The name Santorini is likely to have captured your imagination long before you even set eyes on the islands that make up this tiny archipelago at the southern end of the Cyclades chain. Famed for the spectacular sunsets that wash over whitewashed villages perched on precipitous clifftops, turning them rose and gold in the gloaming, it is very much on the tourist trail through the Greek islands.
Chances are your impression is also that Santorini has an air of exclusivity around it, somewhere only for the rich and famous, or a romantic destination just for honeymoon couples, with a price tag to match. If you must watch the sunset from a private balcony, cocktail in hand, or dip in an infinity pool on the caldera rim to make your stay special, that’s certainly true. However, it is possible to visit Santorini on a shoestring budget, and have an unforgettable experience.
Travelling by ferry, I arrived on the main island of Thira under the cover of darkness. Klaxon blaring and engines roaring in full reverse, the loading ramp creaked downward giving a glimpse of the port. A single row of white buildings lined the base of a cliff, lit up in the inky-dark night. It was only after disembarking I could pick out lights in the night ahead; not stars, but the headlights of vehicles making their way around a series of switchbacks on the cliff road. A scattering of lights high above marked the clifftop villages, perched hundreds of metres above the port. It wasn’t until morning that I got a real sense for just how spectacular the setting is.
Accommodation: Options on Santorini vary widely, with prices higher the closer you stay to the cliff edge. At the budget end of the spectrum there are hostels in Fira and Oia, and several campsites on the island. Travelling at the end of the season, you can pick up a bargain rate at a budget hotel or guesthouse that can be even better value than a hostel, especially if you’re travelling as a couple or small group (e.g. 16 euros a night for a bed in a hostel dorm vs. 30 euros a night for double room with en-suite, transfers to/from the port included). Check online booking services for a good hotel deal.
Food: As with accommodation, costs for food vary greatly. Bars and restaurants on the caldera edge are priced for the view, but further from the cliff things are cheaper. Out of the main towns of Fira and Oia, you can find traditional tavernas offering a three course set menu for 10-15 euros per head, less than half the price of many restaurants on the caldera rim. Shops selling gyros and souvlaki pita wraps, stuffed with salad, french fries and tzatziki, are a great bargain alternative to a restaurant meal, and you can fill your boots for around 5 euros. Bakeries offer the best bet for breakfasts, with coffee and croissants for around 2 euros, and you can pick up spinach or cheese pies for a similar price for lunch.
Transport: Taxies are expensive, with a fare of around 15 euros from the port to central Fira, but local buses are reliable and affordable. Transport costs are fixed, with fares between 1.60 euros (e.g. Fira to Oia) and 2.30 euros (e.g. Fira to Akrotiri/ Red Beach). The journey from Fira to the port is the most expensive at 2.80 euros, but the driver deserves the extra as danger money for taking the steep switchbacks in the middle of the night to meet the ferry.
A scooter or quad bike (ATV) could be a good option for getting around, especially if you’re staying on the edge of town with a steep hill to climb to the centre. For around 15 euros a day, you get the freedom to travel where and when you want, although roads can be crowded once cruise ships disgorge their passengers into coaches heading for the popular spots. Be aware, you will need to provide the correct licences to hire vehicles (European class A required for a scooter).
- Admire the traditional whitewashed houses and tiny chapels with blue-domed roofs clinging to the cliff edge in Fira and Oia. Wander through narrow lanes, and find a spot to sit and drink in the panoramic views across the caldera. Buy a chilled bottle of local wine from a mini-market, find a couple of cups and sip it whilst watching the sunset. There is no prettier place in the world to look like an alky.
- Walk down the winding cliff path to the Old Port of Fira, taking care on cobbles polished by hundreds of donkeys’ hooves (watching out for anything they might leave behind). Smile at the people riding up the path, as no-one ever looks like they’re enjoying their donkey experience and they could do with some encouragement. Reward yourself with a coffee or beer at a waterside taverna, then take the cablecar back to the top (5 euros one-way).
- Take a boat trip to the volcanic islands in the centre of the caldera (10 – 15 euros for a half-day trip). The pricier option includes a swimming stop in a hot spring on the edge of Palea Kamena, before hiking up the black cinder cone of Nea Kamena, with steam and sulphur clouds swirling around you. Look back to Thira for great views of the cliffs, with whitewashed villages clinging to the top like a cornice of ice.
- Visit the archaeological site at Akrotiri (6 euros entry, guided tours extra). Covered from the sun in a modern climate-controlled hangar are the remains of a Bronze-Age Minoan settlement preserved for centuries under blankets of volcanic ash. Walk to nearby Red Beach, and marvel at the volcanic geology as you swim in the sea or soak up the sun. On the way back, the road between Akrotiri and Fira runs through the main vineyard area of Santorini, so look out for the distinctive spiralling grapevines growing in the black volcanic fields.
- Hike the trail that runs along the rim of the caldera between the towns of Fira and Oia. Depending on your start and finish points, it can be between 10 and 12km in length, and is quite exposed so bring along a bottle of water and some snacks. The views across the caldera are stunning, especially from the several tiny chapels that cling to the edge of the cliff along the route.