The first view of Santorini you will have, arriving by water across the crater of a long-ago drowned volcano, is a heart-stoppingly spectacular one. Sheer cliffs painted by nature in an array of colors and dizzying in scale soar dramatically upwards, topped by a jumble of white-washed buildings that appear to be clinging to the rocks.
As you explore this Cycladian island further, Santorini, Greece in 24 hours, you will quickly discover that sensational views tend to come as a standard inclusion; the sunsets across the caldera from any number of open-air bar and restaurant terraces are another thing the island is well-known for, making drinking and dining here something truly exceptional.
Breath-taking views and famous sunsets aside, Santorini presents a rich destination for the history-passionate, weaving together elements which include the Minoan civilization, Romans, Byzantines and Venetians – all of which have left behind some amazing relics to discover. From the ancient city of Akrotiri which lay beneath layers of volcanic ash and debris for 3,500 years to formidable Venetian castles, historic monasteries and beautiful Byzantine churches, the island is packed with treasures from its past.
The collection of churches alone could keep you busy for quite some time. With literally hundreds scattered around the island, the religious sanctuaries you can visit range from the highly picturesque but tiny chapels which sit almost buried in the rock to impressive cathedrals filled with ecclesiastical riches.
Away from the main settlement of Fira – the island’s capital – Santorini is peppered with some beautiful villages to explore, arriving either by road or via a range of lovely walking trails to stroll amid tiny narrow streets lined with old stone houses, blue-domed churches and tiny tavernas.
While all of this along with plenty of other ticks in the plus column, such as its array of empty beaches, is enough to tempt the visitors here, Santorini has one more major draw-card. Small though it is, the island is home to more than 20 wineries, the history of wine-making on this Cycladian jewel stretching back thousands of years. If simply enjoying them in a bar or restaurant isn’t enough you can visit the wineries themselves for wine tastings, in some cases touring the premises as well and even getting the chance to press grapes the old-fashioned barefoot way yourself.
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A Morning on Santorini
Santorini is a place known for its spectacular views and arguably nowhere offers panoramas as breath-taking as those from atop the Prophet Elias Mountain. Once you have finished gazing you can explore the monastery here along with the charming village of Pyrgos which sits a little below it.
After a coffee break you can continue your morning at what many refer to as the Greek Pompeii – the ancient city of Akrotiri which lay undiscovered for eons after having been destroyed by a cataclysmic earthquake thousands of year before.
Mountain-Top Views and the Prophet Elias Monastery
One of the best ways to get your bearings on arriving at a new destination is to get above it and that is exactly what you do atop the Profitis Ilias Mountain, the island’s highest point. Besides giving you spectacular views of the entire island and far beyond, this vantage point also helps you appreciate how one of the most catastrophically enormous volcanic events in the history of the world changed the islands’ geography so drastically.
Santorini and the other islands which make up this small approximately circular archipelago are the remains of a caldera, the site of the cataclysmic Thera eruption more than 3,500 years ago. Thought to be around 100 times more powerful than the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii, the monumental blast that would have triggered giant tsunamis is one of the main theories presented to explain the sudden disappearance of the once-mighty Minoans, an advanced civilization which was centered on Crete but was also present in these and other islands.
Scientists and volcanologists believe that the now separate islands of Santorini (or Thera) which include Therasia and tiny Aspronisi were joined before the eruption, forming an almost complete ring around a central island in approximately the same location as Kameni is today. All of this can be appreciated from your lofty perch more than 1,800ft above it on Prophet Elias Mountain.
The monastery that takes the same name as the mountain sits almost at its peak, built in 1711 by two brothers and once representing an important cog in the economic, social and cultural development of the island. Conducting a thriving sea trade with its own ship, the monastery became wealthy, accruing a collection of ancient manuscripts, providing alms for the needy and running a charity school for almost 40 years in the early 1800s. Declining steadily in the latter half of the 19th century, an earthquake in the 1950s was to deal an all-but-killer-blow, causing considerable damage to the structure.
Today the monastery is home to only a handful of monks who make their income by offering workshops to teach printing and candle-making and producing wine, olive oil and various other products which you can purchase in the small attached gift shop.
The principal building is somewhat austere from the exterior although it does have a much-photographed and interesting bell-gable, incorporating nine bells over three tiers hanging in cut-out sections of the wall. Otherwise, the complex is made up of a collection of churches and although it isn’t possible to tour the monastery itself you can visit its main chapel to view its wall and ceiling frescoes and ornately carved altar screen.
The monastery is also home to two museums – the Folklore and Ecclesiastical Museums and the Icon and Relics Collection of Pyrgos. On display here are precious antique books and religious documents, sculptures, artworks and holy relics many centuries old. The folklore section has exhibits pertaining to island industries of the past with collections of old tools, furniture and exquisite embroidery.
Those with energy and time to spare can walk their way up to the monastery from the lovely vineyard-surrounded village of Pyrgos which sits a little down the hillside although a far easier way is to take a 10-minute car ride from the village.
Morning Coffee on Santorini
As the only route to the mountain top and the monastery passes through the white-washed village of Pyrgos, this is both a logical and ultimately charming place to pause for a morning coffee. With its Venetian castle, picturesque churches and stunning views, Pyrgos is not the kind of place you pass through on the way to anywhere (unless you are headed to the monastery) which puts it off the main tourist track. Although once the island’s capital, Pyrgos today is the essence of serenity, its small collection of cafes and tavernas run by locals who, not having become jaded by the constant stream of tourists which other places receive, greet you with genuine warmth and smiles.
The bars and cafes of Pyrgos are almost all lovely so no matter which you choose you can’t really go wrong. The Brusco Wine Coffee Deli is arguably one of its most welcoming, its little patio out front shaded beneath cyprus trees on the village’s main square with a further choice of tables and sofas beneath a canopy around the side. The quality coffee menu of both Greek and international types will please the caffeine passionate while fresh lemonade, orange juice, and iced tea are just some of the choices for something cool and refreshing. The interior is home to a small deli with a multitude of Greek treats or the cafe menu has great tarts and other sweet and savory options if you need to accompany your coffee break with a snack to keep you going until lunch.
Another of the village’s choice of charmers to rest your legs for a while is Francos Cafe, located beside the pretty Greek Orthodox Church. Seated on the open-air roof terrace here, beneath a sail-canopy and surrounded by greenery-filled planters and the soft sounds of classical music, the view is magnificent. There is a choice of coffees, milkshakes and fruit juices to enjoy while you gaze across the island scenery and beyond to the sea from your elevated perch
The Ancient City of Akrotiri
Just like Pompeii, the city of Akrotiri was buried for long centuries beneath layers of ash and volcanic debris although unlike its Italian counterpart no human remains have ever been unearthed here.
Once a major settlement of the ancient Minoans – a Bronze Age civilization known for their highly advanced society – Akrotiri was destroyed by the mighty Thera volcanic eruption of 1646 BC; a blast so cataclysmic in the history of the world it is thought to have been responsible for the complete and sudden disappearance of the sophisticated Minoans.
Akrotiri has been a continuously ongoing archaeological dig site since the 1960s, having been first discovered completely by accident in the 1800s. Today visitors can explore this once glorious city undercover and by a series of walkways to discover streets, squares, houses, drainage systems, public buildings and a large collection of pottery items that make up the site. One major highlight is the ‘House of Ladies, a structure three storeys high and where several incredibly preserved frescoes were found.
Many of the site’s most precious treasures along with its truly remarkable collection of highly colored frescoes can be seen in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Santorini’s capital, Fira.
Though the island is relatively small, Akrotiri is not Santorini’s only ancient site. Inland and west from the port can be found Ancient Thera. With ruins covering the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras, this city thrived until the third century BC and has mosaic-filled houses, temples, churches, baths and other highlights to explore.
This atmospheric site, however, is not for everyone. Located at the top of one of the island’s highest peaks, the only way to arrive here is by way of an hour’s hike. If you have the energy and ability to make this journey on foot your reward is an impressive set of ruins with spectacular views which you will only have to share with a few others.
Lunch on Santorini
Santorini is packed with gastronomical gems, its dining said by many to be some of the best in Greece. While the charming traditional tavernas, run by the same local families for generations, are in plentiful supply so too are an ever-expanding array of modern Greek offerings, presenting some incredible fusion menus created by chefs with international reputations.
To complement any lazy lunch or the kind of dinners which can be lingered over are an exceptional choice of wines, produced right here on this fertile island.
Nowhere is far away on Santorini and no matter where you find yourself there will always be at least one taverna, cafe, or restaurant close by. Once you have finished walking through the ancient past at Akrotiri, the closest spot for lunch is just 50m away and besides being the most convenient also happens to be one of the loveliest in the area. Considered by many to be among the island’s best fish restaurants, the coastal taverna is known as the Cave of Nikolas also comes with the kind of wonderful background story which you will find yourself retelling long after you have left the island behind.
Located at a little stone jetty from which small boats drift and bob gently with the current, what is now a charming restaurant at the beach was once just a cave. Originally used by the present owner’s grandfather as a shelter for his fishing boat, Nikolas later extended the cave and built a home there which he shared with his wife. Known for her exceptional cooking, Efstathia provided meals for the workers at the nearby archaeological site in the 1960s and, on the suggestion of one of the leading archaeologists who had become a friend, set up a small taverna. The rest is history, the meals today cooked by the third generation of the same family to continue the tradition of homely meals of Santorini origin but adding a creative modern flair.
From a covered terrace with the sea whispering backward and forward over the beach pebbles right in front of you or from the charming natural and dressed-stone interior with its vaulted ceiling, diners can tuck into generous portions of high quality dishes.
As around three-quarters of all you eat here – from the lamb to the cheese – is produced on the family’s nearby farm, exceptional freshness is guaranteed with the added bonus of it being organic. The fish arrives daily directly from local fishermen who moor at the jetty and deliver it by hand.
The menu is divided into island gastronomy, traditional Greek and seafood with wines produced nearby helping to enhance your lunch. Signature dishes of the restaurant are the tomato balls with fava, lamb stew, a vegetable moussaka made by the owner’s mother and a seafood risotto.
Another lunch option to keep the traveling to a minimum if you intend to head to the Santorini Wine Museum in the afternoon is Metaxi Mas. However, making this choice is far from being all about just making life easy because this exceptional taverna tucked away in the tiny village of Ekso Gonia is regularly named by locals as the best restaurant on the entire island. This is definitely one for lovers of tranquility and authenticity as countryside-surrounded Ekso Gonia is secluded and traditional, barely having seen any kind of tourist development.
On entering the village, descend the steps from the beautiful St. Charalambos Church (despite the village’s diminutive size one of the three largest churches of Santorini) to arrive at an unassuming but pretty porch lined with plant pots. You can take a seat here if you choose but the real place to be is on the taverna’s pebble mosaic terrace where the views from this hill-top perch of sea and sky seem to be endless. Dressed all in white with vibrant color splashes added by the cushions plentifully strewn on the stone bench-seats, the terrace is also home to a collection of potted cacti and plants.
Serving an array of flavorful Cretan and Santorinian dishes in generous portion sizes to its happy customers who are mostly locals, the cuisine here is truly authentic and beautifully presented. The menu includes choices for beef, steak, lamb, pork, chicken and seafood where such mouthwatering-sounding dishes as spearmint and coriander lamb with yogurt or ouzo-finished shrimps in a tomato, fennel and feta sauce are offered. A generous wine list rounds things off wonderfully, including all the best from the island’s very own vineyards.
The most surprising thing of all, considering Metaxi Mas offers both food and a view of the sublime kind, is its prices which are some of the most reasonable to be found anywhere on the island.
The Santorini Wine Museum
With its dry sunny climate combined with fertile volcanic soils, Santorini is home to a collection of wine producers ranging from the tiny home set-ups where grapes are still crushed the traditional way to larger slick concerns. Wine culture here is as ancient as the rest of Santorini’s history, believed to have first begun more than 4,000 years ago and its vines are the oldest on the continent. Today its best wines still come from an indigenous grape so treasured it is heritage-protected.
The assyrtiko grape is the base for both of the island’s most lauded wine varieties – the dessert wine Vinsanto and the crisp, dry whites which every taverna, no matter how tiny, will have for sale.
To really understand the island’s unbelievably long relationship with wine and to sample some of the best head to Kamari where you will find the subterranean Santorini Wine Museum. Incredibly atmospheric, this intriguing place which adjoins the Volcan vineyards is located many feet below ground in a natural cave whose use as a wine cellar dates back 150 years.
Through the medium of reconstructed scenes, audio guides and videos you will step back in time to the life of the vintner of the 17th century, a reality often harsh and plagued with almost insurmountable challenges. Continuing right up to the middle of the 20th century, you can explore every aspect of the history of wine on the island including cultivation, harvest, vinification and trade.
The museum section is home to a wealth of historical photographs and newspaper clippings as well as antique tools and rare machinery dating back to the 1600s, such as the giant steam press and a hand-operated dryer delivered to Santorini in 1660 by French monks.
The self-guided tour culminates with a wine tasting session of four varieties that is included in the entry price.
Wineries and Wine Tours
If you’d like to get a look at some of the vineyards and sample the cellar contents of other Santorini wine producers that is all possible with around ten of the island’s wineries opening their doors to visitors. You can explore under your own steam, paying the small fee at each winery where snacks are often included in the price. However, often the easiest and most enjoyable way to include an island wine discovery experience in your day is to sign up for a tour. There are several operators offering such things with typically three different wineries included and there is the added bonus of being able to learn a great deal more about the island and its history with a knowledgeable guide than you might otherwise do if you chose to visit independently.
If you are lucky enough to visit the Gavalas Winery in August you can help the family crush their freshly harvested grapes the traditional way – by climbing into a barrel barefoot and treading up and down until the juice is extracted. At any other time of the year, you can simply visit this small winery to sample some of its award-winning Vinsanto.
The oldest of the island’s wineries is Canava Roussos which has a beautiful outdoor area for tasting its wines or head to Art Space, also one of the oldest on Santorini and also the smallest. If both wine and art are your passions you will be in heaven here as the cavern walls and tucked away corners are all adorned with artworks, paintings and sculptures by modern-day Greek artists.
Santorini’s only organic winery is Hatzidakis while both the Estate Argyros Winery and the incredible cliff-perched Venetsanos Winery include both a guided tour and light bites in the price of its tastings. The island’s largest winery, part of an island cooperative, is Santo Wines – the option most geared up towards visiting tourists. Here, stunning caldera views, informative tours around the production facilities and tastings of six to sixteen vintages combined with snacks are all part of the experience.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner on Santorini
With bars and restaurants teetering on the edge of its soaring cliffs perched at the edge of an ancient volcanic caldera, Santorini’s drinking and dining often tend to come with views of the spectacular kind as standard.
Additionally, this is an island known for producing its own internationally acclaimed wines while the places to satisfy gastronomical cravings include all you could hope for and more – everything from minute tavernas tucked away in the tiny alleys of sleepy inland villages painted all in white to contemporary restaurants oozing sophistication and offering gourmet-standard cuisine.
While Oia and Fira have the greatest clustering of choices with some true gems among them it is worth bearing in mind that most of the establishments in these two hot-spots tend to be the most costly, relying on their sensational views to keep prices high.
However, as amazing as some of these are, other locations have equally breath-taking views but without the crowds while interestingly some of the best dining of all is not found in either of the two most popular centers but hidden away in serenity-filled places that tourism has barely touched.
The ‘most popular’ versus ‘the best’ debate is perhaps most obviously demonstrated at sunset when crowds descend on Oia at the island’s northern tip. Said to be one of the most magical sunset spots in Greece, this gorgeous cliff-perched village is indeed something special with its collection of cave houses, blue-domed churches and cobble-stoned streets offering postcard-perfect scenes of traditional Greece as most imagine it.
However, despite what the multitude seems to think, Oia is not the only island spot which gets to witness the sensational sight of the sun sinking into the vividly blue Aegean across the caldera and the neighboring island of Therasia. If you don’t mind sharing with hundreds of others and paying some of the island’s highest prices then Oia may be the ideal spot for you but if your idea of sundowners is something rather more intimate and serene then you have plenty of other choices. These include Imerovigli, six miles south of Oia and boasting the same perspective, and the mountain-perched village of Pyrgos, to name but two.
If you do want to keep things a little closer to the main action and the capital the PK Cocktail Bar has three tiers of terraces from which to enjoy those stunning caldera, sea and island views. Mixing cocktails for sunset watchers for almost half a century, this family-run alfresco bar is frequented by both islanders and visitors and has plenty of interesting cocktail options made with fresh fruit as well as an array of well-loved classics. Order up the PK take on the mojito or the watermelon margarita and then sit back to soak up the panoramas right in front of you.
For wine lovers Santorini is heaven, giving you the opportunity to try several award-winning vintages produced right here on the island itself. While these wines are found at practically every bar, taverna and restaurant you could find yourself in, there is arguably no better place to enjoy them than at the very wineries themselves.
Santo Winery, the island’s largest producer, has a beautiful terrace with elevated views stretching across the caldera to Nea Kameni and Palaia Kameni (the islands in the group center), Therasia sitting behind them and then beyond to a horizon which seems to go on forever.
Once the spectacle of sunset is over and the bronze-tinged scarlets and tangerine turn to the lilacs of dusk the bar closes but this is, after all, what everyone is here for anyway.
With Santorini’s awe-inspiring landscape and the million-dollar views to be had from its dramatic cliffs tending to get all the press and the praise, its excellent cuisine can sometimes get overshadowed. However, for those in the know, this island in fact represents one of the foremost dining scenes in the entire country. Santorini’s array of innovative top-class chefs between them are creating incredible contemporary Greek cuisine while the fusion scene seems to be gathering momentum at a great pace. If you’d to prefer to swap this modern, sophisticated dining scene for one of home-cooked Greek recipes passed down through the generations and served up in cozy tavernas then that is all here too.
Edge of the caldera spots are what most come in search of here and as undeniably spectacular as the views are from such places you can also find a few dining venues which have panoramas of a different kind. If you walk down the steps from Oia you will arrive at the lovely little Ammoudi Bay, where fishing boats rock gently and a string of tavernas have set up against the colorful cliffs. At the end is Dimitri’s, an excellent fish and seafood taverna which, 30 years ago, converted an old boat hut into a charming restaurant.
With tables that put you right at the water’s edge – something of a rarity on Santorini – you still get to gaze across the Aegean with the island of Thirasia’s northern tip in front of you.
Freshness is a given here as Dimitri’s seafood bounty is delivered daily, by the same fishermen it has worked with for two decades. The lobster spaghetti is something of a specialty as is the scorpion fish in garlic while the liquid part of the meal comes in the form of ouzo, beer or a choice of island wines.
While the range of Santorini dining choices delivers both cliff-perched views and water’s edge spots there is yet another way to make the most of the famous sunsets for drinking, dining or both. Several companies offer sunset boat cruises, ensuring that when the sun finally dips into the sea you will be in the ultimate front row seat for the show.
Typically setting out later in the afternoon, the menu of choices here ranges from the simple to the luxurious, offering everything from cocktails and mezze plates to champagne cruises with on-board dining and music. Journeys are not only about a different perspective on the sunset either with boats typically cruising around the other uninhabited islands of the caldera so you can get some up-close views and if the idea of a sunset swim appeals some boats drop anchor for a while too so you can do just that.
An Evening on Santorini
As the capital of Fira has featured little in your day so far now is the ideal time to put that right. With dinner over you can wander the town’s lovely alleys in the cool of the evening and admire the stunning views to be had from its elevated vantage point perched on the edge of the caldera.
First settled by Venetian nobles in the late 1700s, Fira’s mix of bars, cafes and shops and its romantically night-lit churches and buildings all give the town an atmospheric buzz when night falls.
The town has two beautiful cathedrals you might want to have a look at – the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral and the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, both originally built in the early 1800s and both needing reconstruction after an earthquake in the 1950s.
The Orthodox Cathedral is an elegant vision in white, fronted by a series of arches and adorned with a cross-topped dome. Its unusual design bell-tower rises from its right corner and if the church is still open it is worth taking a look inside. The interior is as impressive as its exterior, the inside of its dome complete with an enormous ceiling fresco with further frescoes adorning every inch of wall and ceiling space.
The architectural design of the Catholic cathedral, 500m north of its Orthodox cousin, is strikingly different, its exterior painted in shades of blue, yellow and gray while its baroque style bell tower with its clock is especially beautiful.
For a different night perspective, take the short cable car ride which leads down to the Santorini Old Harbor. From here you can gaze up for once ( instead of the majority of the island’s views which are downward) to see the town glowing way above you. If you decide to linger for a while there are a small collection of bars and restaurants where you can grab a nightcap and listen to the water lapping at the harbor walls.
Arguably one of the most magical ways to spend an evening on Santorini can be found the other side of the island to Fira where, beneath the stars and surrounded by trees, you can watch a movie with either a cocktail, beer or island wine to hand. The Cine Kamari, with its enchanting garden amid which cats wander, screens English language movies which begin at 9.30 pm and occasionally the venue hosts other events such as theater performances, music concerts and art exhibitions.
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