You’ve seen the postcards, but nothing prepares you for the raw intensity and devastating beauty of Santorini. The vista of dramatic caldera cliffs rearing from the Aegean and sugar cube houses dribbling seawards like gravity-defying diamonds make Santorini the can-can dancer of the Cyclades. She may seem all jazz hands and high kicks, but behind the sparkle, Instagram posts and cruise ships hides a softer, sweet side.
As Lefteris Karipidis, of bespoke guiding company Blue Shades of Greece, says: “There’s more here than just sunsets, Santorini is bursting with surprises.” Stay longer, dig deeper and get off the beaten track – that’s the message from locals this summer. Here’s how to do it.
Hidden sunset spots
There’s no denying the technicolour display of sunset from Oia, which clings to the caldera on the north of the island, is stupendous. But what the brochures don’t convey about the famed Oia Castle viewpoint is the Instagrammers twirling in ball gowns, jostling with an army of selfie sticks and the taxi jam as visitors converge on the exact same spot, at the exact same time, each day.
The good news is that the sun sets everywhere, not just at Oia Castle. A top local tip is to start at the castle and then descend the 300 steps for an early dinner at Ammoudi Fish Tavern below, blissfully alone as the sky morphs from dazzling to darkness.
Alternatively, 10km (6.2 miles) further south, clifftop Imerovigli boasts Oia as the backdrop bonus – book into the discrete Five Senses restaurant to sunset-gape in style. Keep driving further south, for 25 minutes, until hitting the island’s final southwestern tip, Akrotiri Lighthouse. Climb the hill behind the lighthouse for a sunset-lighthouse double whammy tableau, or catch sunset serenity at Profitis Ilias Monastery, the island’s highest point at 567m.
Live like village people
Away from the dramatic cliff edges, the island’s inland villages pack a charming punch. Pyrgos, a labyrinth of mountaintop lanes riddled with tunnels below (for pirate escaping residents), is where to find the rhythm of island life. Religion remains to be an important part of Greek culture, evident in the top-heavy ratio of churches in Pyrgos alone (48 to 912 inhabitants), most privately owned and some as small as a doorway. The capital Fira, 5km (three miles) away, seems worlds apart when indulging in the joys of wandering Pyrgos’ quiet, paved alleys, catching accounts of quotidian life and pausing at Franco’s Café to drink up a cocktail with added birds-eye vistas.
Inspired? Then continue on to its neighbour Megalochori, five minutes down the road. If the busy coastal villages sport the sound of a buzzing hive, Pyrgos a gentle drum stroke, then Megalochori is a whispering heartbeat.
“This is where I come to hear the birds sing”, says Lefteris of his favourite spot on the island, a village oasis in the middle of the island that’s ablaze with bougainvillea hues. It’s also semi-flat, an absolute rarity in Santorini, with gems like the recently opened wine bar/gallery/restaurant Alisachni. Peruse art before enjoying a Greek pie stuffed with local greens, or signature pasta with veal tail chaser.
As owner Alexandros Andrianopoulos says: “We love how peaceful it is here. Also, we’ve tried to keep the buildings original as the previous generation gifted them to us.” Thus, architecture is the protagonist in Santorini – expect a brimming portfolio of cave houses, neoclassical mansions, blue domes, artistic bell towers, picturesque squares and local taverns like delicious Feggera in Megalochori.
Visit the south side
“For many years Santorini was just the caldera. You could divide the island between north and south. Last year people started staying longer instead of island hopping, they’re finally discovering the island’s real charm,” says George Laounaros, the General Manager of Istoria hotel in Perivolos – he stresses Santorini is no longer a day-trip destination, useful for accessing other Greek islands because of its well-connected port, instead holidaymakers are prolonging their trips and visiting new areas.
While the razzle-dazzle drenched main towns of Oia, Imervogli, Firostefani and Fira are all concentrated in the northern half of the island by the caldera, Istoria is the first to start a luxury operation in the overlooked south, home to the black and red sand beaches.
It’s the ultimate base boasting 12 suites, (including renovated stables where the former owner kept horses) and while the vibe is barefoot luxe, the black slate pool with a sunken bar is drop dead glamour. Across the road is the black-sand Perivolos Beach, beachside horse riding with Experience Horse Riding is a splash away and (drumroll) Akrotiri, “the Pompeii of the Aegean.”
Like Pompeii, this well-groomed archaeological site located undercover with walkways has been preserved by a volcanic eruption, but makes 600BC Pompeii look like a teenager. Akrotiri is no secret, but the 1500BC two- and three-storey houses featuring balconies, underfloor heating, running water and indoor toilets are a must-see.
Push the boat out (literally) with Renieris Santorini Sailing Centre. Nose onto a private mooring by volcanic Palea Kameni island – smack bang in the middle of the caldera and a short sail from Ammoudi Bay below Oia, or Vlychada Marina in the very south – and eat fresh fish cooked on the deck for an exclusive Poseidon-inspired adventure.
If feeling intrepid, sail to Thirasia, the island facing Santorini on the opposite side of the caldera, with few inhabitants and negligible tourism, so far from the tourist track most don’t even know it exists.
Eat, drink and be merry in peace
There’s no shortage of places to dine and high-end restaurants on Santorini, like the Lycabettus at Adronis Luxury Suites in Oia, which twinkles like a cliff teetering firefly at night. But for an authentic local gastronomic experience, beeline for the casual Lefkes terrace, hidden in tiny, multi-hued Finikia within walking distance of bustling Oia. It’s the place to gorge on island specialities like sun-dried cherry tomatoes, fava beans, capers and white aubergine (don’t miss their moussaka croquettes, with grain-coated feta mousse).
Wash it all down with a volcanic soil produced Aidini, Assyrtiko and Athiri (whites), or Mandilaria and Mavrotragano (red) wine. Viticulture has existed for thousands of years on Santorini and you can taste rare wine varieties from Greek antiquity in the Homeric Wine Café at Symposion, the Music and Mythology Cultural Centre in Megalochori. Also take a tipple at organic Hatzidakis Winery tucked away in Pyrgos, family-run Gavalas also in Megalochori or at Domaine Sigalas for their signature Assyrtiko.