Your first order of business in Santorini is to hit the colorful beaches — the black and red sands make for a memorable visit. Next up, indulge in the archaeological delights of the impressively preserved Ancient Akrotiri. or climb the ancient stairs that lead to the historic city of Manolas in Thirassia. From there, catch a breathtaking view of the caldera, a brilliant turquoise pool of water that serves as nucleus for the varied isles of this archipelago. Some would say you only need a day to enjoy these islands’ charms (they are a popular port of call for cruise ships), but to really drink in all Santorini has to offer, you’ll need a few days to a week. Then you’ll have plenty of time to learn there’s more to these comely dots of the Cyclades than meets the eye.
A volcanic eruption around 1650 B.C. forced the center of what was then a single island, called Strongyli, to implode and succumb to the sea. Some say that Strongyli was the original home of the lost city of Atlantis, which long ago disappeared into the ocean’s depths. Whatever remains of this mythological metropolis is now guarded by beautiful beaches and stately whitewashed churches. Today, Santorini consists of two inhabited islands and several islets. Most visitors spend their time on Thira (the archipelago’s largest island), which is home to Santorini’s major towns, including Fira and Oia. Sleepy Thirassia makes for a relaxing day trip too. And don’t count out the quieter islands: Nea Kameni, Palaia Kameni, Aspronisi and Christiana are all worth exploring.
Greeks often joke about the fact that many tourists know of Santorini but are not entirely sure where to find the mainland of Greece on the map. Santorini is one of the most heavily visited of the Greek Isle destinations, and Santorinians are known for their friendliness toward travelers.
Greek is the official language and while it is possible to find English speakers in tourist areas, you should also learn some basic phrases or plan to bring a phrasebook or dictionary with you. Understanding body language will also help you interact with residents. Be aware of your gestures. For example, using the thumb and index finger to signal «OK» is offensive, and Greeks indicate «yes» with a slight downward nod or «no» with a slight upward nod.
Shorts and T-shirts are acceptable when walking around the towns or the beaches, some of which are clothing optional. Dress continues to be casual even in restaurants, but you may wish to dress a little more nicely when dining out in the evenings.
Santorini’s currency is the euro (EUR). Since the euro to U.S. dollar exchange rate fluctuates, be sure to check what the current exchange rate is before you go. Major credit cards are accepted at most restaurants and shops When eating at a restaurant, a service charge is typically included, but it is considered polite to leave a 10 percent tip (preferably in cash) if service was exceptionally good. Restaurateurs often don’t look at the receipt when charging a credit card and leave the tip off. Also, keep in mind the plumbing system in Santorini is not stellar — when at a hotel or restaurant, throw any used toilet paper in the waste basket rather than flushing it down the toilet to avoid any potentially embarrassing flooding situations.
Olive oil and garlic are staple ingredients in any Santorini restaurant, as are fresh vegetables, meat and seafood. Be sure to sample a variety of dishes, such as hummus, fava, tomato keftedes, grilled octopus and lamb skewers. If you’re in the mood for a lighter meal, try a crisp salad decorated with fried calamari and feta cheese. Pair your meal with the house wine to get a taste of the different varietals produced in the region. And of course you should save some room for sweet, creamy gelato at the end of any (or every!) meal — Lolita’s in Oia and Il Gelato D’Oro in Fira are both known for their cool, tasty treats.
Many travelers suggest avoiding the tourist-heavy restaurants along the beach in favor of a family-owned taverna along smaller side streets in Fira, Oia or Kamari. Where you’re spending the day will likely dictate where you grab a bite to eat, but you can find everything from quick gyros to casual eateries to upscale restaurants throughout Santorini. Head to Restaurant 1800 in Oia for fine dining and expertly presented Mediterranean cuisine. If you can, snag a table on the roof to enjoy sweeping views of the island’s cliffs. In Fira, travelers say Taverna Nikolas is a must-visit thanks to its affordable prices and authentic Greek menu, including dishes like tomato keftedes (deep-fried patties of tomatoes, onions, flour and herbs), cuttlefish in wine sauce, souvlaki and baklava. Almira Restaurant, in Kamari, is another spot that earns high marks from recent visitors thanks to its beachside location and variety of food options. When you tire from Greek food, Italian eatery Al Fresco (in Kamari) and Ginger Sushi Lounge (in Fira) are good alternatives.