The extraordinary island of Santorini in the Southern Aegean is on the eastern chunk of a collapsed caldera.
Its villages have whitewashed cave houses with blue doors, carved in tiers at the top of menacing dark cliffs.
These west facing settlements like Oia, Fira and Imerovigli enjoy front-row views of one of the world’s most beautiful sunsets and in summer their tavernas fill up long before the sun slips behind Nea Kameni and Therasia in the caldera.
There’s ancient history at Akrotiri, which was abandoned in the 2nd millennium BC before the cataclysmic eruption that blew the ancient island into pieces.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Santorini:
Perched over the northern rim of the caldera is the village of Oia, possibly the most charming on Santorini and the best place to watch the sun go down.
Oia has Santorini’s signature cave houses, bored from the rock and arranged amphitheatre-like in steep rows.
In the 19th century Oia flourished thanks to a fleet of merchant ships that sailed as far as St Petersburg.
The captains of these ships built themselves some of the finest houses in the village, boasting Venetian-inspired architecture and prime views of the caldera.
As well as its ring of restaurant terraces with dreamy vistas, Oia has art galleries, a maritime museum and the ruins of a Byzantine castle at its highest point.
Like many places on Santorini much of the village is carless.
Recommended tour: Traditional Santorini Sightseeing Bus Tour with Oia Sunset
Ancient Akrotiri was encased in volcanic debris by that eruption 3,600 years ago, and many of the houses were preserved above one storey high and frescoes were in superlative condition.
A trove of items have been found intact, like cooking and eating utensils, vases, bath tubs, flower pots, bee hives, granting historians vital insights into the Minoan civilisation.
Now the houses are protected under a roof structure completed in 2012 while all but one fresco and the more valuable artefacts have been moved to the Museum of Prehistoric Thera and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
You’ll traverse the walls on metal footbridges and can see ceramics standing where they were left 3,600 years ago.
Only one piece of gold, and no bodies were discovered in Akrotiri, telling us that the city was evacuated peacefully.
3. Museum of Prehistoric Thera
Many of Akrotiri’s treasures have ended up at this fantastic museum in Fira.
The museum is in four parts, dealing with the geology and volcanic activity on Thera, the history of archaeological digs at Akrotiri, the island’s history up to the late Bronze Age and the golden age of Akrotiri around the 17th century BC. This final section is the bulk of the exhibition and has vivid frescoes (composed with mineral-based paints) and compares them to the equally accomplished pottery painting.
The Blue Monkeys fresco is unbelievably sophisticated considering it was painted as long as 36 centuries ago.
You can delve into the development of the city’s urban plan and its bureaucratic system and examine figurines, jewellery and pottery going back as far as the Neolithic period.
4. Ancient Thera
This settlement was founded in the 9th century BC on a ridge on Mesa Vouno Mountain, long after the cataclysmic eruption and was inhabited for the next 800 years.
At this height you’ll certainly feel closer to the Greek gods.
The ruins were first explored in the 1896 by the German Friedrich Hiller von Gaertringen, and then again twice in the second half of the 20th century.
Hike up the twisting path from the coastal villages of Kamari or Perissa (or catch a taxi) to inspect the vestiges of ancient houses, the agora (main square), the stoa which has rows of Doric columns in place and the Roman-era theatre from the 2nd century AD. Something curious about Thera’s architecture is that grand, public monuments were built with limestone blocks while private houses are composed of smaller, miscellaneous stones.
5. Perissa Beach
Looking at photos of Santorini you’re sure to see this black volcanic sandy beach on the south coast of the island.
The beach and its village lie at the foot of the gargantuan rock, Mesa Vouno, home of Ancient Thera.
From here the beach curls out gently for seven kilometres and has long columns of palm sunshades and sun loungers.
When the sun is shining the sea is perfectly clear and the moderate surf and shallow gradient mean that non-swimmers can hold their own.
On the coastal road tracing the beach are cafes, restaurants, tavernas and watersports centres that spring into life from May to October, and many on the north side have seating right beside the sand.
6. Caldera Boat Tour
Sometimes you’ll have to do the touristy things to get the most out of a destination, and that is the case for cruises around Santorini’s caldera.
Departing from the port just south of Fira, these boats will take you ashore at Nea Kameni, which we’ll talk about next.
At neighbouring Palea Kameni you’ll be free to bathe in the green sulphurous hot spring, a strange experience beneath scorched volcanic rocks.
It’s amazing to think that Therasia on the western rim of the caldera, was once part of the same island as Thera (Ancient Santorini) and here you can stop for a bite to eat and climb the ridge to see Santorini in its entirety.
7. Nea Kameni
Most tourist boats will moor at this island in the middle of the caldera for you to come ashore.
Nea Kameni was born on the back of repeated eruptions of ash and dacite lava, and an early reference to the island was made by the Roman historian Cassius Dio.
It has grown larger after four eruptions in the last 400 years, including two in the 20th century.
Rising to 130 metres at the centre of the island is a crater with the steaming vents on the slope and the scent of sulphur on the air: You’ll take a path through this lunar landscape, decked with red succulent plants in the summer, up to take a tour around the rim and photograph the white houses of Fira and Imerovigli capping Santorini’s black cliffs.
Available tour: Volcanic Islands Cruise with Palea Kameni Hot Springs
On the road from Thera to Oia, Imerovogli is a listed “Traditional Settlement”, which means there are tough guidelines about new development.
Those low, whitewashed Cycladic houses are lined up in a bowl along the rim of the caldera at its highest point.
Many are cave dwellings carved from the cliff.
And if that sounds primitive a lot of these properties are exquisitely decorated boutique hotels.
The name Imerovigli approximately translates to “Day Lookout” and comes from a time when Santorini was under threat from pirates.
If there’s an ideal to come it’s at sunset when the view west over the caldera is something people travel around the world for.
9. Skaros Rock
At Imerovigli you can pick up a walking trail to this conical headland in the caldera.
Skaros Rock was the most important of medieval Santorini’s five Venetian fortified settlements and once had hundreds of houses.
In medieval times Skaros was virtually impregnable, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs.
Its end came in the 17th century when it had to be abandoned after a series of earthquakes caused by the eruption of the Kolumbo volcano underwater.
Its stone was recycled for other buildings, but you can still find faint ruins along the path.
If you’ve got the energy, stay on the stairway.
Some 200 steps down and you can photograph Theoskepasti church, which has a typical bright blue dome and doors.
10. Fira to Oia Hike
With a bit of preparation you can go on the journey of a lifetime on what feels like the edge of the world.
The trail north from Fira to Oia is on the protected rim of the caldera and treats you to scenery that almost defies description.
With the sun beating down in July or August it can take up to half a day to complete the walk, and you’ll need a hat, good walking shoes, snacks and lots of water.
You can take pit stops in Imerovigli and Finikia, but for most of the walk you’ll be alone in an alien landscape, hundreds of metres over the remnant of a volcanic caldera.
If at any point you exhausted, you only have to look to your left at the archipelago or the cliff-top village of Akrotiri to feel energised once more.
11. Wine Tourism
Along with its caldera, ruins and whitewashed Cycladic houses, Santorini’s other calling card is its wine, and there’s a whole directory of wineries to visit across the island.
The Thera Eruption in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC left Santorini’s soils with mineral-rich volcanic ash, solidified lava and pumice stone, which has proved ideal for vines despite the minimal rainfall on the island.
That lack of rain made up for by a high nightly humidity caused by a sea mist.
Santorini is best known for its native white Aidani, Athiri and Assyrtiko grapes, grown on ground-hugging vines to minimise wind damage.
A signature Santorini white will be crisp, very dry and high in minerality, just the ticket for seafood and grilled meat.
At the other end of the spectrum, Vinsanto is a sweet dessert wine made with grapes that have been allowed to dry in the sun after harvest.
Suggested tour: Santorini Wine Roads: Tour of 3 Wineries with a Sommelier
Set away from the edge of the caldera, the picture-perfect village of Megalochori is less frequented by tourists even though it could claim to be Santorini’s wine capital.
There are vineyards all around the village and a couple of wineries to visit within seconds.
The core of Megalochori is a tangle of cobblestone lanes walled by Santorini’s classic whitewashed houses with blue-painted doors and bougainvillea blossoms.
At the very heart of the village is a cosy square with a couple of welcoming tavernas.
The highest village on Santorini, Pyrgos has far-reaching views in all directions.
At the top of the settlement, above the scurrying alleys and passages, is the Kasteli, one of Santorini’s five Venetian castles.
This fortification was an inland retreat from pirates, while the tight alleys below were designed to confuse attackers.
The castle is in ruins, but this only adds to its beauty, while there’s a memorial at the entrance remembering the island’s inhabitants killed in the Second World War.
The scenery around the Church of St Nicholas and the Zannos Melathron Hotel is astounding, and the lofty cafes have terraces where you can watch the sun go down.
14. Profitis Ilias Monastery
Not far south of Pyrgos and above Ancient Thera is the highest point on the island, 565 metres above sea level.
This peak is crowned by the Monastery of Prophet Elias, consecrated in 1712 and built with sturdy buttresses.
There’s nothing to stop seasoned walkers from making the climb on foot for an extra sense of achievement, but the slopes are exposed and it’s a trip best avoided at the height of summer.
The monastery prospered in the 18th century when it owned a ship that traded across the Aegean, and was a school for Greek language and literature in the early 19th century.
You can pop into the chapel and the small gift shop, while the monks hold occasional workshops for shoemaking, bee-keeping, winemaking, printing and making candles.
15. Amoudi Bay
In Oia there’s a stairway with 350 steps leading down to the water at the tiny port of Amoudi Bay.
This is the rugged way to descend to Amoudi Bay, but there’s also a zigzagging road.
At the bottom is a huddle of whitewashed houses.
The main reason people go down is for a fresh perspective of the caldera and Oia from below, but also for the best fish and seafood tavernas on the island, all with the waves lapping near your feet.
Tables are so in demand that you’ll need to book early in summer, and being on the west coast the sunsets once more are a big part of the allure.
And if you can’t bear the thought of tackling those 350 steps to get back up to Oia, there are donkeys waiting to do the legwork for you.