When you think of a quintessential Greek island holiday you’ll probably conjure up dreamy images of Santorini. Without doubt, it’s one of the most romantic Greek Islands to visit. Find everything you need to plan your perfect trip in this travel guide to Santorini.
Oia in Santorini
This guest post comes from Marco Santos who writes the popular blog Travel-Boo. Read Marco’s Santorini travel guide packed with gorgeous photography, sightseeing tips and practical information on how to make the most of your visit.
Santorini, Greece – a guide for first-timers
Rooftop boat in Fira, Santorini
On our very first trip to Greece, we wanted to include Santorini in our travel plans but weren’t sure if it was worth visiting. This was largely due to many negative reviews we’d read about overcrowding on Santorini and the island’s reputation as being a tourist and cruise ship hotspot.
We decided that the only way to find out was to go check it out for ourselves, and we are so thrilled we did. Santorini is everything you’d expect from an idyllic Aegean Island getaway, and so much more. From the incredible architecture and views to the gorgeous sunsets and delicious food, this beautiful little island has so much going for it.
In my guide to Santorini, I’m going to outline all the essential travel info you need to help plan a perfect trip to Santorini and what to see and do once you get there.
Where is Santorini
Church overlooking Santorini caldera at Imerovigli
Santorini, or Thira to use its official name, is part of the Cyclades islands. It sits in the Aegean Sea almost halfway between Athens and Crete. Santorini suffered a huge volcanic explosion around 1500 BC. The eruption, probably the largest the Earth has seen in the last few thousand years, completely destroyed the centre of the island which sank into the Aegean.
The Santorini we know today is a crescent-shaped island with a huge crater (caldera) on its western side. The island of Thirassia is nearby to Oia and two smaller islands sit within the caldera makes for the most incredible sunset views from Santorini’s steep clifftops opposite.
How to get to Santorini
Santorini forms part of the Cyclades group of Islands and can be reached by either air travel or ferry.
Flights to Santorini
There are frequent flights from the UK to Santorini during the peak season May to October. Flights are much reduced from the UK out of season.
If you’re travelling from elsewhere in Europe then connecting directly from Athens and travelling by air on Aegean Airlines would likely be your quickest route. This is a pricier option than taking a ferry but will get you there more quickly. During the more popular summer months, the airline operates regular flights between the various islands and Athens.
Tip: Be sure to book your air ticket months in advance, these routes are very popular and to stand a chance of bagging a good fare, you’d definitely need to book ahead.
Take the ferry to Santorini
Considering a Greek island-hopping adventure? If you’re travelling from, say, Athens to Mykonos and then Mykonos to Santorini, you can do so quite easily by ferry. There are a number of different ferry operators that run these routes, connecting to islands near Santorini including Ios, Naxos and Paros and more.
Schedules are limited during the off-peak periods but during the summer months, these operators kick into high gear, offering regular and daily departures.
Tip: If you plan to travel by ferry, then compare websites such as AFerry, Ferryhopper or Letsferry. These are comparative websites that allow you to view all available fares and schedules on one site, as well as allowing you to book your tickets online too.
Blue domed church overlooking Santorini caldera
How to get from Santorini Airport to your hotel and back
We recommend pre-booking a private transfer to make your journey stress-free. There is no taxi rank at the airport and only 25 taxis serve the whole of the island so prices reflect this. Payment is usually in cash by euros. Check private transfer rates and availability which don’t cost that much more and are a pleasant, stress-free way to begin or end you trip.
If you’re flying out of Santorini make sure to get to the airport well ahead of time. To say Santorini airport is chaotic is somewhat of an understatement. We were honestly not sure that we were actually going to make our flight, and we got there more than an hour beforehand.
There are always long queues for check-in and space is at a premium. Once you’ve checked in there’s very little seating and you may find yourself queuing outside for long periods of time in hot sun to board your flight. (We did for 50-minutes).
How to get from the ferry terminal to Santorini airport
Santorini ferry terminal at Athinios is also known as the ‘new port’ or ‘Thira port’. It’s about 9km south of Fira. Don’t get this port confused with Skala (the old port) which is only used for cruise ships. Especially important to know if you’re departing Santorini by ferry for another island.
If you’ve been island hopping and have arrived at Sanortini port by ferry for your flight home read the following carefully. The ferry port is crammed with people and their luggage in high season. You have three transport options.
By bus. There is no direct bus to Santorini airport. You’ll need to take two buses, firstly to Fira and then change at the main bus depot for the airport bus. Tickets are cash only and cost €2.30 per person for the Fira bus which you’ll pay to the driver. The trip takes about 20 minutes. Bear in mind that there may not be room on the first, or even the second bus, as the port is extremely busy.
Once at Fira you’ll need to buy an additional ticket (€1.80 pp) for the airport bus which departs every hour or so and takes around 10-minutes. You might find the Santorini Bus Timetable useful.
By taxi. If you’re first off the ferry you may be lucky and find a cab outside the terminal where they occasionally wait. But this is unlikely. Bear in mind that there are only around 25 taxis that serve the whole of Santorini. Taxis in Greece can legally carry up to four passengers. If your party is more than four you’ll need to take two or more taxis. Cabs only accept cash in euros. If you want a taxi transfer we highly recommend you pre-book or you could…
Pre-book a private transfer. With a private transfer prices are determined and paid for in advance, so everything is taken care of beforehand – you won’t need cash for your driver and your transfer will be stress-free. The driver will monitor your flight or ferry in case of late arrival, and be waiting for you with a welcome sign. A private transfer doesn’t cost much more than a pre-booked cab and is a pleasant way to start or finish your trip. Check private transfer rates and availability.
When to visit Santorini
From November through to March, Santorini sees a massive decline in tourist numbers. These are not the best months to visit since the weather conditions and availability of activities and experiences may limit what you can see and do. Many bars, restaurants and accommodations don’t open until April/May.
From May through to early-October, when the charter flights operate, the island buzzes with activity. July and August are extremely busy and crowded during the peak of summer.
As such, I would recommend you consider visiting either May through mid-June or mid-September through October to make the most of your stay and to best avoid the over-zealous throngs of tourists that descend upon the island.
Caldera and cacti views
Where to stay in Santorini
The best places to stay in Santorini are the towns of Fira, Oia, Imerovigli, Firostefani. These towns are located along the caldera cliff on the western side of the island. They all overlook the volcano and caldera and consequently have fabulous sunset vistas. On the downside there are no beaches nearby and they are more expensive than the beach towns on the other side of the island.
Everyone will have different accommodation requirements depending on interests and budget. This guide to Santorini includes some insights which might help you decide where to stay during your trip.
Tip. With all Santorini hotels be sure to check which side of the island your room overlooks. It may state sea view but it might not necessarily be a caldera sea view.
Fira – for the buzz
Fira (Thira) is the capital of Santorini and the biggest and most cosmopolitan town on the island. There are plenty of restaurants, bars and boutique shops.
Fira is also where the cruise ships dock at the old port at the bottom of the cliff. This means at times it can be overrun with tourists, especially when there are more than one or two cruise ships in port. There can sometimes be as many as five or six.
A cliff walk pathway runs through Fira so ensure that your room doesn’t look onto the path for privacy from passers by.
Oia – for the sunsets
Oia is Santorini’s best known town for sunsets but because of that it has its drawbacks. Every evening crowds of people arrive in Oia to catch the sun going down. Oia has a good range of high end restaurants and shops. It’s also the most expensive town on the island for accommodation. Admittedly there are some absolutely fabulous places to stay – think boutique cave hotels with private plunge pools overlooking Santorini caldera. If you have the budget or it’s a special occasion then go for it. Oia is located at one end of Santorini so it’s not central if you want to easily explore the whole of the island.
Imerovgli to chill
Grace hotel, Imerovigli, Santorini
We opted to stay in Imerovigli and absolutely loved it. It’s within easy walking distance (20 mins) to all the nightlife and activity of Fira and also has incredible views out over Santorini caldera. It’s far less crowded in Imerovigli and quieter than Fira or Oia. Imerovigli also has some of the most beautiful hotels in Santorini although they do come at a price. Grace Hotel is listed in Condé Nast Traveller Gold List of the world’s best places to stay.
Places to stay in Imerovigli worth checking out include: Above Blue Suites, Remezzo Villas, and the gorgeous Dreams Luxury Suites. There are hotel options in Imerovigli to suit every budget, all offering incredible views and top-rated hospitality.
How to get around in Santorini
Depending on where you are travelling to and from, you could get by on foot but at times may need to make use of a car.
As we stayed in Imerovigli we could easily get to Fira on foot. With lots to see and do in these areas, we didn’t really have to wander too far out. But, when we wanted to get to Oia, to the beaches, to the open-air cinema in Kamari or to get back to the ferry dock or airport, we definitely needed to make use of taxis to get around. There is no Uber or Lyft in Santorini.
Public buses (KTEL) are another option and are affordable albeit unreliable. Routes go to and from Fira to popular destinations including Perissa (Black Beach), Kamari Beach, Akrotiri (Red Beach), Oia, as well as Athenios port, and the airport. All journeys are under an hour but the buses are sometimes full and running late especially in high season. In early June, well before the busy season, we waited over an hour for a bus to get from Imerovigli to Oia. It was scheduled to run every half an hour.
Santorini sunset at Imerovigli
You may opt to rent a car and drive yourself, but we preferred not to do this as we didn’t want the hassle and stress of navigating the tiny and often steep and windy roads, never mind worrying about finding a parking spot.
ATVs make a fun day out and are a good way to explore the island. The narrow roads are easier to navigate with an ATV and it’s easier to park.
Now that we’ve covered the practicalities of your trip it’s time to get on to the exciting stuff – the best things to do in Santorini.
Top Things to do in Santorini
No guide to Santorini would be complete without featuring some of the island’s highlights. We spent three glorious nights in Santorini and never got bored. There is so much to see and do on the island that we could probably head back for another visit and still be able to discover more of the island than what we saw on our first visit. Here is a selection of my top things to do in Santorini.
Hike from Fira to Oia
Views on the walk from Fira to Oia, Santorini
Are you an outdoor enthusiast that loves nature and hiking? Then you should definitely consider the hike from Fira to Oia along the cliff path.
The hike itself is roughly 7 miles (around 11 kilometres) and can take anywhere between 2 to 5 hours to complete. This, of course, depends on your level, speed of hiking and stops for photographs.
As you start in Fira you will make your way through Firostefani, Imerovigli and then onto Oia. This is a great way to explore each village, the architecture and take in the incredible views along the way.
I must be honest, parts of the hike were quite easy whilst other sections did pose more of a challenge, but overall, we really loved it.
Tip: This hike doesn’t provide a lot of shade along the way. If you are visiting during the warmer months, do make sure to take an insulated water flask to keep your water nicely chilled, reef-safe sunscreen, hat and other essentials to make your hike as comfortable as possible. We set out early to mid-morning and reached Oia just in time for lunch at Ammoudi Bay, making sure we missed the warmest hours of the day. This worked out perfectly for us.
Take a sunset cruise
One of the most breath-taking memories I have of Santorini is without a doubt the incredible sunsets you get to experience as you look out over the Aegean Sea. As such, it’s only fitting to book a sunset cruise to end your Santorini days off the best way possible.
Whether you want to enjoy a 5-hour sunset cruise aboard a catamaran that includes time to snorkel and swim as well as unlimited drinks and a meal or prefer a shorter 2.5-hour sunset cruise to the Caldera along with a delicious buffet dinner, there’s a cruise option to suit any budget and preference.
Eat fresh seafood at Ammoudi Bay
Octopus at Ammoudi Bay, Santorini
Santorini is known for its seafood and Ammoudi Bay is one of the best places on the island to find it. If you’re doing the Fira to Oia hike and you love seafood then it’s the perfect spot to stop for lunch. By the time you’ve completed the hike and descended the 280+ steps from Oia to the bay you’ll have earned your meal.
You won’t get fresher seafood than in Amoudi Bay. It’s often caught and brought ashore right in front of you and is the perfect spot to sample some traditional Santorini food. We recommend the grilled octopus and saganaki – a delicious fried cheese. Katina’s Taverna is always packed but it’s worth the wait.
Take a Santorini food tour
Take a guided food tour with a local to really get to know the best of the Santorini food scene. You’ll taste all kinds of local food from seafood cheeses, olives, baklava, wine and traditional Greek dishes. You’ll need to arrive hungry. Take this tour early on during your visit so that you know all the best spots to go back during the rest of your trip.
Enjoy a winery tour
What many travellers don’t know about Santorini is that the island is renowned for its wine production. We learnt this when we asked our driver what the strange-looking vines were, growing in fields on the ground. The vines are twisted into baskets, called bushels, to protect them and not grown in the usual upright way as you’d expect.
The predominant varieties of wines produced on the island include white as well as the sweeter Vinsanto wines. Red wines only account for around 20% of the islands wine production.
Whilst visiting Santorini, you may want to visit a few of these wineries, such as Domaine Sigalas, Venetsanos Winery or Santo Wines to name a few. Alternatively, book a private or group guided wine tour and sample the best wines on offer in Santorini.
Watch a movie under the stars at Kamari open air cinema
One of the best experiences we had whilst visiting Santorini, was to watch a movie under the stars in the charming Open-Air Cinema Kamari.
Set in a lush garden with a massive projector screen beaming English language films, this was definitely a highlight. The cinema also offers a small bar where you can buy drinks and popcorn.
Cinema Kamari usually launch their programs starting in May and advertise the movies directly on their website. Doors open at 20:30 with the film starting at around 21:30.
Explore Santorini’s beaches
Admittedly, the beaches in Santorini are not the usual white sandy beaches you may find on other Greek Islands. But this doesn’t mean you should give them a miss.
Unusual in nature, due to the black volcanic pebbles you’ll encounter here, beaches such as Perissa or Kamari are well worth a visit. We settled on Perissa with its incredible rock formations flanking the beach and the stunning crystal-clear waters and decided to rent a lounger for the day.
Tip: These black volcanic pebbles do get really hot as the day progresses. Thankfully there are wooden walkways connecting the beach bar and beach. Take your flip flops, water, a reef-safe sunscreen and a quick-drying travel towel. You should also consider renting a sun lounger to offer some shade and comfort from the sizzling hot pebbles.
Other well-known beaches also include Perivolos Beach, the Red Beach and Vlychada Beach.
See the sun set over Santorini Caldera
Oia windmill at sunset
When in Santorini you have to head to Oia and see the sun dip below the horizon at least once. It’s what people go to Santorini for. Head there early, find yourself a prime spot and just enjoy. You’ll need to book in advance if you want a meal with your view.
Summing up Santorini…
Santorini is truly as romantic and beguiling as you’d expect it to be. From exquisite views over white-washed villages with blue domed churches, beaches, the freshest seafood, local wine, and Greek hospitality, this stunning island really has it all. Santorini is a perfect addition to any Greek island hopping itinerary for first-time or seasoned travellers alike. We think you’ll agree.
Born and raised in South Africa, Marco Santos from Travel-Boo, together with his partner, moved to sunny Lisbon over three years ago. With an absolute love for Europe, he is on a mission to rediscover his own Portuguese heritage along the way. Marco has set out to share his passion for travelling and exploring Portugal, Spain and Europe, through his fabulous blog Travel-Boo. You can also catch up with Marco on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
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