The capital of Santorini, Firá (Thíra) is made up of whitewashed cubic houses and terraces, winding lanes, little squares, and blue-domed churches perched on the cliffs 300 meters above the caldera. From the small port of Skala, Firá can be reached either by walking or riding (mules are for hire) up the steep and winding stepped path (587 steps) or by taking the cable-car. It can also be reached from neighboring towns via the Fira to Oia scenic trail that takes you along the caldera cliff.
Ferries dock at the port of Athiniós, connected to Firá by road, while cruise ships put down anchor in the caldera, and passengers are transported to Skala by tender. Firá lives principally from tourism, and many of its buildings now serve as small hotels, apartments, restaurants, cafés, souvenir shops, and jewelers.
Oia is known for its famed sunsets that attract tourists from around the world. Located on the northern tip of Santorini, 12 kilometers up the coast from Firá, Ía (Oia) is a picture-perfect village of whitewashed houses, several of which have been converted into chic little boutique hotels with infinity pools, overlooking the caldera. Like Firá, it lives from tourism, but caters to a more upmarket clientele.
From Ammoúdi Bay, steep paths zigzag up to the town where you’ll find a row of waterfront seafood eateries, many with alfresco dining. Oia can be reached by local KTEL bus or by walking the trail along the cliffs high above the caldera (allow three hours from Fira).
Formed by the massive volcanic explosion that blew the center out of the island some 3,600 years ago, the calder is the sea-filled volcanic crater that remained. Measuring 12 kilometers by seven kilometers, it is still home to volcanic activity – in its center rise the two Kaiméni islets with hot springs and gas emissions.
Various agencies offer one-day excursions of the caldera by boat, including time to bathe in the hot springs and then have lunch on Thirassia, a tiny island on the west side of the caldera affording amazing views back to Santorini across the water.
Akrotíri Archaeological Site
Near the village of modern Akrotíri, 12 kilometers southwest of Firá, the ancient Minoan settlement of Akrotíri was buried below lava following the 16th-century BC volcanic explosion that created the caldera. At the Akrotiri Archaeological Site, visitors can walk on pathways through the debris of the town to see remains of the clay buildings of this once thriving town. It is so well preserved that it’s often compared to Pompeii. The site has remnants of multi-level buildings, pottery, and drainage systems, proving that Santorini was a flourishing and prosperous island before the eruption and probably lived from shipping and trading.
Santorini’s connections with North Africa can be deduced from the outstanding frescoes (most of which are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens) that decorated its houses. The site of the Akrotiri ruins reopened to the public in 2012, following several years of closure.
Nearby the Akrotiri site, you will find the famous Red Beach below a spectacular red cliff wall. The beach is accessible along a path from the town of Akrotiri. You can also take a bus from Fira or drive and park nearby before venturing down a rocky path to reach the beach. The beach is also accessible by boat from Akrotiri, Kamari, and Perissa ports.
The small beach gets crowded during the summer, so be sure to get there early to snag a prime spot for great contrasting views of the red rocks against the aquamarine water. Also note that the beach is prone to landslides, and sections have been roped off from visitors.
See the ruins of Hellenistic temples and foundations of Roman and early-Byzantine buildings at ancient Thira, located on the southeast coast of Santorini. Ancient Thira dates back to the ninth century BC. Among the ruins, you’ll find religious sites, a theater, a gym for military trainees, and old administrative buildings. Finds from the site are also displayed in the archaeology museum of Firá