An honest guide to Santorini: what to do and what to really expect

The sun shines over tiers of pristine white buildings built against a cliff face, with each terrace overlooking a more desirable view of the endless Mediterranean sea.

Anyone who’s seen this photo of Santorini would understand how it’s become the bucket-list topping destination that it is, and why it sees millions of tourists flocking to the island each year. I was certainly attracted to its postcard-perfect views after seeing countless Instagram photos of its blue-domed buildings, and reading many articles raving about its dreaminess.

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But here’s the thing, Santorini – I was expecting to fall head over heels in love with you. I was preparing to set foot onto your idyllic lanes and never want to leave. I thought I would be left spellbound by your beauty and find myself unable to compare you to any other island. And while you are undeniably beautiful, I departed instead with mixed feelings. Mainly, the feeling that too many have loved you and left you before I got the chance to.

I’m not suggesting I was misled in any way by going to Santorini – there are plenty of reasons why you should start packing your suitcase – but instead of adding to the many articles out there focused solely on singing its praises, I wanted to share something a little more honest.

If you’re yet to visit Santorini, here’s my guide on what you can do on the island, and what to really expect.

Things to do in Santorini

Take in the view at Fira, Oia, Firostefani and Imerovigli

Nearly all of the pictures you see online of Santorini are taken in one of the island’s four most popular villages located along the cliff, with each one guaranteeing that heavenly view.

Sitting at the north of the island, Oia (pronounced ee-ya) is arguably the most beautiful and most upmarket. The white marble lanes here are lined with boutique shops on one side, while luxury hotels and restaurants overlook the ocean on the other.

Further south along the coast is Imerovigli, a quieter village with beautiful views back to Oia, as well as access to the striking Skaros Rock (more on that later).

Next along the coast is Firostefani, a calmer alternative to the nearby capital where you’ll find another picturesque view, as well as the much-photographed Three Bells of Fira church.

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As the capital of the island, Fira (pronounced fee-ya) is the bustling capital of Santorini and the largest on the island. If you like to be as close to the action as possible, then Fira is where you’ll want to stay – the main streets here are flooded with shops, bars and restaurants all vying for your attention, something which I personally found a bit too hectic and touristy, but will appeal to those who like to be somewhere lively. We decided to base our trip here for easy access to the rest of the island, and enjoyed our stay at the Central Fira Hotel.

After dropping off our bags, we wandered into the streets to catch the first sight of the view I’d come here for. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take my breath away (I actually said the word ‘wow’) – a cliff face so steep it set off my vertigo, yet somehow still managing to accommodate a cluster of whitewashed buildings. Among them, a collection of hotels, rooftop bars, and infinity pools were the sight for many envious eyes who couldn’t afford to stay there (myself included), a feeling which would stay with me throughout our stay.

The truth is…

Nearly all of the buildings along the cliff face in Santorini are boutique hotels and lavish villas, meaning if you’re not fortunate (read: rich) enough to be able to stay in one, you won’t be able to wander far past the main roads. I tried on more than one occasion to get some pictures, only to be told very politely to move on as the empty steps I stood on was private property.

Hotels aside, some of those incredible photos you see of people on rooftops were definitely also taken where you aren’t supposed to go – but hey, anything for the ‘Gram, right?

Watch the sunset in Oia

You can’t talk about Santorini without mentioning its world-famous sunset, and the most popular place to watch it is in the village of Oia.

We were in Oia on two nights hoping to catch sight of the sun sinking into the horizon, but sadly the weather was too cloudy for us to see it at its best. Regardless, the view at Oia (and Santorini in general) is especially beautiful when kissed by that golden hour sunlight.

santorini-sunset

The truth is…

Watching the sunset might sound like a very romantic experience, but when something is as iconic as this, you’ll be far from the only people doing the same. What all those dreamy photos of Oia aren’t showing you are the hundreds of people on the other side, all fighting for a spot in the tiny lanes to catch a glimpse. One of the most popular places to see the sunset in Oia is by the old castle ruins, which was literally bursting with tourists, while nearby hotel rooftops laid empty and inaccessible to those who weren’t guests of the property.

Oia is quickly filled with crowds every evening leading up to the sunset (and disappear just as quickly after it), so I’d suggest avoiding visiting at this time if you’re not there especially for the sunset. Of course, you could also go elsewhere on the island for another beautiful sunset view.

Have dinner/drinks with a view

Second to watching the sunset, the next most romantic experience offered on Santorini is the chance to have dinner by that beautiful ocean. There are countless restaurants on offer, each with a panoramic view more envious than the last, so all you need to do is take your pick.

The truth is…

Most of the sea view seats in restaurants will most likely be booked up in the evening, so make sure you make a reservation beforehand if you want to get the full experience. As with all prime locations though, you tend to pay more for the view than the food – most restaurants charge at least €20 for a main dish.

Prices in Santorini are generally very high, inflated by the (equally) high number of visitors. Even after visiting places like Venice, Santorini is still the most expensive place I’ve been to so far. We spent a few days in Athens before arriving on the island, where we drank copious amounts of iced coffee at no more than €2 per cup – in Santorini, the cheapest we found was €5.50.

Hike from Fira to Oia

One of the best things to do in Santorini is to hike along the caldera from Fira to Oia. This was without a doubt the highlight of our trip, despite it taking us 9 exhausting hours to complete (don’t worry, it’s only supposed to take about 4!).

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The views along the walk were out of this world, and you could both see and feel the landscape gradually change around you – from greenery on the other side of the island to rich red rocks, and even shades of purple on the hills as you approach Oia. Seeing the ocean among all the different colours made me feel like I was somewhere far more exotic than a little Greek island.

Though it’s a very popular route, there are no markers along the way, but it’s very easy to navigate as you just need to follow the coast.

santorini-fira-oia-hike

The truth is…

All the pictures you see of Santorini would have you thinking that the whole island is built on a cliff, but beach resorts lie on the other side which are on much flatter landscapes – I’m not stating this as a negative in any way, but just as something you might not have known! Doing the Fira to Oia hike will lead you to some higher points of the island, so you get the opportunity to see how the landscape differs from one side to the other, too.

Climb Skaros Rock

Jutting out of the ocean, Skaros Rock used to be the capital of Santorini, and once housed a medieval castle which was lost to an earthquake in the 19th century. Located just off the mainland from Imerovigli, I’d highly recommend a hike to this spot if you have time.

santorini-skaros-rock

Not only will you get a beautiful view back to Imerovigli and the other villages in the distance, you’ll also be able to visit the charming and secluded church located on the other side.

We took a detour to Skaros Rock as part of our Fira to Oia hike (which was one of the reasons it took us 9 hours!), but I’d recommend allocating a separate day to do it if you’re not looking to tire yourself out.

The truth is…

Being built on a cliff means Santorini is incredibly steep on the caldera side, so make sure you pack your comfy shoes because you’ll almost definitely find yourself having to climb up numerous winding steps to get to and from the villages and ports.

Alternatively, you could also pay some locals to take you up the steep trails on one of their donkeys. While I’m no donkey-welfare expert, I couldn’t help but feel bad for these poor animals left standing in hot sun all day, tasked with ferrying full grown adults up and down rocky paths all day.

Hike a volcano

If all the hiking around the island hasn’t tired you out, then you can also do a half day trip to the nearby caldera. Although lying dormant, Santorini is still an active volcano, meaning a visit is extra special thanks to the low risk danger element (very low, at that). Black lava rocks of all sizes pile high from the moment you step off the boat to when you reach its peak, where you’ll get to feel some of the volcano’s power for yourself by placing your hand over a small exposed crater!

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The truth is…

This is one of the cheapest boat tours you can take in Santorini (about £35 each for a half day trip), making it a budget-friendly way of getting onto the water. If I had more cash though, I would’ve loved to sign up for one of the small group catamaran tours instead – some run evening dinner cruises during the famous sunset!

Head to the beach

It’s safe to say most people come to Santorini for the views, but if you’re hoping to do a little sunbathing away from the cliffs as well, then you can also head to one of the island’s beaches. Perissa and Kamari are the two main beaches in Santorini, both of which have a resort style feel – we made a short stop at both and loved lunch at Tranquilo right opposite Perissa beach, which was one of the most budget-friendly and tastiest places we ate at during our stay.

For uniqueness, also check out Red Beach which, you guessed it, is red! There’s not a lot here other than the scenery, but it’s worth a visit if you’re looking to relax somewhere a bit different.

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The truth is…

You probably shouldn’t go to Santorini just for the beaches – as a volcanic island, all you’ll find are pebbles here. There’s nothing wrong with a pebble beach of course, but just don’t go expecting dreamy white sand like you might usually look for in a beach break, or like you might find elsewhere in Greece.

Rent a quad bike

After the epic hikes, the next best thing we did in Santorini was renting a quad bike!.For €30 (plus an optional €7 insurance), we had our run of the island for the day and had so much fun whizzing about.

There are local buses and taxis on the island which you can use of course, but as a road trip lover, nothing beats having your own vehicle. The roads on Santorini were pretty quiet where we went, and parking was also easy to find.

The truth is…

There are no traffic lights on Santorini, making driving about super easy and smooth – so long as you remember which side of the road you need to be on!

Visit the ruins

Did you know Santorini also has lots to offer history lovers? We spent a few hours at Akrotiri, stopping first at the lighthouse to take in the views along the coast, before visiting the archaeological site nearby which is currently still being excavated.

santorini-akrotiri-lighthouse

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Elsewhere on the island there’s also the Ancient Thera historic site in Kamari, and the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira you can visit.

It doesn’t matter how many historic places like these I visit, they’ll never cease to amaze me.

Explore the other villages

Having our own vehicle meant we were also able to explore some of the smaller spots on the island on our last day, and I really loved our time wandering through the village of Pyrgos. Compared to where we had been prior to this, Pyrgos felt so much more local in comparison – the lanes were quiet and empty of crowds and souvenir shops, the houses were homes instead of hotels, and for the first time since we’d arrived, I saw children out playing in the streets.

santorini-pyrgos

Built on the highest point of the island, you can also catch some beautiful views across Santorini by walking to the top of the village.

At risk of sounding like a pretentious travel blogger, do try and ‘go off the beaten track’ by visiting these smaller towns too, if you have the time.

The truth is…

I really wish I had the chance to see more of this side of Santorini, because after playing tourist for a few days, the beautiful cliff side to me felt almost like a facade – one that caters to wealthy travellers who could afford to wake up to the view, while the expensive hotels they stayed in pushed the locals out to the other, less scenic side. And while everyone comes here looking for the first, myself included, it’s not the one that I would go back for.

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Need-to-know

  • Transfers from Santorini airport to Fira costs €1.80 each way (as does most bus journeys between the main towns)
  • The airport bus only runs once an hour from Fira (don’t miss it like we did!), and a taxi costs around €40 one way.

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