First-Timer's Guide to Santorini, Greece
For too long I'd scrolled through social media and been tormented by friends travelling through the Greek islands. My only visit to this Mediterranean nation was as a backpacker in 2005, when I revelled in the culture, kebabs and affordability of Athens for a week. Aside from the couple in my hostel room who got intimate most nights, I adored Greece and vowed to return when I got the chance. While I made several trips to Europe in the following years, Greece never quite happened. It was in fact only earlier this year that a friend's wedding in London prompted a five week trip across the continent with my boyfriend. It was game on, Greece!
If you regularly read my blog, you'll know we found a seemingly excellent route from Italy's Cinque Terre to Santorini but our flight was diverted at the last minute. We instead spent the night in Athens and caught the eight hour ferry to Santorini the next morning. We arrived exhausted, mid-afternoon in the middle of May. In one direction were extraordinary views of the Aegean Sea, and in the other was a parking lot filled with taxis and travellers moving towards a single road up a rocky, barren hill. Our four night holiday had become just two full days, but we met our driver, checked in to our villa and opened a bottle of wine. Let the holiday begin!
Santorini is the largest of a small group of Greek islands called the Cyclades, about 240 kilometres (150 miles) southeast of Athens. The island is just 20km (12 mi) long, almost a crescent shape with the caldera (volcanic crater) on western side. The three main villages of Fira (also called Thira), Imerovigli and Oia are in the island's north and on the western side, hence have "caldera" views. The resort-style beaches are on opposite side in the south, with archaeological sites also in the southern half. Santorini has a local population of just 15,000, but numbers swell during the peak summer season (June - August).
Did you know Santorini isn't the island's official name? It was given to the island by the Venetians in 1153, who arrived and saw a chapel for Saint Irene (Santa Irini). The name stuck, but the island remains Thera on all official documents. The capital Fira is a variation of Thera.
what to do
Sweeping views of the Aegean Sea and the distinct architecture are arguably the number one reason people visit Santorini. From the whitewashed buildings of Fira and Imerovigli to the more colourful townscape of Oia, seeing these villages against the backdrop of the water is unforgettable. Appreciate the different views during the day, sunset and at night when the pools shine turqoise. You can take in the views poolside, over drinks or a meal, while hiking or on a cruise (more details below). Be forewarned - the majority of Santorini is rocky, barren and doesn't appear on postcards.
If you're feeling energetic, there's a range of walks on the island. The rocky but flat path between Fira and Imerovigli is an easy 45 minutes (no shade) and you can continue north on the more challenging path to Oia. The total walk from Fira to Oia is 10km (6 mi) and takes around 3 to 4 hours. Bring water and sunscreen as there's little shade unless you retreat to a cafe. My boyfriend and I were still fatigued from hiking in Italy, so we just did the short Fira to Imerovigli section on our first day.
Those who are more adventurous should head to Skaros Rock, accessed from Imerovigli. We didn't have time during our trip but the hike takes around two hours, and is reportedly challenging at times due to steps and some climbing to reach the top. Only about half the groups we saw from our villa during our stay reached the summit. Bring sunscreen and water, and possibly snacks if you're going to stay out there.
Take a history lesson and visit Santorini's two archaeological sites, Akrotiri and Ancient Thira. Akrotiri is in the island's south-west, near Red Beach. Entry is €12 or there's a combined pass with other attractions for €14, although there are some free admission days throughout the year too. Read more here. Ancient Thira is on the top of Mesa Vouno mountain, in the south-east side of the island near Pirassa Beach. Entry is €4 or you can also get the combined pass. Click here for more details.
We lost a day in Santorini because of our flight diversion, but otherwise I would've been cruising! While there are mixed reviews online, a work colleague who'd recently been to Santorini highly recommended my boyfriend and I see the island from the water. There are a few companies offering tours of the caldera and hot springs before finishing in Oia for sunset. One for next time!
amoudi bay (oia)
If you cruise the caldera, there's a good chance your vessel will end in the port of Amoudi Bay at Oia. But you can also walk or drive down from the village and enjoy fresh seafood or a drink. I'm told this is one of the best swimming spots in Santorini. We only had time to gaze down at Amoudi Bay from Oia, and my heart broke a little. I told myself there'll be other islands.
I love the water and desperately wanted to be beachside after a mostly chilly month in Europe. You'll find Santorini's most popular beaches along the eastern (non-caldera) side, near the Ancient Thera site. There's Kamari Beach, and then the resort-like strip of Perissa and Perivolos with sun beds lined up on black sand. We spent several hours lazing by Perivolos Beach but the water was too cold for me! It wasn't busy, however it a cooler day during the shoulder season.
Less for sunbaking and more for sightseeing are Red Beach and Black Beach. We followed signage while quad biking to reach the parking area for Red Beach, which is then a five minute rocky walk to a viewing area before another 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. I don't recommend the path for the frail or elderly. Black Beach is also in the south of the island, however we relied on Google Maps because there was no signage. We gave up after making a few wrong turns.
Being wine lovers, my boyfriend and I weren't going to miss the chance to drink Greek vino! We booked a tour of Santo Wines weeks in advance and added on six glass of wine tasting and a food platter for sunset (€38 each). The walking tour was around 30 minutes and we learnt about the island's unique grape growing method, where vines are woven into a basket shape to protect the grapes. Our group then watched a short video about Santorini's history, which was interesting if a little cheesy. The best part was sitting outside and simply admiring the caldera views with my boyfriend while we enjoyed our enormous trays of wine samples and local produce.
The wine itself was average and we weren't tempted to buy any, but the overall experience was magical. Bring a jacket for when the sun goes down and also some spending money, as there's a sizeable store selling pasta, olives, tomato paste and other produce. Our hotel arranged transport which was €20 return for the two of us.
The biggest collection of shops I saw were in Thira, but they were very touristy. Sometimes that's fun though! There are plenty of stalls selling dresses, shoes and hats plus standard souvenirs. I was much more interested in the stores in Oia, which looked more artsy.
Visiting Santorini is like an immersive in the Mediterranean diet, albeit with more wine. Local highlights include:
- fava: a dish made from split peas, similar to Indian dal or hummus
- sesame stick: breadsticks coated in sesame seeds
- capers: edible flower buds from the caper plant
- olives: and luscious olive oil
Seafood lovers will be in heaven and there's no shortage of cheese or salads either. During our three night trip, we had everything from beachside pitas, grazing boards and wine, to fine dining with caldera views. The latter was a brilliant coincidence, as our accomodation Kapari Natural Resorts (see "where to stay" below) boasted one of Santorini's top restaurants. It was too cold to sit outside, however we spent several hours enjoying three courses and a bottle of white wine recommended by the in-house sommelier. The bill came to just €110, including €45 for the wine. Excellent value - but be sure to book ahead!
Everyone we spoke to (hotel staff, other guests) recommended a different bar but they can be tricky to find in the village mazes. In the end, we just drank whenever and wherever the mood struck us. The warm days called for Mythos beer while we drank local white wine at night.
As mentioned under things to do, head to Santo Wines and do wine tasting at sunset. This was one of the most memorable experiences during our three night stay. If we'd had longer, I would've spent a day simply reading and drinking while occasionally looking up at the sea.
where to stay
There are three main options if you're visiting Santorini for the first time:
- Fira (Thira): the island's capital and the biggest of Santorini's three towns. Good for shopping, nightlife and central location. Closest to the airport and port.
- Oia: the northernmost and second largest town. It's artsy, colourful and boasts Amoudi Bay. About 30 minutes (15km/9mi) drive from Fira.
- Imerovigli: the smallest of three villages, but walking distance (45 mins) from Fira. It's more like a cluster of cliff-side villas and restaurants than a town, although you'll find a convenience store and some cafes at the top. In my opinion, it's the most romantic of the three.
Here are some crude analogies if it helps. For those familiar with the Indonesian island of Bali, Fira is like touristy Kuta, Imerovigli is like the romantic and relaxed Seminyak while Oia is like the artsy and further away Ubud. For those who know New York City, you'd call Fira midtown, Imerovigli Chelsea (close by but less hectic) and Oia would be the East Village or Soho (further away but distinctive vibes). Feel free to dispute these or make your own suggestions in the comments section below! There are other towns to stay in of course, however if you're visiting for the first-time you probably want to be centrally based with the greatest number of amenities and attractions.
We splurged for the final leg of our Europe trip, staying at Kapari Natural Resort in Imerovigli for €330 (AU$510) per night. The price included a delicious buffet breakfast with made to order dishes as well, which we enjoyed outside overlooking the caldera. Our villa was spacious, cool and well equipped. The kitchen had a stove, kettle and refrigerator although no tea or coffee was supplied. The cavern-like style meant there were few windows, so we couldn't see the caldera unless we stepped outside. Staff greeted us by name when we arrived and gave us a brief overview of the island and facilities. They continued to welcome us back each evening.
We booked through boutique hotel website Mr & Mrs Smith which secured us free hotel transfers and a bottle of wine and welcome platter. The hotel's pool was very small (but we soon saw this was the norm) and cold, but again, it was mid-May. Next time, I'd try find a villa with views from our room or stay in Oia for something different.
It's easy to walk around Santorini's villages, but the winding paths can make trying to find a specific location difficult. This is especially the case in Imerovigli, where the nearly identical white properties and low-lying walls can feel like a maze. As mentioned, Fira and Imerovigli are walking distance while Oia, the beaches and archaeological sites will require transport. Your options are buses, taxis and minivans although we only saw cabs around Fira's main square. We were quoted €40 for a return trip from Imerovigli to Oia in a minivan, which seemed outrageous for a 15 minute journey. We declined.
Rather, the best way to get around the island is to hire a quad bike (or "ATV" as they're called locally). We arranged ours through our hotel for €56 for the day, which included a few Euros for insurance. There were cheaper bikes but we paid more for a sturdier option. We rode to the southern tip of the island, checked out Red Beach, had lunch on the eastern beaches before heading to Oia in the late afternoon. It was a memorable day, although the weather turned cold and rainy at the end. Be warned there's no gas station in Oia so fill up at Imerovigli before going further north.
You can reach Santorini by ferry or plane. We attempted to fly and could see Santorini from our window (check out Getting from Italy's Cinque Terre to Santorini) but ended up Catching the Athens to Santorini ferry instead. Our hotel included transfers from the port (about 20-30 minutes) and to the airport (about 20 minutes). I can't speak to catching taxis or buses except to say the port was very busy.
Santorini Airport is very basic. There's a cafe inside but after clearing security, you'll have a kiosk and plastic chairs with one lonely person in passport control. The day we left, our flight was delayed two hours because airport workers were on strike.
Greece is part of the European Union and therefore uses the Euro (€). We paid by cash and credit card, only using an ATM once (there was one at the top of Imerovigli next to the convenience store). Santorini isn't as cheap as you might assume. For example, I got a manicure and pedicure for €45 (AU $70) while my boyfriend got a 60 minute massage for €60 (AU $95). As mentioned, transport can also be expensive.
English is widely spoken but be polite and learn some Greek. My head was already filled with French and Italian, but our waitress at Athens was kind enough to teach me the following:
- efcharisto (ef-ka-RIS-to): thank you
- parakalo (parra-kar-lo): you're welcome/ please
- Don't expect all of Santorini to look like the postcards. The three main villages are small and beyond them, you'll find mostly barren rock and the occasional industrial area.
- There's not much privacy either. You'll be able to see the rooftop, paths and balconies of almost every other property around you from your doorstep.
- Dress codes are very relaxed. Think maxi dress and sandals for ladies, while guys will be fine in button-up shirts and shorts even for higher-end places. Leave the heels at home.
- There's no shade and the sun will radiate off the white buildings. My boyfriend and I can handle sunshine but we got seriously burnt on the return leg of our Imerovigli to Thira walk.
I didn't want to leave Santorini, and losing a day of our trip meant we barely saw Oia. The weather in mid-May was also too cool at times to lay by the pool. If we had more time, I would've climbed Skaros Rock, cruised the caldera, dined at Amoudi Bay and explored the beautiful art stores of Oia. But I'm grateful we made it to Santorini at all! It was 12 years since my first visit to Greece but I loved it just as much. And I guarantee there'll be a third visit, although I'll head to different islands and stay much longer!
QUESTION: Have you been to Santorini? If so, what's your best tip for first-time visitors?