Caldera and Cable Cars: The Perfect Day in Santorini, Greece
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It is hard to put into words how beautiful the cliff-perched towns and stunning sea views are. Santorini is a caldera or large crater formed by a volcano. The crater is mostly submerged and what remains is the 5 islands that make up the Santorini group. The main island of Thera is where you will likely spend all of your time. To start off with, one day in Santorini is certainly not enough. We arrived by cruise ship and were severely limited with what we could explore on the island in that time.
When you arrive by cruise ship, you are anchored off the coast and must tender to Skala, a small port below Fira. From there, you have several options: go up to Fira by cable car, walking, or donkeys OR take a speed-boat transfer to Oia. We chose to go directly to Oia. Before you reach the cable cars, there are a few small shops and vendors offering a roundtrip ticket from Oia to Fira. All of them work essentially the same: they take you by boat to Oia port (12 minutes), bus you up the cliffs (2 minutes), you are on your own to explore Oia, and then they bus you to Fira (15-20 minutes). When we went it cost 25 euros per person. The buses from Oia to Fira are usually every hour (although they are not perfectly on time due to traffic on the island). Once you are at Fira, you have to get back to the port on your own. We found this to be a great option, as we wanted to see both Oia and Fira and this would save a bit of time not having to first go up to Fira. It was a bit more expensive than if you took a public bus from Fira -> Oia and then Oia -> Fira. The boat transfer also has the added advantage of the scenic views of both Fira and Oia from the water. You can buy this round-trip transfer the day of or a similar transfer in advance. Be aware that the speed-boat transfer is popular and some companies give out more tickets to people than they can adequately transfer. When trying to catch the bus from Oia to Fira, not everyone waiting was able to get on the bus and they would not have a new bus until the next time on the schedule (an hour away). Some tourists had to pay for their own way from Oia to Fira. If we would do the day again, a private guided tour might be the best choice to ensure you are able to see everything in your time.
So now on to what we actually did during our day. After arriving in Oia, we walked a couple blocks till we could see the water. The main pedestrian street, Nikolaou Nomikou, has beautiful views looking out over the sea and the gorgeous white-washed hotels and shops.
Facing the water, if you go right along the main pedestrian walkway you will reach the Byzantine Castle ruins of Oia. While there are some old ruins that you can climb on, the main draw is the views. It is a bit on a hill, so you will have breathtaking views of Oia and the whole caldera.
This photography spot also provides views of the "backside" of the island and a few of the iconic Greek windmills.
One thing Oia is most famous for is its sunsets. The Oia castle is the most popular spot for viewing the sunset. You will be serenaded by violins and local musicians, but you will probably also be packed like sardines. Due to our tight schedule, we missed watching the sunset in Santorini, but it is something to come back for!
Santorini and Oia are also known for their blue domes. There are many painted domes that are dotted throughout the village. Wander around some of the smaller alleyways to try to photograph the blue domes from any angle you can.
The maze-like streets provide a fun challenge to navigating your way through the town. You will likely walk yourself around in a few circles before you get to where you want to go. Both Oia and Fira are small enough that there is little danger in actually getting lost. You are always just a few dozen steps away from the central walkway.
In the main square of Oia is the church Ekklisia Panagia Platsani. There is usually a large crowd of people taking in the seascapes or sitting on benches. You might also see a few couples getting wedding photos in front of the church. The actual church has a very impressive but small. It is worth a quick peek inside if it is open. It is free but no photography is allowed inside.
We then walked the opposite direction along Nikolaou Nomikou. There are several more shops, beautiful sea views, art galleries, and restaurants.
We turned around once we reached Saint George Church, which has a yellow exterior but still with the iconic blue dome.
We then took the bus back to Fira. The bus goes along the backside of the island, allowing you to see agricultural terraces and volcanic beaches. If you have more time, visiting one of the volcanic beaches is a must. Fira is the capital and the largest town. It can seem a little bit of a let-down after Oia. Fira still has some beautiful views over the caldera, lovely cobblestoned streets, whitewashed buildings and colored roofs, shops, and restaurants. It also has two churchs and an archeological museum that are worth seeing. However, we recommend spending a majority of your time in Oia.
Once you are down with Fira, you can journey back down to the port either by taking the stairs or the cable car. The cable car is a quick ride down and costs 5 euros one-way. Walking down the steps is free but tiring and smelly (the donkeys and walkers take the same path).