This Popular Greek Island Is a Favorite for a Reason

Here’s what to do other than take pics.

When daydreaming about Greece, it’s Santorini that you see. The country is made up of thousands of islands, but one in particular pretty much achieved legendary status. The blindingly white villages perched on the cliffside, blue-domed churches, and ancient ruins that most equate with this Mediterranean destination are all hallmarks of Santorini.

It’s one of the few destinations that actually lives up to all the postcards and Instagram posts—where the tiny fishing villages actually have octopus hanging out to dry in the sun and the azure waters are even more vibrant when you see them with your own eyes. In Santorini, all the country’s old-world draws sit alongside natural wonders like a hikable (and active!) volcano and otherworldly beaches that feel more like Mars than the Mediterranean.

So it’s no wonder you may have to throw some elbows for a prime sunset viewing spot or dodge honeymooners taking photoshoots along the caldera. The island welcomes about 2 million tourists each season, which mainly runs from June to September, hence why some have argued you should skip a visit altogether in favor of islands that remain a bit under the radar.

But consider this: If it’s the quintessential guidebook experience you want, that’s what you’ll get browsing in evil-eye-filled shops in Oia or taking a tour around the island’s most popular archaeological site. But if your ideal Greek getaway involves exploring less-traversed villages, sipping ouzo with the locals, and plunging deep into the Aegean from the tip of a weathered church, you’ll find that here too. From world-famous attractions to tucked-away villages, here’s everything you need to see when you’re on the island.

Ruins of prehistoric settlement
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images

Visit the Akrotiri archaeological site

To kick off your trip, see an ancient city that got buried under volcanic ash. Taking a tour of the Akrotiri archaeological site will help you understand why this island is so darn pretty. While most know Santorini as one large, crescent-shaped island, it's actually an archipelago with five islands in a circle that was formed after several volcanic eruptions split up the original land mass. As a result, all of the islands, collectively known as Santorini, have jaw-dropping cliff coastlines and are situated around a large volcanic crater under the sea called a caldera.

When the largest eruption hit the island 3,700 years ago, Akrotiri was covered in volcanic ash and layers of pumice, which preserved parts of the city. It wasn’t until 1967 that the ancient city was discovered in an archaeological excavation, and today it’s one of the most popular—and awe inspiring—tourist destinations on the island.

At the archaeological site, traverse the ruins on your own and you’ll see houses, art pieces, and remnants of the city’s streets and shop basements. Or take a guided tour on site for a few euros per person to get an expert’s intel about what life was like here at that time. The entire site and exhibits are housed indoors with a roof that regulates airflow, making this a perfect respite from the isle’s stifling summer heat.

Volcano cruises
Ivan Mateev/Shutterstock

Take a dip in the volcanic hot springs

To continue learning about the island’s volcano, head straight to the source. When looking out to sea from the western side of the island, you’ll see two small land masses called Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni (old burnt and young burnt), which house Santorini’s active (yet dormant) volcano.

Boat tours of the volcano leave several times a day from the old port of Thira. You can either sail around and see the volcano from the water or pull up to take a hike over black lava rocks to the top, 300 feet above sea level.

After working up a sweat, the boat takes you to Agios Nikolaos, a small cove on the Nea Kameni islet that has therapeutic hot springs. The water here is heated up to around 90 degrees F and is a rich yellow thanks to concentrated amounts of sulfur, said to be healing for the skin and joints. Though thanks to the almost-orange color of the water at this one spot, you might want to leave any white bathing suits in your suitcase for a different beach day.

View of water at sunset
Levente Bodo/Moment/Getty Images

Avoid the crowds and see the sunset over the sea

As the Santorini sky starts showing off its orange hues, throngs of tourists head to one of the northernmost points of the island, Oia, and for good reason. The island’s famed sunsets are especially dazzling against the contrast of the bright white buildings around town. But if you want to avoid the crowds, book a sunset cruise instead.

There are dozens of yachting companies to choose from, employing vessels that range from modest catamarans to full-scale yachts. Caldera Yachting and Santorini Yachting Club have fleets that go out at sunset every day. Trips include sightseeing before the sun goes down and docking at a nearby destination like the cove of Thirassia Island or Amoudi Bay for dinner on board.

Pitogyros Traditional Grill House

Eat gyros, moussaka, and all the feta, olives, and tomatoes you can

All that cerulean water has to be good for something other than Instagram posts, and Santorini’s restaurant scene proves it by serving up some of the best seafood around. The island’s signature dish is grilled octopus served on a bed of fava, a yellow split-pea puree. A trip to any taverna around town also promises heaping piles of prawns and the catch of the day lightly fried with a quick squeeze of lemon.

Beyond seafood, be sure to enjoy the island’s briny pleasures like supple olives and oversized capers. If you’ve ever gone to the farmers market and been overwhelmed by the scent of tomatoes fresh off the vine, you already know the appeal of Santorini’s namesake tomatoes. Because the local soil is filled with nutrients from ancient volcanic ash, this cherry tomato variety is packed with intense flavor and aroma like nothing you’ve ever tasted. If eating tomatokeftedes (tomato fritters) at every meal isn’t enough to cure your craving, head to The Tomato Industrial Museum to purchase sun-dried and canned varieties to take home.

As for where to indulge in these local delicacies, one of the oldest restaurants on the island is Aktaion, a homey restaurant in Thira that’s currently celebrating its 100th year in operation, with a superb moussaka dish to show for it. Other star picks include To Psaraki, which overlooks Vlichada’s fishing port, and Pitogyros. But you can’t go wrong wandering into a little taverna that sits off the beaten path and covering your table with souvlaki, tzatziki, hummus, and saganaki. For finer dining, Selene is a restaurant housed in a converted 18th Century Catholic Monastery and has been a destination for the last four decades. It offers multi-course tasting menus that highlight seasonal ingredients in the restaurant’s stunning black- and white-tiled courtyard.

View of Santorini island
Olga Gavrilova/Shutterstock

Hike along the caldera from Thira to Oia

One of the best ways to see the length of the island while getting fresh air and stretching your legs is on a hike between Thira and Oia. Sidewalks, cobblestones, and dirt paths skirt along the top of the cliffs, making the multi-terrain hike a doable six and half miles, often done in about two or three hours. Along the way you’ll pass through the villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli, where you can hop off the walking path to refuel. Start early to avoid the peak day heat, and plan to take a bus or taxi back to your origin point rather than repeat the hike in the opposite direction.

Red hillside by blue water

Visit beaches that span the rainbow

While Santorini comes up short on the ritzy beach clubs that islands like Mykonos are famous for, the island’s volcanic history has made some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world. With pumice, ash, and volcanic lava lining the seashores, Santorini treats visitors to a whole host of mystical beaches that make you feel like you’ve stepped into another world.

Arguably the most famous beach in Santorini, the Red Beach gets its coloring (and name) from iron oxidation in the volcanic sands. Located in the southern part of the island, it's an ideal detour during a day exploring Akrotiri. Getting to the waterfront requires a short hike down a footpath, but once your feet touch the sand, you can bask in the sun for hours, enjoying the contrasting sand and crystalline water while lounging on a sunbed. Just be sure to bring your own refreshments, as this secluded beach offers few amenities.

Around the corner from the fiery sands of Red Beach, a tiny beach sits under the glow of a dramatic wall of white cliffs. The White Beach is only accessible by boat, so hop on a boat taxi or have your catamaran make a pitstop and enjoy an ultra-exclusive beach day.

Finally, Santorini has several black sand beaches. Perivolos Beach is the longest (stretching over four miles) and also boasts the most amenities of Santorini beaches, as it’s studded with beach clubs, restaurants, and places to rent water sports equipment. On the southeastern coast, Kamari Beach has some of the island’s darkest inky black pebbles and plenty of waterfront tavernas and beach bars.

Armeni bay beach at Santorini island

Jump into Amoudi Bay from a waterfront chapel

With so much rocky landscape, it’s no wonder daredevils find plenty of thrills cliff jumping in Santorini. One of the most picturesque places to make your heart race is Saint Nicholas Chapel in Oia.

Take the 214 steps down to Amoudi Bay, where some of the best seafood in the city lines the port. Go past the restaurants to an obvious path that takes you around the tip of the island over some rocks, where people lounge on a boulder-filled beach. There you can jump into the pristine water and either hang out paddling around or swim the very short 100-foot distance to a tiny island topped by a church.

To the left of the island, you’ll find a rope helping you up onto land. You can then head up towards a church that sits on the edge of the cliff (aka the jumping off point). Here, many people jump off the stone platform and plunge into the crystal clear waters of the Aegean.

As a reward, hang around Amoudi Bay for a bit, which many consider the most picturesque port in Santorini. Choose a taverna with freshly caught octopus stretched across a line outside like Sunset by Paraskevas, Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna, and Ammoudi Fish Tavern. Clink glasses to your bravery with a bottle of ouzo, an anise-flavored liquor that’s only produced in Greece from the remnants of winemaking. Just beware: It’s strong enough to make you want to jump again.

White buildings
Unsplash/Think Big Designs Co

Explore the small villages of Imerovigli and Pyrgos

Beyond the essential visits to Oia and the capital city, Thira, smaller villages provide plenty of real estate to explore, where you’ll find donkeys roaming the cobblestone streets and old-world neighborhoods where there are more churches than houses.

Imerovigli provides all the iconic sights that Oia boasts in a more laid-back environment. It’s also home to another hike that’s popular with tourists: Skaros Rock. The jagged black rock headland was inhabited during the medieval era, because its location protruding over the sea was perfect for keeping pirates at bay. The ruins of the original castle fortress remain today. A hike to the area is about a half mile each way, making it an easy way to see the island from a different vantage point.

Another village that remains a bit under the radar is Pyrgos. Once the bustling capital of Santorini, the area is now a popular destination for history buffs, as it houses one of the best preserved medieval settlements on the island. Santorini of the Past is a cultural village and museum. Other popular historic sites include the Venetian castle of Kasteli and the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, which dates back to 1660 and remains one of Santorini’s largest places of worship. Plus, Pyrgos sits in the foothills of the Profitis Ilias mountain and is one of the highest points on the island, making for exceptionally underrated views.

Table in winery at sunset
Domaine Sigalas

Learn about Santorini’s unique winemaking style

With so many famed wine regions around Europe, don’t forget that this Cyclades island knows a thing or two about winemaking. For more than 3,700 years, Santorini has been exporting crisp dry whites made from the indigenous assyrtiko grape variety and the amber-colored, unfortified dessert wine known as Vinsanto.

Vineyards like Domaine Sigalas and Santo Wines offer tours and tastings—just don’t expect the sprawling lines of greenery you’d find in the European countryside. Santorini’s grapes are kept unstaked and are manipulated to stay low to the ground in a halo shape, looking like low bushes, to protect the grapes from intense winds and brutal sun.

To sample wine made by multiple producers without making multiple pit stops, Selene Antique Caves offers private and small group tasting experiences where you can sample the local terroir and compare Greek wines to varietals from other lands. All of the tastings in this cavernous space in Thira are curated by Master of Wine Yiannis Karakasis, who’s one of just 416 experts in the world to hold that distinction.

hotel room on the water
Photo courtesy of Katikies Hotels

Where to stay in Santorini

Most of the action in Santorini occurs on the western coast along the caldera, making Oia, Thira, and Imerovigli the most popular villages to stay in. For the picture-perfect Santorini experience, Katikies Hotels are the move. The boutique luxury hotel group owns five properties on the west side of the island.

Options range from the flagship property situated the heart of Oia to the more secluded, wellness-focused Katikies Kirini where you can spend the afternoon at the spa or dip into your own private plunge pool just steps from your bed. Each location features Santorini’s signature chalky walls and stairs (which the hotel repaints daily to keep up the stark white appearance). With infinity pools, stunning cavernous rooms, and top-notch alfresco restaurants that were recently upgraded by lauded Greek chef and restaurateur Ettore Botrini, Katikies is creating a luxurious experience you’ll never want to leave.

Staying in a hotel with caldera views is quintessential, but what Andronis Concept Wellness Resort lacks in a wash of white buildings, it makes up for in sprawling pools and serene accommodations set back from the hustle and bustle in Imerovigli. Beachfront hotels like the Kamari Beach Hotel and Santo Mira Mare, and cave-like homes on Airbnb are other strong alternatives for those who want a more secluded stay.

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Liz Provencher is an editor at Thrillist. You can follow her on Twitter or see what she eats on Instagram.