Santorini Is Simply Spectacular
Few islands have the power to captivate the way Santorini does. Gorgeous and cosmopolitan, it’s famous for that classic Greek island look with white painted houses clustered along narrow winding lanes, perched atop reddish-black volcanic cliffs that tumble down more than a thousand feet to the wide caldera. It’s easy to see how this island, the pearl of the Cycladic archipelago, can lay claim to being the source of the legend of Atlantis, either. Santorini, or “Thera” in Greek, is most celebrated for the dramatic views of its volcanic caldera, formed during a massive eruption around 1646 B.C. That eruption shook up the island—making its center actually collapse—but also created some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
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The best way to arrive in Santorini is by sea, and from the ship, as the caldera comes into view framed by towering cliffs you’ll see why. From the old port, you can make your way to the iconic, bustling main town of Fira, either on foot or by cable car. In Fira, more than 1,100 feet above the sea, you can stroll the whitewashed lanes and savor the views out over the caldera: Odds are you won’t be alone, but part of the magic of Santorini is the energy of people who are there, just like you, to marvel at this geographical wonder. So slow down, relax, have a coffee and maybe do a little island shopping—it’s some of the best in the Aegean. Fira is also the island’s capital and center of nightlife.
The star cultural attraction of Fira is its small but excellent Archaeological Museum. Among the artifacts on display are artful vases and amphorae from the Archaic period, as well as the famous blue monkey frescoes, retrieved from your second cultural must on the island: the ruins of the Minoan Bronze Age city of Akrotiri on the southern edge of the island. Perhaps more so than at any other inland location on Santorini, you should be prepared to be wowed at Akrotiri: This is an active excavation site where thanks to the addition of modern elevated walkways you can explore the buildings and layout of a settlement that was inhabited in the16th century B.C. —that is, long before Santorini’s infamous volcanic eruption buried it all in a mountain of ash, creating a tsunami that wiped out the Minoan civilization in nearby Crete. Colorful frescoes, carved storage vessels and other art treasures continue to be unearthed here. Whether you visit the museum in Fira or Akrotiri first is up to you, but both are truly musts.). It’s a thrilling experience and window into an epic past that shaped world history.
Santorini may not be famous as a beach resort, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any beaches. After a visit to Akrotiri, check out neighboring Kokkini, or Red Beach, a spectacular place for a swim in crystal clear blue waters under the imposing reddish volcanic rocks. Kamari Beach is a beautiful black sand beach near the ruins of ancient Thera, an evocative archaeological site situated on a steep ridge of Messavouno peak, overlooking the Aegean Sea. And south of these ruins, you’ll find Perissa, another beach renowned for its black volcanic sand. Both Kamari and Perissa are found on the eastern side of Santorini. Near the southernmost point of the island, Vlyhada beach features a unique lunar-type landscape.
At just 37 square miles Santorini is a small island, so one of the best things you can do here is to simply walk around and enjoy the amazing, unique-in-the-world views. Quad biking and four-by-four safaris are options, but it’s even exhilarating to simply stroll along the clifftop path between Fira and Oia — count on about three hours if you do but it’s time well-spent. The village of Imerovigli, midway along the path, is actually the village with the highest elevation on the island, hence its nickname “the balcony of the Aegean.”
The clifftop village of Oia, on the northern tip of Santorini, is famous for its glorious sunset views high over the caldera and nearby Therasia island. In this quintessential Cycladic island village, blue-domed churches and white-painted houses perched on the cliff—many of them actually dug into the volcanic rock—compete for your attention. There are myriad enchanting restaurants and boutiques—be sure to pop into the justly famous Atlantis Books and browse to your heart’s content—mixed in with the flowing whitewashed houses and blue-domed churches. If you prefer outdoor activities, you can also descend around 200 very scenic steps to have a look around the idyllic little port of Ammoudi. If you’re feeling somewhat bewitched by it all, or that you could stay a month, don’t worry: That’s just Santorini working its timeless magic.
You may wish to explore some of Santorini’s unique culinary heritage, too. Did you know that thanks to the island’s rich volcanic soil the cherry tomatoes grown here are exceptionally tasty? You can learn more about them at the Tomato Industrial Museum. The island is also known for its homegrown fava beans and capers, and then of course there is the wine! The unique soil and microclimate have endowed Santorini with a winemaking heritage that stretches back thousands of years. The vineyards around villages like Megalochori and elsewhere are most famous for their Assyrtiko and other esteemed white wine varietals—a tasting and tour at one of the local wineries is an enjoyable as well as an educational experience.
As far as dining, well, it’s frankly hard to find a restaurant anywhere in Santorini that isn’t good, but for one that pairs amazing, largely locally sourced food (think homegrown tomatoes, fava beans and capers) with a fabulous caldera view, try one of the best: Argo Restaurant in Fira. Great food meets gorgeous views there at Throubi, while posh cocktails are best savored at Buddha-Bar Beach at the La Maltese estate (the bar is actually perched on the cliff, facing the sea) in Imerovigli. Or have a memorable meal with a stunning view over sea and sky at Mylos Bar-Restaurant in little Firostefani, situated about halfway between Imerovigli and Fira.
While it’s amazing to admire the shimmering blue sea surface of the flooded caldera from the cliff tops, a boat excursion will bring the Santorini’s volcanic remnants into sharper focus. This is the best way to see the black lava islets of Palea and Nea Kameni (Greek for “old and new burnt islands”) You can take a dip in the hot springs on Palea Kameni and inspect the edge of Santorini’s still active volcanic crater on Nea Kameni. Santorini is a glamorous destination by any measure, but these geological dramas are reminders that nature is what put the island on the map—literally!