Some destinations are about exploration and discovery, while others are for hitting reset, finding your own little slice of heaven and relaxing to the max. There’s plenty of exploration on offer in Santorini via hikes, boat trips and vineyard tours, but even the locals would excuse you for finding the perfect view, and not moving an inch. After all, of all the blessed islands and viewpoints in this big wide world, it’s hard to even imagine another which offers the natural drama, beauty and colour juxtaposition of this incredible island known as Thira.
If it’s your first trip, choosing which village to stay in is absolutely crucial and each one will bring a completely different experience, so use this guide to help guide you to the best places to stay, some restaurant gems and places where watching the sun set will take on an entirely new meaning!
Santorini Airport is a bit of a s**t show for the time being, at least until 2021 when it’s expected to be renovated. In the meantime it’s crowded, it’s hot, and there are lines to do just about anything. If you are flying in, you absolutely want to avoid being in the middle of the plane. Get a seat in the front, or the way back, because almost all flights deplane using both doors, and last off will face a long wait at immigration. Departing, it’s a fine dance between arriving as late as possible and saving enough time for immigration.
When it comes to airport transfers from Santorini Airport, you’ll definitely want to arrange all this in advance with your hotel or Airbnb. It’s all a bit of a hustle at the airport, particularly if you don’t speak Greek. Many hotels will arrange these for you with no sweat, so if you don’t want to sweat it when you arrive – take them up on that offer.
Santorini: Where To Stay
Santorini’s villages are dotted with boutique hotels, but you’d be excused for walking past most of them. Very few hotels feature grand entrances, with most simply offering a gate with a sign offering its name. Don’t mistake that for modesty: the good stuff is down a series of steps with uninhibited Caldera views out to the sea below. With an increasing number of cruise visitors and party people, choosing which village to stay in is everything. Here’s a breakdown, and a few suggestions for each.
This is the town where all cruise traffic ends and begins, and to say it’s by far the most tourist centric is an understatement. Think: McDonalds, not moussaka, busses not bicycles and yeah, all that kind of stuff. That’s not to say it’s not worth a visit, because there are pretty areas tucked away, but it’s just experiencing an incredible amount of traffic, without much of the charm you’ll find in smaller villages nearby. Enigma Suites or Aria Suites would be two options here.
With an enviably high position overlooking the island, this is a cool place to stay which is just outside the chaos, all with a very local and authentic feel. It’s easy to get around to Imerovigli and then onto Oia with amazing food all around town. Another benefit? It’s generally a bit cheaper than the full on tourist scenes and it’s a great place, especially if you like Airbnb. Amazing villas can be had at prices half what you’d pay in other parts of the island for smaller places. Here’s the top Airbnb in the area, and Carpe Diem is a solid hotel option.
Sure, people go to Oia for sunset because that’s what they’ve been told, but Imerovigli may be the best value in Santorini, while also offering arguably even better sunset views. With a beautiful walking path through the idyllic town that runs all the way to Oia, this is an amazing way to enjoy Santorini in a far more low key and authentic setting, without compromising on jaw dropping views. The Vasilicos is easily one of the best hotels we’ve stayed at, and recommend it highly and Cavotagoo is another gem which caters to more of a “club scene”.
This is the “scene” of Santorini, with the famous windmills, blue roofed churches – which are also in other villages by the way – and the buzzing restaurants. Oia is no longer the peaceful getaway it once was and sees more than 5,000 people descend upon it every night at sunset. There are luxury hotels here which will blow minds, but it’s much more of a music by the pool with champagne than read a book and relax environment. Canaves Oia and Mystique are the high end options in this area, all of which will properly blow minds, and not just because of the price.
Santorini Must Do Activities
As most locals will tell you, experiencing Santorini isn’t about turning over every stone, it’s about finding the stone you like most and spending as much time enjoying the natural splendour of it all. In other words, don’t go crazy trying to tick all the boxes. There’s no deep underground or West Village full of boutique shopping to get lost in for days. Come, relax, eat delicious food and take in vantage points that you can’t believe with your own eyes, even when you’re standing there. With that said, there are a few great things to do…
A Boat Tour
If you do one thing, and only one thing: take a boat ride. But don’t just take any boat ride, hire a private or semi private boat from a boutique operation which isn’t packing 100’s of people onto a deck that feels as if you’re on a pirate ship. Know this: Santorini, more than most destinations, is all about peeling back the layers between tourist gouging and local relationships, so it’s fully possible to hire a private boat for the same price mainstream tourists will pay to sit arm to arm with 100’s of others. Hit up George at Santorini Yachting Club, we took the Captain Lambros traditional boat and loved every minute.
Imerovigli – Oia Hike
By hike, we really mean a nice walk on a well manicured path, but the steps will definitely make it feel like quite a hike. The walk takes around two hours, so don’t expect it to be the fastest thing you do, but it’s definitely one of the most rewarding. Each lookout provides another photo you’ll never forget and there are so many great little cafes and tavernas to grab anything from a cold water to a nice glass of assyrtiko, and definitely a mouth watering Santorini salad too. Once you’ve done this, you’ve really seen a lot, and still have at least half a day left. You can always cab it back…
Wine Tasting Or Vineyard Tour
Other parts of Greece have done well with dry red wine, but Santorini is the new hot spot for the world’s top mineral driven whites. The assyrtiko grape is an incredible expression of rich, opulent flavour, all with the minerality you’d expect from a black soil, black rock Volcanic island. Vassaltis offers an amazing experience as far as high end wine goes, and Santo Wines offers truly stunning views with great menus. Booking ahead is likely a great idea.
Check Out Red And Black Beaches
Santorini is not the island you come to for beaches. In fact, it’s one of the worst in that regard, at least if you ask a Greek. Although they’re more soften volcanic rock than soft white sand, these beaches are dramatic, picture worthy and are a great place to relax for the day, particularly if you don’t have an amazing view or private pool where you are staying. If you do, you could probably give them a pass. Red Beach, Perivolos and Kamari are all great calls if you want to dip your toes in, or just take a walk.
Perhaps it’s the weather, but whatever you think you’ll be craving here, the heat of Santorini in summer tends to make all the amazing vegetables and fresh produce shine to levels which make your tastebuds even more overjoyed than imagined. Think fresh caught fish crudo or carpaccio, aromatic herbs over fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and local cheese and all sorts of lovely dishes involving honey, yoghurt and all that good stuff. Here’s a few places sure to delight…
Laid back, delicious and with enviable views over Oia, Melitini is such a great call. Prices are extremely fair – think €10 for a main course – and made with real attention to detail. This menu isn’t fussy but offers a truly local take on the best of Greek food, with friendly and forgiving staff. You can’t go wrong for lunch or dinner.
This is the go-to for slightly more sophisticated dining, and although prices are a bit higher than elsewhere, the food really doesn’t disappoint. Go for the views, stay for the food – you’re paying for both. Can’t go wrong with the squid or the smoked eel, if it’s in stock. Marios Tsouris the chef has worked in some of the best kitchens in the world and for a special meal, Red Bicycle is way up there.
It’s popular, but with good reason. This is yet another great example of low key delicious food with great service aiming to please. Metaxi Mas books up fast on a pretty night, so don’t sleep on it if you want in. Of course, there are less crowded places to go – but this is a good one.
Looking for lunch? Ding, ding-ding. This is modern Greek done right, with exacting presentation and style but all with the laidback vibes you are looking for on an island vacation. Aroma Avlis prices are fair, views are nice and lunch is definitely the best value with fewer crowds too. And hey, it’s a winery, so you know they’ve got that covered too…
The Vasilicos is a hotel with perhaps the best view of Skaros rock at sunset. This makes for the true definition of “jaw dropping” views in every direction from the hotel terrace. Dinner is on a reservation only basis and the food is outstanding, albeit a bit pricey – but the sunset views definitely help justify the cost, and there’s no other way to get in if you’re not staying…