If you've ever dreamed of the perfect Greek Island vacation and poured over websites and brochures to plan it, you've probably already lost your heart to Santorini. Its gleaming white Cycladic houses frost the tops of nearly 1,000-foot, multi-colored cliffs like icing on a wedding cake. Both rugged and romantic, it's a fount of legends and a ravishingly beautiful destination.
But after you've admired its pretty face, what else is there to do there? Plenty actually. Check out these favorites.
Cruise the Caldera
The island of Santorini stretches out like arms, its cliffs wrapped around a giant, nearly circular bay. This is the caldera — the legacy of the collapse of the historic volcano that tore away a huge chunk of the island in about 1600 BC, 3600 years ago. They call it the Minoan eruption because the impact of it probably wiped out the Minoan civilization on Crete. And scientists think it was the largest volcanic eruption of its type for the last 10,000 years.
The best way to see the cliffs — which are strikingly gorgeous — is from within this caldera, which has been flooded for thousands of years. Nothing beats arriving by ferry to the ports, backed by the towering natural walls of stone.
But don't worry if you haven't the time for a seven to 12 hour ferry trip from Piraeus and have to fly from Athens to Thira (the official Greek name for Santorini) instead. There are dozens of day and evening cruises in the caldera that you can book from local travel companies on the island or — better yet — book and pay for before you even arrive.
They range from short sightseeing cruises and trips to islands in the caldera to day cruises with buffet lunches and romantic sunset dinner cruises. The price will depend on whether you choose a motor launch, a sailboat, a catamaran or a kayak cruise but in 2017, a wide range are available between $50 and $200. Check the tour company Viator to book and pay for your cruise before you arrive. Santorini Cruises have daily sunset cruises on their exact replica of a 19th century Brigantine. And Sunset Oia offer day and sunset catamaran cruises.
Your hotel will probably be able to recommend cruise companies and local captains as well. But if you are planning to visit during the busy summer and early autumn months, when Santorini is packed with visitors, it's better to book your cruise before you arrive.
Search for the Lost City of Atlantis in Akrotiri
Nobody can really prove that the civilization that existed on Thira (ancient Santorini), contemporary with the Minoans on Crete, was the lost city of Atlantis. For one thing, none of the Greek writers ever wrote about Atlantis except Plato, and his writings suggest a date for its destruction of 9,000 years ago — about 6,000 years before the giant eruption that wiped away half the island.
And even if archaeologists wanted to search the waters around Santorini for evidence, the deposits of thousands of years of lava and ash that cover the ocean floor are too thick for investigation.
But why should reality spoil such a good story?
In 1967, archeologists began excavating a site on the southwestern tip of the island. Now considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the Aegean, the 50-acre site has evidence of occupation by a sophisticated civilization between 4,000 BC (Late Neolithic) and 3,000 BC (Early Bronze Age). The town had large multi-story houses; paved streets, water supplies and sewage systems, and, within the houses, evidence of trade with Minoan Crete, mainland Greece, Syria and Egypt.
Then, in about 1700 BC, around the time of the historic eruption, it all came to an end.
Now, you can visit the site and imagine what life must have been like before earthquakes caused the people of Akrotiri to flee and a volcanic explosion buried their city. It's under cover and open to the public between 8am and 8pm daily during the summer and 8am to 3pm Tuesday to Sunday during the winter. Standard admission is 12€. Open days and the dates of the summer and winter seasons vary from year to year, so check their website.
Swim at a Rainbow of Beaches
Santorini's beaches line up along its east and south coasts. Most have dramatic, black volcanic sand but a few, like Kokkini Ammos Cove, near the excavations at Akrotiri, have brilliant scarlet and black sands. Kokkini Ammos, usually called Red Beach, for obvious reasons, is narrow and very crowded but get into the water, off the beach and there are pockets of hot springs.
Perivolos, a long, wide black sand beach has bars, music and a young crowd, while Perissa and Exo Gialos, similar black sand beaches, are much quieter. You might want to wear bathing shoes at Perissa — it has a slippery reef to cross before you reach good swimming waters.
Visitors who like nicely swept, well-kept beaches with umbrellas, chaises longues, bars, changing facilities and restrooms should head for Kamari. And for sheer strangeness, the wind-shaped, volcanic tufa formations at Vlychada beach are a must visit sight.
Fancy the idea of swimming in volcanic waters? Take a boat excursion from Oia or Fira to one of the two volcanic islands to sample very hot springs. Agios Nikolaos, an inlet on Nea Kameni (Greek for new hot island) has hot, yellow, sulphurous waters that are supposed to be good for your health. Palea Kameni — or old hot island — has a hot spring that turns the water from turquoise blue to deep red.
Visit the Crater of an Active Volcano
The volcanic activity on and around Santorini is not something from the ancient past. The island is a dormant, but still active, volcano. Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni, the two islands in the Caldera, are actually lava flows from occasional eruptions. In the past 2,000 years it has erupted at least 9 times — three times in the 20th century alone. The last major eruption, on Nea Kameni, occurred in 1950.
Tour boats visit the uninhabited Nea Kameni from the old port of Fira regularly. Visitors on these day excursions hike inland and uphill for about 20 to 30 minutes, through a desolate landscape dotted with strange formations. The path to the top takes you all round the crater. It smokes and reeks of sulphur. And, in case you doubt that this is still an active landscape, most guides dig a shallow hole so you can feel the island's heat. Tours to the volcanic island take about two hours with prices starting at about 18€ in 2017.
Visit the World's Oldest Wineries
The Greeks brought wine to the rest of the Mediterranean, and it would be a strange Greek island that didn't have vineyards and produce wine of its own. In fact, Santorini can boast some of the oldest — if not the oldest — vineyards in the world. Archaeologists have found evidence of wine making going back at least 3700 years. After the massive volcanic eruption of 1613 BC, Phoenicians colonized the island and brought their own plants. Only the woody grape vines survived the barren soil and harsh conditions. Today, one of their vineyards, planted in 1200 BC, is still producing wine grapes, having been in continuous cultivation for 3,200 years. Most vineyards still prune their vines close to the ground, using an ancient method unique to the island. The vines are woven into baskets with the fruit protected from wind and sand within them.
- Art Space an art gallery and museum within the pumice caves of an old winery. The owner has created a small winery in one of the original, underground caves, where traditional dry white wines and vinsanto, the local sweet dessert wine are made.
- Boutari Winery near the traditional village of Megalochori. This was the first Santorini winery to open its doors to the public. Its west facing location means that you can enjoy a wine tasting while watching the famous Santorini sunset.
- Gaia Wines sits virtually on the beach between Kamari Beach and Monolithos, a family friendly beach.
Try a Taste of Santorini
Like most Greek islands, Santorini has several local specialities that are worth tasting when you visit.
Capers are gathered wild from the steep walls of the Caldera and the stone walls between vineyards. Before being pickled in brine — as most capers are — they are sundried to a pale blond color. These sundried and rehydrated capers, along with sundried tomatoes give the typical Greek salad a unique, Santorini spin. They also turn up in most island soups, stews and sauces.
Fava is another island speciality. The yellow dried peas, grown on the island are pureed so that they resemble smooth humus, then served as a dip with lemon juice, olive oil and chopped onions.
Tomatokeftedes, or ntomatokefthedes, as they are sometimes spelled, are the island's poor man's "meatballs". Thick-skinned, fleshy tomatoes are grated or finely chopped, mixed with herbs, spices and flour, rolled into small balls and deep fried.
Vinsanto is a very sweet dessert wine made from raisins dried on the vine.