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Santorini is one of the best known Greek islands and a popular holiday destination. It belongs to the Cyclades archipelago and if it wasn’t for the volcano it would have the classic Cycladic look of barren, oregano-clad hills and picturesque whitewashed villages. But an ancient volcanic eruption transformed it into something completely different. The center of the island collapsed creating large circular caldera connected to the sea by multiple openings and lined by impressive black cliffs. Many more eruptions followed through the centuries reshaping the island and its smaller neighbors into its today’s form.
Probably the most famous eruption of the “modern” history of Santorini took place some 3600 years ago and the following tsunami is believed to cause the fall of Minoan civilization in Crete. But it may not be the only civilization destroyed by the powerful volcano. Santorini is considered to be one of the possible locations of the mythical city of Atlantis sunken during the ancient times by unknown natural disaster. True or not, this legend definitely adds to the uniqueness of the island.
Santorini has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. But as it usually goes in these cases, my first visit was a disappointment. Even in September, it was just too busy and loud for me. The narrow streets of Fira were filled with tourists and cheap souvenirs and don’t even get me started on our sunset experience in Oia. Nevertheless, I could still see the magic underneath all the commerce and ruthless development and decided to give it another chance some better time. This year I finally managed to spend a weekend in Santorini in winter, to be exact in the beginning of February. And it was all I was hoping for!
Why it is a good idea to visit Santorini in winter (and why it is not)
+ It’s quiet. As it was said before, during the summer, Santorini turns in to a bustling holiday hotspot overflowing with tourists and all things related. This is great for those looking for lively holiday places with busy nightlife and a lot of entertainment. But the dreamers among us will appreciate the calmness of the winter months when you can spend hours wandering undisturbed through the deserted alleys or sea gazing across the Aegean.
+ It’s cheaper. From fights to accommodation and other fees everything is cheaper outside the main season. Plus, during the winter, every first Sunday of the month offers free entrance to all the museums and archeologic sites across Greece which can lead to some significant savings.
+ It makes for better photos…sometimes. How many times have you seen a photo of the whitewashed houses of Santorini against the bright blue sky? Boring, right. But add stormy skies, heavy textured clouds or the very rare sprinkle of snow and suddenly you have a picture that stands out!
– It’s quiet. It’s REALLY quiet. To be completely honest, I didn’t expect it to be this quiet! Most of the hotels and shops were shut down completely and there were very few other tourists wandering through the deserted streets. The buses didn’t run very often or until late at night and the excursions were limited. It was great for me but if you are looking for at least little bit of life postpone the visit for one or two months (we went the first weekend of February).
– Construction works. I come to understand that construction works are not allowed during the main season. Therefore, all the building and fixing must be done in winter. This means that even though your view won’t be blocked by fellow tourists it will be obscured to some point by building material and debris. But the real problem was the construction workers. I’ve never heard so much whistling and awkward coffee invitations in my life and it was annoying at times. So, if you travel as a solo female or with girlfriends be prepared for a lot of unwanted attention.
– The weather. It can go both ways this time of the year. Generally, the winters in southern Greece are mild with a lot of sunshine. But we get rain and wind, too, and some days are grey, dull and melancholic. We had both during our weekend and it was fun to watch the view changing from misty and pale in the morning to bright and colorful around the sunset. However, spending a full rainy weekend on the island wouldn’t be a very cheerful experience.
Getting from Athens to Santorini
With an international airport and busy port, Santorini is easy to reach. Usually, I choose the much slower and often more expensive ferries to travel to the Greek islands. Don’t ask me why, there is just something more romantic about the sea voyage.
However, for weekend getaway flying is a much better option. The flight from Athens takes only half an hour and with good weather, it is an amazing experience to glide above the tiny islands sprinkled across the Aegean sea. It’s cheap enough, too. We booked our flight one month in advance and paid just little over 40 euros for a return ticket (Rayan Air). But don’t expect any refreshment or large hand luggage for this price. Event the boarding pass must be printed out in advance in order to avoid additional costs at the airport.
The cheapest way to get around Santorini are the KTEL buses. They connect Fira with the main villages of the island and with the airport. We paid 1.80 for the airport ticket (15 min.) a 2.00 for the ride to Akrotiri (20 min.). From our experience, the buses run on time even if not very often. The timetable is available on KTEL Santorini website HERE.
The only problem is getting from Oia back to Fira after watching the famous sunset. This is the most popular tourist activity in Santorini but the last bus back to Fira leaves Oia at 17:30, which is way too early. Apparently, there is some kind of minibus providing the transportation or a taxi, but check that out beforehand to avoid surprises. We didn’t and ended up hitchhiking. It was easy and fast but I probably wouldn’t do it if I was traveling solo just to be safe.
Where to stay in Santorini
When looking for accommodation in Santorini keep in mind that it can either be on the beach or near the caldera, never both. Therefore, if you are after the typical summer holidays with days full of swimming and sunbathing the beach side is the best option. For anything else, the towns lining Santorini’s caldera are the way to go.
Fira, the capital of Santorini, is generally cheaper for accommodation and offers enough shops, taverns, cafes, and bars to cover all your needs. Thanks to its location in the middle of the island it is also a great base for any further explorations. Oia, on the other hand, is unbelievably charming and romantic. Perched on the northern tip of the island it is one of the prettiest villages I’ve ever seen and a perfect spot for a romantic getaway.
A rare place with both caldera views and a beach is Akrotiri on the southern cape of Santorini. It’s a quiet village, though, so don’t expect wild nightlife or upscale shopping.
We stayed in a small hotel called San Giorgio in the center of Fira. It was one of the cheapest options in Fira but very nice and cozy for the price tag. It didn’t include breakfast, though. This wouldn’t be a big deal during the summer and I thought we will just buy coffee and τυρόπιτα on the go. But there weren’t many shops open especially early in the morning causing some serious caffeine withdrawals during our visit to Akrotiri.
Day 1 – Hiking the Caldera trail from Fira to Oia
The hiking trail from Fira to Oia was my main motivation for booking our winter trip to Santorini. It seemed like the perfect way to explore the most picturesque villages of the island while taking in the striking views of Santorini’s caldera. In reality, it was even better then I imagined and I highly recommend it to anyone who has a couple of hours in Santorini to spare.
The hike has about 10 kilometers in length and is not particularly challenging. Well, it wasn’t during the winter but in the summer heat, it must be a completely different story. It starts from the main square of Fira and passes the through the villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli (with a short detour to Skaros Rock). From here the cobbled streets turn into a dirt road and later become a narrow but comfortable path. It follows the rim of the caldera until it finally drops down to Oia.
Some people skip the detour to Skaros Rock or end the walk at Imerovigli omitting the last section before Oia altogether. Nevertheless, those two places were the highlights of our trip for me and I cannot recommend missing them. So, just buckle down and keep walking, I promise you will not regret it! The second section of the hike just before Oia may seem a bit dangerous from the distance as the path is not obvious on the dark sheer rock face. But the trail was comfortable all the way till Oia and there wasn’t a single place where I would feel scared or light-headed from the hight.
The whole walk is supposed to take 2 – 3 hours based on most resources I found. That being said it took us almost the whole day to complete. There is just too much to see and if you are a passionate photographer like me you will have a hard time putting the camera down. We arrived in Oia with just enough time for a tea break before heading for the world famous sunset spectacle.
What is so special about this sunset, you may think. Sunsets are basically the same all around the world. And you are probably right. But here, it is not about what’s happening on the horizon, it’s about the village itself. Oia is located exactly opposite the setting sun and it is beyond magical to watch the otherwise snow-white facades turn golden and pink with the last sunrays. So don’t just stand there with the fellow travelers pointing their cameras to the sun (it is not good for the camera anyway). Instead, wander through the charming alleys discovering better yet view with every step and turn.
For more info about the walk from Fira to Oia check out THIS post!
Day 2 – Prehistoric city of Akrotiri
Our second day in Santorini was dedicated to learning a bit of history of this unusual island and its lost civilization. And where better to begin then in the prehistoric settlement at Akrotiri. The town was abandoned by its inhabitants after a large earthquake and covered by mud and volcanic ashes a few days later during the most famous eruption of Santorini’s volcano in 1627 BC. This probably wasn’t the best news for Akrotiri’s then residents but was met with delight when discovered by the Greek archaeologists in the 60′.
Thanks to the disastrous eruption the whole city has been preserved under layers of ashes and kept almost intact for centuries. Even after 50 years of ongoing excavations only a small section of the site has been uncovered. However, the continuous flow of artifacts uncovered at the site already allows a peek into the way of life and the structure of society in the ancient city. But the most famous and astonishing founds from Akrotiri are the elaborated frescos, still bright and colorful even after all those years. They can be seen in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira and are worth the additional entrance fee.
Akrotiri is connected with Fira by regular KTEL buses. The bus ticket cost us 2 euros and the ride took us just about 15 – 20 minutes (the return journey is a little bit longer because the bus makes a detour to Perissa). The bus will drop you right in front of the entrance to the archaeological site and the bus driver will scream the stop names along the way so no need to worry of getting off somewhere else.
There is an entrance fee of 12 euros for just Akrotiri or 14 euros for a 4-day ticket to all the museums and archaeological sites in Santorini. The package would be a better choice as there is a lot to see and the Museum of Prehistoric Thera is a must. However, during the winter the best option is to plan your winter visit on the first Sunday of a month when entrance is completely free.
The archaeological site itself is covered by a large, air-conditioned, shed-like structure protecting the still uncovered artifacts from the natural elements. There are elevated wooden paths circling the excavations and multiple viewing platforms. Another route passes through the actual site allowing a closer look inside the buildings, but unfortunately, this section is closed during the low season.
Another thing missing during the winter was an option for a guided tour. I’m usually not one for guided anything but for some reason, I found this place unusually intriguing and would love to get more insight. Especially when the information tables scattered around the site were scarce and not very comprehensive. Thankfully, we learned a lot more about Akrotiri and the volcanic activities that ensured its preservation in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira.
Things to see around Akrotiri
It took us no more than 45 minutes to get through the excavation site and with some time to spare before heading back to Fira we decided to explore Akrotiri’s surroundings. The coast is only minutes away from the site and even though there is not much of a beach it was a nice place for a walk. There are few taverns lining they dark rocky shore, closed during the winter of course and serving only as an interesting background for our photos.
Following the asphalt road ( and a trail later on) further to the south for another 1 – 2 kilometers you would reach the famous Red Beach. We didn’t this time and instead walked back up towards the village of Akrotiri. There is a marked path connecting Akrotiri with the archaeological site passing through a dry riverbed and the climb doesn’t take more than 15 minutes. To be honest, there is not much to see in the village itself. It has few taverns (guess what, they were closed!) and small Venetian castle perched on a hillock in the center.
But continuing through to the rim of the caldera amazing views open up once again. From here you can see as far as Fira and Oia on the opposite side of the island and the volcano with Thirassia in the background across the sea. And just underneath lies the Caldera Beach (or Balos Beach – not to be confused with the one in Crete), the only beach in Santorini with caldera view.
Want to read more about Akrotiri?
HERE is a charming article about Mr. Christos Doumas, a Greek archaeologist, who devoted most of his life to the excavation of Akrotiri. And for some dry facts about the archaeological site from the Ministry of Culture website click HERE
All in all, Santorini in the beginning of February was exactly what I expected – quiet, moody and very beautiful. And being just 30 minutes flight away from Athens it would be a shame not to come and enjoy its charms before the summer panic breaks out!