Welcome to Santorini - The Pearl of the Aegean
Even before you've ever visited Santorini, it's possible that it has already conquered a corner of your imagination. The island looks like a giant slab of layered cake resting in the middle of the indigo Aegean, with multicolored cliffs soaring over 300m from a sea-drowned caldera, sapphire waters of the Aegean Sea, and gleaming snow-drift of white Cycladic houses topped with half-spheres of the color of a stormy sky. The reflections on the buildings and the glow of the orange and red on the cliffs appear tinged with every color of an artist's pallet as the sun sets.
To me, if there is a place on earth that truly represents the Phoenix, it is certainly this. A place condemned by a catastrophic volcanic eruption eventually pulled itself together to create one of the world's most exquisite architectures utilizing the debris from the same eruption - local volcanic rocks and white paint derived from the volcanic ashes. This is true rebirth!
A Brief History of Santorini and its Cycladic Architecture
Santorini, or Thira as it is known among the Greeks, is a crescent-shaped volcanic island in the southern Aegean Sea some 200 km southeast of Greece's mainland with an area of approximately 73 sq. km and a population of 15,550 as per the census of 2011. It is the shattered remains of a large island on the Cyclades' southernmost tip, destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption around 3500 years ago that sunk the island's midriff, resulting in a giant saltwater lagoon known as the caldera (volcanic crater) surrounded by imposing multicolored cliffs as well as five other islands Therasia, Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni, Aspronisi, and Christiana, that form an archipelago on the western side of Santorini. According to legend, the once drowned island of Santorini was actually the lost city of Atlantis.
The romantic sunsets, spectacular views of the Aegean Sea, luxurious resorts, and the incomparable beauty of the unique Cycladic architecture of the villages positioned atop the caldera's brink that were sculpted by the climate, need, and time has made this ‘Pearl of the Aegean’ one of the world's most visited places. Today I’m going to take you along with me on a ride across the top 19 things to see and do on this beautiful island. Let the journey begin!
Top 19 Things to See and Do in Santorini
1. Get mesmerized by the Cycladic Architecture of Oia
Oia, pronounced Ia, is the most famous of Santorini's villages. It is well-known around the world for its peaceful lifestyle and spectacular sunsets, and it is without a doubt Santorini's most lovely and scenic village. It's a quaint village with tiny lanes lined with gorgeous cottages, blue-domed churches, and sun-drenched verandas.
The magical Cycladic houses we see today were created out of necessity rather than architectural inspiration. The fear of pirates during the Venetian and Turkish regimes gave rise to grouped settlements with connected roofs, allowing people to flee easily during an attack by finding a passage from one roof to another. They chose a whitewashed color scheme to reflect the scorching summer sun. And the volcanic eruptions and tremors forced the wise to reduce the height of all buildings and increase the usage of arches.
Oia's architecture shares many characteristics with the rest of the Cyclades - a compact mass created by the repeated but haphazard use of prisms, cylinders, arches, vaults, and domes, with small doors and windows akin to those found on a ship, all held together by a continuous layer of strong whitewashed plaster. Another interesting element of Oia’s architecture is the abundant presence of hand-shaped doorknobs. These mainly descend from the Greek revival era and are prized as antiques today.
2. Enjoy the sunset from the Oia Castle Ruins
Santorini, known for having the 'Best Sunset in the World,' is one of those places where you must watch the sun go down. And the best place to witness a magical sunset at Santorini is from the Oia castle ruins. From here, the sunsets appear breathtaking because of the spectacular caldera view, where the cliffs plunge sharply into the sea. It is here that God opted to exhaust his palette by employing a different hue every minute, creating a sorcerous effect when reflected off the Cycladic houses' whitewashed walls. As the sun sets over the horizon, the audience applauds, adding to the ambiance that I believe can be found nowhere else on the earth.
Even after the sunset, the village of Oia is no less beautiful. The street lights, set against a painted dusky sky and seeming as pearls in an ocean of color, create a romantic atmosphere that can only be felt, not articulated!
3. Visit the Ammoudi Bay below the village of Oia
Ammoudi is a small picturesque port in the caldera at the foot of the hamlet of Oia with a clear blue-green sea and a very small beach. Several good seafood taverns can be found in Ammoudi. Ammoudi Bay attracts many travelers for a fresh breakfast or a hearty lunch due to its gorgeous setting with the imposing red-colored volcanic cliffs shading the sea. It is accessible from Oia by car through the old pumice stone roads, by foot via the 214 broad steps, and by donkey taxis.
4. Enjoy the Seafood at the Ammoudi Harbor
With its great location adjacent to the sea, seafood is a must-try when visiting Santorini. Dining at one of the pubs on Ammoudi's bay, directly next to the sea, provides a quiet and tranquil experience that cannot be found further up on the island.
5. Visit the cosmopolitan capital town of Fira
Fira is the capital and most prominent village on Santorini. It's on the western side of the island, 10 km from Athinios, the island's principal port. Fira has a permanent population of 1,600 people. It is positioned on the edge of a stunning cliff at a height of 260 meters, with a spectacular panoramic view of the buried volcano. The city center streets are overloaded with tourists throughout the summer and high season and are lined with a variety of stores, jewelry shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs, and nightclubs. The town boasts a great number of hotels, and from a high vantage point, one can see that the majority of them feature swimming pools and verandas with spectacular views for their guests.
6. Take a Donkey Taxi from Athinios Port to Fira
If you have arrived at Santorini’s main port Athinios by the sea from Athens, donkey taxis and cable cars are two means to reach the town of Fira located on top of the caldera. Riding the donkey taxis through this long stairway is a tourist attraction and it represents a very profitable business for the local population.
7. Visit the picturesque village of Firostefani
Firostefani is a small town to the north of Fira, with a lot in common with its larger neighbor. Without a doubt, the views from this section of Santorini are breathtaking, providing a unique viewpoint of the caldera of Santorini. The amazing scenery of Fira itself, as well as the stunning sunset in the evening, are both worth seeing.
8. Take a lazy stroll through the serene village of Imerovigli
Imerovigli is a lovely village in the northwestern part of Santorini, about 2 km from Fira. It's a continuation of Fira and one of the island's most magnificent balconies. Imerovigli gets its name from the Greek word ‘Vigla’, which means viewpoint. The village's location affords a clear view of the caldera, which allowed locals to notice pirate ships arriving in the past. Imerovigli is now one of the most well-known traditional towns.
9. Hike from Oia to Fira via Imerovigli and Firostefani
Hiking from Oia to Fira is a great way to see the island and the caldera from a different perspective. The two cities are connected by a 9 km well-defined trail that runs along the caldera's edge, passing via Imerovigli and Firostefani. Even though the weather can get extremely hot on sunny days, this well-marked trek isn't particularly demanding. Though Fira is around a two-hour trek from Oia on this trail, you should allow for some extra time because you will most likely stop a few times along the trip to take pictures and enjoy the scenery. If you have less time at your disposal, instead of starting from Oia, could also take a taxi/bus until Imerovigli and then trek from Imerovigli to Fira via Firostefani.
You could also do the trek the other way around - start from Fira in the evening and hike up to Oia by sunset. However, the way from Fira to Oia is more difficult than the way from Oia to Fira, since it is sloping upwards. So please factor that into your planning. However, both ways, the views are absolutely stunning.
10. Visit the Churches in Oia, Imerovigli, Firostefani, and Fira
Religion is the virtue that brought people together throughout times of frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which became more common during the Catholic era. So the unique domed churches of Santorini were born, which, despite beginning with a cubist architectural style, gradually began to show Renaissance influence through enormous proportions, cruciform layouts, and intricate murals. The domes are typically ridged rather than smooth and are white as seen in most churches in the villages of Imerovigli, Firostefani, and Fira, or blue, as seen in the churches of Oia. Also, every church in Santorini appears to be mandated to have a bell tower that is different in shape and form from the others.
11. Take the stairs down to the Sea
Santorini's entire isle is teeming with roaming cobblestone walkways and alleyways organized in concentric layers and connected by winding staircases that appear to start at the top and end up plunging into the Aegean.
12. Relax at the Black Beaches of Kamari, Perissa, and Perivolos
The idyllic beaches of Kamari, Perissa, and Perivolos are located on Santorini's southern edge. The beaches are known for their crystal clear turquoise waters, volcanic black sand, and serene ambiance. Numerous taverns, pubs, and restaurants line the beachfront, selling fresh fish and regional specialties.
13. Marvel at the Limestone Rock Formations of the Vlychada Beach
Vlychada Beach is probably the best beach in Santorini, located in the southern part of the island. A serene mood is created by the stunning limestone rock formations, volcanic dark grey sand mixed with pebbles, and a quiet atmosphere.
14. Hike to the Red Beach
The Red Beach is a small beach surrounded by volcanic red rock cliffs. To reach the Red Beach you can take a bus or taxi from Fira or drive and park near the beach before walking down a rocky trail. The beach is also reachable by boat from the ports of Akrotiri, Kamari, and Perissa. During the summer, the little beach might get crowded, so go there early to grab a good place with beautiful views of the red rocks against the blue water. It's also worth noting that the beach is prone to landslides, and when we were there, the beach was closed to the public owing to the same reason.
15. Spend a night in a traditional Cave House
Traditional low-lying pumice dwellings, which are shaped like caves and lime-washed with volcanic ash, are highly prized for the heat insulation offered by the pumice, which keeps the interiors cool during the summer and warm during the winter.
16. Book a Windmill Villa
The Windmill Villas, which are mills transformed into hotels positioned at the top of the rock-cut cliffs with arguably the most comprehensive 360-degree view of the entire island, are one of the most remarkable pieces of architecture in Santorini. Each villa has a private pool, jacuzzi, terrace, flower garden, and private parking, among other lavish features.
17. Stay at a Boutique Hotel
Santorini is famed for its stunning luxury boutique hotels perched above multicolored volcanic cliffs with panoramic views of the magical caldera and romantic sunsets. Santorini is one of the few places in the world where spending money on a luxurious hotel is truly a good investment. In contrast to other vacation spots, where visitors spend the majority of their time exploring, here in Santorini, with its breathtaking views, it is customary for visitors to spend the entire day submerged in their private open-air pools, jaw dropped, staring into the caldera.
18. Go Shopping
Finally, when at Santorini, do not forget to shop for some local handicrafts as souvenirs.
19. Other Things to Do in Santorini
If you have time after doing everything listed above, I recommend paying a visit to the archaeological site of Akrotiri and Ancient Thira.
Akrotiri - Following the 1646 BC volcanic explosion that created the caldera, the ancient Minoan settlement of Akrotiri was buried beneath lava near the contemporary village of Akrotiri, 12 km southwest of Fira. It is frequently compared to Pompeii because of its excellent preservation. The site has ruins of multi-level structures, ceramics, and drainage systems, demonstrating that Santorini was an affluent and flourishing island prior to the eruption, surviving mostly on shipping and trading.
Ancient Thira - At ancient Thira, on Santorini's southeast shore, you can see the remnants of Hellenistic temples and the foundations of Roman and early-Byzantine buildings. Thira was founded in the ninth century BC. Religious sites, a theater, a military training facility, and historic administrative buildings can all be found among the remains. The site's findings are also on show at Fira's archaeology museum.
So that brings us to the end of our journey across the top 19 things to see and do in Santorini. Please let us know in the comments below if you enjoyed reading this article. And until we meet next time, I wish you merry traveling and happy shooting!