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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.