From traditional to touristic, the many villages of Santorini can amaze the tastes and desires of every type. While each village will host the famous white and blue domed churches, notable of the Greek islands, the differences in the many villages are vast.
Some villages have narrow labyrinth, cobblestone pathways, some have a plethora of souvenir shops, some only have a couple stores of handmade goods from locals, some have post offices, and some have fashion and beauty shops. Each village, however, has a square for social gatherings, has at least one bakery if not many, an elementary or primary school, a supermarket, cafes, restaurants, tavernas and a pharmacy. The feeling of village living on the island is of a peaceful, quiet, slower paced environment. Each village typically has everything a person would need.
To paint a picture in your mind of this quiet lifestyle, I have a friend who’s ninety-year-old grandmother lives in the village of Emporio. She was born and raised on Santorini, specifically the village of Emporio. She has lived her entire life here and has never been to the village of Oia, for example (approximately 20 kilometers / 12 miles away). This tends to blow tourists’ minds, as they have traveled from all parts of the world to visit this small, beautiful island. This is just an example of the simple island village life I am speaking of. My friend’s grandmother, named Maria, has everything she needs, so why venture off to the other side of the island? Another example of this simple lifestyle is that there are no street names or addresses to homes or buildings. Of course, Santorini gets mail and packages. Yet, unless it is a place of business like a hotel or a store where large packages are deliverable, locals must pick up their packages from the nearest post office or courier station. For example, this past Christmas, my family sent me a gift package. First, you have to know that you will be receiving a package so that you know to expect something coming for you at the post office. Next, around the time of expected delivery, you need to go to the post office and sift through a box of postcard size papers to hopefully locate one that has your name on it. Then, with the proper identification, you present the paper slip to the postal worker to receive your package.
Additionally, there are no drive thru fast food restaurants or coffee shops on the island. There is a philosophy in Greece and on the islands, more specifically, in which the Greeks say “siga siga,” which means “slowly slowly” or “at a slow pace.” Here, people like to take their time with things, relax and fully take in and enjoy the moment. It’s a beautiful and serene way to experience life. Trust me, one can certainly feel this peace while visiting the island, especially if you get out of the touristic villages and mingle with the locals in a more traditional setting. For instance, when you are invited for a coffee, you can expect this to be an hour to two-hour social sitting. Or, if you’re dining out, don’t expect to be rushed through your meal and delivered your bill promptly. They want you to thoroughly enjoy the experience and appreciate the process of taking your time. Honestly, this is the biggest reason I fell in the love with Santorini and decided to call this place home. Where I came from in the states, it felt that everyone was in such a rush to get to the next destination or reach their next goal, that so many lose sight of the journey and the process that makes up life.
The purpose of this blog is to provide you more insight into the different villages of Santorini and give you a sample of what you can expect. This way, if you only have a few days on the island, this guide will help you better plan where you would like to spend your time. Also, because of the number of villages, the history and information I will provide, this blog will be split into three parts. In the first part, we will explore the touristic villages of Fira, the island’s capital, and the picturesque village of Oia, known for its sunsets and blue domed churches. In Part 2 we will delve into the more quiet and serene villages of Firostefani, Imerovigli, Pyrgos and Akrotiri, which are heard of by many but never uncovered by the masses. Lastly, in Part 3 we will explore the villages that really only the locals know about. These are the villages in which most of the locals reside and you may only hear of when speaking to a local Santorinian. The villages explained in Part 3 include Emporio, Messaria, Megalochori, Finikia, Mesa and Exo Gonia, Karterados, Vothonos, Kamari and Perissa.
Early in the 19th century the capital of the island was moved from Pyrgos to Fira, which is now the most important of all villages. It is located at the west side of the island, perched on the edge of an impressive cliff at a height of 260 meters above sea level. This village offers the most spectacular panoramic view over the submerged volcano.
The town of Fira is a typical Cycladic village made of charming white houses with blue windows and doors, separated from each other by small cobblestone streets. Many of its beautiful buildings were constructed back in the times of the Venetian invasion, including some blue domed churches and gorgeous, sun-bathed verandas.
Fira is a busy, bustling town, especially during the summer and in its high season. Apart from art galleries and cultural events, it has the island's largest shopping center and the biggest choice of dining out and entertainment. Fira heads the nightlife scene on the island as it has many bars and cafes that are perched along the caldera, while others are tucked into the quaint cobbled streets, weaving through the town. The town has a plethora of hotels, most of which have swimming pools and verandas offering their customers a superb view. Despite all the tourist traffic concentrated in town, there are some areas that remain quiet, however, providing one with places to relax and enjoy a great view of the island and the surrounding area.
For those who are history lovers or on a quest to delve deeper into the culture of the island, an Archaeological Museum and separate Prehistoric Museum are located in this village and host many items from the several excavations conducted in the ancient Minoan settlement of Akrotiri and Ancient Thira. The town also displays numerous churches and monasteries, ranging from the grand Metropolitan Greek Orthodox church, small and historic chapels, to even a Catholic Cathedral.
Fira also has a port that was, for many years, the main port of Santorini. Today, this port is only used for cruise boats and boat excursions taking guests to the volcano of Nea and Palaia Kameni, the hot springs and the opposite island of Thirassia. One can reach the port by taking the 300 large steps down the cliffside, by riding a donkey, or taking the cable car that was built in 1982. This little harbor also has restaurants, tavernas and small shops.
There is so much to choose from and so many places to explore. The volcano can be seen from every point along the caldera in this village, as can the mesmerizing sunsets. Sunset time in Santorini seems to be the only hour of the day when everything, and everyone stops moving.
Oia, which means ‘unique’ or ‘one of a kind,’ is the most famous village of Santorini. This village, which was named an archaeological site in 1976, is adorned throughout the world for its magnificent photo opportunities and fantastic sunsets. Many argue that it is the most beautiful and picturesque village of Santorini. The village is also built on top of the island’s caldera at approximately 150 meters above sea level and offers a spectacular vantage point over the volcanic islands of Nea and Palaia Kameni and the sister island of Thirassia. This beautiful village, was also the village most affected by the devastating Amorgos Earthquake of 1956. Luckily, the village has been rebuilt in its traditional glory and kept intact of how it used to look centuries ago. One can still see many buildings, however, that were never restored and rebuilt after its collapse.
It is a charming traditional village with small narrow pathways, blue domed churches and beautiful verandas. However, because of its popularity, it is the busiest and most touristic village of the island as well. It hosts an abundance of tourist shops, tavernas, cafes, jewelry stores, fashion boutiques and other shops.
In Oia there are two types of buildings, the cavehouses dug into the volcanic rock on the Caldera cliffs and the Captain’s mansions. The cavehouses used to be the homes of the crewmen working on the large shipping boats in the 1800’s. Whereas, the Captains mansions, belonged to the wealthy ship owners.
Nowadays, the affluence has completely flipped. The old cavehouses have been transformed and remodeled into 5-star hotels and villas and the remaining Captain’s mansions are either utilized today as boutiques, a restaurant, or private residence. These days, the affluent and rich stay in the renovated and transformed cavehouses, sometimes paying anywhere up to 8,000 Euros per night for a private cavehouse villa.
At the northern tip of the village one will come across the ruins of a Venetian fortress. This is also the famous sunset viewing point in which many tourists pile into during sunset time. Oia also consists of many art galleries. The reason for this, is that many artists fell in love with the area and settled here. This is also the story of the owners of a world famous, quaint bookshop named the Atlantis. Here, one can find books in many different languages and several first edition copies, signed by their authors.
Oia also has a small port, named Ammoudi, which can be reached by descending the 214 large steps from the top of the caldera. There, you can take a small boat to the sister island of Thirassia. Also, down at the port, you can choose to dine from 5 different local fish tavernas, take the foot path off to the right to the beach of Armenis, or take the foot path to the left, around the cliff’s edge, to the famous cliff jumping spot where the character Lena from “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” jumps from.
Upon visiting Santorini for the first time, a visit to these touristic, yet, unforgettable villages are certainly worth the crowds. They are the most popular villages for a reason, providing guests with so many choices of spectacular views, shopping, dining, entertainment, excursions, and sunset gazing. If you really want to get into the heart of Santorini, however, there is no other way to do so than to spend time in a traditional village, speaking with locals and dining at more authentic restaurants and tavernas. Stay tuned for “Part 2” of this blog, where we will explore the more undiscovered, hidden gems of the island.