Among all sorts of tips when visiting Greece, a visit to Santorini cannot be overlooked. 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. From the best secret hideaways to top hiker's hangouts, these are the best things to do in Santorini.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Greece, your essential guide for visiting Greece.
Almost entirely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1956, Firá (also known as Hóra) clings precariously to the edge of the enormous caldera. The rising and setting of the sun are especially beautiful when seen here against the Cycladic buildings lining the clifftop, and are even enough to make battling through the high-season crowds worthwhile.
One of the best things to do in Santorini is to hike a popular and scenic trail from Firá to Oía. The trail winds its way through the cliff tops, passing through some picturesque villages along the way, notably Firostefani and Imerovigli. Along the way, you'll be treated to the spectacular scenery of the Aegean Sea and the island's iconic blue-domed churches and white-washed houses.
A cable car ride is one of the most exciting things to do in Santorini. The cable car offers a spectacular panoramic view of the caldera, which is a large volcanic crater formed during a powerful volcanic eruption.
The starting point of the cable car is in the old port of Fira, from where you will ascend to the town of Fira, perched on top of a cliff. The ride lasts about three minutes and offers stunning views of the Aegean Sea and the snow-white buildings of Santorini.
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The Cyclades Islands include two of the most famous Greek Islands: Mykonos and Santorini. On this tailor-made trip to the Historical and Mythological Cyclades islands, you will visit these and some of the smaller, quieter, islands. With white-washed houses, narrow cobbled streets, blue domed roofs and stunning beaches, they are what Greece is all about.
Oía is the most photographed town on Santorini, was once a major commercial centre in the Aegean, but it has declined in the wake of economic depression, wars, earthquakes and depleted fish stocks. Partly destroyed in the 1956 earthquake, the town has been sympathetically reconstructed, its white and cyan houses clinging to the cliff face.
Apart from the caldera and the town itself, there are a couple of things to see, including the Naval Museum and the very modest remains of a Venetian castle. It is quieter, though still touristy, alternative to Firá.
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Everyone raves about the sunsets in Oia. But if you are looking for something a little less touristy visiting the laid-back village of Imerovigli is one of the best things to do in Santorini. The views here are just as spectacular. Plus – out of season – it’s easier to find budget accommodation.
Pulling on sturdy boots you can hike for hours along dusty, deserted tracks. Discover abandoned Byzantine churches, flocks of grazing sheep and vines grown in the tight, nest-like circles that protect them from wind and heat.
Hop between the islands of Milos, Naxos, and Amorgos on this romantic tailor-made Greek Island-Hopping Honeymoon. Drive around stunning coastlines, explore mountain villages, visit ancient sites, and luxuriate on golden beaches as you are transfixed by the allure of the Aegean’s turquoise waters.
Santoríni has been designated an AOC domain, and winemaking is the only traditional trade that’s still in rude health. Before 1917, much of the annual production was exported to Russia for ecclesiastical use. For a few euros (or even sometimes for free), winery tours usually allow generous sampling. Many of Santoríni’s most important wineries are scattered around Pýrgos and the south, and offer tours.
Whichever tour you go on, none is complete without a taste of Santoríni’s dry white assýrtiko that’s creating a buzz in sommelier circles and its prized dessert wine, vinsánto, which is used by the Orthodox Church in Holy Communion. Tour prices at the smaller wineries usually include tastings, while samples are available from the larger wineries for a nominal fee.
Discover Santorini by tasting some of its finest volcanic wines on a Wine Tasting Tour & Sunset Viewing. Visit 3 different wineries and taste 12 to 13 different varieties of wine.
Greece is known for its delicious cuisine, and taking a cooking course is one of the best things to do in Santorini. If you love cooking and enjoy learning about new culinary techniques try this Santorini Cooking Class with Wine Tasting & Lunch.
Or cook a 4-course meal with a chef, based on the Cycladic and Mediterranean cuisine. Wander in the brewery and then feast on the full meal with a craft beer while enjoying the scenery.
Pýrgos is one of the oldest settlements on Santorini, a jumble of weatherbeaten houses and alleys that form several concentric circles around the village kástro. It climbs to another Venetian fortress crowned by the seventeenth-century church of Ypapandí (the Presentation of the Panagía), feast day 21 November.
You can clamber around the battlements for sweeping views over the entire island and its Aegean neighbours. Nearby Megalohori, 2.5km southwest of Pýrgos, is home to one of the Cyclades’ most intriguing cultural centres, Symposion. It has an exhibition of ancient and traditional Greek instruments, as well as daily musical presentations, instrument-making workshops and evening concerts.
A road snaking between sand dunes and cave-pocked cliffs leads down to the Vlichada. Here 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. 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. They show 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.
Santoríni’s beaches, on the island’s east coast, are long black stretches of volcanic sand that get blisteringly hot in the afternoon sun. They’re no secret and in the summer the crowds can be overpowering. Among the resorts lie the substantial and beautifully sited remains of ancient Thera.
In the southeast, the family resort of Kamári Beach is popular with package-tour operators, and hence more touristy. Nonetheless, it’s quieter and cleaner than most, with a well-maintained seafront promenade.
Its beach extends several kilometres to the west, through Perívolos beach to Áyios Yeóryios, sheltered by the occasional tamarisk tree and with beach bars dotted along at intervals.
One of the best things to do in Santorini for relaxing is to visit one of the local hot springs. The island is known for its volcanic activity and as a result, there are several hot springs here where you can relax. Some of the best hot springs you can experience in Santorini are:
The boat excursions continue to the relatively unspoilt islet of Thirassiá, once part of Santoríni until sliced off by an eruption in the third century BC. It’s an excellent destination, except during the tour-boat lunch hour rush. At other times, the island is possibly the quietest in the Cyclades, with views as dramatic as any on Santoríni.
The downside is that there’s no proper beach and the tavernas in Kórfos close early. There’s an ATM at the Citizen’s Service office (KEP) but credit or debit cards are normally not accepted on the island. Tour boats head for the village of Kórfos, a stretch of shingle backed by fishermen’s houses and high cliffs, while a few ferries dock at Ríva.
Santorini is famous for its volcanic activity and there are several attractive volcano tours you can check out. First of all, this is a tour of the Thiarassia Islands, where you will visit 2 lava islands, see an active volcano, and relax in the warm water of natural hot springs.
You can also take this cruise to the volcanic islands of the Santorini caldera region. Swim in the hot springs, take in the views from the active volcano and explore the typical villages of Tirassia and Oia.
Evidence of the Minoan colony that once thrived here has been uncovered at the ancient site of Akrotíri at the southwestern tip of the island; the site was inhabited from the Late Neolithic period through to the seventeenth century BC. Allow at least an hour to visit the site, where Minoan walls are preserved up to two storeys high.
One of the main attractions here is the Akrotíri lighthouse, which provides stunning views, especially during sunsets. You can reach the lighthouse in two ways: by car or by the trail leading to it. The hiking trail is not the hardest, but it can be a little bumpy and rocky in places, so sturdy shoes are advised. When you arrive at the top, you can ascend to the lighthouse and enjoy the scenery from the top.
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Greek structures such as doors, windowsills, furniture and church domes are often painted a bright royal blue, following an ancient belief that this shade repels evil. Churches with blue domes are a defining feature of Santorini's architecture and are often used to represent the island in photos and postcards. Blue domes are typically part of churches or shrines and are often placed on higher points or cliffs that overlook the sea.
The most famous examples of blue-domed churches in Santorini are Three Bells of Fira, the Anastasi Church in Imerovigli, and the Agios Theodori Church in Perissa.
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Top image: View of Imerovigli and the Anastasi church, Santorini, Greece © Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock