So what did the volcano leave behind, apart from one of the most extraordinary landscapes the natural world has to offer? Plenty. Santorini is home to some 13,000 locals, a number that swells in the summer thanks not only to tourists but also seasonal workers who come to live for six months and earn their keep at the bars and restaurants. A pleasingly diverse little spot of land bobbing in the Aegean, Santorini is an island of ancient villages and rugged beaches, one on which you can choose your own adventure; swim in the volcanic hot springs, visit ancient ruins, ride a donkey, scuba dive off black sand beaches or spend a luxurious week doing absolutely nothing except enjoying fresh, traditional food and endless sunshine.
Views, Sunsets and Luxury Villas … Oia and Imerovigli
Starting at the top of the island, we have Oia. If you’re looking for those iconic white houses clinging to jagged cliffs, the lone windmill facing a dipping, orange sun and the bougainvillea draped restaurants jutting out over the flat, blue Aegean, then this is where you need to go. It is touristy, it is expensive, but it is worth it. Go in the cooler, quieter hours of the morning and get lost in the tiny, narrow stone alleys of pastel houses. Browse through the famous Atlantis Bookshop, have a frappe (Greek iced coffee) beneath the bougainvillea and enjoy the village and its vistas before the day’s tourists arrive. Once they do, consider escaping down to Amoudi Bay, by donkey or quad bike, and lunching at any of the handful of fish tavernas on the water, or swimming in the clear enclave tucked into the top tip of the island.
Down from Oia, lies Imerovigli, a village of intricate, narrow paths carved into the cliff side. Picking your way along these paths will deliver you to the door of some of Santorini’s most exclusive luxury villas, all of them boasting stunning views of the volcano, sunset and island. You can make your way to Fira from Imerovigli, by foot, checking out the Monestary of St Nikolaos on the way.
Shopping, Nightlife and Crowds … Fira
Fira is Santorini’s capital and the busiest village on the island. Without a doubt the most happening place on the island, Fira is home to The Museum of Prehistoric Thira, the main bus station and the cable car that runs down to the Old Port. You can also saddle up a donkey for the ride, depending on how adventurous you’re feeling.
Fira is where the big ships come in and dock, and boatloads of big spenders have resulted in a lot of gaudy jewellery stores and relatively expensive shopping. Fira’s prices are higher than elsewhere on the island (except for Oia) and eating and drinking in Fira will cost more than a meal in a quieter village. If partying is on the agenda, don’t be surprised to find many of the more popular bars aren’t particularly Greek – tourism has, unfortunately, scrubbed a lot of authenticity from the centre of Fira. If you want to be conveniently near the bustle, but not in it, opt for Firostefani, a short walk from Fira. Here you’ll find more locals and less tourists as well as more accommodation options and Firostefani’s own take on the island’s cliff-side views.
Ancient Ruins and a bit of Peace … Akrotiri
Excavation of the ancient site of Akrotiri began in 1967, with archaeologists uncovering stunning evidence of Minoan civilisation. Volcanic ash had perfectly preserved frescoes, jars, paintings, staircases, housing structures, pipes and water closets and Akrotiri came to be recognised as one of the most important Minoan sites in the world, second only to Crete. The ruins were open to the public until closing in 2005 due to an accident. But the good news is, it reopened to the public in April 2012 and you can now go and see real, ancient Santorini.
The village of Akrotiri is quiet, tucked away in the south of the island. This is where you will find the famous red beach, an enclave of deep red rock and bright blue water. It will likely be quite busy, so for a bit of peace, head to Akrotiri’s secluded waterfront, with just a handful of tavernas lining the clear waters. For fresh seafood and vegetables plucked from the garden out the back, spend an afternoon indulging in the traditional Greek delights served up at the small, family run Cave of Nikolas.
If you really want to escape to the ends of the earth, follow the signs from the outskirts of Akrotiri, to the lighthouse (Faros). It will take you to the tip of Santorini, with plunging cliffs and views of the vast, blue Aegean. It is also another excellent place to catch a sunset, after which you can have a simple, authentic dinner at the nearby George’s Tavern.
Cave Houses and Old Santorini … Pyrgos, Megalochori and Emporio
Sitting more towards the middle of the map, and atop the island’s highest point, is Pyrgos, a pocket of genuine ‘old Santorini’. Pyrgos was the capital until the early 1800s and bears vestiges of the Venetian era (during which Santorini took on her new name, from Saint Irena) in the form of the Venetian castle (Kasteli) in the centre. You can climb a narrow, winding path to see the castle and the church that stands close to its entrance, the Agia Theodosia. Other churches worthy of note in a village that houses 33 of them, are the 11th century Koimisis of Theotokou and the 17th century Church of Eisodion of Theotokou.
Megalochori is just a short trip south and known for two things; its abundance of domed churches and wine. A central location from which to base yourself, Megalochori has a lovely local feel to it, courtesy of being one of Santorini’s most permanent populations, one not too subject to seasonal workers and holiday makers. The village is surrounded by vineyards which means you’ll likely visit if a wine tour is on your list of things to do.
Heading towards the bottom of the island, you’ll come across Emporio, Santorini’s biggest village in the southern part of the island. Beautiful old cave houses, the Goulas which villagers used to protect themselves from pirates and also the Palia Panagia, one of the island’s oldest churches, are all to be found in this richly historical village. Emporio is conveniently located right between the black beaches of Perissa and Perivolos and less touristy Vlychada.
Beaches, Chill Bars and Tourists … Perissa, Perivolos and Kamari
Perissa and Perivolos are two of the newer villages and exist almost solely to support the tourism the unique stretch of black sand beach they front, brings in. Consequently, you simply can’t avoid the tourists, who flock to the flat, clear waters, hopping along the piping hot black sand to their loungers. But these are chilled, relaxed, happy places full of people truly enjoying themselves and the happiness is contagious. Perissa comprises mainly of two roads – the main road and the beach road, with Perivolos basically an extension of Perissa, along the beach.
Perivolos is known for its day bars, that peak at around 3pm, with music, beach volley ball and cocktail wielding beach goers. As evening rolls around, Perissa wakes up, with people rolling off their sun loungers and hitting the myriad restaurants, before drinking and dancing on the beach front until dawn. With so many restaurants to choose from and reasonable prices to boot, it’s worth knowing where those in the know go – on the main road, Meltemi Bar serves up retro tunes with its well priced cocktails and Gods Garden is where you’ll find the best moussaka. On the beach front, relax with live music and huge cocktails at Tranquilo and dine at Volcano restaurant.
On the other side of the enormous rock – Mesa Vouno, which still bears the ruins of 9th century Ancient Thira – lies Kamari, a resort village built upon its own black sand beach. You can catch a boat from Perissa to Kamari for the day, perhaps to check out Kamari’s superior boutiques and shopping options. Kamari has an outdoors cinema that shows new releases throughout the summer and should you be on the island around August 15th, the village celebrates the Feast of the Virgin Mary with its own festival.