When I recently shared a collection of travel tips for Japan, I must admit that self-deprecation aside, I was rather wary of it being a dull read. After all, my blog has never been about reproducing content from guidebooks written by seasoned travel professionals nor will it ever be an obedient slave to SEO tactics.
Much to my surprise though and serving up a much-needed boost to my unpalatable flickers of self-doubt, many of you liked that post. They may not go down in history as the most inspired pieces of creative prose but the feedback filtering my way suggested that I was under-estimating the value of such posts so after recently travelling to Santorini, I thought I would share a few pointers again for those who have never been. Don’t worry, it’s still filled with plenty of my archetypal waffle but hopefully with a practical spin!
Best Time of Year to Visit Santorini
When I was researching this trip, most of the negative energy I kept hearing about Santorini (and there wasn’t much) alluded to the island being crowded and busy, crowded and busy, crowded and busy. The wordy repetition became rather an ear-sore (is that a word?) to a lady wanting reassurance that she had made a good Greek island choice.
Perhaps this was why it came as such a welcome surprise, when I eventually reached Santorini, to find that the crowds had largely dissipated, excluding specific locations, such as Oia Castle viewpoint at sunset. Two months earlier and it would have been a different scene altogether and the key reason why we had such a pleasant, crowd-free experience was because we went towards the end of the season in mid October.
For Santorini, both from the point of view of climate and the degree to which the tourism industry is actually up and running, the season tends to span from April through to October and early November. Over the winter months, there are bargains to be grabbed with accommodation prices but many hotels and restaurants shut up shop so you need to weigh up your priorities in this respect. There were a couple of restaurants we spotted in October that were no longer serving their full menus as it was now off-season but other than this, it seemed business as usual.
If you have flexibility, my suggestion would be to plan your visit either early in the season in April/May or towards the end of the season in September/October, thereby avoiding school holiday masses, escaping the scorching heat of the Southern Mediterranean at its hottest whilst landing on the island whilst it still has a bit of buzz. For bronzed skin without bus loads of tourists, opt for shoulder seasons.
Avoid Cruise Ship Days
Ahhh cruise ships, you either love them or hate them and a few months ago, I shared my first cruise experience, which (spoiler alert), was generally a positive one. But when you’re not the one actually on the cruise, there is no safer way to spoil your tranquil Greek island afternoon than when 6000 people disembark their cruise ships en masse, clogging the streets in gigantic wedges, forming a virtually unbreakable border to those of us hoping to practice our agility by weaving through the masses.
We pre-empted this by referring to this site, which allowed us to get an idea of how many and which cruise ships would be coming into port on certain days. We then looked at our intended itinerary for Santorini to see if we could avoid being at port stops on those dates. Whilst it might not be possible to avoid the cruise ship crowds completely, they will certainly be more dense and cumbersome at the more popular parts of Santorini, such as Fira and Oia (especially at sunset) and if you already have some heads up, cruise ship days would be an ideal moment to explore some of the lesser known parts of the island.
The other thing to note about cruise ships coming to Santorini is that many of them seem to either arrive early in the morning and depart mid afternoon or arrive mid afternoon and leave later in the evening so we chose to do the renowned Fira to Oia hike from around 10am – 2pm, thereby embarking on the hiking trails at a time when we could escape the cruise cohorts.
Shoulder season is often blessed with long, sun-soaked days and we certainly lucked out in that respect but this is obviously more of a gamble than booking for mid-summer. Are you the betting sort? Each of our five days in Santorini was bathed in blue skies and blazing rays, ideally suited for the shorts, T-shirts and sandals we had packed with oodles of zeal. The nights, however, were a different story and almost as soon as the sun would set, a steely chill crept through our sleeves, filling my arms with a cascading ripple of goosebumps.
Nights can get extremely windy as well – I’ll let the photo below do the talking so make sure you pack jackets, shawls or scarves and no matter how warm you are in the daytime, keep some layers with you for the evening. Every night, I made the same mistake, falsely reassured by the afternoon heat.
Steps and Inclines
I confess that for many years, all I really knew about Santorini were the images of blue-capped churches scattered between layered planes of whitewashed buildings that have been slapped across the front covers of international glossy travel magazines time and again; but their draw was such that I felt compelled to visit on the basis of those images alone.
The panoramas are well deserving of their worldwide acclaim but it goes without saying that any island lending such spectacular volcanic, cliff side views is going to be accompanied by climbs and in Santorini, stairs and steps will soon become your friend (or your nemesis if you are unfit like me!)
There are ways to minimise the number of steps to contend with in Santorini, which I will come onto in the next section, but if you too have drooled over those sapphire-domed, postcard-perfect vistas and have dreamed of staying in the thick of the idyllic Santorini hillside villages, then you cannot escape steps and you need to prepare for plenty of them.
To give you an example, at our hotel in Oia, there were around 90 (steep) steps up from our room to street level meaning that we were routinely doing the 180 step loop several times a day. Our hotel in Firostefani comprised fewer by a small margin but neither of these arrangements are atypical for the area and very few (if any) hotels come equipped with a lift.
If you have mobility issues or experience difficulty walking on inclines, this may be a more challenging destination and it may also be worth finding out, before you book your accommodation, how many steps you will need to climb. This is not a destination, for example, that my parents would have coped well with, considering just how many uphill climbs were involved.
Similarly, if you are travelling with buggies or little people, it can be done (though we didn’t see many couples attempting it) but you will certainly need bigger biceps than mine if you plan to carry a pushchair and a small person up a hundred steps in 28 degree heat!
We were very grateful to the hotel staff during both our hotel stays, who were kind enough to carry our bulky suitcase up and down from room to street level for us but if you are staying somewhere where this may not be the case, then be sure to pack lightly with something a little easier to transport around.
Where to stay in Santorini
So if you can’t do stairs, you can’t do Santorini, right? Wrong. Logic dictates that an island filled with hillside villages and towns must also have some activity at the bottom of those hills! If you and staircases aren’t yet on intimate terms, then you may prefer to base yourself in beachy areas of Santorini like Kamari Beach, Perivolos or Perissa Beach, filled with a number of coastal hotels and resorts, near or on ground level, easily accessible by car and from where you could still make day trips towards Oia and Fira without needing to deploy any luggage-laden, rock-climbing skills.
If you aren’t seeking a beach resort but are on a quest to find *those* postcard perfect views from the balcony of your hotel or apartment, it is more than likely that the image in your head is from Oia or Fira, the two most renowned regions of the island but also the two that will have you coughing up most dough and that receive most crowds (there’s that ugly word again!)
For all the sitting-on-the-fence, happy-medium sorts, dreaming of poolside relaxation with a view minus all things “touristy”? For you lot, I recommend Imerovigli or Firostefani instead, which are havens of serenity compared to the hustle and bustle of Fira without any compromise on the views. We chose Firostefani for part of our stay and given it was only a 10-15 minute walk from Fira, we found it gave the best of both worlds.
Fira, Oia, Firostefani and Imerovigli all have hotels that afford aerial views over the Caldera in Santorini but if views are a high priority for you, make sure you clarify whether the “magnificent views” mentioned in hotel reviews or sites relate to sunset views, caldera views or views of the town. They are all beautiful in their own way but you don’t want to pay a premium for a balcony with “a view” if you’ve got the wrong end of the stick about what that view is. My preference was the Caldera view. There are many spectacular sunset locations in the world (you might remember that Jimbaran Bay, Bali was one of my highlights) but the Caldera view in Santorini was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Transport in Santorini
You need wheels. There, that might be my most succinct sentence ever on Why Waste Annual Leave. Unless Oia and Fira are the only two regions on your itinerary, you will benefit from having some wheels at your disposal, whether that’s a cheap and cheerful hire car or dare I say it, even a quad bike. Pumpkin and I have never needed or chosen to use hire car services on our previous travels together but in Santorini, it gave us an enormous amount of freedom to travel to areas, which would have been laborious, at best, to reach by public transport.
Taxis are few and far between and unless you have prearranged cabs picking you up and dropping you off at set times, they are not easy to locate and hail on the streets. This is not Manhattan so don’t expect to find cabs floating around on every corner if you’ve had one too many Vinsantos at the end of a night (when in Santorini!)
That leaves the bus, which does travel directly from Oia to Fira and vice versa but for many other areas on the island, you will need to take the bus to Fira first and then change and these are not buses that rock up every 2 minutes so having your own transport makes life easier.
We had planned which areas we wanted to visit that were not within easy reach on public transport and therefore calculated we only needed the hire car for around 36 hours to see those areas, notably Perissa, Perivolos, Kamari beaches and the Akrotiri ruins.
Put the Camera Down
Yes, that’s right, I said put it down. Santorini is spectacular. I know that people describe many smaller and equally beautiful Greek islands that are under-hyped and I look forward to acquainting with them one day. Until then however, I only have my own Greek experiences in Corfu, Crete and now, Santorini to reflect upon and even after seeing all the images, trawling through all the blog posts and sifting through gazillions of Instagram photos, this island left me lost for words with its endless whitewashed streets, architectural bursts of colour pop and cathartic Caldera views.
So many tourists come here with a focused ambition to conquer that flawless Santorini view they have spent years dreaming of seeing. They while away the hours, aiming for the meticulously positioned snap with the blue church behind them at exactly the right angle, the sleepy sunset filtering downwards, their hair delicately caressing both shoulders in harmonious symmetry whilst their patient travel partners assume all manner of yoga positions to try and get the full outfit in.
Take photos by all means, heck it was the photos that first caught my eye and we fumbled around clumsily ourselves on a Santorini photo shoot remember) but please PLEASE, at some point, put the camera down and take a moment or fifty to admire this majestic volcanic island without the aid of a gadget.
No image, no matter how many settings you use, will ever bear the clarity, colour and vivid beauty of Santorini the way a pair of attentive,absorbed, fully functioning eyes can so if you’re lucky enough to have a pair of those, do not let Santorini be a destination where you forget to use them.
Have you ever been to Santorini? Do you have any tips to add to this list?