The Greek Isles are on many travelers’ bucket lists. We personally enjoy this place despite it definitely not being cheap cheap. However, Greece is now cheaper due to the strengthening US dollar — we even see deals for peak summer travel from the US to Santorini, which is an amazing time to go.
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Many view Santorini as one of those expensive, exotic and hard to reach islands that only a select few really get to experience. The reality, however, is that this beautiful Greek island is pretty easy to reach from all over Europe and can be done on a surprisingly tight budget. With the current economic situation, Greece is very cheap compared to many other popular countries in Europe and this benefit extends out to Santorini. Whether you are a solo adventurous backpacker or a couple searching out a postcard-esque honeymoon destination – Santorini is a bucket list worthy stop for anyone, and it is much more doable than you may think. Let’s look at more!
When to go
There is no bad time to visit the island as Santorini is beautiful any time of the year, but one should be prepared for the differences of visiting during the off-season versus the peak season. During the off-season, many of the shops and restaurants are still closed. One can wander around the island and feel like they almost own the place. It has a serene, quiet beauty and feels far less touristy. It can get pretty chilly in the off-season months, to the point that laying out on the beach might not even be appealing.
Visiting during (or even near) high season months will provide a completely different experience. There will be tourists everywhere, arriving by the hundreds via planes and ships from all over the world. All of the shops and restaurants appear to be bursting at the seams with people. Santorini becomes a loud and energetic melting pot with travelers from every corner of the planet. The weather during the summer is beautiful (if not very hot) almost every day.
How you get to Santorini completely depends on what time of year you head to Europe. During the peak months (think late spring into fall), there are flights from all over the European mainland landing directly on Santorini. This is the easiest way to start your dream vacation on the island. Many budget airlines like Easyjet, Ryanair and a host of others all make peak season flights out to this tiny airport. One can easily find deals for as little as 40 USD from Athens, Italy or beyond. In June of 2016, I took a $44 USD flight from Florence. During the summer, the airport can get packed quickly and move at the speed of a snail.
Your other option is to take a ferry from Athens or Crete. This can be a fun alternative, and it’s a cool way to briefly see some of the other Greek isles without as much as leaving your ship. Also, seeing Santorini come into view from the sea is a pretty spectacular moment. Prices start around $30, depending on which company you go with, time of year, and seat class. During the high season, there are speed ferries connecting the port in Athens with Santorini and the trip only takes about two hours. Slower (and usually cheaper) options can take upwards of seven hours because they make a number of stops along the way. From the port, it’s a long and mostly uphill walk to any of the island’s accommodations. Keep in mind that some hotels offer free transport from the port!
Where to stay?
This might be the biggest and most confusing topic for planning your Santorini trip. There are literally hundreds of hotels, guesthouses and hostels all over the island, but what should you choose? Some will tell you that your budget will decide what part of the island you want to stay on. While I agree to an extent, I’ve found that if you look around, the prices can be just as affordable in Fira or even Oia as they are in Perissa. During the summer of 2016, my 5-night stay in a nice guesthouse just outside of downtown Fira cost less than 250 USD total for my wife and myself. However, staying somewhere with a caldera view will definitely set you back a little more. Those seeking true luxury can stay in honeymoon suites built directly into the cliff side for a meager $1,500 a night!
Santorini is basically laid out like a horseshoe. The island is divided up into different villages. Fira is really the center of the island with some of the best views high above the sea looking directly out at the volcano. There are an almost overwhelming amount of restaurants, shops and pubs tailored to foreigners around here. Oia, known for having the best sunsets in the world, is a beautiful part of the island where many of the postcard views of white buildings with blue domes overlooking the sea are taken. There are also a number of restaurants here. Perissa is another popular town, especially for backpackers and those on a tighter budget. This is a beach area on a lower part of the island. It is beautiful in its own right, but doesn’t offer the typical Santorini caldera views or the architecture you came to see.
Fun tip – Rent a 4-wheeler!
I highly recommend renting a 4-wheeler to get around the island. Santorini is too big to walk everywhere and the bus service to some of the less popular places and beaches is erratic and no one comes to this beautiful place to waste time waiting at bus stops. You could rent a car, but they are exponentially more expensive and, honestly, much less enjoyable. Talk to your hotel, because they usually have connections to get you a cheaper rate on 4-wheeler rentals. It really is the best way to see the island and let the wind hit your face as you explore this Greek gem.
Being an island, it also has a number of beaches that may intrigue you. Personally, I find the beaches underwhelming. I’ve been to most of them in my two visits here and by no means should you avoid them, just temper your expectations. You aren’t in Bora Bora…or Rio de Janeiro for that matter. The water is still incredibly refreshing, and the food and beverage options anywhere near the sea are abundant.
Since Santorini is volcanic, it has its share of black sand beaches. They look super cool, but on a sunny day, do not underestimate how hot black sand can get! It will burn your feet quickly. Perissa is a famous stretch of beach with nice views. Kamari is also beautiful but if you don’t have one of the restaurants giving you space with an umbrella, it isn’t my top choice for laying out in the sun. The Red Beach is definitely worth visiting for pictures, but it’s not really sandy and they tend to lay a bunch of straw on it to make it more appealing for beach goers. There are a number of smaller, less visited beaches, which are fun to explore if you are out riding around on your 4-wheeler or rental vehicle.
Less sandy things to do
Much like the rest of mainland Greece, Santorini is full of history and unique architecture. It’s also incredibly scenic with some views unparalleled to anywhere else on the planet. Santorini is a place where being is just as important doing. It has an almost magical, even hypnotic, ambiance that grows on you with each day. Aside from just wandering around and taking in the magical views, you should definitely check out the Akrotiri archeological site, where an old city was remarkably well preserved from a volcanic eruption some 1,500 years BC. History buffs will probably also enjoy the Ancient Thira site. The winding, steep drive straight up a huge hill to the site alone is worth the detour just behind Kamari Beach.
I highly recommend taking the caldera hike, which goes from Fira all the way to Oia. It takes a couple hours, but offers some unparalleled views and is a truly unique way to experience the island. Bring plenty of water and plan to be baked by the intense Santorini sun. If you end your hike in Oia, stay there for the sunset and then catch one of the evening buses back to your part of the island for just a couple of euros. There are some museums – if that’s your thing – as well as a number of wineries scattered across the island. Some tour operators offer trips out to the volcano with prices beginning around $25. If you’ve never been up close with a volcanic landscape, it’s definitely worth spending a couple hours on this cool excursion, which leaves from the old port (hundreds of feet below Fira). Also the views from the sea directly beneath the cliffs are truly spectacular. Finally, take in the sunset every evening you possibly can as they really can be splendid. Try new viewpoints each time, but just make sure to do it from Oia at least once!
About the Author:
Adam is a curious individual who spent a semester in Spain and came home with a very strong case of an incurable strain of the travel bug. He has become a budget traveling aficionado, always on the lookout for the next great deal, which is nothing more than an excuse to pack his bags again and explore this fascinating planet. Adam spends his non-traveling time working as a case manager, photographer and freelance blogger, and enjoys sports and film. Follow Adam on his site Adam Smith Adventure, his Facebook or Instagram.
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