Things to Do in Santorini
The volcanic eruption of Thira that put an end to the thriving Minoan civilization was so cataclysmic, it may have spawned the legend of Atlantis.
The explosion occurred around 3600 years ago, scooping out the once-circular island’s center and west coast, and creating the sea-filled caldera and signature sheer cliffs where Santorini’s townships teeter today. Since then, there have been perhaps a dozen major eruptions.
The volcano is quiet today, though the nearby island of Nea Kameni in the center of the caldera still emits puffs of steam. It’s thanks to the caldera that towns like Oia boast such stunning sunsets, providing a low-lying, obstruction-free observation point as the sun sinks into the sea.
If you came to Santorini for the sunsets, the town of Oia is where you want to be when the sun sinks towards the horizon to such glorious effect.
Perched on the steep edge of the caldera, with open views of the sea, the village is quieter than the island’s main town, Fira, at least outside sunset hours.
A string of tavernas turn their faces to the caldera for those views, and it’s fun exploring the town’s tiny backstreets and rocky cliff face, where homes have been carved from the volcanic rock.
There’s some seriously chic boutique accommodations in Oia, complete with infinity pools and spas. The lucky people staying on for the evening dine in Oia’s gourmet restaurants, perched on terraces to catch the best views. Follow the 300 steps leading from the top of the caldera and you reach the fishing port of Ammoudi. Boats sail from here to the nearby island of Thirassia.
Most of Santorini’s pocket-sized beaches are made of dark volcanic sand and pebbles set against black, austere cliffs, but perhaps its most unusual beach is near the Minoan ruins at Akrotíri on the south coast. Aptly named Red Beach (‘Kokkini Ammos’ in Greek) for its blood-red sand and gently crumbling burnt-umber cliffs, the crescent of beach forms a bizarre Martian landscape of red and black lava boulders scattered over grainy red and black sand. Rocks thrown up by ancient volcanic activity lurk just offshore in the calm bay, forming perfect platforms for sun worshippers, and the crystal-clear waters are paradise for snorkelers.
Open-topped wooden boats, known as kaiks, trundle backwards and forwards between Red Beach and Akrotíri disgorging a constant stream of visitors.
Centered around a ruggedly beautiful volcanic crater, the small island of Nea Kameni offers a dramatic photo opportunity, with its dark cliffs sculpted from lava rock and natural thermal waters tinted orange by the mineral-rich seabed. Floating off the coast of Santorini Island, Nea (New) Kameni and neighboring Palea (Old) Kameni lie at the heart of the mostly-submerged Santorini caldera, and are Greece’s newest volcanic islands - Nea Kameni dates back just 425 years.
Reachable only by boat, Nea Kameni makes a popular choice for cruises from Santorini Island, with visitors free to explore the unique volcanic landscape and bathe in the natural hot springs, legendary for their healing and rejuvenating minerals.
In 1967, archaeologists uncovered the spectacularly well-preserved remains of an ancient Bronze Age Minoan village at Ancient Akrotiri, destroyed by a mighty volcanic eruption in around 1650 BC.
The most famous Minoan site outside Crete, the sandstone remains of Akrotiri’s buildings reach several stories. Their door and window lintels are spookily intact, along with stone walls and porticoes, courtyards and rooms. As at Pompeii, the buildings were preserved by the volcanic ash. Fortunately, unlike Pompeii, it appears that the villagers were safely evacuated, as no skeletons have been unearthed during the excavation. The excavation site has been closed for several years, though restoration is continuing. To get an idea of what lies beneath, visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, where gorgeous frescos of boats, fishers, wildlife and everyday people from several millennia ago are displayed. You can also see personal artifacts like pottery and furniture.
The monastery of Mount Profitis Ilias is perched on the mountain of the same name, the highest point on Santorini at 1,853 ft (565 m) above the Aegean Sea in the south of the island. Built in the early 18th century out of sizeable stone and resembling a fortress, the monastery was dedicated to the prophet Elijah and initially enjoyed great wealth. It once also functioned as a secret school of Greek culture during the dark days of Turkish occupation of the country, but its power began to decline in 1860 and it was badly damaged by the earthquake in 1956. Today Profitis Ilias is successful once more; its three domed church has become a museum hosting an exceptional and significant collection of Greek Orthodox icons, early, hand printed books and bibles, wrought-iron artwork, wooden carvings and elaborately embroidered clerics’ robes. The resident monks put on displays of traditional carpentry, shoemaking, local cooking and wine making as well.
The little island of Thirassia has a population of only 200 or so, making it the perfect spot for a relaxing lunch at a cliff-top taverna, with views over to Santorini. The island used to be part of Santorini’s mainland, until the violent volcanic eruption of 1650 BC set it free.
Sail over from Santorini to escape the crowds on Thirassia’s lovely beaches, and bring a traveler’s dictionary as not many people here speak English. Those tavernas are clustered in the village of Manolas, near the ferry stop, and the tranquil island also has scattered blue-domed churches, ancient monasteries and stone villages.
More Things to Do in Santorini
With its wide-arching strip of beach dotted with striped umbrellas, it’s easy to see why Kamari Beach is resort central on Santorini.
The Brits feel at home with English-style breakfast cafes and pubs, but there are resorts, tavernas and restaurants here for all tastes, along with bobbing fishing boats and the easily accessible volcanic-sand beach. In fact, it’s the resort town’s variety when it comes to choosing restaurants and hotels that makes it so popular.
Rent a sun chair and umbrella, or organize water sports like diving and snorkeling. Excursion boats sail along the coast, past the rocky headland of Mesa Vouno that frames Kamari’s beach, across the water to the isle of Anafi. A trail leads to the ruins of Ancient Thira, and in summer the town hosts a jazz festival and outdoor cinema.
One of the most memorable places in Greece, the volcanic island of Santorini - located in the Cyclades group - is a spectacular Mediterranean paradise known for its dazzling views, fine beaches and unforgettable sunsets. Without much need for modern amenities, the place is lined with historic sights, and more than enough natural and ancient wonderment to go around. It's no wonder why so many people love Santorini.
There are a few ways to get into Santorini, either by land or sea, depending on your budget and how much time you have to explore. By air, there is Santorini National Airport, which during the summer months flies directly to several destinations in Europe. If the water highway is your transportation method of choice, you can either grab a ferry from domestic locations in Naxos, Paros, or more commonly Piraeus. Big cruises will reach Santorini through the old port in Fira (take note: not the newer one located just 2 miles away in Pyrgos).
The archaeological site at Akrotiri may be closed, but fortunately you can get your fill of excavations at the site of Ancient Thira. There’s a mix of ruins to explore, including Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine remnants, excavated in the 1890s. Take a tour to identify the different structures – temples, houses, the market (agora), theater and gymnasium.
At its height, this was a thriving center, with dramatic sanctuaries hewn into rock, temples, an impressive theater and porticoed administrative buildings. The central area is the Agora, the old commercial hub, encircled by temple sanctuaries ringing the city. There are also ancient cemeteries here, unearthed since the 1960s. Don’t miss the views over the coast while you’re here.
Pyrgos is a picturesque hillside village set on a volcanic crater at the highest point of the Greece’s Santorini, offering panoramic views of the rest of the island. At the top of the village sit the ruins of Kasteli Castle, remnants of the former capitol of the island before it was moved to Fira (where it remains today.)
Pyrgos is as beautiful as the rest of the island, but also has a special historic charm — with traditional white houses, Byzantine churches, Cycladic architecture, and small winding cobblestone lanes and paths. Some of the churches has beautiful old frescoes visible on the walls. The area sees far fewer tourists than the rest of the island, so it keeps a peaceful atmosphere. Though the town has merely 700 inhabitants, there are tavernas and local restaurants. Visiting the village is a way to experience the traditionally preserved culture of the Greek islands.
Santorini’s main town perches on the cliff top overlooking the caldera, with better daytime views than Oia and twinkling night-time vistas.
Fira swarms with holidaymakers and cruise visitors, so find some quiet time in the town’s museums and churches. One museum focuses on Ancient Thira, with relics and figurines unearthed from Ancient Akrotiri. For local history and before-and-after displays on the devastating 1956 earthquake, visit the Megaron Gyzi Museum. Pop into the cathedral next door while you’re here. To find out about local traditions, visit the folklore museum housed in a cave.
There are some lovely jewelry shops to browse in Fira, running along the edge of the caldera, and a paved walkway runs beneath the edge of the lagoon, heading north to meet the cliff-top path to Oia, 8km (5 miles) away. Tours run from Fira over to the volcanic island of Nea Kameni, or you can take a dusk cruise to catch a legendary Oia sunset from the water.
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