Things to see and do in Santorini

Santorini is postcard Greece. It’s that frozen frame of white villages like Oia staggering down to the sea, the blue-domed churches and vertiginous staircases. The sunset bronzing up the black volcanic cliffs and coves. These days, however, that image would have to be updated a little. Plonk a few 3,000-passenger cruise ships in the empty azure, perhaps, and colour in the narrow streets with the two million tourists that descend each year – mostly just for the day.
Ten years ago, Santorini was the rising star of the Cyclades Islands. These days, it’s a case of having got a little too close to the sun.
From packed viewpoints to water shortages, Santorini is the most visible face of overtourism in the Greek Islands. But that doesn’t mean you can’t visit – you just have to do it thoughtfully. In fact, your vacation to Santorini can actively help the island dig its way out of its woes.
Walking vacations take you out of the crowded towns and onto the caldera-top trails loved by islanders. Sail in on a small ship carrying 50 people or a yacht carrying six, so that your footprint is minimal. Go on a cultural tour that uses Greek guides who know their stuff, both the good and the bad. Try a tailor made trip that travels in winter, spring or autumn and invests in tavernas and hotels when they most need it. There are many ways you can be a responsible tourist in Santorini. We’ll show you how.

How can I travel responsibly in Santorini?

Walking vacations

While most people stick to the beaches and towns, specialist walking vacation operators will sneak you away to the tourist-free corners of Santorini by foot. The island’s generously gorgeous geography is thanks to a prehistoric volcano that erupted, collapsed in on itself, flooded the caldera and made separate islands of the volcano rim. Most walks stick to Oia, where clifftop trails dip up and down to the caldera, giving expansive Aegean Sea views all the way.

You could choose a small group tour, where you’ll join a bunch of fellow hikers and an expert guide or two. The guides are golden. They’ll tell you the folktales that place Santorini as the Lost City of Atlantis and take you to their aunt’s cousin’s sister’s taverna. Or you could beat your own path on a self guided walking vacation. Your accommodation and transfers will be arranged for you to a tailor made itinerary, but you’ll orienteer yourself using maps or apps. You won’t just stick to Santorini, either; the island will usually be a stop on an island hopping trip.

Small ship cruises and sailing

The word ‘cruise’ has come to mean a lot of ugly things in Santorini. Say, up to 18,000 people spending the day and not investing a single euro in local hotels, restaurants and guides. But downsize to a 50 person – or even eight person – yacht, and it’s a different story.
You’ll drop anchor in the bays that cruise ships can’t reach (perhaps by lesser visited Thirasia Island). Only one or two meals a day are included, so you’ll get the chance to eat like a Santorinian – that’s shellfish on a sea-view terrace with a sharp cold glass of Assyrtiko in hand. Ship’s cooks will often pick up ingredients for your onboard meals while you’re off exploring, so you’ll get island specialities for the next day’s picnic, too: perhaps fava beans, cherry tomatoes or chloro goat’s milk cheese.
Sailing vacations to Santorini are island hopping vacations. You might also swing by Cyclades neighbours like Mykonos and Amorgos, or leapfrog the mainland around Athens or Ephesus just over the border in Turkey. Sailing in May and October beats most of the crowds and the worst of the 30°C heat.

Cultural tours

Parades of tourist shops and cafés mean that it’s surprisingly easy to go to Santorini and not get a single idea of what life here is like. It’s vital to travel with a tour operator who’ll peel back the photoshoot-ready veneer.

A great tour operator will point you towards Ancient Thira, where an explosion of hilltop ruins range from Hellenistic to Byzantine times. Akrotiri hordes the remains of a Minoan Bronze Age settlement that was both sunk and preserved by the volcanic eruption that cracked Santorini into pieces. Oia also has the great (and largely ignored) Prehistoric Museum.

Of course, food is half of the culture in Greece. A great tour will make time for you to see the strange clustered vineyards that brace themselves against the strong Santorini winds. Archaeological site Akrotiri also comes with an oft-overlooked village, where farmers farm, potters potter and fishermen fill the hand-drawn restaurant menus with fresh seafood.

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Santorini tips from our travelers

“Go in the spring. The islands are fairly quiet and later in the year Santorini in particular can have up to six cruise ships each day visiting the island. Also try and visit Akrotiri if you are interested in archaeological sites.” - Rosemary Chichen travelled on a walking vacation in Greece.
The hike from Fira to Oia is very nice. It's a well used path, so no directions are necessary. It follows the ocean and is beautiful. We even made some new friends along the way.
- Eileen Mouradian on a self guided walking vacation in Santorini and Naxos
“The most memorable part was the personal challenge of completing the hikes myself, the isolated walks in a rugged yet serene environment, arriving at key sites all tired, hot and sweaty whilst other tourists were in pristine condition (must be those air conditioned vehicles), the locals’ friendliness and hospitality, the local cuisine (the wines are must-have) and of course picturesque Santorini itself with its churches and caldera. Ooops, I just couldn't choose one!” - Neena Kumar on a self guided walking vacation in Santorini and Naxos.

“The hike from Fira to Oia is very nice. It's a well used path, so no directions are necessary. It follows the ocean and is beautiful. We even made some new friends along the way. We met lots of nice people on this trip. Some were tourists and others were from Greece. The food was very good too. There are still a lot of tourists on Santorini in the middle of October. While this has its downside, it also means that there are lots of buses traveling the island. So getting around on your own is very easy.” - Eileen Mouradian on a self guided walking vacation in Santorini and Naxos.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Gurwinder Singh] [Top box: Tamara Budai] [Sailing : Winniepix] [Review: Jorge Lascar]