Santorini for first-timers
Santorini is the supermodel of the Greek islands, a head-turner whose face is instantly recognisable around the world: multicoloured cliffs soar out of a sea-drowned caldera, topped by drifts of whitewashed buildings. With its reputation for dazzling panoramas, romantic sunsets and volcanic-sand beaches, it’s hardly surprising the island features on so many travellers’ bucket lists.
There’s no denying the uniqueness of this destination or its huge allure – Santorini hosts 1.5 million tourists annually. Here’s all you need to know if you’re planning to join that crowd.
Part of the Cyclades island group, Santorini (officially known as Thira, a name that encompasses the volcanic islets within Santorini’s orbit) sits in the Aegean Sea, roughly halfway between Athens and Crete.
The island is shaped like a wonky croissant, and the neighbouring islets hint at the fact that Santorini was once circular; it was known as Strongili (the Round One). Thousands of years ago a colossal volcanic eruption caused the centre of Strongili to sink, leaving a caldera (or crater) with towering cliffs along the east side – now Santorini’s trademark landscape.
Santorini’s commercial development is focused on the caldera-edge clifftops in the island’s west, with large clusters of whitewashed buildings nesting at dizzying heights, spilling down cliffsides and offering gasp-inducing views from land or sea.
Fira, the island’s busy capital, sprawls north into villages called Firostefani (about a 15-minute walk from Fira) and Imerovigli (the highest point of the caldera edge, about a half-hour walk from Fira). A path running through these villages is lined with upmarket hotels, restaurant terraces and endless photo opportunities.
These three conjoined settlements draw most visitors, together with the stunning and quite exclusive village of Oia in Santorini’s north. There’s a growing number of hotels in the island’s south, offering caldera views to the north and northeast. Akrotiri’s views come cheaper than Oia’s, but it’s a fair way from the action of Fira.
Away from the caldera edge
Santorini’s east coast is lesser known than the celebrated, elevated west coast. Here, the caldera-edge heights have sloped down to sea level, and volcanic-sand beaches and resorts offer a very different drawcard. East-coast resorts such as Kamari and Perissa have a more traditional (and more affordable) island-holiday appeal: sunlounger-filled beaches, water sports, bars and taverna-lined promenades.
The east coast’s beaches are lined with black sand; on the south coast, there’s a string of beaches famed for their multicoloured sand – dramatic Red Beach is a traveller favourite.
The island’s interior is dotted with vineyards and traditional villages that let you see beyond the tourist hustle. Make a stop in Pyrgos for great eats and a wander through charming backstreets.
What to do
Walks The obvious activity is to walk the caldera edge and admire the views. Walks in and around Fira are spectacular, particularly heading north to Firostefani and Imerovigli along the caldera-edge pathway. Keep walking and you’ll eventually reach Oia, but be aware that this is no small undertaking and the trail beyond Imerovigli can be rough. It’s about 9km in all, and a good three- to four-hours’ walk in one direction.
Wine-tasting Santorini’s lauded wines are its crisp dry whites and the amber-coloured, unfortified dessert wine known as Vinsanto. Both are made from the indigenous grape variety, assyrtiko. About a dozen local vineyards host tastings (usually with a small charge) and some offer food, with scenery and local produce combining to great effect. Start your investigations at the large, slick SantoWines.
History Santorini’s intrigue reaches deep into the past, with the fascinating site of Akrotiri displaying a Minoan city destroyed by the volcanic eruption of 1613 BC. In Fira, the impressive Museum of Prehistoric Thera helps piece together the story of ancient Akrotiri.
Sunsets Nature’s handiwork is on display from any waterfront seat come sundown, but prime sunset-viewing is in Oia, where thousands of tourists flock to admire (and applaud) nightfall.
Swimming Take the plunge: at your hotel’s infinity pool or your suite’s private plunge pool, from the edge of a boat on a caldera cruise or on a black-sand beach on the east coast.
Tours Any tour your heart desires can be organised – there are dozens of agencies ready to help with winery visits, archaeology tours, sunset-watching and more. The most popular option is a cruise, and the classic itinerary takes in the caldera’s volcanic islands of Nea Kameni and Palia Kameni, including a stop at the former’s crater and the latter’s hot springs.
Surprises Sure, there are views that stop you in your tracks and great glimpses into how A-listers travel. But away from Santorini travel headlines there’s plenty to explore, from a gorgeous open-air cinema to a cool microbrewery, wine caverns adorned with artworks, and cooking demonstrations and classes which celebrate Santorini’s growing foodie culture.