The top attraction here is the island itself. It's far better to make haste slowly, linger on the black beach at Kamares, and stroll Thira in the early morning when the town belongs to its inhabitants, who are buying loaves sprinkled with sesame seeds at the bakery, and sweeping and washing the pavement outside all those jewelry stores. Most importantly, wherever you are, enjoy the view. There's nowhere else in the world, let alone in the Cyclades, with that caldera view. A great way to see the caldera is to take one of the sunset cruises offered by replica 18th-century sailing ships the Thallasa and the Bella Aurora (tel. 22860/24-024). Some cruises include a light dinner. Most travel agents sell tickets from around 45€, or check out www.santorini.com/sailing and www.santoriniyachting.com.
A Combination Ticket to the Ancient Sites
If you plan to visit the ancient sites and their associated museums, get the economical 10€ ticket good for the Archaeological Museum, ancient Akrotiri (if open), prehistoric Thira, and ancient Thira. Even if the price goes up (as it almost certainly will), and even if Akrotiri is closed (as it may be), this will be a good buy.
Wining Your Way Around Santorini
For information on a number of winery tours on Santorini, check out www.santonet.gr/wineries. Boutari (tel. 22860/81-011; www.boutari.gr) is the island's largest winery, and Greece's best-known wine exporter. A variety of tours are offered at their winery in Megalochiri on the road to Akrotiri, from a simple tasting of three wines (6€) to the "Libation to Santorini," with four wines, serious appetizers, and a multimedia show. This is a pleasant way to spend an hour or so (but never on Sunday, when the winery, like most on Santorini, is closed). If you want to sample other local wines, stop by the underground Volcan Wine Museum (tel. 22860/31-322; www.volcanwines.gr), just outside Fira, on the mail road to Kamari. The museum, which occupies subterranean caves and tunnels, has an audio tour and reconstructions of the wine making process (6€). Volcan's once-a-week Greek Night, featuring dinner and belly dancers, is popular with large tour groups. Check the website of individual wineries for their varied hours.
To put it (less than) mildly, Fira has a spectacular location on the edge of the caldera. Just when you think you've grown accustomed to the view down and out to sea and the offshore islands, you'll catch a glimpse of the caldera from a slightly different angle -- and are awed yet again. If you're staying overnight on Santorini, take advantage of the fact that almost all the day-trippers from cruise ships leave in the late afternoon. Try to explore Santorini's capital, Fira, in the early evening, between the departure of the day-trippers and the onslaught of the evening revelers. As you stroll, you may be surprised to discover that, in addition to the Greek Orthodox cathedral, Fira has a Roman Catholic cathedral and convent, legacies from the days when the Venetians controlled much of the Aegean. The name "Santorini" is, in fact, a Latinate corruption of the Greek for St. Irene. Megaron Gyzi Museum (tel. 22860/22-244), in a stately old house by the cathedral, has church and local memorabilia, an icon workshop, and before-and-after photographs of the island at the time of the devastating earthquake of 1956. It is open Monday to Saturday 10:30am to 1pm and 5 to 8pm, and Sunday 10:30am to 4:30pm. Admission is 4€.
Not surprisingly, Fira is Santorini's busiest and most commercial town. The abundance of jewelry stores is matched in the Cyclades only by Mykonos -- as are the crowds in July and August. At the north end of Ipapantis (also known as "Gold Street," for all those jewelry stores), you'll find the cable-car station. The Austrian-built system, the gift of wealthy ship owner Evangelos Nomikos, can zip you down to the port of Skala in 2 minutes. The cable car makes the trip every 15 minutes from 7:30am to 9pm for 5€, and it's worth every euro, especially on the way up.
Up and to the right of the cable-car station is the small Archaeological Museum (tel. 22860/22-217), which contains early Cycladic figurines, finds from ancient Thira, and erotic (or obscene, depending on the eye of the beholder) Dionysiac figures. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30am to 3pm. Admission is 4€. You can spend a day or more enjoying Fira, but don't count on getting much sleep: there's a wild all-night-every-night bar scene, with every bar seemingly competing for the award for attaining the highest decibel level with amplified music.
Santorini Below the Waterline -- A different way to explore Santorini is the 1-hour submarine tour beneath the caldera's surface. It sinks 25 to 30m (82-98 ft.) below the surface and offers you a glimpse into the submerged volcanic crater. The trip costs 65€; information is available at most travel agents and at tel. 22860/28-900.
Oia gets most visitors' votes as the most beautiful village on the island. The village made an amazing comeback from the 1956 earthquake which left it a near-ghost town for decades. Several fine 19th-century mansions survived and have been restored, including the elegant Restaurant-Bar 1800 and the Naval Museum. Much of the reconstruction continues the ancient Santorini tradition of excavating dwellings from the cliff's face, and the island's most beautiful cliff dwellings can be found here. The village has basically two streets: one with traffic, and the much more pleasant inland pedestrian lane, paved with marble and lined with an increasing number of jewelry shops, tavernas, and bars.
The Naval Museum (tel. 22860/71-156) is a great introduction to this town where, until the advent of tourism, most young men found themselves working at sea and sending money home to their families. The museum, in a restored neoclassical mansion, was almost completely destroyed during the 1956 earthquake. Workers meticulously rebuilt the mansion using photographs of the original structure. The museum's collection includes ship models, figureheads, naval equipment, and fascinating old photographs. Its official hours are Wednesday through Monday from 12:30 to 4pm and 5 to 8:30pm, although this varies considerably. Admission is 3€.
The battlements of the ruined kastro (fortress), at the western end of town, are the best place to catch the famous Oia sunset. Keep in mind that many cruise ships disgorge busloads of passengers who come here just to catch the sunset; unless you are here on a rainy February day, you may prefer to find a more secluded spot. Below the castle, a long flight of steps leads to the pebble beach at Ammoudi, which is okay for swimming and sunning, and has some excellent fish tavernas. To the west is the more spacious, sandy Koloumbos Beach. To the southeast, below Oia is the fishing port of Armeni, where ferries sometimes dock and you can catch an excursion boat around the caldera.
Out on the Island: Various Villages
It's easy to spend all your time in Fira and Oia, with excursions to the ancient sites and beaches, and to neglect other villages. Easy, but a shame, as there are some very charming villages on the island. As you travel, watch for the troglodytic cave houses hollowed into solidified volcanic ash. Another thing to look for: In many fields, you'll see what look like large brown circles of intertwined sticks neatly placed on the ground. What you're looking at is a vineyard. Santorinians twist the grape vines into wreaths that encircle the grapes and protect them from the island's fierce winds.
At the south end of the island, on the road to Perissa, is the handsome old village of Emborio. The town was fortified in the 17th century, and you can see its towers, a graceful marble statue of the muse Polyhymnia in the cemetery, and modern-day homes built into the ruins of the citadel.
Pirgos, a village on a steep hill just above the island's port at Athinios, is a maze of narrow pathways, steps, chapels, and squares. Until the mid-19th century, this hamlet hidden away behind the port was the island's capital. Near the summit of the village is the crumbling Venetian kastro, with sweeping views over the island. There is less tourism in Pirgos than in many island villages, and the central square, just off the main road, has just about all the shops and cafes. If you want a break, try the Café Kastelli, with tasty snacks, glyka tou koutalou (spoon sweets of preserved fruits), and fine views. If you want a sweet-and-sour treat, try the preserved nerangi (bitter orange).
In the hamlet of Gonias Episkopi, the Church of the Panagia is an astonishingly well-preserved 11th- to 12th-century Byzantine church. As is often the case, the builders pillaged classical buildings. You will see the many fragments they appropriated incorporated into the walls -- and two ancient marble altars supporting columns. Among the frescoes, keep an eye out for the figure of a dancing Salome.
The Caldera Islets
These tantalizing islands in the caldera are part of the glory of Santorini's seascape, reminders of the larger island that existed before the volcano left today's crescent in the sea. Fortunately, you can visit the islands and get a view of Santorini from there.
Thirassia is a small, inhabited island west across the caldera from Santorini; a cliff-top village of the same name faces the caldera, and is a quiet(er) retreat from Santorini's summer crowds. You can reach the village from the caldera side only by a long flight of steep steps. Full-day boat excursions departing daily from the port of Fira (accessible by cable car, donkey, or on foot) make brief stops at Thirassia, just long enough for you to have a quick lunch in the village; the cost of the excursion -- which includes Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni, and Ia -- is about 50€ per person; check out www.santoriniyachting.com and www.santoriniyacht.com for some options. Another option is local caiques, which make the trip in summer from Armeni, the port of Oia; ask for information at your hotel or at one of the Fira travel agents.
The two smoldering dark islands in the middle of the caldera are Palea Kameni (Old Burnt), the smaller and more distant one, which appeared in A.D. 157; and Nea Kameni (New Burnt), which began to appear sometime in the early 18th century. The day excursion to Thirassia (a far more enjoyable destination) often includes these two (unfortunately often litter-strewn) volcanic isles.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.