Back in 1450 BC, a massive volcanic eruption caused the middle of Santorini to fall into the sea. It left a steep-edged crater known as a caldera peeping above the waves, which, today, is a spectacular sight from the island’s clifftops.
It’s not just the geological make-up of the island that turns heads, though. With its whitewashed houses, blue-domed churches and never-ending vineyards, Santorini is Greece at its traditional best. Thira, the capital, is a popular place to stay – it’s perched on top of the caldera rim overlooking the Aegean. And the northern town of Oia, which also has a spot on the caldera, is the best place to see the island’s famous sunsets.
The beach scene
If you don’t mind your sand in a darker shade of grey – a legacy of the island’s volcanic past – there are some great beaches in towns like Kamari and Perissa. Framed by jagged cliffs, Kamari’s dark sandy sweep has been given Blue Flag status. As for Perissa, the 7-kilometre stretch here comes with a good helping of watersports.
Things to See and Do in Santorini
Santorini’s volcanic sands
You won’t find beaches the colour of talcum powder in these parts. Instead, striking black pebbles and dark-grey sands circle the island. And they’re framed by steep, craggy cliffs that were shaped by Santorini’s volcanic beginnings. Just so you know, Thira, one of the island’s main resorts, is perched high up on the caldera, so you won’t find any beaches there.
The big beach
Kamari is one of Santorini’s most popular places to stay, and that’s largely down to its beautiful Blue Flag beach. A dark mix of sand and pebbles, it’s over 5 kilometres long. It caters for holidaymakers with a backdrop of ice-cream parlours, bars, and restaurants serving up fresh-from-the-net seafood.
The secret beach
Katharos Beach is tucked away in Oia, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the village centre. It’s hidden between rocks and cliffs, so you get a real sense of seclusion. There’s a little restaurant overlooking it, as well.
Oia has its fair share of blow-out boutiques, like the Mov&May store on the town’s main road. This place stocks items from some of the big fashion houses like Versace, Cavalli and Alberta Ferreti. Thira, on the other hand, is great for jewellery – head to Gold Street for quality gold moulded into Byzantine-style designs.
Oia leads the way when it comes to art. Its views have been the inspiration for thousands of painters over the years, and you can pick up reasonably-priced pieces in the galleries here. If wine is more your thing, visit the Canava Roussos Winery in Kamari to pick up a vintage bottle of the stuff.
Kamari and Perissa are good for traditional souvenirs. The stores down on the seafront promenades, in particular, are filled with authentic pottery, ceramics and handmade beach bags. Another popular take-home is a bag of the island’s volcanic pumice stones, which are often used for beauty treatments.
The sunsets in Oia are legendary, and visitors to the town tend to plan their evenings around them. For the best views, either pack your own picnic and join the crowds outside, or book a table at one of the restaurants that line up along the edge of the caldera. Alternatively, if you’ve got a bit more money to spend, you can join a sunset cruise from Thira for amazing views of the coast.
Thira is the island’s nightlife champion. The bars and clubs overlooking the caldera have amazing views, and lots of them have open-air terraces. You’ll also find live music dens tucked away in the cobbled streets that step down the cliffside. Kamari and Perissa are also good choices for a night out. The seafront cafés in these towns turn into lively bars when the sun goes down, with extended happy hours and guest DJs setting the pace.
This dish is often referred to as tomato balls or tomato pancakes. It’s made by mixing diced cherry tomato with onion, herbs and flour to form a batter. The batter is divided up into pancake-sized portions, and then fried until golden. The finished product is best served with a big dollop of tzatziki.
his creamy dip is made by pureeing fava beans, which are abundant in Santorini thanks to the island’s volcanic soil. The dip is usually used to garnish meat or vegetable dishes, but it’s just as tasty spread on a big chunk of crusty bread. If you find the flavour a bit strong, try squeezing a bit of lemon juice over it.
The handmade method of making this mild goats’ cheese is so time consuming, it’s difficult to get hold of the final product these days. That said, some of the island’s tavernas still feature it on their menus. It’s usually served in a salad, alongside tomatoes, capers and grilled vegetables such as aubergine.
This dessert is usually served at island weddings, and its two ingredients – honey and almond – are thought to symbolise a happy marital life and good fertility. The bride and groom will traditionally have the first bite, in the hope that their new life will be as sweet as the pudding.
The volcanic explosion that created Santorini also produced the perfect conditions for wine-making. These days, the island cultivates 36 different kinds of grape. One of the most sought-after wines is Vinsanto, a sweet, red dessert wine.
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On Santorini’s southeast coast, Perissa is a picturesque village dotted with whitewashed villas and framed by jagged volcanic scenery. It was only built in the Sixties, so is relatively new. And what it might lack in rustic appeal, it more than makes up for with its watersports portfolio, easygoing nightlife, and ancient sights.
Pyrgos is a quiet village set high on a volcanic crater on Santorini’s west coast. To say it’s postcard-pretty is an understatement. Winding lanes fan out from the remains of a Venetian castle, taking in whitewashed houses, traditional tavernas and churches with blue-domed roofs. And the sunset views from up here are pretty fantastic, to put it mildly.