nicholas and jump from there. Stick around for the sublime sunset.

 

Explore Ancient Thira

Archaeology buffs won’t want to miss Ancient Thira on top of Mesa Vouna and separating Kamari from Perissa. It is home to the ruins from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras – first claimed by the ancient Greeks in the 9th century BC. Look for religious site ruins, an ancient theater, old administrative buildings and a gym. Bonus: the Aegean Sea views from here are breathtaking.

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Winery Tours

One of Europe’s premiere wine destinations, Santorini is blessed with volcanic sediment that results in a unique wine flavor. You’ll find the vineyards to look a bit different than in other European destinations – the trees are often grown in circles to protect against strong sea winds. Most wineries are found in central Santorini, including the largest and most popular, Santo Wines in Pyrgos. Other favorites include Venetsanos Winery in Megalochori and Domaine Sigalas in Oia. Want to know more about Greek wine? Visit the Wine Museum Koutsogiannopoulos in Fira.

 

Head Out to Therasia

Looking for a fun day trip from Santorini? Head to the island of Therasia on the west side of the caldera. The namesake village has just around 150 residents, making for a peaceful seaside ambience. You’ll find the same iconic architecture that you’ll find in Santorini, as well as similar culture and traditions, but much fewer crowds.

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