For a first timer to the Greek Islands, there’s no better choice than Santorini, a jewel among the Cyclades group of islands in the Aegean Sea. The turquoise Mediterranean waters and flawless blue skies provide a perfect foil for the dazzling whitewashed buildings, accented in brilliant blue and framed by pretty bougainvillea, that precariously hug the cliffs of the island’s caldera.
Yes, Santorini gets a lot of visitors, and when cruise ships dock you may suddenly find yourself surrounded by their passengers, but if you make a few smart choices there’s no reason why you can’t have an enjoyably peaceful time taking in everything the island has to offer. If you don’t want to feel trapped in a tourist crowd, I recommend that you don’t visit Santorini as a cruise ship passenger. That will only give you one day and you won’t have time for the most pleasant activities that it has to offer. Santorini must be savoured over at least two or three days once you arrive by air or, even better, by ferry. It is, after all, one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Another tip I have is to try and visit in the shoulder seasons. May and September are the best months, as the throng of tourists and the heat of summer are gone but the island is still very much open for business. Mid-October to March sees strong, cold winds and rough seas and most hotels and restaurants close.
Here are my top 10 things to see and do in Santorini.
1. Hike the Caldera Trail from Fira to Oia
This is my absolute favorite activity on the island besides having a lazy meal while gazing out over the caldera. Fira is the main town and Oia is the prettiest and the trail that winds its way between them and over the rim of the caldera is perfect for catching one breathtaking view after another.
Credit: Claudine LewisThe trail is moderately tough because of a mix of dirt and slippery stone paths so wear proper shoes and carry enough water and a few snacks with you. In summer, try to do the walk as early as possible before the sun beats down on you. It will take between three and four hours depending on how many times you stop to take photos. The main towns that you’ll pass through are Firostefani and the highest town on the caldera – Imerovigli. The stretch between Imerovigli and Oia is the longest but it’s mostly downhill. Imerovigli has Skaros Rock, a medieval fortress that juts out into the sea and if you’re daring enough, you can carefully make your way out to it.
If you don’t feel like you can do the whole walk or you have kids with you, you can still do just a part of the trail. Start in Imerovigli and walk towards Fira, passing Firostefani. Most of this section is downhill and you’ll still have spectacular views.
2. Watch the Sunset on the CalderaCredit: Claudine Lewis
As sunset draws near most visitors head towards the caldera side of the island to find a good spot to watch the sunset as the setting provides a perfect backdrop for it. If you look around, you may catch a wedding proposal or two!
The most popular town for the sight is the northernmost Oia and the automatic choice is the ruined Oia castle, but in order to find a place to park yourself, you’ll have to get there at least an hour ahead of time. After the sunset, if you don’t stay in a hotel in Oia, you’ll have to join the masses rushing to catch buses back to other parts of the island. My tip is to instead catch the sunset from Imerovigli or the highest point of the island in the village of Pyrgos, or even Ammoudi Bay, the beach lying below Oia and accessible via steps going down. Think it through first, though. If you make your way down, you also have to climb all the way back up! However, this spot also has quite a few upmarket restaurants for you to dine at while viewing the sunset.
3. Visit the Akrotiri Excavation Site and La Ponta TowerCredit: Claudine Lewis
Akrotiri is an incredibly well preserved archaeological site that was discovered in 1960. Its buildings date back to the 16th century B.C. and housed a settlement from the Minoan civilization. It was destroyed in a mega volcano that may have also caused the end of the Minoans living in Crete, a few hundred kilometers away. There were no human remains found in Akrotiri, a discovery that says that the inhabitants had enough warning to escape before the volcano erupted.
Akrotiri is a working excavation site with archaeologists digging when tourists are absent. You can walk through pathways that circle around and go through just above the ruins. While the important sections are well presented on placards, hiring a guide can make your visit more interesting. You can still see a few artefacts among the ruins but most have been moved to the prehistoric museum in Fira.
Just a kilometer above Akrotiri is the 13th century La Ponta Venetian castle from which you have good views of the surrounding vineyards. The castle houses ancient Greek musical instruments like the tsabouna, a bagpipe-like wind instrument and you can hear an artist play a modern version of it. There is also a concert held here every summer and twice a week where the performance will transport you away to ancient Greece.
4. Visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thera
This small but interesting museum in Fira houses artefacts from the late Neolithic to the late Cycladic I periods that have so far been excavated from Akrotiri and the surrounding Cycladic islands. Furniture molded from clay, bronze pottery, Cycladic stone statues and detailed frescoes give you a glimpse into how advanced the inhabitants of Akrotiri were all those years ago. Plan this visit for after the archaeological site to understand the context of each piece.
5. Visit the Ruins of Ancient Thera
If you’d like to see remains from the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods, this 11th century BC settlement perched above Kamari Beach is a good site for that. To get to Ancient Thera you have to take a white-knuckled drive up a twisting road and then walk up a fairly tough rocky trail, but you are rewarded with the interesting ruins as well as another breathtaking view, this time of the other side of the island. Go early, take water and wear sturdy shoes!
6. Visit the Untouched Hilltop Village of Pyrgos
Credit: Claudine LewisFor a taste of traditional Santorini that many visitors don’t see, head to Pyrgos, a little unspoilt hilltop village that you can wander through on quaint streets while passing pretty churches, cathedrals and houses and visiting handmade art and craft shops. A charming square at the top lets you take it all in while you get some refreshments at a cafe.
7. Catch a Movie at an Open Air Cinema
The Greeks invented theatre but the cinema format is just as important to them. You’ll find open air cinemas all over Greece and Santorini has one of the best in the country in Kamari. It’s a great way to spend time after dinner in summer as you can watch a movie in English while sipping on cocktails, wine or beer in the pleasant atmosphere of the island.
8. Go Beach HoppingCredit: Claudine Lewis
Because of Santorini’s volcanic past, its beaches are not the typical sandy ones but made of tiny pebbles. More amazing is that you can visit beaches in different colors. Black, red and white is what you’ll get depending on which beach you want to visit. If you want to sunbathe or swim, go to Kamari or Perissa black beaches but be careful, the black “sand” gets very hot when the sun is out. A water taxi runs between these two beaches if you want to visit both while saving time.
You can also take a scenic boat ride on a water taxi that hops between the adjacent Akrotiri Beach, Red Beach and White Beach. The Akrotiri Beach stop is the most accessible as it is a short walk from the excavation site. You can get off at any of the other stops but you’ll have to wade up to the sand from the boat with your belongings. These water taxis don’t run when the see is too rough.
9. Take a Boat Tour to a Volcano and Hot Springs
Santorini is the largest island of a small circular archipelago called Thira that makes up the remnants of a complete volcanic island from hundreds of years ago. When the island erupted, the conical center collapsed, letting sea water rush in to form today’s caldera and the archipelago. The main island on the right rim is Santorini. The rest of the smaller islands are Therasia (also inhabited), Nea Kameni, Palaea Kameni, Aspronisi and Christiana. You can either visit Therasia on your own via boat or you can take a boat tour to visit Therasia, Nea Kameni and Palaea Kameni.
Nea Kameni is still an active volcano and if you’re lucky to visit on a clear day you can see puffs of steam released from the holes in the ground. You can bathe is sulphur hot springs on Palaea Kameni after that before moving on to Therasia for an escape from mass tourism.
10. Go Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
The Mediterranean’s turquoise waters are great for snorkelling and scuba diving but Santorini offers some unique underwater scenery. You can explore volcano walls, wreck and cave dives all around the island. A dive center can organize dives for you at various spots so you can get a varied experience either at ship wrecks in the caldera or at reef and marine sites farther afield.
11. Visit a Winery and a Brewery
Santorini’s nutrient-rich volcanic soil is ideal for grape growing but its dry summer winds would destroy traditional vineyards. To counter this, the vines grow along the ground in small basket shaped valleys, protected from the wind but also quenched by the evening dew.
The island is home to several wineries and most are small family run operations. It all started in ancient times but during the medieval era under Venetian influence, Santorinian wine became famous all over Europe. The most famous wine here is a Vin Santo, a sweet white very similar to those from Tuscany. You can also try blends of white, rosé and even a red or two.
In addition to sipping on wine, you can also sample Santorinian beer from the home grown Donkey Brewery that makes three types of beers – Red Donkey, Yellow Donkey and Crazy Donkey!
12. Dine on the Local CuisineCredit: Claudine Lewis
Santorini has the best cuisine of all the islands in the Cyclades. You have to eat the delicious seafood like grilled octopus, but also sample all the other delicacies on offer. In addition, try Tomato Keftedes – a meze dish of cherry tomato fritters. These tomatoes are famous here and you may see them drying out in the sun. Fava beans are another local speciality and they’re usually eaten pureed, seasoned with herbs and drizzled on with olive oil. All these dishes can be found throughout Greece, but this is where they’re made best.
13. Ride a Funicular or Take a Donkey RideCredit: Claudine Lewis
In addition to an airport, there are two ports serving the island. The main port is for ferries and private boats and if you come to Santorini from other parts of Greece, this is where you’ll land before taking a taxi or bus to your hotel. The other is the old port that serves cruise ships that enter the caldera and dock a little away from the port. Smaller boats tender the passengers to the island and there are only two ways for them to get to the top. One is by cable car and the other is via lots of steep steps hewn into the cliff side. The cable car slowly ascends to the top passing the red striations formed in the rock. Passengers will find this way easier but they have to wait in queue for their turn. The second way is faster and you can either climb on your own or take a hair-raising donkey ride. You can use either mode of transport just for fun even if you’re not a cruise passenger.
So there you have it – 13 fun things to do when you’re in Santorini. That’s more than enough to fill several days on this amazing island and when you're done, you may want to visit a few more of the many other Greek Islands on your trip.
All these photos are copyrighted to the author, Claudine Lewis. They may not be reproduced or copied in any form.