The highlight of many Greek island itineraries, Santorini is the pinnacle of excitement for neophyte photographers and hobby geologists alike. It is also very popular with honeymooners, although not as popular as inaugural attempts to start a family, or anything to do with padded bed restraints. With physical attractions dating back millions of years, historical attractions dating back thousands of years and a few gyro sandwiches dating only slightly further back than is ideal, Santorini attracts those who love the past, those who focus on the present, and those who simply can’t get enough souvenir Greece tank tops.
Santorini might just be the most famous of all the Greek islands, and rightfully so. The geology of this collapsed volcano may only be of moderate interest to most, but the incredibly scenic caldera it left behind is the kind of thing that spawns thousands, if not millions, of photos daily. Known among amateur photographers as “The Selfie Circle”, or “Land of a Thousand New Profile Pictures”.
It is also the main transport hub of the Cyclades chain of islands, with the greatest selection of flights, ferry connections and donkey trains, making it the obvious choice to start or end your trip. It is also the best place to witness cruise shippers in matching slacks in the wild, although most people don’t come specifically for that, and visitors are discouraged from feeding them or encouraging stories about the food on the ship.
When to Go?
October is considered shoulder season, with minimal crowds and plenty of hotel rooms available for everyone. Which means it only sits at around 7 out of 10 on the “absurdly crowded streets and infuriating pile-ups of tourists”-meter. September would be similar, but hotter and, therefore, with slightly sweatier bodies rubbing against you while you walk. April to June fall into roughly the same categories as the fall, while November to March constitutes the truly low season. Meaning that despite intransigent weather and a distinct lack of enthusiasm among locals, it finally just resembles the rest of the islands at the height of high season.
July and August are the hottest and most popular times to visit. These months are perfect for those who love intense heat and long line-ups, or are currently working on a thorough population density study. While the beaches will be packed, at least it means more beach bodies to admire. Unfortunately, it also means more beach bodies to be horrified by. Don’t blame me, blame statistics.
Fira (also known as Thira or, occasionally, Brent)
This is where you will find the main concentration of tourist amenities, including hotels, souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants overlooking the caldera. Here you will pay 8€ for a small bottle of beer, but that crooked selfie of you and your husband where he’s blinking and you hadn’t realized but your teeth, lips and basically the entire area around your mouth are completely purple from drinking red wine, well, that digitally-captured memory will last a lifetime.
Located on the point just to the north, Firostefani remains almost connected to Fira both geographically and onomastically, since they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a fully unique name. It seems fine.
About a half an hour walk along the cliff from Fira, this cute little village is built on the highest point along the caldera. The views are predictably gorgeous and unexpectedly different from those in Fira or Oia. Scenically, one of the best parts is the rocky outcrop of ruins known as Skago. This peninsula can be accessed by a rough trail that leads out for interesting views back toward the cliff, and a short but difficult climb provides access to the very top, allowing you to show off to the American guy who said he looked everywhere and assured you it couldn’t be done. Waving works best, as he won’t see your smug grin from way down there. There aren’t as many restaurants to choose from, but there are plenty of beautiful homes and apartments to rent, and the name makes it sound a lot like a Greek spacecraft.
Oia (pronounced ee-ah, ideally in a way that suggests you are encouraging a lazy horse to reach full gallop)
This is one of the most highly renowned sunset spots in all of Europe. The way the huge orange Mediterranean sun slides softly down behind Thirassia, the separate island that makes up the outer edges of the caldera, while colourfully lighting up the distant white villages of Fira, Imerovigli and Firostefani will thrill the aspiring photographer and half-drunk terrace patron alike. Of course, if you are hoping to get yourself one of the prime spots out on the ruins of the ancient fortress at the distant end of the peninsula, you’ll need both epic patience and an opportunistic aggressiveness to navigate the pulsating crowd of photo-lovers. Picture Burning Man, if you replace the creative costumes, fanatical nudity and lively drug use with white slacks, popped collars and a slightly giddy wine buzz.
This secluded, windy little village in the far southern reaches of the island is thousands of years old (although most of the pork skewers are more recent) and is the place to go to somewhat escape the crowds, as well as to get a slightly different caldera view and visit Red Beach. The draw there is the colour, obviously, plus the tiny jolt of adrenalin that comes with passing the “No Entry: Falling Rocks” signs to lie around ignoring the danger mainly because everyone else is doing it. There are also the ruins of ancient Akrotiri which are sometimes compared, mystifyingly, to the far more famous Pompeii, and a lighthouse to visit, which you can’t enter, and which doesn’t really offer any particularly special views, but is a lighthouse nonetheless.
600,000 years ago
A volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself.
21,000 years ago
The same shit happened. Again!
The Minoans designed an outhouse with running water, heated geothermally. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to fully capitalize on this as the double sink wouldn’t be invented for another 5,000 years.
One scientist decided Santorini is actually the legendary lost city of Atlantis.
The United Colors of Benetton arrive in Santorini.
Grab a gyro in Fira, then eat it messily while braving the crowds along the cliff. Take the old path all the way down to the water, avoiding the donkey shit as best you can, then take the cable car back up. Stock up on sunscreen, water and digital memory space before setting off on the hike to Oia. Keep your eyes peeled for topless sunbathers in expensive hotel rooms along the path flaunting both their views and recent breast surgeries. It is best to go in the afternoon for better light, but time it to arrive in Oia well before sunset unless middle-aged mosh pits full of sharp high-heeled shoes is really your thing. Take the bus back to Fira for a meal and drinks overlooking the caldera. There are usually hotels below the path, so try to moderate the number of times you spit over the edge just to see how long it takes to fall.
Check out one of the beaches – the malecón at Kamari, the backpackers with their sarongs draped on the rocky beach struggling to enjoy the discomfort at Perissa, or the life-threatening adventure of Red Beach. Take a scenic boat trip around the caldera, with short stops at the White Beach (a lot like Red Beach, except a different colour) and somewhere else, probably.
Get caught up on your sleep. Spend an afternoon browsing sparsely stocked shelves of the air-conditioned Carrefour grocery store. Check out some bananas.
This is one of the best ways to blend in with the locals, who do this seemingly every night, often for 6-8 hours at a time. The cheapest hotels can be found on the east side of the island away from the caldera, mostly in the beach villages of Kamari and Perissa. Among the caldera villages, Fira has the best choice of reasonable accommodation. Anywhere on Santorini you will pay at least five times as much for a room with a view, and roughly ten times as much for a shower curtain that reaches all the way to the floor.
In Akrotiri you can get inexpensive rooms with a beautiful pool and expansive breakfast for the mere price of having a female teen neighbour periodically throwing childish tantrums next door, while the neighbours one door over get drunk and lock each other out of the room from time to time throughout the night. Plus 40 euro in cash.
There is no shortage of Mediterranean food (skewers, Greek salads, potatoes, gyros), or pizzerias (pizza). There is a McDonald’s near the bus station in Fira, an Asian fast food place on the main pedestrian street, and roughly thirty shops selling gelato and/or ice cream. None of them are willing to be pinned down as to exactly which one, however. Obelix is the best place for quick, cheap gyros. It can be found right next to the place selling postcards of Greece tourist attractions and across the lane from the National Bank Poké-stop.
There are 3 main brands of Greek beer:
Alpha – Weak and hoppy.
Fix – Strong and not so hoppy.
Mythos – Kind of like a really average beer, sort of anywhere. Which makes it the best one, I guess.
Amstel – Dutch, basically terrible, and presumably sold only to make the previously mentioned Greek beers taste good by comparison.
Raki – Generally low-quality, often home-made, tastes disgustingly like anis. Mainly used as a low-cost alternative to Rohypnol.
Ouzo – Very similar to raki, but held to a somewhat higher standard. Still tastes like shitty black licorice, though. It is the main export of the legendary island of Lesvos, something people usually expect to be a little more risqué.
There is an outdoor theatre in Kamari that provides blankets on cool evenings and shows films featuring Renee Zellwegger.
Perfecting the art of expansive caldera selfies while on the lookout for fellow instagrammers.
Ironing tight creases into white cruise slacks.
Anything large enough to fit the word “Greece” is available in great quantities, along with a surprising amount of jewelry. Popcorn will lead you on a merry chase, however.
Just north of Imerovigli the island is only about a kilometre across. This is still too far to throw anything from one side to the other, however, no matter how good your mom says your arm was when you were a toddler.
In the Greek islands wet clothes dry much more quickly on windy days.
In 2005, part of the Akrotiri ruins collapsed, killing a tourist, and there are at least five reasonably-priced fish tavernas nearby.
Getting There and Away
Public ferries dock at the new port, where you can either take a bus to your destination or just wander around hoping to find your name among the signs being held up by the crowd of swarthy greeters.
The airport is near the beach town of Kamari. Flights go to Athens all year round and most major European destinations throughout the summer. Extremely convenient flights to your next destination, assuming that is Naples, go direct every Saturday right up until the Saturday immediately before the Saturday you want to fly. That Saturday the flight will be unceremoniously cancelled shortly before the time comes. Expect to be notified by email like some schmuck.
Cruise ships dock in the deepest part of the caldera and ferry passengers over to the old port directly below Fira so they can enjoy the true caldera experience. This constitutes either standing in line for an hour to take the 5-minute cable car journey, or riding a poorly-treated donkeys up the 588 steps to Fira while the donkey directly in front defecates continuously, one of only two pleasures in its otherwise tedious life. The second is knowing that at least a few times per day dumb tourists slip on donkey shit and fall to the ground both painfully and hilariously. Into more donkey shit.
There is a network of cheap bus routes throughout the island which are easy to master since there are really only five different roads.
Taxis are expensive in comparison. In comparison to the buses, not to a brand new SUV with heated seats and dual DVD players in the back for the kids.
Many tourists rent cars to alternately explore the island and terrorize pedestrians. The more adventurous ones, and the Asians, generally rent ATVs so they can do the same thing while blocking buses, wearing helmets and taking selfies. Recommended.
The Greek islands were a long time coming but they certainly didn’t disappoint. Just as rocky, with just as many white buildings, and no shortage of Greek salads (for Laynni) and pork skewers (for me). The weather was basically perfect for 4 weeks, with the tiny exceptions of a few windy days and it occasionally being “too hot”, so we’re happy with our decision on when to visit. The trade-off is going to be seeing Budapest and Prague on the edge of full-on winter starting in mid-November, but it’s never possible to see everywhere at exactly the right time. As for Greece, though, the scenery was even more amazing than we hoped, and there were far more cats than expected, which I can’t for the life of me decide if it was a positive or a negative. Just a thing, I guess. Verdict: Yes, we plan to return.