Top 5 Guide to Santorini, Greece
I’m obsessed right now with Santorini, that beautiful little Greek island (actually, multiple islands) with exquisite sunset views, perfect whitewashed houses and lapis lazuli waters surrounding volcanic formations that compose the islands.
So once-upon-a-time, many volcanic eruptions occurred over and over again, creating, destroying, building back up again and forcing more collapse until out of it all, finally, came Santorini; a group of islands in Greece comprising of a still-active volcano, in the southernmost part of Cyclades (the full circle of Greek islands in the Aegean). The caldera is the big, sea-filled crater left by volcanic activity throughout the ages and creates the backdrop for many the beautiful views you’ll see from towns, cliffs and overlooks on Santorini.
The best time to visit these islands is from June through September with the edge months being the best in my opinion to catch the heat of the sun but sometimes beat the crowds of the true high season. And September has the bonus of having heated up the sea sufficiently so you barely notice the temperature difference between air and sky! (Sorry those who love a bit of shocking cold water!)
Firá is the capital of Santorini — the place to find your grocery stores, a myriad of cafés and restaurants and the spot to party into the wee hours. Surrounded by vineyards and filled with whitewashed cubic dwellings, it overlooks the azure Aegean sea, allowing many a luxurious hotel to build infinity pools seemingly stretching out into the sea, balconies on the edge of cliffs and the most picturesque dining views.
Firostefani and Imerovigli are nearby Firá but maintain their seclusive and relaxing vibe. Just hop over to Firá when you need to inject a bit of nightlife into your holiday!
Oia seems like the perfect spot to stay if you are looking for the best sunset views, relaxing atmosphere (although touristy) and amazing restaurants. Not many shops here but oh! the luxury in these high-end hotels is impressive!
The towns of Perissa, Perivolos and Kamari don’t have vistas toward the scenic volcano but instead contain the best beaches you’ll find on Santorini.
So you have your choices laid out for you of where to stay when you get to Santorini according to what’s most important to you on your holidays: Will it be scenery, buzz or beach?
Top 5 Things to Eat: I know you’ll eat as much fish and seafood as you can (you can’t help but to!) so here are some other things to try while you’re on Santorini:
- Santorini’s cherry tomatoes: just like the renowned tomatoes of Napoli which prosper in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius, the tomatoes of Santorini benefit from the same environment — growing up in volcanic soil so they come out juicy and tasty and perfect for salads and sauces. Available in grocery stores (keep an eye out for their unusual shape as in the picture above) and great fresh or sun-dried.
- Tomatokeftedes (tomato-balls): make sure you order these from the menu in any Santorini restaurant or taverna. Deep-fried cherry tomatoes mixed with herbs, onions and other secret ingredient(s) each individual chef may choose.
- White eggplant: another Santorini specialty available on all local restaurant menus, this sweet vegetable is available whole or as a paste (called ‘melitzanosalata’) perfect for pairing with bread and that Santorini wine everyone raves about.
- Smashed fava beans: Served in every restaurant, you can eat these beans like hummous, as a paste with chopped red onions and olive oil,
- Melitinia: These little delicacies are made of hand-prepared pasty stuffed with local soft cheese called “anthotyro” or “myzithra”. Order a round for dessert with honey and cinnamon on top or buy in any bakery while you’re on the go.
Top 5 Things to Do: To make the most of your trip to Santorini, ensure you do each of these things, ideally more than once!
1. Sample the Santorini wine (actually, do way more than sample, fill ‘er up!); Assyrtiko, Athyri, Aidani, Mantilaria and Mavrotragano are just some of the distinctive varieties that you can taste at the island’s wineries or restaurants. The most famous wineries are SantoWines and Volcan Wines (also a wine museum) and you can also go wine tasting at the following vineyards: Argyros Estate, Canava Roussos and Boutari among others.
- Recommended: Visiting SantoWines vineyard to catch a spectacular sunset while partaking in one of their wine tasting options along with delicious platters of Greek specialities.
2. Cycle the island: There’s a great bus system on the island and you can definitely use it for getting around but if you hop up on a bicycle and let yourself be taken down and around winding roads, you’ll discover so much more on your travels. Quickly cycle between beaches and villages, finding the best spot to relax or hang out. Check out Motor Inn for renting bicycles, motorbikes, ATVs and more. (A scooter or moped might be a more sensible choice for you in the hot summer months.)
3. Explore some ruins: Akrotiri is an ancient city on the southern side of the island that was buried underground but remarkably preserved by volcanic ash — think of Italy’s Pompeii but for Greece. Come visit the ruins where there are active excavations going on today. Unfortunately, many of the best preserved frescoes that adorned the walls of buildings have been removed to the Archaeological Museum in Athens.
On the southeast coast, between the Perissa and Kamari beaches, Ancient Thira was founded in the ninth century BC but terraced ruins date back to third century BC; You can see the ruins of Hellenistic temples and other structures, as well as the foundations of Roman and early-Byzantine buildings.
To see many of the artefacts recovered from these sites, it’s worth a visit to the Historical and Cultural Archaeological Museum of Santorini in Firá to see what you missed.
4. Visit the small village of Pyrgos: For the photography buff, or someone looking to get away from the crowds of the coastline or just simply to explore more of this beautiful island, head to Pyrgos for it all, 7.5km from Firá. Walk all the way up from the bottom of the hill to the top, peeking into ancient churches along the way, to reach the castle, the highest point on the island where you can (obviously) take fantastic pics. You can reward yourself at the top by having a snack at Franco’s, a spot enjoyed by tourists and locals alike.
5. Visit the beaches: Being a volcanic island, the beaches of Santorini may not be what you’re expecting when thinking of white, sandy Greek beaches. Instead. you’ll find dark sand surrounded by looming cliff faces making the perfect setting for sheltered swimming in crystal-clear waters:
- Kamari Beach — if you’re looking to stay by a beach, this would be the area. Plenty of eating and drinking options, as well as sunbeds and cafés to choose from when picking a spot to lie on the beach.
- Red Beach — renowned for its spectacular scenery above and below the water; a perfect spot for snorkeling
- Vlychada is a quiet, more secluded beach where it might be more acceptable to go nude. Stick around for the sunset, you won’t be sorry!
- On the southeast coast of Santorini, about 12km from Firá, lies a popular stretch of sand between the towns of Perissa and Perivolas, catering to a lively crowd of backpackers and fun-seekers with plenty of seafood tavernas to dine in:
- Stop at Tranquilo at Perissa beach for burgers, veggie dishes and cocktails. Relax in their hammocks and sofas.
- Pepito’s in Perissa is great for on-the-go gyros to give you a good taste of Greece.
- If you’re extending your day into night, head to Waves Chill-Out Bar at Perissa beach for Friday night live performances where you’ll find tourists and locals alike.
- At Perivolos beach, lay on a sunbed at Kelly’s where they have a button by the bed to order instant service!
Top 5 Spots to Eat: I mentioned a few places to eat above so definitely try those but here is a highly recommended option in each area you might find yourself in:
1. Selene in Pyrgos — the fancy restaurant this, it has it all; locally-sourced ingredients, fantastic views, cooking courses and even a meze and wine tavern for the complete Greek tasting experience. Try as many delicacies as you can on the menu such as squid in seaweed, sea urchin, rabbit, dorada and grilled lamb.
2. Argo in Firá — here is where you’ll have your memorable sunset dinner gazing over the caldera. Both a high-class destination and an environmentally-conscious kitchen, make sure to try their Santorini fava and Argo’s specialty patatina.
3. Roka in Oia — don’t come here for the views. Locals gather in this courtyard for tasty mezes of fried eggplant with tomato, apple and feta pie, fried cheese, fava purée; all the island favourites.
4. Metaxy Mas in Exo Gonia (beside Pyrgos) — for great food, great atmosphere and views of Kamari Beach, this place could not come more highly recommended. Reservations advised.
5. Katina’s Tavern in Ammoudi — head to the port below Oia for the best seafood on the island in this spot favoured by locals.
Enjoy your trip and please feel free to comment with any of your own suggestions for visiting Santorini.