What to Do on Santorini: 13 Activities to Beat the Crowds

Tear up the standard list of must-dos and follow our alternative guide to Santorini instead: enjoy all of the island's magic free from the madding crowd.


SUNRISE SNAPSHOTS

Although the sunset steals all the glory, the sunrise on Santorini is just as spectacular.

Set your alarm clock for the early hours when the island is still asleep and make your way up Mt Profitis Ilias. From a ledge near the monastery of the same name, you’ll be able to take some amazing photos as the sun rises behind the island of Anafi, painting the sky in shades of yellow and pink. For the next 60 minutes, during what photographers call the golden hour, the sun’s rays gradually illuminate the sugar-white houses of the villages further inland.

You may want to take part in one of the two-hour photo workshops organized for the past five years by Konstantina Sidiropoulou (kyellow.photo, Tel. (+30) 698.630.2711), a graduate of the Leica Academy in Athens. Konstantina will show you other sunrise spots and share tips to help you become a better photographer.

Tip

Start early and you’ll have Santorini all to yourself until the first cruise ships arrive (daily, at around 07:00).

KEEP WALKING

Santorini isn’t an obvious destination for hardcore hikers who want to lose themselves in nature, but its walking paths hold many unexpected delights.

The island’s most scenic trail – an absolute must, according to TripAdvisor and other sources – is the one that connects Fira and Oia. Most of the route (9.8km, hiking level: moderate to partly difficult) is stone-paved and follows the rim of the caldera. Along the way, there are two places you can stop for water, ice and a rest; you’ll often meet fellow walkers here.

If, however, you’re looking for the road less traveled, try a tour of the inland countryside: follow the old path that connects Pyrgos and the tourist-free settlements of Exo Gonia and Episkopi Gonia, where you‘ ll discover ghostly neighborhoods of rock-hewn dwellings abandoned after the earthquake of 1956.

Another option is the trail between Vothonas and Messaria, whose highlights include the Argyros Mansion, open to visitors; some now-deserted industrial buildings; the Chapel of Panaghia Sergena, carved into a cliff-face; and one of the island’s most impressive ravines.

For the past 20 years, Nikos Boutsinis has walked the length and breadth of Santorini, revealing the villages and their secrets to small groups he guides (santoriniwalkingtours.com, Tel. (+30) 697.160.3600). Depending on the route you choose, there are stops at a local brewery, a winery, or for cooking lessons. 

Tip

The best time to start the hike from Fira to Oia is 16:30, so that you arrive in Oia before sunset. For other walks, morning hours are better. P.S. Avoid geotagging!

IT TAKES TWO TO PADDLE

Three famed volcanic beaches (Red, White and Black), eerie sea caves, and imposing rock formations that look like sculptures, including “Indian Rock,” so named for its likeness to the facial profile of a Native American, are all on the itinerary as you paddle your kayak along the southern coast of Santorini.

But there will be surprises as well; for one thing, you’re likely to run into plenty of members of the animal kingdom, including the Eleonora’s falcon, shoals of fish, sea turtles and, as you reach the shore, partridges and rabbits.

If you’re in good physical condition, it’s worth paddling into the caldera (southwest), where you’ll find yourself in a truly surreal setting, or to the edge of the bay at Kamari on the southeast coast, to see the abandoned rock-hewn hermitages at Mesa Vouno, where monks lived in the 17th century.

The starting point for all trips is Santorini Sea Kayak at Akrotiri. Tours include time for snorkeling and a picnic, while the guides – certified by British Canoeing – are highly experienced kayakers who have been exploring the waters around Santorini since 2011. (Tel. (+30) 22860.852.37, 695.180.1051).

Tip

You’ll think yourself lucky as you admire (and photograph) the famous beaches from the vantage point of your kayak, cleverly avoiding the crowds and, in the case of Red Beach, the danger of falling rocks.

BEST CHANCES FOR A QUIET SWIM

If you prefer unspoiled natural beauty to modern amenities, there are plenty of beaches free of loungers, beach umbrellas and bars.

Katharos (in the northwest), with sand and small pebbles, is a great choice for basking until dusk; it offers a wonderful view of the sunset. A favorite with hikers is Koloumbo (in the north), where swimsuits are optional. Park on the main road and walk 10 minutes down the grassy path. It might be interesting to know that around seven miles offshore there’s a submarine volcano of the same name.

Pori (in the northeast), the sandy beach locals love, requires descending about 50 steps. Little-known Almyra (in the south) can be accessed via a narrow dirt road.

VILLAGE-HOPPING

In the quieter, lesser-known villages of Santorini, there’s plenty to explore as you lose yourself in labyrinthine alleys and make your way up to the fortified medieval districts, or kastelia, that crown many of their hilltops.

Pyrgos, once the island’s capital (7.5 km from Fira) and still its highest settlement, is built around one of these kastelia below Mt Profitis Ilias. A short ascent will be required, but you’ll be rewarded with sights such as the Theotokaki, a tiny 14th-century chapel, and a panoramic view of the nearby islands. In the village, you’ll find boutique cafés, elegant restaurants and small art galleries. If you have a penchant for antiques, a veritable treasure trove awaits at Crossroad Antiques. Alternatively, relax with a cool ouzo in the shade of the main square.

Emporio (9km from Fira) used to be the commercial hub of Santorini. Today, it’s the largest village on the island, an enchanting maze of small houses, arches and passageways so narrow at some points that only one person can squeeze through at a time. Following the signposts uphill, you’ll come to the kasteli, where the fronts of the tightly packed houses form part of the fortification. Before leaving, take time for a Greek coffee at one of the two traditional cafés, among the most charming on the island.

Tip

The quietest time to visit the villages is either in the morning, or at sunset when most other visitors to Santorini have taken up position at sunset spots on the caldera’s edge.

ANCIENT VANTAGE POINT

High up on the hill of Mesa Vouno, the stunning views and incredible history combine to make a visit to Ancient Thera a thrilling, not-to-be-missed experience. One moment you’ll be admiring the ruins of a city inhabited from the 9th century BC to AD 726 (including a theater, sacred precincts, and a gymnasium where athletic contests were held), and the next you’ll be looking out across the eastern and western sides of the island. You may notice that you are, in fact, higher up than the aircraft coming into land at the airport!

The easiest way to get to Ancient Thera is from Kamari, either ascending on foot or driving up the country road that connects the site to Messaria. The actual tour around the archaeological site involves a medium-difficulty walk on rocks that can often be slippery. You’ll need closed footwear, a hat, sunblock and water. Make sure you have cash on you – the ticket booth does not accept credit cards (admission €4, open Tue-Sun, 08:30-16:00).

Tip

Without a doubt, the climb up to the site and the tour around it are more pleasant in the cool of the morning. If you can, come in springtime when the ancient city is alive with daisies and poppies in full bloom.

DIVERS’ DELIGHT

The stunning beauty of Santorini isn’t limited to the land; it also extends to the sea depths that so impressed Jacques Cousteau back in 1975 when he was searching for the lost city of Atlantis in the caldera. Thanks to the exceptional underwater visibility (25-35 m), the mild water temperature (up to 24°C in summer) and the submarine topography, it‘s considered one of the best places in the Mediterranean for scuba diving.

As you descend into the caldera, you’ll discover firsthand the form and composition taken by the petrified lava after the massive prehistoric eruption. You’ll see volcanic chimneys and the walls off the islets of Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni, as well as volcanic step formations that begin at the surface and reach a depth of 150m.

One must-see is the Mansel Reef, featuring caverns, a great wall, overhangs and canyons, as well as three shipwrecks, two of which can be reached even by beginners. You’ll also get close-up views of marine creatures such as amberjacks, sea turtles and sponges.

A number of PADI-accredited diving centers operate on the island:

Volcano Diving Center, Kamari, Tel. (+30) 22860.331.77,

Atlantis Oia, Oia, Tel. (+30) 22860.711.58,

Aegean Divers, Aghia Irini, Pyrgos, Tel. (+30) 22860.332.01,

Santorini Dive Center, Perissa, Tel. (+30) 22860.831.90,

Mediterranean Dive Club, Perissa Beach, Tel. (+30) 22860.830.80,

Navy’s Waterworld, Kamari Beach, Tel. (+30) 22860.281.90.

It’s a joy to ride

Whether you’re a skilled rider or have zero equestrian experience but dream of a movie-like horseback ride on the beach, you’ll have a story to tell for years about this experience on the less touristy southwest side of Santorini.

Setting out from the Akrotiri area, you’ll follow trails and country roads inland, passing vineyards and farmhouses, before reaching the picturesque Church of Aghia Anna with its striking blue dome. From there, you’ll head for the pristine beach of Katavati and then on to the lunar landscape that is Vlychada Beach, for unique snapshots with a dramatic backdrop of cliffs carved by the wind into passable imitations of structures by Gaudi.

Your guide on this two-hour, 8.5km excursion will either be Nektarios, who was born and raised on Santorini and has been riding since an early age, or one of the other experienced riders of Santo Horse Riding (Tel. (+30) 697.554.1447).

Tip

Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, the light is better for taking photos, and the beaches on the route are less crowded.

THRILLS ON WHEELS

With its rugged terrain and its often unbearable vehicular traffic in high season, Santorini may not seem the most bike-friendly island, but you’d be surprised how pleasant an organized bike tour can be.

One delightful cycling tour in southern Santorini, covering a total distance of 26km, starts at Perivolos Beach, continues along country lanes to Emporio, and then follows the wine roads as far as Megalochori, before ending up back at Perivolos. You won’t need to worry about getting tired, because you‘ll be riding electric-powered mountain bikes from Santorini MTB Adventures, an enterprise run by Vassilis Zafiris. He has both the know-how and enthusiasm to turn you into a passionate explorer as well.

There are rest stops along the way, and you’ll walk with him through villages on the route, visiting a traditional kafeneio in Emporio as well as the picturesque Church of Aghios Nikolaos, built on the rim of the caldera at Megalochori, where Zafiris will fill you in on its history as he shows you around. He’ll take photos of you framed by the famed heart-shaped rock opening and, before he brings you back, will also take you to the restaurant Feggera in Megalochori for some local wine and snacks. (Tel. (+30) 698.028.9453).

Tip

The bike tours are half-day excursions, and the best time to set off is around 10:00.

EASY SUNSETS

You don’t have to be swept along by the human river of sunset worshipers who head for the Kastro of Oia every afternoon. If you leave Oia instead and walk for 10 minutes on the path towards Fira, you‘ll come to the charming Church of Mikros Profitis Ilias, where the sunset view is equally spectacular.

The perfect spot from which to admire the small white houses and blue domes of Oia is at the entrance to the village, before the desalination plant. Stay on a while to see the lights of Oia gradually come on as the stars come out. Capture the moment with a time-lapse video.

Tip

Check online for sunset times and set off as late as possible for Oia, arriving after all the busses have already parked. Another reason to wait and see the moonrise is to avoid traffic on the return trip.

SEAFARING stories

Santorini’s maritime traditions and the islanders’ profound love for the sea are rooted far in the past, but seafaring activity here reached its height in the 19th century, considered the golden era of the island’s nautical history, when maritime commerce boomed. Large sailing ships with great capacity would depart from Santorini, laden mainly with pumice stone and local wine, destined for ports from the Black Sea to Egypt, and would return with exotic cargoes and the rich experiences of their crews.

During those long journeys, the highly skilled Santorini captains distinguished themselves with their naval prowess. Today, this history is vividly presented in the Maritime Museum of Thera in Oia.

Drop by this renovated two-story sea captain’s house with its cobblestoned courtyard to see rare 17th-century figureheads, models of ships that belonged to old seafaring families, nautical instruments and marine watercolors (405 25th March, Oia, Tel. (+30) 22860.711.56, open daily except Tue, 10:00-14:00 & 17:00-19:00).

Tip

The museum is a cool and quiet spot, even when the crowds of sunset gazers start to descend on Oia.

catch a movie

Watching a movie outside on a warm summer night is a great Greek summer experience, and the perfect place for this is at Kamari’s open-air cinema, listed among the Guardian’s top ten open-air cinemas worldwide. Catch the latest blockbuster in a lush garden, with a cocktail or beer in hand (Kamari, Tel. (+30) 22860.334.52).

At café-restaurant Volkan on the Rocks by Ergon Foods, they screen “Mamma Mia!” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” alternately. Grab a table in the flower-fringed courtyard with a spectacular view out over the caldera, order a hot or cold snack and put on headphones for a better sound experience (Firostefani, next to the Nomikos Conference Center, Tel. (+30) 22860.283.60).

Tip

The movie at Cinema Kamari begins at 21:30, but arrive earlier for one of the coveted deckchairs. At Volkan on the Rocks, the show starts at 21:00, though it’s worth going earlier for a drink with a memorable sunset view.

industrious about art

The old factory that once processed one of Santorini’s most famous agricultural products, the local cherry tomato, has been transformed into the Tomato Industrial Museum. Drop by to see the production line with the old machinery and try the tomato paste (exclusive to the museum) that’s made using traditional methods. The tour might include can-sealing processes, information on the label design or even a cooking demonstration focused on tomato paste.

The museum is housed in the main building of the plant that operated from 1945 to 1981; the whole complex, which also houses cultural activities, is known as the Santorini Arts Factory. Explore all the spaces here; enjoy the works by photographers Dewi Glyn Jones and Christophoros Doulgeris, and the documentary by Zacharias Mavroeidis on the traditional fast prior to the Feast of the Dormition on Thirasia. (Vlychada, open Tue-Sun, 10:00-18:00, Tel. (+30) 22860.851.41).

Tip

The museum has very few visitors before noon. Before leaving, go for a walk on Vlychada Beach, which at that time is almost deserted.


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