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Domes and donkeys: What to see and do in Fira, Santorini

What to see and do in Fira, Santorini

Santorini is Greece’s postcard island. The place where those photos of bougainvillea-strewn terraces, blue-doored houses and white-domed churches come to life. The island’s main town is Fira – or Thira – and if you visit Santorini, you’re almost guaranteed to at least be passing through it. It’s where the cruise ship tenders come in and where the majority of the hotels are. It’s where you’ll find the best nightlife and shopping on the island. The town is perched on top of a 260-metre-high cliff and overlooks the blue waters of the Aegean. The caldera views are so spectacular you could probably spend your days just soaking them up. But its views aren’t the only thing Fira has to offer – here are some of my highlights.

Caldera views in Santorini

A winding donkey path leads up from the cruise port

Escape the crowds in the backstreets

There’s no doubt Fira is the one of Santorini’s busiest places, and when three or more cruise ships are in at once the streets can be packed solid. But if you head away from the main shopping area it doesn’t take long to find a quiet spot. There’s a maze of little winding backstreets to explore, passing hidden chapels, arching doorways and sunbathing cats. Follow the caldera northwards to the quiet neighbouring village of Imerovigli. Or if you have time, head further afield along the 7.5-mile cliff path to Oia. It takes between three and five hours to walk (depending on how many photo/baklava stops you make) and there’s not much shade, so late afternoon or early morning are the best times. The route is a mixture of pavements and rough mule paths, with a string of picturesque churches and stunning views along the way.

Santorini

An archway into the blue

Learn about the island’s history

Santorini hasn’t always been this picture-perfect slice of Greek whitewashed perfection. The island has a long and dramatic history, and there are a couple of museums in Fira where you can find out more. It was originally inhabited by the Minoans until a huge volcanic eruption blew the middle out of the island and formed the caldera. The ancient city of Akrotiri, in the south of the island, has recently been excavated after being buried by ash from the eruption. Some of its artifacts are on display at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, which also has exhibits about the island’s geology. After the eruption Santorini was eventually recolonised and over the years it was occupied by a whole series of invaders including the Phoenicians, Dorians, Romans and Ottomans. The Santorini Archaeological Museum displays relics like sculptures, ceramics and carvings from different periods of the island’s history.

Akrotiri bathtub

An Minoan tub from Akrotiri

Watch the sunset

The village of Oia might be Santorini’s most famous sunset spot, but Fira does a pretty good version itself. Oia has the classic views of church domes and windmills silhouetted against an orange sky, but it also has the crowds to go with it. So you need to get there well in advance to bag a prime sunset spot. In contrast it’s easy to find a quiet place in Fira and even at the main viewpoints there’s normally only a small group of people. With so many hotels along the caldera in Fira, if you’re staying in town you’ll often have a terrace where you can watch sunset with a glass of wine. Otherwise stop by one of the cliffside bars for a sundowner with a view as the sun sinks down into the Aegean. Or if that still sounds too crowded, then get up for sunrise instead when the sky glows pink and you have the place almost to yourself.

Santorini sunset

A caldera sunset from Fira

Head out on the water

For a totally different perspective on Fira, take to the water on a boat trip. From sea level the cliffs tower high above you and you can see the layers of different coloured rocks that make up the island’s unique geology. And from a distance the mass of white buildings almost looks like a sprinkling of snow on top of the cliffs. There are a wide range of different boat trips available, with everything from luxury yachts to traditional sailing boats. You can watch the sunset from the water, sail and swim along the island’s coastline or visit the island of Nea Kameni in the centre of the caldera. This is the heart of the volcano and is still active so you can smell the sulphur and see the steaming vents. There are also hot springs and mud baths on the island of Palea Kameni you can visit, and a hot water beach in Agios Nikolaos bay.

Santorini from the water

Santorini from the water

Try some local wine (or beer)

Wine’s been grown on Santorini back since the time of the Romans. You won’t see the traditional rows of vines here though, instead the vines are grown coiled up in a dip in the black volcanic soil to protect them from wind and heat. You’ll find whites from local grape varieties like Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aisani, as well as rosés and reds. There’s also a special vinsanto sweet wine that’s made from sun-dried grapes. Most wineries are in the south of the island, but just outside Fira is Santos Winery where you can do a tour and tasting session with a caldera view from their terrace. Or if beer’s more your thing then try a donkey. Local craft brewers Santorini Brewing Company produce three beers – Yellow Donkey, Red Donkey and Crazy Donkey (a 6% IPA). They’re surprisingly hard to track down in the shops but you can drop in to stock up and see the brewers in action at their brewery, outside Fira on the way to the airport.

Clifftop views in Fira Thira Santorini

Dramatic clifftop views

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What to see and do in Fira (Thira), the main town on the Greek island of Santorini, home to donkeys, domed churches and spectacular views – ontheluce.com

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22 Comments

  • Reply
    MeanderWithMeg
    December 9, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    Gorgeous photos and a wonderful article! Definitely on my list now, thanks!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 13, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      Thanks – it’s such a photogenic spot, I couldn’t stop snapping away!

  • Reply
    Darlene
    December 9, 2015 at 10:22 pm

    Looks like a wonderful place to relax and enjoy the sights. On my list!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 13, 2015 at 10:32 pm

      It is just gorgeous, I spent lots of time on a terrace staring out at that blue view!

  • Reply
    tony
    December 10, 2015 at 5:11 am

    Great photos and informative article, always wanted to see Santorini. Maybe someday!
    Breadtagsagas.com

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 13, 2015 at 10:33 pm

      Thanks, hope you get to make the trip out there sometime soon!

  • Reply
    Claire Walter
    December 10, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    We spent a couple of days on Santorini — hiked to Oia on the first, visited the museums/churches in Thira on the second. The first was sublime — just like the pix here. Took the cheap bus back to town. Two cruise ships were in on day two. Fortunately (for us), most passengers were shopping, so the museums were relatively tranquil. If there had been a third day, we would have spent it visiting wineries.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 13, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      Sounds like you fit a lot in! I’d love to come back and tour some more of the wineries and explore some of the smaller villages.

  • Reply
    kandctraveltheworld
    December 10, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    Santorini is definitely on my bucket list! Great article and thank you for sharing all of this information.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 13, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      You’re very welcome – and hope you get to visit soon!

  • Reply
    Exploretraveler.com
    December 11, 2015 at 2:05 am

    Great Article! I look forward to going here one day. Thank you for the great photo’s and information.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 13, 2015 at 10:37 pm

      Thanks, it is a beautiful island, hope you get to see it someday.

  • Reply
    Bama
    December 15, 2015 at 9:18 am

    One of Greece’s most popular islands, I believe. And for a good reason. Beautiful photos, Lucy! I can’t help looking at them for a long time. 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 15, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      It is a really popular place but you can really see why! Despite it being busy I still loved it and it’s such a great place for photography.

  • Reply
    the-worldwide
    December 17, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    Great photos. Excellent place, I have never seen like this before. Would like to visit there.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 20, 2015 at 6:04 pm

      Thanks, it’s a beautiful place!

  • Reply
    MummyTravels
    December 20, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Santorini always looks so stunning, I have been to a few Greek Islands but not here yet. Would absolutely love to go there one day.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 20, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      It does get a lot of hype but I wasn’t disappointed at all, it really does look like the postcard photos!!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    December 20, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    Your photos of Santorini are gorgeous – such soft, muted colours in the sunset shots and vibrant crisp Greek blues in the daytime images. Santorini is so on my wishlist 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 21, 2015 at 3:26 pm

      It really is ridiculously photogenic – we only had a couple of days there this time but I managed to take so many pictures!

  • Reply
    Mrs Ayla's Adventures
    May 9, 2016 at 10:16 am

    Looks so beautiful Lucy! I’m hoping to visit at the beginning of September (hope it won’t be unbearably crowded!) and I can’t wait to see it for myself 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 13, 2016 at 11:24 pm

      It is just as stunning as you imagine! September should be good too, we were there in October and the weather was lovely. It can get pretty busy – especially when there are a few cruise ships in at once – but you can usually find a quiet spot off the main paths.

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