With its dramatic volcanic setting, Santorini is one of the most popular of all the Greek islands, with picturesque villages perched on the edge of the caldera offering much sought after settings for stunning sunsets. Although its beauty means that it can get overcrowded, there are ways to visit the island as a Slow Traveller without adding to the pressure on the island and without having to suffer through too many crowds.
The island of Santorini in the South Aegean is renowned for being the most photogenic of the Greek Islands. The stunning sunsets and traditional white villages clinging to the cliff sides are a huge draw for the millions of visitors it receives each year and its popularity with the Instagram generation cannot be understated, with there being at least 15 million photos posted of people gazing wistfully at a sunset or posing in their finest threads in front of a blue domed church or a whitewashed windmill. Cruise ships arrive daily and crowds of people stroll through the coastal villages in search of delicious Greek food and the perfect sunset.
The island boasts 'the Greek Pompeii', the ancient city of Akrotiri which is a Minoan Bronze Age settlement destroyed by a volcano in the 16th Century BC and buried in volcanic ash which helped to preserve it, as well as cathedrals, churches, museums, monasteries, art galleries, Hellenic ruins, several hiking trails, hot water springs, beaches, boat trips, vineyards and more.
Santorini may be a popular tourist destination, but it is still possible to enjoy it the Slow way. Chilling out watching a sunset, visiting sites, beaches, villages, spending hours in a cliff side restaurant savouring the Mediterranean flavours; there are ways to avoid the crowds and find the true pace of life in this once peaceful, slow island.
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF SANTORINI
One of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean, over the years Santorini has been conquered by the Phoenicians, Dorians, Spartans, Venetians (who named it Santa Irini after a catholic church) and Ottomans, finally becoming part of Greece in 1830. It was once one big round island (the island was called Stongili in ancient times which means round) but an eruption around 1630 BC exploded with such force that the island collapsed in on itself and formed a large caldera that filled with seawater.
The land that remained above water formed three islands, the largest of which is Santorini.
That eruption is said to be one of the largest ever and possibly the cause of the devastation of the Minoan civilisation on Crete. 300 years ago, two new islands formed in the caldera caused by more eruptions and are the most recent landmasses on earth.
Still active, the last eruption occurred in 1950. In 1956 there was a huge earthquake causing most of the residents to leave the island, but in the 1970s tourism reached the island and it rapidly increased in popularity. Thanks to strict land zoning laws, there were serious restrictions on development, so fortunately there are no high rises here to obstruct the views and spoil the beauty.
The island is truly beautiful. It feels very high up, with dramatic rugged red and black cliffs supporting white washed villages which tumble down the sides into the sea. The ubiquitous domed churches and orthodox bell towers rise above the haphazard houses, swathes of bougainvillea surprise you around narrow corners; wild cats roam free, shops display Greek key silver jewellery, quirky souvenirs and assorted items made from Mediterranean herbs.
The navy blue sea dominates the view, from on high looking as still as a pond and reflecting back those astonishing sunsets. The sky is expansive and colourful, at dawn the subtle shades of pink and purple bathe the island in a misty ethereal tint before the brilliant white light of the day begins. At dusk, the shades of yellow, oranges and reds envelop the rows of tourists all watching from the cliff tops. In short, this is a beautiful island.
Although the main industry here is tourism, it seems to attract a very different type of tourist to most of the rest of the beaches of the Mediterranean. This is not the place for stag or hen dos, there are no gangs of heavy drinking young adults roaming the streets.
Instead, Santorini attracts many couples looking for a romantic getaway (expect to see several bended knee proposals in sunsets), cruise ship passengers and the Instagram generation. These are the most fascinating to watch – beautifully dressed, they run from beautiful view to beautiful building, stopping for a quick pose with their back to the camera looking coquettishly or mystically over their shoulder, before charging off to the next vista.
For all its beauty and more fashionable visitors, it still suffers from terrible overcrowding during the warmer months, and the people who come to the island are causing many of the problems it suffers from:
"Its spectacular sunsets and seascapes lure vast numbers of holidaymakers – a whopping 5.5 million overnight stays were recorded last year. But the island is just 76km² - smaller than the Isle of Sheppey - and traffic jams and overcrowding have become an issue, as has rising water and energy consumption. Nikos Zorzos, the island’s mayor, who put a daily cap on cruise passengers in a bid to stem the tide of tourists, has warned that the island is at “saturation point”.
From the Daily Telegraph - Is Greece on the brink of an overtourism crisis? June 2018
If the island is going to remain open to overseas visitors, there needs to be a compromise, and the visitors need to become part of the solution, not the problem. The island needs tourists, but not at any cost, and it is up to the tourists to have more awareness, more respect and more sustainability in their approach to visiting this incredible place.
When is the best time to visit Santorini?
If you want to avoid the often overwhelming crowds, then you absolutely have to avoid the summer months. Visit in the summer and not only do you suffer through excessive queues, crowds and higher prices, but you are also adding to the pressure on what is just a small island with an infrastructure which simply cannot cope with those numbers.
The shoulder seasons are best - April/May and September/October. The island is still busy, don't expect to have the place to yourself, but the crowds and queues are manageable.
It also has the advantage of prices being far less than they are in the summer and its not scorching hot, so you can mooch around more comfortably.
How to get to Santorini
There are only two ways to get to Santorini - sea or air. This is one of those times that you don't get much chance to limit the environmental impact of your travel.
Flights can be found for as little as £40 from London to Santorini out of season, and although the Trip Adviser reviews of the airport make it sound like a horror story, my own experience was that we sailed through with no queues, no long waits or third world conditions, and in fact flights arrived and left early with barely any waiting around or discomfort.
For those of you who want to take it slower, or are visiting Santorini as part of a longer itinerary, ferries may be your only option. There are ferries from Athens to Santorini, and from Santorini returning to Athens daily, throughout the year, as well as other islands nearby.
Check out the timetables, and book tickets through Ferries in Greece.
How to get around Santorini
The easiest way to get around is using the local buses. The buses are easy to find, clearly marked and very cheap (usually under €2).
There are no buses that run from one side of the island to the other, they all go through the central hub in Fira where there is a ticket office and staff. The central hub can look a bit chaotic and buses are often unmarked until just before departure, but there is always someone to ask. They can get crowded at the busier destinations, and sometimes you’ll have to stand, but it’s no great hardship.
There’s no trains or trams on the island.
There are several taxi companies and a few taxi ranks in the island. Google locations before you go as they can vary. Bear in mind that it is a common practice for drivers to expect people going to close destinations to share a taxi, it’s just the way things are done there.
There are water taxis from the major destinations such as Fira to Oia. These do seem to be quite random, in that they are seasonal and dependent on demand, so it’s definitely worth researching just before you go to get the latest information as it does seem to change regularly.
Finally, airport and ferry transfers can be booked in advance. There are plenty to chose from, including the international companies or local taxi services.
Where to stay in Santorini
Fira is the capital of the island with a wide choice of shops, restaurants and hotels. The other popular place is Oia in the northern tip of the island, but staying there would mean quite a lot of travelling if you wanted to do day trips around the island. It is also packed with people and probably not ideal for the Slow Traveller. There are places available inland, beautiful old houses, but you will need your own transport for that option.
It is home to two cathedrals and most of the museums, as well as the central hub bus station. It has a beautiful old port, so many little roads to explore and its views are (in my opinion) far superior to those of Oia.
There are other resorts on the island, such as Persissa, which have beaches covered in sun loungers and a strip of bars, but they provide for a different type of holiday and I would suggest are more for sun worshipers rather than those seeking to avoid typical tourism.
There are also smaller towns both inland and along the coastline, such as Imerovigli, which are smaller and less busy, but have less going on within walking distance.
In Fira I found Aria Suites, which was a truly excellent hotel. It was quiet, away from any bars and nightlife, but still only a ten minute walk to the centre, as well as being only five minutes walk in the other direction to the bus station which made it an ideal location for day trips to the rest of the island. It has a pool, sea views and serves the best breakfast (on your own private terrace) that I have ever had.
As an early riser, I was up every morning watching the pale pinks of the sunrise slowly warm up the island from the clifftops of Fira. I had the cliffs and views to myself and ventured on some fabulous walks enjoying the serenity and cawing rooks before my fellow tourists awoke and changed the atmosphere of the island entirely.
What to do in Santorini
Fira combines the best of all of Santorini with its beautiful white buildings, sunset views and attractions. There are countless shops, restaurants and art galleries with works of art and sculptures to be found dotted around in random places. It is also the focal point for transport around the rest of the island, including all of the available tours to vineyards, hot spring boat trips and the like.
The capital can get busy with people, particularly in the middle of the day, or if cruise ships have offloaded their passengers for the day, but it is also possible to find the pockets of stillness, peace and traditional life.
Wander around Fira early enough and you will find black-clad locals attending the cathedral or sweeping their porches. You can have the narrow streets to yourself early on, and explore the area that is normally full of people, seeing it waking up for the day. Then when the rest of the visitors are up and bustling around, you can head inland to explore the quieter areas.
The old port area at the base of the cliffs has traditional tavernas and cave houses, a few of which are shops. It is a steep walk down, although there are traditional donkeys that carry people up and down the 588 steps between the old port and the town itself. (There is also a cable car and I would urge people to please use this instead of the donkeys, who really looked like they were suffering, struggling under the weight of over-fed tourists.) We just walked down and then got the cable car back up.
The old port is a peaceful place to spend some time, with a few tavernas right on the waters edge, and we spent the large part of a day sitting in a taverna watching the waves and exploring some of the hidden corners we found down there.
Fira is also the perfect place to see the famous sunsets. Many would say that the ones at Oia are the best, but having seen one there, we all decided that Fira's were far superior. People line the cliff tops waiting, or time their meal out so they are eating with an amazing view, sipping wine and watching the colours blend and dim from bright white to a misty purple.
It is an entrancing experience and definitely one for the bucket list.
Fira has an open air cinema has a variety of films on offer, many of which are in English with Greek subtitles. Watching a film under the moonlight surrounded by palm trees. as the sun sets next to you is quite an experience. Films start around 8.30pm and run from May - October.
Photograph Santorini Cinema
The Fira to Oia trail is a popular walking route. It is 6 miles and has the best views of the island. Allow about 4 hours - more if it is hot or you like stopping to take photos.
MUSEUMS IN FIRA
Fira has two main museums. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera is the one to visit – this is where you will find the many and varied artefacts from Akrotiri itself, amongst other sites. The artefacts are arranged in chronological order, date from the Late Neolithic to the late Cycladic (17th Century BC) and include jewellery, pottery, sculptures, figurines, wall paintings, and ritual objects.
The geology of the island is also covered, as well as information on the islands network of contacts with the rest of the world. This is a must visit location, and tickets can be bought that combine with entry to other sites. Bear in mind that the museum is closed on Tuesdays.
The other museum, the Archaeological Museum, is very different is currently closed for renovation. It is very small but it does have some fascinating objects on display, including the archaeological journals of the excavations on the island and the tools used.
Other museums that can be found in Fira include the Lignos Folklore Museum, which is in a cave and details traditional life on Santorini and the Cultural Centre Megaro Gizi - a 17th Century family mansion that survived the 1956 earthquake which houses engravings, manuscripts and old photographs amongst others. It also hosts cultural events and a free festival in August. Open May to October, it is closed on Sundays.
CATHEDRALS IN FIRA
Amongst the many churches in Fira, there are two cathedrals, both of which are well worth a visit. The Cathedral of St John is the centre of the Catholic diocese which was first established in 1204. It was built in 1823, being rebuilt in 1970 after the earthquake of 1956. It is now a light and airy, peaceful place with artwork adorning the walls and plenty of Catholic imagery. It is small so can get very busy at peak times, but is open daily so you should be able to find a more peaceful time to go.
My favourite of the cathedrals however is the Orthodox Cathedral, which I visited several times as our hotel was so close by. This is a modern building, being built on the site of an earlier church that was destroyed in the 1956 earthquake.
It is painted a brilliant white on the outside but is quite dark inside due to the highly decorated walls and artefacts. There is a lovely courtyard which looks spectacular in the sunrise. Services are held early in the day and it is fascinating to watch the locals enter and genuflect in front of an icon, as well as listen to the two Orthodox priests continuously chanting. The cathedral can be visited outside services, but take into consideration that women must wear modest clothing – shorts are not permitted.
Oia is the quintessential Greek village and walking through its streets would be magical if they weren't so packed with people, even in October. However, the place is beautiful, with narrow cobbled streets, whitewashed cave house, and incredible views. There are some places away from the crowds; just wander at will as its a lovely place to explore, but mostly you will have to accept the crowds as the price you pay to see this amazing place.
Home to the windmills, plenty of churches, cave houses and the ruins of a Byzantine Castle, there is enough here for a full day of sightseeing if you want to. It has to be said though, that just mooching through the streets or sitting in a shady café watching the people walk by, is just as much fun.
The ruins (which are free to enter) are the remains of a 15th century castle that was a family home under Venetian rule and also served as a lookout point as it has 360 degree views of the island. These days it is where most of the crowds gather to watch the sunset and it can be packed (as well as a prime location for marriage proposals). Underneath the ruins is where the few remaining abandoned cave houses can be found, (the majority of cave houses are now mostly tourist accommodation), and it is possible to trek down the cliff to visit them.
Buses go directly to and from Fira to Oia.
The main part of Perissa doesn’t have much to offer in terms of things to see, but it does offer you a day of just relaxing.
Known for its black beach, here you can walk the beachfront strip of chill out bars, buy a drink and lie on a sun lounger under a straw parasol staring at the sea. With relaxing music coming from the bars and a drink in your hand, it would be hard to be anything other than chilled out.
We visited in October, just as the strip was closing, with only a few bars still open. The beaches were practically deserted, there were plenty of sun loungers to choose from, and for us, it really was the best time to visit. I can imagine that it is a very different place in the peak of the summer months.
There is plenty to do away from the main strip though - for the more intrepid explorer there is a trail which starts near the blue domed Timio Stavro church and takes you up Mesa Vouno to the site of ancient Thira (9th Century BC) with Hellenistic ruins including a temple, agora and theatre. The nearby peak of Profitias Illias has an 18th Century stone monastery, museum and impressive views.
Buses go directly to and from Fira to Perissa.
Akrotiri is the jewel in the crown of Santorini’s historical sites. A Minoan Bronze Age settlement, its roots can be traced back to the 5th millennium BC. The town grew in size and prosperity, and the ruins have provided evidence of frescoes, Linear A writing, pottery, three storey houses, an impressive drainage system and a thriving copper industry.
Known as the Greek Pomepii, Ancient Akrotiri was also victim to a volcano, although the residents did manage to get out in time. What remains is the footprint of the town, under a huge roof to protect it from the elements. It was inhabited from around 6,000 years ago, although is preserved how it was at 1500 BC.
The site itself is 20ha and is under cover in one huge building, with walkways constructed over much of it. The majority of the artefacts have been removed (to the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira) and it does feel a bit like you are looking at a shell.
It costs €12 to get in, although concessions are available, you can combine a ticket with other attractions and there are even free days available, so make sure you check out the website before you go. You can opt between guided tours or just walk around yourself.
Akrotiri is also well known for its red beach and although there were people on the beach when we visited, it is highly susceptible to landslides and there are warning signs asking you not to go there. Not wanting to go where we were asked not to, instead we found a taverna on the waters edge, and ate while we listened to the sea.
Buses go directly to and from Fira to Akrotiri.
Other things to do on Santorini
La Ponta in a 13th century Venetian Tower within the castle, where music and mythology meet.
There are several places that offer horse-riding on the island. Try Santorini Horse-riding at Megalochori
You can choose from a wide variety of cruises around the caldera, many include the hot springs on the tiny, uninhabited islet of Palea Kameni.
There is a tomato factory museum on the island.
Do a wineries and vineyards tour
A new 9D cinema experience about the Lost City of Atlantis looks great for kids
Try a visit to the Santorini Brewing Company
How to Travel Slow (and not annoy the locals) in Santorini
Stay somewhere central and use the buses - there is no need to add to the roads or the parking problems
Don't use the donkeys to visit the old port in Fira - walking or the cable car doesn't cause any animal suffering
Stay in a hotel which is owned by a local, not one of the large corporations who are buying them up
Get out early in the morning to have the place to yourself and to experience it at its best
Don't just eat at the clifftop restaurants with the views - they have no problems attracting visitors. Instead, try some of the ones away from the main tourist areas - the food is just as good and they will be grateful for your custom
Please don't add to the hideous lovelocks which are sprouting up around the island. It's a beautiful place and lumps of rusting metal do not improve it.
Be careful when exploring that you don't inadvertently go into private property. It is often hard to see where is public access and where isn't, and it can infuriate the locals.
Standing/sitting on people's roofs, walls and gardens just to get a good photo is really rude but sadly very common.