It’s the poster child of Greek Island tourism, with whitewashed towns precariously balanced atop the red rim of an ancient volcanic crater that towers over the cobalt waters of the Aegean. The romantic image of Santorini (known as Thira to Greeks) has single-handedly sold countless vacations to Greece. Once a volcanic cone, Thira blew its top sometime around 1600 B . C ., and everything but the outline of the crater fell into the sea. This episode gave rise to the myth of the lost city of Atlantis, the existence of which archaeologists have been able to neither prove nor refute. But whether it was the legendary Atlantis or not, no other island—in Greece or anywhere else—possesses quite the same brand of epic natural splendor as Santorini.
When you arrive by ferry at the larger port of Athinios or the smaller Skala, the full drama of Santorini’s spectacular topography comes into focus: The island is steeper and taller than you’d imagined, and you have to crane your neck to see the towns perched on top. Another reality of visiting Santorini—one that’s downplayed in the marketing brochures—reveals itself when you disembark at the dock; that is, you’re not the only one who made the journey here. Especially in summer, expect to share the 13-sq.-km (5-sq.-mile) island with thousands of tourists, honeymooners, and cruise passengers.
The island’s principal town, Fira, has a prime location on the edge of the caldera, looking west over the wine-dark sea and the island’s densest concentration of hotels, restaurants, and accompanying mass-tourism junk. The aerielike hamlet of Oia, on the highest part of the crater rim, is romance central and where you’ll find those impossibly gorgeous vistas—blue church dome in foreground, glittering sea beyond—captured in so many photographs of Santorini. As sublime as the views are from these two towns, the key to experiencing Santorini’s authenticity is to spend time away from Fira and Oia once you’ve had your sunset cocktails and snapped your photos—or to time your strolls through the villages for the early morning or early evening, avoiding the
day-tripper crush. Or just come in the off season (Sept–May).
Sunning and swimming in the Aegean are valid pursuits here, though you have to head down from the caldera rim and its hypnotic views, of course, to reach the water. Santorini’s beaches are concentrated on the southern and eastern coasts of the island (not on the inner curve of the crater, but along its slightly less impressive outer edge). Most shorelines consist of black or red sand, which absorb the sun and get brutally hot and crowded in summer—another good reason to schedule your trip for months other than July and August. Ancient-history buffs shouldn’t miss Santorini’s two small but fascinating archaeological sites, Akrotiri and ancient Thira. The former is a mesmerizing time capsule of life during the height of Minoan civilization, just before the catastrophic eruption of 1600 B . C . wiped it out. You can also take boat tours across Santorini’s “lagoon” to another speck of the caldera, the island of Thirassia. On the way, you’ll pass the smoldering Nea Kameni, which emerged from the sea only 300 years ago as a sober reminder of Thira’s violent natural history.