I have a controversial point of view to present to you about Santorini.
I think Santorini is overrated.
There, I said it.
Yes, I think Santorini is beautiful. The landscape is very striking and there are some great views to be had. However, when I visited last year I found it quite a confronting experience and it definitely gave me pause for thought during our trip.
Let me give you some context. I usually go on city breaks with my husband. We are city break people. We’ve tried beach holidays, and it doesn’t work. We always end up getting bored after half an hour and going off in search of something to see, do, or eat. We’re also big fans of going to places with a lot of history and/or culture. You could, if you were so inclined, call us Culture Vultures.
So, with that said, let me explain my controversial opinion of Santorini.
Let’s talk about the views for a minute.
Yes, they’re breathtaking and the caldera is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
The town of Oia is also very striking – that’s the small town full of cute white buildings you’ll have seen on the ‘gram and in plenty of magazine editorials. It’s really very pretty, it’s true.
That’s all well and good, however the views are definitely weather dependent. Those gorgeous shots depend on there being sun, so that those white buildings contrast beautifully with the blue sea and sky. There can be no clouds, and definitely no rain.
This is what Santorini looks like in the rain, with no editing. Not quite so editorial worthy now, is it?
Luckily our trip was long enough that we managed to catch some good weather, as well. I just felt sorry for those on cruise ships or otherwise just passing through for a day whose one chance to see Santorini was marred by grey skies.
Let me explain a key problem with Santorini. Oia, the place that everyone wants to go to, is right on the northern tip of the island. However, most people arrive either into the port of Fira, or the airport. Both are about halfway down the island. There is one road between Fira and Oia and it’s very narrow. It also runs alongside a sheer drop to the ocean for a portion of the drive. This is not a road to be trifled with, but everyone wants to go to Oia so it’s regularly clogged with buses from cruise ship tours, tourists on ATVs, and locals on scooters. The attitudes towards driving for all of the above were universally terrifying.
It’s particularly terrifying when the coaches full of cruise ship passengers thunder down the tiny roads to Oia in time to catch the sunset, and then weave precariously back down again afterwards. You don’t want to meet one of those coaches barreling down a narrow road after dark, trust me.
The cruise ship industry has had a huge impact on tourism. There’s no getting around it – Oia and Fira in particular are just stuffed with tourists. And this isn’t an anti-tourist whine, because let’s face it, I was one too. It’s just that the sheer number of visitors outweighed the locals significantly, and the island is so small it’s just not built to handle the number of people that arrive to the island – particularly in cruise ships. Our AirBnB owner told us to look down into port and count the ships – if there’s one in port, it’s safe to go into Fira. Two in port and you should maybe reconsider. Three in port and you shouldn’t go anywhere near the place. I think that says a lot about the effect of cruising.
All this gives the place a bit of a Disney-on-Sea type feel. You just sort of shuffle along with everyone else. But to me it all felt quite manufactured. And bear in mind we went in May – this wasn’t even peak season.
I see your crowd – and I’ll raise you a poser. Now, we all pose to a certain extent (especially us bloggers amirite).
But this was another level. I saw an unbelievable number of people concentrating more on getting that perfect shot for Instagram than enjoying their surroundings. I don’t want to sound judgey about this because we all have our different ways to travel, and that’s cool. You do you. It’s just really not for me, and it was quite exhausting to have to constantly dodge out of the way of full on wedding shoots with assorted photography teams of 5+, and wait to take your landscape shot until the person blocking the view in question had finished taking 50,000 selfies all in microscopically different poses. Genuinely, I’ve never seen anything like it before.
It felt like a lot of people weren’t there to see the island, they were just there to get that perfect ‘classic Santorini’ shot (you know the one) and then leave. I found that very depressing.
The (in)famous sunset
I’ve written about this before so I won’t labour the point. There is one recommended sunset lookout point in Oia (it’s even marked on Google maps) so of course, come half an hour before sundown, everyone who was in Oia for the day or has been bussed in especially congregates at this one point. It’s basically an old ruined castle on a sticking out piece of rock, so there’s one narrow way in and one narrow way out. People get there super early to get the best spots, so unless you’re similarly dedicated you’ll be taking your shots at arm’s length over the heads of the amassed crowds.
Nothing like watching the sunset through someone else’s LCD screen.
Not only are you sharing this special moment with hundreds of strangers, there was also a wedding shoot going on nearby plus a drone overhead. Personally, I think drone shots are pretty rad but I can also now firmly say that there’s nothing like a drone for cutting through an atmosphere.
And when the sun actually did go down, I wouldn’t even say it was that spectacular. It doesn’t even go down over water! It sets behind the next island along. So if you’re a sunset over water purist then there’s nothing for you here.
And once everyone’s sighed in unison at the sun finally going behind that island, you’ve got to fight with them all to get back to your respective buses/ATVs/lodgings. Don’t underestimate how slowly people will potter down the narrow passageways of Oia whilst doing this.
Renting quad bikes seems to be a popular thing for tourists to do, and I hate to sound like a total killjoy here but I was horrified by the lack of safety around these things. Most people I saw weren’t wearing a helmet, much less any other protective gear (or suncream…). I have a maybe irrational fear of ATVs because I’ve just heard of too many awful accidents involving them, but even S who is a bit more level headed than me about it got worried.
One day we got caught in a jam caused by a quad biker who had actually gone over the edge of a cliff – I’m not sure what happened, but she was standing at the top of the cliff looking white as a sheet while her quad bike lay at the bottom of the cliff. It could have gone so much worse for this poor lady and I’m really glad it didn’t.
Basically, it might seem like a fun and efficient way to get around the island but you’d not get me on one of those things in a million years.
It’s no surprise that Santorini is super expensive. I mean, it is an island so obviously everything has to be imported. And I am well aware of ‘tourist pricing’ and to be honest in a lot of circumstances I think it’s justified.
But this was excessive.
We stayed in an AirBnB hoping to cut costs, but even self catering was pricey. There were a few mini-marts dotted around but they mostly sold imported (largely British!) groceries. As if I’ve come all this way to buy some Cadbury’s.
Speaking of tourist pricing, anything involving the famed caldera view comes at a premium. And you’ll need to book well ahead for the prime seats. We sat and watched as couple after couple came into the restaurant we were dining at, and enquired after the tables sat right next to the window with a view out over the caldera. When they were told they were booked, every single couple declined to eat inside but took their business elsewhere, looking frustrated. Most of them were only there for the night or two, and tables with views (so it seems) were booked up well in advance of that.
Unfortunately, due to the high number of tourists, we felt like we hardly saw any locals during our time on Santorini. We rented a car, so were able to travel across the whole island relatively easily. We saw very few locals, and therefore as you can imagine, there wasn’t much culture to be had. The best part was going to see Akrotiri, the ancient city which was genuinely fascinating to visit and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in history. That was basically it in terms of culture, unfortunately.
Santorini travel tips
So after that big whinge, I’m now going to temper that by saying that whilst it probably sounds like I hated Santorini, I actually had a brilliant time. I turned 30 on Santorini and I really enjoyed it (just in case it didn’t come over in that post). It really is a gorgeous place with incredibly striking scenery, and it’s got a lot to offer. There are just some things I wish I’d known before I visited. Here’s what I’d tell a friend planning a trip to Santorini:
- Try and travel in low or off season if you can
- Go self catering (especially if you’re gluten free – read about how hard it was to find gluten free food in restaurants on Santorini here)
- Don’t stay in Oia – it’s just as beautiful to visit in the day but for me it was too crowded and sardiney to feel relaxed staying there. If I went back, I’d stay either in Imerovigli (if I could splurge I’d go for Grace Santorini which we walked past and looked divine) or I’d stay somewhere on the coast just east of the new town of Akrotiri. Again we drove past some beautiful secluded villas that would be perfect to return to after a day exploring crowded Oia or Fira. Basically I’d go anywhere but Oia (sorry, Oia). Here’s the view over to Oia from said area near Akrotiri. Nice, eh?
- Skip the sunset at Oia, find somewhere else to see it – it’d be amazing from a villa overlooking the caldera just east of Akrotiri…
- Prepare to $pend. Presumably you’ve come here for a bucket list experience, so just know that’s not going to come cheap
- Along with that, book ahead for any particular special experiences you’d like to have, like dinner with a caldera view
- We rented a car to explore, which was a bit of a faff when staying in Oia as parking was quite far away from our place. I’d consider relying on taxis for day trips, although if we were staying out near Akrotiri then I might want my own vehicle
- Bring your best long floaty skirt, sparkly bikini, and big wide brim floppy straw hat. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Ouch, ok. Maybe this post was a little bit harsh. Maybe I’ve given you something to think about when planning your future trip. Maybe this has merely affirmed Santorini’s place on your bucket list. Maybe you’ve already been and loved it – I’m really glad you did! Horses for courses and all that. I’m only sorry it didn’t suit me quite as well as it suited you.
Have you ever visited anywhere that was quite different to what you expected? How did you react?