Santorini, without a doubt Greece’s most popular attraction is a breathtaking island formed from a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. Its fame and beauty is known worldwide with everyone and their mother having been exposed at some point in their lives to the famous pictures of its iconic blue domes.
Santorini is exactly as the pictures describe, breathtakingly beautiful and picturesque. It’s not just the natural beauty that is impressive but the way buildings old and new have been carved into the side of the caldera to give it that sea of white. It’s as much mother nature’s wonder as it is a man made one. I came to Santorini as part of my trip around the Cyclades. It was the last stop on my island hopping trip that saw me travel to a dozen other Cycladic islands.
Santorini is perhaps one of the most touristy places in the world and pictures of influencers standing on top of a white church all by their lonesome are deceiving. Nevertheless, I knew this going in, especially having been to Mykonos months prior. There are plenty of reasons that I dislike Santorini, but it’s one of those iconic places that you just have to visit. After you get this out of the way, you know what to expect and you can focus on enjoying it! If you are having trouble deciding between Mykonos or Santorini to visit, read my comparison of the two islands.
Santorini was one of the islands I visited on my month long trip island hopping through the Cyclades. If you’re also planning a multi-island trip through the Cyclades, make sure to read my itinerary and guide to planning your own Greek island hopping trip!
Greece is my favorite country in Europe and I traveled extensively through the country. If you need inspiration for other parts of Greece, make sure to read my Ultimate Greece Travel Guide that details everything yo need to know about Greece and the places I’ve been to.
Visit Oia Town
As soon as I arrived in Santorini, I could tell this was really developed and packed island. I had just come from Amorgos where I didn’t see cars for hours at a time so it was a shock to come to Santorini which seemed like a proper city with suburbs at times.
The two main towns on Santorini are Fira, the capital and Oia, the tourist capital. Well to be honest, both towns are catered to tourists as they are all built along the cliff edge offering those famous views over the sea. However, Oia is by far the most iconic town in the island. When you think of Santorini and think of those photos with the majestic blue domes, this is Oia.
I stayed at an Airbnb in the middle of Oia town which had unobstructed views of those famous blue domes. I was pretty much in the middle of it.
Oia is an extremely beautiful town with picturesque view after picturesque view. The town has one main street which is littered with shops, restaurants, bars, and the like. As soon as you walk away from the main road, you will be greeted with small streets and steps that lead into Airbnbs or high end hotels. This is where the best photos are taken in my opinion.
The town takes 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other with the western tip of the town perfect for a sunset.
Without a doubt, one of Oia’s claim to fame is its sunset from the western side of the island. People speak about this like it’s the stuff of legend. I suppose I went to see it purely out of fomo. After seeing countless breath-taking sunsets in my travels through the Greek island, a sunset in Oia is simply not worth it.
The entire town of Oia gets completely packed full of people trying to find a place to watch the sunset. The bars are packed, restaurants packed, and the streets are so packed you have a hard time walking through. I visited in 2020 during the height of Coronavirus and still felt overwhelmed by this crowd even though it was 20% of what normal capacity would be! I think the only way I can recommend watching the sunset in Oia is if you’re staying at one of the hotels that faces west with views of the sunset.
Having your own slice of the caldera without the swarms around you trying to take photos would be bliss. Otherwise, I would come very early (like 2 hours before the sunset) and go to one of the bars that have a view of the sunset and stake out your spot beforehand.
The food is actually quite good
Oia has no shortage of restaurant options. I was a bit suspect at first thinking that the food would just be a bunch of overpriced fancy fusion type cuisine (which there are a lot of course), but it turns out there is a bunch of delicious Greek tavernas as well. The secret is to not eat on the main strip. Anything with a view will be 50% more expensive, and probably not as tasty.
The best restaurant I ate at was definitely Melatini. It’s a taverna located on a backstreet that served some of the best Greek food I had in my two months traveling through Greece. It’s a meze style place where we ordered a little bit of everything, with everything being delicious. You also can tell it’s a top notch restaurant because it was absolutely packed. Reservations are a must.
And there is some damn good gyros and souvlaki in Oia as well. Pito Gyros is the best spot in town and they dish out delicious gyros for €4.50 which is extremely expensive by Greek standards but you are in Santorini after all!
Port of Amoudi
From the western tip of Oia, you can take the steps down towards the sea to the small port of Amoudi. This is a steep climb down and looks much shorter than it is so be warned. Once you reach the sea, you are greeted with many restaurants and bars where you can enjoy a beautiful sunset away from the huge crowds watching the sunset in Oia.
Is Santorini worth it?
Oh man, this is the million euro question isn’t it.
Is Santorini really as touristy as they say and is it even worth the visit anymore?
This is a good question because everyone and their mother goes to Santorini. Literally. It’s the most visited place in all of Greece and probably the most popular island in the entire world. There are millions of tourists that flood this island every year. In the summer months, the town of Oia is so busy that you would be sane to think you were at a music festival instead of a beautiful Cycladic island.
Since I visited during Coronavirus times, the crowds were much less but they still felt overwhelming. Locals told me the crowds were at about 20% which was shocking but believable considering Santorini is a huge cruise ship stop and no cruises were happening during this time. I couldn’t imagine it any more busy than it already was, let alone 5x as busy! It’s definitely not my style of traveling.
With that said, the natural beauty of Santorini cannot be denied. It is without a doubt one of the most stunning places in Greece as the views of the caldera are just out of this world. It’s hard to take a bad photo here which is probably why millions of people seek out that famous photo with the three blue domes every year.
Santorini is also much more expensive than the rest of Greece; it’s at least 50% more expensive than Athens in my opinion because Santorini is a foreigners island. No Greeks in their right mind will come here because it’s out of the budget. My waiter at Santo Wines told me Greeks comprise 3-5% of tourists!
I understand the appeal of the island and why it’s one everyone’s “must visit” list. It’s beautiful and photographs incredibly well. In addition, it has all the 5* luxury resorts you can think of with the infinity pools and villas. Even if I told you that I really just disliked the island, you will visit the island purely based on FOMO.
There are so many other islands that I found to be more special and all of them more authentic (even Mykonos). However, this is one of those places that you just need to say you’ve been to, if not just to fit in while talking to friends about trips to Greece. So with that said, just go and enjoy it! But for certain, do not go in the summer months. If possible, spend the extra cash and get a nice villa where you can focus on the views and relaxation as opposed to the wild crowds around.
Santorini history and how it became the tourist capital
One of the most fascinating things about Santorini is its history. Unlike the other islands that have been in existence for millions of years just passing their time by, Santorini was only formed 4000 years ago after a volcano eruption created what is modern day Santorini. After visiting so many other islands in the Cyclades, Santorini looked like it was from another planet, let alone just a one hour ferry ride from Ios.
If you look at a map, you can see that Santorini resembles a moon crescent with a few islands in the bay. In olden times, this was one giant volcanic island. This volcano erupted almost 4000 years ago submerging most of the island into the sea. What remained is what you see now which is the half moon caldera that Santorini is famous for.
The ancient people of Santorini saw the writing on the wall and fled to Crete where they took refuge with the ancient Minoans. However, the volcano eruption was so intense, it sent tsunamis that wiped out most of the Minoan civilization in Crete.
It laid abandoned for centuries before the Phoenicians returned hundreds of years later in the 13th century BCE. The Spartans came in hundreds of years later and claimed it for their own naming it Thira after their king. Subsequently, it changed hands numerous times between the Greeks, Persians, Byzantines, Turks, and numerous European countries in the 1900s. The name Santorini actually came from Italian occupation during WW2 when they named it Santa Irini.
No visit to Santorini is complete without visiting the world famous Santo Winery. Santorini is widely regarded as the best wine growing island in all of Greece thanks to its rich volcanic soil (remember, Santorini is the remnants of a large volcano explosion thousands of years ago). Santo Winery is the largest producer on the island dating back to the 1940s.
Santo Wines has a large compound nearby to Fira town and it has perhaps the most stunning scenery that any winery in the world could hope to have. It’s literally in the middle of the Santorini crescent and offers completely unobstructed views of the sea.
The estate is set up with a modern interior perfect for wine tasting as well as numerous large outdoor patios for you to enjoy the breathtaking view. Santo Wines is actually popular for weddings and who could blame them?
We did a wine tasting here which included 12 of their wines (6 red and 6 white) for roughly €40. I actually thought this was crazy expensive considering I had been getting wine at restaurants for €4 for a half liter. Nevertheless, the wine here is of top notch quality but in reality you’re mostly paying for the view. The view is absolutely out of this world and is a must visit for this reason alone.
The sun sets directly in front of the estate so it’s a hugely popular place for sundowners. A reservation is an absolute must if you want to come here for the sunset. Even during coronavirus times, this winery was packed full. If you come in the summer months in normal times, I’d make a reservation at least a week beforehand. Otherwise, you can still come here during the daytime without much issue. The sun is super hot so most people wait until sunset to come here in big numbers.
Do the Fira to Oia hike
If you want to mix up the Instagramming and upscale dining with some physical exercise (light of course), look no further than the hike from Fira to Oia.
I’m not sure I would really call this a proper hike as more of a long walk. It’s not very challenging as the terrain is novice and almost all of it is done on paved road. Nevertheless, if you want to get a good feel of what Santorini has to offer in terms of views and landscape, the hike from Fira to Oia is it. Fira is located in the center of the island while Oia is located at the northwest tip. Doing this hike essentially means you’ve walked half of the island. Not only will you be able to see the breathtaking views Santorini is famous for, but you’ll also walk through some of the lesser known towns in Santorini (which are also very worthwhile).
The hike can be done at any time of the day as there is no entrance fee you need to pay. You simply start in Fira, Santorini’s capital, and walk along the edge of the town until you find the start of the footpath that goes towards Oia. You can see Oia from Fira so really if you’re just walking along the sea towards Oia, you’re going in the right direction. If all else fails, just ask someone!
I recommend starting from Fira because the hike towards Oia is slightly less of an incline than the other way around. Of course, you can hike from Oia to Fira as well but just be prepared for more uphill. The next two towns are Firostefani and Imerovigli which are almost like suburbs of Fira and are on this footpath (you can’t miss it). Both are much lower key than Fira and because they are not as easily accessible for the swarms of cruise ship tourists.
To return to your starting point, simply take the frequent bus that goes between the two towns. This bus leaves every half hour so you will never have to wait that long. Alternatively, if you’re staying in Oia, take the bus to Fira first, and then walk back home. I’d recommend doing this hike in the morning hours as the sun can be very unforgiving after 11am.
The walk is approximately 10kms (6 miles) long and will take you through a variety of landscapes along the way. Make sure you set aside a decent amount of time to complete so you are not in a rush. Generally, it should take between 3-5 hours depending on fitness level, stops and the temperature.
The path changes terrain from everything such as loose scoria, concrete, sand and rocks. Good walking shoes with plenty of support is a must.
Sunset catamaran cruise
One of the top things to do in Santorini without a doubt is to go on a catamaran cruise. This is a very popular activity and you will see it advertised all over the island.
For some reason, Santorini has been dubbed the catamaran capital as there are literally hundreds of catamarans docked at the ports for this type of tour. There are two options for this tour: go on a group tour or book a private boat. As we were 6 people, we decided to spend the extra cash and get our own boat for the sunset (can also be done during the day time).
This boat tour is essentially a boat party that sails around Santorini island visiting some of the most popular sights like the Red beach, white Beach, Thirasia island and more. The boat also stops at various points to snorkel. All the while, drinks are flowing and a very delicious dinner is provided on board. Alcohol is all included in the price and we had more than enough. The dinner was also extremely delicious as they grilled seafood, souvlaki, gyros, greek salad, moussaka etc. Finally, because we went during the afternoon, we ended by watching the sun set over the sea.
In total, we paid about €1000 for 6 people which is expensive but would have been cheaper with every additional person. The boat is huge and could easily fit 10-12 without any issue. The price includes round trip transfers to anywhere in Santorini (they picked us up from our hotel in Oia), drinks, food, etc.
If you are just a couple, then you can book a group tour with strangers for about €50-75 per person. I saw some very full boats and I’m not sure this would have been as fun with a ton of other people crowded into the same boat. However, having our own boat was amazing.
The boat was huge and very comfortable with an overwater hammock in the front of the boat. There was so much room for your group that if you’re at least 4 people, I’d consider spending the extra cash to get the boat to yourselves.
Visit the town of Pyrgos
The town of Pyrgos is in a heavy wine producing area and there are several wineries nearby including Santos which sits below the village, on the caldera, and Hatzidakis, a small winery that is on the road to the church of Profitti Ilias where you will also find the most spectacular view of the island itself, not just the caldera.
Pyrgos is a typical white Santorini-style Cycladic village with a maze of narrow streets with steps that lead up to a Venetian Castle (Kastro) which until the earthquake in the mid-20th century was inhabited by aproximately seventy families. On the way up you will pass two churches, one from the 10th century called the Theotokaki of Koimisis and the larger Panagia of Kasteli which was built in the 16th century.
Pyrgos felt more like a traditional Cycladic village to me than anywhere else in Santorini. It’s more laid back and isn’t adorned with five star resorts, infinity pools, and the like. However, it’s not as beautiful as other villages you’ll see in islands like Amorgos, Sifnos, or Naxos.
Take photos, lots of them
Well no visit to Santorini is complete without taking some fabulous photos. I think you could spend a month here just looking for the best photo spots because there seem to just be endless amounts of good opportunities. People take their photos really seriously in Santorini. You will see it all, from the modest selfie to the professional camera crews following around a newly married couple. The most intense being a woman that wore a red dress with probably 3m of extra fabric so it could flow casually with the wind.
There’s no shame in it. Everyone’s gotta do it for the Gram so just snap away! Here are some of my favorite spots:
Best time to take photos:
The best time to take photos in Santorini is in the mid day. All the buildings are white or a pastel shade of color which means you really want the sun to shine light on it. The idea of taking photos at sunrise might be appealing, but you will get a shadowy effect that just doesn’t look that great. In the summer hours, 9am is normally when the sun has risen high enough where it lights up most buildings. I would say the best time to take photos is between 9am and 3pm.
The famous three blue domes in Oia
Oia is probably where most of the photographing happens. This is the most iconic town with the pictures you’ve seen all your life. Nothing is more iconic than the three blue domes that face the sea (everything faces the sea really).
I actually stayed at an Airbnb that had front row view of these three blue domes. We were literally where everyone takes their famous photos and had people coming near our apartment from 7am to 11pm every day. Sometimes, there was even a line of people waiting to take photos, it was pretty extreme. Regardless, this is one of the best places to take that iconic photo.
Pictures from any doors and gates
I think one of the coolest photo opportunities in Santorini is taking a photo from those iconic doors that open into a view of the ocean. Really, they open to stairs that descend to your accommodation but the effect in a photo makes it seem like you’re opening a door into the sea.
There are many of these places in Santorini with most of them belonging to a hotel of some sort.
Buy a hat
If you’re a girl, buy a hat. For some reason, it just 100% goes with the Santorini vibes and makes for much cooler looking photos. The bigger the better. You can find hats at literally every shop on the island because I’m not the only person to think of this.