An Insider’s Guide to Santorini
By Lynn Roulo
Santorini is one of the most photographed places in the world, and when you close your eyes and think of “Greece,” Santorini is probably where you are envisioning. This photogenic island deserves its reputation. From the sweeping views in Oia (pronounced ee-ah) to the fresh fish tavernas in Ammoudi and from the Red Sand Beach of Akrotiri to the lively nightlife in Fira, Santorini delivers memories and images that last a lifetime.
But if the island has one big drawback, it is that with up to two million tourists a year, many of the signature attractions lack that intimate, authentic Greek vibe. Santorini is set up for tourists and cruise ships, and sometimes it feels that way. But don’t think that just because the island is popular, you can’t have a unique experience. Here’s what you need to do to have an exclusive Santorini experience:
Find the Best View
To have the full Santorini experience, you’ll want to take in a sunset from Oia, the village on the northern point of Santorini. This is the spot you see in many photographs, and the visuals are truly stunning. However, the crushing crowds can ruin the magic of the moment as everyone wants to be at the same place at the same time. For a different perspective, take a boat to Thirassia and head to the Chapel of the Prophet Ilias, the highest spot on the island. Thirassia offers an equally beautiful vantage point but without the crowds.
Try Local Dishes in Tiny Villages
Most visitors make it a point to have a meal at Ammoudi Bay, just down the hill from Oia. Ammoudi Bay is a magical place featuring a small strip of fish tavernas right along the seaside. Part of the allure is that the fish are caught daily from the Aegean Sea, and from sea bream to sardines, snapper to octopus, you can pick your dinner almost directly from the sea. Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna is widely considered to serve some of the best seafood in the area, but it is part of the tourist circuit.
If you want more of a “locals” place, try Pentozali in Messaria, a village in the middle of the island, less than four kilometers from Fira. The restaurant has a beautiful outdoor space with pine trees, where you can cool off even on the hottest days. At Pentozali, you can have a laid back and authentic meze (small dish) meal without the crowds of tourists. Another great choice for fish lovers is Psaraki in Vlychada. Equally fresh, but more off-the-beaten-path than Ammoudi, you can get a seafood platter or a fresh ceviche made from whatever the local fishermen caught that day.
Fish Like a Greek!
A boat cruise is one of the most beautiful ways to see the island and experience the magic of the Aegean Sea. While you’ll have a wide spectrum of choices when it comes to boats for hire, we recommend Ted Stathis with Santorini Sailing. This team was the first to offer boat trips and sunset cruises in Santorini, launching the trend of sailing catamarans within the caldera. They offer a variety of boat tours and can even give their guests access to one of the few beaches within the volcanic caldera.
If you want a more interactive experience, head to Akrotiri for a fishing trip with Giorgaros Fishing Tours. With the tagline “Fish like a Greek!” this team invites you to sail in a traditional wooden caique (light rowing boat) and catch your own dinner from the sea! If you want to have a deeper understanding of the experience of a Greek fisherman, try this tour.
Explore the Uniquely Santorini Beaches
The Red Sand Beach is visually striking and while in Santorini, you should check it out. Located near the village of Akrotiri, about 7 miles southwest of Fira, you can drop into the archaeological site of Akrotiri to see the excavation and then continue to the beach. Red Sand Beach has its name because of the red pulverized volcanic rock from the Santorini caldera, the volcano that blew up almost 1,500 years ago. The beach is signature Santorini and one of the more popular tourist destinations.
If you want something equally unique but a bit less known, try Columbo beach. A short drive from Oia, Columbo features an amazing volcanic rock formation and a thick wall of volcanic fallout debris and pumice right above the beach. To add to the experience, keep in mind that a few miles off the coast, and just a few meters below the surface of the water, lies the volcano of Columbo, one of the more active volcanoes in the Mediterranean Sea.
Sip a Local Wine
Despite challenging soil conditions, Santorini produces some high-quality wine, including Assyrtiko, a light-bodied, crisp white wine that is often blended with Sauvignon blanc and Malagousia. When in Santorini, be sure to try some local labels, either with a winery visit or at a wine bar.
Santo Wines in Pyrgos is the most comprehensive tour if you only have time for a single winery, and you can taste wine while enjoying stunning views of the caldera. The winery includes an on-site restaurant, and tours are available if you want to see the production facilities.
If you are looking for something a little different, head to the Art Space Winery in Exo Gonia. Here you won’t have to choose between art and wine -you have both in this winery/museum/art gallery combination. Dating from 1861, the location includes an underground cave featuring art and sculptures, museum housing artifacts, a working winery, and a tasting room. A visit to the Art Space Winery offers something for a wide range of tastes.
And if you want to stay out of vineyards and tasting rooms, the Wine Bar in the Heliotopos Hotel in Imerovigli is a popular place with a great wine list and unique caldera views.
With these tips, you’ll be able to enjoy Santorini to its fullest and still have a bit of a local experience. But if you seek islands that are even more off-the-beaten-path, check out our guide to some of the lesser-known Greek islands. Greece truly has something for everyone.
Featured Image Copyright: ©iStock/Maglara