Santorini, the southernmost of the Greek Cyclades, has to be one of the world's most dramatically beautiful islands. Its unique topography is the result of a massive volcanic eruption some 3,600 years ago, which blew the middle out of the island to create a caldera, a volcanic crater filled with deep blue water from the Mediterranean Sea.
The most memorable way to approach the island is by sea. As you sail into the caldera, red-and-black sheer cliffs rise directly from the water, their tops dusted by what at first looks like a sprinkling of snow. Then, as you get closer, the snow takes the shape of Cycladic buildings hanging precariously off the hillsides. Zigzagging lines across the rock face become recognizable as roads that lead up from the sea to whitewashed houses perching on the cliffs.
These are the settlements of Fira and Oia, known for their quaint cobbled alleys, white cubic buildings, chic boutique hotels with infinity pools, gourmet restaurants and unforgettable sunsets. All these things add up to make Santorini an incredibly romantic holiday retreat for couples of all ages, as well as a wonderfully glamorous wedding and honeymoon destination.
It's not surprising that Santorini's spectacular setting has made it one of the most-visited islands in Greece—in peak season it receives some 60,000 visitors each day and up to five cruise ships every morning. It's also much loved by celebrities—visitors have included Beyonce, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Santorini owes its geological peculiarities to a massive volcanic explosion approximately 3,600 years ago that blew out the center of the island. This produced its most outstanding feature, the caldera (sea-filled crater), which measures approximately 6 mi/10 km by 4.5 mi/7 km.
The archipelago is Santorini, and Thira is the crescent-shaped island that rises to the east of the caldera (although you will hear Thira called Santorini and vice-versa). To the northwest lies the small island of Thirassia, and in the middle, the black uninhabited volcanic islets of Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni, which are still active.
Most people who visit Santorini head for the stunning cliff-top settlements of Fira and Oia, on the west coast, overlooking the caldera. The island's port, Athinios, is also on the west coast. On the flatter east coast, you'll find long black-sand beaches and the purpose-built seaside resorts of Kamari and Perissa. In the middle of the island rises the former capital, hilltop Pyrgos.
Santorini has no rivers and suffers severe water shortages, but thanks to its fertile volcanic soils and high nighttime humidity, it produces flavorsome grapes, cherry tomatoes, white-skinned eggplants and fava beans.
As early as 3000 BC, Santorini was home to the sophisticated Minoan civilization, which built a large city at Akrotiri in the southwest region of the island. They were a peaceful seafaring people, and Akrotiri was their largest settlement outside Crete. However, around 1600 BC, a catastrophic volcanic explosion devastated the island, burying Akrotiri below lava, where it lay preserved for more than three millennia. It was only discovered in the late 19th century by workmen who were quarrying the area for pumice stone.
Following the eruption, Santorini lay deserted and uninhabitable for several hundred years. Then, in the ninth century BC, another important period in the island's history began, when Dorian colonists from mainland Greece founded ancient Thira on a rocky headland overlooking the southeast coast. Their leader, Theras, gave his name to the island. The settlement had an agora (marketplace), a theater, temples and sanctuaries, and it was later taken over by the Romans.
During the 13th century, at the time of the Crusades, the Venetians annexed the island to the Duchy of Naxos and began calling it Santorini, after the tiny Byzantine church of Agia Irini (Santa Irini in Italian) in Perissa (now in ruins). From 1579 to 1821, the island was occupied by the Ottoman Turks.
Up until the early 20th century, Santorini had a large merchant fleet, transporting merchandise between ports throughout the East Mediterranean and exporting home-produced wines. The island was officially reunited with Greece in 1830.
In 1956, Santorini was hit by a devastating earthquake, which destroyed hundreds of homes, including most of the town of Fira, which was subsequently rebuilt. Many families decided to emigrate. The local economy was revived in the late 1970s with the advent of tourism, which provides a living for most of the islanders.
Santorini's impressive cliff-top capital, Fira, and the lovely neighboring village of Oia are both unforgettable sights. A day or two exploring their pedestrian-only streets, which have stunning views down onto the caldera, is a must-do for anyone visiting the island. They are also home to a handful of decent museums, notably the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, the Archaeological Museum and the Folklore Museum in Fira, and the Maritime Museum in Oia. Many people staying on the island visit Oia for at least one evening, specifically to watch its renowned sunset.
Santorini has two notable archaeological sites: Akrotiri and Ancient Thira. Akrotiri, a former Minoan settlement, contains a labyrinth of well-preserved buildings. Ancient Thira gives visitors some idea of how the ancients once lived. Try to visit it in the early morning to avoid the midday sun.
Santorini's volcanic soil gets credit for the island's reputation for producing some of Greece's best white wines, including Vinsanto, a dessert wine made from sun-dried grapes. Many wineries are open to the public and offer guided tours of their cellars and wine tastings. This is probably best done in the late afternoon, to avoid the heady combination of alcohol and midday sun—and it's a fine way to whet the appetite before dinner.
Santorini's magnificent sunsets make a spectacular beginning to the evening, and many visitors flock to Oia and Fira, on the west coast, to watch this natural phenomenon with an aperitif followed by dinner. Franco's Bar in Fira remains the
sunset cocktail bar of choice.
Oia is geared more toward couples on peaceful, romantic retreats, and Fira is the see-and-be-seen place for late-night drinking and dancing, with long-standing clubs Enigma and Koo still the big names. For open-air dancing by the sea, head to Perivolos's black-sand beach on the south coast.
Santorini's top restaurants, concentrated in the caldera-view villages of Fira and Oia and in tiny hilltop Pyrgos, rank among Greece's best. They employ innovative chefs who conjure up modern creative Greek cuisine, with an emphasis on local seasonal produce. Note, however, that they tend to be open for dinner only, and reservations are recommended.
If you don't feel like splashing out on a lavish meal, there are also plenty of low-key tavernas serving authentic traditional Greek cuisine. Some of these may look rather basic from the outside and might not boast stunning caldera views, but at least you know you pay for the food and not the lavish setting.
Unfortunately, since the island attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, Santorini has a high number of tourist-orientated eateries that serve up mediocre Greek food. They tend to be concentrated in Fira and the east-coast seaside resort of Kamari, and can be easily identified by their long, multilingual menus and pushy touts who stand outside and try to lure in passers-by.
Typical local specialties include Santorini's pea-type fava bean, moussaka prepared with Santorini's unusual white eggplants, and domatokeftedes (tomato fritters) made from tiny, locally grown tomatoes. Remember that Santorini also produces some of Greece's best white wines—ask your server to recommend a bottle to accompany your meal.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 20 euros; $$ = 21 euros-35 euros; $$$ = 36 euros-50 euros; and $$$$ = more than 50 euros.
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