Who hasn’t dreamed of visiting Santorini? The iconic caldera and chic Cycladic aura are part of you even before you’ve arrived. But that’s only the start of the story of a destination famed for once-in-a-lifetime sunsets and hidden touches of authenticity. So prepare to discover an island exploding with colour, style, taste and history.
Santorini is at its best either side of summer (April-May & mid-September-October) when the experience becomes even more personal but the weather is usually still great. It is easily reached by plane from Athens or abroad or by boat from Piraeus or other islands in the Cyclades.
The caldera experience
Nothing prepares you for the real thing when it comes to Santorini’s caldera. Each glimpse will feel more magical than the last. During an evening meal as the sun begins to set; soaking in an infinity pool carved right into the rock of your boutique hotel; strolling in one of the villages or along the ridge of the 300m tall cliff overlooking the Aegean… maybe even exploring on horseback. There it is, a flash of sparkling blue and the cluster of isles formed (along with Santorini) in the volcanic eruption 3,000 years ago. Or maybe your caldera view is from sea level today, on a catamaran cruise around the island. Memories, memories.
Finding Instagram heaven in Oia
Up there with the caldera in the beauty stakes, Oia is one of the world’s most photogenic villages. This is the essential Cyclades… sugar-cubed houses, blue-domed churches, bell towers, windmills and cute little alleyways. And every now and then, a magical sighting of the caldera.
Take your time strolling among the designer stores, art galleries, cafes and fantastic eateries. But don’t leave without visiting Ammoudi, the tiny fishing village around 300 steps below Oia, with its great seafood tavernas. From here, you can catch a short boat ride to Armeni, a tiny settlement with yet more Instagrammable magic.
Setting sail for an active volcano
You’ve seen the result of the volcano from up high, now it’s time to experience it from up close. There are regular boat trips to Nea Kameni and its little brother Palea Kameni, in the heart of the caldera.
On barren Nea Kameni, it’s a 30min hike across black and red petrified lava to the crater of the famous volcano, where you might be greeted by a puff of smoke and smell of sulphur. And moving on to Palea Kameni, into the sea you go as you experience the warmth (even in winter) and green tinges of the thermal springs just off the coast.
Explosive flavours, exquisite tastes
Santorini’s volcanic soil is responsible for some of the most memorable flavours in Greece… cherry tomatoes and capers bursting with life, smooth velvety fava (split pea) puree, white aubergine dip and chlorotyri (the local creamy and tangy goat’s or cow’s cheese). It’s a dining experience that takes Greek/Mediterranean cuisine to another level. You can taste it whether you’re in a taverna, at a deli or just eating a souvlaki, or full-on fine dining in your hotel or in one of the many restaurants pushing the boundaries of creative cuisine. And how about learning how to replicate the magic with a cookery class? Your palate will never be the same.
A generous serving of Santorini’s wine tradition
Crowning the culinary experience is a 3,000-year-old wine tradition. Santorini has rightly earned world-class status when it comes to wines, notably the crisp whites made from the Assyrtiko grape and the PDO-awarded Vinsanto (produced from sun-dried grapes and served as a dessert wine). So be sure to put a winery visit on your to-do list.
There’ll be one close by whether you’re inland or by the coast, many with the extra magic of a caldera view. You’ll learn about the local pruning system of curling vines into baskets called kouloures (to protect them from the wind and sunlight) and the subterranean cellars known as kanaves.
Volcanic vistas, signature cocktails, beach bars and clubs that coined the term ‘island chic’… no wonder Santorini’s nightlife is legendary. You might be a couple seeking the perfect sundowner spot, or a group of friends looking for a place to chill… just say the word! Fira (the capital) has it all (yes, even molecular mixology). Or you might prefer the romantic touches of Oia or Firostefani or the vibrant beach bars of Black Beach.
Villages packed with authenticity
The mood in Santorini’s settlements and villages changes by day. Each has its own ambience, with churches, museums and bougainvillea-filled courtyards. Fira is full of cosmopolitan touches and cultural gems (such as museums and art galleries) and Imerovigli and Firostefani are Instagram bliss, known as balconies over the Aegean.
Near Megalochori, you can visit the Lost Atlantis Experience to learn about the volcanic eruption that created the caldera and – some believe – submerged the famed city of Atlantis. Moving inland, you find traditional Pyrgos, where you can visit the Venetian’s Kasteli castle and monasteries, and Emporio with its strong medieval character, well-preserved houses and 15th-century fortress.
Hitting the hiking trails
There’s no better way to experience the unique landscape. Santorini’s landmark hike is the 10km trail from Fira to Oia along the rim of the caldera. The highlights keep rolling, from the gorgeous little chapels of Agios Gerasimos and Agios Nikolaos near Firostefani, to Skaros Rock, a favourite viewpoint by Imerovigli. Probably the most famous sunset spot is Mavro Vouno (Black Mountain) just outside Oia. Inland, a trail takes you from Pyrgos to the Monastery of Profitis Ilias (where there’s a 360-degree view from 567m up), past Ancient Thera and on to Kamari on the east coast.
Volcanic beaches that pop with colour
Santorini’s beaches differ from the golden swathes of sand of other Cycladic islands, but they are spectacular in their own way. The island’s volcanic past lives on in the colours of the cliffs, pebbles and sand after which some of its most iconic beaches are named: the cliff-backed Red Beach and White Beach near Akrotiri and the 6km-long Black Beach (also known as Perissa, after the nearby settlement), with its many tavernas and water sports (from SUP to windsurfing and scuba diving). Other standout beaches are Kamari and Cape Columbo (near Oia).
Prehistoric Akrotiri, Greece’s Pompeii
The landmarks keep coming, this time in the form of the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri. Inhabited as long ago as the 4th millennium BC, the 50-acre archaeological site we can enjoy today is from 1500 BC, when it was preserved under volcanic ash. It is a fascinating insight into Minoan life, exposing multi-storey houses and artefacts of engineers, architects and artists. A bonus, while you’re in the area, is to visit the Akrotiri Lighthouse, on the southwestern-most tip of Santorini, for perhaps the most personal sunset on the island.
Unearthing Ancient Thera’s secrets
Continuing the historic theme, Ancient Thera presents us with ruins of Hellenistic temples and the foundations of Roman and early Byzantine buildings. Among the 4th-century BC remains are a theatre and gym, along with a collection of other buildings. But this archaeological site’s defining characteristic is the view from the slopes of Profitis Ilias towards Kamari and the eastern coastline. To complete the historical tour, visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira, with pottery and other artefacts from Ancient Thera as well as Minoan frescoes, tools and weapons.
Thirasia… the Santorini of yesterday
Finally, set sail for Thirasia, in the heart of the caldera, where you switch your newfound cosmopolitan lifestyle for the Santorini of 50 years ago. There are only 300 residents on Thirasia and a slow-paced, ageless way of life. You’ll recognise the Cycladic architecture of the main town, Manolas, but with a more down-to-earth feel than Santorini’s clifftop settlements visible across the caldera. Immediately below is Korfos, where you can enjoy a seafood meal and swim.
Dreams come true in Santorini
Santorini is a dream destination from beginning to end. So prepare to fill up on memories … the caldera view, legendary sunsets, volcanic beaches, irresistible food, exquisite service and fascinating history. All of which will last a lifetime.