For many years I had dreamed of going to Santorini, from what I had seen it seemed like the most photogenic island in the world. I too wanted to capture iconic ‘picture postcard’ images of Santorini, the kind that would look at home in a travel magazine or the glossy pages of a stunning travel photo book. When I finally visited this quintessential Greek island last year, it more than matched my expectations. There were so many things that I wanted to do and see that it was hard to pack them all into one week. I also wanted to spend some time simply relaxing on the beach. In the end, the sightseeing won out, and my beach time was reduced to just an hour or two.
Expedia.com recently asked me to share my favourite things to see, do and eat on Santorini and I’m more than happy to relive some of the highlights from my trip. I’ve also included a couple of things that I didn’t have time to do but really wish I had.
My five favourite things to see in Santorini
Possibly the most photographed village on the most photographed Greek island, Oia is the white-washed village with glorious views across the caldera that is featured time and time again on picture postcards and calendars. In reality, it really is just as stunning as the images portray. But what the images don’t show is how ridiculously busy it can get. Yet, despite the crowds, it is a truly beautiful town. I’d strongly recommend visiting in the off-season or in the early morning, but if there is only one place you visit while you are on Santorini (or Thira to give it is real name), let Oia be your choice.
For more photographs of Oia, visit my post, Images of Oia, iconic Santorini, bright, white and blazing in the sizzling sunshine.
Looking for a hotel in Oia?
Perched on a cliff overlooking the Santorini Caldera, the village of Manolas on the island of Thirassia (Santorini/Thira’s little sister) looks out across the water to its glitzy neighbours perched on the clifftop opposite and wonders why it has been left behind. With an equally stunning view (pictured below), and the same glorious sunshine beating down, it is rather surprising that Manolas has remained largely unchanged for many decades.
Take a boat ride to Thirassia and visit the village of Manolas. It’s like stepping back in time and with just a couple of B&Bs and one (very good) restaurant, it’s virtually untouched by tourism – few people who come on a day trip make it up the stairs to the town itself. You can read about my visit to Manolas here, Volcanoes, cave houses and the lost city of Atlantis.
Don’t forget your travel adaptor
3. Village and church of Akrilia On Thirassia
From Manolas, a path passing vineyards leads you across the island to the abandoned cave village of Akrilia. It’s fascinating to see, and it’s hard to believe that once 700 people lived here, but by the 1970s only a smattering of people remained. While all the cave houses are now abandoned, the Church of the Virgin Mary is not. It is lovingly maintained and a service is held here once a year on 21st November, in memory of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was seeing an image of this church that first gave me the idea to visit Thirasia, and I’m so very glad I did.
Find out more about my visit to Akrilia here, A hike to the hidden cave village of Akrilia.
4. The Minoan City of Akrotiri
This is the one thing I really wish I had been able to visit while on Santorini. In the south of the island, the ancient city of Akrotiri was preserved by volcanic ash and is described as the Pompei of the Greek Islands. The excavations are ongoing, and the ruins are extremely well-preserved with streets, stairs, and even the second floors of buildings still visible. There are also some remarkably intact frescoes.
5. Sunrise, Sunset
Oia is well-known for its spectacular sunsets, but there are many wonderful vantage points from which to see it, including the village of Imerovigli and Vilhada beach. I stayed in Kamari, on the east coast, where the sunrises can be spectacular.
My 5 favourite things to do on Santorini
There are plenty of wonderful hikes on the islands, including the short one I did to Akrilia. The most well-known is, however, the 3 hour hike between Fira and Oia. The views are superb and if you go in the late afternoon, it will be cooler and you’ll catch the sunset. Another favourite of mine is the mule path that leads from Kamari up to the ancient ruins of Thira. If you want to make it easier, you can catch the bus up, visit the ruins, and then walk down. If you start heading down on the tarmac road, after two or three bends you’ll see the beginning of the track. The views over Kamari are striking, and part way down you’ll find a little church clinging to the cliff-face with some stone benches under shady trees and a cave with a spring. An enchanting place to stop for a while.
2. Wine tasting and Cooking
Wine has been produced on Santorini for centuries and its uniqueness is due to the volcanic soils in which the grape vines grow. The main grape variety grown here is Assyrtiko, an indigenous white which accounts for as much as 80% of the vines on the island. Other varieties found here are Aidani and Athiri, and the red Aegean variety of Mandilaria. On a Santorini wine tour you’ll learn about the unusual way vines are grown here and, of course, get to taste some of the island’s fabulous wine.
Wine tours can also be combined with a cooking class where you’ll learn to make a few traditional Santorini dishes. What better way to get to know the flavours of the island? Find out more here, cooking and wine tasting tours.
3. Relaxing on the beach
On a sizzling hot summer’s day, there’s no better place to cool down than on the beach, and you’ve some unusual beaches to choose from on Santorini. These include the Red Beach near the ancient city of Akrotiri, so named for its red and black pebbles, and Kamari’s famous black beach (pictured below), backed by many restaurants and cafes, and the dramatic Profitis Ilias mountain. You won’t find sweeping bays of fine white sand here, as the beaches are quirky rather than idyllic, but I’ve always been rather drawn to quirky.
4. Santorini from the water
I love getting off dry land and out onto the water, whether on a river flowing through a stunning city or a boat ride on a picturesque lake. Bobbing along on the ocean waves with the occasional swim or snorkel is my idea of heaven. And Santorini looks stunning from the water, whether from a banana boat, jet ski or yacht, or a boat ride around the islands.
5. Visit the volcano
Another thing I’m kicking myself for not doing is visiting the volcano in the centre of the caldera and climbing up to its crater. You can also swim in the volcanically heated waters of nearby bays. Expedia’s afternoon boat trip takes you to the volcano and the island of Thirassia.
My 5 favourite things to eat on Santorini
I love Greek food from stuffed vine leaves (dolmades) to melt in the mouth kleftiko, a slow roasted leg of lamb with garlic and herbs, but it was the following that stood out for me as being the typical dishes of Santorini.
1. Feta cheese wrapped in filo pastry with honey
On the day I arrived in Santorini I stopped at a seafront restaurant and ordered a few snacks. With a sea breeze and a view of the ocean, it felt so wonderful to be back in Greece. As I bit into the crispy filo pastry encasing a light, refreshing feta, all drizzled with honey and balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with sesame seeds, I knew my taste buds were going to be in for a real treat throughout my stay. This is, without doubt, one of my favourite dishes from the island.
Yellow split peas, fava, have been a staple of the Santorini diet for many centuries, and are used in a number of ways. The most common seemed to be mashed with a little olive oil, onion and lemon, served warm or cold as part of a selection of appetisers known as meze. And mighty good it is too.
3. Tomato keftedes
The Islands of Santorini are famous for many things including their tiny tomatoes, which love the volcanic, porous soil, the salt laden breezes and strong sunshine. They are as delicious and aromatic as they are petite and they are used to make the island’s tomato fritters called tomato keftedes (pictured above).
During my visit, I became quite addicted to them, and even had a chance to make them myself. I’ll be sharing the recipe soon.
4. Santorini Salad
This is very similar to a traditional Greek salad, namely tomatoes, cucumber and feta cheese drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Herbs, olives and finely sliced red onion are also regularly included. To turn this into a Santorini salad, you must use sweet cherry tomatoes and then simply add capers. The perfect lunch on a hot, sunny day.
5. Yoghurt and honey
One of the biggest culinary surprise that week was, without a doubt, the local yoghurt. In a lovely little restaurant on Thirassia, we had it drizzled with local honey and sprinkled with biscuit crumbs, and it was so ridiculously moreish that I couldn’t quite believe that such a simple dish could be so very good.
I really do hope I have the chance to return one day to indulge my taste buds in these culinary delights, watch another sunset and another sunrise, and visit some of the places I didn’t manage to find time for during this visit. Santorini certainly lived up to my expectations, even surpassing them on many occasions.
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