With its dramatic landscape, iconic blue-domed churches, and dazzling sunsets, Santorini is one of the most beautiful and popular tourist destinations in Greece. You have likely seen otherworldly pictures of white houses cascading down the cliffs, almost slipping into the Aegean Sea. Or maybe you have seen a photo of the painted pink sky as the sun dips below the horizon over the caldera. And if not, perhaps you have heard about the beaches, wineries, and delicious Greek food Santorini has to offer. Either way, Santorini is one of the best vacation destinations in the world.
History of Santorini
Santorini is the largest of five islands forming an archipelago (which is also called Santorini) in the south Aegean Sea. While the commonly used name for the main island is Santorini, the official Greek name is Thera, and you may hear some folks refer to it as such while you are there.
The archipelago is a volcanic caldera that formed in the aftermath in one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. Around 3,600 years ago, the volcano at the center of present-day Santorini erupted, devastating the surrounding area and potentially leading to the downfall of the Minoan civilization on nearby Crete (although this is still debated). Without getting too geological, after the eruption and sudden outflow of magma from the volcano, there was nothing to support the outer layers of rock, and the whole thing collapsed in on itself, forming a large basin.
In essence, the volcano is now inverted under the water in the middle of the Santorini Archipelago. While devastating at the time, the unique geologic history of Santorini is what makes it a tourist destination today. The black sand beaches, unique soil for growing wine, steep cliffs, and stunning views are all a result of a volcanic explosion 3,600 years ago – pretty cool!
Things to do in Santorini
With the geological history out of the way, now we can move into the exciting stuff – what you should do with your time in Santorini.
Before we get into all of the amazing things to do in Santorini, we need to note that not everything in Santorini is a perfect as the sunsets and wine. A victim of its own success, the peak season in Santorini (mid-June to September) brings an unbearable number of tourists, especially when there are cruise ships in port. Popular viewpoints, beaches, wineries, and restaurants can easily be overrun by the tourist crowds. While temperatures may dip and beaches may not be as appealing outside the peak season, the sunsets are year round.
Nonetheless, large crowds cannot overrun Santorini’s beauty – there is clearly a reason the island draws so many tourists. Here are nine awesome ideas on how to spend your time on the enchanting island of Santorini:
- Watch a picture-perfect sunset
- Savor Greek wine at a local winery
- Relax at one of Santorini’s black beaches
- Have a Greek coffee and croissant
- Hike between Oia and Fira
- Try Greek fried cheese
- Explore Fira
- Sip on a Yellow Donkey Beer
- Explore the cliffside streets of Oia
1. Watch a picture-perfect sunset
Cost: Free — Time: 1 hour
There may be no better place in the world to watch the sunset than Santorini. From almost anywhere on the island, you can get a picture-perfect view of the sun sinking behind the caldera with sky and water ablaze in golden beauty.
Oia draws the largest crowds – some people showing up hours ahead of time to get the best spots. But don’t stress, there are plenty of other places that offer a more serene experience including Akrotiri lighthouse, Santo Winery, or better yet, a sunset cruise.
2. Taste Greek wine at a local winery
Cost: €15 — Time: 1 – 2 hours
Santorini has been producing some of the best and most unique wines in the world since ancient Greek and Roman times. The Mediterranean climate, volcanic soil (from the eruption 3,600 years ago!) and the strong cross-winds, make a truly one-of-a-kind grape growing experience.
Interestingly, in the late 19th century almost all grapes across Europe were destroyed by the phylloxera plague, brought to the continent on American vines carried by English botanists. However, because the soil in Santorini is so volcanic, the parasite never took hold, and many of the vines on Santorini are centuries old.
The most popular varietals are: Assyrtiko, Athiri, Aidani, Mandilaria, and Mavrotragano. There are plenty of vineyards and wineries across the island but a few of the more popular options are:
- Santo Winery: By far the most popular, Santo Winery is a must-stop on any Santorini wine excursion. With a large, multi-level patio, Santo Winery provides unparalleled views of the caldera, as well as a large selection of wines. While it is hard to complain about enjoying a glass of wine overlooking the Aegean Sea, Santo Winery can get very crowded with tourists, especially when a cruise ship is in town, so plan accordingly. This is also a great spot to watch the sunset.
- Venetsanos Winery: Built in 1947 and the first industrial winery on the island, Venetsanos also offers picture-perfect views of the caldera.
- Estate Argyros: Set back from the caldera, the views at Estate Argyros are not as striking, but the vista of mountains and sea would be top-notch anywhere else in the world. That being said, Estate Argyros is known for smaller batches of boutique wines to much acclaim. In fact, they were listed as one of the top 100 wineries in the world in 2019.
3. Relax at one of Santorini’s black beaches
Cost: Free — Time: 2 – 4 hours
Santorini is home to a number of spectacularly unique beaches, but don’t expect fine white sand and wide, rolling dunes. Santorini beaches are known for their black volcanic sand, red rocks, or staggering cliffs. Most beaches offer a variety of water sports, sun beds, and beach-side dining options.
4. Have a Greek coffee and croissant
Cost: €10 — Time: 30 minutes
When in Santorini, we fell in love with Greek iced coffee, or frappe coffee. Made with instant coffee, water, ice, sugar (to you liking), and milk (optional), frappe coffee has an irresistibly smooth, foamy top and just enough sweetness – perfect for sipping on a hot day!
Pair it with one of many delicious Greek pastries (our favorite is kataifi, which resembles a birds nest and is topped with chopped walnuts, cinnamon and lemon-honey syrup), a view of the caldera, and you have a perfect morning.
5. Hike from Oia to Fira
Cost: Free — Time: 3 – 5 hours
If you are looking for a bit of exercise, the hike between Oia and Fira is a popular way to work up a sweat. The hike is about 6 miles, will take anywhere from three to five hours depending on your pace, and is generally suitable for any fitness level. The hike tracks along the top of the caldera cliffs and connects Fira – Firostefani – Imerovigli – Oia. Bring some water with you, as there is little shade and the mid-afternoon sun can be sweltering.
6. Try Greek “fried cheese”
Cost: €12 — Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
Saganaki is a popular Greek appetizer consisting of cheese, pan-fried until lightly brown and bubbly on the outside and tender and gooey in the middle. Served with a little salt, pepper, lemon, and bread, saganaki is simple but addictive. The saltiness of the fresh cheese with a little crunch from the pan, and acidity of the lemon makes a perfectly balanced dish. When in Santorini, be sure to have your fill of all Greek food, but saganaki was one of our favorites as it pairs perfectly with Yellow Donkey Beer – a Santorini gem!
7. Explore Fira
Cost: Free — Time: 1 -3 hours
Fira is the capital and most popular town in Santorini. Though slighly less asthetially pleasing than Oia, the bustling town of Fira has its own charm, with busy shops lining the streets and unbeatable views of the Caldera.
The city can fill up quickly, so make a point to get off the beaten path, get lost on the cobblestone streets, enjoy the breath-taking views, and fill up on the best food the island has to offer. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera houses a number of artifacts from Akrotiri, a prehistoric settlement on the island that was destroyed by the volcanic eruption that formed the caldera.
8. Sip on a Yellow Donkey Beer
Cost: €5 — Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
Despite being known around the world for wine, Yellow Donkey beer is a near ubiquitous sight across Santorini. Brewed by the Santorini Brewing Company, Yellow Donkey Beer is an unfiltered lager with a healthy balance of hoppy bitterness and citrus brightness. Make no mistake, the wine is still the way to go, but if you need a change of pace or want something to bring to the beach, grab a few bottles of Yellow Donkey.
9. Explore the cliffside streets of Oia
Cost: Free — Time: 1 – 2 hours
The most picturesque of the villages in Santorini, Oia’s whitewashed buildings cling tightly to the cliffs overlooking the caldera. Stop into a few of the shops and stroll through Oia’s pedestrian only streets, taking in the incredible views around every turn.
Oia is also home to Agios Spiridanas (Church of Saint Spiridonas) and Anasteseos (Church of the Resurrection), the two most photographed blue-dome churches of Santorini and the image that likely comes to mind when you envision Santorini.
What Not to do in Santorini
If you’ve been reading about Santorini, you may have noticed one thing not on our list: riding a donkey from the port up to Fira. These donkey’s carry heavy loads (people) up and down the 600 foot cliff all day with little rest, even in the sweltering heat. You may think, its just a donkey, they’re meant for carrying loads. But just imagine if you were forced to carry a heavy backpack up and down a steep mountain in 90 degree heat all day every day. In 2019, the people of Santorini launched a campaign called “In Their Hooves” to encourage tourists to consider just that. If you know me, you know I am a passionate animal lover, and the way these poor guys are treated is heartbreaking.
If you arrive to Santorini at Gialos Port, be prepared to walk up those 285 steps or you can take a cable car to the top for 6 euro.
How to Get to Santorini
As Santorini is an island, there are two ways to get there: by boat or by plane.
The most friendly budget way to get to Santorini is to take a ferry from the Piraeus ferry port in Athens. Ferries typically depart in the morning and take 8 hours to reach Santorini. There is also the option to take a high-speed ferry, which will cost more but get you to Santorini in 5 hours.
If you plan to visit Santorini as part of a Greek island hopping trip, you can also easily take a ferry from other islands, like Mikonos, Milos and Naxos, to Santorini in just a couple hours.
You can book ferry tickets from Athens and other Greek island on Ferry Hopper.
The easiest and fastest way to get to Santorini is to catch a quick 40 minute flight from Athens to the Santorini (Thira) airport. There are also flights available from other major European cities, including Rome, Venice, London, and Paris. While flying is the easiest and quickest option, it will come with a higher price tag than taking a ferry.
When to Visit Santorini
While the weather is warmest in the summer months, from June through August, the crowds are insane. The tiny streets of Santorini’s villages are not built to hold to the thousands of tourists unloaded from cruise ships each day during the summer, and it can be hard to really appreciate Santorini’s charm when you are cramped elbow to elbow with strangers.
We’d recommend visiting during the shoulder seasons, April, May, September, and October, when the weather is still nice, with average highs in the 70’s, but the crowds are much smaller.
Have you been to Santorini? Let us know what you thought in the comments below.