Thirty years ago, Lawrence Durrell wrote in his book The Greek Islands – ‘It is hardly a matter of surprise that few, if any, good descriptions of Santorini have been written: the reality is so astonishing that prose and poetry, however winged, will forever be forced to limp behind’.
Today this still applies; the line between art and reality is truly blurred on this jewel of the Cyclades islands. Santorini is in fact the name of the small circular group of islands formed by a massive volcanic eruption in the Cyclades in the southern Aegean Sea. The Greeks call the largest island Thera, but it’s simply known as Santorini to everyone else.
Santorini was named during the 13th century by the Venetians, and is a contraction of ‘Saint Irene’ – the name of a tiny chapel in the bay where the Venetians moored their ships. The most dramatic way to arrive at Santorini is by sea. Sail into the Aegean blue waters that fill the Caldera (crater), look up at the sheer cliffs rising majestically from it, and gaze in awe at the white-washed villages perched on top like icing on a wedding cake.
The best times to visit are the shoulder seasons, as in high summer up to 50,000 people visit daily – disgorged from the many cruise liners and ferries docked below. If you have to travel in summer, plan your days to avoid the main towns of Oia and Fira when the cruise guests arrive from mid-morning.
Here’s a guide to the top things to do in Santorini.
One of the best way to escape the crowds and heat is to head for one of the 29 museums found on the island.
Highly recommended options include the Wine Museum, the Tomato Industrial Museum, the Megaro Gyzi Museum – housed in a 17th century mansion near the cable-car entrance in Fira, and the Lignos Emmanuel Folklore Museum – which occupies a traditional cave house.
Santorini’s houses are characteristic of Cycladic architecture in their simplicity and grace. This picture-postcard-perfect island is renowned for its whitewashed sugar cube houses and churches with blue domes and doors, and there are a number of explanations for these colour choices. During the Ottoman rule of some 400 years the people of Santorini were not allowed to fly their flag. So in defiance and protest, particularly in the village of Oia, they painted their houses the colours of the Greek flag.
Many houses are built into pumice caves and are known as ‘cliff’ or ‘cave houses’ as they appear to cling precariously to the slopes of the Caldera cliffs. During the 19th century, these were sailors’ homes, while the wealthy ships’ captains built neo-classical mansions running along the top of the island.
Today these cave houses have been turned into some of the finest hotels and villas found anywhere in the world. The iconic Katikies Hotel and the 1864 The Sea Captain’s House are two of the best examples.
Some 3,500 years ago a massive volcano formed the Caldera and the surrounding islands.
Santorini’s long and rich history can be seen in its many extraordinary historical sites, including Ancient Thera and the Akrotiri, which houses the remains of the most important Minoan site outside of Crete. Alongside this, there are ruins of Venetian castles to explore, including the Castle of Oia, which is a favourite haunt for tourists watching the famous Santorini sunset. Ancient Thira Tours runs a number of highly recommended historical and cultural tours of the island.
Synonymous with the island are its 250+ churches, which reflect its maritime history and the belief through the centuries that God would favour devout worshippers with safe sea journeys. Santorini My Tour runs a fantastic Santorini Church Tour to the most historical places of worship on the island.
For devoted history buffs, Discover Greek Culture offers a Grace and Beauty in Wild Santorini cultural tour, which traces the island’s Byzantine past.
Despite the island’s harsh climate and winds, it is remarkably fertile and boasts a seriously good wine industry which has been operating for centuries.
Asking where to eat on Santorini is a bit like asking the length of a piece of string. There’s plenty of choice. One word of warning – if you choose to eat with views overlooking the Caldera, prices will be high. Towns with Caldera views include Fira, Imerovigli, Firostefani and Oia.
Don’t leave without trying some of the island’s famous specialities – based on local produce including tomatoes, honey and caper berries. Santorini also grows its own sweet white eggplants and round zucchinis. By far the standout dishes are fava – a puree of yellow split peas (which are only grown here), and tomatokeftedes (tomato balls) – sensational!
Recommended places to eat include Nikolas Taverna in Fira – famous for delicious cheap eats, and Taverna Lava in Perissa – where only local produce is used. Aktaion in Firostefani boasts a history that goes back to 1922. Try their fava balls and vine grower’s lamb. Prices are reasonable.
For some of the best seafood on the island, head to Amoudi Bay. Dimitris Taverna, Ammoudi Fish Taverna and Sunset Ammoudi Taverna are all highly recommended and the meals served at sunset are an assault on the senses!
For fantastic cocktails with magical views of the Caldera, try Terpsi in Fira and Oia. If you just can’t drag yourself away, stay for a meal – you won’t be sorry!
Fira is home to the biggest gold market in Greece.
Known as Gold Street or by its local name Ypapantis Street – here you’ll find everything from famous Greek and international jewellery houses’ latest collections to local pieces handmade from silver and semi-precious stones.
Atlantis Books in Oia opened in 2004 and has become an institution on the island, selling a wide variety of titles for all tastes, as well as hosting food and wine festivals and authors’ readings on the terrace. It’s also home to the island’s best-read cats and dogs!
If unique pieces of art or sculpture are on your holiday shopping list, both Fira and Oia boast a number of excellent galleries that showcase talented Greek artists. Art of the Loom, Mati, Frederika and Opera Art Gallery are all worth visiting.
For top things to do in Santorini that will leave you feeling refreshed, pay a visit to the beach – but don’t expect white sand!
Here, it’s all about rich, dark volcanic sand. Head to the southern end of the island for the best beaches. Red Beach and White Beach are much less touristy than the black beaches of Perivolos, Perissa, and Agios Georgios – however these options are easily accessible and offer plenty of restaurants. Monoliths Beach is the only soft sand beach on the island.
There are many sailing tours of the Caldera, including plenty of options for taking in the famous sunset. Sunset cruises are hugely popular as they provide an escape from the thousands of people who invade the western side of Oia waiting for the sun to slip below the horizon.
Akrotiri is another serene choice for sunset watching, as is Megalochori, where the sun seems to fall into the crater.
For walkers, the villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli are worth visiting for their inspiring views. The villages are easily accessible by foot along a path which takes you out of Fira towards Oia. The 10 kilometre trail along the top of the Caldera from Fira to Oia takes about four hours to walk, though it’s advisable to go either early or late in the day to avoid the heat. Other good walks include the donkey trail at Fira and the 200 stairs to Ammoudi Bay below Oia.
Five tours we love
This fabulous 4.5-hour wine tour of Santorini visits three traditional wineries. Taste test many varietals and learn about Santorini’s unique style of viticulture. It’s possible to upgrade to a sunset tour and pair your wine tasting with spectacular sunset views and a selection of delicious tapas dishes.
Enjoy a full day of sightseeing across Santorini with a knowledgable local guide. You’ll visit the island’s most significant historical sites, including the excavations of Akrotiri. Perivolos beach is also a highlight and there’s plenty of free time for lunch or a swim. You’ll also enjoy a wine tasting, before arriving in Oia in time to watch the famous sunset.
Choose from a daytime or sunset cruise on a luxury catamaran and enjoy stunning views of the Caldera. The itinerary includes stops at the White Beach and Red Beach for swimming and snorkelling. A delicious BBQ and unlimited drinks are also included.
Learn to cook traditional Greek dishes and try some of Santorini’s finest drops on this superb 6-hour food and wine tour. You’ll visit two traditional wineries with your local guide to try different wines, before heading to the kitchen with a local chef to prepare a selection of local specialities.
Discover Minoan excavations, the island’s ancient capital and so much more on this informative Santorini tour. Walk the old main street of Akrotiri, enjoy free time to explore Santorini’s ancient capital of Pyrgos, then head for the ruins of the Castle of Oia to watch the famous sunset.
Do you have any tips for things to do in Santorini? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Sydney-based journalist Francesca Muir fell into photography while living on the island of Crete in the late 1980s. Living with that Greek blue is a writer and photographer’s dream, so it came naturally to combine the two. Francesca has written and photographed for Living Postcards, Crete Travel, Politismosmuseum, Stigmez, Athens News, TV Soap, Soap World, Gourmet Traveller, Vogue Entertaining, Vogue Living, ITA, Way to Go, Travel Abroad, Sun-Herald & Sunday Age magazines. She lives to breathe Mediterranean air, peppered with wild thyme and oregano, swim in azure seas and bathe in that Greek light which has mesmerised so many for so long. In 2018 Francesca is joining The Cape Club and taking small groups to Crete (and other islands) to show them why she calls it her spiritual home.