Ultimate Travel Guide to the Island of Santorini

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Featured image taken by @santoriniflue on Instagram

Thanks in part to its popularity with celebrities—and its Instagram-worthy scenery—Santorini has become one of the world’s hottest travel destinations in recent memory.

This small Greek island in the south Aegean Sea was formed by a massive volcanic eruption roughly 3,600 years ago, leaving behind a large caldera that shaped the island’s topography. Approximately 16,000 people call the 28-square-mile island home, but it draws more than two million visitors each year, making tourism the island’s primary industry.

Considered to be one of the most romantic and picturesque Mediterranean islands, Santorini offers breathtaking views of rocky cliffs, colorful beaches, rolling hills dotted with white-walled dwellings and an active volcano, all set against the backdrop of the shimmering turquoise sea and vast blue sky. After a few days of enjoying the warm Greek hospitality, mouthwatering meals and unforgettable sights, you may never want to leave!

Best Time To Visit Santorini

In Santorini, nearly every season provides excellent reasons to visit.

During “high season,” from late June to early September, the island will typically be packed with visitors, but crowds are generally manageable. The weather is perfect for relaxing on the beach or taking a dip in the sea, and flights and ferries are at their greatest availability. Nightlife on Santorini peaks during summer; however, prices for everything from flights and hotels to tours and cruises are at their high point as well.

“Shoulder season” (May, June, September and October) provides ideal weather for sightseeing, with pleasantly warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine. Most tourist attractions are still running at full steam, but you won’t have to share them with quite as many people as you would during peak months. Prices are also slightly lower. If you’ve got your heart set on swimming, the water may be warm enough, especially in June and September.

If you’re looking to save money, “low season” is the time to visit. From November to April, you’ll enjoy reduced prices on hotels and some other expenses, but you’ll also have to take your chances with the weather, as these months are cool and often rainy or overcast. You may even see snow during January or February. Most hotels and restaurants remain open during low season, but clubs tend to close up shop for the winter by early November. Options for flights and ferries will also be limited. Be sure to pack warm clothes for sightseeing, but unless your hotel has a hot tub or indoor pool, you can leave your swimsuit at home.

Places to Stay in Santorini

As more and more travelers discover Santorini’s charms, choice accommodations are becoming more challenging to secure. The island’s top hotels are often fully reserved months in advance—especially during peak summer months—so if you have a specific place in mind, book your room as soon as you know your travel dates.

Best Budget Hotels in Santorini

If you’re traveling with a limited budget, book a hotel on the eastern side of the island, where prices are noticeably lower than those overlooking the caldera. Lodging in Perissa, Perivolos and Kamari is not only affordable, but also extremely convenient to Santorini’s beaches. Finding a hotel or guest house without a pool is another way to shave costs.

Before you book, check out these five budget-friendly hotels:

  • Hotel Smaragdi: Located just a stone’s throw from the striking black sand of Perivalos Beach, this attractive family-owned hotel features a pool, poolside bar and café. Rooms run the gamut from economy-level to luxury suites, but all come with free Wi-Fi, satellite TV and in-room refrigerators. Most also include balconies or patio access, although some of the economy rooms may not have private access to these spaces.
  • Finikia Memories: While not exactly cheap, room rates at Finikia Memories do include breakfast, making the hotel a relatively good value for the price. The hotel sits in a small village on the outskirts of Oia, so it’s within convenient walking distance to many of the island’s most popular attractions. All rooms include private balconies or terraces, excellent views of the sea or the pool and free Wi-Fi and mini fridges.
  • Hotel Akrotiri: If you’re drawn to the rich archeological history of the island, Hotel Akrotiri puts you within a few hundred yards of the Akrotiri excavation site, widely considered to be home to some of the most well-preserved remains of Greek civilization outside of Crete. The hotel’s décor is a bit dated and there’s no pool, but the prices are some of the lowest you’ll find anywhere on the island. The rooms are comfortable and equipped with refrigerators, stovetops and balconies with ocean views.
  • Hotel Maria Preka: This modest hotel is tucked away in a quiet neighborhood near Kamari Beach, offering 23 basic units suitable for two to four adults. The furnishings are simple but adequate, and each room includes a refrigerator, sink and stove burner, which can help you save money by not eating out at every meal. The hotel does have Wi-Fi, but it may not be accessible in every room. A small pool is available on-site.
  • Seaside Beach Hotel: This 27-unit hotel puts you in the center of the action in Kamari, located a short walk from multiple restaurants and bars as well as the village’s famous black sand beaches. Room options include double-occupancy economy units, studios and small apartments, most of which have kitchens sufficiently equipped to prepare basic meals. The hotel also features a pool and hot tub and daily buffet breakfast if you prefer not to cook.

Best Mid-Range Hotels in Santorini

If you’ve got a bit more wiggle room in your budget, consider one of these mid-range Santorini hotels:

  • Dream Island Hotel: This quiet, family-owned hotel is within walking distance of many of Santorini’s most popular tourist spots—including shops, restaurants and the caldera—but offers a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle of island life. Guest rooms are modern and meticulously clean, and rates include free hot and cold breakfast buffet, Wi-Fi and parking.
  • The Boathouse Hotel: This small, eco-friendly beachfront hotel in Kamari offers 17 well-appointed guest rooms with complimentary Wi-Fi, refrigerators and daily breakfast buffet. Additionally, on-site amenities include a deli, bicycle rentals, poolside bar and more.
  • Amerisa Suites: Located less than a mile from the caldera on the east side of Fira, Amerisa Suites offers breathtaking sea views from its rooftop terrace and a sparkling outdoor pool. Rates include free Wi-Fi and parking, but breakfast at the hotel will add to the cost of your stay. Still, the central location and excellent value of its 14 guest rooms are hard to beat for the price.
  • Hotel Nikolas: The Hotel Nikolas lacks some of the free amenities of its mid-range competitors, but it makes up for it with very attractive prices. Complimentary Wi-Fi is only available in the lobby and breakfast costs extra, but the hotel’s convenient location and beautiful setting and décor make it a solid pick in this price range.
  • Alizea Villas and Suites: Located near the heart of the action in Fira, this charming 15-room hotel offers a luxurious outdoor pool, complimentary Wi-Fi and clean, modern rooms at reasonable prices.

Best Luxury Hotels in Santorini

If you’re looking to live the high life during your trip, these luxury hotels in Santorini will spare no expense to make you feel pampered:

  • Andronis Luxury Suites: This high-end boutique overlooks the Aegean Sea, with breathtaking views of the caldera and convenient proximity to the shops, restaurants and nightlife in Oia. Each of the 22 suites comes with its own hot tub, and the infinity pool overlooking the cliffs is sure to make your jaw drop. Be sure to enjoy a traditional Mediterranean meal at the hotel’s well-regarded restaurant.
  • The Majestic Hotel: Situated in Fira, this large, modern hotel offers an impressive list of amenities, including three pools, two restaurants, spa and fitness center. Be sure to make your reservation well in advance, as this popular hotel is often completely booked.
  • Canaves Oia Hotel: One of the most upscale hotels on the island, this luxurious hotel offers panoramic views of the sea, a large outdoor pool, private yacht tours and lavishly appointed suites.
  • Art Maisons Luxury Santorini Hotels Aspaki and Oia Castle: Nestled into the cliffs of Oia, this fabulously posh dual-hotel property features whitewashed design, modern décor and spectacular sunset views of the caldera and Aegean Sea. All 19 suites include high-end espresso machines, exposed volcanic rock and en-suite pools.
  • Pezoules: With only six suites available, this cozy boutique property fills up quickly. Designed to resemble the ancient caves of earlier civilizations, this quiet hotel is ideal for couples who want a well-appointed space for relaxing after a day spent sightseeing around the island.

How Long to Stay in Santorini

At minimum, plan to spend several days on the island, which will afford you enough time to absorb its unique culture, see the most popular sites, enjoy the incredible food and take a boat or winery tour. You could easily spend a week soaking in the gorgeous sunsets and striking architecture of Santorini, but if you have two or three weeks at your disposal, you may wish to spend a week on Santorini and the balance of your trip exploring some of the other Greek islands, such as Mykonos, Crete or Rhodes.

Getting Around Santorini

Rental Car

Renting a car gives you maximum flexibility for sightseeing across the island, and most hotels offer free parking as part of your room rate. Be sure to book your car well in advance, especially if you require an automatic transmission, as these vehicles can be in short supply on the island. The airport is the easiest place to pick up your vehicle, and you can compare rates and availability on RentalCars.com. Be sure to take photos of the interior and exterior of the car before leaving the rental site to protect yourself from damage surcharges.

Walking

Many of the small towns and villages on Santorini are extremely walkable, especially during spring and fall when weather is at its best. You will still need to take a bus or taxi between towns, however.

Bus

Buses operated by the KTEL transportation company travel all over the island from Fira, with hourly routes to many destinations during high season. Rates are quite reasonable at $2 to $3 per trip; however, keep in mind that you’ll need to return to the main hub of Fira to travel to a different town, as there are no direct routes between any of the other towns on the island. .

Taxi

Taxis are readily available around the island, but this mode of transportation is easily your most expensive option. Major routes, such as the trip from Oia to Fira, have fixed rates, but traveling to towns off the beaten path may cost you as much as $25 or more.

Things to Do in Santorini

With its rugged cliffs, colorful beaches and distinctive whitewashed architecture surrounded by the sapphire blue Aegean Sea, Santorini is a photographer’s dream. You could spend days simply strolling the narrow streets of the small towns and villages that dot the island or dedicate your time to relaxing poolside as you take in the stunning scenery. Read on for essential activities to add to your Santorini bucket list.

Best Locations for Sunset in Santorini

Santorini is well-known for its dazzling sunsets. Here are a few of the best locations to catch the nightly show in the sky:

  • Oia: Widely considered the best sunset-viewing spot on Santorini, this town on the northern tip of the caldera is likely to be quite crowded, but will also deliver excellent photo opportunities.
  • The Promenade in Fira: Head to the south side of Fira to the promenade along the edge of the cliffs for a prime view of the sunset, but keep in mind you’ll probably have company, as this is one of the island’s most popular locations at this time of day.
  • The Lighthouse: Located at the extreme southern end of Santorini, the lighthouse adds a picturesque element to the gorgeous sunset.
  • Santo Winery: Savor a glass of Santorini’s outstanding wine while watching the sky explode in brilliant color as the sun sinks below the horizon.

Exploring Oia

Oia stars in many of the Instagram-famous photos of Santorini, with its whitewashed architecture and bright blue accents. In addition to unforgettable sightseeing and photo opportunities, Oia is well-known for its unique local shops, a wealth of charming churches, swimming in the crystal waters of Amoudi Bay and the historic remains of the castle of Agios Nikolaos.

Exploring Fira

If you’re feeling energetic, you can make the popular hike from Oia to Fira. The picturesque six-mile route is relatively easy with a few rolling hills and highly recommended if the weather is nice. Once you get to Fira, you can spend the rest of your day strolling through the town’s museums, churches and shops.

Exploring Akrotiri

This area of Santorini is rich in history, home to the remains of an ancient Minoan settlement buried by a massive volcanic eruption nearly 4,000 years ago. You can tour the excavation site to view buildings, drainage systems and other artifacts from this ill-fated Bronze Age town; entry is 12 euro, with an additional 10-euro charge for a guided tour that’s worth every bit of the extra cost.

The Best Beaches in Santorini

Unlike the white sands found elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Santorini’s beaches are made up of red or black volcanic sand and small pebbles, making excellent photos but less-than-ideal beachcombing surfaces. Still, the coarse soil means the water is crystal-clear, making these seaside destinations a wonderful place for a swim during the warmer months. The island’s most popular beaches include Kamari, Perivolos, Perissa, Monolithos and Amoudi Bay.

Boat Tours in Santorini

Santorini boat tours are much more than just a cruise around the caldera—these day-long excursions include fantastic food and adult beverages, snorkeling and swimming and priceless insights from local guides. If you don’t mind dropping some coin, you can spend the day being pampered on a lavish private catamaran cruise; for a fun day spent meeting new people and seeing the sights, consider a small-group cruise. Other specialty offerings include fishing tours, jet ski excursions and sea kayaking trips.

Climbing Mesa Vouno

To get the very best views in Santorini, you’ll need to work a little, but the reward is well worth the effort. After trekking up the 370-meter Mesa Vouno—the peak between Kamari and Perissa—you’ll get to enjoy panoramic views of the island as well as the remains of Ancient Thira (not to mention enjoying dessert that evening without a shred of guilt).

Enjoying Santorini Wineries

Santorini enjoys a centuries-old tradition of wine-making, and varieties like Vinsanto, Nychteri and Mezzo are sipped locally as well as exported around the world. The island’s wines have a distinctive flavor and body due to the rich volcanic soil and seaside climate. The best-known wineries include Santo Winery and Volcan Winery, but vineyards are scattered throughout the island.

Watching Movies at the Open Air Cinema

For a truly unique movie-watching experience, be sure to plan a visit to Cine Kamari, one of the most popular open-air cinemas anywhere in Europe. Located in Kamari, the cinema is open from May to October and shows current releases in English with Greek subtitles. Advance tickets aren’t available, so be there well before the doors open at 8:30 p.m. and be sure to bring cash for tickets and refreshments, since the theater doesn’t accept cards or checks.

Places to Eat in Santorini

Not surprisingly, Santorini is home to an abundance of fresh, locally-grown Mediterranean fare. Despite its small size, the island’s fertile organic soils provide excellent nourishment for grapes, tomatoes, eggplant, capers and more—all of which shine in traditional Greek dishes like moussaka. Freshly-caught seafood like octopus also figures heavily on many restaurant menus and is a must-try delicacy.

Best Breakfast in Santorini

Located in the quaint village of Firostefani, Galini Café offers hungry diners a feast for the eyes as well as the belly. With balcony views of the sparkling Aegean Sea and the island’s majestic caldera, the café caters to all five senses while serving up some of the freshest fare on Santorini. Sweet and savory crepes, pancakes and egg dishes give you a hearty start to your day, while smoothies and superfood bowls will appeal to the health-conscious. If you’re feeling frisky, you can pair your meal with one of the café’s breakfast cocktails (or come back later in the day for a beverage and a light bite).

Best Lunch in Santorini

Quick, authentic Greek tavernas and cafés abound on the island, allowing you to enjoy a traditional Mediterranean midday meal without busting your budget. Check out Terra Nera for its pizza, pasta and kebabs; stop by Pito Gyros for the quintessential Greek handheld food; or visit Melina’s Tavern for local fava and tomato balls—fritters made from tomatoes, onions and herbs that constitute the unofficial dish of Santorini.

Best Dinner in Santorini

Enjoying at least one romantic sunset meal during your trip to Santorini is an absolute must, and Koukoumavlos more than fits the bill. The restaurant’s balcony offers utterly breathtaking views of the caldera, and the rustic, candlelit dining room is almost as lovely to look at. Along with impeccable service, the restaurant is known for its constantly changing but consistently inventive takes on traditional Mediterranean recipes, from fresh seafood to pasta and more. Be sure to make your reservation well in advance, as this popular spot fills quickly.

Best Dessert in Santorini

No visit to a Greek isle would be complete without a taste of baklava, which is executed flawlessly at Melenio Bakery. Other traditional offerings include walnut cake, galaktoboureko and ekmek kataifi, a classic Greek dessert made from layers of sweet, flaky dough, custard and whipped cream. The bakery also serves European favorites like tiramisu, chocolate souffle and mille-feuille.

If you’re looking for a cold treat on a hot summer day, stop by Lolita’s Gelato, where the hardworking staff churns out a wide variety of gelato and sorbet flavors using fresh milk, nuts and fruit juice with no added colors or preservatives.

Top Photo Spots in Santorini

Considered by some to be the most photogenic of the Greek isles, Santorini offers an endless array of shockingly beautiful subjects. Here are a few you won’t want to miss:

  • The famous blue-domed buildings of Oia
  • Sunset over the caldera, viewed from Oia Castle
  • Skaros Rock, a craggy former fortress located just outside Imerovigli
  • The Three Bells of Fira Church
  • The red sand beaches at Akrotiri
  • The striking black beaches of Perissa
  • The rusty pink façade of the Kastro Oia Houses
  • The Akrotiri Lighthouse, perched high on a cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea
  • Amoudi Bay, where crystal-clear waters and colorful wooden boats dominate the landscape
  • Anastasi Church, a stunning whitewashed structure nestled along a hillside in Imerovigli

Conclusion

While it’s a little off the beaten path, Santorini is quickly becoming one of the hottest travel destinations in Europe. The breathtakingly beautiful Greek island offers a wide range of options for travelers, from budget-friendly accommodations paired with self-directed sightseeing excursions to posh, high-end hotels and private tours. Whether you’re looking for seaside views, authentic Mediterranean cuisine, historic sites or charming local culture, you’ll find all of it and more on this jewel of the Aegean Sea.

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