Santorini Travel Tips:
Getting To Santorini
We came in by ferry from Herklion Crete on a Wednesday morning. We took the Sea Jet’s MegaJet, which had an open deck that I could stand out on when I was feeling motion sickness. The ride from Heraklion to Santorini’s port, Athinios, only took a few hours and was relatively smooth.
As a gateway to arguably the most beautiful island in the Cyclades, Athinios port is a disappointment. It really is just a handful of tavernas for travellers and a place to rent a car. Though the port has beautiful views of the sea and caldera and cliff sides, it’s not particularly striking, so my initial reaction when arriving in Santorini was: “Well, this is not so special.” I felt like my life’s dream of seeing the island was crushed.
We sought out the local buses right away to take us to the main city, Fira, and then another 30 minutes to Oia, the town at the Northern tip of the island where I had booked a villa for Matt and I. As we drove across the island things were starting to look up.
Oia, Santorini at Night
Tips for Getting There:
Check out ferry times on www.gtp.gr. The official times for summer aren’t posted until May or even June for some lines, but you won’t have trouble booking a ticket even a couple of days in advance for most ferries.
Greek ferries run on Greek time, i.e. they’re notoriously late.
From the port:
Ferries dock at the port of Athinios unlike cruise ships which dock in Fira.Your best bet is to take the local KTEL bus out of Athinios for less than 2 Euro because a cab will cost you an arm and a leg. Look for the green coach buses with a sign in the front that says “local bus” and pay for tickets on the bus. They run every 20 minutes or so during the day on the 25 minute route from Athinios to Fira.
All Roads Lead to Fira:
From Fira you can take a KTEL bus to virtually anywhere on the island. The bus system is pretty stellar in Santorini. It is cheap, reliable, and comfortable.
You can get fast and relatively cheap flights out of Athens throughout the Greek Isles with Olympic Airlines and Aegean Airlines. Aegean doesn’t have as many connecting flights with other major airlines as Olympic does, so be sure to check their website for trips and fares separately.
Where to Stay
Oia. Hands down, no other choice.
When we arrived I didn’t see anything that I was expecting to see. No cliff packed with white-washed house. No blue-domed Orthodox churches. No donkeys shitting all over the endless stairs to sea level. Nothing.
. . . until we got to Oia, which is the picture perfect idea of Santorini and incomparable in its charm. If you only have enough time to see one thing in Santorini, make it Oia. Walk through the alleys and don’t be afraid to venture off the beaten path a bit, you can find some really great photo-ops this way.
We stayed in the studio room at Villa Kallisti, a shoebox-sized bedroom carved out of the pumice cliff in the traditional Santorini style. Matt thought that our little private cave with the grand views was the just coolest thing, and until the power went out and the A/C shut off in the unseasonably hot and humid 40*C weather I was inclined to agree.
I called the manager first thing in the morning to complain about the lack of hydro as well as the terrible mouldy smell that kept me awake all night long. She quickly moved us into the downstairs apartment/cave which was about three times the size of our shoebox and even had its own kitchen, a bonus on an island where dining out is pricey.
We used the kitchen in the apartment to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner for ourselves. It was like fine dining on our own private terrace with the best view on the island.
Homemade Pasta Carbonara for our anniversary on the terrace at Villa Kallisti
View from the terrace at Villa Kallisti
- If you have to pick between Oia and Fira, stay in Oia. Unless you’re staying at a really nice resort.
- If you want to stay at Villa Kallisti know that it’s not a hotel. It doesn’t have a front desk or a concierge to help you if you need it. You can use the tourist information office in Oia as your concierge but if you need help with your stay you’ll need a cellphone with a sim card that works in Europe to contact the manager. Otherwise you can buy a phone card from the grocery store to use in the pay phones.
What to Do:
Once you’ve wandered and explored Oia you’ll be wondering what else there is to do in Santorini. Here are a few options:
Rent an ATV of Scooter
There are several places to rent ATV and scooters in the major towns on the island. It’s a great way for travellers to get around, to see the sights on their own time, and to avoid worrying about parking (you can park those things anywhere). The island is quite small so you could cover it at a leisurely pace in a day.
- keep in mind that the roads in Santorini are narrow, winding, and Greek drivers can be a little crazy. If none of these things scare you then renting an ATV or scooter isn’t such a bad idea. I mean, I saw parents with small children on them so they can’t be that dangerous, right?
Take a Winery Tour
Vineyards at Boutari Winery. The vines are woven into basket shapes so the grapes can grow on the ground and be protected from strong winds.
We fully intended to rent an ATV to tour the island and stop at the many wineries along our route. Once we realized that neither of us wanted to drink and drive an unenclosed vehicle in a foreign country on winding roads shared with risk-taking Greek motorists we nixed that plan.
Instead we opted for a trip to Boutari Winery which included transportation, a winery tour, and a tasting of 8 wines that left us more than a little drunk all for just 35 Euro. It was a pretty sweet deal.
Most of the wineries in Santorini are located in Megalachori in the central part of the island. The island only grows assyrtiko grapes, a white variety that is indigenous to the island and grows well in Santorini’s dry environment and lava soil.
Matt was brave enough to ask whether they ever want to try growing other grape varieties and he was met with a scoff and a “Why?? When we have these beeootifool assyrtiko grapes indeeegenoos to the island for THOUSANDS of years?” . . . so, um, yeah. They take the assyrtiko grapes seriously.
- Definitely save room to try the VinSanto, a delicious dessert wine.
- Ask at your hotel or visit the tourist information centre in Oia or Fira to book the Boutari tour.
- The tours begin at 4pm and last about 3 hours.
Hike between Fira and Oia
The main city: Fira, Santorini
Due to the fact that the weather was unseasonably hot and humid when we were in Santorini we opted to cut this 10km, 2-3 hour hike out of our itinerary. I’ve heard that it is beautiful and I don’t doubt it.
Matt and I only spent about an hour or so exploring Fira, which was plenty. It isn’t nearly as charming as Oia. I would have been content had we only seen the bus terminal.
- There is no shade on this hike so bring a hat, sunscreen, and water.
- Fira is nice, but not amazing, unless cruise tour groups crowding narrow streets lined with endless jewellery shops are your thing. If that’s the case, you shouldn’t miss it.
How lucky were we that the archaeological site of Akrotiri finally re-opened this spring after being closed for 7 years? The answer is incredibly.
Akrotiri is the site of the excavations of an ancient Minoan village that was buried by the Thera Eruption in the 1500s BCE. The town was buried under deep layers of volcanic ash which kept it perfectly preserved; you can see pottery, roads, and three storey buildings all in tact and 3500 years old. It’s incredible.
What you can’t see however is preserved bodies (the way you do in Pompeii) because the Minoans were actually able to flee their villages during the eruption. No one is quite sure where they went. Cool, right?
I loved this site particularly because documented effects of the Thera Eruption can be found worldwide (it was that big!) and it’s effects have even been linked to the plagues of Egypt from the Book of Exodus.
Another very cool thing about this excavation site is that, unlike most archaeological site, it is completely indoors. You can visit the site comfortably any time of the day.
What I didn’t like about Akrotiri was the lack of any sort of plaques describing what you were looking at. I didn’t have a tour book and a podcast to guide me so Matt and I had to glean information by standing within earshot of a tour group, much to the chagrin of the tour guide. I think having a tour guide would have taken this site from very cool to unquestionably epic. …but I’m a huge history nerd.
-Like everywhere else on Santorini you can get to Akrotiri by KTEL bus from Fira for a couple of Euro. The ride is about 25 minutes and buses come every 20 minutes.
- If you can, get a tour guide for this site. If not, then a tour book or at the very least some advanced knowledge about what the site is all about would be really helpful. Like I said, there is NOTHING that offers information on it at the site itself.
Go to the Beach
Santorini’s geography as a volcanic island means that it has several remarkable beaches. The most popular are Kamari Beach and Red Beach, but there are many others scattered along the coast.
Kamari Beach is located on the Eastern coast of the island (on the opposite side of the island as the caldera). It’s beautiful black sands make it very popular with beach goers so it is well serviced with bars and restaurants.
Red Beach is located on the Southern part of the island near Akrotiri. Like the name suggests it has red lava rock sands and it is surrounded by red cliffs. It is a beautiful place for a relaxing beach day.
- If you have a car/ATV/scooter then you can stop at any number of beaches along your route
- The popular beaches are easily accessed by KTEL bus from Fira
Swim in Amoudi Bay
Since we had our fair share of beaches in Loutro, Crete we decided to head down the 230 steps from Oia down to sea level where Amoudi Bay lies.
Amoudi Bay is a rocky shoreline made up of just a handful of seafood restaurants on the water with beautiful views of the caldera and the sunset.
When you come down the stairs from Oia head left through the patios of two restaurants. Disregard the signs to Stop! Go no further! and the giant boulders which betray the real dangers of rock slides in the area (disclaimer: you probably really should pay attention to these signs, but if you’re like me and all the other tourists then you won’t). You’ll have to scramble over the boulders and a path that has been destroyed by fallen rock until you get to a flat area where you can put down your towel and jump into the cool salty water.
Just watch out for sea urchins. Matt accidently kicked one on his way into the water and got the spikes embedded into his toes. After limping up the 230 steps back to Oia, we went to the medical clinic where the practitioner told us to just “put some olive oil on it” which was a comically stereotypical Greek answer that made me think maybe I should spray some windex on it too. The pharmacist set us straight though by telling us to wrap it in medical tape and put an anti-microbial on it so it wouldn’t get infected.
Ride a Donkey
Donkeys are available at the bottom of the steps at Amoudi Bay, below Oia, and the cruise port Skala below Fira to bring travellers and their luggage up the hundreds of steps to the top of the cliff side. It’s an alternative to walking the donkey-poop-covered steps or taking the funicular (in the case of Fira).
For some reason there were never any donkeys available when we needed to go up so we never got to ride one, although I don’t know if I would have if I had the chance. I can’t really tell you much about this aside from a lot of people do it.
What to Eat
Santorini is a bit on the pricey side when it comes to food so if you’re like me (read: cheap and love cooking) then having a kitchen in your hotel or apartment is a bonus. Aside from the obvious Greek Frappe coffee, here are a couple of other things you shouldn’t miss.
Fish and Seafood
Your on an island on the sea, it would be silly to miss out on the fresh seafood. If you’re in Oia head down to one of the restaurants down on Amoudi Bay where you can literally see coming from the sea and onto your plate.
We decided to dine on delicious seafood pasta and calamari at Dimitri’s (the second restaurant on the left as you come down the stairs from Oia) which is located in a former captain’s house. Our winery tour guide confirmed that our choice of Dimitri’s is the best on the bay.
Amoudi Bay also has the benefit of having excellent views of the sunset which is supposed to be remarkable. It was a nice sunset to be sure but I’ve seen a lot of nicer sunsets in my life (including one in Chania Crete)
- If you’re going to eat in Amoudi Bay it might be a good idea to make reservations. We were able to snag the only unreserved table at Dimitri’s when we went down there and that’s probably because tourism was down this summer.
Coconut Honey Cake
On the main road into Oia next to the grocery store there is a small bakery run by an old Greek woman who barely speaks English. It offers numerous delicious Greek desserts and Matt and I decided to pick this coconut honey cake for our anniversary dinner. It. was. amazing. If you like honey and you like coconut, you’ll be in heaven. I want to know how to recreate this one at home.
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