There are around 6,000 islands in Greece, but only 227 of them are inhabited. The island of Santorini is part of the Cyclades group of islands, and is located in the Aegean Sea, which is part of the Mediterranean Sea. The ancient Greek name for the island was Thera, a name you may see or hear on your visit.
The island that you visit today is not how it looked in those days. Santorini is basically what was left after a massive volcanic eruption around 1627 BC that destroyed the island of Thera, and created the current caldera that you can clearly see from the top of the island. (Basically, when a volcano erupts, it blows the top edges away. What you see at Santorini is just a wide, low ring in the water. That’s the only part of the caldera you can still see, except for the little bit of island that’s left. That might give you an idea of just how serious the eruption was!)
Here’s a map of Santorini and the surrounding islands. The main island is the big part, on the right. There’s a big bay in the middle, with a few smaller islands around it in a circle. The big bay in the middle is where the volcano used to be!
The depth of the caldera (1300 feet/400 meters) makes it impossible for any but the largest cruise ships to anchor anywhere in the bay opposite the main city of the island, Fira. There is no pier, so cruise ship passengers must take a tender (one of the ship’s lifeboats) to reach the island.
(A ship’s tender heading to the island.)
Once your tender drops you off at the small dock, you have three options to get to the top of cliff in front of you: you can take the cable car (the easiest way), you can walk up the winding stairs that lead to the top (not recommended for anyone with mobility issues or wearing flip-flops or sandals) or you can ride a donkey up the stairs (the most challenging.) Let’s look at those three choices.
The cable car, frankly, looks like it’s going to fall down at any moment. It’s not a particularly reassuring first impression! However, it is perfectly safe and by far the best way to reach the top, where you’ll find the town of Fira, the biggest place on Santorini. The cable cars run from 6:30 AM to 11 PM every day. A one-way trip costs €5 and takes 3 minutes. The average wait time for the next car is around 20 minutes.
(The cable cars ascending on Santorini.)
The next option, walking up the stairway (sometimes called the Karavolades Stairs), is only recommended for people that are in good physical condition, not in a big hurry, and willing to deal with some safety issues. First of all, there are 588 steps! There are plenty of bends in the road, and a couple of places you can stop for a breather. The one positive thing about walking up is that you get continuously changing views, which are pretty spectacular!
(Here’s a shot of the stairs, taken from above. Remember: you’re climbing a cliff, so expect a lot of switchbacks, and a lot of steep stairs!)
So what are these “safety issues” I mentioned? Well, there are a few things to worry about on the stairs. First of all, don’t wear sandals or flip-flops. The stone stairs have been worn pretty smooth by the thousands of people that use the stairs ever year. It is very easy to slip, and a fall on these stairs could be bad. The second thing you have to worry about is that you share the stairs with….
Yes, donkeys. That’s your third option for getting to the top: you can pay €5 (just like the cable car) and ride a donkey to the top. Now, donkeys are fine when they’re out in the wild, or pulling a plow or something. But here, if you decide to ride a donkey, this is what happens. You get get on the donkey, the donkey guy slaps the donkey’s bottom, and the donkey takes off up the stairs. On its own. No one driving it but you. Good luck with that! About all you can do is hold on and hope! Fortunately, though, the donkeys will occasionally stop on the stairs to relieve themselves, so to speak. This will give you a break from all the jostling, but it does create a problem for people walking: yep, donkey poop is everywhere. So if you’re walking up the stairs, you’ve got to be careful of slippery steps, donkeys going past you in both directions, and lots of donkey crap.
I recommend that people take the cable car back DOWN to the dock, rather than walking, for two reasons. Those slippery stairs are much harder to walk going down: you will feel it in your calves for days, even if you’re in good shape. Maybe you’re thinking, “Why not ride a donkey down“? It’s harder for them on the stairs, too, and it’s not unusual to see a donkey slip going downhill. I’ve also been told that they get fed at the BOTTOM, so they’re in a bit of a hurry to get down….
OK, so you’ve finally made it to the top! Trust me, no matter which method you use to get there, it is very much worth it. Turn around: that’s a million-dollar view in front of you!
You may see a sign like this, pointing to the center of Fira. That’s the name “Fira” written in Greek.
When you get to the top, you’ll be thirsty. Try something unusual!
That’s right: fresh-squeezed cactus juice! It’s better than it sounds!
I’d guess that anyone that travels has seen pictures of Santorini: who could forget those whitewashed buildings with their brilliant blue domes? Buildings like that are everywhere here! The physical location of Fira and the other towns on the island, perched on the cliffs above the sea, make for some amazing photographic possibilities. I’m not even a good photographer, and as you can see from my pictures, ANYONE can get good shots here!
Many of those blue domes you see on the island belong to Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Some are even more beautiful on the inside. Here are just some of my favorites!
I especially like this last picture, because it shows 4 churches in a very small area. The two in the middle are Greek Orthodox, while the two on either side are Roman Catholic.
Most people that visit Santorini take a ship excursion. The most popular tours include a cruise of the caldera; a scenic drive around the island; a visit to the beautiful village of Oia, on the north end of the island; tours of the volcano and a visit to the local hot springs; a visit to a vineyard with a wine-tasting; and a visit to Akrotiri, the ancient Minoan settlement that was destroyed by the volcano that mostly wiped out Thera.
If you decide that a tour isn’t for you, there are plenty of fun and interesting things to do. Santorini was made for “do-it-yourselfers“! There are many places in Fira where you can rent a car or a bicycle or a moped. It’s not a big island: get out and see it!
The town of Fira, where you’ll most likely arrive, is all about tourism. Most everything is geared toward separating the visitors from their money. It’s the most expensive place on the island, but there are some things here that you might find interesting.
If you’re REALLY (and I do mean REALLY) interested in archaeology and ancient history, you might want to visit the Archaeological Museum of Thera, which is close to the cable car exit/entrance. It’s not big, but they do have some interesting exhibits that date from the 3rd millenium BC to the Classical period. Entrance is €2. No photography allowed inside (so no pictures.)
Another place for ancient history fans is the Museum of Prehistoric Thira. This is where you’ll find many of the items that have been uncovered in the excavations of Akrotiri. If you’re at all interested in the Minoan civilization, you’ll want to stop here! Admission is €6 and most importantly, it’s one of the FEW museums on the island that is open on Mondays!
As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of churches in Santorini (over 600, in fact!) There are a few that you should visit, if you’re interested in religious history or art. The Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral is at the “bottom” of Fira (go downhill a bit!) It has some really beautiful frescoes inside. There are also some great views from the church too!
The best views on the entire island of Santorini are from the Monastery of the Prophet Elias, which is near the village of Pyrgos. It’s about 3.4 miles (5 km) from Fira, uphill (it’s basically the highest point on the island). You can walk it in about an hour if you are in good shape. Just
hold on to your hat: it’s really windy up there!
The third church you ought to visit, if you have transport (or like to walk!) is the Church of Panagia Malteza (“The Virgin of Malta“), in the village of Imerovigli (about 2 miles/3 kilometers from Fira). This church has some of the best Byzantine art on Santorini. The church was named for the Maltese man that brought a holy icon here and had the church built for it.
As you’ve been looking at these pictures, you might have thought, “Nothing looks really old here.” That because there weren’t a lot of old buildings left on Santorini after a serious earthquake hit the island in 1956. Even the “old” churches have mostly all been rebuilt since the quake hit.
The people that live on the island generally make their living, like most Greeks, in two ways: tourism and farming (mostly growing grapes to make wine.) I wandered out of Fira on foot and ended up in the countryside, in a vineyard. I ran into these guys harvesting grapes. They spoke nothing but Greek, and I know just enough Greek to get me into a lot of trouble, so we mostly spoke with sign language and smiles. Bringing in the grape harvest isn’t easy, that’s for sure.
Akrotiri, the remains of the ancient Minoan settlement I mentioned earlier, is definitely worth a visit, especially if you like history. The Minoans were a Bronze Age civilization that began on the Greek island of Crete. Much like Pompeii in Italy, the volcanic ash completely covered Akrotiri, which means that we see the town much as it would have appeared about 3700 years ago. Many scholars believe that the story of Akrotiri’s destruction was the basis for Plato‘s description of Atlantis. The most amazing thing about Akrotiri is that archaeologists have found beautiful frescoes on nearly ever wall of every building. Many of these are on display at museums in Athens, but quite a few can be see at the local Museum of Prehistoric Thera. They are well worth a look! This next picture is probably the most famous painting found at Akrotiri. It shows a Minoan ship coming to a Minoan town. (Let me say it again: this painting is 3,700 YEARS OLD!)
One of the great things to do on Santorini is just RELAX. Take a long walk, have a drink at a taverna (small pub that serves food and drinks) where you’re the only tourist: it’s possible! Sit at a cafe, take a long time to have a soda or a coffee and just watch the world go by. Suddenly you’ll find that you’re acting just like the locals! Santorini is a great place for just taking it easy.
All too soon, though, your day will be over, and it’ll be time to head back down to catch the last tender back to your ship. You’ll be looking for this sign:
You’ll be able to see your ship from the cable car, so have your camera ready!
(Tenders returning to the Celebrity Galaxy ship. This was on my first visit to Santorini. Cruisers with long memories may remember the Galaxy, a ship that began service in 1996 with Celebrity, and was sold in 2008 to TUI Cruises of Germany and renamed Mein Schiff 1. It was a great ship!)
I hope you enjoyed this quick visit to one of the world’s most beautiful place, the Greek island of Santorini!