It’s one of the most Instagrammed bucket list places on the planet, but is Santorini worth the hype? Known as one of the most luxurious, romantic, and honeymoon destinations, we were very excited that the Santorini cruise port was one of the places on our Mediterranean Cruise with Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd..
Postcard-perfect, white-washed stucco structures adorn with blue domes and fuchsia bougainvillea overlook the Aegean Sea; brilliant blue surf laps onto red and black sand beaches; ancient ruins long-buried under volcanic ash; we discovered these treasures and much more on this enchanting island.
Santorini at a Glance
Santorini (aka Thira) is one of the Cycladic islands located in the Aegean Sea, about halfway between Athens (one hour flight) and Crete and about two hours from Mykonos.
Once one round-shaped island, Santorini is now two islands. Around 1,500 B.C. the island suffered one of the biggest and violent volcanic explosions in the history of the world, causing the center of the island to sink. The eruption wiped out the Minoan civilization, and it became the source of the mythical lost city of Atlantis.
Tourism is high in Santorini, receiving over two million tourists a year on the tiny island. And this number does not even include the cruise passengers who only visit the island during the day.
- Area: 30 mi²
- Max length: 11 mi
- Island group: Cyclades
- Currency: Euro
- Population: 15,000
The main towns in Santorini are Fira, Imerovigli, Oia, Pyrgos, Firostefani, Kamari, Akrotiri, Pyrgos, Emborio and Perissa. While it wasn’t possible to visit all of them, we did manage to see Thira, Oia, Akrotiri, and Perissa.
Best Time to Visit Santorini
High Season: June–August. The weather is warm but there are a lot of tourists and the prices are high.
Shoulder Season: March-May and September-October have mild weather, fewer tourists, and a bit lower prices.
Low Season: November–February. Most budget-friendly and not many tourists, but also colder weather and lots of cafes, restaurants, and activities are closed.
How to Get Around
It takes roughly 45 minutes to drive from one end of Santorini to the other. The best way to get around the island is either by taking a tour, renting a car and doing a self-drive tour, or using public transportation.
Since the island is pretty small, it’s possible to see much of Santorini in one day. Here’s what we did on our one-day whirlwind tour of Santorini, in this order.
Our first stop was at the ruins of Akrotiri. I’m a huge fan of exploring ancient ruins, having explored the Acropolis, Machu Picchu, Egyptian pyramids, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and the Great Wall of China, just to name a few. I’d never head of Akrotiri and was in for a pleasant surprise.
Just the fact that it’s thought to be the inspiration of Plato’s Atlantis was enough to pique my interest!
Akrotiri has been inhabited since the 5th century B.C. Bronze Age and was destroyed when the volcano erupted in 1627 B.C. Covered in thick ash, it was not re-discovered until 1967 when archeologists found the Minoan city buried beneath the residue.
Still under excavation, three stories of the town have been revealed, and protective wooden pathways constructed overlooking the city to prevent deterioration as well as provide for viewing opportunities. There are also pathways ambling through some of the streets on the lower level making it a fascinating place to see up close (only with a guide, though) without damaging the structures or pottery.
Ah, Oia. The caldera town is one of the most photographed places in the world, with infinity pools overlooking the Aegean Sea, blue-domed whitewashed buildings, and legendary sunsets.
Built on the side of a cliff on the northwest of the island, Santorini is a labyrinth of charming cobblestone alleys flanked by tiny cafes, art and souvenir shops. The main streets are almost always crowded with tourists looking for the perfect selfie spot with the blue domes, but there are many hidden alleys with steps leading down to more secluded spots.
There’s also a Naval Maritime Museum in Oia, although because we had limited time, we didn’t visit.
We drove to the highest point on the island, near the Prophet Elias’s Monastery. We were treated to a 360-degree view of the island but also had to endure some pretty hefty winds!
Artemis Karamolegos Winery
We stopped for a late lunch and wine tasting at Artemis Karamolegos, one of ten wineries on Santorini. The Mediterranean microclimate is perfect for cultivating grapes and we saw a lot of vineyards as we traversed the countryside. Similar to those in the Azores, the grapes on this volcanic, rocky island grow very close to the ground, producing a very distinctive flavor.
Tourists don’t visit Santorini specifically for the beaches because they’re not as stunning as some of the beaches in other of the Greek Isles, but that doesn’t mean you should skip them. Two of the most popular are the red sand beach and the black sand beach.
We didn’t have time for both, so we opted to relax a bit and dip our toes into the cold water in Perissa, a black sand beach.
If you plan to spend more time at the beach, check out our Beach Vacation Packing Guide.
We ended our day in Santorini’s capital and most cosmopolitan town. Picturesque Fira, also called Thira depending on what alphabet you use, is another pretty cliffside settlement perched on the old volcano caldera with Cycladic and Venetian architecture with beautiful views of the sea, including two volcanic islands, Palaia Kameni and Nea Kameni.
You can get back to the port just below Fira in three ways – by foot, by donkey, or by the cable car. It’s a steep path, so be sure to plan enough time on foot or donkey. Also, there can be a long line at the cable car, so plan for that as well.
We took the cable car down, which also provided additional views of the cliffside town. At the bottom is the Old Port of Fira with a few amenities such as souvenir shops, restaurants, and tour agencies, and also views across the sea.
Santorini did live up to the hype about its beauty. Romantic? Not so much, but that’s because we had to share it with hundreds of other tourists and did not have the opportunity to see a sunset or stay overnight.
What to Pack
Mistakes to Avoid
If you do not like crowds, then stopping in Santorini on a cruise is not for you. The alleys in the caldera villages are steep and narrow and get clogged with thousands of tourists.
Make sure to have some Euros as not all shops accept credit cards.
Donkeys are an iconic part of Santorini. I chose not to ride one because of (1) issues of abuse since they work all day in the hot sun, and (2) reports of slipping on the uneven steps, turf, and stones which have injured tourists.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.