The most common discussions about Santorini are where to stay and where to see the best sunset. Before recommending a particular town, the answer is always its spectacular volcanic caldera, which is the hallmark of the island and its most beautiful feature.
Santorini’s half-moon-shaped bay is the centre of the caldera (a cauldron-like hollow formed by the inward collapse of a volcano), which collapsed after a volcanic eruption called “Minoan eruption” in 1610 BC ± 14 years.
The outer edge of the ancient volcano formed Santorini (aka Thira), the main island. Subsequent eruptions are responsible for the creation of the other four islands: Thirasia and Aspronisi at the periphery; and the two Kameni islands at the centre.
This submerged caldera is surrounded by steep cliffs with stunning villages on top. Whitewashed houses, small churches, narrow cobbled paths and neoclassical mansions are in complete harmony with its volcanic scenery. Houses and restaurants are built into niches carved into the caldera on the seaward side.
You take away the caldera and Santorini would be just another Greek island, probably falling down the list of beautiful Greek islands to maybe around #20 or more.
The caldera view towns are (South to North) Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia. This is the commercial part of Santorini, all prepared for tourism, and the most expensive and crowded. However; it is impossible to not be impressed with the beauty of these towns.
Fira is the main town in Santorini, with all the advantages and disadvantages that this entails.
It is more central and makes getting to other parts of the island easier and faster. This could be important if you do not have a car and use buses. For instance, in order to go to the southern parts of the island (where the beaches are) from Oia, you need to change buses in Fira, as it is the hub for all bus routes. It also has more nightlife, shopping
Its main street is wider than any street in the other towns with plenty of shops, restaurants, a grocery store, pharmacies and more. It is also 10 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from the ferry port.
On the other hand, it is normally crowded and not as relaxed and intimate as Imerovigli or Firostefani. Locals complain about hoards of cruise ships that take over the town, and the same happens in Oia. Generally speaking, Fira is busier than Oia through the day but quieter than Oia during the sunset.
The views and sunsets from Fira are quite magnificent and are normally compared with the ones in Oia. I could not say one was better than the other, as all these towns offer a different perspective of the volcano. But I would probably choose Imerovigli if I have to (more reasons in its own section).
Fira is at the top of Athinios, the old port that is only used for cruise ships. To get up from the port there is a choice of a cable car, walking, or riding the donkeys.
Regarding some known places, Argo, Ouzeri, Naoussa and Cacio E Pepe are some good restaurants. Koo Club and Enigma are the biggest pubs/clubs in Fira. Tropical Bar (along with Franco’s) is one of the best places to watch the sunset in Fira. And a good coffee shop is Pure.
- Angel Luxury Suites, Cosmopolitan Suites and The Tsitouras Collection. Best three hotels in Fira.
Firostefani is actually an extension of Fira. They used to be separated but due to new developments, they became a larger single area. There is a picturesque and pedestrian-only cliffside pathway that join both towns, which takes around 15 minutes walking.
This path actually goes all the way to Oia, and it takes between 3 and 4 hours to complete. However; the nicest part is between Fira and Imerovigli. I strongly recommend walking this first part as the views are simply breathtaking.
The main bus station is in Fira but the bus between Fira and Oia passes by Firostefani and you can go out to the main road to catch it. Firostefani is the highest part of Fira, so may want to take the bus first, and then walk your way down.
There is no noticeably significant difference in the ambience of these two towns, other than to say that Firostefani is quieter, with fewer hotels, tourists and restaurants. And because of the proximity to the main town, Firostefani combines serenity with a vivid nightlife a few minutes away.
We stayed at Stefani Suites and we liked it a lot. Outstanding view, excellent service, delicious breakfast and a small (but enough) pool facing the caldera. Its manager Bessy is extremely helpful and she can get anything for you: tours, restaurant reservations, transfer to/from airport and port, car/motorbike to rent and more.
One good advice is to rent a car for one day only. We did it and it worked very well for us. We arrived at midday and we had a tour another day, so a car for the whole trip was maybe too much. So Bessy from Stefani Suites arranged a car for our last day. They brought it to the hotel and we left it at the airport, and we could visit many places in a day, including some other towns and beaches. Besides a transfer to the airport (€25-€35) is almost the same price than a car for a day at a local agency.
- Homeric Poems and The Tsitouras Collection. Best two hotels in Firostefani.
- Villa Ilias
- Blue Dolphins
Imerovigli was my favourite town, especially because of its breathtaking sunsets and the pacific atmosphere that embraces every corner of the village. It is called the “balcony to the Aegean”, and a lot of people thinks it is the best town to see the sunset.
It is about half-way between Fira and Oia and has some of the best views of the island. This is mostly because of its higher elevation. The name of Imerovigli comes from the word “vigla” which means view spot.
Its houses, hotels, suites, villas, studios and rooms are built amphitheatrically around the caldera and it is crossed by narrow and picturesque paved paths.
Imerovigli is smaller than Fira and Oia, and has only 470 permanent inhabitants. Nonetheless, has many lovely churches such as Ai-Stratis, in the centre of the village, and the Monastery of Saint Nikolaos, in close distance, between Firostefani and Imerovigli.
Another famous site of Imerovigli is Skaros Rock, which are the remains of a Venetian Castle built in 1207 by Marco Sanudo, the ruler of all Cyclades islands that time, and abandoned in the early 1800s. It collapsed later after an earthquake and the rock became an iconic viewpoint. There is a path from Imerovigli to Skaros Rock and the Chapel of Panagia Theoskepasti.
One of its most famous restaurants is called La Maison, which is close to Firostefani as well. Other good restaurants are Mezzo, Avocado, Athenian House and Anogi. And good pubs are 363 Champagne Lounge and Buddha Bar.
- Grace Santorini and Astra Suites. Probably the best two hotels in Santorini.
- Caldera’s Majesty
- Kasimatis Suites
(Greek: Οία, pronounced [ˈi.a], is the most famous and romantic town in Santorini. It is also one of the most photographed places in Greece (and very high in the world ranking). It has inspired artists, poets, movies, visitors and hosted thousands of weddings.
“The beauty of Oia is unsurpassed. In fact, it is almost impossible to describe in words. Small white houses tier the hillside, interspersed by splashes of rich okra, deep fuchsia, cobalt blue, oyster pink and earthy red. Smooth winding paths interconnect, interrupted now and then by a small church, and at every corner there is something new to discover.” [santorini.com]
It is bigger than Imerovigli, with a population of 1,545 inhabitants (2011). It has a bus terminal in the main square below the Caldera, and buses go to Fira, passing by Firostefani and Imerovigli.
The main street is named Nikolaou Nomikou, and has many shops, restaurants, cafes, and more. There is also a fabulous little bookstore called Atlantis Books. Its paths are beautiful but very narrow and get congested during the tourist season.
In Oia, most hotels don’t have a direct view of the sunset, so you will need to find a place to see the sun set into the water. But the sunlight hours are longer than in the Fira town. All visitors and locals gather every evening in streets, stairs and rooftops in order to enjoy the sunset, which ends when all people clap their hands the moment the sun dims in the sea.
As for sights, one of the most popular buildings in the town is an old windmill, which often appears on postcards. Another important building is Agios Nikolaos Castle, and you can visit its ruins which is a hotspot for sunset viewing. And if you like museums, the Naval Maritime Museum has a rich collection of the naval history of the island. There are also several small art galleries, including Art Gallery Oia and The Art Gallery, and numerous restored churches, including Panagia church.
Some of the movies filmed in Oia were Summer Lovers (1982), The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2004) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2009, the jet ski chase scenes were shot in and around Ammoudi, the old fishing port below Oia).
Hasapiko is the main bar in Oia and gets lively after midnight. Some recommended restaurants are Roka, Karma, Candouni, Elinikon and Ammoudi Fish Tavern. And a good coffee shop is Passagio.