When planning that once-in-a-lifetime Santorini holiday, there’s one question that often stands out from the rest: Fira or Oia? Which of the two most beautiful towns on the caldera side of the island should you go for? Both have pretty stunning views and enticing Greek tavernas. Each is laced with pretty whitewashed cubist architecture and cobbled lanes filled with pack donkeys.
But there are some key differences that can help you pick between them. Fira, for example, is closer to the main port on Santorini, and the airport, so it’s generally easier to get to. On the flip side, a lot of travelers think that Oia has the better restaurants and the more luxurious hotels, so it’s one to consider if you’re putting together a honeymoon for someone special on Santorini.
This guide will weigh up whether it should be Fira or Oia for you this year. We’ll detail the difference in places to stay, the sorts of activities there are in both towns, and some other reasons why you might want to plump for one over the other on your next R&R jaunt to the southern Med.
Fira or Oia – a quick comparison
Before we get stuck into the meat of what makes these two top Santorini towns tick, here’s a quick glance at their key similarities and differences:
- Fira is the main port and access point to Santorini so it’s pretty busy. Oia is smaller and considered a bit more upscale – the hotels reflect that.
- Oia looks south over the caldera, which isn’t great for sunsets, but still means fantastic views. Fira has the head-on sunset shows in the evening, but be ready to jostle for places to watch in the bars and tavernas.
- Oia is linked by a walking path (15 mins) to Ammoudi Bay, a seafood mecca and a lovely swimming spot. Fira is a 10-minute drive away from the nearest sand beach, but it’s not the best on the island.
- Fira is the transport hub of the island, so generally better if you’re looking to get around by public transport or want to do lots of tours. That helps to make Oia quieter and more relaxed.
Fira or Oia – the general vibe
Fira is the capital of Santorini. It’s also the main port of the island. That means it gets uber busy, especially in the high-season months between May and August. Most days they see thousands of people being ferried back and forth from the huge cruise ships that anchor out in the caldera. And because Fira itself is larger than Oia, it hosts more hotels and bistros, upping the crowd count even further. The upshot is that the place is altogether more bustling. The downside is that it can get crammed in the hot summer and there’s a feel of something a touch more touristic. (Check out the fridge-magnet and ouzo sellers on the main drag. It’s souvenir heaven.)
It’s not so different over on the north rim of the caldera with Oia. But that village is noticeably smaller. It’s also got a more upscale feel to its shopping drag and offers some of the most refined restaurants in Greece outside of Athens, but more on those later. The general gist is that Oia is more orientated towards jet-setter visitors looking to push out the boat. That also helps to bring the visitor numbers down a notch.
Fira or Oia for honeymoons
Honeymoons and Santorini go together like a Greek salad and a saganaki cheese. AKA, it’s a match made in heaven. But where’s better for that loved-up jaunt? Fira or Oia?
Fira is a popular choice for post-wedding trips. It’s got enough cave hotels and luxury suites to keep the average traveler happy, there’s no doubt about that. We’d also say that the sunsets – one of the main components of any romance-filled trip to Greece – are ever so slightly better here than in Oia. However, you’ve also got to factor in that Fira brings the headiness of being the island’s capital. It can get very busy in the peak season, not just with couples but with tourist crowds, cruise shippers, and people looking to rent ATVs. That can take away from the feeling of seclusion.
Oia, on the other hand, has really established itself as one of Greece’s go-to honeymoon spots. Just take one glance at the hotels that are on offer. There are some seriously opulent options that take luxury to all new and dizzying heights. They don’t come cheap but are fantastic for a pamper-filled trip with the other half. Oia is also laden with boutique shopping and has a slightly more refined edge to its tavernas, which means it’s definitely the place to go if you’re keen to treat someone special.
Fira or Oia for nightlife
There can only be one winner here: Fira. Fira is the bigger of the two towns and it’s the only place with a true nightlife scene on Santorini. The action is centered on the main cobblestone path through the center of the town, but most folk start imbibing earlier in their hotels with a view of the sunset, or they take to one of the sunset bars that cling to the sides of the cliffs – both Volkan on the Rocks and the Tropical Bar are pretty good options. For later on, you’ve got two fully fledged nightclubs: Enigma and the Koo Club. They usually get rolling around 9pm but don’t close until past midnight.
Oia is more about relaxation and refinement. The people who head there are after mixology-mixed cocktails in bars like Sun Spirit and Hassapiko, or meals of creatively cooked Greek food. There are no proper nightclubs in Oia, so expect a much lower-key scene as the small hours approach.
Fira or Oia for beaches and swimming?
As a rule, the beaches – the only beaches – of Santorini are on the less-trodden east coast of the island. That’s why this one isn’t up there with the best Greek islands for swimming and snorkeling. From caldera-view towns like Oia and Fira, you’ll have to drive right across the island or take a day trip to get to the swimming locations. Well…not ALL of them.
Oia has one trick up its sleeve: Ammoudi Bay. That little conch-shell cove sits right below the town and can reached on a particularly lovely walking path that takes about 15 minutes over 238 steep steps. The reward is a string of little swimming dive ins where you can jump right off the quaysides. It’s deep and it’s refreshing and it’s pretty darn stunning, but it’s not a beach.
Fira is the town that’s closest to the proper beaches of Santorini. There’s no spot within walking distance, though, so a car hire or bus will be needed. It takes about 25 minutes to get to the famous Red Beach on the south coast, not including the walk down the cliff trail after parking. Meanwhile, you’re looking at about 10 minutes to get to Monolithos Beach, one of the main powder beaches in the east.
Winner: Draw – Fira is nearer the sandy beaches on Santorini but Oia has a spectacular swimming cove within walking distance. You decide.
Fira or Oia for the view
We’re not sure if you’ve noticed but a lot of the buzz about Santorini is down to the view. It’s simply stunning. But then what would you expect of an island that’s actually the collapsed caldera of an ancient volcano rising straight out of the middle of the Aegean Sea?
The basic rule for view seekers is to choose to stay somewhere that’s on the caldera side of the island. Thankfully both Fira and Oia are there. They both cling to the western half of Santorini, facing the very middle of the volcano’s old crater, which is now largely submerged underwater, and – crucially – the western horizon, where you get those blazing sunsets.
But not both towns have the same view. Fira is strung along the cliffs midway down the Santorini west coast. Most of its hotels face directly west. That’s spot on for sunset viewing, because the sun will drop behind the craggy volcanic islands right in front of your hotel balcony or infinity pool. There’s no need to go a-searching for a bar or a terrace with better panoramas.
Oia doesn’t quite get that. We’re not saying the views aren’t good. They are! They take in the southern tip of Santorini in the distance, and survey the white-painted village of Imerovigli. It’s just that the sunset comes across from the west and Oia faces directly south. On top of that, Oia is nowhere near as high as Fira. It’s just 120 meters up, compared to Fira’s 226 meters, so there’s not that overall feeling of loftiness.
Fira or Oia for food?
This is Greece – no matter where you decide to go there’s going to be some pretty special food. What’s more, Fira and Oia are both brimming with fantastic places to eat, although it’s worth knowing that the prices in this corner of the Aegean are a touch higher than on the mainland, and even than on other nearby Cyclades islands like Ios, Milos, and Folegandros.
When it comes to the island capital, you can pick from all sorts. The age-old eatery of Naoussa often comes top of the list. It’s got the exact menu you’d expect of somewhere smack dab in the heart of the Aegean Sea – think grilled sardines in lemon juice and olive oil, fava bean pastes, and pita with saganaki cheese, all served on a terrace that looks north across the caldera rim. For some of the top seafood in the town, check out the Parea Tavern, and for budget eats you can select the Yogi gyros outlet on the main drag.
Oia’s similar but there’s also a distinct vibe of high-class eating in the small village. The likes of Oia Vineyart and Fino are testimony to that, with their meticulously crafted plates of Mediterranean fare. We’d also recommend a visit to the nearby Domaine Sigalas winery. It’s one of the best in the whole region and has tasting menus to match the distinct local Assyrtiko grape. Then you have Ammoudi Bay. Set just below Oia on the coast of north-west Santorini, it’s arguably the top place on the island for seafood lovers.
Which is easier to get to, Fira or Oia?
Most people will access Santorini by air, coming into the Santorini International Airport. Another name for that is actually the Thira (Fira) International Airport, which gives a clue as to just how close it is to the island’s capital. In fact, the runways are a mere 2.8 miles to the southeast of the town, which means it takes just 10 minutes in a rental car. What’s more, the main port of Santorini sits beneath Fira. It’s not big enough to host the major cruise ships (they need to anchor offshore), but does receive ferries from all over the Cyclades islands, from Athens, and even from Crete. There’s a donkey track and a cable car that can take you to the town center from the jetties, too.
Oia enjoys a little more isolation. However, that’s not the best news if you’re hoping to get on the ground and into your hotel in the time it takes to whisk together a tzatziki. Still, a transfer from the airport to the village is only around 20 minutes or so. The main thing that you’ll find is different is that there’s no direct access from the sea. Fishing boats can dock up at Ammoudi Bay, but there’s no access whatsoever for cross-island ferries, let alone cruise shippers.
Fira or Oia for families?
Coming to Santorini as a family? We think you can’t go wrong picking a hotel in Fira. Yes, it’s busy but there’s a reason for that. Several, actually. As the hub of the island, it’s the best place to organize day outings and organized tours, so it should be a cinch to get the crew out on a boat and sailing the caldera or on walking tours of ancient Akrotiri. There’s also an overload of dining options for all meals, along with good proximity to the ferry port and the airport for coming and going from Santorini.
Oia is further away from the main arrival and departure points on the island. It’s also a little more upscale that Fira, which means the hotels are often aimed at honeymooners instead of family groups – in fact, many even stipulate that they are adults only. The other thing that might keep families away is the difference between the Oia and the Fira swimming spots. Oia is all about rugged, rocky coves, but Fira is closer to the sandier beaches of the east coast, and they are certainly better if you’ve got the little ones in tow.
Fira or Oia for things to do?
If you’re keen to explore all that Santorini has from tip to toe, then we’d probably recommend basing yourself in Fira. Not only is it the main transport hub of the island, with buses going to the ancient sites of Akrotiri and across to the lesser-known beaches of the east coast, but it’s also the main gathering point of Santorini tour providers. They offer all sorts of organized trips, whether that’s a boat excursion across to the smoking volcanic soils of Tholos Naftilos in the caldera or jaunts to Red Beach and other hidden coves around the Santorini coast.
Oia still has its own tour providers, but bear in mind that anything that involves a boat trip will usually mean a transfer to the port in Fira first. Some things are better up in Oia, like the wine tasting (one of the best vineyards on Santorini is located on the north part of the island) and the seafood dining. However, history buffs and culture vultures might find that they are a little far from sites like Ancient Thera. What’s more, most of Santorini’s top beaches (although the island isn’t really known for beaches at all) are situated on the south and east coasts, far from Oia’s chic hotels.
Fira or Oia – the verdict
So, will it be Fira or Oia? First off, a disclaimer: Both of these towns are stunning spots to stay in Santorini. You can’t go wrong in either. They each offer soaring cave hotels with breathtaking views and fantastic sunset bars by the bucket load.
We’d say that Oia is tailor-made for honeymoon travelers or those after something super chic and refined. It’s got some of the most deluxe hotels there are on Santorini, along with eateries that crank up the style. It’s also less bustling than the island capital, and has the seafood hub of Ammoudi Bay just below.
Fira is for those who want to explore every inch of the island. It’s the best-connected location on Santorini, especially when it comes to arriving from the sea. On top of that, you’re close to the main historical sites, and you get head-on westerly views of the sunset from many of the hotels. Just be ready to contend to some hefty crowds in the high-season summer months.