Rising from an impossibly blue Aegean sea, the ancient island of Santorini is the ultimate Greek island dreamscape. Under the haunting gaze of a simmering volcano, sugar-cube houses and blue-domed churches stud variegated cliffs that overlook a submerged caldera, the result of one of the most cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in history. Santorini feels like no other place on earth. There are breathtaking panoramas, an elemental landscape bathed in a brilliant white light, technicolor sunsets, exquisite wines, and a white-on-blue design ethos that has inspired interior designers the world over. It’s easy to see why Santorini is often evoked as the lost city of Atlantis, a mythical paradise obliterated by the wrath of the gods some 3,500 years ago.
Santorini’s epic past and cosmopolitan present seamlessly intertwine. The island’s mysteries delve deeply into the past with the fascinating Minoan site of Akrotiri and the ravishing hilltop village of Oia, while, at the same time, Santorini thoroughly embraces the moment with dozens of gourmet restaurants, hip nightclubs, fashion-forward boutiques, exclusive villas and hotels, and infinite infinity pools. For resolute box tickers, Santorini has plenty of world-class attractions to fill countless days, but, perhaps, this Cycladic island’s greatest pleasures resides in reveling in the views from a private terrace, buying yoghurt and honey at the local supermarket, eating mezzo with the locals at a gritty taverna, or walking solo along precipitous pathways that embrace the lapis lazuli caldera below. With iconic status inevitably comes tourist tack and simulacra, but, despite the mid-summer tourist onslaught, Santorini remains true to the essence of itself and, if you know where to go, you can certainly bask in your own Greek island fantasia.
The Lay of the Land
Located 120 miles from mainland Greece, crescent-shaped Santorini has an area of just 28 square miles. Traveling from one town or beach to the next is relatively easy: it’s less than 30 minutes from the lively capital of Fira (and main port) to the beach by car; around 50 minutes from Oia (a town that fulfills most traveler’s Greece island fantasy) to the beaches (see below). For those jaw dropping views that feature on bucket lists the world over, choose a villa on the caldera side of the island.
Draped across the kaleidoscopic cliffs of Santorini’s north coast, the whitewashed village of Oia is simply ravishing. Santorni’s poster child, luxurious white-on-white villas stack up against caves and peasant homes that have been artfully converted into elegant hotels boasting infinity pools that seem to plunge into the abyss of the island’s showpiece caldera. During the peak summer season, Oia is overrun with cruise ship day trippers, however late afternoon Oia comes into its own and perusing the myriad boutiques and galleries or enjoying a front and center view of the caldera, cocktail in hand, becomes less of a rugby scrum. For many travelers, Oia is the best place to witness Santorini’s evening show of light when the town’s whitewashed buildings are suffused with a pink-gold hue and the cliffs burn with every conceivable, and inconceivable, shade of orange, brown, gold, and red. If you need to escape the daytime bedlam, it’s worth tackling the steep descent down to Oia’s Lilliputian coves for a dip in the hallucinogenic blue water.
Santorni’s capital, Fira, forms the commercial and cultural center of the Cyclades islands. Standing 600 steep stone steps above the old port, directly in the firing line of cruise ship break out, Fira is also tourist ground zero. Along labyrinthine streets barely wide enough for the passing of a fat goat, lively (or tacky depending on your perspective) restaurants, bars, and designer clothing outlets sit cheek by jowl with chintzy souvenir shops. While it may lack the charm of other towns on the island, Fira is well connected for the island’s archeological sights and beaches. And, should a soporific state of being overwhelm you, Fira delivers a serious adrenaline rush in the form of a cable-car ride that jettisons passengers down to the old port, passing surreal solidified lava flows and rock formations en route. It’s worth noting that Fira’s sunset views are partially obstructed by the island of Thirassia.
Firostefani and Imerovigli
If seclusion and tranquility are your priority, Firostefani or Imerovigli make for a good base. Only a 10-minute uphill climb from Fira, both towns are within orbit of the buzz and amenities of the capital. Equidistant from Fira and Oia, Imerovigli goes by the apropos moniker of ‘the balcony of the Aegean.’ At nighttime, under a brilliant moonlight, the town casts its spell as white Cycladic houses resemble a snow drift across the terraced rocks of the cliff face. Less crowded than Oia and with caldera views unobstructed from pretty much every angle, Imerovigli is also deemed by locals as the primo spot for sunset views. Firostefani, the ‘Crown of Fira,’ merges imperceptibly with Fira, yet has a pleasingly authentic ambience and a fine selection of intimate restaurants and tavernas which score for location—the town’s volcano views are suburb—and gastronomic inventiveness. The Agios Nikolas Monastery lies between Firostefani and Imerovigli.
Plucked straight from a child’s imagination, the Black, White, and Red beaches of Santorini defy all picture postcard clichés but they are nothing short of breathtaking in their own surreal way. Located on southwest of the island, the hot, black sands of Perissa and Kamari beach are popular with European sun worshippers and are within easy reach of hotels, restaurants, nightlife, dive centers, and water sports outfitters that offer windsurfing and waterskiing. Small and pebbly, Red Beach is backed by striking red cliffs and, due to its proximity to the ancient site of Akrotiri, it’s always crowded. Just south of Red Beach, White Beach takes it name from the sheer white cliffs that surround it rather than the volcanic black pebbles that dimple the shore. White Beach is much quieter than Santorni’s other fabled beaches but offers few facilities beyond a handful of umbrellas and sun loungers. For a more relaxing beach experience, the archipelago islands of Thirassia, Palea, and Nea can be reached by ferry from Fira. And, on Santorini, it’s easier than you might think to play Robinson Crusoe. A short walk and a wade from Amoudi Bay, there are several coves where you can swim in crystal clear waters.
Hike from Fira to Oia
For sublime views of Oia, without the photobombing tourists, hike the vertiginous, pedestrian path that connects Fira to Oia. The six-mile, narrow pathway skirts the caldera rim and passes through the lovely villages of Firostephani and Imerovigli. The scenic path, punctuated with churches, earthy tavernas, and art galleries etched into the cliff face, reaches a dramatic climax with a marble walkway that weaves through Oia’s cliff top tapestry of white houses and blue domes. The hike takes around two hours (without a stop). Another trail leads from Kamari to the site of ancient Thira (or Thera) which is shorter but more challenging due to the steep terrain and multiple switchbacks. Along the path, you’ll encounter Santorini’s only freshwater spring, a small chapel, fields carpeted with olive trees, and an eerie cave. The full ascent from Kamari takes at least an hour.
Sure enough, Santorini’s volcanic terroir is hardly a hot bed of fertility but the island’s mineral rich soils have nourished grapes here for thousands of years; Bronze Age wine presses were recently discovered at Akrotiri. During the Middle Ages, under the influence of the Republic of Venice, Santorini’s wines became famous worldwide; Greek wine was particularly prized for its ability to withstand epic sea voyages due, in part, to its sweetness and high alcohol levels. For locals and tourists alike, wine tasting has become something of an art form. The island produces some of the finest Greek wines on the market, ranging from the feisty, dry Nichteri to oaky Kalliste, and sweet as nectar Vin Santo. While firmly on the tourist trail, the Boutari and Sigalas wineries offer half-day private wine and food tours with the opportunity to taste the wine varietals that the ancient Therans would have savored. Perhaps the best option for families, the Koutsoynopoulos vineyard adds a few more bells and whistles to its tour; an underground cave is the setting for a museum which features educational displays that outline the various stages of the winemaking process.
Sail the Caldera
Santorini is best viewed from the water and there are numerous companies that offer boat trips that range from the perfunctory to the ultra luxurious. Blue Lagoon Cruises offer a five-hour ‘VIP’ sailing tour on a 41-foot catamaran which takes in the ancient city of Akrotiri, the Red and White Beaches, Indian Head Mountain, and the Venetian Lighthouse. Despite the menacing jets of steam and sulfurous belches that seep from the earth’s crust, tourists can alight at the still active Nea Kameni volcano to experience the lunar landscape and to partake of the alleged healing properties of the sulphur rich yellow waters that lap the small cove of Agios Nikolaos.
In the southwest of the island, the ancient ruins of Akrotiri—Santorini’s Pompeii—are an archeological marvel and one of the most important archaeological sites in the Cyclades. One of the Aegean Sea’s most significant Minoan (high Bronze Age) settlements, Akrotiri was unearthed in 1967 after being shrouded in pumice and ash for some 3,000-plus years. The ancient town’s paved streets lined with homes and storehouse some three stories high (making it the only prehistoric site in Europe with buildings preserved to second-and third-story height), have been remarkably preserved. Excavation work continues but the site but is now open to the public. Many of the treasures, including intricate frescoes that once adorned a wealthy landowner’s home, are now on display in the National Archeological Museum in Athens. A handful of artifacts, including frescoes and pottery, feature in the permanent exhibits at the Museum of Pre-Historic Thira in Fira.
Ancient Thira (Thera)
Dating to the 9th century BC, the evocative ruins of Ancient Thira are awe inspiring and confounding in equal measure. Comprised of different periods spanning centuries—Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine— the site can be frustrating to decipher. The extensive ruins (allow at least half a day) are grouped along a main street that cuts through two markets (agoras) and are comprised of crumbling walls, temples, stores, houses encrusted with mosaic fragments, a theatre, and a gymnasium. Although the Dorians first occupied the site in the 9th century, most buildings date from the Hellenistic era (around 400 B.C.). Overlooking Kamari and Fira, and with multicolored cliffs plummeting down to the cobalt blue Aegean sea on all sides, the views, especially from the Terrace of the Festivals, are spectacular.
Where to Eat
As you might expect, there’s a direct correlation between the view and the price tag when it comes to fine dining on Santorini. For those restaurants where world-class gastronomy and superb views coalesce (the establishments listed below hit that allusive sweet spot) you’ll need to make a reservation weeks (even months during summer) in advance. Travelers seeking a more rustic, authentic experience should go the taverna route; Nikolas Taverna in Fira is one of the best. For ambience and fine food without the dollar denominated polish, head to the tiny fishing harbor of Amoudi, some 200 steps below Oia, where fishing boats supply seafood institutions such as Dmitri’s, Sunset Taverna, and Katina’s with über fresh catch of the day (the lobster spaghetti at Katina’s is out of this world) which is then graciously served on glittering terraces by the sea. To ensure you’re dining with locals rather than tourists, aim to have a light late breakfast around 10:30am, a casual lunch (followed by a snooze) between 2:30 and 4:00pm, and dinner any time after 10:00pm.
Top Picks for Fine Dining
Renowned local chef Nikolas Poulisi is something of a culinary wizard famed throughout the Cyclades for his innovative French-inspired dishes that incorporate traditional Greek ingredients. The conservative, antique-filled dining room with salmon-pink plaster walls and gilded candelabras provides an interesting contrast to the modern fusion cuisine that on any given night might include seafood carpaccio or a juicy pork filet studded with mushrooms and smothered with fig sauce, but it’s the outdoor terrace with show-stealing views of the caldera that is more fitting for the sensual odyssey.
T: + 30 22860 22249
Located in Pyrgos village, a ten-minute drive from Fire, Selene is a homage to traditional Greek dishes. The sea urchin and artichoke salad and fava bean balls are menu standouts while wild local capers tend to find their way into many of the hearty, meat-centric Greek staples; rabbit, quail, and lamb. Owner George Haziyannakis subscribes to a creative farm-to-table ethos that is pretty much the norm in these parts, playfully incorporating unusual local produce to bring out a more nuanced side to Greek cooking.
T: + 30 22860 71485
Housed in a restored 19th-century mansion, the sophisticated and intimate 1800 restaurant is wildly considered one of Santorini’s finest restaurants. Crisp white table clothes, crystal chandeliers, and stately wooden furnishings provide the perfect backdrop for delectable Mediterranean cuisine that feature the freshest local ingredients, imbued with a slow food ethos, served with artistic verve. There are terrific views from the rooftop garden but dining inside what was once an old captain’s house makes for a gratifying step back in time and the superlative service, candlelit ambience, and attention to detail makes for truly memorable, romantic dining.
T: + 30 22860 71504
For an intimate dinner with a caldera view, meticulously executed Mediterranean cuisine, and gracious service, Ambrosia is hard to top. The broad menu features salmon tartare, duck with a fig and port wine sauce, shrimp doused with mango puree, and a berry soup with ice cream for dessert. For the most coveted candlelit tables, on one of two small terraces, book well in advance.
How to Go
Olympic Air (code share: Aegean Airlines) offers a 50-minute frog hopper (every two hours, approximately, during peak season) from Athens to Santorini. There are direct flights to Santorini from many European cities including London, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Frankfurt, and Rome. From the US, there are direct flights to Athens with Delta, United, and US Airways. Numerous ferry companies operate services from Athens to Santorini. High speed ferry services take between four and five hours. The Blue Star ferry takes between seven and eight hours and departs Athens every day, at 7:25am with stops in Paros, Naxos, and Ios.
When to Go
The beach towns are crammed from late May to mid September when temperatures range from the late 70s to the mid 90s. During the European school holidays (July and August), tourists converge on the whole island and prices rise along with mercury. The ocean warms through the summer season making September and October the optimal time for swimming. October and early May are a great time to visit, the weather is warm, you can enjoy caldera views all to yourself, and primo restaurant reservations are easier to come by. From November to April, the weather becomes unpredictable, often rainy and cool, towns become eerily quiet, and a good number of stores, restaurants, and tavernas close up shop. If you do visit in the dead of winter, the capital Fira continues to flaunt its extravert side.
Where to Stay
For all the talk of Greece’s financial woes, Santorini retains the poise and sophistication that has lured discriminating travelers for decades. The island’s fabled towns and villages are awash with exquisite boutique hotels and vacation homes, painted in traditional whites, blues, and ochres, that have been converted from ancient cave houses and neoclassical mansions. For an experience truly befitting of a Greek island fantasia, many of Santorini’s luxurious private villas marry glorious isolation with traditional architecture, fine taste, and state-of-the-art amenities. Far from the maddening crowds, you can revel in serene caldera views from a sun-drenched terrace, take a dip in your own private infinity pool, or indulge in the sybaritic pleasures of your master suite. During the peak summer months, the most coveted hotels and villas are booked up months in advance, so planning ahead it essential. Book a luxury villa in Santorini now!