I had no expectations going into Santorini, and perhaps that’s the best way to first get to know it. I had done very little reading about it prior or during our trip, just knew it was our last stop before flying back to Portugal. My education on Santorini began when Hariz, who we rented our car from, picked us up at the ferry port and brought us to his office, a few blocks from our beachfront hotel. On the way he told us about Thera, the volcano, and what we should see and do in Santorini.
Incidentally, transportation is essential on Santorini, where on other islands in the Cyclades, not so much. There are tours you can take that will move you around, or you can do it on your own. There’s public buses, but for many people it comes down to either a car, scooter or ATV for freedom of time and movement. Distances can be long and a long time on a scooter or ATV and they quickly lose their appeal. And although I love moving around an island on a scooter, the way people drive (I’m speaking mostly about how the tourists drive), and how busy the island can get, I felt much safer in a car.
Santorini is, essentially, one big volcano, which is quite evident when viewed from above. It’s islands form a circular band around a core island, where the volcano is still somewhat active today. One island makes up most of this outer, formed during its last and largest blast about 1,500 years ago. The interior of the volcano collapsed, leaving vertical cliffs (calderas) where today we find small villages perched on the edge and flow down the caldera, with the most amazing and dramatic architecture. The exterior of the volcano walls slope gently down to black volcanic beaches on its southeasterly shore.
The villages famous in travel photos are those perched along the caldera, primarily Oia, Imerovigli and Fira. Then there are a few villages on the back, upper part of the island worth visiting, such as Emporio, Pyrgos, Megalochoria, and Akrotiri. And then there are seaside towns such as Perissa, Perivolos and Kamari, worth visiting, if you want to take in the beach.
Where should you stay? Well, the cliffside towns offer great views, amazing apartments and villas, dunk pools, incredible sunsets, but can be quite expensive, often crowded, and you lose a lot of privacy with thousands walking by daily looking down on your terrace. They look amazing, but are they? We chose to stay at the beach and were very glad we did. We had privacy, access to the ocean and no crowds. It’s great to walk and see the cliffside towns, but stay there? Not for us. We drove and visited and then returned to our sanctuary on the beach.
We stayed in the small village of Perivolos, at the Glykeria Mini Suites. It’s situated right on the water with ocean views from most units, and lounge and sun beds available on the beach. Along the narrow road that runs along the shore there are a few restaurants, most notably Seaside (wonderful but rather expensive), which is also an exceptional beach club during the day, and Forty One 41, which has a lovely setting, good food well priced, and then a number of smaller restaurants and taverns serving local Greek cuisine.
Early Santorini architecture consisted of homes built into the mountainside, called yposkafos, which was a common way of building dating back to the 7th century. They burrowed in, leaving just a door and terrace out front, bedrooms and living areas in the back. Examples of this still exist in Emporio today where less damage occurred during the 1956 earthquake, providing a good idea of how the island people lived hundreds of years ago. Throughout the Middle Ages and up to the 18th century safety became a major issue. Residents had to find ways to protect themselves from pirates so fortified castle-towns, known as kastelia, were constructed. Examples of this can still be seen today in Pyrgos, Emporio and Fira.
For examples going back even further, visit the prehistoric village of Akrotiri that was buried in volcanic ash by the eruption of the Thera volcano sometime in the 16th century BC, preserving its remains of homes and streets of fine frescoes and many objects and artworks. It’s been suggested as the possible inspiration for Plato’s story of Atlantis. It shows they had an advanced drainage systems with running water channelled into homes, and even flushing toilets. Structures rose as high as three-story buildings, which was very rare at this time in history.
By the late 19th century the island, with a population of about 2,500, was becoming prosperous because of burgeoning maritime trade with a fleet of more than 130 sailing ships. The high-ranking wealthy officers that chose to live here weren’t about to live in caves, instead they began building impressive and elaborate homes, many of which we see today cascading down the hillside, featuring large terraces that became the roofs of a lower level blow, courtyards and domes, and many are now luxurious hotels, villas and apartments.
Today Oia in Santorini is the most dramatic town, situated on the side of a cliff with its whitewashed buildings, most of which are hotels or luxurious villas. Someone’s terrace ends up being someone else’s roof. With numerous blue domes as well, photo opportunities are endless. But it is very busy, like Mykonos, with people lining up at popular photo op locations to get their pictures taken. Women are dressed up especially for this in amazing outfits to have their photos taken with this picture-perfect backdrop. The shops in Oia are alone amazing, they alone are worth taking a picture of. A somewhat wide pathway follows the edge of the caldera, although for most of it you can’t see the ocean, but there’s paths leading regularly off to the main path, giving access to views of the cascading architecture, caldera, ocean and surrounding islands.
Imerovigli is quite similar to Oia, but smaller and with a much shorter central pathway. But you can make your way up and down, through narrow paths, to find good viewpoints and terraced restaurants. For both, good views and good food, check out the Blue Note, which is close to and looks out over the rock monument of Skaros. It is on a corner and up high, perfects for views and photos.
Our favorite places and what we consider worth seeing are Oia, Imerovigli, Emporio, Pyrgos, Akritiri, Red Beach and then the beaches of Perivolos. We only had four days in Santorini and felt it wasn’t enough. It’s the one Greek island we’ve visited that we both want to return to, allotting more time to really get to know the island.