Our third major stop in Greece was the island of Santorini. Yes, it’s touristy, but for good reason. It is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen and experienced. Just thinking about it makes me want to go back immediately!
Also known as Thera or Thira (you will find that many places have multiple names in Greece due to its history of invasions from other cultures), this is the island that you often seen in photos showing blue and white domed buildings perched high up on a cliff. That cliff is the side of Santorini’s famous caldera, which was formed by ancient volcanic eruptions.
Where to stay
Staying at a hotel on the caldera side of the island can be really expensive. Since we didn’t intend on staying in our room that much, and we couldn’t afford it anyway, we stayed on the non-caldera side at a pretty bare-bones hotel. Our hotel bathrooms got progressively worse throughout our trip, and this tiny shower — if you dropped something in here, forget about bending down to pick it up — was no exception. But we didn’t care too much; we were in Santorini!
When it came to getting around, we rented a quad bike. These and scooters were the cheapest options, and since my husband, Rory, was dead-set on driving a four-wheeler around, we got the quad. I was a little scared at first, but as soon as I saw the view of the Aegean Sea with the salty air whipping around me, I was hooked. Not only are these things street legal here, you can basically park it anywhere as long as it’s not in a no-parking zone. And your gas costs, which are considerable here, will be lower. One thing to remember, though: there are few lights on the roads here, so be very careful driving at night.
Eating in Fira
When it came to eating, we had a less-than-ideal experience our first night at a place called Tabasco (well, duh, right?), so after that we didn’t eat much in the capital city of Fira. We did find some good sweets places in Fira, including Svoronos bakery, which carries all kinds of pastries (lots of phyllo and honey to be found here, as well as some savory and Greek date-walnut cake) and cute little ice creams just off the Central Square. There’s also Corner Crepes, where we had a lovely non-Greek breakfast, save for the ubiquitous Frappe coffee, of course. At this point in our trip, about 10 days in, my body was literally rejecting Greek food, and the peach crepe and fruit smoothie I got here offered a nice respite.
We spent days beach-hopping on our trusty quad. There are more sandy beaches here than where we were on the mainland, and three are even named for their sand color: red, white and black. The white beach is the only one that’s not accessible by land, so you’d have to take a boat. Since I get seasick really easily, we didn’t visit the white beach. But we did go to the black beach, which is in the touristy area of Kamari, and the red beach, which requires a bit of hiking on rocks so bring some real shoes. The red beach was pretty impressive and is totally worth a visit. But watch out; the sun makes the sand here incredibly hot!
Perivolos is a large, relaxing beach. Right next door is Perissa, where we found the Magic Bus Gastropub. Owned by Greek American brothers Christos (“Chris”) and Nikos (“Nick”), who split their time between Athens and Santorini, the restaurant/bar/music venue sits at the end of the beach close to the bus stop. It’s funky and homey, and Chris and Nick are super friendly and helpful. I had a burger here (I was still having problems eating Greek food), and it wasn’t half bad.
Traditional Greek food
I asked about traditional Greek food, and Nick was kind enough to point us to Pyrgos, a small village situated high up on a hill that offers great views of the island. That’s where we found Kallisti Tavern and had one of our favorite meals of the trip. I had some traditional Greek greens, or horta, and cabbage rolls stuffed with a beef, pork and rice mixture and topped with lemon sauce and dill. Rory had lamb topped with tomatoes and feta. I felt much better about eating Greek food again after this meal. Also located in Pyrgos is Selene, which is widely regarded as the best restaurant on Santorini and one of the best in all of Greece. It’s pricey, so we didn’t eat here, but we did peek in, and it looked gorgeous. Definitely a white tablecloth place.
For the requisite visit to an ancient site, we visited Akrotiri, a Minoan Bronze Age settlement that was well-preserved in volcanic ash. The Greeks have taken good care of the site; many of the walls and even the pottery remain intact, helped by a cover keeping the elements out (this makes it nice to walk through — no sun!).
After our Akrotiri tour, we were ready to eat. We headed straight down the street, parked just before the beach, and hung a right to the seafood restaurant Melina’s. Sitting directly on the shore, this charming eatery is one of many along the beach here, but we enjoyed our meal — and so did our little cat friend (cats are everywhere in Greece!).
We had some of Santorini’s more traditional dishes, including fava bean puree and tomato fritters (sometimes listed as tomato “balls” on menus), as well as some octopus and whole fish. I liked the fritters the best. Finding fresh fish in Greece is actually hard to do; many times seafood is frozen, and quality can be iffy. We asked our buddy Nick from the Magic Bus Gastropub about this; he blamed it on the abundance of unsuspecting tourists and proprietors’ desire to take advantage of that. We were obviously disappointed to learn this.
We were less disappointed with the view of the sunset from Oia, billed as the best in the world. This experience might have been nicer if there weren’t so many other people who had the same idea (and we weren’t even there during the high season!), but what can you do? There’s a promontory where most people gather to view the sun going down over the Mediterranean Sea, and you’ll need to get here early to snag a spot. We got some nice pics of Oia while we waited, too.
Our favorite restaurant on Santorini was Skala in Oia. We liked it so much we ate here twice! The food is solid, the prices are reasonable and the view can’t be beat. You may even see some donkeys pass by (riding a donkey is how you would traditionally travel up and down the caldera). The spanakopita, moussaka, meatballs and baked feta were all great.
Santorini also has some of the best wineries in Greece, and tastings are readily available. While we didn’t partake, doing so is definitely on my list for next time!