10 Tips for Your First Visit to Santorini
And 2 Things You Absolutely Must Avoid
It’s an Instagram darling and has been gaining in popularity continually in recent years. Once a photo of those cliffside whitewashed churches topped with blue domes crosses your timeline, you’re hooked, and Santorini shoots straight to the top of your travel bucket list.
It’s the supermodel of the Greek islands. Instantly recognizable, glamourous, and head-turning. What’s not to love about those plunge pools with caldera views, romantic sunsets, and endless souvlaki?
But before you pack your white floaty dress andbig floppy straw hat and join the over 1.5 million guests the island welcomes each year, here are a few tips to make the most of your first visit to Santorini.
Visit in the shoulder season
My number one tip for visiting Santorini is to carefully plan when you’ll visit. I believe the best time to visit Santorini is in the shoulder season. Visiting in late April/early May or late September/early October will have you missing the worst of the heat and the crowds.
The main complaints you’ll hear about Santorini, aside from the many, many steps, is the crowds. Add in sweltering heat and that will make the overcrowding that much worse. Go in the shoulder season.
I visited at the end of September and found that a few accomodations had closed shop but tours were still active and restaurants were still open. I was able to get a decent standing spot to watch a sunset in Oia and only arrived about 30min ahead of time. You could never do that in July. It was also still warm enough to go for a dip in a pool and to swim out to the hot springs during my caldera tour. Perfect.
Consider staying in Kamari or Perissa
If you can’t adjust your schedule but want to get away from the worst of the crowds, consider staying on the other side of the island at a beach resort in Kamari or Perissa. While Santorini isn’t well known for its beaches or nightlife, you’ll find the best of both in these towns. You’ll also get accommodations that don’t require climbing halfway down a cliff to get to.
The island isn’t that large so you’ll still be easily connected to Fira and Oia. If you have a rental you can get to Fira in less than 20min from Perissa and Kamari to Oia in 25min. Public busses also make runs to both towns.
Bring a refillable water bottle
One thing I wasn’t expecting on my visit to Santorini was to be told that I shouldn’t drink the tap water. It’s safe enough, but not very palatable since it comes from ocean water run through a desalination plant and remains rather salty.
Did you know that there are no natural water sources on the island and that the vineyards are mainly watered through dew that accumulates overnight.
So your best best is to bring your reusable water bottle and fill it from a large jug of fresh water you can purchase at a store, rather than to buy multiple small single use plastic bottles.
Get yourself a gyros pita from Lucky’s in Fira
It’s been over six months since I was in Santorini and my mouth still waters at the thought of a gyros pita from Lucky’s. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall type restaurant that mainly deals in takeaway food, but there are a few seats at the counter and a couple of high tables if you’re lucky.
Lucky’s is perpetually busy so don’t expect the guys behind the counter to be chatty but they’re fast. Though I did have one guy remember me and greeted me warmly when I came back two days later for another fix. “My beautiful Canadian!”
I got flustered on my first visit and ordered what seemed like a regular combo: two pitas, fries, and a Coke. I finished it but had to roll myself back to Caveland afterwards. Pitas were €2.50 each and one would be enough for a typical lunch. Add fries or a second pita if you’re really hungry, but you don’t need both. Trust me.
Try the first IPA brewed in Greece
While on the topic of food and drink, keep an eye out in restaurants for Crazy Donkey from the Santorini Brewing Company. It was the first IPA to ever be brewed in Greece and it’s damn good.
For added authenticity, I recommend visiting the brewery, smack in the middle of Santorini wine country. You can sample other brews like their Lazy Ass lager or White Donkey hefeweizen.
Here’s a funny thing about the brewery though… they can sell you beer but you can’t drink it in the building since they don’t have a liquor license. You can, however, drink it on their front steps since Greece is a country that allows public consumption.
So that’s exactly what I did.
Wear a dark swimsuit for the hot springs
One of the things that many visitors to Santorini do is take a boat tour around the caldera, stopping on the islands of Therasia and Nea Kameni. The latter is a volcanic island at the center of the Santorini caldera. One of the perks of a boat tour is that you can take a dip off of Nea Kameni and experience the hot springs.
While my tour mates and I would classify them more as warm springs than actual hot springs, it was still a nice little excursion. So why the dark swimsuit recommendation? The hot springs are full of iron and manganese, which are thought to be the therapeutic to soak in, but will stain the hell out of your new white bikini.
So if you’re going to visit the hot springs, be sure to wear either an old suit or a dark one that will hide any iron coloured stains.
Take the local bus or rent an ATV
If you’ve got a flexible schedule and mainly want to hit up the highlights of Santorini, I recommend taking the local bus. The busses themselves are large tourist busses with plush seats rather than your typical public bus. Each ride costs €1.80 so it’s an economical way to get around.
Busses will go to all the main tourist spots like Akrotiri, Perissa, Kamari, Fira, and Oia though the schedule may be a bit erratic. Be aware that all routes connect through Fira and there may be a lag between connections. But if you don’t want to worry about a vehicle or have someone to split the costs with, you can still have a great time in Santorini by taking the bus.
ATVs are also a popular rental option if you want to explore more on your own schedule and route. Just be aware of the big busses because roads tend to be quite narrow.
Don’t expect to rely on taxis when visiting Santorini. There aren’t many on the island so you can’t expect to flag one down on the street when you need it. They can also be quite expensive when compared to both the bus or ATV rental.
Get your history on
While wandering the picturesque streets of Santorini towns can happily fill your hours, there’s more to the island than sunsets and blue domes. The island has an incredible history stretching back thousands of years.
Be sure to carve out an hour or two on your Santorini itinerary to visit Akrotiri, an archeological excavation of a Minoan Bronze Age settlement. It’s pretty incredible to see what they’ve uncovered.
You can see the framework of buildings, pottery, furniture, and more. You almost start to believe that the people who lived here just stepped out and will be back soon. The one thing they never found at Akrotiri were bodies and it remains a mystery. What happened to them?
Did they get a warning of the impending volcano that turned Santorini into the crescent shape we know today and get the hell out of dodge? Did they sail to Crete? No one knows.
Closer to the center of tourist activity is the Archaeological Museum of Thera or the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, both centrally located in Fira.
Put the camera down
While we all want that perfect Santorini shot to make our friends jealous and to boost our Instagram but don’t get obsessed with it. Be sure to put the camera down now and then and really be in the moment. Experience all the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells that Santorini has to offer.
Watch the sunlight sparkle off the Aeagan. Let the busker’s accordion make your toes tap. Sip some chilled Assyrtiko and take note of the citrus and mineral nuances. Stroll past a restaurant and let the smell of grilled meat wafting on the air guide you to dinner.
Be mindful. Be in the moment.
Watch at least one sunset from Oia
Maybe it’s so hyped you think it can’t live upto your expectations, but with a clear sky, the sunset from Oia really is spectacular. There’s no need to shell out for a pricey seat in a cliffside restaurant or to sip on overpriced cocktails to enjoy it either. You can book yourself a cruise if that’s your jam or you can just find a little patch of street to call your own and watch the sun sink into the ocean and the sky blaze up in a wash of pinks, reds, and orange.
It’s a Santorini ritual and it feels really special to take part in that with everyone gathered around. Take a photo or two but for the most part, just take a deep breath and enjoy the view.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Do These 2 Things in Santorini
Don’t trespass onto private property
I’m sure you’ve seen the photos all over Instagram of women in dresses staring off into the distance standing on a whitewashed roof overlooking the caldera in Santorini. Or maybe you’re looking for the perfect spot to camp out for the sunset show in Oia.
Whatever the case, make sure that you’re not trespassing on to someone’s private property. How would you like if some stranger came the hang out on your roof uninvited? Not respecting people’s property is one of the things that will quickly turn tourists from welcomed guests to barely tolerated pests.
By all means, get a photo and watch the sunset, just make sure that you have permission to be where you are.
Don’t ride the donkeys up from the Old Port
If you’re arriving in Santorini by cruise ship, it will most likely dock outside the Old Port of Fira and then you’ll be shuttled by boat to shore. The thing is, Fira itself is about 500’ above sea level so you’ll need to find a way up.
There are three options: stairs, cable car, and donkey rides. Santorini is going to make you work for those spectacular views. The queue for the cable car will be long, the stairs will be tiring, but please, please, don’t ride a donkey.
Greek summers can be blisteringly hot and there have been questions of how well the donkeys are treated. They may not have adequate shade and water while their wait for charges and theses asses were not built for hauling your ass up a cliff over and over again. In fact, hordes of overweight tourists are literally killing Santorini donkeys.
They have been found to suffer from spinal injuries, saddle sores, and exhaustion. With as many as 8,000 cruise passengers disembarking in a single day demand has soared, pushing the Greek government to implement a law making it illegal to burden a donkey with over 220lb or 1/5th of its own body weight.
So while you may be tempted, thinking you’ll save yourself time and exertion and have a seemingly local experience in the process, think twice and don’t ride donkeys in Santorini.
Santorini is a wonderful destination to explore. Whether it’s your first time venturing abroad, or you’re a seasoned traveler, these small tips will help you relax and enjoy your vacation on the island. Yamas!
Do you have any tips for visiting Santorini? I’d love to read your advice for travelers as well!
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