Santorini is one of the world’s iconic destinations, a stunning postcard recognized by anyone who ever dreamt of travel. From her multicolored cliffs that rise ominously from the aquamarine depths of the Aegean to the whitewashed buildings huddled on the rim of the cliffs, this is a place of and for daydreams. Dazzling panoramas, legendary sunsets, and unbelievable volcanic-sand beaches lay waiting to dazzle visitors young and old.
Of all the places people put on their “bucket lists,” Santorini leaves upwards of 1.5 million tourists a year stunned by her sheer beauty and allure. This most volatile and enigmatic Cyclades isle is officially called Thera, after the son of Euphemus, who was one of Jason’s Argonauts. Out of the myths of prehistory, garnished by tales from Plato of Atlantis and other epic legends, Santorini does not have any “little history.” Here you’ll find the stuff dreams are made of growing out of the black sands of time.
As legend has it, Thera was a major naval base of the Minoan Empire utterly destroyed when the volcano erupted about 1450 BC. The violent explosion of magma beneath this mystic island emptied the gigantic basin below the island, and caused the collapse of the volcano. The billions of cubic meters of seawater emptied into this blazing abyss unleashed what some believe, was the largest explosion in human history, a blast that delivered 60 meter-high tsunami waves to nearby Crete and Egypt further beyond. What remains of the island many believe was fabled Atlantis, is a caldera (or crater) with towering cliffs along the east side, which is now Santorini’s trademark landscape dotted with settlements along its edge.
First-time visitors to the island will at first be amazed by the dizzying heights and views of the caldera that provoke many to gasp in awe. From the busy capital of Fira, visitors find the 15-minute walk to nearby Firostefani an uplifting experience, and then a further quarter hour’s trek leads to the highest point of Santorini, where Imerovigli village offers unimaginable photo-taking opportunities. It is these three settlements that get most of the attention, along with the iconic Oia – the most photographed village of Thera – to the north.
Farther east, volcanic sand beaches beckon sunbathers, snorkelers, and swimmers where the land levels out onto the sea. The resorts of Kamari and Perissa offer a more traditional appeal, along with water sports, bars, and beautiful promenades. Then there’s Santorini’s spectacular vineyard-lined inland, where travelers can catch a glimpse into the past of the island. At Pyrgos and other villages, the cuisine of Santorini takes on a new life, and the charm of ancient Greece comes to life. Wine tastings at more than a dozen local wineries compliment any hike into the island’s inner sanctum, and any number of wine or archeological tours come highly recommended. A few of Santorini’s highlights for first-time visitors include:
- See the impressive Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira, which reveals the puzzle pieces of the island’s distant past via the archeology of legendary Akrotiri.
- Sunsets: Prime sunset-seeing is accomplished best in Oia, where tens of thousands come to admire the sundown on the island.
- Hike from Fira to Oia: While the walk is challenging under the scorching sun, this is one of those experiences you take home and tell about forever.
- Swim in the hot springs: Take a boat tour to the base of the caldera and dive into the hot springs in the midst of the sea – this is a fantastic experience.
- Swimming, as suggested, can best be enjoyed at the black sand beaches in the east.
- Tours: Any number of companies lead guided archeological, wine and culinary, and sunset photography tours.
- Akrotiri: The fascinating site of Akrotiri displaying a Minoan city destroyed by the volcanic eruption during the Bronze Age is a must-see.
No matter what else you do while on Santorini, be sure and book at least one tour. They’re simply fun, informative, and the best way to get to know more about the island. Whether you pick a spellbinding helicopter flight over the caldera, or a luxury wine tour, there’s no better way to pack a wealth of information and fun into a first-time visit. For the visitor who likes venturing off-the-beaten-path, the boat trip to uninhabited Thirassia on the western side is a memorable adventure. Oh, and be sure to take a walk to Skaros Rock for an unbelievable view. Finally, no Santorini suggestion guide could be complete without recommending a swim in Ammoudi Bay and a dive off the cliff at Agios Nikolaos.
The best times to visit Santorini are spring and fall – from April to May and September to October. Temperatures during these months are not as elevated as they are from June to the end of August. Offseason, in the winter months – from November until March – most of the hotels, restaurants, and shops, are closed, but the experience is unique and ideally suited for those who are looking to experience the island like a local.
First-time visitors to Santorini may also want to consult this list of frequently asked questions before traveling.