If you approach Santorini from the water, it's hard not to be awed by the sheer cliffs that soar above a turquoise sea, by the fact that you're sailing in an immense crater of a drowned volcano and that before you lies an island shaped by an ancient eruption cataclysmic beyond imagining.
High above, the main villages of Fira and Oia are a snow-drift of white Cycladic houses that line the cliff tops and spill like icy cornices down the terraced rock. And then there are the sunsets, with crowds breaking into applause as the sun disappears below the horizon.
In peak season, Santorini becomes a playground for the very wealthy, and while this has resulted in some stellar restaurants and superb wineries, the strain on the infrastructure is a concern. Still, there's relative seclusion found at the island's ancient sites, on hiking trails and beneath the waves.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Santorini.
Opposite the bus station, this well-presented museum houses extraordinary finds excavated from Akrotiri, which has been settled since neolithic times. Check out the wealth of wall paintings, ceramics with a heavy Minoan influence and the glowing gold ibex figurine, dating from the 17th century BC and in mint condition. Also look for fossilised olive tree leaves from within the caldera, which date back to 60,000 BC. It's worth visiting this museum first, before heading out to Ancient Akrotiri.
This tiny port of colourful fishing boats lies 300 steps below Oia. It’s a steep haul down and up again but well worth it for the views of the blood-red cliffs, the harbour and back up at Oia. Once you’re down there, have lunch at one of the excellent, if pricey, fish tavernas right on the water’s edge. In summer, boats and tours go from Ammoudi to Thirasia daily; check with travel agencies in Fira for departure times.
Sitting 220m below Fira – three minutes by cable car, or 587 steps by foot – the Old Port, also known as Fira Skala, is now mainly used by cruise ship passengers visiting Fira for the day. They generally arrive in the morning, then head back in the afternoon. The little port has restaurants, tavernas and small shops, and presents a stunning view from the foot of the caldera cliffs.
From Imerovigli, a sign points west for the track to Skaros, the conical peninsula jutting out into the caldera. Not only geologically interesting, it is also historically important, as it was the first of five kasteli (fortresses) built on Santorini in the 15th century to protect the islanders from pirate attacks. Earthquakes put an end to that, however, and the inhabitants moved to Fira. Walk out for great views and a perfectly situated church, but expect plenty of steps.
This museum is located along a narrow lane that leads off north from Nikolaou Nomikou. It’s housed in a renovated and converted 19th-century mansion and has endearing displays on Santorini’s maritime history. Oia's prosperity was based on its merchant fleet, which serviced the eastern Mediterranean, especially between Alexandria and Russia.
At the north end of Fira, this museum displays fascinating before-and-after photographs of the 1956 earthquake, along with centuries-old maps of the Cyclades, paintings, striking photography by Christos Simatos and 15th-century manuscripts.
Sitting prominently on the caldera edge in Fira, the Orthodox Cathedral can be seen from many parts of Santorini. Built in 1827, it was badly damaged in the catastrophic earthquake of 1956. Fully renovated soon after, it is a known for its mosaics, impressive bell tower and rolling arches that create a peaceful courtyard. Inside, the church is adorned with beautiful frescoes painted by local artist Christoforos Asimis.
The peaceful Catholic Cathedral of Santorini, dedicated to St John the Baptist, is off the standard tourist route and well worth seeking out. The church is attended regularly by the island's Catholic population (around 500 people) and masses are celebrated on Sundays at 10am (from June to September masses are also celebrated on Saturdays and Sundays at 7pm).
Near the cable-car station, this museum houses a few impressive finds from Akrotiri and Ancient Thira, such as vast amphorae and painted oil burners. Check out the chariot-racing images on some of the pottery. Info in Greek and French only.