In 1956, when Greece was still struggling to recover from the devastation of the Second World War, a big earthquake hit the island (thanks Earth). Fifty six people were killed and hundreds were injured in what was the largest earthquake to hit Europe in the 20th century. With their houses and livelihoods reduced to rubble, locals abandoned the island in waves and travelled to Athens to start anew. At that time, anyone with moderate savings could have bought half the island as people were eager to be rid of any property, viewed then as worthless. A lot has changed since then. Santorini emerged from oblivion in the 1970s with the advent of tourism and the development of modern transportation, to become one of the hottest travel destinations in the world.
What to do
Athinios, the busy port of Santorini, is not much to look at, but as soon as you start ascending the narrow winding road that leads to Fira, you are made aware of the raw beauty of the island that has mesmerised visitors for decades.
Santorini is an active volcano. It last erupted in 1950 on Nea Kameni, the small island formed from past eruptions. Don’t worry though; chances of it erupting while you’re passing the summer are extremely thin. The name Santorini was given to the island by the Franks who run the island in the 13th century in honour of Saint Irene and it has stuck until today, though the official name is Thera.
Fira, the main town, is picturesque, but has not escaped the side effects of mass tourism. Throngs of tourists right off the cruise ships fill up the narrow paths, cars are parked everywhere, tacky souvenir shops interchange with dated jewellery stores, signs pop up arrogantly like mushrooms in every street corner and a few unsightly buildings that look out of place. There are some bright spots though. Take a seat at Franco’s bar (Tel: +30 22860 24428), an island institution, where you have your first panoramic view of the 18 km long caldera, stretching like a crescent moon from Akrotiri to Cape Agios Nikolaos at the north. Right and left Fira town is spread out with whitewashed houses and churches with brilliant blue cupolas. At the centre of the lagoon is Nea Kameni and further out the inhabited island of Thirasia. Franco’s is the perfect place to sip the first aperitif of the evening, while listening to an aria by Maria Callas and contemplating on the age-old popular legend on whether Santorini is indeed the lost Atlantis.
Sightseeing should begin at Akrotiri (Tel: +30 22860 81366, open Tue-Sun) where excavations in 1967 brought to light the best known Minoan site outside of Crete. The elaborate complexes of multi-level buildings, the streets, objects and walls have been well preserved as they were buried under the ashes of the huge eruption which destroyed the island in the 17 century BC. The impressive frescoes from Akrotiri can be found at the Museum of Prehistoric Thira at Fira (Tel: +30 22860 22217, open Tue-Sun). The Archaeological Museum (Fira, Tel:+30 22860 22217, open Tue-Sun) exhibits sculptures and inscriptions from the Roman times as well as some objects from Akrotiri. Naos Episkopis Thiras (south of village Mesa Gonia) is an important Byzantine church built in the 11th century by emperor Alexios Komninos. The small Folklore Museum of Manolis Lignos (Kontohori, Fira, Tel: 22860 22792) houses an old canava (wine cellar) and tools of the wine business.
Do not miss the chance to walk on dark solid lava and swimming in hot springs by joining one of the daily boat trips to Palia and Nea Kameni, the volcanic islands in the middle of the caldera, and bigger Thirasia. Boats leave from Yalos –Santorini’s old port–Athinios –the new port– and Ammoudi.
Santorini also has a thriving art scene with Greek and foreign artists exhibiting their work in various venues around the island. Art Space in Exo Gonia (open daily from 11am to sunset, Tel: +30 22860 32774) exhibits in its carved chambers contemporary art from new and established artists. Mati art gallery (Fira, Orthodox Cathedral plateau, Tel:+30 22860 23814) showcases the work of visual artist Yorgos Kypris.
Many people argue Santorini doesn’t have any decent beaches. That’s not true. Because of its unique geology, Santorini has unusual beaches which are completely different from each other. Most of them are quite busy and the best time to enjoy them is to get there before noon. Perissa is a popular long beach with fine, black, volcanic sand and lounge chairs for everyone. There are many water sports on offer and the village has plenty of tavernas for an afternoon snack. Perivolos is the natural continuation of Perissa and is similarly organised with umbrellas, beach bars and lots of celebrity viewings. The beautiful limestone formations found in Vlihada beach create a lunar landscape where you are able to escape the sun loungers by simply walking past them. Kamari beach is probably the most famous beach and is similarly geared towards pleasing tourists with beach bars and water sports. Lying on your sun lounger, you will probably see many small airplanes flying really low over the water; that’s because the airport runway starts right after the village. Two more beaches on the south-western coast which are really worth a mention: Kokkini Paralia (red beach), right next to the archaeological site of Akrotiri, is a narrow beach spread at the base of steep brick red rocks. It is reachable by boat from Akrotiri. Aspri Paralia (white beach) has, as you may guess, white sand made of pulverized limestone and to get there you must hop on a boat. At the north, Katharos beach is blissfully quiet, though this is slowly changing. To get there, drive toards Ammoudi port and follow the signs. There’s an amazing bar squeezed in the rocks overlooking the beach which is an ideal location to enjoy that famous sunset without the crowds of Oia and Fira. Baxedes beach at the north-east is recommended for families as the waters are shallow – an exception in Santorini. Driving towards the east you will find Monolithos and Karterados, both with black pebbles and sand, with Monolithos being more popular.
Where to eat
If you like gourmet food, this is your lucky year. Santorini has launched the “Year of Gastronomy” for 2013, offering many events to celebrate local produce and allow visitors to taste local cuisine. There are plenty of reasons to support such initiative on the island. The volcanic earth has helped Santorini develop unique agricultural products which have dominated the eclectic culinary scene for many years. The local waterless small tomatoes (like cherry tomatoes) have an amazing full flavour and colour and the same goes for the local white aubergine. Fava beans from Santorini are so good they were assigned the PDO tag (Protected Designation of Origin). The island also has a sophisticated wine industry which produces local varieties like Asyrtiko and the sweet Vinsanto. The strong winds have forced producers to cultivate vines by coiling them up, while the volcanic soil gives the grapes a unique flavour. Wine tasting tours are organised by local wineries. Some of them are Sigalas (between Oia and Vourvoulos, Tel: +30 22860 71644), Santo Wines (Pyrgos, Tel: +30 22860 22596), a cooperative of wine producers, Antoniou Winery (Megalohori, Tel: +30 22860 23557) and Canava Roussos (Mesa Gonia, Episkopi, Tel: +30 22860 31349).
Eating in Santorini can really be hit or miss. Many tavernas on the caldera have very poor quality of food because they rely on their location to attract visitors instead of working on a decent menu. Beware of venues with too many signs and waiters prodding you to go in. Good restaurants do not need that kind of advertising. Lava (Tel: +30 22860 81776) in Perissa offers island specials cooked in the oven at reasonable prices. Kallisti (Pyrgos, Tel: +30 22860 34108) is well known for its modern renditions of local dishes. In Oia, try Skala (+30 22860 71562), a cheap eatery with well-cooked Greek specialties. Fresh fish and other ancillaries from the sea are expertly cooked or grilled at Psaraki (Vlyhada, Tel: +30 22860 82783). Fashions come and go in the culinary world of Santorini, but some restaurants have an enduring value which has earned them a place in the country’s top restaurants. Selene (Pirgos, Tel: +30 22860 22249) has been breaking ground in the culinary scene since 1986, when it first opened in Fira. In its new location, Selene has two different spaces; one with the classic menu offering gourmet specialties like langoustines in zucchini flowers and risotto, and Selene meze & wine, which operates as a taverna, wine bar, café and delicatessen. For the Year of Gastronomy, the restaurant is organising wine tastings and other initiatives to promote local produce.
Life on the volcano passes in style and expectation. After spending a day at the beach, the same question is raised in people’s minds: where will they watch the sunset from? On this contest, Fira, Oia, Imerovigli and Firostefani win over the other villages hands down. If you want to find a seat in one of the restaurants or bars lining the cliff, you have to be there at least two hours before the sun sets, as privileged seats –inside and outside the bars– fill up early. Otherwise, you can join the dozens of people who crouch on white roofs, empty yards and other available surfaces to watch the sun disappear behind the horizon. When the sun goes down and the oppressive heat recedes, it is the perfect time to get a drink. Fira’s nightlife is more lively, while Oia is best for a quiet night out. Apart from Franco’s, the Belair Lounge (Fira, Tel: +30 22860 28320)gathers 30 and 40 somethings into a hyposcafo (room dug into the rock) where colourful cocktails are served. For a more loungy atmosphere head to Kira Thira (Fira, Tel: +30 22860 22770), an old bar playing jazz and ethnic music. Casablanca Soul (Fira, Tel: +30 22860 27188) fills up after midnight with house beats and deep soul played by guest DJs.
It is obvious that the best place to stay in Santorini is at any hotel on the side of the caldera, but it will cost you. The view from White (Imerovigli, Tel: +30 22860 25257, www.whitesantorini.gr) is well worth your money if you have around 280 euros to spare per night (prices rise depending on the room type and dates). For a cheaper option, Keti Hotel (Fira, +30 22860 22324, 90 euros for a double, www.hotelketi.gr) offers clean, pretty rooms overlooking the caldera. At Firostefani, Kafieris (Tel: +30 22860 22059, www.kafierisapartments.gr) rents out apartments on the cliff at reasonable prices. Stelios Place (Perissa, Tel: +30 22860 81860, about 60 euros for a double, www.steliosplace.com) has spacious rooms and a lovely pool outside.
All major ferry companies offer several daily routes to Santorini. Santorini Airport is also served by two Greek carriers –Olympic Air and Aegean Air– and many international airlines fly directly to the island. Having said this, we believe Santorini should be approached by boat. The experience of cruising between the volcanic islets as you approach Santorini and the impact of that first view of the caldera from below is a must.
Sea Side Notos Restaurant
Agios Georgios beach, Perivolos, Tel: +30 22860 82801
If you’re looking for a restaurant on the beach with gourmet cuisine and a lounge bar, you will find it at Perivolos in Santorini. The chef has created a menu based on the Mediterranean cuisine with a few tropical elements. After your dinner, visit the bar to try the original cocktails and enjoy ethnic and lounge music.
Perissa beach, Santorini, Tel: +30 22860 81235
A beach bar-restaurant you can choose for breakfast; you may try the fresh fruit juices and smoothies made of tropical fruits or to some traditional Greek recipes. In the evening, it becomes the absolute beach bar. Sun loungers on the beach, tropical cocktails and music nights with live bands or DJs complete the ideal scenery.
Perivolos beach, Tel: +30 22860 81819, facebook.com/pages/Ammos-Restaurant-Santorini
An atmospheric restaurant right in the centre of Perivolos beach with an exceptional view and good food. In its menu you will find Mediterranean options and flavours adjusted to the scents of Santorini’s earth and sea.
Perissa beach, Tel: +30 22860 83020
One of the oldest restaurants in Santorini. It is famous for its fluffy pizza and the menu which includes Greek and Italian flavours. It also has a fixed menu.
Suites of the Gods & Demilmar restaurant Beach Bar
Perissa beach, Caldera Megalochori, Tel: +30 22860 28856, +30 22860 85070, www.suitesofthegods.com
A hotel complex which, apart from a fabulous view of the endless Aegean blue, offers a large range of very high quality services and facilities. Among them, the Delmimar restaurant beach bar stands out - a unique venue on the beach with a self service buffet, a restaurant and an all-day cocktail bar.
Books & Style
Fira, Tel: +30 22860 24510
A store of good taste and aesthetics, a meeting point for the booklovers of Santorini. In here you will find an updated library with many titles which is organised by Eleftherouthakis bookshop.
Perissa beach, 2286 085230, facebook.com/TranquiloSantoriniPerissa
Relaxed beach bar on Perissa Beach, with flawless food, great cocktails and comfortable loungers. Good music and the live music is a plus.
Anemos Beach Lounge Hotel
Perivolos, Tel: +30 22860 82220, www.anemosbeachhotel.com
Set up in Perivolos, one of the most impressive and beautiful beaches of Santorini, Anemos Beach Lounge Hotel is famous for its relaxed atmosphere, comfortable sun loungers and friendly atmosphere created by the staff. The beautiful venue is offered for weddings and social activities.
Santorini Heritage Villas
Megalohori, Tel: +30 6994 102450
In the lesser known but well preserved village of Megalohori are located two of the most beautiful mansions of the island. Mansion Kyani and Mansion Sophia, which belonged to one of the richest families in the village, are today offered to rent by the company Santorini Heritage Villas & Mansions.
Kamari, Tel: +30 2286033452, www.cinekamari.gr
The open air cinema Kamari is located at the entrance of Kamari village on the main road to Fira town, with a bus station just across the cinema entrance. It is open from June until the first days of October. The entrance fee is 7 euros. There’s a full bar with cocktails (try our strawberry Daiquiri and Mojito!), local beer and wine, refreshments, ice cream and snacks.
Mezzo Hotel and Restaurant
Imerovigli, Tel: +30 2286 021874, www.facebook.com/MezzoHotelRestaurant
In Imerovigli, in the area of Skaros, is the hotel and restaurant Μezzo, offering a view over the Venetian castle. It is an old mansion of traditional Cycladic architecture, built inside the rock in 1891 and was renovated in 1979, when it was transformed into a traditional hotel. The restaurant is spread out on three levels. Its menu includes selections of Greek and local cuisine, using a choice of raw ingredients from local producers.