There’s much more to Santorini besides its enticing beaches. Whether you like old castles, engaging hillside towns, ancient ruins, stark volcanic countryside, pop-up galleries, incredible little islands or atmospheric little fishing ports, you’ll find plenty to attract you.
And Santorini’s small size means you can see a lot in a day and still have time to go for a swim in the ocean. Distances are short and you can get around on scenic trails, buzzing motorbikes, public buses or in a local boat (caïque). Even better, you’ll likely find something diverting as you journey between sights. Here are the top places in Santorini to plan your itinerary around.
Santorini’s main town has a famous perch atop the volcanic cliff ringing the caldera. Fira’s warren of streets weave amidst a fantasy of whitewashed traditional buildings, accented by trailing bunches of bright orange bougainvillea and dramatic indigo domes atop centuries-old churches. Shops of every kind jostle with restaurants, cafes, bars and more. Even at its most mobbed, you can usually find a refuge a short stroll from Fira’s center. Expect famous and fabulous views in all directions.
Many choose to base themselves in Fira during their Santorini stay, but it’s also an easy choice on a quick stopover or day trip. It’s a short bus or taxi ride from the ferry port at Athinios or the airport. The cruise ship dock down at Fira Skala is efficiently linked to Fira by cable car.
Museum of Prehistoric Thera
Plunge into Santorini’s eons of history at this engrossing museum right in Fira, one of the best things to do on the island. Just a few of the highlights are a pristine golden figure of an ibex dating to the 17th century BCE and ancient fossilized olive tree leaves plucked from the depths of the caldera. Much of the collection was found in the rich archaeological site of Ancient Akrotiri on the island’s south end.
Among the questions you can ponder here is whether the caldera may be the mythological home of Atlantis (opinions are mixed). Signs are in Greek and English and you can easily savor everything important in under an hour, which is ideal if you’re between buses at the nearby main bus stop. Note that the official name for Santorini is variously spelled Thira and Thera.
Something like Greece’s version of Pompeii, Akrotiri was a center of the Minoan civilization that was buried by ash after a volcanic eruption in 1613 BCE. Only discovered in 1967, there are ongoing archaeological digs on the site with regular new discoveries.
Walkways are shaded by covers and you can stroll amidst ancient three-story structures with caches of old pottery, wall murals and other artifacts. The site has a stunning location and fine views across the caldera. Guided tours are offered year-round. You can easily reach the site by bus from Fira.
The Art Space gallery is possibly the coolest sight on Santorini, in no small part due to the galleries being housed in the shadowy caverns of an old winery. Temperature aside, the art is unmissable. Look for paintings, sculptures and other works by some of Greece’s best contemporary artists.
The galleries are free to visit and an essential stop on the busy road and bus route linking Fira and Kamari. You might want to take advantage of the public transport: wine is still made here, and tastings only add to the fun.
A spectacular site, Ancient Thira showcases a “best of” selection of archaeological sites from all the top eras of the Mediterranean. Multi-layered digs across the sprawling complex have uncovered buildings and artifacts from myriad civilizations, including Byzantine, Roman and Hellenic.
Views sweep across the ever-sparkling blue waters towards the south. Look for intricate mosaics, marketplaces, homes and other staples of daily life across the millennia. Ancient Thira is reached by a narrow, winding 1.9-mile-long (3km) road from Kamari, or you can take a slightly challenging one-hour hike from Perissa.
A Greek fishing port direct from central casting, tiny Ammoudi is right below Oia at the north end of the caldera. Unlike Fira, it isn’t just a whitewashed cliche, rather the waterfront facades are a mix of ruby-red stones from the surrounding cliffs set off by bright white mortar.
Dozens of little fishing boats bob at anchor and here you’ll see people mending nets and cleaning calamari. Wander the short streets and afterwards stop for a meal at one of the fancy seafront tavernas. From Oia there is a steep path with several hundred steps down to the port, otherwise drive or take a taxi.
A sort of mini-Santorini from another era, Thirasia is an island remnant of the volcanic past on the caldera’s west side. The few hundred residents live quiet lives free from most tourism amidst a lovely natural landscape of tiny coves and soaring hills.
The ideal way to experience the island is on your own, which allows for explorations of untrod beaches and enticing half-abandoned villages. Bring a motorbike to get around a bit easier.
Part of the adventure that is Thirasia is the journey there. Although short (only 20 minutes by boat from Ammoudi) the details are complex as schedules between Thirasia and Ammoudi in Santorini’s north and Athinios, the main ferry port, are opaque (but fares are very cheap). Alternatively, numerous daily excursion boats stop at the island, although you’ll be with a small crowd and time will be limited.
Wisps of steam curling up from the stark hillsides of the two tiny islands in the center of the caldera are the stuff of social media dreams. Palia Kameni and Nea Kameni are still volcanically active and the former has some hot springs (although the water runs to the lukewarm end of warm) while the latter has a small and sporadically active volcanic crater.
Tiny churches are shoreline surprises and there are a couple of tiny beaches with dark pebbles and beautiful swimming.
The islets are easily reached on the many boat excursions from most ports on Santorini. However, you can also negotiate for a private boat (caïque) which will allow maximum flexibility for exploring. Just know that paths are treacherous and barely there and services (and shade) are nil. Bring along anything you’ll need for the day, especially water.
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