We recently returned from a trip to Italy and Greece which included five days on the Greek island of Santorini. Santorini is one of the most desirable “bucket-list” destinations out there and it’s completely understandable. Postcard-perfect villages, colorful beaches, and captivating sunsets make Santorini an unforgettable destination. However, with all these wonderful aspects of Santorini, often comes large crowds and high prices.
But fear not! Here are some practical Santorini travel tips to help you enjoy it more, spend a bit less, and avoid too many crowds!
How Long Should I Stay?
Chatting with a few locals, including our Airbnb host, most people only spend a day or two in Santorini. The majority of visitors are arriving on cruise ships or hopping from island to island with just a short stay on Santorini. Just a day on Santorini is far too short! Of course if you’re arriving on a cruise ship you have not control over this.
But if you are on your own time, I would suggest a stay of 3-4 days on Santorini. We stayed for 5 days and had plenty of time to see the majority of the island with plenty of time to relax, take in the island, and not feel rushed.
What to See
There’s a lot of very well-known sights on Santorini so a few of these you may already be aware of. Of course you have to spend at least one evening in Oia to watch the sunset. It’s truly is amazing as they say and photos just don’t quite do justice. Be prepared for a crowd during sunset time, especially at the top of the castle ruins. If you are willing to watch the sunset from a slightly lower elevation (it’s basically the same view) you’ll be dealing with fewer crowds. Just head down the steps about 50-100 feet below the castle.
If you’re more adventurous and up for a moderately difficult hike, the famous trek from Fira to Oia is a fantastic journey. The 11 kilometer trek is paved for the first half heading out of Fira put turns to gravel after that. The final steep climb before Oia is the most challenging but the view is well worth the work. While there are shops along the way to purchase drinks or snacks, be sure to pack plenty of water to stay hydrated! If you leave Fira at about 4 PM, you can arrive in Oia in time to watch the famous sunset. If you’re not staying in Oia, you can then take the public bus back to Fira.
One of the lesser known and less touristic sites to visit is the village of Pyrgos. We rode the public bus bound for Perissa to reach this quiet village. While tourists do visit Pyrgos, it’s much more “local” in feel and you’ll likely only see a handful of tourists. Pyrgos is at one of the highest points on Santorini so the 360-degree views of the island are incredible. Be sure to stop in for lunch or a refreshing drink at Franco’s Cafe at the top of the village. The food is great and the views even better!
Due to it’s volcanic formation, Santorini is an island with beaches of many colors. White, red, and black sand call all be found. We took a catamaran sunset excursion which took us by the hot springs, a red beach, and a white beach. The catamaran tours are the best way to experience the west side of the island. Avoid the larger group ships (they look like pirate ships) as they are very crowded. You might save some money booking the larger ships but the catamarans are a much more intimate experience.
You’ll also want to experience one of the black sand beaches on the east shore of Santorini. Perissa is the most popular tourist beach includes more vibrant night life. Most locals prefer to head to Kamari which is what we liked best as well. There are a few tourist shops in Kamari but mostly Kamari is just an overall great beach to lay out all day. We rented an umbrella and two lounge chairs for only €5 and bought beer and snacks from a nearby convenience store.
How to Save
Because Santorini is such a lovely destination, this also means its a popular, and expensive, destination. I would highly recommend using vacation and home rental sites such as Airbnb to find a rental on Santorini. Hotels tend to be very pricey, especially during the peak of summer. And of course, check your favorite booking sites like Expedia and Hotels.com for deals and coupons.
The local bus is the most economical way to get around Santorini. It’s also quite easy once you get used of the system. Just grab a paper copy of the timetable that they hand out at the main bus station. Food is another big expense on Santorini due to the high number of tourists. If you have at least a small kitchen in your hotel or vacation rental, buying your own groceries will help cut costs on dining out. But the groceries are still on the pricey side. Ask the locals where they dine out. Hidden gems can be found like small gyro cafes to help minimize restaurant spending.
Where to Stay
We personally stayed in a very lovely Airbnb in the hear of Oia for under €200 per night. This may seem like a splurge, bur Santorini is not cheap. There are some very lovely private rentals to be found closer to €100 further from the town center or on the east shore of the island. Oia is the most picturesque village on Santorini and one most popular, second only to Fira. Oia is not a very central location but this was a minor inconvenience. The public bus from Oia to Fira is very frequent.
I personally would avoid staying in Fira if you want a more relaxed atmosphere. Unless you plan on spending a lot of time out at night clubs or bars, it might be the place for you. Fira is very touristic and crowded but it’s one of the few spots on the island with active nightlife. Depending on where you are staying in Fira, your view of the caldera sunset may be obstructed. Imerovigli is a nice compromise as it is walkable to Fira but much quieter and the sunset views are less obstructed than Fira. There are lots of luxury and budget options in Imerovigli.
Less popular but gaining in accommodation options, there are small villages and beach houses along the eastern shore of the island. Staying in most of these locations will require you to rent a car however.
I highly recommend becoming acquainted with the local public buses. It’s very cheap way to get around as taxis can really add up. We arranged a private taxi for our airport pickup but after that, we stuck to local buses. Especially if you are going to the most popular tourist spots, the buses are very frequent. All the buses are centered around service to/from Fira. You do not pay for your bus fare at boarding. Once the bus gets on the road, a ticket collector will walk down the aisle collecting fares. The ticket collectors generally speak very good English. The buses are fairly comfortable but not luxurious. These are public buses after all!
Taxis are fairly easy to come by but be prepared for narrow roads, erratic drivers, and a general lack of traffic rules. Taxis tend to bit a bit pricey but not unreasonable. You can also rent a car but this isn’t a very popular option. I would advise against renting a car unless you are very confident in driving on narrow, mountain roads with the “unique” road manners of Santorini drivers. You can also rent ATVs to get around. We did not try the ATVs but they are very popular.
And finally, there are the famous donkeys on Santorini. These are a common option for climbing the steep cliffs of Fira and Oia. I have read that the animals are not treated well and many animal groups oppose the treatment of the donkeys for this purpose. Based on my research, I was not comfortable putting my money towards questionable animal treatment but you are free to form your own views on that. I am fully aware that donkeys have been used for transportation in this region for centuries.
And don’t forget to check out my tips on navigating the Santorini airport!
Anything to Avoid?
I tend to avoid telling fellow travelers to avoid anything because everyone has different tastes and tolerances. I would say avoid staying in Fira unless you want a very crowded atmosphere. But if you desire a lot of nightlife, Fira may be the best location for you. It does have the advantage of being central to the whole island. There aren’t really any crime issues in Santorini other than the occasional petty theft so there are no “bad areas” per say.
I hope these tips & ideas will be valuable on your own Santorini travel excursion. It’s truly an amazing destination that’s hard not to love. With just a little preparation and planning, you can easily make your trip to Santorini a stress-free one. Between the incredibly scenery, rich history, and delicious food, it’s an unforgettable destination.