Santorini’s best-kept secret is Greece’s Pompeii – a city at the southern tip of the island being excavated. But not just any city – a Minoan city from 3,500 years ago of wealthy and fashionable residents, and grand homes and public buildings. Read on for a comprehensive guide to this fascinating city, walk through the streets and peer into the homes of the people who perished when a volcanic explosion tore about Thera and ended the Minoan period.
- The Ruins of the Minoans
- Santorini in Ruins: The Biggest Natural Catastrophe in Human History
- Santorini Map: Arriving at the Ancient Akrotiri Archaeological Site
- Inside the Akrotiri Archaeological Site
- Everyday Life in Ancient Akrotiri
- Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Santorini
- Getting There and Away
- Guided Tours of Akrotiri
- Best Private Guided Tour of Ancient Akrotiri including Hotel Transfers
- Best Private Guided Tour of Ancient Akrotiri
- Best Ancient Akrotiri and Wineries/Wine Tasting Tours
- Ancient Akrotiri Opening Hours and Admission Costs
- Links and Further Information
The Ruins of the Minoans
From the rooftop balcony on a clear day, the nearby island of Crete could be seen by the prosperous villagers of ancient Akrotiri in Santorini. Not just any old Aegean fishing village, the inhabitants of Ancient Akrotiri, a Minoan Bronze Age settlement, lived more than 3,500 years ago and were seriously wealthy.
They lived in stone buildings, sometimes three stories high with masonry facings, latrines and sewerage systems, an elaborate drainage system, and large airy rooms facing the Aegean Sea. The walls were reinforced with wooden beams from Crete to help the buildings withstand earthquakes.
Ceramics and pottery production in Akrotiri certainly occurred, but they also possessed wonderfully delicate teacups from Crete, vases from Knossos, chlorite vessels from the Early Cycladic period (c. 2700-2400/2300 B.C.), and other household items from as far afield as the Dodecanese islands, the Greek mainland, Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.
It was all going so well…
Santorini in Ruins: The Biggest Natural Catastrophe in Human History
The young men and women are depicted in frescoes and they are fashionable and appear carefree and confident.
This sophisticated society lies at the southern tip of the island of Santorini (ancient Thera). It flourished until the residents evacuated as the largest geological event in human history occurred – the Theran volcanic eruption.
The mother of all volcanic eruptions, the Theran eruption abruptly ended the great Minoan culture of the Bronze Age.
A layer of tephra (a kind of volcanic ash) from the Theran eruption has been found in a lake in Western Turkey. Geologists agree that the eruption of the volcano is the biggest natural event that has ever been recorded by humans. The exact date of the eruption isn’t known, but the Egyptian New Kingdom’s records may contain a reference to the event in around 1560-1546 BC.
Like Pompeii, Akrotiri was covered in lava and its remains are slowly being excavated. In fact, it lay undiscovered until the ash from the volcanic eruption was being used to build the Suez Canal.
Unlike archaeological sites such as Pompeii, no human remains or precious objects have been found at the site. Clearly, the residents had time to beat an orderly retreat.
Right at the southwestern tip of the island, you can walk through the streets of Akrotiri. This small hamlet has been a fishing village from the Late Neolithic times ( since at least the sixth century BC!) It was the main stopover port between Cyprus and the advanced Minoan civilization of Crete. Akrotiri copper molds and crucibles hint at a major source of the village’s wealth.
It vies with many other ancient sites as the possible lost city of Atlantis. Is Akrotiri Atlantis? The Ancient Akrotirian name for the village before the eruption is not known.
It is hard to conceive the scale of this disaster. The volcanic eruption blew the island of Santorini into multiple smaller islands where they lay, uninhabited, for several centuries.
Santorini Map: Arriving at the Ancient Akrotiri Archaeological Site
The bus from Oia (Ia) and Fira (Thera) winds through vineyards to the southwest tip of the island, before pulling up beside a tree across from the entrance gate to the Akrotiri archaeological site.
There are few amenities besides toilets and a gift shop at the site, but a one-minute walk brings you to the tiny port of the village of Akrotiri, and another five minutes along the coastline is the Red Beach, a stop on all sailing and bus tours of the island. The buses keep erratic hours, and like all public buses on Santorini, are filled with tourists.
If you wander a minute further down the road towards the sea you may see the bus parked there. Akrotiri, as opposed to the Akrotiri archaeological site, is often its first stop, meaning that you will get a seat for the journey back!
In general, when boarding a bus in Santorini, get there 15 minutes early and stand at the place where the front of the bus will stop. If you stand in a general clump of tourists, you are unlikely to get a seat at any time of the year.
It’s not a big deal if you don’t mind the conductor squeezing past you twice on his journey to the back of the bus and back again.
Inside the Akrotiri Archaeological Site
Once you’ve paid admission, you enter a large covered structure that comprises all the excavated areas to date. A bio-climactic roof covers the entire archaeological site and walkways suspended above the excavations allow you to wander through and above the site and a path leading through the streets of the ancient city has been cleared.
Along the paths, you can peer into windows and doorways and get a real feel for how light and airy these impressive homes and civic buildings would have been.
Dodgy restorations, looting and pillaging, and the ravages of time and the elements account for why so many ancient sites are poorly preserved. Like at Pompeii, the lava that destroyed this Minoan civilization also preserved it. It makes it possible to almost precisely replicate every aspect of the architecture, streetscape, furniture, wall and floor coverings, daily utensils and vessels, and religious shrines.
Volcanic materials covered the insides of the houses and “negatives” of the wooden furniture were created. When archaeologists pour plaster-of-Paris into the volcanic dust they create the exact replicas of the furniture. We know the exact location of each item in each room.
Walk along the streets of this Minoan village and imagine what it would be like to be a resident. It is easy to picture yourself living in these houses, sitting on a rooftop balcony, and enjoying the breathtaking view. (A view that is just as breathtaking today – with the addition of the extra islands that were created when Santorini was exploded in the eruption!)
Several severe earthquakes occurred before the eruption. The eruption gave time for the residents to leave but not enough time to take household items with them. The site is unusual because these houses had three floors or stories.
It has been possible to recreate each of them. The work has a long way to go and only a fraction of the site has been excavated. New items are continuing to be discovered.
The Akrotiri map or 3D model below gives you a great sense of the layout of ancient Akrotiri, Santorini.
Everyday Life in Ancient Akrotiri
Inside the houses were significant frescoes depicting flowers, animals, religious rituals, and everyday life in Akrotiri.
Exotic animals such as monkeys as well as deer decorate the floors and walls of the second level of the buildings. The frescoes appear in all of the homes, not just those of the wealthy.
Wildflowers (saffron and crocuses) were popular as were geometrical shapes.
Ancient Akrotirians loved the sea and underwater life. This is clear in their intricate and plentiful seascapes and marine designs.
Jewelry and hairstyles tell us so much about this sophisticated culture.
Like many cities, it is laid out with its largest buildings facing main streets and towards Crete. Archaeologists have only excavated a dozen houses and civic buildings so far.
The back streets contain more domestic-sized architecture. It is here that you can see wonderfully preserved vessels of all sizes. The Aegean lifestyle is clear in these painted vessels with dolphins, fish, birds, and waves decorating their sides.
The landscape of Santorini provides numerous minerals which gave the artwork its vivid colors. Luckily, the minerals have also preserved the designs for centuries.
Santorini Guided Tours has created an Akrotiri audio guide app. Click on these links to take you to the app on Google Play and at the Apple App Store and does not need wi-fi after being downloaded. It costs $8.99
There are signs and a video presentation inside and I found it informative and interesting. Some visitors to the site complain that without a guide, it is hard to understand the Santorini Akrotiri site fully.
Guided tours in different languages are available from travel agencies on the main streets of Fira (Thera) and Oia (Ia). You can also hire a guide at the site. And see below for the best Tours of Ancient Akrotiri.
Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Santorini
It is disappointing that there is no Akrotiri museum. Instead, you need to head back into town to the Museum of Prehistoric Thera. It is definitely worth the effort to visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thera after you’ve been to Akrotiri.
The museum has some excellent early Cycladic figures from Santorini (from 4000 years ago). It is here you can see wonderful frescoes, vessels, pottery, and other objects unearthed at the archaeological site that show the great development of Ancient Akrotiri’s material culture. If your travels will take you to the National Archaeology Museum of Athens, you can also see the “Akrotiri of Thera” room with objects from Akrotiri.
Other wonderful Akrotiri archaeological finds, including Akrotiri frescoes such as the Spring Mural, can be seen at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
Getting There and Away
Cruise ships pack their customers from all over the world onto buses and deposit them in large numbers to the site. It is a small site and it can become difficult to read the displays. The site often opens at 8 am (check exact times for your dates below). Dodging the cruise ship tourists between mid-April and the end of November is key to enjoying Santorini.
The sweet spot in my view is mid to late April. In 2019 there will be 578 cruise ships carrying 800,000 passengers. Try to be there as the site opens for the day!
Buses run regularly and are inexpensive. Private tours are plentiful and private car, motorbike, and quad bike car hire is available all over the island. See Further Links and Information below for the island’s bus schedule is here.
Guided Tours of Akrotiri
If you would like to have a guided tour of the archeological site, there are tours that involve return hotel transfers and others that meet you at the site itself. I recommend the two below but read on for admission costs and opening hours of the archaeological site.
Best Private Guided Tour of Ancient Akrotiri including Hotel Transfers
This three-hour tour is wheelchair accessible and suitable for travelers with limited mobility. You are met at your hotel and transferred to the site. Entrance fees are not included. At the conclusion of the tour, you are transferred back to your accommodation.
- Travelers not wanting to deal with the hassle of buses or taxis to the site and who would like to learn about the ancient city and understand its structure, main points, and sites.
Best Private Guided Tour of Ancient Akrotiri
This two-hour tour is also wheelchair accessible and suitable for travelers with limited mobility. You meet your guide at the entrance to the Archaeological site. Entrance fees and hotel transfers from Santorini towns are not included.
- Travelers happy to make their own way to the Akrotiri ruins but who would like to learn about the ancient city and understand its structure, main points, and sites.
Best Ancient Akrotiri and Wineries/Wine Tasting Tours
This tour contrasts the winding laneways of a modern Santorini village with the archaeological remains of Akrotiri and manages to fit in a walk on a beach and a visit to a winery. A five-hour tour that allows you to see a lot of this wonderful island and the Santorini ruins.
- Return transfers to your accommodation on this 5-hour tour are included
- Admission to Akrotiri archaeological site is included, as are all admission and wine tasting charges at the winery
- A perfectly-reviewed tour
This tour is a serious winery tour as it visits three wineries and allows you up to 12 tastings of local wines. As a private small group tour, it allows between 2 and 4 people, making it an excellent choice for honeymooners and couples.
It is also a great tour if your time on Santorini is short because all of your travel to Akrotiri and the wineries are included in the 5-hour tour. It is also good for Cruise Ship passengers because of its pick-up and drop-off locations. In addition, the tour is customizable.
- Cruise Ship Passengers: can join the tour from Oia where the cable car begins. It is also possible to be picked up from your hotel, from the airport, and from Athionios Port.
- Taste 12 varieties when visiting 3 wineries
- Admission to Ancient Akrotiri Santorini is not included in the price but all admission and wine tasting charges at the wineries are included
- This tour sells out fast and has only perfect reviews.
Ancient Akrotiri Opening Hours and Admission Costs
General Admission € 14 but discounts occur in Santorini for many types of travelers (university students, seniors, etc.) See the full list of fees and discounts below.
Ancient Akrotiri archaeological site operates on a timetable divided into winter and summer. These are the site’s opening days and times:
In winter (from November 1 to March 31), the site is open from 8 am to 3 pm. In summer (from April 4 to October 31), the site is open from 8 am to 8 pm daily, and from 8 am to 3 pm on Thursdays. The site is closed on Mondays throughout the year.
€12 or €6 for EU citizens aged 65 or over and students of universities or other higher education institutions from outside the EU. Entry is free for visitors under the age of 18 and students from institutions inside the EU.
Over an excellent meal, Santorini wine and while a spectacular sunset occurs, you can reflect upon the sophisticated, vibrant, and full of life the culture and people of Ancient Akrotiri.
Cultures rise and fall and sometimes our view of history needs to be modified. Akrotiri invites us to reconsider our own history and it gives us a new appreciation for the Greek people and their proud heritage.
Links and Further Information
- Choosing where to stay on the beautiful Greek island of 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 Santorini hotels for different budgets in each village here. If you are considering staying in the southern part of Santorini, hotels at Akrotiri beach (Red beach) are included in this complete accommodation guide.
- For the best accommodation options including hotel rooms with private swimming pools, cave hotels, and family accommodation, check out my Santorini and Greece posts here.
- Santorini Bus Timetable here: santorini_bus_timetable
- Costs and opening hours of the Akrotiri archaeological site here
- Costs and opening hours of the Thera Museum of Prehistory here (university students and senior citizens free or reduced entry fee)
- If you’d love to see more of ancient Greece, read about the 25 Best Ancient Ruins in Greece