Santorini - Greece's Most Spectacular Island

Village of Oia on the Greek island of Santorini

Linda Garrison

Santorini is the Greek island everyone wants to visit. It's certainly unlike anything you'll see elsewhere in the world--the ancient volcanic caldera is breathtaking, as are the towering cliffs topped with sparkling white buildings. It's a special place where visitors can shop, explore, or just stare out over the caldera from a cliffside cafe. And, the sunsets are amazing.

Santorini is the southernmost island in the Cyclades group. It's small with only about 10,000 residents. The most famous towns--Fira and Oia--sit on the top of the cliff overlooking the caldera. Other villages like Pyrgos and Karterados are in the interior while others like Perissa and Kamari are on the flatter eastern shore of the island.

Thira is the original name of the island everyone calls Santorini, and many maps and guidebooks use both names. When the Dorians settled the island in the 8th century BC, they named it Thira. When the Venetians conquered Thira in the 13th century AD, they renamed it Santorini after St. Irene. Both names are still used, but I'll call it Santorini in this article since that's the more common name for tourists.

Cruise Ships and Santorini

Cruise ships of all sizes visit Santorini. Cruise lines recognize its well-deserved popularity, so many ships sailing the eastern Mediterranean include Santorini as a port of call. This popularity means translates into packed streets during the summer season. It's not unusual to see a half-dozen ships floating in the ancient caldera. They can't dock in the caldera, and it's too deep for them to anchor. The caldera has one docking buoy, which is usually reserved for either the largest ship, or the one that arrives first, or the one that is staying at the island the longest. So, one ship can tie up to the buoy while any others in the caldera float around and periodically use their engines to maintain their position. All of this movement doesn't affect cruise visitors since everyone has to use the local tenders to go ashore. However, the number of ships and other cruise ship passengers can certainly affect your time on the island of Santorini.

The caldera is a magical place to view the towns of Fira and Oia on the top of the cliff. Unfortunately, visitors arriving by cruise ship have only four ways to get from the water up to the top of the cliff (and back down) --

(1) Take an organized shore excursion tour from the ship so you can tender to the new port (also called Athinios), which is accessible to tour buses.

(2) Ride a donkey from Fira Skala (the old tender port) up a narrow winding trail to Fira. Cost is negotiable, but usually about the same as the funicular.

(3) Walk up the donkey trail, which means you have dodge the donkeys and the donkey poop.

(4) Ride the cable car from Fira Skala port up to Fira. (Cost 5 euros each way in 2015.)

Taking an organized tour is the easiest of these options since you won't have to stand in a line to ride the cable car or ride on a donkey. The queue for the cable car can sometimes be over an hour long, so be prepared to wait. I recommend those not taking a tour wait until at least mid-morning or later to go ashore since most people leave as soon as possible to maximize their time on Santorini.

To help mitigate the crowds, some cruise lines like Celestyal Cruises or Azamara Club Cruises arrive later and/or stay later to avoid the morning and afternoon rush hours. Some captains of smaller ships might swap two often busy ports (like Mykonos and Santorini) if they know it will lessen the crowds at both islands. Cruise ship crew know that their guests want to spend time on the island rather than in a queue.

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Cruise Passengers Get First Look at Cliffs of Thira

Cruise passengers gather on the decks as the ship enters the Santorini caldera
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

As a cruise ship approaches Santorini, most passengers gather on the outdoor decks to get their first glimpse of the island. The cliffs are massive and the colors are magical. It's difficult to imagine that the caldera your ship is entering was once the top of an ancient volcano. When this volcano exploded, scientists estimate it was the world's biggest eruption in recorded history.

This volcano was named Strongili, and the island was circular. This catastrophic eruption occurred about 1650 BC, causing the volcano to sink, leaving the massive caldera behind. Some scientists believe this explosion and the resulting tsunami destroyed the Minoan city of Akrotiri on Santorini and may have destroyed the Minoan civilization on other islands (like Crete) in the eastern Mediterranean.

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Cliff-top Villages on Santorini Look Like Snow from Afar

Fira and Oia both sit on the edge of the caldera on Santorini (Thira)
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

The towering cliffs are quite impressive, and many can't believe their eyes when they soon see the cliffs are topped with something white. It looks like snow, but it can't be snow, so what is it?

The white layer on the top of the cliff is composed of hundreds of houses, hotels, churches, retair shops, and other buildings. As the ship gets closer, the shapes are easier to see.

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Cruise Ships in the Santorini Caldera

Cruise ships in the Santorini caldera
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Even large cruise ships in the volcanic caldera of Santorini look small when compared to the towering cliffs.

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Port of Fira Skala at Funicular Station on Santorini

The port of Fira Skala at the cable car station for Fira on Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Cruise ship passengers who take organized tours take a tender to the new port at Athinios. Passengers who are going ashore on their own take a tender to the old port of Fira Skala. From there, they can walk, ride a donkey, or take the cable car to the town of Fira at the top of the cliff.

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Fira, the Capital City of Santorini

Fira, the capital of Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Fira is the island's largest town and its capital. On many Greek islands, the largest town on the island carries the same name as the island. According to a local tour guide, the town was originally called Thira town, but was changed to Fira during the Turkish occupation since most Turks had a problem pronouncing the "th" sound. Since the Turks occupied Greece for 400 years, the name Fira town stuck. Not sure if that's true, but it's an interesting story.

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Funicular on Santorini

Cable car to Fira from the Santorini caldera
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

This funicular or cable car is the most popular way to travel between Fira and the port town of Fira Skala. It cost 5 euros each way per person in 2015. The queue at the bottom and the top can get quite long, so be patient. The line does move, just slowly.

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Shopping in the Narrow Streets of Fira on the Greek Island of Santorini

Shopping in the town of Fira on Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

The streets of Fira are lined with shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars. Shopping is a very popular activity. It's easy to find "Gold" street, which has dozens of high-end jewelry shops.

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Gyros for Sale on Santorini

Cutting gyro meat in Fira on the island of Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Greeks claim to have invented the first fast food restaurants--take away gyro cafes. They are all over Greece, even in trendy Fira.

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Greek Church in the Town of Oia on Santorini

Typical Greek church in Oia on the island of Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

This white church in front of the brilliant blue sky is very typical of the street scenes on Santorini (and other Greek isles).

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Windmills at Oia on Santorini in the Greek Isles

Windmills at Oia on Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Mykonos is famous for its windmills, but many other Greek islands once harnessed the wind to grind grain. I've also seen old windmills on Ios and Patmos, and probably missed them on other locations in the windy Aegean.

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View of Santorini Caldera from the Santos Winery near Fira

View of Santorini caldera from the Santos Winery
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

The Santos Winery is a fun place for a wine tasting when you visit Santorini. The local wines are delightful, and the views are amazing. Some grape varieties love the volcanic soil of Santorini, and the vines grow on the ground rather than on trellises.

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Wine and Oia - A Nice Combination!

Wine and Oia on Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Although it's fun to visit the Santos Winery on Santorini, drinking a glass of wine at one of the many bars overlooking the caldera in Oia can be just as enjoyable.

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Volcanic Caldera of Santorini

View of the Santorini caldera from Oia
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Hotels are spread down the cliffside in Oia, with most providing memorable views.

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Sailboats in the Volcanic Caldera of Santorini

Santorini caldera and Oia
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

These sailboats look small, don't they? White buildings line much of the edge of the caldera on Santorini.

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Bougainvillea in Oia on the Greek Island of Santorini

Bougainvillea in the village of Oia on Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

This bougainvillea is among the lushest I've ever seen. Its location? The public bathrooms in Oia! Makes it easy to give directions, doesn't it?

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Oia Views on Santorini

View of the Santorini caldera from Oia
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

It's easy to take nice pictures when you are on the Greek island of Santorini.

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Central Square and Public Buses in Oia on Santorini

Central Square in the village of Oia on Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

The Central Square in Oia is a good meeting point for groups. Travelers who go down the narrow street seen on the right side of the square will arrive at the public bus stop for Oia. Just follow the crowds or ask someone.

Riding the public bus is the best way to travel around Santorini for cruise travelers. The buses are cheap (only 1.60 euros each way from Fira to Oia in 2015), air-conditioned (kind-of), and you don't have to have correct change, athough you do need euros. You don't pay when you board the bus; someone goes down the aisle while the bus is running to collect the fares.

Since Fira and Oia are mostly pedestrian, the public buses all stop at a centralized location. As noted above, the public bus drop off point in Oia is down the hill from the Central Square. In Fira, the public bus station is near the Cathedral, Post Office, and Hospital, not far from the main square. Those riding the cable car/funicular from their cruise ship need to walk to the other side of Fira to find the buses. The bus "station" is really an open lot, with a small depot building in Fira where you can ask questions. The taxis congregate at the same location, but be sure to negotiate a price before getting inside.

Travelers can also find a bus to one of the many Santorini beaches or to the archaeological site at Akrotiri at the bus top in Fira.

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Blue-Domed Church in Oia on the Greek Island of Santorini

Famous blue-domed church in Oia
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

If you've ever looked at a Greek travel brochure, there's an excellent chance that a photo of this blue-domed church in Oia will be inside. People line up to have their photo made

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Oia Town and Windmills on Santorini

Oia windmills and town
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Visitors to Oia who follow the walk along the caldera towards the very tip of the island will be rewarded with views of Oia and its windmills. The best sunset views are from the same place.

Many travelers also want to visit Amoudi Beach, which is accessed from a trail near the far western end of Oia. I haven't walked down to the beach, but I've heard it is lovely. I've also heard it is more than 200 steps down and the same number back up! Even if you don't care about beaches, the ferry to Thirasia, the other inhabited island in the Santorini group, leaves from the Amoudi port.

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Oia Old Harbor on Santorini

Oia harbor on Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

At the foot of Oia on the coastline is Amoudi port and Amoudi Bay. It's over 200 steps down (and back up), but the swimming is good, and the beach is quieter than bustling Oia.

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Village of Pyrgos on Santorini

Village of Pyrgos on Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Pyrgos is a small inland town on the island of Santorini. It's a nice place to escape the crowds along the edge of the caldera. While sailing on the Azamara Club Cruises' Azamara Journey, we enjoyed a dinner ashore at the Kallistia Taverna on one of the cruise line's "Cruise Global, Eat Local" programs. Since Azamara often stays late at its ports of call, guests can choose to dine ashore for dinner if they choose.

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Santorini Sunset from the Village of Pyrgos

View of the Santorini sunset from Pyrgos
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

The Oia sunsets on Santorini are famous, but we thought they were good from Pyrogos, too.

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Bougainvillea on a Building in Pyrgos on the Island of Santorini

Pyrgos bougainvillea on Santorini
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

I love the bougainvillea that is seen all over the Mediterranean area. This building in Pyrgos on the Greek island of Santorini is covered with it.

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Tiny Door on Santorini

Linda Garrison in Pyrogos on the island of Santorini
Photo Courtesy of Claire Johnson Cline

I'm not really a giant; this storeroom door is just very tiny. I came across this interesting photo opportunity while exploring Pyrgos on the Greek island of Santorini.

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Akrotiri Archaeological Site on Santorini

Akrotiri archaeology site on Santorini (Thira)
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Akrotiri was an ancient Minoan town buried by ash in about 1650 BC by the world's largest volcanic eruption, which caused a huge tsunami that ended the Minoan civilization in the eastern Mediterranean. The Akrotiri site was discovered in the 1960's, and excavations since then have uncovered an advanced civilization, with two- and three-story buildings and many examples of artwork and remnants of a Minoan outpost. They haven't discovered any bones or bodies like at Pompeii, which has led experts to believe the city's residents were forewarned of the upcoming disaster and abandoned Akrotiri.

The Akrotiri site was closed to the public in 2005 after a tourist was killed in a freak accident when a portion of the roof caved in. The site was reopened in April 2012, over seven years later. The site is very interesting, especially the way the town is completely covered to protect it from the wind and sun. However, much of the ancient town is still unexcavated. In addition, many of the important artifacts found at Akrotiri are in storage buildings on Santorini and not being shown to the public since they are still being investigated. A lack of funds has significantly slowed all work at Akrotiri. Some of the major findings not in storage are on exhibit at the National Archaeological Musuem in Athens, the Archaeological Museum of Thira, or the Museum of Prehistoric Thira.

When you enter the building where the town is located, it's a lot to take in, so as you walk around, look for the small signs of civilization like the pottery seen in the next photo.

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Ancient Urn at Akritiri

Ancient city of Akrotiri on Santorini (Thira)
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

While exploring at Akrotiri, this urn made me ponder how old this town and civilization were.

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Santorini Sunset

Santorini sunset from Fira cable car
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

This sunset photo was taken from the cable car as we went back to our cruise ship after a day exploring Santorini.

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Sunset over Santorini

Santorini sunset
Santorini (c) Linda Garrison

Here's another Santorini sunset photo. The island and the sky and sea are beautiful.

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