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The words magical, iconic and breathtaking don’t do justice to Santorini. So perhaps the photo gallery above will convey the otherworldly beauty of Greece's most visited island.
Recently I cruised on Viking Star to Santorini after a 20-year absence and became swept up once again by her Mediterranean charms. First-time visitors will be enchanted by the crescent-shaped island's jaw-dropping ocean views, pristine beaches (your choice of black, red or golden sand), gorgeous traditional Cycladic architecture, fine dining (once you leave the tourist areas) and bustling cobblestone streets filled with shops, tavernas, hotels and cafes that cling to the rim of the caldera 900 feet above the port.
While there are tons of activities available to the day-tripper, don't overdo it. Just enjoy the views and Aegean breezes and don't try to squeeze everything into one day. Because you'll be back.
One glance at Santorini's caldera and you'll want to know how this natural wonder came to be. Santorini was shaped by an enormous volcanic eruption in 1620 BC that destroyed most of the original island and created the current geological caldera. The sea rushed in to fill it, leaving the crescent-shaped island, while the accompanying earthquake triggered a tsunami that accelerated the demise of the Minoan civilization on Crete.
While there are lots of choices of activities, from sightseeing to shopping, most cruise visitors arrive in the capital port of Fira before fanning out.
Here are some top options for day trippers.
Make sure you set aside time to take a taxi or bus to Oia (pronounced EE-ah), one of the most stunningly beautiful villages in the Mediterranean. (On my first trip, pre-smartphones, a local in Fira said it was a short walk. Two hours later, I was still walking.) Stroll the cobblestone streets past whitewashed sugar-cube houses and Orthodox Greek churches painted in traditional Aegean blue. Chat up local shopkeepers about their handcrafted wares. Stick around, if you can, to watch the sun set over Ammoudi Bay, one of the most beautiful scenes in he world. Dining here is higher end, with Mediterranean cuisine leaning toward Italian specialties.
Head to Kamari Beach, 4 miles southeast of Fira on the island's east coast, for a stretch of powdery black sand. The largest and most popular beach on Santorini, you'll see first-hand evidence of Santorini's volcanic past. Don't expect smooth Caribbean beaches — it's pebbly terrain — but you can tell your friends about your first black beach experience and the people watching is first rate.
Less crowded than Kamari, the Red Beach takes its name from it reddish volcanic sand. You'll find beachside tavernas, cafes, stunning red cliffs, aquamarine waters and a laid-back vibe at this beach at the end of the road to Ancient Akrotiri. The snorkeling is said to be top-rate here. Another choice, Vlychada, is a nude beach (be cool, Americans).
Santorini is sometimes called the "Greek Pompeii" because of the fascinating archaeological site of Akrotiri. The former Minoan outpost was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the 16th century B.C. So here's a two-fer:
I live an hour from Napa Valley so I'm not a super fan of Greek wines, but many people are, and a trip to one of Santorini's famed vineyards is a relaxing way to spend an hour or two. Top choices include Santo Wines, Argiros Estate, Roussos Winery and Boutari Winery in the town of Perissa.
Fira features picturesque little shops offering a wide range of goods, from designer clothing, shoes and accessories to souvenirs and handicrafts. Fira has one of the biggest gold markets in Greece, featuring elegant designer jewelry; it's located on Ypapantis Street (also called gold street).
Oia has similar shops with an emphasis on souvenirs by local artisans. You'll also find ceramics and gold and silver jewelry in modern and ancient designs.
Trust me, you don't want to just wander into one of the numerous tourist-trap restaurants along the caldera where you'll find mediocre cuisine at sky-high prices. Seek out fresh local produce, calamari, lamb skewers or gyros, tomato keftedes (deep-fried patties of tomatoes, onions, flour and herbs) or a Greek salad with hunks of feta. If you're lucky, you'll be able to select your own fish from the owner's refrigerator case, as I did during a memorable lunch at a tiny taverna on the island's south side.
Some top dining choices:
Sunsets in Oia and Fira are spectacular, so stick around if you can. Grab dinner or drinks in one of the terraced restaurants on the rim of the caldera, and be sure to bring your camera. Then turn your camera to the sloped hills as soft golden glows begin to illuminate the buildings at twilight. (Alas, we were summoned to be back on the Viking Star by 5 pm.)
Be on the lookout for fast-moving mopeds, which seem not to take notice of pedestrians.
Peak season on Santorini begins in early April and ends in late September. But the island is at its best in spring and fall, when the weather is warm but not sweltering and the crowds thin out a big. I visited in late November on the last cruise ship of the year, and the crowds were sparse, but a lot of shops and restaurants were closed.
You'll take a tender over to the island's main port of Athinias. The capital, Fira, clings to the top of the cliff high overhead. You can walk or take a donkey ride up the arduous, zigzagging 588 steps, but most visitors opt for the cable car (5 euros per adult and 2.50 euros per child).
Taxis are available on the island but they're sometimes in short supply, especially when many ships are in town. The main taxi stand is close to the central bus station and a 5-minute walk from where the cable car drops you at the top.
The central bus station in Fira provides comfortable coach transportation around the island and to the most popular beaches. Most rides cost about 3 euros per person each way and there are reliable schedules posted in English.
As far as we know there is no free Wi-Fi available in Fira. However, many restaurants and cafes will offer this when you're a customer. Just ask your server for the password.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport to visit Santorini.
Language: Greek, though vendors in tourist areas often speak English
Store hours: The major business in Fira is tourism. Expect nearly all stores to be open when cruise ships are in town.
Tipping: In restaurants and taxis you should 5% to 10%. Some restaurants will round up the bill, so you should check this before tipping. Also, you can expect a small service charge to cover the price of bread and water.
What to wear: The sun in Greece can be quite intense, so apply sunblock if you plan to be outside and carry a bottle of water with you. Flat comfortable walking shoes are a must.
Safety: Santorini is generally quite safe. As always, be aware of your surroundings and keep your valuables secure.
How about you? Have you been to Santorini? Have any tips for visitors or photos you'd like to share? I'd love to hear about your experience.
Updated from an earlier version.
“With a bowl-shaped cliff-boasting harbor formed from a 1500 B.C. volcanic eruption, this island boasts one of the most stunning sea approaches on the planet.”
“The best thing I've brought back from a trip is a bottle of Assyrtiko from Santo Wines in Santorini. Sarah and I have never opened it but just having it in our rack reminds us of eating olives, cheese, and honey while watching the sun set behind the caldera. Ahh, sweet memories of life before kids.”