Breathtaking views from soaring cliffs, whitewashed churches topped with bright blue domes and archeological treasures from a lost civilization are just some of the reasons that the island of Santorini is routinely included in the lists of the best places to visit in the world. Officially named Thira, sunny Santorini is the largest and arguably the loveliest of the Cyclades group of islands located to the southeast of Greece’s mainland in the blue Aegean Sea.
Santorini marks the spot of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in written history. The explosion created an archipelago out a single island and left behind the geological feature that attracts visitors to Santorini today: a giant sea-filled caldera.
See also: Where to Stay in Santorini
In addition to enjoying awe-inspiring views of the half-submerged volcanic crater, other things to do in Santorini include exploring Minoan artifacts and ruins buried by the ancient eruption. Famous for its dry white wines, picturesque beaches and vibrant nightlife, Santorini is a popular destination for visitors who just want to relax and unwind too.
Imerovigli is a picturesque village situated in the central west part of Santorini. Deriving from viglia, meaning ‘viewpoint’, it is considered ‘the balcony to the Aegean’. There are plenty of luxurious hotels with lounge pools, and boutique dining spots with incredible sea views.
A must-visit site is Skaros, a rock formation that lies in front of Imerovigli. The ruins on Skaros Rock are the only remnants of a 13th-century Venetian castle. Historically it was once an observation post from pirates, yet it was abandoned in the early 1800s due to a large earthquake which caused damage to part of the island. The path to arrive there is one of the best hiking trails in Santorini.
Megalochori is located on the southwest part of Santorini, about 9 km from Fira. The central square is the heart of the village. It is the gathering place for locals who play card games or ‘tavli’ (backgammon). With trees providing shade, there are several traditional cafes and local dishes to try, unwind, and enjoy. Meander around the ultra-charming, peacefully quiet cobbled paths and you will find the Megalochori Bell Tower and neo-classical buildings.
Old cave houses with solid wooden doors and high fences have been used as protection from marauding pirates. Yet interestingly, this town embraced pirates – it became their haven.
An earthquake destroyed much of the town in 1956, but it was restored in 1999. A particular site to visit in this ‘great village’ is the ancient archaeological site of Akrotiri, as well as the Chapel of Agios Nikolaos.
16. Open Air Cinema Kamari
A modern Greek tradition, this open-air cinema has remained since the 1930s as one of the Greek’s most popular types of entertainment, especially on warm, balmy nights. It is located at the entrance to Kamari town, on the main road to Fira. The bus station is just across the cinema entrance. ‘A’ class films are shown in English with Greek subtitles.
Set within a bed of old eucalyptus trees and fragrant night-blooming purple flowers, the smell of incense permeates the space. The cinema offers a range of local cocktails, beers, wines, and refreshments. There is an intermission halfway through the movie, which is a great opportunity to get refills. You cannot pre-buy tickets so it’s best to get there early.
15. Ammoudi Bay
Nestled under Oia, approximately 300 vertical, rocky steps below the village, you will find this beautiful bay. Weaving along the rocky path cut into the caldera edge, the steps showcase the breadth of geological layers and bright red rock for which Santorini is famous for.
A quaint, tiny fishing port, seafood tavernas line the bay with crystal clear waters lapping at the table’s edge. It is highly recommended to make a reservation at any restaurant as afternoons and evenings are the busiest. One of Santorini’s best swimming spots is hidden behind the bay. Not an official beach, but a rocky cliff, it is the perfect place for diving. For sunset, watch the Caldera cliffs as they are illuminated by pink, gold, and purple pastel light which compliments the tranquil Aegean waters as the day draws to a close.
14. Monastery of Profitis Ilias
The all-encompassing Monastery of Prophet Elias is located near the village of Pyrgos on the summit of the eponymous mountain. It is a 26-minute drive from Fira. You can book your trip by organized bus tours, or for those more adventurous, you can hike to the monastery. It is built at the highest point on the island, so it has tremendous views.
It was built in 1711 in resemblance to a fortress. The religious site has its museum with a collection of ecclesiastical items and Byzantine icons and sculptures. It holds an impressive bell tower and is surrounded by 4 other churches and chapels which are open to the public. Only a few remaining monks live here, producing wine, candles, and other local products.
13. Red Beach
This Greek beach gets its name from the unforgettable volcanic, red-hued sand. The color is a striking deep red, almost burgundy, which is unique to Santorini. The waterfront is surrounded by enormous volcanic rocks, and black and red pebbles, composing a wild scenery that captivates everyone who steps foot.
A 20-minute drive from Fira town, you reach Red Beach from a footpath which starts near the church at the beach parking. The path is prone to rock landslides, and since 2013 parts of the beach have been inaccessible. There is a sign forbidding entry. Nobody pays attention to the sign, yet it should be kept in mind that it will be your responsibility if an accident occurs. At the beach, there are sunbeds and umbrellas you can rent, however, you are welcome to bring your own.
12. Santo Winery
From the Santo Winery terraces, you can indulge your senses and intrigue your palate. Unique to Santorini, its agricultural heritage is rooted in volcanic soil. Assyrtiko is the dominant white grape variety. Open all year round, it is also home to a wedding ceremony venue, with a panoramic island view. Its location overlooks the impressive caldera, the volcano and the vast Aegean Sea – any time of the day stunning views are offered.
It is recommended to have the winery tour before the wine tasting so you have the chance to learn about the wine-making process. Utilizing state-of-the-art machinery, the wines produced are accompanied by delicious snacks. Direct buses are taken from Fira, Perissa, and Akrotiri.
11. Fira to Oia Hiking Trail
Walking from Fira to Oia is one of the best things to do in Santorini. Hike along the rim of a caldera, and pass through the glorious towns of Oia, Imerovigli, Firostefani, and Fira. A 10km stretch, the coastal walking path is a mix of pedestrian streets and dirt hiking trails. Starting early in the morning is the best, as it is not a very shaded pathway.
The path officially starts at Atlantis Hotel. It takes 3 to 5 hours, depending on the speed you walk, as well as how many stops you take. Be sure to bring plenty of water, protection from the sun, a hat for coverage, and comfortable walking shoes. Just follow the signs along the way as the path is well marked. The trail is open year-round.
The island of Therasia (Thirassia) makes an ideal destination for visitors who want to enjoy the sunny ambiance of Santorini, minus the crowds. The largest of the five small villages, also called Therasia, has only around 150 inhabitants. It’s reachable on the caldera side by a long flight of steps up the cliff.
The smaller isle boasts the same picturesque architecture as Santorini, and the population shares the same traditions and customs. Whether enjoyed as a day trip or a weekend getaway, Therasia offers visitors an authentic Greek island experience. You can visit the island by taking a 10-minute water taxi ride from the harbour of Ammoudi or Fira.
9. Ancient Thera
Situated on high cliffs jutting out into the sea between the beaches of Kamari and Perissa, Ancient Thera features ruins that were excavated in the early 1900s. The ancient tombs, monuments and remnants of homes, churches and fortifications represent a broad range of post-Minoan periods.
First settled by the Dorians in the 8th century BC, it also consists of Roman and Byzantine ruins. Standout features include Roman baths, 4th-century Hellenistic structures and a shrine to Apollo marked with 8th-century graffiti.
Thera was the religious and commercial center of the island. Much like everywhere else in Santorini, this place also offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding islands. There are trails from Kamari, Perissa, and Pyrgos to Mount Vouno, and others, the longest being 5km long.
Once the capital of Santorini, the inland city of Pyrgos sits atop a hill that offers stunning views of the island from every direction. The remains of a Venetian castle perches on the hill’s summit.
Within the castle walls is a church believed to have been constructed in the 10th century. Relatively unspoiled by tourism, Pyrgos features some of the finest examples of medieval architecture on the island. The village is surrounded by wineries, many of which offer tours and tastings. The dessert wine known as vinsanto produced here is considered one of Greece’s best.
7. Museum of Prehistoric Thera
Located in the capital city of Fira, the Museum of Prehistoric Thera is one of Santorini’s most important cultural attractions. Opened in 2000, the museum features treasures unearthed at the Akrotiri dig, including an extensive collection of colorful frescoes. A depiction of women gathering saffron from crocus flowers offers insight into the daily lives of the island’s early inhabitants.
While frescoes of swallows are easy to understand, as swallows still roost on the cliffs of the caldera, a depiction of blue monkeys has scholars baffled. Historians have found no evidence that monkeys ever lived on Santorini.
6. Kamari Beach
The largest beach on Santorini and the most popular, Kamari is located along the seashore of the village of the same name. The town and beach get their name from the small arch or “kamara” wedged into the cliffs at the southern end of the beach, the remains of a shrine dedicated to Poseidon.
Notable for its black sand and pebbled shoreline, Kamari is the most developed beach on the island, and the beach is lined with hotels, bars and nightclubs. Next to sunbathing and people watching, snorkeling and scuba diving are popular activities.
5. Akrotiri Excavations
Known as the “Minoan Pompeii”, the flourishing town of Akrotiri was at once destroyed and preserved around 1500 BC by a volcanic eruption. The town wasn’t discovered until the 1860s when workers collecting dirt for the construction of the Suez Canal stumbled upon the site.
An outpost of Crete, Akrotiri was settled by Minoans as early as 3000 BC and reached its peak after 2000 BC, when it developed trade and agriculture and settled the present town. Some of the structures are three stories high with stone staircases and stores of large ceramic jars and pottery. Recently reopened to the public, Akrotiri offers visitors a unique glimpse of what life in Santorini was like during the Bronze Age.
4. Perissa Beach
Perissa Beach is almost a mirror image of Kamari Beach, which is located on the northern side of the rocky headland separating the two stretches of black sand. With fewer restaurants, bars and clubs, Perissa is slightly less developed than Kamari and a bit less crowded.
The sand is of a finer grain too, which makes it preferable for long strolls on the beach. Water taxis are available that make it easy for travelers to visit both beaches. A dive center located in Perissa village offers snorkeling and scuba diving trips.
3. Nea Kameni
The Santorini volcano’s grand eruption occurred nearly 3,700 years ago, blowing the top off the original island. Sea water rushed into the caldera, forming a massive lagoon that’s so deep that all but the largest cruise ships can anchor in the harbor.
There are two small volcanic islands at the center of the caldera, Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni (New & Old Kameni). Nea Kameni is a barren island, visited daily by dozens of tourist boats throughout the summer. Visitors climb a gravel path to reach the top of the 130-meter (430-foot) high volcanic crater, where it is possible to complete a full circuit of the rim.
The capital of Santorini, Fira boasts one of the most spectacular locations of all the island’s towns and villages. Perched along the edge of the sky-high caldera, the city’s white sugar-cube-shaped buildings offer incredible views of the shoreline and the Aegean Sea, especially at sunset when the entire town is bathed in golden light.
The central streets of Fira are filled with all kind of shops, jewelries, restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs and get very crowded in the high season. Visitors who arrive by sea can reach Fira by climbing the zigzagging staircase up the face of cliff. Less adventurous travelers can whiz to the top in a cable car.
Famed for its stunning sunsets, Oia can be found in the northern part of the Caldera, overlooking the volcano and the island of Therassia. Labyrinth-like alleys, stunning, panoramic hotels, whitewashed houses: it is famous worldwide for its authentic Cycladic beauty. The myriad of colorful laneways can only be explored on foot.
Oia was once home to a prosperous merchant fleet that traded with countries on Mediterranean Sea during the 1800s and early 1900s. Although part of the city was destroyed by earthquake in 1956, remnants of its seafaring past endure. Elegant sea captain’s houses occupy the best part of town and offer the most impressive views of the caldera.
Get lost and wander the streets for sapphire blue domes. You can stumble upon windmills and art galleries. The Maritime Museum is a must-see site. This is the place to spend a day on a boat, to finish the day watching the spellbinding sunset. Or, watch the sunset from the Castle of St Nikolas; Oia comes alive during these twilight hours.