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.
First settled by the Dorians in the 9th century BC, Ancient Thira consists of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine ruins and is an atmospheric and rewarding site to visit. The ruins include temples, houses with mosaics, an agora (market), a theatre and a gymnasium. Views are splendid. If you’re driving, take the narrow, switchbacked road from Kamari for 3km. From Perissa, a hike up a dusty path takes a bit over an hour to reach the site.
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.
This atmospheric gallery is on the way to Kamari, in Argyros Canava, one of the oldest wineries on the island. The walls and niches of the wine caverns feature paintings and sculptures by some 30 contemporary Greek artists, one of them from Santorini. Winemaking is still in the owner’s blood, and part of the complex produces some stellar vintages under the Art Space Wines label (only available for purchase at the gallery). Tastings (from €10) enhance the experience.
If you want to watch the greatest free show on earth (the sunset!) in seclusion, well, you're out of luck. Word is out, and you will be joined at the tip of this promontory by dozens of sunset-gazers. Still, there's plenty of room for everybody and the lighthouse lacks Oia's crowds.
Popular with those who like to bare all and backed by some spectacular rock formations, this southern beach is particularly beautiful at sunset. Go up above the fishing harbour to find a good restaurant.
Surreal red beach to the southwest backed by rust-and-fire coloured cliffs. Just up from the beach are several good restaurants.
One of Santorini's prettiest beaches, this secluded southwestern cove, surrounded by cliffs, is only reachable by boat.
Appealing volcanic sand beach to the southwest backed by cliffs and with a single taverna.
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.