Santorini on Film - A Wholly Un-Researched Guide for the Impulsive Traveller

A soft pastel sunset over a quiet neighbourhood in Fira, looking south-east. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

A bout of insomnia usually brings with it some blurry-eyed twitter browsing, maybe a bout of existential daydreaming at worst, and a trip to the kitchen for a snack at best. For me, at 3 AM on a January morning, sleeplessness ended in a snap-decision return journey from Canada to Santorini, Greece.

I’d seen a single Instagram post, and vaguely recalled Santorini was supposed to be that amazingly scenic and romantic destination somewhere in the Aegean ocean? I couldn’t recall exactly; I’d never paid too much attention to prototypical honeymoon destinations - surely you had to present a marriage certificate as a prerequisite to get in? Or maybe there was just one hotel with one good view, and that’s where everyone was posting pictures from? Despite all those reasonable questions to research first, in the middle of the night, nothing mattered aside from how cool it was that all the buildings were painted white, and so I had my credit card out before I could reconsider the logic of flying somewhere based on a stranger’s picture. There was an extra bonus of an exciting layover by flying into and out of Zurich via direct flights on Edelweiss Airlines - I imagined sipping a good morning coffee along the quiet canal in the old city to refresh after a long transatlantic flight. Having breakfast in Switzerland and dinner in Greece was an opportunity that sounded too good to pass up.

Very shortly after securing the plane tickets, I found a very cozy looking Airbnb for the excellent price of $80 CDN per night. Other equally pretty houses across the island were going for easily double to triple that price per night, and never mind hotels that were up into the $400-$600 per night range. As I was staying for 7 nights, my $80 option was booked without much other thought, and with absolutely zero research into the location, or it’s surroundings. All potential worry was cast aside, as my host Giota could not have been a lovelier human being from the start. I’d later learn she and her sister were locals with an extensive list of good recommendations and the friendliest smiles in the morning. 

My affordable, but beautiful, Airbnb in Fira. A semi-private breakfast nook is the perfect place to plan the day. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

Four months would pass in between my 3 AM decision and when I would be on my way to Greece, which if you think about it, is more than enough time for anyone to find out what there is to do on Santorini; how to get around the island, what the weather would be like, and any other details one might need to know. I didn’t think about it. Frankly I almost forgot entirely to think about those things until the plane landed at Thira International Airport in Kamari, some 7 or so kilometres from the main township of Fira, where I was staying. I had opted not to purchase a roaming data plan, instead hoping there would be airport Wifi to rely on for directions - there isn’t. But no fear! Kiosks outside the arrivals section offer a wide variety of transport options.

If you’ve got the bank for it, car rentals can be organized before you ever set foot outside the airport, or your hotel might be sending a chauffeur for you specifically. Many budget-conscious tourists opt not to rent a car, but a 4x4 ATV instead, which is a great option if you don’t mind fearing for your life around every corner. (The local traffic doesn’t care much for the primarily tourist-driven ATVs. Trucks and buses will impose themselves on you without hesitating. Makes for exciting evenings!) Taxis are also parked outside the airport (20€ flat rate into central Fira), but the best travel options for solo travellers are the local public buses or a semi-private charter bus. For roughly 5€ on a charter bus, you can be dropped off at the destination of your choice, while the public bus will bring you to the bus station in Fira, where you can travel to further by getting on a new route. Thanks to this new found bus information, I had quickly found out the first bit of information about the location I had chosen to stay, that Fira was Santorini’s main local travel hub, with most major bus routes going through the city to pick up passengers as the main bus station in the centre of town.

Without a driver’s license, I’d get to know the bus system really well - or as well as one could hope to, because it’s an esoteric dance of a system. Sometimes the busses have signs in the window (in Greek) that mention where they might be going, other times they don’t. Busses impressively squeeze themselves into the tiny parking lot where everyone gathers, and the only reliable way to know which bus goes where is to listen for a quick shout from the ticket agent that tells the crowd where the next bus is going. They don’t shout twice, so you can often jump to the front of the line by being the only person with their ears open. Most people mistake the small kiosk in the parking lot to be a ticket booth, but it’s not, and people will line up to ask questions, which it doesn’t seem to be useful for either. Asking for directions will get you pointed to a printed timetable on the board outside and little else. Tickets are bought after you board the bus, where a worker will walk up and down the centre aisle to exchange tickets; prices range based on the destination, but the furthest trips are no more than around 3.80€ per person, and short ones to the beaches are as low as 1.50€.

A view of the caldera cliffs from the edge of Fira, the main hub of the island. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

After arriving at my Airbnb, Part 2 of my new ’Things I’d Wish I’d Researched Beforehand’ list was the water situation - there is no potable water on the island, but a newer desalination plant supplies clean tap water to most homes through a weekly truck delivery (cool!). As a result, factoring in the cost of bottled water is a good idea if you’re working out a budget for your trip. Large quantities of bottled water are quite cheap, with several gallons going for only 2-3€ per pack - bring a big reusable bottle and fill it up every morning before heading out, and you’ll be set for the day. While you’re out on your first water-finding mission, keep an eye open for your local grocery store as well. You have the option to be picky with this choice, so take it - look for cleanliness and care in where you’re getting your food, ideally something that feels family-owned like the brilliant Mini Anna Market tucked into the front yard of a house. Fresh local produce and bread mixed with cheap water and a wide selection of house-necessities make for an easy stop when you need it. Some groceries closer to tourist hubs are less than compelling, with suspect sights and smells coming from dark corners; better options are worth the walk.

If you are staying in Fira and plan to walk around the city for a bit of a local feel, you’ll be best served by quickly learning your way around the back-alleys. It took a couple of days of close calls walking on the side of the road to understand that all of us tourists were making a mistake; cars and trucks own the road, and frankly don’t care how close they come to you, because you’re on their road. Locals walk along the winding, labyrinthian alleyways that wind alongside most major roadways, as well as work their way up the hills towards the caldera. It’s a more relaxing and safer option than most people use (though do mind the old men on scooters who fly around tight corners), and eventually you’ll feel like you’ve got a secret to lord over all the other tourists who look lost. An excellent bonus to walking these side streets is seeing the amazing gardens that locals keep year-round. Nearly every family has some sort of outdoor gathering space, either for eating or cooking, and the variety in them is only exceeded by the amount of flowers on display - no two gardens are the same, and all of them are beautiful. 

The winding alleyways of Fira provide most of the available shade for the sun-shy. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

Breakfast nooks seem to be a competitive sport on the island, with each neighbourhood trying to outdo the other’s grandeur. (iPhone SE, VSCO A9 Filter)

Small local pathways mean you do have to dodge the occasional bike traffic, but don’t worry, you’ll hear them coming before you see them. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

At this point in the journey, more prepared travellers might have a few ‘Things to Do’ options set up in their notebooks, or at least a guide bookmarked on their phones. I wholeheartedly recommend not doing the smart thing, as it’s a perfect opportunity to head to the beach to work all of that out over a cocktail. There’s no lack of choice in the beach option, but there is a wide variety of what’s on offer, so it’s worth knowing what you’re looking for before going out to find it. There are lots of smaller beaches off this abridged list that might suit tastes, but you’ll need a vehicle to find them.

Personal favourite: Exo Gialos Beach
This tiny township is hard to find, down long winding roads through a sparse countryside. It’s walkable, but dodging the speeding local cars gets slightly tiresome. The trouble getting there is outweighed by the quiet of the area. A single restaurant offers the ambience (their lack of competition increases the chair rental, but it’s worth it), or further down the beach are completely isolated sitting options. If you brought your own entertainment for the day and just want a quiet swim and a nap, this is the beach for you.

Kamari: This is tourist central HQ, with many hotels’ front door literally right on the beachfront walkway. If you want an upscale, well maintained and heavily populated hang out, this is your option. Expect to pay for a chair rental to get a good spot.

Perissa/Perivolos: The longest beach on the island, which gives it huge range in what’s on offer. You can find equally built-up areas as well as more quiet and subdued locales, where beach chair rentals aren’t as prevalent. Easy access to nearby attractions are a bonus, with most people opting to spend the morning at the ruins of Ancient Thera, then walking down to the beach for lunch.

Monolithios: Planes, and lots of them. If you’re trying to focus on your book, bring earplugs.

Red Beach: Almost 100% not worth the trip. It’s cramped, difficult to get to and the water cleanliness is suspect. The cliffs are the draw; see them from a boat, sipping a beer.

Exo Gialos Beach provides the quietest swimming options with a happy medium of restaurant nearby but still a local feel. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

In a search to find locally-endorsed visitor attractions, I stumbled onto a blog run by a guy calling himself ‘Santorini Dave’. He’s compiled a list of the 43 Best Things to Do on the island that I found to be the most compelling and well-considered list our there, most likely because he’s not relying on sponsorship or advertisement for his endorsement. I’d recommend scrolling through to see what catches your eye, because many did that I would not have found otherwise.

The option I’d like to highlight is visiting a local village that rarely sees tourists, like Emporio, Exo Gonia or Pyrgos. On Dave’s recommendation, I chose Emporio for an afternoon of mindless wandering, and ended my visit with a desire to go back. Directly off of the bus stop is a beautiful church that commands the centre of the village, with a view old 14th century fort embattlements in the hills above. Walking through the hidden alleyways towards the ruins brings you through sun-baked cobblestone paths and under large swaths of overhead flowers. Try to find a local restaurant or juice bar and give them your business; they deserve it, and will treat you well. During my stop, I got to chatting with two locals who were interested in where I was from, where I was going and who were also happy to share their stories of the island, and of their lives.

One of them, Elias, was a cheery man who took time out of his day to show me around his unique neighbourhood built into the 14th century castle that once stood nearby. The entire grounds of the castle have been converted into studios and houses that centre around a church, where Elias was proud to say he’d gotten most of his furniture. On the way around the village he’d point out just how many churches there were (“There, another church. And over there, another.”), explaining that before the boom of tourism, most of the islands inhabitants were sailors - when they’d return safely from longer journeys at sea, the custom of the time was to build a church to show thanks. Knowing this, you can often spot tiny shed-like churches in backyards or front gardens and imagine the family history involved. 

Tucked away into shady corners are locals that will treat you like you’re their first customer that day - there’s a good chance you are. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

A local catches the one patch of shade available in the winding pathways through Emporio (iPhone SE, VSCO A9 Filter)

Tiny garden churches dot the landscape across the island, revealing family histories of stories still being told. (iPhone SE, VSCO A9 Filter)

The local houses of Emporio don’t always follow the tourist-driven standard of bare white walls and blue roofs. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

A notable destination for Santorini is Oia (pronounced *ee-ya*), the northernmost town on the island and the definitive location for cruise-tours to send their patrons for a sunset view. Knowing it’s reputation for being crowd-heavy, I avoided visiting for several days, until finally the draw of a place called Atlantis Books became too desirable to pass up. Named one of the Top 10 book stores in the world, this small but impressive local hub for the arts was started as an idea in 2002 by two visitors to Santorini who so loved the community but felt it was missing a literary heart, and has gone on to host festivals, writer residences and as they say, a host of cats and dogs. Visit them and pick up a good book for the beach, to get their excellent house-made guide to Santorini and stationary, or gawk at an original first edition of Alice in Wonderland (valued at +4000€).

While in Oia, it is worth it to stay for the sunset, but plan ahead if you’re averse to rubbing elbows and competing for space. Find a rooftop or cliffside restaurant early and settle in with a good dinner and a glass of Ouzo, then wait for the sky show to start. If you haven’t planned ahead, don’t fret too much, and pick an outdoor spot that seems to have the best local food; you’ll still get an excellent sky, and you’ll have the bragging rights of eating a better meal than the people who chose location over value. Be aware that busses back from Oia do run later than most, but still stop at around 10:20pm, so maybe settle up your bill early and wander around in the evening worry-free. Taxis are slim pickings and get snatched up quickly.

A rooftop restaurant view in Oia, the perfect place to get a few extra minutes of sunset over those who are watching from the ground. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

In all I’ve read about Santorini while on the island and since I’ve left, I have to echo the best piece of advice from the Atlantis Books Guide - there is no sense in pre-planning your days on Santorini if you have ample amount of time to explore. Outside of July and August, the busiest months, most activities and areas are only partially booked and don’t require days of anticipation. Boat tours around the island are plentiful in variety, from public, to semi-private, to “you may as well own the boat” private; go with your gut on which tour is worth the money, as prices range from a 3-hour cheap option to full-day 100-300€ commitments. Day trips to the ruins at Akrotiri are easy and relaxing, with excellent tour guides always ready to take you. The boundless restaurants around every corner all have their own take on local flavours, and are rarely too full to take you. And if all else fails and every one of your plans fall through, buying a Lucky’s Souvlaki and sitting on a bench overlooking the caldera is not a bad option.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing Santorini properly in the 2-3 nights one might get via a cruise or pre-paid European tour. The island is well suited for a comfortable stay of several days or more, with plenty to see and do to fill your time. The true joy of Santorini comes from the unique flavours of the historically local tomato and grape varieties, it’s rich past that has impacted the world both as a site of major volcanic activity and as a a hub of Bronze-Age civilization, and it’s quiet townships that live life on the island for the love of the island.

It’s a truly unique corner of the world that can’t be accurately portrayed through a single Instagram picture, but I’m very glad I scrolled past one at 3am that winter morning.

Sunset from a local Fira back alley, quiet enough to hear the trotting of hooves in the distance of donkeys making the trek back home to farms in the flatlands. (Rolleicord V, Fujicolor 400H)

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