I say “quick,” and yet here I am 1800 words later.
After spending a month on Santorini Island, it’s safe to say I saw a fair bit of the place. You can actually cover most everything within three days, no matter if it’s peak season or low season.
Just the same, why rush through it? The real thrill of Santorini for me was slowing down. I remember my arrival to Santorini like it were yesterday: an ear-popping taxi ride to the top of the caldera, church steeples sprawled out in ownership of the island, and those whitewashed homes you see in all the movies (ahem, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants).
It’s goddamned breathtaking.
Low Season VS High Season
High season doesn’t begin until about June. I arrived in February.
Santorini is one of the islands that relies almost solely on tourism. This is pretty evident when you’re winding your way through Fira’s streets and passing just about every closed-up shop and restaurant. Nights are quiet and transit is unreliable.
BUT: people do still live here. You can access all the major sights, and you’re not jostling crowds of people for the most epic sunset views.
Hell, I’m not even sure my trip would have been so lovely if it weren’t for the off-season. It was crazy easy to meet people, and almost everybody who came through the hostel I stayed at instantly became my buddy. One of my more memorable experiences was watching the sunset with two girls, Maya and Julie, and then collecting a random Spanish girl to join us for dinner. Insta-friendship over the beauty of being solo female travelers in the off-season.
Things to Keep in Mind
I don’t know about you all, but as a Canadian I always assume that anything appearing as a tiny blip on a map means that I can walk the distance in an hour.
No. It’s all lies.
Santorini is SMALL by Greek island standards, but it’s sprawled out. Public transit in the winter blows, and buses tend to stop running around 3 PM on Sundays. Keep this in mind when you’re downing your tuna salad at a restaurant in Perissa at 2:59PM.
It can also get cold, stormy, and windy. Pack accordingly. I did not.
Hike to Oia
Although Fira is the main town on the island, Oia is THE postcard image and the place where all the romantics hang out. The hike from Fira town along the caldera is probably one of the greatest hikes I’ve ever done. It’ll take you up hills and down around churches and through little gardens. There’s a ton of loose rock and gravel, however, so hiking shoes are ideal.
The hike takes about 2 hours one way. Make it coincide with the sunset, and you’ll be rolling around the grassy fields in ecstasy.
Dubbed one of the “best bookstores in the world” by Lonely Planet (whatever that means), stepping foot in Atlantis Bookstore for me was like shaking hands with my maker. There are cats, and books, and a million and one things to look at and OH MY GOD IT’S WONDERFUL.
Not cheap, either. But I bought Sailing the Wine Dark Seas and the cashier stamped it with a special Atlantis stamp, so it’s the best souvenir ever. They also have their own bookbinding service.
Also: you’ll notice you’re essentially stepping foot in the worker’s home. There’s a bed in the corner, and bunk beds around the top of the shelves. Because people work and LIVE in the bookstore. Oh my. Oh me! I have to do a full post on this.
Note: Hours are sporadic and adjusted according to the worker’s desires. Just show up and bang loudly on the front door.
Fira is the main hub, and a cobblestoned town of donkeys and doorways, and I love it. It’s where all the restaurants and pubs and clubs are. Hence, it’s quite quiet in the winter. I have nothing more to offer you. Just go and eat stuff.
Kamari Beach & Perissa Beach
To be completely honest, the beaches in Santorini aren’t what you come to see. At least, none of the easily reachable beaches. People kept talking about the “black sand beaches” but they’re just rough and pebbly like most of the beaches back home in Canada. I guess the selling point here are the beaches’ volcanic origins, but still. I prefer the white sandy stuff that burns your heels and eats up the sun.
BUT: the shoreline is filled with restaurants, bars, and cafes. I can imagine this place is a whole different scene during the summer. Party central.
Additional: The Red Beach near Akrotiri is pretty wonderful.
Ancient Thira sits atop a mountain separating both Perissa and Kamari beaches, and the Greeks occupied it as early as the 9th century BC. The ruins here are a scattered collection of Roman baths, Byzantine walls, and Hellenistic shops. The sprawl is impressive.
Admission is 2EUR, and a guide is useful (if available). It kinda blows my mind that you can pay such a small price to peruse these ancient streets, with no one around. You can basically reach out and touch the old columns with Greek inscriptions on them and no one’s gonna yell or slap your wrist.
I hiked up here with my friends Ami and Inbal, from Kamari. It was a bitch of a hike, but the views were worth it. You’ll climb up, up, up, around a small church and past a cave with the island’s only spring. SUFFER THROUGH IT.
Akrotiri is EXCITING AS HELL. I’ll do a full post on it later, because it’s incredibly underrated and fascinating. My friends and I lucked out — our hostel owner Kostas is a travel guide and he opted to take us here.
Basically, Akrotiri is the Pompeii of Greece. (Ew. What a comparison. Travel writer “no-no.”) It’s a Minoan Bronze Age town that was destroyed by the volcanic eruption in 1627 BC. Covered in ash and deserted by its citizens, excavations have found some insanely key archaeological pieces here to putting together the Minoan puzzle. Did the volcano wipe out the Minoans? Very likely. Many experts also think it’s the inspiration for the lost city of Atlantis.
It’s eerie walking through here. Beds are upturned on top of one another, as if the occupants would come back for them. Jars and jugs lay scattered. The ash formed a sort of cast for some of the furniture, leaving behind beautifully sculpted tables and even a keepsake box with a gold ibex.
Akrotiri even had a sewage system. Santorini Island itself didn’t have such technology until the mid-1900s. These people were bloody brilliant.
The Museum of Prehistoric Thera
“Thera” was the original name of Santorini Island, and this museum houses most of the artifacts collected from Akrotiri. Admission is 3EUR and it is cool as HELL. I’m not kidding. Perfectly preserved pieces of wall murals and frescoes are on display here, and even 7000-year-old fossilized olive leaves from some of the island’s earliest eruptions.
Other interesting tidbits: Nippled jugs (for the perpetually immature), the world’s first microwave (portable oven), and pieces of jewelry.
Sometimes I find such displays chilling. Don’t you ever sit back and think, will my shitty $3 necklace from Forever 21 make it inside a museum someday? Who knows.
For 20EUR, you can hop on a sailboat and head over to the monster that wiped out a whole civilization and dramatically changed the landscape of Santorini forever. You really get a sense of the earth’s power here, while looking back on the island. If you look at a map, Santorini is shaped like a croissant with a dot in the middle – the volcano. When it erupted, the middle of the island collapsed and filled in with water, causing the dramatic caldera shape.
Geo-freaks, wipe the drool from your chin.
There’s not much to the tour, but it’s pretty cool to walk around such a stark landscape. The bubbly sulfuric smell is hard to ignore. When will this baby explode again? Who knows. The 1627 eruption was one of the largest in history. Best not to think about it.
You’ll also get to stop by some hot springs. Note: it’s not all that hot in February.
Lucky for you, the dining scene never dies on Santorini. My all-time favourite spot was a place called Tsipouradiko, located on the main road to Fira. I ate here at least ten times, and usually brought a few friends with me. The friendly waiter poked fun at me for showing up so much.
Everything at Tsipouradiko is worth trying. Grilled octopus. Cheese dishes. Lamb. Fava beans. Order some of the tispouro, a potent brandy, and you’ll be handed some complimentary meze. (Water that stuff down, by the way. Don’t be a hero.) Really, I could not recommend this place enough. Dessert is free, too!
For quick and cheap eats, the Cretan bakery in Karterados has sandwiches, baklava, and halva – my favourite sweet thing in the world.
Perissa’s Tranquilo beach bar was also a great visit. Inbal and I split a giant plate of tuna salad, while I had a beer. It totaled about 9EUR. But it’s the vibe that really made the place: slightly Rastafarian, lit up with oranges and reds, and with an extremely friendly staff. If Inbal and I weren’t about to miss the bloody bus, we’d have stayed longer.
Otherwise, you could live off 2EUR souvlaki or kebabs from any of the small shops in Karterados and Fira. Extra garlic and paprika, please.
Buy a 2EUR plastic bottle of wine at the corner store. Night made. There’s not much else to do in February on Santorini.
Also: wine tasting. I didn’t get to do this. But wineries like Santos offer tours and tastings.
I ended up at a restaurant named Kyria Niki one night, with a new friend Ruth and her daughter. We had eaten there earlier (delicious) and then saw that a live band would be starting up. We came back around 10 PM and people kept jumping in with the traditional Zembekiko dance, where one person dances around the floor and others kneel before them, clapping. The waiter brings out champagne, and voila! Magic. It was a lot of fun to watch.
Where to stay – CAVELAND!
I loved my stay at Caveland. I booked a private room through Airbnb for about 600CAD, and it came with a small kitchenette and my own bathroom. I had a ghost who liked cutting my electricity and dropping earthworms into my toilet, but we learned to get along quite well.
What to say about Caveland? Definitely the most unique hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Each room has its own personality, with handcrafted chandeliers and wall hangings, and little pieces of flair. My room had a wooden piece of a boat in it. The place is riddled with passageways and doors leading to god knows where. I met some lovely people during my time there, including some dear friends like Milly, Dan, and Inbal. The owners Kostas and Veronika are some of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered. Veronika also puts off yoga classes twice a week, and I saw quick improvement in my form while she instructed me.
And oh yes, my room was inside a cave. Cue writerly joke here. This place used to be a winery, and is one of the oldest buildings on the island.
Caveland is located in Karterados, about a 20-minute (or less) walk to Fira, with a bus stop at the top of the hill. I saw a review complaining about it being actually a “25 minute walk” instead of 20. Come on. Really? It was always a pleasant stroll, and being away from the busy centre was a treat. I cannot recommend Caveland enough.
Santorini in the off season? Totally worth it. Let me know if you’ve done it.
If you like it you should put a pin on it