Santorini

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What can one say about Santorini (also known as Thera or Thira), without the risk of wronging one of the most famous, stunning and unique islands in the world?
Ranked among the top 20 destinations in the world one must see before dying by the Lonely Planet and rated the second best honeymoon idyll in the world by 101 Honeymoons, first of the world’s best islets by BBC Traveller, third amongst the world’s most romantic destinations by VeryFirstTo.com, and the list goes on and on.

This is the island that redefines the words “breathtaking view” and openhandedly offers some of the most magical sunsets in the world (yes, there is even a ranking for that, the Top 10 Best Sunsets in the World by National Geographic). This is the island of ultra-premium, super-niche boutique hotels, which place Santorini firmly at the top of Conde Nast Traveller’s lists each summer, and the island of millions of tourists from all across the planet.

This is the island of uncontrollable romance and wild nightlife all in one; the island of volcanic eruptions and mind-blowing architecture; the island of great history and an even greater future. This is the island you have already fallen in love with before even setting foot on its soil, tasting its wines, strolling along its stone-paved alleys, feeling so small gazing into the endless blue from the infinity pools atop the Caldera and – of course – photographing its world-renowned sunset.

This is Santorini, the island of holiday dreams come true.

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Daily Plan up to 12 days

Santorini is one of the top gastronomy destinations in Greece, as it features a long history of gourmet restaurants serving creative cuisine, well before anywhere else in the country acquired high-end dining options. The presence of some very talented chef-restaurateurs surely helped: Yiorgos Chatzigiannakis, for instance, of the multi-awarded Selene restaurant in the village of Pyrgos on Santorini, is considered the founder of the Greek Slow Food movement. But the key inspiration for the island’s booming food scene is the unique produce of its volcanic soil. The extremely tasty split peas, fava, come from a variety that, according to archaeologists, has existed on the island since 1500BC and has been recognized among the produce discovered in the Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri. The trademark cherry tomatoes; the white-skinned Santorini aubergines, which feature very sweet flesh and very few seeds; the saffron crocus, its importance in the economic and social life of the island expressed par excellence in the famous Akrotiri fresco of the "Saffron Gatherers”, are among the most renowned local products. Yet, the most stunning expressions of this volcanic terroir are the very distinctive, internationally acclaimed wines of Santorini, produced nearly exclusively from indigenous grape varieties such as Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri. Luckily for you, you can get the chance to try as many as you wish! Wine tourism is very active in Santorini, with almost every winery open to visitors, and most of the tourist-oriented activities include wine-tasting and wine-pairing events.

More to check out:

  • Vinsanto, the crown jewel of Santorini wines. Mentioned by foreign travellers to the island since the 19th century, this famous dessert wine is made from a blend of Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri grapes, sunned after the harvest and then aged in oak casks for at least three years.
  • The must-try  local dishes and recipes including: “tomatokeftedes” (fried balls made of tomato, chard, spearmint and courgette); “sfouggato” (scrambled eggs with potatoes or courgettes); the “stuffed birds” (courgette flowers stuffed with rice); “bakaliaros xelouristos” (raw cod diced in small pieces and served with tomato salad); “psarolia” (baked small fish, which are usually sundried for several days beforehand); “kopania” (barley rolls stuffed with raisins), and “Melitinia”, made of soft cheese, sugar and mastic.
  • The wild capers, local cheeses and “sykaminoglyko” (a sweet made with black berries) on the small island of Thirassia.
  • Ammoudi, a tiny port of colourful fishing boats lying 300 steps below Oia. Boasting some excellent tavernas right on the water’s edge, this is a highly popular dining destination with the most scenic background you can imagine for the ouzo ritual.

Santorini is a great holiday choice for travellers seeking some adventurous experiences to sprinkle their stay with excitement. From scuba-diving to paint-ball and from walking along the Caldera to exploring the volcano or going donkey-trekking, on Santorini you will find all kinds of lively daytime activities. There are three famous hiking trails here, each one well worth your time and effort: the Fira-Imerovigli-Oia trail is about 9km long and will need about 3 hours off your schedule, while for a part of it you will find yourself walking along the edge of the Caldera (try this in the afternoon, when the sun hits the sea – pure magic); the Profitis Ilias-Ancient Thera path is one of the most impressive hiking trails in the Aegean and only takes about 45 minutes to complete, while the Ancient Thera-Perissa trail takes just half an hour and leads downhill from the site of Ancient Thera to the beautiful beach of Perissa. Santorini is also an ideal place for divers, as it can offer unique underwater experiences and has plenty of good diving centres with experienced guides. Explore the seabed of Palaia and Nea Kameni, to absorb all the beauty of the impressive underwater lava formations, the amazing sea species and the shipwreck at Taxiarchis.

More to check out:

  • The underwater slopes of Caldera and the famous Indian’s rock in the underwater caves of Mesa Pigadia; great spots for experienced divers.
  • The unique experience of sailing within the Caldera and looking at the 300m cliff rising from sea level into the sky.
  • Horse-riding on the beaches of Exo Gonia, Kamari and Perissa.
  • The wide variety of water-sports offered on many of the island’s organised beaches.
  • The paint-ball track near Megalochori.
  • The beach of Avis or Exo Gonia, frequented by windsurfers due to the favourable winds.
  • Donkey rides along the Caldera. Once the traditional means of transport – particularly from the old port up to Fira before the cable car was installed – it has turned into a controversial issue, with animal welfare groups urging tourists against it. Thankfully, though, not all of the donkeys on the island are overworked and mistreated, and if you can find a caring owner and an animal that is in good condition and offered shade, water and rest, the ride from Fira to Oia along the path overlooking the Caldera is a memorable experience.
Talk about an island with a long history! According to mythology, Santorini was said to have surfaced from the bottom of the sea, and the theory actually has a scientific basis due to the continuous underwater volcanic activity. However it came into existence, the island was probably already inhabited in the Early Copper Age (around 2,500BC) and underwent substantial development during the Middle Copper Age. It was during that time that the extremely significant port of Akrotiri flourished, before the whole of the settlement was buried under 30m of volcanic ash around 1,600BC. Do make time in your schedule for a visit to the Prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri, the “Pompeii of the Aegean” (though some might say it is even more impressive), on the southwest end of the island, to admire the sophisticated multi-storeyed buildings with magnificent wall-paintings and elaborate drainage system. 
Whether the inhabitants of Akrotiri managed to save their lives and emigrate to safer land during the great eruption remains unknown, since the next documented inhabitation of the area (near Monolithos) is about three centuries  later, estimated around the 13th century BC. Ancient Thera, located in the area of Mesa Vouno, was founded in the 9th century BC by Dorian colonists and inhabited continuously until the early Byzantine years. The excavations have brought to light mostly the Hellenistic and Roman remains of the ancient city, with significant findings including the imposing oblong structure with the Doric colonnade of the Royal Stoa (dating from the era of Augustus), the rock-hewn Sanctuary of Artemidoros (dating all the way back to the early 3rd century BC), the ancient theatre and the rock-hewn Sanctuary of Apollo Karneios (dating back to the 6th century BC). During the Venetian era, pirate attacks forced the inhabitants to live in five fortress-like settlements named “Kastelia”, of which Skaros in Imerovigli was the most important and densely populated – it’s really hard to imagine how 200 houses once managed to squeeze on this steep rock.

Needless to say, the volcano is the main attraction here and the most significant natural monument on the island. Or in the words of Professor Emeritus of Archaeology, and director of excavations at Akrotiri, Christos G Doumas, “The Caldera is a unique geological book that remains constantly open and readily accessible to anyone who wishes to study this aspect of history”. This is absolutely true, as Santorini’s still active volcanic complex, consisting of two oversea volcanoes (at Palaia and Nea Kameni) and one underwater (the Koloumpo), located on the northeast of the island and featuring a crater of 500m in depth, constantly undergoes small or larger eruptions. The small volcano-islet of Nea Kameni wasn’t even there until 1707, when chain eruptions and other natural phenomena resulted into the islet’s surfacing from the sea. Nea Kameni is still growing, as it is documented that some parts of its volcanic rock are just 50 years old. If this is not natural history in the making, then what is? And of course the volcanic impact is also evident in the stunning scenery of Santorini’s coastline and multicoloured beaches: long stretches with black, red or white sand and pebbles, backed by dramatic cliffs and spectacular rock formations. 

More to check out:

  • The sunset from Oia, maybe the most famous on the planet. The cubic white houses and streets are all painted a magical deep red-orange as the sun dreamily dips its beams towards the sea. When the fiery orb takes its final dive and vanishes into the orange-pink sea, people usually applaud in awe.
  • The impressive Red Beach, which is indeed as red as its name indicates. It lies below vertical crimson volcanic rocks and features small ruby-hued pebbles, which glitter from inside the water. It’s a very unique site and the waters are magnificent.
  • The boat trip to the volcano (Nea Kameni), Palaia Kameni and the Thermal Springs, which give you the chance to walk around the volcanic crater, admire the Caldera from another point of view and take a mud bath with healing sulphur mud at Palaia Kameni (do keep in mind that the smell of sulphur will stick to your skin for a while, though).
  • The ancient vineyards of Santorini, with the vines pruned to form “baskets” close to the ground to protect from the intense sunlight and fierce Aegean winds.
  • The unspoiled island of Thirassia on the opposite side of the Caldera, mostly visited by day-trippers from Santorini but also an alternative accommodation option for those wishing to combine Caldera views with the true essence of island living.
  • The exhibition of minerals and fossils in the village of Perissa. The oldest exhibit is 1.5 billion years old, while the youngest just 50,000. The collection comes not only from Santorini but also from the rest of Greece and other countries.

Truth be told, it doesn’t get much more “trendy” than here – Mykonos is possibly the only other Greek island that can compete with Santorini in terms of vibrant nightlife, luxury resorts and celebrity visitors. From Kate Perry to the Kardashian family and from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to Jack Nicolson (who is even said to have bought land here), there is an endless list of celebrities and international movers and shakers who have fallen in love with the eerie beauty of Santorini. This is definitely a cosmopolitan island and, despite the millions of visitors, it is an island that knows very well how to handle its tourism gracefully, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. During July and August, of course, it is packed to capacity, but Santorini has tourism almost all year round. Here you will find ultra-premium, high-end resorts and the most sophisticated boutique hotels in Greece that hang off the cliff of the Caldera and offer views that will remain imprinted in your memory forever; you will find excellent restaurants and amazing open-air bars that offer fine and selective nights out; you will find vibrant clubs where the beautiful sun-kissed people dance to the beat until the late morning hours; here you will find cool beach bars serving colourful cocktails to your sun-lounger; here you will find it all. Do note that the service quality on this island is considered top class, so do not hesitate to ask for anything you desire, as most probably your wishes will be granted. 

More to check out:

  • The all-day beach parties at the many beach bars on the organised beaches of the island. From coffee to cocktails, from there to shots and spirits and the party can go on until late at night.
  • The romantic restaurants and atmospheric cocktail bars on the edge of the Caldera with the pale lights and the endless sea 300 metres below, just calling out for a wedding proposal.
  • Santorini as a top wedding destination. As well from the hotels offering wedding services, you’ll find many wedding and event planning companies operating on the island.
  • Franco’s bar, which has featured in numerous “World’s Best Bars” lists over the years. The original owner of the place may have moved to Pyrgos, where in 2010 he launched a conceptual café-bar-restaurant, but his legacy, ie playing classical music at sunset, still lives on. Arrive early to get one of the “front row” sun-loungers and enjoy the most spectacular panoramic Caldera view.
  • “Gold Street”, aka Ipapantis Street in Fira, which offers a seemingly never-ending row of jewellery shops that remain open till late at night – the best time to go if you wish to avoid cruise-ship crowds. Bargaining is common practice here and what looks Greek is not necessarily made in Greece, so try to opt for certified jewellery items.
Location
  • Location
  • Climate
  • Where to stay
  • Getting there
  • Getting around

Santorini belongs to the south part of the Cyclades; it is the complex’s southernmost point along with Anafi, and it lies to the west of Anafi and south of Ios.

Santorini is one of the most arid areas in the Aegean; actually, along with Anafi they are the only areas in Europe to present a hot desert climate, according to the Koppen climate classification system. Otherwise, the weather is typical of the Cycladic Islands, mostly sunny all year long, with mild winters and hot, dry and often windy long summers that begin in mid-May and end around late-September. Daytime temperatures during the early and late months of summer range between 25°C-30°C, while July and August are even hotter, with average temperatures of 26°C-27°C and high daytime temperatures regularly exceeding 30°C, though tempered by the cooling effect of the sea breezes and most particularly the “Meltemia”. These summer northerly winds that blow often and sometimes fiercely through the Aegean usually pick up by early afternoon and die down at night, helping keep the heat within control and the humidity low. Fog is not a stranger to this island.

The main dilemma in Santorini is whether to stay at a Caldera view hotel or close to the beach. Whichever you decide, there are numerous accommodation choices for every taste and wallet. 

Fira: The capital and largest settlement of Santorini is the centre of day and night life and buzzes with people (and traffic in some parts). Besides the numerous hotels, apartments and rooms to let, here you will find restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs, all kinds of stores, galleries, banks, pharmacies, travel agencies, buses and taxis and anything else you might need. The busiest spots are, of course, on the side overlooking the Caldera and Theotokopoulos Square, through which you will find yourself passing several times a day. 

Firostefani & Imerovigli: Both picturesque villages are within walking distance of Fira and offer magnificent views to the stunning blue of the Caldera. Here you will find ultra-premium resorts and hotels, some of them literally suspended over the cliff. Both settlements are the best choice for people who want to be close to buzzing Fira, but at the same time relish some peace and quiet. 

Oia: It doesn’t get much more charming and sophisticated than this excellently preserved village perched on the northern tip of the island. Its glorious sunset and idyllic ambience have made Oia’s name reach the ends of the earth, so be prepared for overcrowding, particularly towards dusk. Otherwise, everything here, from the supreme 5-star boutique hotels to the cool restaurants and bars, exudes class and elegance. You might be interested to learn that in Oia all power and telephone cables are buried underground, so as not to disturb the magnificent, picturesque atmosphere.

Kamari, Perissa and Perivolas: Three very popular, beautiful, black-pebbled beaches which are daytime hotspots as they offer beach bars and restaurants, but are also a great accommodation choice for travellers who want to be close to the sea. Do bear in mind that lively as these seaside resorts are during the daytime, Fira remains the island’s nightlife epicentre. 

Inland villages: Pyrgos, Megalochori and Karterados are some of the settlements that have developed over the last decade to offer excellent accommodation for visitors who wish for a more authentic Santorini experience.

By Sea: There are several ferries and speed boats connecting Santorini with the port of Piraeus with the trip lasting about 9 hours by conventional ferry and 4-5 hours by speed boat. The trip from the port of Rafina is about 1 hour shorter. Santorini is also connected by boat to Anafi, Halki, Folegandros, Herakleion (Crete), Ios, Karpathos, Kassos, Kimolos, Kos, Milos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Rhodes, Serifos, Sikinos, Sitia (Crete), Syros and Thirassia.


By Air:
Santorini has several flights per day to and from Athens International Airport, but there are also direct flights from other main cities of Greece, as well as charter flights from many European cities. 

 

As Santorini is an internationally popular holiday destination, it is only reasonable that the local transport is well organised and reliable. There are plenty of taxis and the bus timetable is decent and covers most interesting parts of the island. However, the best thing to do is rent your own set of wheels (two or four, whichever your preference), as this island is far too beautiful for you to be wasting time at the bus station. The roads are in quite good shape, but you must always be extra careful and never speed when driving in the Cyclades, especially at night, as public lighting is poor (or non-existent) and visibility low. The so-called March 25th asphalt road connects Fira to Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia, as does the provincial road Firon-Oias. Another significant road to remember is the one from Fira to Ormos Perissis, which is the main road leading to the villages of Pyrgos, Athinios, Megalochori and Akrotiri, as well as to the Akrotiri Archaeological site, Emporio and the beaches to the south of the island.

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