Santorini: A Controversial Opinion

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.

The views

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.

The Logistics

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 crowds

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.

The posers

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.

The ATVs

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.

The prices

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.

The culture

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?

-Rachel

Happy to be linking up again with Van, Marcella, Lauren and Isabel for Wanderlust Wednesday. 

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28 Comments

  1. 31st March 2017 / 19:44

    Love this!!! I’ve been tempted to go to Santorini for the Pinterest perfect pictures I’ve seen but most tourist places come with some major downsides and I’m glad to read an honest opinion on Oia. I’m always up for some off the beaten path travel (can’t get more off the beaten path than Greenland I guess) and I didn’t relax as much as I’d hoped on our beach holiday in Spain last year. It’s the crowds that annoy me and well, nothing worse than getting a selfie stick pushed in your face 😀

  2. Jen
    31st March 2017 / 19:52

    It’s funny because you aren’t the first person that I have heard say that! Yeah it’s pretty not a place I would go.

  3. 31st March 2017 / 22:16

    Loving this honest review! I felt the same way about Neuschwanstein Castle (well for different reasons of course, but I was highly disappointed after getting there). I have to be honest, I would LOVE to visit Santorini one day, it has been on my bucket list forever. But now if I ever do go, I’ll go in with lower expectations. And maybe not spend so much time there!

  4. 1st April 2017 / 01:13

    Love your honesty. I felt the same way about Phuket and Koh Samui when we went. Beautiful but everythingggg is just done for the tourists.

  5. 1st April 2017 / 10:37

    I went in Octobrr Rachel & stayed in both Firostefani & Oia & went fully expecting all of the above but I have to say, I had the opposite experience in finding it was LESS crowded than I expected, restaurants easier to book & although Firostefani was much more peaceful, Oia waa hands down my fave place to stay. I totally agree with you about the sunset view & viewpoint (bleugh to walking back) but I ended up loving the island more than I thought I would. Our hotel was pricey but in October, it was only slightly more than most hotels of that calibre would be in mych of Europe & came with a Caldera view & a private hot tub, which I have never seen before. Expensive definitely but big saving on peak seasin & as far as value for money goes, I thought it was good. I think maybe because October is right at the end of the season, that is perhaps why I felt differently & personally, we are both desperate to go back one day! Glad to hear you still enjoyed your bday trip but such a shame it didn’t quite live up to the hype but I know it has become overtaken by people wanting the photos rather than truly appreciating the place.

  6. 1st April 2017 / 12:24

    Santorini has been on my bucket list for a long time but I had worried that it would be overrated. I think I’d still go but like you suggested it will definitely be in the off-season!

  7. 1st April 2017 / 18:26

    Your honesty is appreciated! The one time I went to the Caribbean, I noticed it was so crammed with honeymooners doing all the typical honeymoon things. It took the magic away from it because it was like, “Oh, this is how you get those pictures”. And that was before the age of smartphones. I can only imagine now.

  8. 1st April 2017 / 23:16

    Haha I actually totally agree with you. I celebrated my 30th there last year as well (if you remember?). Anyway, one other thing I would add is the importance of staying somewhere higher up on the cliff sides if you don’t want to be climbing up and down 200-400 steps every single day. It was great for my fitness but not great for my mum who has a bad knee. Also, I had gastroenteritis ON my actual birthday and spent the whole day in bed which was such an anticlimax. I believe it was from an outbreak at our hotel…. so many people harp on about how wonderful Santorini is, but I really enjoyed Mykonos and Paros more. Paros, especially. Less tourists and more breathing space on the other islands. The fear factor of the cliff sides was also a bit confronting!!

  9. 2nd April 2017 / 01:51

    I’ve never visited, but I think you make great points!

  10. 3rd April 2017 / 15:57

    Funny that I’m reading this today. I just finished a wine tour with a Manarola native that was talking about how the cruise ship passengers and daytrippers have ruined Cinque Terre. It’s all “the other side of the coin” as he put it. I can imagine why Santorini would be the same. Off season travel is my jam… and… can we stop with the millions of selfies? Just enjoy the sunset. You don’t need 15 different facial expressions and hand gestures to prove you were there. 😉

  11. 3rd April 2017 / 21:15

    So I totally understand what you mean. I seriously can’t stand crowds and always feel claustrophobic around them. I also find it extremely annoying when you’re waiting to take a quick picture behind somebody that’s trying to take the perfect selfie and they end up taking forever. I think that I would probably enjoy Santorini, but I think that it’s good to be aware of the things that you pointed out so I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

  12. 5th April 2017 / 21:07

    It was great to read about (and see) an alternative view on somewhere that appears to be a very Instagrammy place. And what a shame about people worrying more about getting the perfect shot than enjoying a place, that’s sad.

  13. 5th April 2017 / 22:39

    I’ve always wanted to go to Santorini but now not so much after your honest review. All those crowds and all that touristy stuff really isn’t my style and I bet the price tag matches too. At least if I do go, I’ll have realistic expectations!

  14. 5th April 2017 / 23:03

    Yep, I can totally see why you didn’t love Santorini!

    I love a relaxing holiday – but my idea of relaxing is not a place where there are 23502304023402340 others also there trying to get their perfect instagrammable vacay.

  15. 6th April 2017 / 00:21

    There’s definitely something about skipping the crowds and getting off the beaten track – alas I’ve never been to Greece, but if it’s anything like other locations I’ve been to, you can so often get a more authentic, local experience if you’re willing to do a little research and legwork and find the secret treasures off the beaten track!

  16. 6th April 2017 / 05:45

    I totally understand everything you present in here. And, it is not only Santorini. The same happens in a lot of places. That is why I have to think hard before visiting a popular location. I dream of going to a lot of places but others dream about going too. I think it is going to get worst for certain places. #wanderfulwednesday

  17. 6th April 2017 / 10:26

    I’ve never been to Santorini but I can well imagine what you were describing and sympathise! Unfortunately all these idyllic small places – like Positano and Amalfi in Italy – were never intended to have a booming tourist industry meaning the local culture and people just get swamped by it all. Cruise ships into Venice are bad enough so I can’t imagine how much that great boat load of people must affect the small towns on Santorini. While getting a spectacular view and visiting the msot beautiful places is appealing, what is far more appealing to me is meeting local people and experiencing GENUINE local culture. I may never visit Santorini but I will certainly try to go to some Greek island that might not be so instagram worthy but will give me an experience that is individual and memorable (for the right reasons!). Though-provoking post, thanks!

  18. 6th April 2017 / 14:08

    This is a really interesting post – it’s so good to hear a slightly more realistic side than the edited, perfectly posed Instagram shots. I definitely still think the architecture is pretty, but it definitely seems like a very touristy place! Thanks for sharing this! #WanderfulWednesday

  19. 6th April 2017 / 15:35

    super interesting! I seriously love your honesty Rachel. I can always count on you to give it to me straight. thank you!!!

  20. 6th April 2017 / 20:30

    This post was timely because I have been dying to go to Santorini and we were going to try to make it happen this year. I don’t NEED to stay in Santorini for the trip, I just need to go there, so even a day trip would be fine for me. I’m definitely okay with staying on one of the other Islands or a less populated City. I haven’t even started the research yet, but reading this was helpful.

  21. 8th April 2017 / 02:18

    Most of my biggest travel experiences (quite possibly all my biggest travel experiences) were pre-Instagram, blogging, and even camera phones for a lot of them. I am thankful for that. I hate to sound so old-fashioned, but it’s true.
    I especially liked this because your reasons all sound so valid to me. I find that some travelers claim to not enjoy a place but can’t really explain why.

  22. 8th April 2017 / 09:33

    I completely agree with you! My husband and me spend a couple of weeks hopping on and off the cyclades a few years ago and although Santorini is rather pretty, we thought it was pretty boring as well. We definately preferred Naxos!
    (Found you through Wanderful Wednesdays)

  23. 8th April 2017 / 18:10

    So funny reading this!! Esp. about the instagram posers… My friends and I went on a sailboat tour around Santorini and there was LEGIT a wedding shoot on the sailboat. This girl had her literal wedding dress, plus about 10 other costume changes and made her husband (fiancee? boyfriend? slave???) photoshoot her lying in different positions on the boat through our entire tour. It was hilarious as the weather was freezing and they were doing this amongst me and my other broke college friends shivering and downing horrible white wine, lol. It is a bit overrated, but we actually never made it to Oia so I think I would at least want to do a day trip there next time… maybe not stay there after reading your post tho 😉

  24. 13th April 2017 / 15:49

    I’ve read a couple trip reviews of a visit to Santorini from those, like you, who didn’t fall in love with it…. and I think the experience is what you make it. For example, if you booked a stay in Fira or even Oia, you might be *sorely* disappointed with the crowds. I stayed at the tiiiiniest village between the two in peak season with fantastic weather and I didn’t feel the sense that it was crowded in the least. I think staying in a tiny village is key, and also doing activities that aren’t on the beaten bath. For example, hiking, which we did – a great way to really feel what the island is about without coming across hardly any tourists as very few others were hiking! … and never going into Oia around sunset (we always watched it from our hotel). We also found a few locals beaches where there weren’t many people. Sure, you’ve got to be prepared for the prices (definitely not Athens prices, hah!) but getting off the beaten path in Santorini is everything.

  25. 16th April 2017 / 20:35

    Fascinating! I have always had this on my bucket list but definitely wondering now if the gorgeous Greek sunsets that I’ve seen already would beat this experience by a long way. I really hate sharing a spot with a million other people, even though I also like to talk about how you shouldn’t avoid places just cause they’re tourist favourites. A delicate balance to strike!

  26. 18th May 2017 / 01:54

    Well indeed Santorini is super expensive (I’ve visited twice and was hosted, so I don’t have first-hand experience of the cost), especially if you’re after lodgings on the caldera.There are a lot of hotels in Perissa, Perivolos, Emporio which are on the other side of the island. That being said, it’s better to avoid islands like Santorini and Mykonos mid July to end of August. I visited Mykonos once in August and there was a pedestrian traffic jam in the town, so I know the feeling!!
    Being Greek and having visited many islands I agree that Santorini is overrated (especially if you want a nice beach, which Santorini doesn’t have), but unfortunately, I have to admit that although there are equally picturesque islands (Milos, Amorgos and Astypalaia come to mind), Santorini has those colorful houses that set it apart from the other Cycladic islands.

  27. Jen
    20th July 2017 / 22:36

    So funny to read this as my family and I are at the port waiting to leave the island of Santorini. Our first day of arrival I had tears in my eyes from the frustration of dealing with the crowds and the over the top selfie types. I showed up in shorts a tank and ball cap, sticking out like a sore thumb from the rest of the crowd dressed head to toe in their very best. The 4 nights we stayed was an experience for sure but I almost feel guilty partaking in the tourism of this island that has become nothing more than an island for tourists. I look forward to a less busy visit to the mainland .

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