Santorini is a small, crescent-shaped Greek island that has easily become one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. White and blue villages. Crystal clear water. Freshly grilled fish. Those pictures on Instagram don't lie - Santorini is gorgeous. They just don't show the whole thing. I made sure to manage my own expectations before visiting so that I could really enjoy myself.
Planning a once-in-a-lifetime vacation can seem daunting, so I've put together this post to share when to go, things to do, where to stay, and what we learned along the way. So, let's get started..
A few tips before you start planning:
Santorini's official name in Greek is Thira (Thera). You'll see it listed interchangeably.
Santorini is a volcanic island - technically, it's an active volcano. Thousands of years ago, the center of the island collapsed into the sea creating an open sea lagoon. The sea lagoon is called the caldera. You can see the caldera from the entire western side of the island, not just Oia.
The public buses in Santorini are called KTEL. They run regularly and will take you around the island, but they're not super reliable. You will need local currency for the bus.
Greeks eat dinner late. Really late. Usually after 9pm. We enjoyed a few dinners at sunset, and a few dinners after sunset.
When to go: I'd avoid going from mid-June through mid-September, because it will be super crowded. Instead, plan your visit in April/May/June/Late September/October are your best bet for summer weather and slightly less crowds. It can be a little chilly at night after the sun sets, so just make sure you bring a light laying piece to keep you warm.
How to get to there: If you live outside of Europe, you'll have to fly to Athens first. We used that as an excuse to spend a few days in Athens - click here to read more about our time in Athens. We flew into Santorini (JTR) from Athens using Olympic Air. Olympic Air offers really great flight options from Athens to Santorini and it only takes about an hour. There is also a ferry that runs to and from the island, but it takes close to eight hours (each way) and strikes among the workers are common. We really didn't want to risk our ferry being cancelled or give up almost two full days of exploring, so we spent a few extra bucks to fly and I am so glad we did. It was painless, enjoyable, and super quick.
Where to stay: My philosophy when traveling is to find an affordable option that's in a central, easy to access location. The reality is that I tend to spend very little time in my hotel room because I prefer to be out exploring. I love the idea of staying in a cliffside villa, but I just couldn't justify the price. Instead, we stayed at Petini's Place in Fira. It's in a great location in central Fira, a short walk to the bus station, has a simple rooftop for watching the sunset, and it was super affordable compared to other options I found. It's also located above the owners souvenir shop with easy gifts for your loved ones!
Fira is a great starting point for those that want to see and do everything. The one downside is that it's where the majority of cruise ship passengers spend their time on shore. It really wasn't an issue for us because we spent a lot of time during the day on other parts of the island, and they were gone by the time we returned!
* There's a fancy calendar (here) that shows you what ships will be in Santorini, when they'll arrive/depart, and the maximum number of passengers.
Other areas to consider staying:
I'd totally look into staying in Imerovigli if we return. I'd also probably book a hotel with a pool - there's not a ton of beach options in Santorini and a pool is your best bet for cooling down and relaxing. Imerovigli as a little more off the beaten path which means less tourists for a much better value - and the view is just as good from here. There are some great restaurants in Imerovigli, and it's only about a 20-30 minute walk from Fira.
None of the towns on the western side of the island are close to the beach. You're hanging from a massive cliff and will have great views from your pool (if your hotel has one), but no beach... If you want a beach, stay in Kamari. It's close to the airport and you'll definitely get a better hotel price by staying here. It's pretty easy to get around the island if you decide to save money but still want to explore the island and see the famous Santorini sunsets.
Oia is the most famous place to stay in Santorini. It is known for spectacular sunsets, though I found the sunset to be equally as good, if not better, in Fira. I also noticed that prices in Oia were higher than most other places on the island. It's a nice area to stay, and I'd probably stay there if I got a good deal, but it's definitely not make-it or break-it for me.
No matter what area you decide to stay, I highly recommend using Booking.com to book your accommodations in Greece. It has more availability for rooms at hotels or private villas than Airbnb or Expedia. I've used them for a lot of international trips and have always had an excellent experience. It's super safe, with real reviews, and they have a great cancellation policy in case anything happens.
What to do:
Hike to Skaros Rock
Relax on a Catamaran Cruise
Swim in the Caldera
Get Lost... Seriously
Rent a Car or ATV
Hike to Skaros Rock Almost everything I read while planning for my trip suggested a hike from Fira to Oia (or vice versa). This is a much longer hike than I thought and I was so sweaty and tired by the time we got to Oia that I didn't even want to explore the beautiful town. Instead of hiking from Fira to Oia, I recommend hiking Skaros Rock. This a much easier hike in Imerovigli that is 100 times better and there's a hidden chapel built into the cliff... need I say more? You can take a cab or bus to Oia later in the day or that evening to watch the sunset.
From Fira, walk north out of town towards Skaros Rock. You'll pass through Firosefani first and continue following signs to Oia. You'll reach a fork in the road when you reach the Blue Note restaurant in Imerovigli, signs will encourage you to go right, but you will want to go left for Skaros Rock. You'll see the Church of Anastasi, then continue right. The path down (left) to Skaros Rock starts just below Mezzo restaurant, as seen here. If you need more direction to the path itself, Santorini Dave does a really good job of explaining it with photos.
As you walk towards Skaros Rock, you'll have two choices. To your right, is a path that leads you to the top of Skaros Rock and is a pretty intense hike from what fellow travelers told us. To your left is a path that leads you down the mountain. Keep following the path to the hidden church at the bottom! We were the only people there for at least 20 minutes and it was so peaceful!
Relax on a Catamaran Cruise There are a number of catamaran companies to choose from in Santorini and they all offer amazing views, are pretty similar in price, and operate similar routes. We used Caldera Yachting for a daytime catamaran cruise and I could not have asked for a better experience. They also offer round-trip transfers from your hotel. The option we chose (Caldera Gold Cruise) sailed from Vlichada to Ammoudi Bay (Oia). We made a two stops for swimming and snorkeling, plus a third stop for lunch (cooked on the boat). The food was great, wine was free, and the staff was so helpful.
I am really happy that we did a daytime cruise (departs around 9am, returning at 3pm). It allowed us to spend the afternoon in Ammoudi Bay, cliff jumping and eating fresh seafood while watching the sunset from the port. There are sunset cruises available, but I think the sunset is better from the island. It's up to you!
Swim in the Aegean Sea at Ammoudi Bay Ammoudi Bay is the most charming port tucked below the town of Oia. Known for its fresh seafood and incredible cliff jumping spots, I was determined to get here during out trip. Since our catamaran cruise ended in Oia, we let them know that we didn't need a transfer back to the hotel and opted to take the bus home after spending the afternoon here.
Facing the water in Ammoudi bay, head left, through the restaurants and around Agios Nikolaos rock. There are no signs, so you just have to trust the weathered path to get you there. You'll likely see some other swimmers jumping in and my boyfriend Mike jumped off the adjacent rock. Don't leave Santorini without exploring Ammoudi Bay! Get Lost Seriously. You're on a small island and will eventually find your way back. One of my favorite ways to spend our time was wandering the narrow pathways, searching for the famous blue domes, and taking it all in. It felt like each one we turned gave us another beautiful view.
Rent a Car or ATV On our last day, we rented a car to drive around the island. This allowed us to visit a few less-visited sites. In the morning, we drove out to the Black Beach, around Pyrgos, and to Akrotiri Lighthouse. After grabbing lunch, we spent the afternoon in Kamari, laying on beach chairs and eating ice cream. It was a dream.