10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do on Santorini
The island of Santorini (Thíra) is most impressive when approached from the sea as you sail into the massive caldera (sea-filled volcanic crater), almost totally enclosed by sheer cliffs ranging in height between 200 and 400 meters. Along the gray-black lava cliff tops, the whitewashed settlements of Firá and Oia are the island's most alluring (and most expensive) destinations. In fact, Santorini lives almost entirely from tourism, attracting visitors with its extraordinary landscape and its ancient archaeological sites. It is generally marketed as a romantic destination - popular with honeymooners, couples, and celebrities. Cruise ships sailing the East Mediterranean make a one-day port of call here.
See also: Where to Stay on Santorini
The capital of Santorini, Firá (Thíra) is made up of whitewashed cubic houses and terraces, winding lanes, little squares, and blue-domed churches perched on the cliffs 300 meters above the caldera. Below town, from the small port of Skala, Firá can be reached either by walking or riding (mules are for hire) up the steep and winding stepped path (587 steps) or by taking the cable-car. Ferries dock at the port of Athiniós, connected to Firá by road (17 kilometers), while cruise ships put down anchor in the caldera, and passengers are transported to Skala by tender. Firá lives principally from tourism, and many of its buildings are now given over to small hotels, apartments, restaurants, cafés, souvenir shops, and jewelers.
On the northern tip of Santorini, 12 kilometers up the coast from Firá, Ía (Oia) is a picture-perfect village of whitewashed houses, several of which have been converted into chic little boutique hotels with infinity pools, overlooking the caldera. Like Firá, it lives from tourism, but caters for a more upmarket clientele. Steep paths zigzag up to town from Ammoúdi Bay, where you'll find a row of waterside seafood eateries. Oia is especially known for its stunning sunsets, which attract visitors from all over the island each evening through summer. It's possible to walk all the way from Oia to Fira following a footpath along the cliffs high above the caldera (allow three hours).
Formed by the massive volcanic explosion that blew the center out of the island some 3,600 years ago, the caldera is the sea-filled volcanic crater that remained. Measuring 12 kilometers by seven kilometers, it is still home to volcanic activity - in its center rise the two Kaiméni islets with hot springs and gas emissions. Various agencies offer one-day excursions of the caldera by boat, including time to bathe in the hot springs and then have lunch on Thirassia, a tiny island on the west side of the caldera affording amazing views back to Santorini across the water.
4 Akrotíri Archaeological Site and Red Beach
Near the village of modern Akrotíri, 12 kilometers southwest of Firá, the ancient settlement of Akrotíri was buried below lava following the 16th-century BC volcanic explosion that created the caldera. Excavations have shown that Santorini was a flourishing and prosperous island before the eruption and probably lived from shipping and trading. Its connections with North Africa can be deduced from the outstanding frescoes (most of which are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens) that decorated its houses. Akrotiri reopened to the public in 2012, following several years of closure.
Nearby is the famous Red Beach below a spectacular red cliff wall. The beach is accessible along a path from the town of Akrotiri.
5 Ancient Thira
On the southeast coast, Ancient Thira dates from the ninth century BC. You can see the ruins of Hellenistic temples and other structures, as well as the foundations of Roman and early-Byzantine buildings. Finds from the site are displayed in the archaeology museum in Firá.
6 Archeological Museum, Firá
Lying close to the upper station of the cable-car in Firá, the small archaeological museum displays finds from Ancient Thira, ranging from the Dorian, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods.
7 Museum of Prehistoric Thira
Slightly confusing, the Museum of Prehistoric Thira displays finds from Akrotiri archaeological site. For many people, the top tourist attraction is the Blue Monkeys wall fresco, but other ancient artworks on display include marble figurines, painted ceramics, tools, and weapons. You'll find it in a modern white building, close to the 1950s Mitrópolis church in Firá.
Santorini's capital before Firá took over in 1800, tiny Pyrgos is made up of whitewashed Cycladic cottages built around the ruins of a medieval hilltop castle. Previously a sleepy, all-but-forgotten town, Pyrgos has, since 2004, started to cater to up-market tourism with the opening of several small chic restaurants and boutique hotels. You'll find it in the center of the island, eight kilometers southeast of Firá.
9 Profitis Ilias
From Pyrgos, a road runs to the summit of Mt. Profítis Ilías (584 meters), Santorini's highest point, affording stunning views over the island and out across the sea. Here stands the Profitis Ilias Monastery, which is open to the public. Inside, you can see the church, with a richly carved iconostasis, and the museum displaying the miter and crozier of Patriarch Gregory V, who was hanged in Constantinople by the Turks in 1821. Also of interest are the library, the monastic archives, and the kitchen. The monastery ran one of the many "secret schools," which operated during the Turkish period.
10 Beach at Perissa
Santorini's best known and most popular beach lies on the southeast coast, between the villages of Perissa and Perivolos. A six-kilometer-long stretch of fine, black volcanic sand, it is backed by tamarisk trees and overlooked by a string of seafood tavernas and cafés. There are sunbeds and umbrellas to rent, plus water sports facilities. It is approximately 12 kilometers from Firá.
Where to Stay on Santorini for Sightseeing
If you are coming to Santorini for the postcard perfect views out over the caldera and the Aegean Sea, the best places to stay are in the towns of Oia or Firá. These towns are perched along the clifftop, high above the water, with fabulous views, gleaming white hillside terraces, and quaint narrow streets. Below are some highly-rated hotels in good locations:
- Luxury Hotels: The new Filotera Suites is a luxury boutique hotel in Oia with a spectacular cliffside location and incredible views. An infinity pool and lovely terraces on the edge of the caldera look out over the sparkling blue water, and rooms are cave-style suites. In the same category but offering a more traditional feel is the Pezoules, also located along the edge of the caldera in Oia, with spectacular views and luxury suites. Its architectural design features curving stairs, patios, and pool lines that create a unique ambience and an authentic vibe. The posh Celestia Grand in Firá is another stunning clifftop property, with a beautiful pool; large, airy rooms, including villas with private pools; and impeccable service.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Oia's Sunset Apartments is in a convenient location near the bus stop and features a lovely pool and a variety of accommodation options. In Firá, Costa Marina Villas offers basic, comfortable rooms, some with balconies, and cozy common areas. For a little better value and a quieter atmosphere, try the Grand View Hotel in Megalochori, south of Firá. With excellent views and a pool overlooking the caldera, this hotel is hard to beat in this price range.
- Budget Hotels: In Oia, a 15-minute walk from shops and restaurants but near a bus stop, the Anemomilos Hotel Apartments offers a pool, sea views, and complimentary breakfast. This hotel has simple but clean rooms and apartments, well-kept grounds, and is known for good service. With an excellent location in Firá, near shops and restaurants, the Hotel Kavalari is a cliffside property with beautiful views, nice patio areas, and comfortable rooms. The Pansion Zaharoula, just a 10-minute walk from Firá, has spacious, air-conditioned rooms, but the property lacks a pool.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Santorini
An organized tour is a great way to see all the highlights of the island without the hassle of trying to find your way around. Experienced guides share information about the island's history as well as insider tips about its culture and attractions, and these tours include convenient pickup and drop-off at your hotel, saving you time and money. Below are some fun tour options that guarantee the lowest price:
- See the Sights: A great way to learn about Santorini's history, explore picturesque villages, and see spectacular sunset views is on the full-day Oia Sunset and Traditional Villages Tour in Santorini. With pickup and drop-off from your hotel, this tour takes you in a comfortable air-conditioned coach to explore the Minoan excavations at Akrotiri, the pretty village of Pyrgos, and sunset views from Oia. If you prefer to tailor your tour to suit your interests, the Private Custom Tour: Santorini in a Day is an excellent choice. You can choose between a five-hour tour or upgrade to an eight-hour tour, with stops at your favorite attractions, from ancient archeological sites and traditional villages to beautiful black-sand beaches. This tour also includes convenient hotel or cruise ship port pickup and drop-off.