Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mystical Santorini, Greece

We visited Santorini in Aug 2016. This was our second visit to Greece - we had previously visited Athens and Crete in 2012 (blog link)

The perfect place for photoshoots in Santorini


Santorini is one of the most touristic islands in Greece. By some counts, 6 million tourists visited Santorini in 2015. The main touristic months are April-Sep; it gets the most crowded in Aug, and it also gets pretty hot then with temperatures reaching 40 degrees celsius. So July is probably the best month to visit Santorini.

Santorini is actually pretty close to Crete, and there are regular ferries running between the two islands. So it is quite possible to stay in one and visit the other for a day trip. Of course, a day trip is never nearly enough to explore the true beauty of the place.

As this is Greece, there is of course plenty of Greek mythology associated with Santorini. According to one such legend, Santorini was the 'Lost city of Atlantis' before the volcanic eruption (link). So feel free to look for it while you are there :)

Santorini is a big island and there are primarily two cities where you can stay: Oia and Fira. From the airport, Fira is like a 20 minutes drive, while Oia is another 20 minutes further from Fira.


Comparing Oia (pronounced 'Ia') and Fira, Oia is the more laid-back, picturesque, and "expensive" destination; while Fira is the bigger city with a bigger market and nightlife. So choosing between the 2 really depends on your tastes and budget.

Yes, there are (ultra) luxury accommodations in both Oia and Fira, so it is a bit difficult to compare between the two as a "luxury" destination; however in general there are more luxurious hotels in Oia, and the prices of restaurants and souvenirs are also higher in Oia.

Also, if you are interested in photography, and want to capture the signature "blue domes" or stunning sunsets in Santorini; then Oia is the place that you should stay.


Most of the hotels, at least the good ones; have rooms facing the Caldera. Without going into a lot of scientific details regarding how the whole region was formed, suffice it to say that there was a huge volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago - which led to the creation of a huge crater (the Caldera). So for hotels facing the Caldera, you get amazing views of the water filled crater with volcanic mountains in the background; whichever way you look!

Once upon a time in Greece :)

We stayed at Mystique, which is a luxury hotel by the Starwood group. If you collect loyalty points, this is one of the very few hotels in Oia which is associated with any of the major hotel chains. Location wise, the hotel is perfect: (i) All the rooms offer stunning views of the Caldera. (ii) It is very close to main walking / shopping part of Oia. The hotel has all the usual luxury suspects like the infinity pool, spa, and great restaurants.

The chair awaits ...

Below is a stunning night shot of the hotel:

Mystique resort at night

The only disadvantage, and in fact the main complaint of people in e.g. Tripadvisor reviews; is the number of stairs that you have to climb to reach your room, or even the reception, from the main road. In a way, you can also think of the stairs as one of the most distinguishing features of the hotel, as many local people we talked to knew about the (in)famous "stairs" :)

From our point of view, the stairs can indeed be a bit daunting if you are not in the best shape. The best is to plan so that you only have to climb them once a day. Basically, you have to climb less if you stay at one of their entry level rooms, as they are more towards the top. However, then you would have to descend (climb) more to reach "food", as the hotel's main restaurant, spa and infinity pool are all towards the bottom. OK, in all fairness, they do have an alternate pool and restaurant towards the top as well, so you surely won't go hungry if you are feeling a bit lazy :) Other than that, the staff are super friendly, the rooms are modern and well decorated, and the views stunning - so definitely recommended !!

Exploring Oia

Oia as a city itself is quite small, so you shouldn't have any problems in locating the main (and only) shopping street in Oia. If you are staying at Mystique, exit the entrance on the main road and start walking left - you will be there in 5 minutes.

Lovely evening in Oia
Dusk @ Santorini
All around is a "blues" town
Oia panoramic view
The street itself is quite long, and it is good that there are no cars allowed on the road. So its great for long leisurely walks in the evening. There are many cafes, bakeries, restaurants, shops, etc. on the street, so it is not that you will get bored!!

While we are on the topic of Oia streets, let us also touch upon the best vantage points to get the classic 'Santorini shot with blue domes' and the perfect sunset. As mentioned earlier, between Fira and Oia; Oia is the place to be if you are a photography enthusiast. The are many churches / buildings with blue domes in Santorini.

Oia blue domes, Santorini, Greece

However, the characteristic shot is the one with at least 3 domes (below).

Classic Santorini shot with the blue domesThe dreamy town of Oia, Santorini, Greece

To get this shot, keep looking at the alleys on the left (on the sea side) as you walk along the main street. There are 2 or 3 alleys which you will find more crowded than the others - this is usually a good sign that it is one of those vantage points :) Note that the alleys are narrow, and some of them can get very crowded during sunset - so pick your time wisely!

Oia evening colors, Santorini, Greece

While the alleys provide a vantage point for sunsets as well, the best place are the cafes / restaurants almost at the end of the street (if you keep walking straight - following the main street); most such places have the name 'sunset' in them :) We were recommended the 'Golden Sunset Cafe' by our hotel and it definitely provided perfect sunset views with the windmill in the background (below). But again, book in advance as it gets very crowded during sunset. It is amazing to see the very crowded cafe suddenly becoming empty as soon as the sun sets :)

Stunning sunsets in Santorini


Somewhere far away in the sea ...

From Oia, let us move on to areas (and activities) worth exploring around Oia. Sailing in the Aegean Sea is a very popular tourist attraction here. As soon as you land in Santorini, you will see brochures advertising cruises all around. There are of course all types of cruises, varying in duration, covering different parts of the island, including lunch / dinner, available as a private, semi-private, or (public) group tour. This might seem like a lot of variable parameters - so if you need a quick one line reply - YES, a cruise (esp. a sunset cruise) is definitely worth it!!

Advantages of taking a cruise include a fast and convenient way of exploring the main beaches in Santorini, e.g. the famous Red and Black beaches, some of which cannot be reached by car.  The boats either leave from Oia or a port in the South of Santorini (Vlyhada Marina). Hotel pickup / drop-off is usually provided if you are staying at a hotel in Oia. There are usually 2 cruises in a day: 'Day' and 'Sunset'. Our recommendation would be to absolutely take the 'Sunset' one if you have time, as the sunsets here are simply awesome (below).

Another stunning Santorini sunset
Sun sets in Santorini
Stunning sunset on the Aegean Sea
Sailing into the Sun(set)

The 'Sunset' cruises usually start at afternoon, cruising leisurely to the Red and Black beaches. Whether they stop at the beaches really depends on the type of cruise you have taken, and here the difference between private and group tours becomes important. If you have taken a private tour, it is of course like you have rented the boat (with crew) for that period; so you can customize the cruise according to your preferences. The opposite is true for group cruises, which have a very fixed itinerary. As expected, private cruises are of course quite expensive. So, a compromise is to take a 'semi-private' cruise where you will be sharing the cruise with max. 5-6 others; and the cruise can be tailored to a reasonable extent to your wishes.

FYI, we took this 'semi-private' cruise offered by Santorini Sailing Center (link) - and we can absolutely recommend it! We shared the cruise with two other couples and the crew were super friendly and accommodating. We stopped (and swam) close to both beaches, and in the hot springs as well. The water at the hot springs is very rich in iron and manganese -  so be sure to wear a swimsuit which you do not mind getting stained :)

Rafting at Red Beach, Santorini

After exploring the beaches, the boat moves to a quieter and more stable (less rocking) place where dinner is served. The crew usually cooks it fresh during the cruise. After the sumptuous dinner, the boat starts cruising again, as the sun starts setting. Take a glass of champagne and enjoy the sun going down in all its glory. Soon after the sunset, the boat docks at its destination port: and you are driven back to your hotel with memories of a wonderful day.

Fira and Imerovigli 

Fira, as mentioned earlier, is the capital of Santorini and only a 20 min drive from Oia - so it definitely makes sense to visit it if you have some time. It is a big city with a much bigger (read longer) pedestrian shopping area with plenty of shops and cafes / restaurants. You can easily spend a day walking (and getting lost!) in the narrow alleys.

Imerovigli is a picturesque village very close to Fira. So if you are anyway planning to visit Fira, do not miss this hidden gem. It really is a village, so there is not much to do other than relaxing and enjoying the views. It does have a few hotels (mostly mid-range) if you are interested in staying here. In our opinion, it is not worth staying here! It is best for a day visit - having a coffee and enjoying the absolutely stunning panorama. 

Picturesque Imerovigli
Blue flavors of Greece
Imerovigli - picturesque village on the Aegean Sea

Finally, it is worth mentioning the Akrotiri ruins in Santorini - between Oia and Fira - which is also a very popular tourist attraction. The ruins belong to a bronze age settlement which was recently discovered and excavated. They are now preserved in a huge indoor structure (below).  

In our opinion, the ruins are sort of OK, and should not be your highest priority unless you are a history / archaeology student or have a lot of time in your hands :) - you are way better off  sampling the excellent Greek food, sailing, staring at the sunset, or simply lying down in the sun :)