Highlights of Santorini
Fira, also named Thira, is the capital of Santorini. It is located in the middle of the Caldera about 260 meters above sea level. It is a lovely white washed town with breathtaking views of the rest of the Caldera and the three islands of Nea Kaimeni, Thirasia and Palai Kameini.
The town, which was devastated by an earthquake in 1956, has been rebuilt with layers of terraces that go into caves in the volcanic cliffs. It has many lovely, blue-domed churches and barrel-roofed cave houses. The terraces are packed with restaurants, bars, and shops. The shops offer a good blend of touristy shops, art galleries, smart jewellers and chic boutiques.
We recommend you start at Theotokopoulou Square and then take a few hours just to wander around all the enchanting cobbled streets which are largely pedestrianized. Part of the charm is feeling lost on occasion, as the streets are like a labyrinth, but all you need to do is head towards the coast or Caldera to get your bearings again.
Leaving from the square will also lead you to the most spectacular street of Fira, Agiou Mina which runs south along the edge of the caldera to the 18th Century church of Agios Minas. This is one of the iconic land marks of Santorini with its blue dome and white tower.
The tiny port of Skala Firon is located 250 meters below Fira. It is connected by a cable car or by mule transport. Or if you are feeling very energetic; there are 580 steps from the bottom to the top. The town of Fira can occasionally be very busy as the cruise ships anchor off shore and passengers are transported into the cable car station bringing a lot of people into the centre. Early evening is a great time to wander around as, by then, it is just guests and residents of the island.
For anyone interested in history, there are a few very interesting museums to visit including the Archaeological Museum, a Prehistoric Museum and a beautiful 17th century mansion which houses the Cultural Centre Gyzi Hall.
Oia is the second largest town in Santorini. It is located on the north western tip of the island and 11 kilometres (7 miles) from Fira. It is possible to walk between the two along a stunning pedestrianised pathway which runs the whole way along the coast. The walk take approximately 2.5 hours and we highly recommend our guests of Exceptional Villas do this if they fancy some exercise and it is not too hot. Oia, which is pronounced locally as eea, is stunningly beautiful and is full of pedestrianised cobbled stone streets, quaint churches, art galleries, interesting shops, designer boutiques and a fabulous selection of excellent restaurants and bars.
The main street of Oia divides into two main regions. The first region overlooks the Caldera with breathtaking views and impressive cave buildings. The second region which is higher up is where you will find the majestic houses which were originally the Captain and ship owners houses. One of the redeeming features of Oia are the churches. There are more than 60 of them dotted around the town.
If you are not staying in Oia we highly recommend you visit at least once as this is where you will see the most spectacular sunsets on the island. About an hour before sunset, you will see many people arriving to choose the best spot. Santorini celebrates each daily sunset with great pomp and ceremony. Visitors and locals rejoice with a fabulous round of applause and clinking of glasses as the sun sinks into the sea.
Just below Oia is the lovely fishing village of AMMOUDI. There is a very nice stone pathway which winds its way down 238 slightly inclined steps to reach the bottom. Once you get there, there is an excellent selection of waterfront restaurants to choose from each offering the freshest of fish just off the boat. Our favourite of these restaurants is the Ammoudi Fish Tavern. Another recommendation of ours in Ammoudi is Dimitris where you will get more traditional Greek food. If you are fit and feel like some exercise after dinner, it is possible to walk back up. Otherwise, the restaurant can call a taxi. It is also possible to park your car close to the village if you decide to drive to Ammoudi rather than walk. During the day time, there are generally mules available to bring you back up.
Oia has a very interesting history and the old part of the town has been a preserved settlement since 1976. At the edge of town there is the remains of a Byzantine castle. They are incredible with a small section which is accessible to the public. The views from the ruins are amazing and it is also a great spot to watch the sunset.
Imerovigli is located beside Fira and it is possible to walk very easily between the two via a pedestrianised walkway. Several of our best villas in Santorini are located here including two of our client’s favourite which are Villa Gaia and Villa Erossea. The views from everywhere in Imerovigli are incredible. There is also a good selection of excellent restaurants in the area including Anogi Restaurant which is located in the central square of the town and Aegeon Restaurant which is right beside Villa Gaia and offers really good local Greek food.
Pyrgos is a stunning village in Santorini which is located 4.9 kilometres south of Fira. It is one of the islands most popular villages and we highly recommend a visit. It is also the highest point in Santorini and consequently has absolutely breathtaking views of the whole island. In 1995, Pyrgos was declared a protected settlement by the Greek government. In the 1800’s it was reputed to have served as Santorini’s capital.
Because of its height, Pyrgos was originally one of the main fortress settlements of the Cyclades. On the hilltop at the highest point you will find the ruins of Kasteli Castle. Close to the entrance of the castle, there is a memorial to those that died from Santorini during the Second World War.
The village itself is very pretty with nice winding paths, white washed houses, art galleries, vineyards and many churches. It also is one of the best spots in Santorini to enjoy the amazing sunsets.
Whilst you are visiting the village, it is worth taking a walk from the main square to the mansion of Zannos Melathron. When you get there, you will find two really lovely cafes to enjoy refreshments, a light bite of food or a cocktail.
Megalochri is located 5.8 kilometres south of Fira and is a much quieter area. It has a more traditional village feel with a village square and a large white church. Megalochri is one of the most serene places in Santorini and also less well known than its larger counterparts. There are also a handful of tavernas, artists' studios and a few chic boutique style jewellery shops.
Megalochri is also famous for the fact that there are two excellent wineries located here. They are called Boutari and Gavalas and if you like wine, then it is worth tasting some of the local offerings. Like all the Caldera villages and towns, the scenery and views are breathtaking.
Ancient Thera is located on a rocky headland of Mesa Vouno 370 meters (1215 feet) above sea level on the south east coast of Santorini. It was originally built by Dorian Colonists in the 8th century BC. It served from this period until the end of ancient times as the administration and religious centre for Thera.
A visit to Santorini would not be complete without going to Ancient Thera. Today it is possible to wander around the ancient monuments which have been preserved from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The most interesting of these buildings include the Agora (or market), the Sanctuary of Artemis, the Royal Arcade and the Temple of Dionysos. In addition there are many remains of private houses, a Christian Basilica, a theatre and many examples of various pots, pottery and storage vessels that they used at the time. On one particular wall, we even found some relief carvings of an eagle, a lion, a dolphin and a phallus symbolizing the gods of Zeus.
The Excavations at Arkotiri
The Excavations at Arkotiri are one of the most impressive and important prehistoric settlements in Greece. The first inhabitants of Akrotiri date back to the late Neolithic times which were during the 4th millennium BC. The third millennium BC saw the settlement expanding considerably until it gradually expanded into one of the main ports and urban areas in Greece.
The settlement today covers approximately 50 acres and is covered with a roof to help preserve this amazing piece of history which was only discovered in the second half of the nineteenth century. Up until this point the site had been buried under tonnes of volcanic ash. The first evidence of Akrotiri appearing was following the earthquake of 1866 when some pots were unearthed. But the main excavation did not take place until 1967 at which point the whole city was unearthed.
The highlight of the excavations was the uncovering of some frescoes which are now exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
Today it is possible to still see some 16th century BC houses, some of which are two and three stories high. There are also a lot of intact or near intact Pithoi which are huge ceramic pots used during that time for storage and cooking. There are several flyover bridges which allow visitors to get a really good feel for the town and the layout. The other highlight of Akrotiri is the near perfect fresco of two boys boxing.
The top of Skaros Rock is without a doubt one of the most impressive spots in Santorini. The only way to get there is to descend down from Imerovigli past the beautiful Grace Hotel and the stunning church of Agios Georgios and then climb up to the rock. Most of the trip is relatively simple but the last 100 meters is pretty much rock climbing and not for the faint hearted. But if you are not afraid of heights, then it is a trip of a lifetime.
The silence, the beauty, and the complete spirituality of the place will take your breath away. So much so, that you will feel a need not to talk and just be silent and take everything in.
The history of Skaros Rock is as interesting as it is beautiful. It was originally built as a fortress or Kasteli in the 15th century to protect the island from Pirate attacks. There were 5 of these Kasteli’s built on Santorini but the one at Skaros Rock was the most important of them.
At one point, Skaros Rock was pretty densely populated and it was the most sought after place on the island to live by the Venetian aristocracy. When you hike up, you can see remains of these buildings along the way.
Unfortunately the Rock suffered quite a bit from Earthquakes over the years and gradually all the residents moved to safer places like Fira and Oia.
One of the highlights of the hike is the hidden church which is located on the coast on the other side of the Rock.