From best secret hideaways to top hikers hangouts, Heidi Fuller-Love lets us in on the secret side of this volcanic island. These are the best things to do in Santorini off the beaten track.
Santorini’s famous blue domed churches and whitewashed cave hotels glitter under the assault of a thousand flashbulbs as crowds congregate to cram their Instagram feeds with the sunset views for which Oia is renowned. As the sun finally descends over the volcanic crater, which blew its top with spectacular results back in 1250 BC, there are cheers and wolf whistles – it’s as if the Santorini sun itself has become a performer for the tourist hordes. It’s my first night on the legendary Greek Island that draws millions of visitors each year and over the next few days I’m happy to discover that it’s possible to escape the crowds and discover a more authentic side to Santorini, if you know where to look.
Thinking of planning a trip to Santorini? We can help! Try our new Rough Guides tailor-made travel service and enjoy a custom trip designed just for you by a vetted local expert.
Everyone raves about the sunsets in Oia, but if you head around the caldera rim to the quieter, more laid back village of Imerovigli the views are just as spectacular and – out of season – it’s easier to find budget accommodation. I check into Merovigla studios, a cheap, clean hotel with pool near the centre of Imerovigli’s tangle of cobbled alleys. Upon the owners suggestion, I head for Tou Steki Tou Nikou (Nikos’ place), a cosy tavern packed with locals, where I order aubergines stuffed with minced meat washed shown with the local white Assyrtiko wine, whilst a local band play laouto (a Greek lute instrument) and violin.
In a bid to get even further off the beaten path, the next day I meet Nikos Boutsinis of Santorini Walking Tours. Nikos tells me there is a network of about 60 miles of hiking paths in Santorini that hardly anyone uses. Pulling on sturdy boots we hike for hours along dusty, deserted tracks, discovering abandoned Byzantine churches, flocks of grazing sheep and vines grown in the tight, nest-like circles that protect them from wind and heat. “This is a side of the island that visitors rarely see,” Nikos tells me.
Another way to get off the beaten path is to rent a scooter. Aboard my buzzing Vespa on the third day I set off to discover the island’s beaches. The landscape en route is rocky, with scattered farms making the most of the fertile volcanic soil to grow sun-sweet local cherry tomatoes, grapes and pistachios. Santorini isn’t known for its beaches, except for the stunning Red Beach which is currently closed due to erosion, but there are a few hidden coves worth visiting. One of these is Kouloumbo, an endless black sand beach a few miles outside of Oia, where I spend a lazy afternoon in the sun before enjoying fresh fish lunch at family-run Koloumbos taverna.
With rich volcanic soil and lava-hot climate it’s hardly surprising that wine has been made on Santorini for thousands of years. Apart from main producers Santos and Boutari, there's a cluster of artisan vineyards that are well worth visiting. A long looping ride past whitewashed villages and woolly vineyards takes me inland to Mesa Gonia, a tiny hamlet where the Roussos family (no relation to the singer) have been producing wine since 1836. I meet Yiannis, fifth generation of this wine producing family who shows me the low vaulted canava wine cave and the oak barrels where the sweet Vinsanto wine is fermented, then I taste some of the family’s wines, including the purple Caldera Roussos, which is dense and spicy with ripe red fruit flavours.
I spend the night at Carpe Diem, a hip boutique hotel with panoramic views tucked into the side of a hill near the hilltop village of Pyrgos. Despite the fact that Pyrgos was the island's capital up until the 1800s, tourists rarely stop here and the winding lanes lined with churches, cafes and old houses, are near deserted. That night, as the wind howls and rattles through the bamboo groves outside, I lay awake remembering that Santorini was once famed for its vampires, the dreaded vrykolakas, or walking dead, who were said to stalk the island at night.
Next morning bright blue skies and brilliant sunshine dispel thoughts of rusted stakes and ropes of garlic. Instead I seek out the spirit of music at La Ponta, a cultural centre set in an old winery in the village of Megalochori where owner Giannis gives me a wheezy demonstration on the tsampouna, a 2,000 year old Greek version of the bagpipes made from goatskin.
A road snaking between sand dunes and cave-pocked cliffs leads down to the Vlichada, where a handful of people soak up the sun on the tiny seaside resort’s black sand beach sheltered by high cliffs. Vlichada is home to the Tomato Industrial museum. Once upon a time there were 13 factories producing tomato paste on Santorini, but the production of the puree went out of fashion in the eighties as tourism became more lucrative. The museum, lit by dusty motes of sunlight, is packed with old machinery and original photos showing bare-footed farmers next to donkeys groaning beneath the weight of their bright red loads.
The lighthouse on Santorini’s remote southwest tip is a wonderfully wild place to watch one last sunset gilding the tops of the waves. As the sun sinks beneath the horizon, I head for Kali Kardia, a family run tavern in the middle of nowhere that I spotted on my way out to the peninsula.
Dazed by sunshine, dazzled by sea air I scoop up luscious forkfuls of domatokeftedes, tomato fritters and creamy split pea purée fava, washed down with several glasses of Santorini’s syrupy sweet Vinsanto wine. As lights twinkle on over the caldera’s busy resorts and a huge cruise ship hoots far away in Thira’s bay, it’s difficult to believe that this is the same Santorini seen in a thousand Instagram feeds. By getting off the beaten track I’ve discovered a more autenthic side to this world-renowned volcanic atoll basking in the southern Aegean Sea.
Top image: View of Imerovigli and the Anastasi church, Santorini, Greece © Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock