The word Santorini conjures up images of charming white-washed buildings with striking blue accents, jaws-dropping caldera views and legendary sunsets. It’s easy to see why the tiny island in the Aegean Sea finds itself at the top of many wanderlusters’ wish lists. It was certainly at the top of mine, and I was lucky enough to spend five glorious days there. It exceeded all of my expectations and I had the most incredible time. Want to find out what you need to know about Santorini to make the most out of your trip? Here are my top 9 tips for a perfect trip to Santorini.
- Decide what type of holiday you want to have
It’s achingly beautiful but that doesn’t mean that Oia is the right place for you. If you are more interested in the party scene then base yourself in Fira. It’s livelier and more happening than its more genteel neighbours. Are you after a beach holiday? Santorini is not famous for its beaches but the black beaches on the eastern side of the island are good options for beachside lounging. The sand is a remnant of the island’s volcanic past, giving it its distinctive black colouring (which means that it can become scorching hot in the height of summer).
Do you want a romantic getaway? Oia and Imerovigli have gorgeous boutique hotels and the romance factor is amped up by the stunning sunset displays. If you hate crowds then stay away from Oia at all costs, especially during peak season. Opt for Imerovigli instead. It has the sought-after caldera views but without the throngs in Oia.
- Figure out your budget
Its crazy popularity means that demand is sky-high, making Santorini a more expensive destination than most – if not all – other Greek isles. Oia, as the jewel in Santorini’s crown, is the most expensive part of the island, closely followed by Imerovigli. Fira is larger than both these towns and has more affordable options for accommodation and eating out. It’s a good choice for families, as it has lots of amenities and it’s a good base to explore the rest of the island. The areas around the black beaches offer the best value, but the trade-off is that they’re further away from the famous Santorini sights.
Regardless of where you choose to be based, bear in mind that prices surge during peak season (June-September) and the so-called off-peak months might not be as affordable as you’d expect. Luckily, Airbnb is all over Santorini and it’s possible to book an apartment with caldera views for at least half of the price that the hotels charge. If you are happy to have a place without the famous views and no pool then you can keep your budget even lower. The most affordable months to travel to Santorini are April, May and October. The vast majority of hotels close from November and only reopens again at the beginning of April.
- Be prepared to climb some steps
The caldera is made up of low houses built into cliff sides, and what comes with that is a lot of steps. Some of the most famous hotels are located right at the bottom of the caldera and there might be a couple of hundred steps to get to your room. While making your way down might be okay, climbing back up could be a real struggle. You can get a donkey on some routes, such as from Oia to Ammoudi Bay, but this isn’t available for most parts of the caldera. For caldera views with minimal steps, Kapari Natural Resort* in Imerovigli is a brilliant choice. It’s located at the higher end of the caldera and the step count is significantly lower than many other hotels.
- Choose the right accommodation for you
What the majority of glossy hotel pictures don’t show is that privacy is a rare currency on the caldera, and people can often walk right by or look straight onto your “private” terrace or jacuzzi. Some of the paths that snake around the caldera and along the exclusive suites of the luxury hotels are open to the general public. If privacy is important to you, ask the hotel for more information of the through traffic that might affect your accommodation. It would be a pity to pay a small fortune and expect total privacy when you might find yourself being gawked at by regular passersby.
If you are travelling with someone with mobility problems then you might want to avoid the narrow, sometimes steep steps of the caldera. Do not despair though, there are options available. For example, Santo Maris Luxury Suites & Spa* in Oia offers step-free access and it also has a handful of specially designed rooms for guests with restricted mobility. If you’re travelling with young children, an apartment rental might be better as many hotels in the popular parts of Santorini accept only guests over 12 years of age. In Oia, Zoe Traditional Houses is a fantastic option for families. My friends stayed here with their three-year-old and couldn’t have felt more welcomed.
- Count the cruise ships
If you see a few cruise ships in the bay around Fira, stay away from Oia during the day. While I was there, I counted as many as five at the same time, each one with several thousand passengers all eager to have the Santorini experience in the few hours their boat is there. Oia becomes unimaginably busy at these times, so it’s best to stay away unless you have a thing for crowds. The best times to avoid the crowds are early mornings (before 10am) and after 7pm. If you’re not catching the sunset, you’ll find that you have Oia to yourself from 6pm to 7.30pm when most people are at a viewpoint waiting for the solar show.
- Know a little bit about the lie of the land
Santorini is shaped like an inverted “C”. Oia is at its northern tip and Imerovigli is about a quarter of the way down from there. Oia is about a 15-minute drive from Imerovigli, or a 2.5-hour hike. A long series of steps connect Oia with Ammoudi Bay but besides that, there are no neighbouring towns to Oia. A taxi between Oia and Imerovigli costs between €15-20. After Imerovigli comes Fira. There is a lovely 30-minute easy walking trail that connects Imerovigli and Fira. Staying in Imerovigli gives you the caldera experience minus the Oia crowds and with the added bonus of being able to explore Fira without needing a car. It’s my top pick for Santorini. There are local buses that connect the towns, but these get extremely crowded during peak season.
- Book ahead
To avoid disappointment, it pays to book ahead for anything you have your heart set on doing. As a destination that gets a daily injection of thousands of cruise visitors, demand is high and popular tours are quickly booked up, such as the fantastic SantoTour* that I went on. I had a private tour of the whole island with the wonderful Nikos. The photos I took on this tour were some of my most popular pictures on Instagram, and Nikos tells me that the company is typically booked up for the whole season.
Similarly, sittings at restaurants with views of the sunset are snapped up fast. I would book the 6.30pm slots at these restaurants at least a week before, if you’re going in peak season. You can get away with booking a day ahead if you are travelling off-peak, though. Whatever you do, do try to squeeze in a meal at The Athenian House* in Imerovigli – it was the best food I had in Santorini. Don’t just take my word for it. Greek food critics voted this dish as the best dish in Santorini for 2016.
- Santorini sunrises are underrated
The sunsets are pretty spectacular in Santorini, that’s for sure. But it is also worth getting up early and going to watch the sunrise. You get the gorgeous golden light of the rising sun without having to jostle hundreds of people for space. Make the most of it and explore the town and the backstreets, then return to your hotel for a late breakfast as the crowds pour in.
- What to pack
I had an amazing sailing trip around Santorini with Sunset Oia Sailing*, visiting some lovely swimming spots and the hot springs. Sailing is a great way to see Santorini and the sunset views are unrivalled. Pack a dark swimsuit if you want to swim in the hot springs as the sulphur in the water discolours light-coloured swimwear. Also, there are mosquitoes on Santorini during the summer months and some repellent will help to deter the pesky biters. If you are travelling in low season, pack some layers and a light jacket because it can get quite windy.
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You might also be interested in:
- My review of the top hotels in Santorini: Santo Maris Luxury Suites & Spa
- My review of the top hotels in Santorini: Kapari Natural Resort
- Top tours of Santorini: SantoTour
* This post was sponsored by Kapari Natural Resort, Santo Maris Luxury Suites and Spa, Santotour, The Athenian House and Sunset Oia Sailing. The views expressed are my own.