Many people consider this island the most beautiful of all the Greek islands, because of its dramatic dark, volcanic cliffs, in contrast with the blue Aegean sea, and whitewashed buildings. The island is now officially called Thira, but is still referred to as Santorini by many.
Santorini is what remains of the caldera of a volcano that exploded 3600 years ago, leaving this crescent shaped island. The eruption is also believed to have ended the Minoan empire, here as well as on Crete. While the outside of the crescent is sloping terrain with normal beaches, the inside of the crescent is steep cliffs up to 300 hundred meters high, and many of villages are located at the top of such cliffs.
Fira is the largest town and municipal centre of Santorini, and is spectacularly perched on the edge of the caldera. In addition to the expected Greek Orthodox cathedral, there’s also a Roman Catholic cathedral, built when the Venetians controlled the islands. The name Santorini is actually a mispronounciation of Saint Irene.
There is an abundance of shops aimed at tourists, especially jewelry shops. During summer there’s loud, all-night partying, so it might not be the best place to stay if you want a good night’s sleep. If you arrive at the port of Skala, a nice option is to take the cable car up to Fira.
The village of Oia is the second largest settlement, and also the most picturesque. There are beautiful 19th century mansions, and houses are seemingly built into the rock itself. The fortress remains of the kastro are one of the most popular places to watch a famous Oia sunset. One of the mansions houses a naval museum, that shows life on Santorini before tourism, when it was still dependent on the sea.
This is the best-known Minoan site outside of Crete. Prior to the volcanic eruption, the inhabitants of this village fled the island. The remains of the town were preserved under layers of volcanic lava, which has resulted in Akrotiri being called the Greek Pompeii. While the buildings are not as grand as the Minoan palaces found on Crete, Akrotiri was a wealthy commercial town, judging by the buildings and the colorful frescoes found by archaelogists. Some pale copies can been seen on site, while the best originals have been moved to the National Archeological Museum in Athens. Some other original frescoes can be seen at the Museum of Prehistoric Thira.
Akrotiri mathces Plato’s descriptions of mythical Atlantis, which has led many to believe this is actually the fabled city that disappeared.
The canopy that protects the ancient town collapsed in 2005, and as a result the site is closed either completely or in part during the rebuilding, so you aren’t guaranteed to be able to visit.
If you should be unlucky enough that Akrotiri is completely closed, you can always visit Ancient Thira (which you should do anyway). The large archeological site is at the top of a hill, with cliffs on three sides, overlooking a black beach, and has buildings from all of its many inhabitants, including Byzantine walls, Roman baths and Greek agoras.
The Museum of Prehistoric Thira has finds from Akrotiri, including frescoes. It also displays items from Minoan Crete and other islands.
The Thira Foundation has colourful reproductions of the frescoes in Akrotiri, showing what it must have been like to see them when they were new.
The Archeological Musueum in Fira holds Cycladic figurines and finds from Ancient Thira.
Santorini has a very dry climate and no natural water sources other than rain, which means the island is not well suited for agriculture. However, because of the volcanic soil, what is grown is of very good quality. The tomatoes and eggplants are famous. and its wine is the most popular export wine of Greece. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than buying a ticket to one of the wine farms for some wine tasting.
When to go
Mykonos is probably the only other Greek island more crowded in July and August. You’ll have a more pleasant stay during another month, but if you absolutely must go at the height of the tourist season, a reservation is a must, or you’ll end up with an overpriced, shoddy room.