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Ultimate Travel Guide to Santorini

Feathery trees sway in the wind, their trunks painted white. Blue and white flags flutter about proudly as the sun beats down on the dusty pavement. Crisp white buildings with azure colored dome roofs cling the the cliffs and seem to pile on top of each other, making their way to the end of the island.

It's none other than the striking Santorini. Despite it being a tiny speck on the map, I keep coming back again and again. This ultimate travel guide to Santorini will give you everything to see, do, stay, eat, and so much more.

I've also mapped out the best places for pictures and sunsets in Santorini. Because, let's face it, they are epic.

It's the most famous Greek island for a reason.

There are a lot of beautiful islands in Greece. There are many white washed towns across the globe. But there's something about Santorini that beckons people from all over the wold to come traverse its picturesque landscape.

Whether you're a fan of Mamma Mia and picture yourself frolicking (and singing) through the cobble stone streets, or just want to soak up the sun with a backdrop of the caldera and whitewashed homes, there's nothing better than Santorini.

Yes, it get crowded. But the mythical island, some think this is the lost city of Atlantis, keeps visitors enthralled. Plus, once you read my guide you'll easily be able to escape the crowds.

I've spent a fair bit of time in Santorini and always feel like I could make a trip back to the beautiful white washed cliff side and famous (but still mostly dormant) volcano.

Below you can find a map of all the places discussed in this post:

Know Before You Go to Santorini

Despite many calling the island “Santorini” that technically isn't true. Santorini is the name of the region while “Thira” is the actual name of the island itself. This area or several islands used to be a volcano. It exploded and created an area with multiple islands. The “caldera” is a volcanic feature that forms by the collapse of a volcano. Therefore, the region of Santorini is a circular shape and refers to the other small islands that make up the circle.

If you plan on driving in Santorini and you aren't from Europe, you'll need an international driver's license. This was something that surprised my friends when they visited and they weren't able to rent a car. I highly recommend having a car in Santorini. So make sure to get your driver's license.

Santorini is not a party island. Sure, there are bars and clubs, but there are other islands (Mykonos, for example) that are known for their parties.

When to Visit Santorini

The population of the island of Santorini is 12,000 but each year 4 and half million tourists flood the island. To avoid the crowds it's best to go during off season, if you can. November is a great time to go if you want the whole island tourist free. But May and late September are also good months to avoid the crowds. Of course, that can't always be avoided which is why I recommend lodging outside of the busy cities like Fira and Oia.

How to Get to Santorini

There are two options to get to Santorini – fly (typically from Athens) or take a ferry. I've done both. Now, most people think that a ferry is cheaper and longer. But that's not necessarily the case. The fast ferry from Athens or a nearby island can take 4 and half hours (the slow ferry takes about 8 hours) and is a fun journey for some. I get sea sick and I've gotten sick every time I've taken a ferry to or from Santorini.

Despite getting sea sick, we had a beautiful view of sunset on the water.

There is also the option of flying which is usually the quicker way for most. Most flights will depart out of Athens, so you will most likely take at least two flights to get there. I recommend spending a day or two in Athens and seeing the Parthenon and other astonishing ruins.

Where to Stay in Santorini

There's plenty of accommodation in Santorini. Whether you want an expensive cliff side villa, a laid-back hotel, or sunset views, the island is so small you really can't go wrong.

Something to keep in mind when choosing a hotel: the island is tiny. It takes about 40 minutes to go from one side to the other. For me, I would rather have parking and cheaper accommodation. That's why I suggest my budget recommendation. If you don't think you'll leave your hotel much, or you want to stay in the touristy areas more, then you might want to opt for a mid range or luxury hotel.

So, you have to ask yourself: would you rather stay near the beaches? Or have the famous views? You will be paying more for views but it's up to you.

Regardless, I always book hotels through Booking.com.

Budget Hotels

Villa Clio in Perissa – I've stayed here twice and each time for a few days. I cannot recommend Villa Clio enough. It's a lovely blue and white building complete with a nice swimming pool and ample parking. You can walk five minutes to Perissa's black sand beach or drive 30 seconds to the main road that runs through the island. The hotel offers breakfast (at an additional cost) and the rooms are clean and comfortable. The only drawback is that it can be a bit noisy since the walls are thin. This didn't bother me (I'm a heavy sleeper) but it's something to keep in mind. I will stay here again and again because the price is fantastic (I'm talking TEN times less than other places) and it's absolutely everything you need.

Villa Clio has a beautiful pool and sitting area

Mid Range Hotels

Santorini Traditional Cave House in Vothonas – If you're traveling with a larger group (since this place sleeps 6) this is the perfect escape. This AirBnb is complete with everything you need.

Villa Happening in Imerovigli – This traditional hotel offers everything you need for a great stay in a centrally located village. Most rooms come with a sea view and a/c is included!

Luxury Hotels

Of course, if you come to Santorini, you might want to stay in a luxury hotel. The main four towns located on the cliff are Fira (the most popular) followed right by Oia, and Imerovigli and Firostafani. If you want a hotel that has an epic view than these are it.

NK Cave Hotel in Fira – If you want the ultimate escape with a hot tub and beautiful sunset views, then this beautiful hotel is the perfect place. Extremely highly rated, this is one of the best hotels in Santorini.

Athina Luxury Suites in Fira – A crystal clear pool overlooking the panoramic views of the caldera. You can't go wrong with this beautiful hotel.

Villa Katikies in Oia – Oia is known for it's sunsets and this hotel not only has great views and pool, but refined furnishings that will make you feel like a king or queen.

Art Maisons Oia Castle – If you want to pull out all the stops for your honeymoon in Santorini then this castle hotel in Oia is it! Private pool, astounding views, and over-the-top luxury make this perfect for a newlywed couple.

You can use this map to check hotels, prices, and availability.:


    
        Booking.com
 

How to Get Around Santorini

The best way to really see all of Santorini is to rent a car. Cabs are expensive, buses are infrequent, and the island has a lot of different beaches and areas to explore making a car your best bet. Driving here is easy. The roads are a bit small, but it also means people go pretty slow. It's very much “island life” here, so driving and parking is straightforward.

The Santorini airport is small so after you exit you can easily pick up a car. We rented from Orbitz on our most recent trip.

*Remember, if you're NOT from the EU, you'll need an international driver's license. So that applies to all Americans.

What to Do in Santorini

I'm finally sharing my favorite things to do in Santorini. This list is in priority order- from the things you must do, to the things at the bottom you might want to skip.

Best Places for Sunset in Santorini

You might think it's odd that I'm starting with sunsets on the best things to do in Santorini, but really, a lot of people come here just to watch the sunset.

The town of Oia is know as the best place for sunset. Located at the tip of the island it is a great place for views of the caldera and turns the white-washed town a hazy shade of pink.

I also like to spend sunset at the equally as picturesque town of Fira. Here, you can see Oia and feel like you're in the middle of the caldera. I recommend heading toward the edge of town to avoid crowds.

If you're looking for a great restaurant view you might pay the price, but you'll get a stellar lookout. Franco's is the quintessential restaurant in Fira for a terrific view. I also like to include Franco's in some of my pictures since it's such an iconic Santorini location. Opt for a cocktail and get there early to snag a seat outside.

Either place, get there a few minutes before the sun sets to get a good view point.

If you want to avoid crowds entirely one of the best places for sunset in Santorini is to drive near the coast. We found a lovely spot near Taxiarhis Church where we had the whole place to ourselves, save for a friendly dog.

We had permission to go on this church to take this photo- make sure to respect the signs and get permission!

I suggest staying around this part of the coast, bring a bottle of wine, and you'll have tourist-free views of the beautiful caldera.

Another great spot is the Akrotiri lighthouse where you can get a unique sunset view of Santorini and the surrounding islands.

Lastly, check out a winery for unparalleled views and a breathtaking landscape. I was floored by Venetsanos Winery and their cobblestone path spilling out over the caldera.

Explore the Town of Fira

Fira is the largest town in Santorini and also offers some of the best views of the caldera. There are loads of souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, and, of course, white washed houses. It's very easy to get here and I suggest parking in the lot just before the main artery of the town.

The best thing to do is to just walk the streets. If you feel it's getting too crowded just take a turn and discover a new path or wander near a church. Be careful not to walk on top of churches as there are signs that say not to do so.

Make sure to spot the cable car and the old cruise port below.

For great views head into the center of town near the church. Then go down. You'll avoid the main street and be able to walk amoungst the villas. It's a lot of strenuous walking up and down so wear comfortable shoes.

Another great place to get views of the city is walking to the nearby town of Firostefani, just a short walk (about 10 minutes) which will still be beautiful views of the white washed cliffs.

Explore the Town of Oia

Oia is Santorini's second biggest town and is similar to Fira with many shops and restaurants. However, I do love Oia for it's iconic windmill and bright yellow church. Take a walking tour of the town and pop into the shops or grab a frozen yogurt with drizzled honey.

A great place for pictures and views is from the Oia Castle. Also, make sure you check out the Atlantis bookstore nestled slightly below the main street.

You can also hike down to Amoudi Bay for some swimming and a great place for fresh seafood. You can also watch the cliff jumpers!

Best Beaches in Santorini

Many of the beaches in Santorini are named based on the color of the sand. My favorites are very easily accessible and aren't too crowded. Santorini isn't exactly known for it's beaches. You're not going to find pristine white, soft sand. But they are still a wonderful spot to relax and enjoy a pina colada.

Perissa “black sand” beach – This is my favorite beach on the island. This long stretch of sand is dotted with great bars and restaurants.

Red Beach – It's a steep and somewhat challenging path to make it down to the red beach, but it's one of the best in Santorini. The sand is a rusty red color because of the cliffs that surround it.

Kamari Beach – This lively pebble beach is a great hangout with a few bars and restaurants. Also a good spot for a swim and snorkeling.

Monolithos Beach – If you really want to get away from the crowds and have a nice view of the ocean then this might just be the beach for you.

White Beach – Only accessible by boat this beach isn't very “white” but is a nice spot to swim.

Walk from Fira to Oia

If you're up for a hike, you can walk from the town of Fira over to Oia. It's a strenuous walk of about two and half hours that takes you along the caldera cliff. Worth it for the views.

Take a Boat Around the Caldera

The best way to see the whole island and the surrounding caldera is to hop on a boat. This way you can explore the active volcano and go swimming in the crystal clear water. There are a few beaches and areas near the coast that are only accessible by boat.

I particularly like the boat tours because they are fun, informative, and many include food. This one is spectacular and includes a tour around Santorini, pick up and drop off service from your hotel, and includes a dip in the Palea Kameni hot springs. They aren't exactly “hot” but it is a bit warmer than the temperature of the Aegean Sea.

There are really two options for a boat cruise: one without drinks and one with drinks. I recommend the one that includes drinks. Admiring the panoramic view of the caldera as you float by is best enjoyed with a chilled glass of white wine.

Go to the Highest Peak at Mesa Vouno Mountain

If you want to get a good look at the island, take a drive up to the highest peak, at Mesa Vouno. It's best to drive up here and as you do, look at your window to see how the rocks and climate change as you go up. At the top of Mesa Vouno is the first settlement of the island after the last volcano eruption and was said to be used by the Spartans.

Winery

There are a few wineries in Santorini and I highly recommend that you head over there for lovely views and delicious wine. We went to Venetsanos Winery for a friend's wedding venue and needless to say it was one of the most beautiful places for a wedding in the world. It was breathtaking!

Some other wineries with views are the Santos Wines Winery or you can also go to Megalochori Winery.

Horseback Ride Along the Beach

If you want a memorable experience, take a horseback ride on the Santorini coast while you watch the sun set. You'll having stunning views of the canyons and sand formations that line the coast while riding a beautiful horse. This is a laid back and relaxing activity and a great way to see more of Santorini.

Tours last for about an hour and a half and you can choose your time and sightseeing options.

Tour the Ancient Village of Akrotiri

Here, you can peer into the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri and learn about the past settlers who lived here. There is a museum as well as ruins you can walk through.

If you're short on time and only have a day in Santorini, check out some of these guided tours that pack a punch in just a day. I personally like to just rent a car and see the sights on my own if I'm short on time but these offer excellent bus options.

Santorini's Open Air Cinema

If you're a fan of Mamma Mia or My Big Fat Greek Wedding then you're in luck! You can watch your favorite flick in the lovely outdoor cinema in Fira at the “Volkan on the Rocks” restaurant.

They switch every day to a different movie, so you could watch either or both!

Where to Eat in Santorini

It's not hard to find delicious, fresh Greek food in Santorini. It's also easy to find relatively inexpensive, good food. Especially if you're out of the touristy cities of Oia and Fira, you'll find cheap food. We had a meal with 6 people and we ordered a few appetizers, drinks, and an entree each, and our total came to about €37. If you're on a budget in Santorini, or even if you just want to save a bit of cash, it can definitely be done.

Breakfast

Many hotels offer breakfast but my favorite thing to do for breakfast is head to a local bakery. Often, the bakeries stay open 24-hours a day. One of my favorites that we went back to again and again was Family Bakery. They make delicious pastries and also specialize in wedding cakes and even make homemade gelato. They stay open late for the late night clubbers so I recommend going here for a late night treat.

Lunch

Sirocco is a great little place in Perissa right near the beach. You'll find wood-fire pizza and fresh baked bread. Great prices too!

Pitogyros or Mike's – I love gyros in Greece. Who doesn't?! Both these resturants offer great ones that are a good bang for your buck.

Dinner

Salt and Pepper – This restaurant in Fira is a mid-range priced eatery with solid Greek food and a few international dishes.

Ouzeri in Fira – A laid back restaurant with outdoor seating and a cozy vibe. Great Greek salad!

For desert, the best gelato I had on the island (as well as the best priced, too) happened to be at Family Bakery!

Best Places for Pictures in Santorini

Admit it, you've come all this way, you want to take an epic picture of your time on the island. I've mapped out the best places for pictures in Santorini.

  1. The Three-Dome church in Oia – This iconic spot is a highlight of Santorini with the beautiful bright blue downs and stark white church.

2. Franco's – an iconic spot that you must snap a picture of, also perfect place to perch for a selfie.

3. Alleyways in Fira- Keep on wandering! It will be well worth your time to stroll the streets and find uncrowded hidden gems.

4. Loizos Santorini – This little spot of residences is overflowing with bougainvillea and crisp white walls.

5. Windmills – There are a few spots with windmills around the island. They are easy to find if you drive, especially along the coast. But there are definitely some iconic spots with windmills in Oia at the tip of the island.

6. Yellow Church in Oia – There aren't many buildings in the main towns of Fira and Oia that aren't white, but this bright, cheery yellow church is an exception.

7. Cobblestone walls near Irini Cafe – I love this spot for sunset watching. Here, the island curves around and you have the perfect view.

8. Catholic Church of Stylianos – I love this pretty little yellow and blue church that's perched right on the cliff in Fira.

There are so many lovely churches around Santorini. But make sure to be respectful of signs and be careful to not jump on rooftops.

9. Wander at night – Santorini is very well lit and is a beautiful place to wander after dusk. Here's a look at Fira at night:

10. Perissa Beach – Escape the narrow alleyways and head to the pretty black sand beach of Perissa.

One of the best parts about Santorini; you can't go wrong! There are beautiful photo opts wherever you turn. So get lost and bring your camera.

How Long to Stay in Santorini

I've done everything from 12 hours (yes, really) to five days in Santorini. While I prefer my leisurely five days, you can easily see everything on the island in a solid two or three. Remember, it's small! So if your heart is set on island hopping, and I don't blame you, then 2-3 days should do the trick.

Where to Island Hop

Looking to extend your trip and keep on seeing more of the crazy beautiful Greek islands? I don't blame you! My favorite is Crete. Rent a car here and explore as much as you can of this huge island. Other popular islands are Mykonos and Milos. Mykonos is more of a party destination while Milos is known for it's moon-like beaches.

Another option is the beautiful Corfu which is near Albania.

Santorini is a place that quite literally erupts with beauty and oozes charm. It's a place that I'll always hold deep in my heart. I know I'll be back!

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