Watching a fiery sunset fade into the sea, knowing that beneath the surface lies a sunken volcano – it sounds like something from Greek Mythology. But it’s not. That’s just Santorini for you. From the white Cycladic houses dotting the steep slopes of the crater rim, to those postcard blue-domed roofs, and hotels with infinity pools galore, there’s something magical about Santorini that keeps this Greek island ever-popular.
The question then is where to start exploring? Given most visitors only stop by for a day or two, and given the somewhat depressingly high number of visitors, it’s important to plan your time on Santorini. In this guide, I’ll share the best things to do in Santorini so you can enjoy this wonderful island to its fullest. At the end, I’ve included a map of the places listed in this article.
1. Soak in the hot springs
One of the most popular things to do in Santorini is actually not on the island itself but in the waters that surround the island because, where there are volcanoes, there are natural hot springs. Hop on a boat tour for the day and not only will you get the chance to see the island’s dramatic topography from the sea, but you’ll get to slip into the natural hot springs surrounding Nea Kameni island. Many of the boat tours include sightseeing in Santorini and the surrounding islands. Recommended tour: Volcanic Islands Cruise with Hot Springs.
2. Visit Perissa Black Sand Beach
Another phenomena typical of volcanic islands is black sand. If you’ve never set eyes on this curious beach colour, prepare to be wowed. The most famous black sand beach on Santorini is Perissa with neighbouring Perivolos. They’re also two of the most accessible beaches on Santorini (since some of the beaches are at the foot of steep crater-rim cliffs). Perissa is southwest of Fira, less than half an hour away by car. The beach offers a long swathe of sand and has good facilities including sunbeds, water-sports, restaurants, cafes and bars. Perivolos beach is more lively (think: parties) than Perissa. Just weave one way or the other down the sand depending on your vibe.
What makes sand black? In short, it’s the combination of cooled volcanic lava, pumice and ash. If for nothing else, go for nature’s pedicure.
3. Check into a luxurious hotel
If you’re not visiting on a day trip, and are prepared to splurge a little, checking into one of the many luxurious hotels is one of the most indulgent things to do in Santorini. I’m not talking fancy hotels with chandeliers in the lobby. I’m talking tiny boutique, white-washed hotels that climb up the cliffs and offer infinity pools with views all the way out to sea. While the hotels of Santorini draw in the honeymoon crowds, I’ve seen groups of girlies, families, couples and singles all treating themselves to a once-in-a-lifetime-stay. Prices may not be as horrific as you expect, especially if you’re visiting in low season. Where to stay? So many to choose from. I suggest grabbing a glass of Greek wine and browsing the Best Luxury Hotels In Santorini here.
4. Beach hop Santorini’s beaches
I’ve not counted the number of beaches on Santorini but since there is a heck of a lot of coastline, it’s fair to say that there’s more than enough to go beach hopping. Even better, they come in a multitude of colours from red beaches to black beaches to regular brown sand beaches. Be aware that some beaches can only be reached with a downward (and later, upward) hike. Here are some of the best beaches on Santorini:
- Red Beach – reached by a steep, rocky path, it’s worth the effort to step on the red sand. Surrounded by impressive red boulders.
- Perissa Black Sand Beach – long swathe of black sand, southwest of Fira.
- Perivolos Beach – another black sand beach, neighbouring Perissa and popular for beach parties.
- White Beach – reachable by boat taxi, the beach gets its name thanks to the towering white cliffs that surround it. No facilities, so pack a picnic.
- Monolithos Beach – a family friendly beach that has a playground and volley-ball.
Tip: if you like beach hopping on volcanic Greek Islands, you should visit Milos. Here’s Your Complete Travel Guide to Milos, Greece.
5. Cool off in an infinity pool
Ok, so we already covered checking into a luxury hotel in Santorini but not every luxury hotel has an infinity pool and not every infinity pool is in a luxury hotel. So, if chilling out with an icy drink and infinity pool views are top of your list, make sure your hotel has an infinity pool. Here are three of the best hotels with infinity pools in Santorini:
- Grace Hotel – this is the caldera’s largest infinity pool in the lovely town of Imerovigli near Fira.
- Astarte Suites – located in Akrotiri, this would be my choice – full 5-star luxury in a spectacular location.
- Canaves Oia Suites & Spa – with sun loungers sunk into the pool, and a top spot in Oia, what more do you need?
6. Dine on Greece’s fine Mediterranean food
I’m always glowing when I come back from Greece and it’s not just the sun. Fresh from the land and sea, the Mediterranean food of Greece is worth the trip alone, and Santorini has some of the finest restaurants in which to enjoy it. You could do your research online for where to eat, but my favourite way to choose is to wander by, sniff the air and literally follow my nose. If you’re looking for some suggestions on what to eat, I’ve written a list of traditional Greek food to try. When picking a restaurant, don’t just focus on the sea views, I had a fantastic lunch at Avocado, near Imerovigli, not a bit of sea to be seen.
Safety Tip: A travel friend has her wallet swiped from her bag in a restaurant in Oia. Zip bags or wear wallets to keep your cards safe.
7. Visit Akrotiri archaeological site
The Pompeii of Santorini, Akrotiri is a Cycladic Bronze Age settlement that was obliterated during a volcanic eruption. The prehistoric city was covered in ash, preserving the stunning artwork and frescoes of this ancient city. Although buried in the 16th century, the city dates back to the 5th century BC so it really is a glimpse of a time so long ago it’s barely possible to fathom.
There are some excellent tours to Akrotiri. Some focus on the archaeological site while others will combine it with a visit to other Santorini highlights like a tour of the whole island, Akrotiri red sand beach and the famous Oia sunset. It can be a great value way to explore Santorini.
8. Step on Red Sand Beach
Red Sand Beach, known also as Kokkini beach and Akrotiri red sand due to its location close to Akrotiri, has to be one of the most out-of-this-world sights of Santorini. Ever wondered what it might be like to feel like you’ve visited Mars, that’s what it’s like visiting a red sand beach. The first red sand beach I visited was in Hawaii. There are a few of these volcanic beaches dotted around the globe, and the one on Santorini is just as dramatic. Add staggering red cliffs and the blue of the Aegean sea and you won’t be needing any filters on your photos. You can reach it by car, bus and boat. Beware, it’s a scramble downhill by foot and there can be rockslides. You may want to go on a tour for extra safety.
This Santorini Bus Tour is a fabulous option because it packs in Akrotiri archaeological site, Akrotiri Red Sand Beach, Perissa Black Sand Beach, a wine museum and the Oia sunset as well as a few other stops.
9. Watch the Santorini sunset in Oia
This is most likely what drew you to Santorini in the first place, right? The world-famous Oia sunset. Hot fiery orange skies contrasting against the blue and white of Santorini, it’s picture perfect. The sunset can be a bit of a bun-fight in summer months with tourists vying for caldera-edge spots from which to watch the sun setting. To be honest, it put me off a bit – prompting me to write an article: Is Santorini Worth It? Complete with pictures of what to expect. But I returned to Santorini, and on my last trip, I did it ‘right’ watching the Santorini sunset from a luxury yacht. That would be my best tip – book a sunset cruise, less chance of your view being obscured by an elbow in the face.
10. Hike the caldera from Fira to Oia
Walking the caldera rim between Fira and Oia not only offers some of the most dramatic views on Santorini, it’s by far the fastest way to escape the crowds. It’s a challenging walk in the heat, clocking over 10 km (6 miles) with little to no shade, but if you take it steady and pack water, it’s worth it. The walk is very well sign posted and the Google Maps route is very accurate, especially for finding the start of the trail. Where Google Maps isn’t so accurate is on timings. It will have you believe you can crush it in just over 2hrs but 3hrs is more accurate. At one point I was picking my way across a path of scree, which took closer to 30 minutes versus Google’s predicted 10 mins. It’s all about the terrain and heat, which Google maps doesn’t take into account. Plus, stopping for picture and to poke a nose at the infinity pool hotels. Obviously.
Hiking tips: there are no toilets after Imerovigli but there is a small stall with seating selling cold drinks about an hour outside Oia. If you don’t want to do the whole walk, even a short wander from Fira to Imerovigli for lunch is great for escaping the crowds and getting some stunning views.
11. Ride the Fira cable car
Santorini has two ports. Athinios (which is also known as New Port or Thira Port) where the public ferries arrive. Skala or Old Port is where the tender boats (small ferrying boats) arrive from the cruise ships and private yachts. I mention this because if you arrive from a cruise ship, you’re in for a treat – there is a fun cable car that will take you to the top of the caldera rim, to the town of Fira. Of course, you can climb the 300 or so steps to the top but I’d recommend the Fira cable car for the views. Even if you don’t arrive into the Old Port, I’d still suggest taking a round trip on the cable car for the sights. The ride costs €6 per person, one-way.
12. Go wine tasting in Santorini
I consider myself a bit of a wine expert (as well as this website, I run Prosecco wine tours in Italy) so I’m always fascinated to find vineyards in challenging environments. Not only does Santorini wine production have to battle with volcanic ash and rock soil, the topography of the island means it’s battered by winds. Still, wine has been produced in the region for centuries and wine tasting is one of the most popular things to do in Santorini. The best way to do it is to take a wine tour in Santorini. That way you can usually explore a few wineries and learn about the local viticulture, with local pick-up and drop off usually included. This Santorini wine tour includes 3 traditional wineries.
Did you know: There are vineyards in Thailand that survive the monsoon seasons.
13. Explore Imerovigli
I’ve alluded to Imerovigli more than once in this article – as a place to stay with its infinity pools, as a good spot for lunch and as a place en route from Fira to Oia. But Imerovigli is worth a visit even if you’re not checking into one of the hotels or doing the hike. It is a relatively short meander from Fira – about 30 minutes – and in that time, you’ll shake off most of the crowds because unlike the two main towns on Oia and Fira, most people pass Imerovigli by. And that’s a shame because the town teeters on the brink of the caldera rim, offering stunning sea-view restaurants and an old-Santorini charm.
14. Shop in Oia
Clothes, art, jewellery, handbags, local wine, herbs, honey and olive oil – if you’re looking to take home a Santorini souvenir, Oia is the place to shop. Yes, perhaps the prices are inflated but the shops are glam and the products high quality making Oia an all round luxury shopping spot. I picked up a canvas print of Santorini that sits in my kitchen and casts me back to hot Greek summer days every time I see it.
15. Take the bus from Fira to Oia
If your legs aren’t up to the hike and your budget isn’t up to the taxi ride (it’s around €30-€35 each way), taking the public bus between Fira and Oia is a great way to get between the two main towns of Santorini while seeing a bit of the island. The bus is run by KTEL Santorini and runs every half hour (after 10 a.m.). The journey takes 25 minutes and includes a stop in Imerovigli. Tickets cost €1.80 one-way. You pay on the bus and must have cash (cards not accepted). Here is the Santorini bus schedule.
Tip: the buses aren’t always strictly on time and can get busy close to ‘back on the cruise ship’ time so give yourself plenty of time in peak season, in case the bus is late or full.
16. See the blue-domed churches
The biggest surprise of Santorini was how little there is by way of blue domed roofs. Eveyr travel picture I’d ever seen of the island suggested that a blue domed roof was close to law on the island. Turns out, there are only a few blue domed roofs and the pictures are all of the same spots, just taken at different angles. Still, you’ll want to seek them out because don’t you want the exact same images in your own photos? If you want to see ‘those domed roofs’ – the three clustered together with views out to Oia and the sea, you need to follow some very specific directions – once again, Google won’t help you. I won’t write the directions here because plenty of people have already done the job for me. But it’s just a short walk out of Oia.
17. Take a boat trip around Santorini
Santorini’s geology and topography is most definitely going to be best appreciated by boat and if you have a few days on the island or want to escape the heat and the crowds, hopping on a boat trip around the island is going to be one of the best ways to enjoy the sights of Santorini. There are many different boat trips to choose from, whether it’s a catamaran cruise with an open bar (read: booze cruise) or a sunset cruise with snorkelling stops and dinner, you’re spoilt for choice.
18. Hike up Skaros Rock
If you find yourself on the hike from Fira to Oia and you want to add a bit of extra effort, take a side trip to Skaros Rock. You’ll see this rocky outcrop as you do the hike – it’s hard to miss, being around 20 metres high. Located just after Imerovigli, the rock was created by volcanic activity and later housed a castle. Today, you can hike to the top of Skaros Rock. The climb is a punishing set of concrete steps that can feel endless under the summer sun but the views across Santorini are complete worth it. In total, it will add about 1 to 1.5 hrs to your Fira to Oia hike.
Map of Santorini
Here you can find my Map of Things To Do In Santorini.
Best time to visit Santorini
When is the best time to visit Santorini? That really will depend on what kind of traveller you are. June to September offers the best weather, with the hottest temperatures in August. But it is also peak season and corresponds with school holidays in Europe over July and August.
Temperatures are markedly cooler from November to April, with January seeing the wettest weather. Shoulder season, April, May and October is one of my favourite seasons to travel where you get warm-enough weather and lower crowds.
Where is Santorini
Santorini forms part of Greece’s Cycladic islands in the Aegean Sea. It’s located around 200 km Southeast of Athens.
That’s my guide to the best things to do in Santorini. Got any questions or suggestions? Leave a comment below.
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