Villages dramatically etched into the side of a giant volcano, crystal blue seas and one of the best sunsets in Greece make Santorini one of the stand-out Greek islands
When you've slept in the open air overnight on the deck of a ferry in the Aegean Sea and you wake up only to find an imposing, rugged volcano in front of you - as I did when I caught my first glimpse of Santorini - you can't fail to be impressed. Spend a few days on the island and you definitely won't lose sight of the fact that you're on, well, exactly that - a volcano.
73 sq km in land and home to about 13,000 people, Santorini was formed by a massive volcanic explosion. The highest point of the island still stands at 300m, with a sheer drop down to the sea. This makes for some spectacular viewing wherever you are, none more so than when eating in a restaurant carved into the side of the cliff at Fira, Santorini's largest town. The cost of a meal increases accordingly with the quality of the views. The Flame of the Volcano (main street; tel 0286-25245) is reasonably priced with good views. Make sure you time your visit with the sunset, which will enhance the experience considerably.
Many a picture postcard of the Greek islands features those iconic Greek buildings, clean and simple in design and incorporating a characteristic blue and white exterior. Swathes of these are found in Fira, behind all of the restaurants which hang over the Aegean. It's worth spending at least half a day strolling around and viewing some of them, taking in the atmosphere and calling in to some of the souvenir shops and Greek tavernas. Apart from the stunning views and Greek culture, there are a couple of things of note to take in as you walk around. The Museum of Prehistoric Thira (Tel: +30 22860 23217; open Tuesday to Sunday, 8.30am to 3pm; €2) is near the bus station. Head a bit further out from the main shopping area and you'll find the Archaeological Museum (Tel +30 22860 22217; open Tuesday - Sunday 8.30am - 3pm). As their name suggests, both feature historic artefacts relating to the history of Santorini.
It's not just Fira itself which is good for simply walking around while doing little else by way of sightseeing. Much of Santorini, in fact, is just great for strolling around. A great way to get most of the way from Fira to Oia, the second largest settlement on the island, is via a coastal path. Like Fira, Oia is filled with Greek art and jewellery shops. It's much less touristy but no less attractive than its big brother though - white and sandstone buildings dramatically located, usually against the backdrop of glorious sunshine or shimmering orange sunsets.
The coastal walk takes two to three hours one way. Make sure you wear sensible footwear (it's rocky in parts) and take plenty of drinking water. The walk will give you a good perspective of the island's dramatic coastline. It's highly unlikely you'll see hordes of people en-route either, so it's one of the best places on the island for stopping to pause and reflect on its location and, while glimpsing at the other islands around it, thinking how exactly it might have been formed. The walk actually runs from Oia to Imerovigli, which is 3km away from Fira. The bus from Fira to Oia stops here though - catch it from the main square in the capital. If you're starting out in Oia the pathway's easy to find, just walk back in the direction of Fira along the main path from the square in Oia and you should stumble across it.
Buses run hourly between Fira and Oia (30 mins, €1-2 one way) if you don't feel up to the walk. Fira is also the place to catch buses to Kamari and Parissa. These are both beach resorts separated by a giant headland rock known as Ancient Thira. You can walk up the cliff, visit the ancient city (small entrance fee payable) and then continue back down the other side on to the neighbouring resort. Watch out for the high winds though. The walk takes about 1 hour each way. It's easier to start out from Kamari as the walk follows the road up to Ancient Thira. From Parissa, it's a bit more tricky. Head away from the beach off the beaten track towards the rock and you'll eventually come to the start of the walk.
Ancient Thira itself is well worth a look. People lived here thousands of years ago, with large chunks of the city still intact and still well formed enough for you to be able to picture yourself there. You don't need your imagination to appreciate the amazing views though - just enjoy them.
Where to stay
The rooms at Katerina and John's in Parissa (next to the San Antonio bus stop) are small but it does have a swimming pool. At €14 a night it's cheap as well, and it has the bonus of friendly owners. Like most hostels in Santorini, they'll meet you on arrival at the port of Athinios if you book in advance.
Santorini can be reached by air or sea.
By ferry, the journey from Piraeus, the main port in Athens, takes just under eight hours and costs around €35. All ferries arrive at Athinios, a few miles outside of Fira – you can catch a taxi from here to your accommodation, or let your hotel know in advance when you’ll be arriving and they’ll meet you at the port for a free transfer. Be prepared for a bombardment of hotels and hostels offering you rooms the moment you step off the ferry. Daily services are operated by several ferry companies, some overnight. The best companies to look for are Blue Star Ferries (www.bluestarferries.gr), Hellenic Seaways (www.hellenicseaways.gr) and Anek Lines (www.anek.gr), who all operate services to Santorini.
You could also visit Santorini as part of an island hopping trip. The island is in the Cyclades group. Ferries to Santorini stop off at Ios, Paros and Naxos on the way from Piraeus. Journey times from Santorini are Ios - 35 mins; Naxos - 2 hrs; Paros - 3 hr 15 minutes. These are slightly reduced if you take a high-speed hovercraft, usually operated by Hellenic Seaways.
By air, all flights arrive at Thira airport, a couple of km from town. You can catch direct flights to Santorini from several airports in the UK and Germany, as well as Scandinavian countries. From other international destinations, regular flights operate to Santorini from Athens International Airport.