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You might have seen the iconic images of Santorini, with its stark white stone buildings topped off with blue roofs – all glittering against the backdrop of the Aegean. Santorini is more than just a pretty face, however. It’s a dream destination to visit, with mouthwatering cuisine, beautiful landscapes and many unforgettable things to see and experience.
Santorini is undoubtedly the most glamorous of all the Greek Islands. Located about 120 kilometres from the Greek mainland, its striking good looks and an abundance of things to do attract one-and-a-half million visitors every year. This number is rising and each year more cruise ships dock below the cliff-top villages.
Every year more travelers dream of finding out what all the fuss is about! The beautiful island, which is the largest of the Cyclades group, certainly sits atop plenty of bucket lists. It had been on my bucket list for at least twenty years and it certainly didn’t disappoint. If you are planning to visit the Greek Islands, then the most beautiful one of all should be your first Greek Island experience!
One of the many great things about Santorini is that the island has something for everyone. History buffs are sure to love walking through villages that are like open-air museums, while foodies will be thrilled by the abundance of mouth-watering fresh seafood on offer.
Plus, while Santorini’s largest towns are quite the hives of activity, there are many hikes and off-the-beaten-path spots that will allow you to experience Santorini away from the crowds. This versatility means that Santorini is a place many fall in love with and return year after year to uncover its many charms, staying in different villages each time!
Here are five things to do in Santorini that will definitely convince you that not only is Santorini the most wonderful island to visit of all the Greek islands, but that as a stand-alone destination, it is one of the most magical.
Hike between the caldera-edge villages
The incredible beauty of Santorini is the result of thousands of years of environmental activity, that melded the island into what it is today.
In the past, Santorini – today shaped like a half-moon (or a croissant!) – was actually round. In fact, you can still see smaller outlying islands which hint at its past (and give Santorini its official name of Thira). However, thousands of years ago the island was rocked by a huge volcanic explosion, which caused the volcano to fall in on itself.
While this may have shrunk the size of Santorini, it also blessed the island with its most unique feature. Today, the caldera and its eastern imposing cliff-faces give Santorini its beautiful landscape where wildflowers tumble down the cliff faces to deep sapphire-blue coves.
One of the most popular things to do in Santorini is to hike between the villages nestled near the edge of the caldera. Doing so will give you incredible views in all directions, and also presents an excuse to stop at small churches and rocky outcrops with incredible views along the way.
The most common route to take in the jaw-dropping sights is the well-trodden hike between Fira and Oia, or vice versa. In total it’s around 10.5 kilometres and takes between 2 and 5 hours to complete – but you can choose to do a smaller section if that’s more comfortable for you. The walk from Fira to Oia is less steep and the path is well signposted. If you have been to Oia before or plan a separate day there or at Ammoudi Bay (see below), it is possible to stop walking when you get to a great taverna or restaurant in Oia and rest your legs! Some people hike all the way to Ammoudi Bay, but I prefer to stop and have swordfish and a glass of Santorini white wine for lunch!
Oia and Ammoudi Bay
There are many beautiful places on Santorini, but the double-whammy of Oia and nearby Ammoudi Bay is especially magical.
Oia is one of the most popular places to stay in Santorini, and it’s not hard to work out the reason for its popularity. It’s certainly one of the most stunning places on the island, offering amazing views and an abundance of luxury accommodation options, restaurants and boutiques – mostly aimed at the upmarket crowd. Tiny cave hotels where you have your own small swimming pool overlooking the volcano means you can sit by the pool and watch the truly magnificent Santorini sunsets. The shopping, hotels and restaurants are the most sophisticated on the island.
It’s always beautiful and worth a visit at any time, however things get particularly magical at sunset. Perched on top of the caldera edge, you can expect to be treated to a magnificent sunset that really shows off Santorini at her sumptuous best. Every evening crowds gather, even in winter, along the Oia cliff-top paths to wait for the sun to sink behind the volcano.
The views and amenities alone make Oia a popular spot, however the beautiful cove of Ammoudi Bay makes things even better. If you’ve dreamed of visiting Santorini, you’ve probably imagined dipping your toes in the sea at a cove that looks something like Ammoudi Bay.
It’s a small but perfectly formed beach, with glittering clear sapphire-colored water and a sandy patch to enjoy between swims. More adventurous types might like to try scaling the nearby rocks, while everyone can enjoy the delicious fresh fish on offer nearby. Scuba diving and snorkelling are offered here and the seafood tavernas that line the port are a must-do evening activity while on Santorini.
Sailing the caldera
There are few better ways to take in the beauty of Santorini and the caldera than to enjoy a sailing trip to the caldera. A boat trip is the only way to get close to the volcano, and the entire experience is sure to become one of the most memorable of your stay on the island.
There are a few different options for sailing around the caldera on Santorini, however sailing is probably the best option. There is something so beautiful and glamorous about the sight of the elegant white sail of the boat, contrasted against the sea and sky. Plus, sailboats make little to no noise – the perfect setting to really relax and enjoy the amazing views.
Almost all tours will combine getting up close to the caldera with stopping at other places along the way. These tours take longer but offer you some absolutely incredible opportunities to see Santorini from a different angle. And perhaps enjoy a swim spot at a quieter, tucked-away island!
Both private and shared tours are available around the caldera, depending on your preferences. Sunbathing, snorkeling, eating a Greek feast, swimming at the hot springs of the volcano and watching the cliff-top villages, churches and lighthouses from the water – there’s a lot to do and see of Santorini from a boat! And don’t forget to bring your camera to record the beauty!
It’s no secret that the Greek Islands – and the mainland – boast a wealth of history. Don’t let Santorini’s glitzy facade fool you as there is also an abundance of history on offer. There’s no doubt that history lovers will be intrigued by everything you can discover about the ancient past on Santorini.
By far the most significant historical place on Santorini is Ancient Akrotiri, the archaeological zone nearby the small village of Akrotiri. In 1967, this incredible Minoan Bronze Age settlement was extensively excavated – with evidence that the region had been inhabited since around 5000 BC. Now that is a lot of history!
So much so, that one theory is that Akrotiri was the inspiration for the story of Atlantis. Whether or not that’s true, ancient Akrotiri is certainly one of the best things to do on Santorini if you love history.
At the Museum of Ancient Thira in the main town of Fira, you will be able to see an amazing variety of items that have been unearthed from the buildings. The volcanic explosion that blew Santorini into several islands destroyed this sophisticated civilisation and covered it in metres of lava. As a result, the buildings were able to be reconstructed and the city is in amazing condition – even after thousands of years. You can walk the streets between the buildings of this 3,600 year-old village. One unmissable highlight (now located at the Museum in Fira) is the frescoes throughout, which were painted in the Bronze age but still have astonidhing detail to this day.
The wineries of Santorini
What is the perfect drink to enjoy while taking in the beauty of Santorini? Local wine, of course! And you’ll certainly find plenty of places on Santorini to taste and enjoy a beautiful glass – or more – of wine. Even on a relatively small island, there is a great selection.
This is probably because of Santorini’s age-old tradition of wine-making, paired with its unique climate that is perfect for growing grapes. Although it’s even more special to enjoy it on the island, wine from Santorini is exported all over the world.
The most famous type of wine is Assyrtiko, a local variety that is native to Santorini and was even unearthed at Akrotiri. It’s a dry white wine that pairs perfectly with Santorini’s climate (and delicious seafood). You simply can’t go on a wine tour or winery visit of Santorini without at least giving it a try. I’ve been able to find it in Australia and it’s become a new favourite!
Most of the wineries on Santorini welcome visitors, and you can visit on your own – although it’s advisable to book in advance or at least call ahead, as they do get very busy. However, it is also possible to see the wineries of Santorini on a wine tour (this means that no-one has to drive!)
Although it’s not a must, chances are you’ll end up with a bottle or two to take home. They make a great souvenir of your time on Santorini, or perhaps you’d just like to raise a glass during a beautiful Santorini sunset!
Monique Skidmore is an award-winning cultural anthropologist and a prize-winning writer. An Australian and a long-time expert on Myanmar, Monique blogs about the culture, history and scenic beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating and iconic destinations.