White houses with blue dome roofs, a glittering aquamarine view of the Aegean Sea and cobblestone paths winding past restaurants, shops and historic churches. Santorini is at the top of the list for many people as a dream travel destination, and making this dream come true is worth every penny.
Getting there – two options
There aren’t many direct flights into Santorini except for from Athens and Italy, so the typical traveler flies into Athens first. From Athens, there are two options to get to the island, flight or ferry. Buying flight tickets early enough leaves them at about $200-300 round trip from Athens on Aegean Air. This is the quickest option, most flights from Athens to Santorini are under an hour. Ferry tickets range from 35-100 euro, depending on speed of ferry and class of ticket. Blue star ferries are updated and comfortable boats to sail over on, the normal ferries take 8 hours while the express can get you there from Athens in just over 5.
Where to stay – on a budget
Nestled just outside the capital city of Fira in Karterados, Stavros Villas apartments is the best choice for staying comfortably while saving a lot of money. It is a small, family run complex that boasts a clean and beautiful pool as well as fully equipped bedrooms with decent size bathrooms, a table, closet space and mini fridge. My friends and I stayed here in late May (beginning of travel season) for 12 euro a night per person. A killer deal considering the hospitality. The owner Stav and his daughters are extremely nice and do everything to ensure their guests are comfortable. Free transport pick up to or from the ferry or airport if arrangements are made ahead of time. Karterados is a quieter residential area of Santorini, so it’s perfect for people who do not want to stay in the main drag of tourists, but it’s a 15 minute walk from the capital and about two minute drive.
In addition to the hospitality and location, waking up early enough grants the reward of a beautiful sunrise over the Aegean, visible right from the window of the villas.
In Fira: while Fira, being the capital city, is somewhat of a tourist trap, there are still plenty of reasonably priced, authentic restaurants to try out and enjoy. The ones that I have been to and would recommend are as follows:
1. Triana Taverna – located just off the main square, this restaurant serves amazing Greek dishes and has an outdoor rooftop patio with a nice view. The Kokkinisto plate is to die for, tender beef stewed in a tomato sauce that practically melts in your mouth. The sangria is homemade by the owner, a cute little old Greek man who takes great pride in his food. The stuffed peppers and souvlaki are also fantastic. For appetizers, we tried the fried zucchini balls and dolmaldes, stuffed grape leaves and both dishes were amazing and great to share
2. Taverna El Greco
While this restaurant many not look like much at first glance, as the main entrance is the take out area of the kitchen, eating upstairs with the open air balcony is a pleasant dining experience. We ate here when we started craving pizza and pasta near the end of our trip. The four cheese rigatoni is fantastic, the pizza el Greco is delicious and the el Greco salad is awesome. All reasonably priced and served with house wine.
Many of the bars in santorini on the main strips have attractive Greek young men outside doing everything possible to drag customers inside. Town club and Murphy’s are good bars to go to but 2 Brothers bar in Fira is the only hookah/shisha bar around. It is fairly small but a really fun atmosphere and reasonable drink prices (€5 mojito!!!) during happy hour. Cute and friendly bartenders too. If you’re feeling brave, drop €2 on a headshot, a shot of ouzo followed by a smack on the head with a wooden club (helmets included) it is a hilarious experience, definitely try to convince friends to do it first.
Johnne Cafe – Pygros
I can safely say that I have had the best savory crepe (ham and cheese) as well as the best sweet crepe (chocolate and banana) of my life at this restaurant. This cafe is located right in the small city of Pygros, in the southern, inland part of the island. It is up high in the mountainous terrain and a stop here for a bite to eat when touring around the island is a great choice. All their food is extremely fresh, we even got to watch the orange juice be squeeze right from the fruit before it was served to us. Not the cheapest cafe I have ever been to, but well worth the few extra euros for the quality of food
Pelekonos – a rooftop sunset dinner in Oia
One of the top recommendations as a “must see” in Santorini on many travel sites and blogs is the Oia sunset, and it is a really beautiful experience, but made even better while eating. A lot of restaurants that give a sunset view in Oia are fairly expensive, but well worth it. We chose Pelekonos, a rooftop bar and restaurant that gives a 360 view of the sunset. The food was incredible, making the experience even better. Winds can be strong in Santorini which can put a bit of a damper on rooftop dining, but with a clear, mild night, this is a great place to eat and watch the sunset. Prepare to eat later than what is typical in the U.S. because the sun doesn’t start setting until around 8pm in the Summer months. At Pelekonos, I ordered the lamb which was incredible and only €15, a surprising price considering what some people would pay for an equivalent. The fried eggplant with tomato and soft cheese appetizer is awesome as well. For all three of us having a drink, splitting the appetizer and having individual entrees, the total came out to be €65.
Poseidon – a beach side stop in Perissa
Perissa is known for its red and black sand beaches, and exploring this part of the island can leave one hungry for a pre dinner meal. Poseidon was a great fine for a quick bite in the afternoon, an open air restaurant with a lovely view of the sea and beach. The salads are generous portions, the tomatoes used in Santorini have amazing flavor, in fact the island is fairly famous for their tomatoes. In addition to healthy food, the stuffed grape leaves and garlic dip here are incredible, perfect to ease any midday hunger while at the beach
Gelato – CREMA!
Located right in the main square in Fira, Crema is a great stop after dinner (or pre-dinner, if you’re me) for a tasty scoop of delicious gelato or frozen Greek yogurt. My personal favorite is pomegranate, but if you like sweet and creamy flavor, try the stracciatella, a sweet cream flavor with chocolate shavings on top more unique to Europe.
Getting around Santorini
Santorini is not a very walkable island, which is a bit disappointing for the average traveler that likes long city walks. The streets of the main cities such as oia, Fira, Perissa and Pygros are all very walkable, but they are secluded from each other through winding mountain roads. Luckily, transportation is cheap in Santorini. ATVs and Scooters are about €12-20 per person for 24 hour rental and cars are about the same. People drive somewhat crazy here but we felt pretty safe racing along the roads on our ATVs. With about 10 euro in gas, one can get around the whole island on a scooter or ATV.
Things to Experience
Volcano, Hot Springs and Thirassia
Various companies offer boat tours to and from the old port of Fira to the volcano and hot springs and the small island of Thirassia. It costs about €19 and is great use of a clear, calm day on the Aegean Sea. Boats leave the port for the tour around 10:30/11am and return around 4. The volcano is a hike through loose rocks, plan attire accordingly (no flip flops or junky sandals) and bring plenty of water and sunscreen. The hot springs were not as hot as I was hoping they would be, but still provided a refreshing swim.
The stop in Thirassia is a small island town experience, to access one can climb the stairs up from the port, take a donkey, or stay by the shoreline and enjoy the shops and food along the shore, we had fantastic chicken gyros at the small cafe on the shoreline.
Beware of seasickness on the boats, I learned the hard way that this is not a tour to do while hungover
Fira Town at Night
Definitely a view worth walking around the city at night for, Fira is a fun place to go out and is easy to access from any of the major cities on the island
These unique spas in Oia and Fira have recently gained attention due to visits by the Kardashians on their trip to Santorini in an episode of their show. These fish spas provide an unique experience to customers who want to have their feet and legs exfoliated and gently massaged by small toothless fish called Garra Rufa. It costs 10 euro for the 10 minute introductory experience, which is plenty long in my opinion. Don’t expect your callouses to be gone after the fish have worked on your legs, but they definitely remove some dead skin and tickle the feet and legs, providing a fun experience.