Santorini, arguably the most popular island in the famed “Greek Isles”, is iconic. Featured on seemingly every travel commercial, photographed in nearly every magazine, and dreamed about by every traveler who hasn’t been there, it’s high on the list of places considered a “most beautiful destination in the world.” In such a place, concern about the “things to do” in such a place is typically non-existent. In fact, Santorini is no different, but what the island offers can be sensory overload to a traveler who has yearned to go there, to see the blue-capped domes and white-washed walls that adorn the rocky face of the island.
Knowing what to do in Santorini is equally about knowing what not to do. No matter the time of year you visit Santorini, there will be tourists. Everywhere. They’re going to want to see the same things you do, and as is so often the case with a truly popular destination you want to treat the “bucket list” itinerary items the same way you should anywhere else.
See the thing you’re “supposed” to see.
Get your picture.
Then… leave. Find something you need to see.
We’re going to tell you what those things are. The beauty of Santorini, like anywhere, is on the minds and tongues of the locals. Ask them, and they’ll tell you what’s worth seeing and what isn’t. Ask them where to eat, as we did, and you’ll be glad you did. Follow the masses and eat where your fellow tourists eat? It’ll just be another good meal, albeit unmemorable.
But, why travel like that? Why go for the conventional when the extraordinary is just a matter or getting lost and stumbling on what’s great? We’ll help you get there, and yes, pay a hearty adieu to those things you can’t go without seeing.
Santorini isn’t all fashion photo shoots with scrawny models posed over pools of tepid blue. In fact, that’s not Santorini at all.
First, Santorini is Greek. From bone to flesh, from marrow to meat, Santorini is every bit as Greek as Athens, and her history is as remarkable as that of her famed overlord to the north (which we also love). If you want to feel the soul of Santorini, what really exists beyond what’s slathered on postcards and printed on t-shirts, go to Megalochori.
Santorini’s largest traditional Greek village, Megalochori is located halfway down the island’s west coast between Fira (also known as Thera), and the southernmost ruined city of Akrotiri. Here, blue tile works in tandem with white stucco to paint narrow, rolling streets while cats and kids stream across in flashes of color. Smells of Sunday scents pour out of modest homes, seemingly drawing you further and further down the quaint and quiet alleys.
This isn’t the Santorini you were sold on, but it’s the one you want to see. A shop keeper sweeping here. A restauranteur unloading fresh catch there for his closet establishment. A child learning to ride her bicycle in the warmth of the blue morning.
It’s idyllic, it’s beautiful, and it’s real. So, get out of the pool. Get a cab down the coast, and simply get lost in the streets of Megalochori. Stroll. Eat. Sit. Watch. Breathe. Live.
Eat at a Small, Local, Greek Restaurant
The food in Santorini is excellent, and includes traditional Greek fare, as well as more local choices in dips, spreads, and mezze platters.
Here’s your key to finding a great restaurant in Santorini – ask the locals. The locals will tell you where to go, and more importantly, which locations will provide more of a touristic feel and are to be avoided. Our favorite, located in Fira near the primary strip at the top of the hill, is Naoussa. The romantic setting is ideal for couples, and provides a great view of the caldera and hillside.
The Ruins of Akrotiri
To understand Santorini, as you would to understand anywhere, it helps to know what makes that place different from a historical perspective. Ask yourself “what happened here that hasn’t happened anywhere else?” If you can’t answer that question, you haven’t gone deeply enough.
Going further south from Megalochori is the small enclosed archaeological preservation named Akrotiri. Akrotiri, one of the most fascinating excavations in the world, laid under sut, rubble, rock, and stone for more than 3,500 years until its rediscovery in 1967.
Once inhabited by the Minoans, Akrotiri is believed by many to be the inspiration behind the tales of Atlantis, and was written about by sages dating back to Plato. Interestingly, much of the Minoan influence has been successfully reclaimed form the rock, including pottery, painted frescoes depicting every day life, family, and religious practices, and the brilliance of the Minoan builders is evident in the discovery.
Long before we possessed the knowledge of load-bearing, building tall structures, and advanced construction, the Minoans at Akrotiri were building multiple level structures (up to 50 feet in height) that archaeologists are still working to fully unearth.
Check out the Open Air Cinema
This is one of those things that you simply can’t get anywhere else, and certainly not in the type of setting found on Santorini.
Kamari Open Air Theater is exactly what it sounds like – an outdoor theater. But the well-shaded, relaxing environment is also a place that serves great food, great cocktails, and provides an idyllic way to enjoy sunset on Santorini. In doing this, you turn the page from the Old Santorini to the new, enjoying the next-generation thought on what it means to provide an artistically immersive setting – something Santorini has been known for since its earliest records.
The mix at Kamari Village is varied, as the theater plays new releases as well as some old classics, and often English-subtitled Greek classics pair well with a house wine and a small mezze platter. It’s one of the experiences that draws you back to Santorini.
Find the Perfect Spot for the Sunset in Oia
Yes, this is one you’ve heard before, but it simply has to be on the list to prevent being disingenuous.
The sunset viewed from Oia in Santorini is among the best in the world – it’s simply undeniable. Whatever the mixture is that manifests this evening magic, whether it’s the utter focus of each and every individual on the hillside silently reflecting on another day’s close or the utter beauty of the far away hills dipping into the depths of blue, it seems the setting sun connects with you.
Or rather, you connect with it.
Either way, the sunset in Oia can’t be overstated, and can’t be left off any list. Yet, how do you get this perfect view in Oia? Can you simply go anywhere in this small town and get the same alluring effect?
Well, no actually.
However, we stumbled upon the spot that’s ubiquitous for the setting suns and blue domes you lusted over in travel photos, and I owe it to Tracy’s keen senses! When you park at Oia, you’ll cross over and up into the main center of town. Walk past the vendors, most of which will be on your left, until you find the primary walkway going left (from the lower end of the hill) toward the right (where the sun is setting).
Walk along this path until you start to see small “nooks” open on your left. These almost look like short, uphill alleys, but it’s really only a matter of 15 to 20 feet of the main road. Keep working your way into and out of these little “nooks” until you find the one with the view you want. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a great shot of one of the iconic blue domes, as well as the setting sun at Oia.
Make absolutely sure that you’re on the caldera side of the town, however. Many people thought you could wrap your way around the higher elevated side of the hill to get an ideal vantage point, but the angle and experience simply isn’t the same.
Lastly, once you’ve found the spot you want you’re going to have to anchor in! As the sun moves further toward setting, others are going to get keen to your hidden photographic oasis, and are surely going to want to hoard in on your territory. Find a good spot, and be willing to hang there for 30-45 minutes, otherwise you might just lose your view!
View the Backside of Santorini
One of the most beautiful sites on Santorini isn’t the caldera, it isn’t just about the sunset in Oia or viewing the black sand beaches of Akrotiri, but actually exploring the other side of the Santorini hillside.
You see, when landing in Santorini you’ll find yourself on the island’s eastern half, separated by the peak of the hills, from where the main area of Fira Town sits, just west of this central apex. Most of what people want to see in Santorini is on the front or western side, which faces the caldera. Rightfully so? Of course, it’s gorgeous. But, don’t do yourself the disservice of thinking that’s the only side of Santorini there is to see.
Santorini’s eastern side is rougher, with more complicated terrain and is often quite windy. This makes landing a plane on Santorini quite the adventure, but it also changes the landscape from the caldera-facing side, giving Santorini an increased variety of appearance.
The drive from Fira to Oia, which is mainly done just on the backside of this hill, is one of the more remarkable views on the island. The roads, somewhat narrow and undulating, make you feel like you’re off-roading in Nepal moreso than driving to watch the sun simmer as she sets! Additionally, this is the primary area where you’ll find activities such as cliff-diving, ATV riding, and even some surfing.
Lastly, this flatter, more rustic side of the island also contains highly nutrient-dense soil, which is responsible for the many wines that are grown in Santorini. So, if you’re an oenophile who is looking to find out a little more about the wines of Greece and Santorini specifically, you’ll be able to find educational tours throughout this area.
Our favorite place to have wine in Santorini is Santo Wines, which is a winery central to the island. Additionally, on the southern side of Santorini, Santo Wines has a bar, restaurant, and wine tasting facility that provides on of the best views of the island, and is open for day trips and wine tasting tourists!
Not Denying What We All Know…
Santorini is so ubiquitous with travel, and especially luxury travel, so of course you want to swim in the caldera, pose on the blanched cliffs, and gaze at the rocky hillside. Yes. Do those things. Just don’t stop there.
Santorini is a near-ideal place to simply get lost. You quite literally cannot go wrong.