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Santorini Trip Tips

Recently returned from our first trip to Greece, and figured we’d write down what we learned along the way in case it is helpful to anyone. We are a couple in our early 30s with some previous European travel experience. We are semi-budget travelers meaning that we don’t do hostels, but we try to keep things fairly modest. On our trips, we enjoy archeology, food, photography, and culture, and care less about nightlife and shopping. Here is an overview of the things we learned on our first stop (Santorini island):

GETTING THERE: We would’ve liked to end our trip with a relaxing island stay to decompress after several days of sightseeing, but we were warned that there is always a risk of wind/weather causing delayed or cancelled flights/boats back to the mainland, which could in turn cause a person to miss their flight back to the US if the islands are your last stop. So we heeded the advice posted on this forum and headed immediately out to our furthest island destination upon touching down in Greece, then gradually island-hopped our way back to Athens on Blue Star ferries before starting our mainland vacation. We opted to fly in order to maximize our available time for actual vacationing...we hadn't realized until we started our research that the most reliable ferry out to Santorini takes 8 hours, which would have meant spending almost a whole day after our arrival on additional travel! So - although there can be cheap flights depending on the time of year/time of day - we ended up paying nearly $200 p.p. to fly on Aegean Air in the prime of the day on a flexible-fare ticket (meaning we'd be able to change our ticket if our flight from the US was for some reason delayed). This cut the trip down to 45 minutes! Since we had to leave a few hours cushion between touching down in Athens and leaving for Santorini, this strategy only added a few hours to our overall US-to-Greece travel day and felt like a good choice. We didn't find that other airlines had cheaper prices than Aegean for our particular itinerary. We did learn the hard way that - unlike airfare to and from the US (the only airfare we have ever purchased), domestic flights within Europe are charged in euros, so your credit card will be charged a foreign transaction fee unless you have a card that waives such fees. The plane from Athens to Santorini was a reasonable size (three seats on each side of the aisle, not one of those tiny planes). We spent about three days here, which felt fine. Wouldn’t have minded another day, but we felt like we got to see what we wanted to see. If you arrive by cruise ship, be aware that you’ll have to go up a STEEP hill from the port – either via switchbacks (covered in donkey doo) or paying to ride the gondola. Donkeys are available to ride, but I’ve heard most people discourage this due to the treatment of the donkeys.

UPON ARRIVAL: Though there is public transportation available, this requires a transfer if you are headed all the way to Oia, and we didn't trust ourselves to be coherent enough to navigate this after being on the road for 24 hrs, so we opted for a shuttle (cheaper than a taxi for just 2 people). Santorinishuttle.com was 5 euro cheaper than all the other shuttle services we checked (I think 25 euro total?) and worked well. If you are staying in Fira, a bus from the airport might not be totally out of the question, but you would need to have small change on hand for the fare.

WHERE TO STAY:
- Oia: Situated on the northern tip of the island, this is the area with the perfectly white-washed buildings and blue domes that you see in all the postcards of Santorini. The upside is that it is the most visually stunning town on the island. The downside is that it is crazy expensive and also gets extremely crowded with cruise-ship day-trippers during the day.

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  • Fira: This is the transportation hub of the island. Anybody who comes in on a cruise ship funnels through here. Much more of a functional town than a charming village (good place for buying sunscreen, cheap beach towels, ferry tickets, etc). Might be worth a stay here if you are dead set on not renting any sort of transportation and are going to rely on the bus system. Otherwise would probably stay elsewhere.
  • Firostefani: Saw this area often recommended as a good alternative to Fira. It’s apparently a short walk from Fira but gets you away from the crowds. If you are looking for function/economy over luxury, we did almost book a budget hotel here called Villa Firostefani that had great reviews (9.1/10) on booking.com that was super cheap and had a free shuttle, so that could be worth investigating if you are just looking for a room to sleep in and not much more.
  • Other Beach Areas: If you have more time on your hands or are up for renting a car for the entirely of your stay, there are several outlying beach areas, some with very nice resorts. If you’re relying on public transportation and have a short stay, these become a little less practical.
  • Caldera View: One tip we frequently saw was to pay the extra money for a room with a caldera view. We didn’t end up doing this because we don’t tend to spend much time hanging out in our hotel rooms, and we didn’t regret that choice because we were only there in the early morning/late night. But if you are there for a honeymoon or more relaxation-oriented vacation, it may be worth considering.
  • Finikia Memories Hotel: This is where we stayed. We stumbled across it by chance on Orbitz, and it ended up working out well for us. It is along the road that leads to Oia, about a 15 minute walk on foot (though there isn’t always a sidewalk). We decided to splurge a bit to get a hotel with the distinctive Cycladic island look (whitewashed cave-style rooms) since we may only get to visit here once and a hotel like this screams “you’re in the Greek islands!”. We ended up being very glad we’d done this as opposed to getting a budget room, as it did add to the overall feel of the Greek Island experience for us as first-timers. Hotel staff were extremely friendly and helpful with the exception of one receptionist who seemed a little exasperated with our questions. Grounds were quiet and visually looked a bit better than many of the other non-Oia hotels we drove past. There’s a lovely breakfast terrace with an arbor, bougainvillea, potted Mediterranean plants, view of the Aegean, etc. which made our leisurely breakfasts here memorable. Breakfast varied a bit each day and was tasty enough. This is not the place to stay if you have mobility concerns – rooms are arranged in a series of terraces (built along the slope of a hillside, meaning stairs) and we were even surprised with a spiral staircase within our room to get to our bed! They have a pool, which was a nice setting for getting over our jetlag on arrival day, though we didn’t have too much time to spend there otherwise (we’d say a pool is less critical for short sightseeing stays in Santorini, would become more of a priority if you are coming for honeymoon or relaxation). Pool and hot tub are lit up but closed at night. There were a few minor maintenance issues in the room, and the shower (like many in Greece) was a low-pressure hand-held shower-head. Great restaurant attached. We got 15% off on Orbitz, so we found it to be worth the price ($130/nt).

DINING
- Taverna Santorini Mou: Admittedly filled mostly with tourists, like pretty much any place you go near Oia, but one of the most fun restaurant experiences we had in Greece. They have live bouzouki music nightly and a cute outdoor terrace criss-crossed with string lights. Very friendly staff and jovial guests. They have a fun way of representing all the different guests that come here from all over the world (we won’t give away the surprise).

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Moussaka was great (and we don’t even like eggplant), pastitsio was just average – both appeared deceptively small, but in the end we didn’t have any room for dessert! Complementary raki at the end of the meal. Reservations recommended.
- Finikia Memories Hotel: Our hotel’s restaurant. Actually had great reviews on TripAdvisor, so we gave it a try on night 1 and it turned out to be one of our favorite meals we’ve ever had in Europe! The seafood linguine and risoni pasta with feta and shrimp were both amazing. Those sensitive to salt might have found it a little too salty, but we loved it. Very friendly staff and outdoor terrace has sunset views.
- Along Kamari Beach: There are tons of waterfront restaurants to choose from here. The food we had wasn’t necessarily notable, but what was fun was that some hotels along the main strip let you have complementary use of their pool while you dine at their poolside café. Fun to hop back and forth between your afternoon snacks and the beach-side pool! Beach would have been better, but didn’t want to commit to beach chair rental since we weren’t staying for more than an hour or two.
- Expect to buy bottled water at all restaurants (water isn't potable here).

WHAT TO DO
- ATV rental: ATVs are one of the most popular ways to get around this small island. We didn’t set out to rent one, but did so on the fly and were glad we did – such a fun and memorable day exploring the island! Allows for much more freedom than riding the bus and more fun/unique than driving a car. Allows you to stop for photo ops/exploration whenever you see something interesting. Roughly 40 euro for a 24 hour rental. The cheapest 100cc one was sufficient for getting us both around with enough power on a single ATV (our combined weight = 325 lbs). The rental company dropped it off and picked it up from our hotel, so it was an easy process. There aren’t a ton of road signs to follow, but there also aren’t a ton of main roads, so we didn’t have too difficult of a time navigating just by looking at the map they gave us. Must have your International Driver’s Permit!
- Akrotiri Ruins: The archeological excavations of the prehistoric civilization that was buried when Santorini erupted a few thousand years ago (yes, Santorini is a volcano!). Some compare this to Pompeii, though only a fraction of it is currently excavated. Mostly foundations of buildings with a few intact walls and a couple pieces of pottery (most of the interesting stuff has been taken off to museums). It’s a neat sight to see simply because of how incredibly old it is (way older than ancient Rome, for example), though it is difficult to fully appreciate without a guided tour (there are a few information boards posted inside, but they don’t make it easy to interpret what you are seeing and are quite dry). I saw a sign indicating some sort of guided tour…I was there right before closing and the tour seemed to be done for the day, but I’d highly recommend looking into it to get the most out of your visit, as I admittedly did struggle to appreciate what I was seeing. I felt the 12 euro price was a little steep for what it was (more than we paid for the National Archeological Museum in Athens, which houses thousands of the country’s most precious treasures!), but still a nice option if you’re trying to get the full Santorini experience. Spent about an hour here.
- Red Beach: Distinctive for its red volcanic sand/rocks. There are signs here warning people not to go due to the risk for falling rocks, but people seem to go anyway. Have to scale a rocky pathway to get around to the beach. Beach is somewhat isolated (not built up with restaurants/hotels/sun umbrellas directly on it like Kamari…it’s more of a natural cove). Beachfront water on Santorini generally isn’t as mind-blowingly turquoise as some other islands, but at this beach it has a decent color.

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  • Black Beach (Kamari): Distinctive for its gritty black volcanic sand. Water is blue, not turquoise. Sun umbrellas/lounge chairs available for rent. Bordered by a long strip of beachfront restaurants, and thus can make for a fun afternoon.
  • Volcano/Hot Springs Tour: Another thing we decided to do spur-of-the moment, and a popular excursion taken by Santorini tourists. Consists of a boat ride out to the new volcanic island being formed in the middle of the caldera, then a swim in the hot springs (warm sea water at the base of the volcanic island), and then if you take the longer tour there is a stop at a village called Thirassia. We chose the standard cheap tour on the “traditional wooden boat” that seems to be offered ubiquitously around the island. The boat was completely full, but we didn’t find it to be uncomfortable to the point of wishing we’d taken a more expensive tour. We did bring luggage locks for peace of mind, as we had to stash wallet/camera in our backpack during the hot springs swim (which some people elected to stay on the boat for). I’d strongly recommend taking the shorter (3h), cheapest tour that goes only to the volcano and hot springs rather than paying extra for the 5h tour with Thirassia. Much as I hate to be disparaging about any place, Thirassia isn’t worth your precious vacation hours IMHO. It is essentially a strip of somewhat run down restaurants. There is a town on the hill above, but they tell you that the hike up is effortful and that there won’t be much to do when you get there. They say swimming is an option, but nobody partook in this because the water is super cold and hard to get to due to big slippery boulders lining the waterfront. In the end, we decided that we wanted to save our appetite for a better restaurant in Oia, so we just grabbed a gyro and twiddled our thumbs for the two hours we were there. Bummer to waste two hours in the prime of the day when our time in Santorini was so limited. The complicating factor is that the shorter tour is only available out of Fira, meaning that if you’re staying in Oia you’d have to make the extra effort to take a bus to Fira and then make the long trek down the donkey path to the old port. The longer tour will pick you up directly from your hotel in Oia, which is nice, but then you just stand at Ammoudi (for us, it was an hour with nowhere to sit and nothing to do) while the shuttle goes back and forth picking everyone else up, so it’s still probably worth figuring a way to do shorter cheaper tour from Fira. If you do depart from Ammoudi, best photo ops are on left hand side at the start, right hand side at the end. Be aware that you’ll need to bring a few euros extra cash with you to get into the volcano area (they don’t tell you that when you pay for the tour!). Sturdy shoes are best, as you’ll be hiking 40 minutes or so up loose sharp volcanic gravel. Many (including me) did it in flip flops and I don’t think anyone fell, but lots of stumbling about. Expect to see a little puff of steam coming out of the crater (nothing dramatic) and a nice view from the top. No shade. For the hot springs, you’ll be turned loose to swim a pretty decent distance without any flotation devices, which was borderline hairy. I’m not a super strong swimmer. Our boat parked close enough, and there were just enough large underwater boulders to perch on that it somehow worked out, but if it been just a bit further or harder I probably would’ve struggled. The hot springs themselves consist of opaque rust-colored water that will stain light-colored bathing suits. We had lots of stubbed toes in the hot springs area, as there are underwater rocks and boulders everywhere but the water is opaque. Overall thought the tour was a good addition to our trip because it was something unique and different that you can’t do most other places.
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  • Watch the Sunset: Santorini is known for its amazing sunsets, particularly over the caldera. Oia is often regarded as the best place to watch from, though I hear it can change with time of year. If you do go watch in Oia, heed other peoples’ advice to book a restaurant with a sunset view to get your own dedicated viewing spot!! If you just walk to the old castle ruins (most popular viewing spot), the street will be completely clogged shoulder-to-shoulder with people cramming in to try to get a peek. Expect people trying to push their way in front of you and selfie sticks in your face. Glad we saw the famous Oia sunset, but overall the experience was not particularly pleasant, and we’d definitely try to get a restaurant view next time. And honestly, if you take the road from Fira down towards Akrotiri on your ATV, there are several vacant lots along the rim of the caldara that you can pull over in – the sunset we watched from one of those in a wide open lot with just a couple other people was much more enjoyable.
  • Photo Safari in Oia: Oia truly is beautiful – we felt like we were on a movie set rather than a real place! If photos are at all a valuable souvenir for you or if you are at all into photography, you’ll want to set aside a few hours one day to go on a “photo safari”, as the photo ops in Oia are endless. Expect to have to wait your turn to jump in on the best photo spots – everyone there is doing the same thing. Be mindful of time of day for the sun/shadows. Crowds are lowest in the early morning before cruisers arrive. We were glad that we wore white shirts – it made our photos turn out pretty cute amidst the background of whitewashed houses.
  • Lounging at hotel/beach
  • Boat Rides: There are a wide variety of boat excursions available, ranging from your cheap-o tourist ship to private sunset catamarans, depending on your budget. The main thing to keep in mind is the weather – going out on choppy seas when the Meltemi winds are blowing isn’t going to make for a fun ride.
  • Museums, Churches, Wine Tasting, Ancient Thira, hiking between Fira and Oia: we didn’t partake, but these are more options.

DEPARTING
- If using public transportation, expect to burn quite a bit of time on your departure day. The bus from Oia to Fira runs on a specific schedule, but we were told that the bus from Fira to the new port (where the ferry boats are…not to be confused with the old port which cruise ships use) does not follow any posted schedule. And the buses only come once every 1-1.3 hours. In the end, since we had to build in padding to ensure we didn’t miss our ferry, we had to leave a few hours in advance and did a lot of sitting around. If you elect for a taxi, don’t expect it to be cheap.
- You can buy your ferry tickets in Fira, but if you want to be extra safe you can also buy them online in advance. You just have to pay 50 cents extra per person when you collect them, and you have to go through the extra effort of going to pick them up.
- Can ferry or fly to another island, or fly back to Athens. The huge Blue Star ferries are a great choice, not liable to get tossed to and fro in the wind or cancelled due to weather like some of the small, high speed ferries. We chose the cheapest (non-reserved) seats for our weekday excursion to Naxos in early September since it was a shorter trip and our gamble paid off – not a ton of people boarding, so we didn’t have any trouble finding a comfortable window-side seat (unlike the long haul from Naxos to Athens, which would have been a disaster without having a reserved seat on the packed boat).
- Check ferry routes before locking in your hotels! The ferry routes in Greece aren’t necessarily like many you might find here in the states (e.g. with one running every hour). It might be the case that there is one ferry per day (or even just a few per week) depending on which route you are trying to take.

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We went into our trip-planning with the expectation that we could leave first thing in the morning for our 2nd island destination to allow for a full day there (only to find that there was one boat per day and it wasn’t till 3:30 pm, meaning we didn’t arrive at the next island till 5:30pm), and that it might be easy to detour from Naxos to Patmos since they look close on the map (turned out that ferry connections were very long and limited because they’re in different island groups).

CHOOSING SANTORINI: Some people love Santorini and others find it to be a tourist cliché. In the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself what the best constellation of islands is for you to visit. The more Greece advice I hear, the more I realize that it really does come down to personal preference – for one of my well-travelled friends that recently went to Greece, Santorini was the favorite but she didn’t care at all for Mykonos or Crete. For my other friend that recently went, Santorini was a snooze but she loved Mykonos. For us, we thought Santorini was fun and Naxos grew on us a lot over time, but we disliked Mykonos quite a bit. So really nobody can tell you which of the hundreds of islands will for sure be the best bet for you, because we all experience them so differently. We decided to keep Santorini on our itinerary despite its cruise-port tourism because it has been a place we’ve always seen photos of and have dreamed of visiting. While Oia was certainly packed and uncomfortable at times, we spent limited time there and ended up really enjoying the rest of our brief stay in Santorini. We’re glad we didn’t skip it and some of our most fun memories from the trip were there because of how we chose to spend our time there. We’re also glad that we chose a mix of touristy and non-touristy islands. So in the end, I guess I’d say don’t be afraid to go to Santorini just because it’s touristy, but do try to fit in a variety of islands rather than just trying to follow the tourist route around the Aegean. Enjoy!

PS, not sure why some points show up as bullet points and other show up as dashes...sorry for the messy formatting!

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Commila -- your report can be extra useful to newcomers, because you included important details of why some place or experience was outstanding, or less so. That's much more helpful than blanket praise/blame -- but it takes time. Thanks for making the effort ... you're the kind of Greece newcomer that's a joy for us "regulars" to help!!

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Thank you very much, Comilla. I read LOTS of posts on the Travel Forum in preparation for the trip that my wife and I took last summer to Paris, Venice, and Tuscany, and yours -- which I'm reading for our upcoming trip to Santorini this summer (for a whole month!) -- is exceptionally informative and useful. I second Janet's praise that giving specific reasons for liking (or disliking) something makes a comment much more useful.

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Wonderful trip report, Commilla! Great resource for those wanting to spend some time on Santorini, comprehensive and well written. We were there for a few days before our Greece tour ( a while ago-2010) and loved and enjoyed every minute of our stay there. But I do wish I had had all this information before we went!