I’ve been dreaming of visiting Santorini like forever. This island is hands down the most famous one of the Greek islands, and for a good reason! Seeing the white washed cliff-side towns, the deep blue roofs and the endless views of the shimmering sea with my own eyes was an incredible experience. Are you dreaming of visiting Santorini too? If yes, I have some good news for you! In this Santorini travel guide I collected all the information you need to know before visiting this magical island. It’s especially useful for first-timers!
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The Ultimate Santorini Travel Guide for First-timers
Location & History
Santorini (officially known as Thira) is part of the Cycladic island group on the Aegean Sea, located roughly halfway between Athens and Crete. In the Ancient times the island was called Stongili (which means round in Greek) due to its round shape.
Around 1,500 BC the island suffered a huge volcanic explosion, probably one of the largest explosions on Earth in the last few thousand years. As a consequence, the center of the island sank and the rest of the island got heavily damaged.
What remains today of Santorini is a crescent-shaped island with a huge caldera (a crater created by the volcanic eruption) on its western side. The caldera is surrounded by the steep cliffs of Santorini and the island of Thirassia.
There are two islands in the middle, the smaller one is the remains of the old volcano (Palea Cameni) and the bigger one is a new volcano (Nea Cameni). Although the new volcano is still active, but right now there is no risk of eruption.
Santorini is quite a small island, the area is only 76km². The length of the island is 16 km and the width varies between 1 and 5 km. It takes roughly 45 minutes to drive from one end of Santorini to the other.
Population & Turism
Santorini is home to roughly 15,500 people. In contrast to this, the island received over 2 million tourist in 2018. Shocking, right?
And this number does not even include the cruise passengers who are only coming to the island during the day. Santorini is a really popular cruise destination, which means in peak season the number of cruise visitors can be as high as 15,000 per day.
In addition to the 2 million regular tourists. Crazy.
Greece is a member of the European Union and they are using Euro (€) as their official currency. Credit cards are widely accepted across the country and there are many ATMs where you can withdraw cash. It’s always good to have some cash with you as the smaller bazaars usually don’t accept credit cards.
Many visitors can enter Greece up to 90 days as a tourist without having to apply for a visa. If you are traveling from another European country, from the USA, Canada, Australia, or Japan, you don’t need a visa for entering Greece. For a detailed list of visa requirements for each countries, visit the website of the Hellenic Republic – Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
How to get to Santorini
The easiest way of visiting Santorini is by plane. Santorini has only one airport, Thira Airport (JTR), located on the east side of the island. The airport is close to Kamari village and it is roughly 6km from Fira. It’s a small airport with no special facilities or airline lounges, therefore sleeping at the airport is not allowed.
Getting to Santorini from Europe is quite easy, as in the summer period there are numerous direct flights from many European cities like London, Vienna, Paris or Amsterdam. The island can be reached all-year round with direct flight from Athens.
If you wanna visit Santorini from the USA, Canada, Australia or other non-European countries, you must get a connecting flight to Athens or another European city that operates a direct flight to Santorini.
The other option for getting to Santorini is via ferry. The ferry routes are very well established therefore getting to Santorini via ferry is very easy.
There are daily ferries from Athens, Naxos and Paros to Santorini all year round. It takes like 5-7 hours to reach Santorini from Athens, a one-way standard ticket costs between 33-70€. Since Paros and Naxos are closer, you only need like 2-3 hours to reach Santorini, a one-way standard ticket costs between 23-45€.
From mid-March until the end of September you can catch direct ferries from Mykonos, Ios, Milos, Folegandros and Crete as well.
I recommend using Ferryhopper to check the ferry routes, durations and prices. Usually there are more ferry operator companies on the same route with various prices and duration. As a rule of thumb, longer duration means lower price.
You can purchase different ticket categories on a ferry like deck-lounge, standard seats, business, cabin or VIP. It kinda works like economy or business class on an airplane. The same rules apply here as well: if you pay more, you can have a higher comfort level.
We traveled from Mykonos to Santorini and vice versa with the cheapest ticket option and it was really good. So if you don’t have any special needs, there’s really no need to pay more for tickets.
Where to stay in Santorini
One of the most important topic that a Santorini travel guide has to cover is the question of where to stay. Basically we can divide Santorini into 2 main parts, each of them have their pros and cons.
The most popular side of Santorini is the western side. This is where you can have amazing views of the caldera and the volcano, not to mention the breathtaking sunset views! All of the luxury hotels are located along the caldera along with great restaurants and clubs.
The best caldera towns are Oia, Fira, Firostefani and Imerovigli. If you are a first-timer on Santorini, I would recommend to stay in one of these four towns!
I think you can guess what the downside is: the price. This part of Santorini is really expensive. There is literally no limit when it comes to luxury hotels along the caldera, so if you wanna have a splurge during your holiday, you will definitely find it here!
Of course you can stay on the western side of Santorini on a budget too, if you are willing to let go of the views from your room and your private pool. For instance we stayed in Oia at Marcos Rooms for like 100€ per night. It was far away from fancy and I’m glad we only stayed there for one night, but it was right in the middle of the city and that was exactly what we needed.
If you are looking to save some money, one of the beach towns can be a good choice for you. The beaches are located on the eastern side of the island, the best ones are Kamari, Perissa and Perivolos in the southern edge.
The hotels around the beaches are usually way more cheaper than the ones along the caldera. You can find some good restaurant and bars around too, but they are not so luxurious as the ones on the western side.
You will not see the sunset from this side of the island but in exchange you can watch the sunrise which is really beautiful too! Plus you will always get a sea view and you can go out and have a dip in the sea anytime.
Best time to visit Santorini
High season in Santorini runs from late June to early September. As you can imagine, the island is full of tourists in this season and the prices are at their peak. The weather is usually hot and sunny, which makes it perfect for relaxing at the beach. If you are more into sightseeing or hiking, if you don’t tolerate the crowds too well or you are a first-timer, I would recommend to avoid the high season.
Visiting Santorini in the shoulder season, typically in May-June or September-October is a great choice. You can still easily reach the island as the direct flights and ferries are still in operation. All of the hotels and restaurants are open, the prices are better, and there are less tourists on the island. Please note that in May and October the sea can be too cold for swimming, so if you want a beach weather, try to aim for June or September.
Originally all the hotels and restaurants were closed between November and April on Santorini. However as the island got more and more popular over the years, more hotels and restaurants are staying open during winter. While visiting in this period can be great budget-wise, be prepared for challenges. First of all, you can’t reach Santorini directly, only through Athens. Second, the weather is not so good either: the average temperature is around 10-15 degrees with grey skies and many rainy days.
How much time do you need to spend in Santorini
While you can get a glimpse of Santorini in only one day, I don’t recommend this unless you are coming from a cruise. Getting in and out of Santorini can be time consuming so you will not have enough time to enjoy the breathtaking views during the day.
Allow yourself at least 2-3 full days on the island! There is so much things to do and see, so you will definitely need this time to properly explore the island.
If you prefer a more relaxed itinerary with lots of beach-time and shopping, you can easily spend 5-7 days on the island. However if you have 6 or more days, I would recommend to combine your trip with visiting another island instead of staying in Santorini for a week.
I personally did the same and we decided to visit both Mykonos and Santorini during our one week Greece trip. I wouldn’t have it any other way, it was perfect!
Getting around Santorini
The cheapest way of getting around Santorini is to use the local buses. Fira is the main hub of the bus system and you can get a direct bus to almost every part of the island. However if you are stying outside of Fira, that means first you have to take a bus to Fira, and only then to your final destination.
I’ve read many complaints about the buses in Santorini, but I personally never tried them, so I can’t share my personal experiences. That being said, try not to rely on public buses if you have an important appointment, like catching your flight or your ferry.
Having a rental car can make your life so much easier on Santorini! If you are planning to explore the island this is definitely the best way to do it. However if you wanna spend most of the time around your hotel, you are better of with the occasional bus or taxi rides.
I recommend checking RentalCars for the various car rental options in Santorini. Usually the car rentals start from 35€ per day, excluding fuel. There are many pick-up and drop-off locations across Santorini like in Santorini Airport, Santorini Port, Fira or Perissa. I would suggest renting a car at Santorini Airport as it has like 10 different companies and it is very easy to reach from everywhere.
As we arrived via ferry from Mykonos, we decided to rent a car at the Santorini Port. AutoUnion is the only company that operates there, so we booked a car for 3 days that cost us 99€. We drove across the island in these 3 days many times and we ended up paying 33€ for fuel, so the whole renting process was 132€ for us for 3 days. I think it was totally worth it!
One practical tip: If you are planning to rent a car at the ferry port as well, leave yourself enough time for the drop off prodecure! There is only one narrow, zigzag road that leads you down to the port. Given that the port is little and there is not too many place for cars, the road usually gets very busy. That means most probably you will be stuck in traffic. It’s only a 3.5 km long road, but it can take up like 30-45 minutes just to get down to the port. So definitely plan some extra time for that!
I know renting an ATV or motorbike in Santorini is really cool, but I would strongly advise against it. It can be very dangerous and if you don’t have any experience you can easily hurt yourself.
Renting an ATV roughly cost the same as renting a car. It is fine for a shorter ride but if you are planning to drive all the way down to the other side of the island it’s not so comfortable. In a car you usually have an air-co while if you are sitting in an ATV you are exposed to the sun all the time. Plus it’s far more dangerous than having a car. Do I need to say anything else?
Best things to do in Santorini
In this Santorini travel guide I won’t get much into details about the best things to do in Santorini. I will do this in another post soon, I promise! But until then here comes a rough overview about the best things to do in Santorini.
Watch the sunset
Sunsets in Santorini are totally out of this world! If you are in Santorini, try to watch as much sunsets as possible! Luckily you have many great viewpoints along the caldera. Oia is the most famous place for sunset watching, but Fira, Imerovigli and Akrotiri have some amazing viewpoints as well. For a more detailed guide check out my post about the best places to watch the sunset in Santorini!
Go on a boat tour
Boat tours are one of the most popular things to do in Santorini as they offer an incredible view of the caldera and the surrounding towns. There are tons of different options to choose from, you can’t go wrong with any of them. The best ones are the volcano tours and the sunset tours.
Take a self-guided photography tour
Santorini is really picture perfect. That means you have so many great photo opportunities across the island! The blue rooftops mixed with the white walls and the pink flowers are really like a dream.
Many companies offer photography tours, with ridiculously high prices. Trust me, you don’t need them! You can easily find the best photo spots with a great guide, and that’s what I’m here for! Yes, you guessed it right: my next post about the most instagrammable places in Santorini are already in progress! I will link it here once it’s ready.
Hike from Fira to Oia
If you are into hiking, you will love this! Oia is located roughly 10 km from Fira and you can hike from one town to another. It is completely free and the views along the road are incredible. The hike can take like 2-3 hours, or even more, depending on how many times you stop for photos.
Try the local cuisine
Greek food is simply amazing so trying the local cuisine in Santorini is really a must! You can find many authentic restaurants across the island. Definitely try the gyros, souvlaki, tzatziki, greek salad and baklava!
Santorini Travel Guide - Summary
So these are all the important things you need to know for planning your dream holiday in Santorini. Hope you guys liked them and this Santorini travel guide will help you to make the most of your visit at this postcard perfect place!
If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email, I always love helping you out! Have you already visited Santorini? Leave your comments and tips below!