Oh what a loaded question! Recently a friend asked about my honest opinions about Santorini and it’s one of those things that brings back a lot of emotions and feelings that becomes quite complicated when you break it down.
While I’ve written about our 3 day Santorini itinerary which touches on it, this is something that deserves a bit more attention because I know the turmoil you’re going through right now. Is Santorini worth it and should you include it in your trip? Let me help you walk the line of reason here based on 2 separate trips I’ve made.
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Is Santorini worth it?
I get it. It almost feels insane to not include the island of Santorini when putting together your Greek island hopping adventure.
It’s plastered on the glam magazines, top lists of this or that, perpetuated by Instagram, and the epitome of the perfection of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea. However, as tourism exploded and over-tourism became a thing, I’m sure you started to hear inklings of negative feedback from people that had been.
What authority do I have on this topic? Well, I’ve been to Greece on two separate occasions – once as a backpacker, and another time recently with my wife. A good amount of time separated the two trips so it also allowed me to see it from two different perspectives and also the changes that had occurred between 2008 and 2019.
So this is where we circle back to the question “is Santorini worth it?”. I have a bunch of fresh thoughts. At times, I’m going to sound a little schizophrenic but bear with me. I’m going to do my best to show both sides of the story so you can ultimately make your own decision.
Are the crowds really that bad?
This is the number one thing that gets asked.
Yes, it’s pretty bad
You may or may not have seen the photos but behind the beautiful sunsets from Oia lies a not-so-secret truth – the insanity of the crowds. Yes, it’s pretty bad.
Memories fade a little but I am pretty sure I didn’t see the type of crowds I saw on top of the Byzantine Castle Ruins as I saw in 2019. I remember that there was even a group that could uncork a bottle of wine, open a bag of snacks, play the guitar, and sing to the falling sun. Fast forward to 2019 and you had to pick your spot 2.5 hours before sunset and hold that position for the entire duration or else you’d be overrun.
With the surge of cruise tourism and overall popularity, and dare I say, the over-romanticizing of Santorini, you get a shockwave effect where thousands crowd the viewing platforms, winding alleys, rooftops, and whatever inch you can squeeze into, just to watch the sunset.
What’s the culprit for the huge crowds? In talking to the locals, there’s a love-hate relationship with cruise ships. They come in like the wind, unloading 20,000 people daily, and rush out just as quickly as they arrived. Sure, they bring in a lot of money to the island but they don’t put heads in beds, is unsustainable from an environment perspective, and it has really made it hard to enjoy the magic of Santorini.
The flip-side to the above is that as crazy as the Oia sunsets are, I can’t say that it was impossible to enjoy the island.
Walking around Oia and Fira throughout the day is never like you’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists. You can shop the boutiques and galleries at ease and at your own pace. The restaurants get busy but if you book ahead of time, you’ll be fine.
Once you leave the cruise hot-spots, you’ll see a dramatic cliff drop (pun intended) of crowds. Walk around the town of Megalochori, Emporio, or Pyrgos and you might encounter a few bus tour groups, but you can easily work around them.
The beaches at Perissa and Red Beach are similarly busy, sure, but you won’t have a problem with finding a spot to lay out your beach towel.
BEFORE YOU CONTINUE
You need to read the companion Greek islands travel guide where I break down everything I learned and invaluable travel tips that’ll make your trip smooth sailing.
Why is Santorini over-hyped?
Connected to that first question is this overall sense of whether Santorini is more than it really is. Let me try to dissect this.
Is Santorini the only island with windmills? No.
Is Santorini the only island with epic sunsets? No.
Is Santorini the only island with blue domed churches? No.
My point is that a lot of what we associate to Santorini isn’t unique to the island. Dig a little deeper and just within the Western Cyclades of the Greek Islands and you’ll realize that there are so many other incredible islands such as Paros, Folegandros, and Milos that have many of those elements you are craving for in a Greek island hopping trip.
I have to admit though, there’s still something unique about Santorini that is just a little (or a lot) different from the other Greek islands.
Is Santorini the only island with the unique geology of being a caldera with volcanic center? Yes.
Is Santorini utterly photogenic from top to bottom? Yes.
Will you still have an amazing time in Santorini? Yes.
This is the part that I have to stress. Sure, you might’ve heard some horror stories from people and if you’re not prepared for the crowds, you might let that sour your experience. That said, by and large, you’re still going to enjoy your time in Santorini no matter how long or short.
So is it over-hyped? Yes, you could say that. The crowds do take you out of it just enough where sometimes it feels like you’re in a theme park, but you can still be amazed by it, find special moments where you least expect it (Fira to Oia hike comes to mind), and discover areas that are off-the-beaten-path.
More reasons why you shouldn’t visit Santorini
When it comes to whether Santorini is worth it or not, there are a few more things I can think of that go against it.
All that popularity has resulted in the sky-rocketing of prices. If you’re looking for a prime balcony view from the caldera cliff towards the volcano or Oia, you’re talking about massive premium.
When I look at the costs of our trip which I breakdown in the detailed Greek Islands travel guide, the 3 nights we had at Prekas Apartments was a big part of the budget. Sure, we found a great deal but as smart-spending travellers, there was no way to get around this. You have to pay for the views.
The domino effect of price also cascades to everything from tours, car rentals, and restaurants.
That’s a great segue to food. While the food was actually quite good, you could tell that the prices were just a tick higher than the other islands we visited while island hopping.
For those that go in unprepared, you’ll be quite frustrated with Santorini because if you don’t make reservations ahead of time, you’re going to get turned away or end up eating really late at night.
This is why we can’t have nice things
Back to the crowds for a second. I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but one of the things you end up having to contend with are the lengths that people will go to take photos and also what I will call “dumb travellers” that blatantly disrespect the land, environment, local customs, and rules.
Unfortunately, doing dumb things is contagious so be on the lookout and call them out if you see it.
The beaches are ok
Beaches are part of the package when you go to Santorini but don’t expect to be blown away.
There’s for sure a uniqueness to the red sand and black sand beaches you’ll find on the island but I can’t say that they’re the most comfortable beaches because of their geology.
Donkeys and mules
I’ll admit it, I’ve taken donkeys from the old ferry terminal up to Fira and also back up from Ammoudi Bay but the more I’ve educated myself, the more I learn about the poor treatment of these animals, their spinal injuries, saddle sores, and exhaustion.
Tourists are now urged to avoid riding donkeys.
Not as authentic
I’m not saying Santorini isn’t authentic but with traditional itineraries and all of its touristy stops, you won’t see the true Greek islander life.
Let’s just say, on Santorini, it would be a rare sighting to see locals sipping on a cup of espresso in solitude.
14 Day Greek Island Hopping Itinerary
I’ve always found itineraries to be the best way to help with trip planning. You may not use this in its entirety but if you have 2 weeks to work with, we had one of our best trips all time in the Western Cyclades.
Why you should go to Santorini
When thinking about whether Santorini is worth it, there is still plenty of reasons why the above shouldn’t stop you from going.
There’s a tranquil side to Santorini
The problem with Santorini is that everyone wants to go to the same places which is why you have the issue with crowds. What locals and I want you to know is that there is much more to the island than sunset opportunities.
A few ideas to look at to take you off-the-beaten-path:
- Walk the island’s interior villages such as Megalochori, Emporio, Pyrgos
- Archeological site at Akrotiri
- Numerous wineries including Domaine Sigalas
- Beaches at Perívolos
- Go horseback riding to Eros Beach
- Sunset sea kayak and snorkel
- Wine tasting and cooking class
You can find deals in Santorini
Accommodations don’t have to be expensive. If you think about it, you’re going to be barely in your room and in most cases, enjoying the sunset somewhere else so save your money and opt for a room in Pyrgos, Perissa, or Kamari.
The volcano is pretty amazing
One thing that you won’t really find on other islands is the volcanic center of Santorini. Being the most active part of the South Aegean Volcanic Arc, not only do you have the impressive crescent cliff wall but you also have Nea Kameni which is a volcanic island that can be visited by cruise.
While volcanic activity is evident throughout Santorini, it’s front-and-center here. The other activity you’ll find here are the sulphurous hot springs which are always treat.
The finer things
If you’re looking for high-end hotels, luxury spas, modern touches, and butler-type services, Santorini is one of the few islands where those are widely available.
The right expectations
I personally find that travelling with the right expectations is always the key to enjoying a destination.
Nowhere is perfect and so if you can take the negatives and go in knowing that it’ll be crowded in certain areas and be able to laugh it off, those things will make less of an impact on your trip.
The FOMO is real
Fear of missing out or FOMO is strong in this one. As you make up your mind, something that will pull you hard is that if you’ve never been or your travel partner(s) haven’t been, do you want to plan a trip to Greece without having been to Santorini?
It’s probably not exactly what you want to hear but in both trips and especially my last one with my wife, this rang true.
Keep in mind that I had been before so I didn’t have a particularly strong yearning to go back despite my fond memories. That said, my wife hadn’t been and she wanted to see it so I made sure it was as kick-ass as I could make 3 days in Santorini.
Ask my wife and she’ll tell you without blinking an eye that Santorini was her least favourite island but she’s glad she got to go. It doesn’t get as brutally honest as that.
But what about post-COVID?
I’m sure this is top of mind for most folks that are travelling to Greece as we’re rounding the corner. What is Santorini like now?
The good news:
- Some on Santorini are projecting only 15% of visitors compared to previous years.
- Greece is slated to be opening back up May 14, 2021 from a full lockdown.
- You will be able to see Santorini quiet and uncrowded like never before.
The bad news:
- Masks are mandatory indoors and outdoors.
- Visitors from foreign countries are required to have a negative PCR test performed up to 72 hours before entry or proof of full vaccination (TBD). You may also need to fill out a Passenger Locator Form found here.
- There’s still the question of whether countries will accept paper vaccination slips or if this will transition to a more formal digital format that’s accepted globally.
- Some cafes, bars, and restaurants may be closed or forced to close their business.
- There may be capacity limitations indoors.
- Could there be another wave? It’s hard to say but this is definitely something you want to keep an eye on in case of another lockdown.
Should you add Santorini to your itinerary?
There’s so many ways you can slice and dice it as you’ve seen above but if I boil it all down, here are a decision tree that makes it super simple.
Have you been to Santorini before?
- Yes -> Skip Santorini
- No -> Add Santorini
The key though is to add 1 or 2 other Greek Islands to your trip to really see how different they can be island to island. By contrasting Santorini with say Folegandros (our favorite), Paros, and Milos, you’ll be able to easily figure out what style you like.
Oh and try to avoid going by cruise if you can.
I’ll tell you now that you’ll definitely want to go back to the Western Cyclades.
So is Santorini worth it? For me, the allure of the sunset is still strong and as a photographer, it’s hard to deny that my best photos in Greece are from Santorini.
Our stay at Prekas Apartments with that caldera balcony view was incredibly memorable and I’d recommend staying in Imerovigli to anyone.
Still, Santorini will have to be low on my favourite islands simply because in our 14 days in Greece, the intimate charm of islands such as Folegandros just can’t be beat. After all, when you’re visiting the Western Cyclades, you’re seeking tranquil paradise where you can mingle with locals, hike down to hidden beaches, coast on quiet roads, while also see iconic whitewashed buildings, windmills, and epic sunsets.
Without the comparison of all the islands we visited, we probably wouldn’t have known what we were missing so I’m glad we got to experience a fuller range of what the Greek Islands have to offer.
Frequently asked questions
Yes, Santorini is incredibly safe with little to no crime due to hospitable and friendly locals. The biggest risk you’ll find on the island comes from vehicle accidents since many people rent ATVs and freak accidents from cliff erosion, falling rock, donkeys, and water sports.
Overall, a day on Santorini isn’t worth it especially if you factor in the travel required from other locations such as Athens, Mykonos, Crete, Naxos and Paros. When you build into your day ferry schedules, buses, and flights, you’re left with very few hours on Santorini to truly enjoy what the island has to offer. If you’re looking to watch the sunset then there’s really no way to do it in a day. If you’re really right on time and want to squeeze it in, there are full day boat trips from Chania, Heraklion, Rethymnon, Naxos, and Paros.
In certain areas it is as most travellers will flock to the popular spots along the caldera especially the sunset from Oia and Fira. However, if you venture off-the-path, there are plenty of places that don’t get as much attention such as Perissa, Megolachori, Emporio, Pyrgos, and Kamari on the island.
There’s something truly magical about the white-washed houses, ancient windmills, and cobalt blue domes that seemingly cling to the edges of the cliff. As far as Greek islands go, Santorini is undeniably beautiful and why it’s so popular.
No matter what you’ve heard or thought you have on Santorini, if you’ve never been, I suggest that you go there once and explore the island properly and that means to not go via cruise ship. Spend at least 3 days to see the popular spots and also the lesser-known regions.
To do all of Santorini by foot would be difficult but Fira (Thira) all the way to Oia is connected by boulevards and trails. Therefore, you can certainly walk and explore the most popular parts of the island by foot.
Compared to pre-Covid, it’s pure bliss with the lack of tourists and the cruise industry coming to a halt. In 2020, tourism dropped a whopping 75% and 2021 is projected to be 50%. As a result, the island is quiet although popular sunset spots still get busy but nothing like before. Everywhere is also hyper-hygienic as well. However, masks are still required indoors and outdoors and many businesses have been impacted – some permanently closed and others taking a break.
It’s a matter of demand and supply. With millions of tourists each year, the island gets absolutely packed during its high season in the summer. This means the popular parts of the island between Fira and Oia to be quite expensive and easily double of a hotel in Athens. Don’t be surprised to see rates of $250 USD or more per night in Santorini. Following suit are more expensive shops and restaurants. That said, you can always find cheaper accommodations on less popular parts of the island such as Perissa and Kamari.
The reason why Santorini is always on someone’s list of the most beautiful islands in the world is because it has all of the romantic and stunning visuals fit for magazines – white-washed houses, blue domed churches, turquoise waters, classic windmills, boat excursions, volcanic island, wine-tasting, black-sand beaches, and extraordinary sunsets.
I would love to hear your thoughts about Santorini for those that have been. Also, if you’re facing this dilemma and want more advice, drop a comment down below!