Santorini has been described by a thousand clichés – a supermodel, the lap of luxurious sunsets, the jewel in the crown of the Aegean, and so on. Its a fantastic problem to have as a travel writer – always looking for new ways to describe such a breathtaking destination! Everything you read about Santorini is not an exaggeration. It does have spectacular scenery! The colours are unbelievably bright! Each time you turn your head you want to take a photo of something amazing! The sunsets really are some of the best in the world! This truly is an island for lovers, romantics and honeymooners! And yes, of course you should visit, but what you don’t read about in travel guides are the things that can make or break your trip to Santorini. Read here about the three things you need to know before you book your trip to Santorini in order to have the trip of a lifetime to this magical place.
Read How to Have the Place to Yourself Before You Book Your Trip to Santorini
Like all the unique, iconic and most beautiful sites on our planet, we are in danger of loving them to death. There are a few clever ways to avoid the worst of the summer tourist crush and then you will be able to truly enjoy a trip to these great world wonders . A little forward planning can ensure that, like my most recent trip to this lover’s island, you too can get the very most out of your precious vacation time!
Santorini is a very small island. Much of the accommodation clings to the cliffs of the caldera. The sunsets from a room overlooking the volcano are simply magical and so it does make sense to stay in the villages along the clifftop. Oia is undoubtedly the most beautiful and upmarket of the villages and the wonderful but tiny Ahmoudi Bay below it is for me an absolutely essential part of the charm of visiting Santorini.
At its widest the island is 12km across and it is only 18km long. In 2019 Santorini will see 1.5 million visitors. 860,000 of these visitors will come by cruise ship. Almost all cruise ships must dock at sea because of their size. Passengers disembark using small boats. At its worst, five ships will dock at Santorini and 80,000 people will visit the island each day from two small ports. The passengers will disembark from the old port of Skala (at the wonderful Ahmoudi Bay) and ferry passengers will disembark from Athinios port.
Entering Santorini from the sea was of course, until relatively recently, the only way to arrive at the island. Tiny coves such as Ahmoudi Bay can be reached by hundreds of steps carved into the steep cliffs. There are, for example 300 oversized steps to climb up from the Bay to get to the village of Oia. Tour buses can come down to the bay by a winding back road and the buses fill up each day with tourists disembarking the cruise ships for guided tours of the island.
There is a cable car in Oia that descends the cliff to Ahmoudi Bay. The cable car can have nightmarish wait times in peak season. Its capacity is six gondolas with six people per gondola. Sometimes the wait time is zero but other times its two hours.
For many tourists the steps are the only feasible option. This is where Santorini’s famous donkeys come into the picture. The donkeys take tourists up and down the steps. This is a practice frowned upon because of the treatment of the donkeys by their owners which includes hitting them with sticks to make them go faster and because of the weight of some tourists. A donkey can carry 20% of its body weight or about 100 pounds. The average adult human weighs 137 pounds and of course it is higher in many developed countries.
I suggest walking down the steps and taking the cable car back on the return to Oia. But this means dodging the mounds of smelly donkey poo that get squashed onto the steps. All in all, its not a great experience EXCEPT for the most spectacular views! You can take it slow and it will only take 30 minutes to get to climb the stairs. It is, however, a much better experience when there are no cruise ships berthed below Oia.
It’s not too hard to avoid the most intense days for cruise ship passengers overwhelming the small island’s villages. In the Links and Further Information section below you can click on a daily calendar of the number of cruise ships docking at Sanatorini for all of 2019 and 2020. The number in brackets is the maximum passenger capacity.
You can see that there are many days of the year with no ships. For example, in 2019 no cruise ships arrived until 17 March and then there was one per day on Sundays and Thursdays for the rest of the month. By the middle of April there were about 8 cruise ships in Santorini each week, rising to 26 ships per week in the last week in July and first week of August.
In 2018 the rest of August saw approximately 15 ships per week, increasing to 20 per week in September. By the second half of October this number has reduced to about 8 per week. The short shoulder season with fewer ships occurs at either end of summer (middle to late April and middle to late October) and this is the sweet spot to aim for.
The good news is that even in peak summer season there are days when there are fewer cruise ships. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are the heaviest days for cruise ship passengers coming ashore and in general these are the days to avoid planning trips that involve shopping in the villages or trips to Ahmoudi Bay and Ancient Akrotiri.
Island Hopping Daytrips from Santorini is Often Not Possible
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When you plan your trip to the Greek islands it is important to know that the ferry system does not necessarily allow day trips to many islands. It is easy to visit Santorini from Athens and from other islands as day trips. However, that is sometimes not the case if you are based in Santorini and want to visit other islands.
I asked a very experienced tour operator how I could do this. He said, “Impossible.” I said, “How impossible?” He looked at me thoughtfully and said, “Almost impossible.” By this he meant that you can spend a couple of hours on nearby Ios island and make it back to Santorini by ferry on the same day.
The problem here is that ferries generally leave Santorini in the evening. They set sail from other islands for Santorini in the morning. This means if you want to see Knossos in Crete, for example, you would need to leave Santorini in the evening and stay two nights on Crete before catching a ferry back the next morning. In summer there are more ferries. For example, you can sometimes visit Mykonos on a day trip (6 hours round trip and 5 hours on Mykonos).
In the Links and Further Information section below, you can click on the annual ferry schedule for Santorini. In the meantime, if you wish to visit Greek island on a day trip from Santorini then it may be necessary to fly, helicopter or private launch at least in one direction. As above, an exception is that it is sometimes possible in peak season (July) to make a return trip to another island in one day by high speed ferry. This year, for example, in July and August is it possible to have about two hours on Mykonos if the ferry is on time.
Ferry schedules change regularly in Greece and so the information I’ve just given you could become irrelevant tomorrow! After the Greek financial crisis there have been mergers of ferry companies. Frequency of ferries changes each season and if you plan to arrive or leave by ferry its important to check the latest ferry schedule before you book your trip to Santorini. Ferries embark from their first port on time but tend to become progressively later arriving and departing at subsequent ports. Its important to check the ferry schedules for the month and day you plan to be in Santorini.
The best way to get schedules, including to non-direct destinations, is Ferryhopper.com. On Ferryhopper.com you can book your tickets and have them as electronic or as paper tickets. You can pick up the paper tickets yourself or have them delivered to you. They have good customer service and are easily reached and respond promptly.
Consider the Weather Before You Book Your Trip to Santorini
The difference in the number of tourists to the island is not the only factor to consider when choosing your holiday. The number of services varies hugely between winter and summer. For instance, there are only two ferries each day between Athens (Piraeus) and Santorini in winter as compared to 10 each day in summer!
Restaurants at Ahmoudi Bay, some other fishing ports and in the villages around the caldera are generally open as are the shops. A significant number of restaurants will be closed, however but that still leaves hundreds that are open! I have only found a few closed that I would like to visit in winter.
Unfortunately, beach side bars are closed.
Accommodation is much cheaper. I have read travel bloggers who suggest that you don’t stay in Oia because it is largely closed or dead over winter. Here is a picture I took in Oia in mid-April. There are certainly enough tourists to make it difficult to take photos! Another great thing about Oia in the shoulder season is that the price drops significantly for accommodation!
Santorini can be baking hot in July and August. So hot in fact that you don’t really want to be out in the middle of the day. It is also very humid. Sunburn is almost inevitable if you have fair skin, especially when around or in the water. Humidity can be much higher than the yearly average of about 60% in some months.
Santorini is also surprisingly cold and very windy in winter. Winds are constant on this island where you are never more than 1.8 km from the sea. Even mid-to-late April can be unpleasantly cold with your warmest coat and a sweater being necessary. I have swum in these coldest periods without a wetsuit and I am still getting over it! Even the “hot springs” of the volcano are only mildly warm in winter. Snow occurs rarely but rain and fog are not uncommon in winter.
Swimming is not really possible during this period without a wetsuit and snorkelling companies will provide them outside of the summer months.
Check out the he average monthly temperature, rainfall and sea temperature tables below before you book your trip to Santorini:
Santorini Average Monthly Temperatures
Santorini Average Monthly High/Low Temperatures
Santorini Average Monthly Rainfall
Santorini Average Monthly Sea Temperature
Links and Further Information
Choosing where to stay in Santorini can be hard. See my comprehensive breakdown of the villages of the island, the pros and cons of staying in each location and the best hotels for different budgets in each village here.
View, download or print the Santorini Cruise Ship calendar for 2019 and 2020 here
Much more detailed information and ferry bookings is available from Ferryhopper.com here
More detailed information on how to book your trip to Santorini including transport, airfares, accommodation and travel insurance is available on my Travel Resources page.
For a fantastic must-see attraction while on Santorini, see my post on Ancient Akrotiri
For a carefully curated guide of the very best tours in order to truly experience the culture of Santorini, understand its history, and visit its wonderful villages all over the island, see my post on the best 2020 Tours for Santorini Villages and Local Culture here.
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