Why is Santorini so popular, you ask? Why not? This is one of the planet’s most jaw-dropping islands. It’s pure drama from start to finish, rising like a petrified giant from the glistening middle of the Aegean Sea. It’s got impossibly romantic villages – Oia, Thira – and a rugged coastline that’s not like anything else in the country. Throw in volcanic-grown wines, clear scuba diving waters, and cave hotels that push the luxury level to all new and dizzying heights and then things start to take shape.
With the exception of Athens and Crete, Santorini draws the biggest crowd of any destination in Greece. The airport alone pulls in a massive 520,000 arrivals each year. Then you have the hordes of island-hoppers who venture over on their odyssey through the Cyclades, not to mention the more than 790,000 folk who dock up on cruise ships. The stats are mind-boggling for an island that has a permanent population of just 13,500!
This guide aims to answer the question, why is Santorini so popular? It’ll focus on nine things that the island really excels in, from scintillating sunset shows to ancient dig sites that you’ll never forget. It will also touch on the location, which means oodles of holidayers look to Santorini as their gateway to the Aegean as a whole. Let’s go…
Ask any group of seasoned Greek island hoppers why is Santorini so popular and at least one is bound to mention the sunsets. Let’s put it simply – they are stunning! There’s no two ways about it. In the high season months between May and August, the sun dips perfectly to the west and a touch to the south of the island, appearing to fall plum into the Aegean Sea. Before it crosses the horizon, it still manages to turn the sky into a symphony of scarlet red and orange and eggplant purple.
Lots of people will search – and pay a whole load more – for hotels with a caldera-side position. Being there, right on the western edge of the island’s highest rim, is perfect if you’re wanting to enjoy the evening light shows. We can recommend the gorgeous Andronis Boutique Hotel in Oia and the Kasimatis by La Perla in Imerovigli. Both have suites that open to 180-degree views that will take the breath away at the evening hour.
If you’d prefer not to fork out extra for a sunset-view hotel, be sure to check out the following spots for when the evening starts to creep in:
- PK Cocktail Bar – This rooftop bar in Thira is right on the cliffside. It has Tiki cocktails on the menu and patio heaters for the sunset watchers in the winter months.
- Skaros Rock – A craggy bluff that juts out of the coast midway between Thira and Oia, Skaros Rock is a great place to escape the towns and enjoy a Santorini sunset.
- Sunset cruise – A boat trip is a must in Santorini, but you can also combine your aqua adventure with a sunset show by boarding for the golden hour. Trips leave from the port in Thira.
It might seem a little obvious, but the sea is an indelible feature of Santorini. The waters that surround this island aren’t only there to up the game at sunset by looking downright great. They are also ripe grounds for the local fishermen (the red snappers, seabass, and octopus are often served at the local tavernas fresh off the grill) and offer plenty of adventure…
Most notably, this part of the Aegean has some of the best visibility for divers. You can often see up to 40 meters underwater. That’s mainly down to the rocky geology of Santorini, which means there’s rarely sand clouding the shoreline waters. That same geology also adds in reefs and strange underwater rock features for the scuba folk to explore. Loads of outfitters now provide PADI courses and guided dives from the port at Thira.
The unbelievable hotels
The question here is why is Santorini so popular with the honeymoon crowd? Well, apart from the blazing sunsets and the wonderful wineries (more on those a little later), this island is host to arguably the most luxurious hotels in Greece. They’re in very high demand and might require a second mortgage for a week’s stay in the midsummer. But boy are they something special…
The hotels might be a touch different from what you might expect. Many are troglodyte hotels carved straight into the Santorini cliff faces, with cave rooms that spill out onto sun-baked balconies where infinity pools and Jacuzzi baths enjoy sweeping views of the caldera. Others have enticing restaurants and rooftop bars attached, or boutique themes that keep them unique and bespoke throughout.
Check out some of our favorites below:
- San Antonio – Small Luxury Hotels of the World – Holy moly, this one’s a stunner. It’s for adults only and has a prime location on the rugged cliffs between Thira and Oia. There’s a fantastic infinity pool that seems to merge with the Aegean Sea and suites done out in a lovely, whitewashed adobe.
- Santo Maris Oia Luxury Suites & Spa – This five-star lodging in Oia offers standalone villa suites with their own swimming pools. It’s not cheap but it’s a true once-in-a-lifetime experience.
- Canaves Oia Epitome – Small Luxury Hotels of the World – Another uber-lux establishment on the edge of the Santorini caldera, Canaves Oia Epitome offers a series of modernist rooms with pools sunken into the volcanic rock on the north side of the island.
Santorini might be small, but it manages to pack in a whole load of history. When you’re done gazing wide-eyed at the panoramas of the caldera, you can venture into the backcountry to launch adventures that will whisk you more than three millennia back in time.
One of the top places to see once you’ve laced up the walking boots is the ancient settlement of Thira. It sits on the top of the Mesa Vouno mountain on the eastern half of the island. Archaeologists think the site dates back to the 9th century BC. It contains an age-old forum space (known as an agora), the remains of several temples, residential areas, and sanctuaries dedicated to the gods Hermes and Heracles.
You should also head south to the pre-historic city of Akrotiri. It’s like Greece’s answer to Pompeii in Italy; a city that was totally destroyed by the mega volcano Theran eruption of 1600 BC. Large parts have now been excavated to reveal what was once a living, breathing settlement, complete with town squares and roadways. There were also frescos on the walls of the buildings at Akrotiri that have proved to be some of the best preserved pre-historic art from the era.
It might seem strange, but one of the reasons Santorini draws in so many people per year is its location in the very heart of the Aegean Sea. In fact, it’s not just at the heart of the Aegean, but also close to the main Cyclades islands. That means a jaunt to Santorini doesn’t have to be just about the clifftop vistas and the sunsets. It can also be the start of an epic island-hopping trip that takes in some other wonderful Greek holidaying spots.
The best thing is that the Cyclades islands that make their home close to Santorini offer a very diverse range of attractions and draws. Some have sparkling beaches. Others are great for hikers. And there are even largely-unknown isles that offer an adventure off the beaten path. Some of the spots that are linked by either direct or indirect ferries from Santorini include:
- Milos – A stunning island that’s fringed by strange white stone and carved by grottoes, great for sailors, swimmers, and sea kayakers.
- Mykonos – Sleek and stylish Mykonos is for chic cocktail spots and fine dining.
- Folegandros – Sunsets – dare we say it – to rival even Santorini. Hike up to the Church of Panagia to watch them with everyone else.
- Anafi – The unknown gem of the Cyclades, Anafi is for remote coves and rustic hotels.
- Ios – Wild and hedonistic Ios is famed for its pumping 18-30s nightlife scene.
Looking for more inspiration? We’ve also got a complete guide to the best islands to visit from Santorini.
Santorini is now one of the officially designated wine regions of Greece. But viticulture is nothing new in these parts. Experts think that wine has been produced on the island since at least the Roman age. They say there’s something about the soil that helps to retain moisture and filter it out to the vines throughout the colder nights that gives a unique flavor to the tipples and imbues the Santorini label with its recognizable minerality and acidity.
Tempted? Yep, us too. Check out these wineries for some of the best spots to sample the local stuff:
- Domaine Sigalas – Fantastic dolmades and wine served away from the crowds amid the vineyards north of Oia.
- Venetsanos Winery – One of the chicer wineries out there, often used as a wedding venue and with fantastic views.
- Santo Wines – Another epic sunset spot with some of the best-rated wines on the island. Conveniently close to Thira town.
We won’t wax too lyrical about the beaches in Santorini. The truth is that they’re widely considered to be some of the worst in the Aegean. They don’t typically have yellow, golden sand, and aren’t all that long, either. Most people will head to Milos or Naxos or Paros to laze on the coast. However, there is something that sets the beaches and coves here apart from the crowds: The geology.
Take Red Beach. It’s probably the most popular on all of Santorini (that means crowds in the summer months), but it’s got a backing of uber-high cliffs that are colored a deep shade of blood red. Just around the corner from that sits White Beach, where the sand is a Tahiti pearl black but the surrounding mountains are as white as the cottages in Oia village above. It’s perfect for photographer buffs or beachies that like something a little more unusual.
Because it’s relatively easy to reach
Santorini acts as a bit of a kingpin for the Cyclades Islands, which are the most-traveled islands in the whole of Greece. There are regular summer ferries that stop by, coming from both Athens and from other isles both near and far, including Kos, Rhodes, Milos, Paros, and Mykonos. Just know that ferry services can become more sporadic and unreliable as you approach the winter season, while pre-booking is always recommended for travel in the peak summer.
You can also fly direct to Santorini. Check out connections into the Santorini National Airport (JTR). There are now choices from all over Europe, including a few year-round links from Athens. In fact, there are even budget-friendly choices on airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet that can get you over to this amazing rock in the Aegean for under $30 per person without bags.
Santorini isn’t massive and it doesn’t have the pine-clad mountains of some of Greece’s other hiking meccas. However, what it can offer is one of the undisputed best trails in the whole of southern Europe. It’s a wiggling, winding, clifftop trail that links up the two main towns of Fira and Oia. Clocking up six miles in length from start to finish, it’s a real odyssey through the island that offers jaw-dropping vistas aplenty.
You see, the entire path hugs the precipitous top of the caldera rim. That means you’ll be gazing out westwards into the open Aegean and see the colossal top of the volcano of which Santorini is the cap. There are loads of places to stop for lunch and refreshments along the way, but be sure to start early to dodge the heat and take plenty of water.
So, why is Santorini so popular?
From the sunsets to the chic hotels, the scuba diving to its location in the very middle of the Aegean Sea, there are all sorts of reasons why Santorini is so darn popular. Granted, it’s not the cheapest destination in Greece. What’s more, its beaches aren’t the usual mix of golden sand and lapping waters that you see in travel brochures. But there’s something undeniably alluring about vacationing on a collapsed volcano in a hotel suite that’s carved into the side of the rock, don’t you think?