With its dramatic volcanic setting, Santorini is one of the more popular of all the Greek islands. Picturesque villages perched on the edge of the caldera offer much sought after settings for stunning sunsets. Santorini is a dream destination for couples looking for romantic getaways. Popular wisdom suggests that Santorini is not the island for a family holiday. Last October Sarah ignored this advice and explored the island and its history with her family of four.
The island of Santorini in the South Aegean is renowned for being the most photogenic of the Greek Islands. The stunning sunsets and traditional white villages clinging to the sides of a cliff are a huge draw for the millions of visitors it receives each year and its popularity with the Instagram generation cannot be understated, with there being at least 15 million photos posted of people gazing wistfully at a sunset or posing in their finest threads in front of a blue domed church or a whitewashed windmill. Cruise ships arrive daily and crowds of people stroll through the coastal villages in search of delicious Greek food and the perfect sunset.
What is less well known about the island is its impressive array of archaeological and historical sites, and it is worthy of a visit for that reason alone. It is home to Akrotiri, known as ‘the Greek Pompeii’ a Minoan Bronze Age settlement which was destroyed by a volcano in the 16th Century BC and buried in volcanic ash which helped to preserve it. Also for the cultural traveller, the island boasts cathedrals, churches, museums, monasteries, art galleries, Hellenic ruins and several hiking trails. Although the standard travel guidance is that Santorini is no place for children, as a keen historical traveller I decided to ignore the advice, setting off last October with my family of husband and two children aged 13 and 10. We had all loved Pompeii the previous year and I could see no reason why they couldn’t add Akrotiri to their historical knowledge base – comparisons could be drawn, history could be learned. Besides, as an enthusiastic amateur photographer, I am a pushover for a good sunset, and I wasn’t going to let having children prevent me from visiting the island, before it has to start restricting visitor numbers (recent news coverage points to the massive tourist overcrowding of the island, its infrastructure unable to cope, its popularity threatening to destroy it).
One of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean, over the years Santorini has been conquered by the Phoenicians, Dorians, Spartans, Venetians (who named it Santa Irini after a catholic church) and Ottomans, finally becoming part of Greece in 1830. It was once one big round island (the island was called Stongili in ancient times which means round) but an eruption around 1630 BC exploded with such force that the island collapsed in on itself and formed a large caldera that filled with seawater. The land that remained above water formed three islands, the largest of which is Santorini.
That eruption is said to be one of the largest ever and possibly the cause of the devastation of the Minoan civilisation on Crete. 300 years ago, two new islands formed in the caldera caused by more eruptions and are the most recent landmasses on earth. Still active, the last eruption occurred in 1950. In 1956 there was a huge earthquake causing most of the residents to leave the island, but in the 1970s tourism reached the island and it rapidly increased in popularity. Thanks to strict land zoning laws, there were serious restrictions on development, so there are no high rises here to obstruct the views and spoil the beauty.
The traditional village of Oia.
The island truly is beautiful. It feels very high up, with dramatic rugged red and black cliffs supporting white washed villages which tumble down the sides into the sea. The ubiquitous domed churches and orthodox bell towers rise above the haphazard houses, swathes of bougainvillea surprise you around narrow corners; wild cats roam free, shops display Greek key silver jewellery, quirky souvenirs and assorted items made from Mediterranean herbs.
Wander around early enough and you will find black-clad locals attending the cathedral or sweeping their porches. The navy blue sea dominates the view, from on high looking as still as a pond and reflecting back those astonishing sunsets. The sky is expansive and colourful, at dawn the subtle shades of pink and purple bathe the island in a misty ethereal tint before the brilliant white light of the day begins. At dusk, the shades of yellow, oranges and reds envelop the rows of tourists all watching from the cliff tops. In short, this is a beautiful island.
It’s not just the tourists that appreciate a good sunset.
Although the main industry here is tourism, it seems to attract a very different type of tourist to most of the rest beaches of the Mediterranean. This is not the place for stag or hen dos, there are no gangs of heavy drinking young adults roaming the streets. Instead, Santorini attracts many couples looking for a romantic getaway (expect to see several bended knee proposals in sunsets), cruise ship passengers and the instagram generation. These are the most fascinating to watch – beautifully dressed, they run from beautiful view to beautiful building, stopping for a quick pose with their back to the camera looking coquettishly or mystically over their shoulder, before charging off to the next vista.
Getting To Santorini
I deliberately chose to go out of the main summer season, thinking it would be less crowded as well as less hot, making it far easier for travelling and getting around. Queuing for an eternity is not compatible with impatient youngsters, and they can moan incessantly in the heat. It took a while to find direct flights out of season, but lastminute.com eventually came up trumps. If you read the reviews of Santorini airport on TripAdvisor, you would never want to go there. For us, however, there were no queues, no long waits or third world conditions, and in fact flights arrived and left early with barely any waiting around or discomfort.
For those who don’t want to stay a full week and Santorini is a port of call on an island hopping schedule, or a day trip from another island, there are plenty of boat trips on offer that will take you there. There are ferries from Athens to Santorini, and from Santorini returning to Athens daily, throughout the year. Check out the timetables, and book tickets through Ferries in Greece
Day Trips to Santorini
Where to Stay in Santorini with a family
The most beautiful and famous of all the villages on the island is Oia (pronounced ear) which is on the north westernmost tip of the island. It is here that people line the walls every evening to await the sunset, and it is here where you find the majority of the oft-photographed hotels with their cliff side swimming pools, all overlooking the sunset. For all its beauty however, Oia is packed with tourists, expensive restaurants and little else to retain the attention of small people for long. The buses in and out are always overflowing, even out of peak season people miss the bus they want as it is too full, making it harder to get around the rest of the island from here. Perfect perhaps for couples who just want to chill out in the beauty of the place, dine out regularly and pootle around. It’s less ideal for families or people with a keen interest in exploring the whole island and all of its historical wonders.
Oia as seen from the fort.
I chose Fira as the best place to be based, and I have to say that I was proved right once we had got there. Fira is the capital of the island with a wide choice of shops, restaurants and hotels. It is also home to two cathedrals and most of the museums, as well as the central hub bus station. It has a beautiful old port, so many little roads to explore and its views are (in my opinion) far superior to those of Oia. There are other resorts on the island, such as Persissa, which have beaches covered in sun loungers and a strip of bars, but they provide for a different type of holiday and I would suggest are more for sun worshipers rather than those seeking to explore and delve into the history and archaeology of the island.
There are limited self-catering options on the island, and many hotels won’t allow children to stay (which is fair enough as they can be noisy and annoying little rogues at times), but I persevered and on booking.com I found a truly excellent hotel on a quiet street behind the Metropolitan cathedral just two minutes from the bus station, with stunning views, a pool (always a must when travelling with children) and huge breakfasts. As an early riser, I was up every morning watching the pale pinks of the sunrise slowly warm up the island. I had the cliffs and views to myself and ventured on some fabulous walks enjoying the serenity and cawing rooks before my fellow tourists awoke and changed the atmosphere of the island entirely.
Sunrise over the caldera-Fira.
Historical Sites to Visit in Santorini
Archaeological Site of Akrotiri
Akrotiri- the vertical columns support the modern day roof over the archaeological site.
Akrotiri is the jewel in the crown of Santorini’s historical sites. Akrotiri is a Minoan Bronze Age settlement, although its roots can be traced back to the 5th millennium BC. The town grew in size and prosperity, and the ruins have provided evidence of frescoes, Linear A writing, pottery, 3 storey houses, an impressive drainage system and a thriving copper industry. Destroyed by the volcano in the 16th Century BC and buried in the volcanic ash which helped to preserve it, the similarities to Pompeii are conspicuous. The main difference is that the town had already been evacuated before the eruption, probably due to earlier earthquakes, so there are no plaster casts of bodies here.
Walkways around the archaeological site, but no information boards to read.
The site itself is 20ha and is under cover in one huge building, with walkways constructed over much of it. Having children with us, we opted not to take the tour, as we could see others on a tour and although it looked interesting for adults, from a child’s point of view it looked just like a lesson, with people sitting on steps and the tour guide holding up pictures and talking about them. I had hoped that like Pompeii, it would have plenty of information panels, meaning a self-tour was just as good but I was to be disappointed. The majority of the artefacts have been removed (to the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira or to Athens, where they can be seen in the Thera Gallery of the National Archaeological Museum) and it does feel a bit like you are looking at a shell. As the teenager said, ‘it’s just a bunch of dusty ruins’. Our visit was rather brief as a result, as there is no outside area to roam, and no café (this could be because it was out of peak season). In the end we left the site and went to admire the red beach which is nearby – although we only admired from afar as it is susceptible to landslides and looked precarious.
We ended up in a very nice beachfront taverna listening to the waves while we ate and feeling rather deflated. We had left Pompeii with all of us jubilant and feeling as if we had seen something quite remarkable. We left Akrotiri with as much knowledge about the site as before we visited and feeling rather let down.
Perhaps we should have taken a guided tour, there are a few on offer.
Ancient amphorae left in situ at Akrotiri.
Getting to Akrotiri
You can reach the site by bus. All buses stop in Fira, where you can change onto a bus at the central bus station and go directly to Akrotiri. It costs 12E to get in, although concessions are available, you can combine a ticket with other attractions and there are even free days available, so make sure you check out the website before you go. You can opt between guided tours or just walk around yourself.
The Red Beach at Akrotiri – best admired from afar.
Fira combines the best of all of Santorini with its beautiful white buildings, sunset views and museums. There are countless shops, restaurants and art galleries with works of art and sculptures to be found dotted around in random places. The old port area at the base of the cliffs has traditional tavernas and cave houses, a few of which are shops you can go in. Boat trips leave from here, many to the nearby hot springs and it is here that you find the traditional donkeys that can carry people up and down the 588 steps between the old port and the town itself. (There is also a cable car and I would urge people to use this instead of the donkeys, who really looked like they were suffering, struggling under the weight of tourists.)
The old port in Fira.
Fira has two main archaeological museums – the Museum of Prehistoric Thera (Thera being the ancient Spartan name for Santorini) and the Archaeological museum. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera is the one to visit – this is where you will find the many and varied artefacts from Akrotiri itself, amongst other sites. The artefacts are arranged in chronological order and date from the Late Neolithic to the late Cycladic (17th Century BC) and include jewellery, pottery, sculptures, figurines, wall paintings, and ritual objects. The museum is well laid out and the items are well displayed, particularly the wall paintings from Akrotiri. This museum really does fill in the gaps left after a visit to Akrotiri itself. The geology of the island is also covered, as well as information on the islands network of contacts with the rest of the world. This really is a must visit location, and tickets can be bought that combine with entry to other sites. Bear in mind that the museum is closed on Tuesdays.
The other museum, the Archaeological Museum, is very different and a large part of it is currently closed for renovation. It is very small and has yet to provide information in English (currently Greek and French only) but it does have some fascinating objects on display, including the archaeological journals of the excavations on the island and the tools used.
Quirky sculptures flourish in Fira.
Other museums that can be found in Fira include the Lignore Folklore Museum, which is in a cave and details traditional life on Santorini. The Cultural Centre Megaro Gizi is in in a 17th Century family mansion that survived the 1956 earthquake which houses engravings, manuscripts and old photographs amongst others. It also hosts cultural events and a festival in August which is free to all. Open May to October, it is closed on Sundays.
Amongst the many churches in Fira, there are two cathedrals, the Catholic Cathedral Church of St. John the Baptist and the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral. Both are well worth a visit. The cathedral of St John is the centre of the Catholic diocese which was first established in 1204. It was built in 1823, being rebuilt in 1970 after the earthquake of 1956. It is now a light and airy, peaceful place with artwork adorning the walls and plenty of Catholic imagery. It is small so can get very busy at peak times, but is open daily so you should be able to find a more peaceful time to go.
My favourite of the cathedrals however is the Orthodox Cathedral, which I visited several times as our hotel was so close by. This is a modern building, being built on the site of an earlier church that was destroyed in the 1956 earthquake. It is painted a brilliant white on the outside but is quite dark inside due to the highly decorated walls and artefacts. There is a lovely courtyard which looks spectacular in the sunrise. Services are held early in the day and I enjoyed hovering near the entrance as one took place (I didn’t want to intrude) and it was fascinating to watch the locals enter and genuflect in front of an icon, as well as listen to the two Orthodox priests continuously chanting.
The cathedral can be visited outside services, but take into consideration that women must wear modest clothing – shorts are not permitted.
Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral at sunrise. The Greek flag bunting is out because it was Oxi Day – a national celebration to commemorate when the Greek prime minister rejected Mussolini’s ultimatum in 1940.
Oia is the quintessential Greek village and walking through its streets can feel like an historical experience on its own. Home to the windmills, plenty of churches, cave houses and the ruins of a Byzantine Castle, there is enough here for a full day of historical sightseeing. The ruins (which are free to enter) are the remains of a 15th century castle that was a family home under Venetian rule and also served as a lookout point as it has 360 degree views of the island. There is a Guided Tour of the Venetian Castles of Santorini.
People line the 15th century fort waiting for the sunset. Underneath you can see the few remaining unused cave houses.
These days the Venetian Castle is where most of the crowds gather to watch the sunset and it can be packed (as well as a prime location for marriage proposals). Underneath the ruins is where the few remaining abandoned cave houses can be found, (the majority of cave houses are now mostly tourist accommodation), and it is possible to trek down the cliff to visit them. There is a maritime museum in Oia which is well worth a visit, as well as art galleries, antique shops and one of the quirkiest bookshops I have ever visited and which I could happily have spent hours in if my children had allowed it.
Quirky display of souvenirs in an outdoor shop, Oia.
The main part of Perissa doesn’t have much to offer in terms of historical interest, but it does offer you a day of just relaxing. Known for its black beach, here you can walk the beachfront strip of chill out bars, buy a drink and lie on a sun lounger under a straw parasol staring at the sea while your kids play in the sand. What it does have for the more intrepid explorer is a trail which starts near the blue domed Timio Stavro church and takes you up Mesa Vouno to the site of ancient Thira (9th Century BC) with Hellenistic ruins including a temple, agora and theatre. The nearby peak of Profitias Illias has an 18th Century stone monastery, museum and impressive views. (Sadly I didn’t get to experience either as the children had declared it was a day for staying on a beach and eating watermelon ice lollies. I sipped my beer quietly and acquiesced.) The area starts closing up at the end of October so this is not a year round destination. Buses go directly to and from Fira.
Perissa black beach – blissfully empty in October.
Overall our holiday was fantastic and the children, who are quite well-travelled, declared it the ‘best ever’. In our week on the island I feel that there were plenty more sites we could have visited and in two weeks we could have done better justice to its history. However, one always has to make compromises when travelling with children and balancing my love of historical sites with the other attractions was no great hardship, for as well as all of the historical places of interest, Santorini offers culinary tours, vineyard tours, boat trips, geological formations, hot springs, off road tours, spas, countless beaches and is a culinary haven for those who love Greek food. (Santorini is known for its tomatoes which I can verify are delicious and unlike anything you can get from a supermarket at home.) It is also a photographer’s paradise and it would be hard not to take impressive photos. The combination of beauty and history make this the perfect place for the cultural traveller, even those taking children!
How to enjoy Perissa beach in style.
Top Tips for a historical holiday on Santorini with Kids
• Stay in Fira – within an easy walk of the central bus station. There is no need to hire a car on Santorini and it would be a nightmare to find parking in the towns anyway, whereas buses are cheap and regular.
• Go out of the peak summer season – October half term worked well for us
• There are very few supermarkets and the restaurants can be ruiningly expensive so check the menus outside before committing. However, portions are usually huge and children can easily share a meal without going hungry
• Balance out the archaeological sites with time in the pool or at the beach. There has to be compromises when taking youngsters around historical sites and not overloading them is the best way to avoid complaints.
• If you do meet rebellion when planning to visit an historical site, try my favourite tactic which is to suggest just going for a walk to get an ice cream, then accidentally walking past a church or site that I suddenly decide I want to ‘pop in to for a just a minute’. Its effective so long as they do eventually get the coveted ice cream. Santorini helpfully has plenty of places selling these.
• Most of the villages and towns are cobblestoned – wear sensible shoes rather than flip flops or your feet will not enjoy this holiday
• Santorini, like most of the Mediterranean, has plenty of different wildlife. Any patch of scrubland will produce countless lizards, wild cats, butterflies and assorted insects. Ideal for keeping little people walking, set them off lizard spotting and they will hardly notice the distances you expect from them.
Getting About Santorini
The easiest way we found of getting around was most definitely the local buses. They were easy to find, clearly marked and very cheap (usually under €2). There are no buses that run from one side of the island to the other, they all go through the central hub in Fira where there is a ticket office and staff. The central hub can look a bit chaotic and buses are often unmarked until just before departure, but there is always someone to ask. They can get crowded at the busier destinations, and sometimes you’ll have to stand, but it’s no great hardship.
It is possible to hire cars and motorbikes, but if you’re not totally happy with driving on unfamiliar and very steep, windy roads at times, then it’s best to avoid these. There’s no trains or trams on the island.
There are several taxi companies and a few taxi ranks in the island. Google before you go as they can vary. Bear in mind that it is a common practice for drivers to expect people going to close destinations to share a taxi, it’s just the way things are done there.
There are water taxis from the major destinations such as Fira to Oia. These do seem to be quite random, in that they are seasonal and dependent on demand, so it’s definitely worth researching just before you go to get the latest information as it does seem to change regularly.
Finally, airport and ferry transfers can be booked in advance (always wise when travelling with children). There are plenty to chose from, including the international companies or local taxi services.