Travel

This Popular Greek Island Is a Favourite for a Reason

Here's what to do other than take pics.

© Allard Schager/Moment/Getty Images
© Allard Schager/Moment/Getty Images
© Allard Schager/Moment/Getty Images

When daydreaming about Greece, it’s Santorini that you see. The country is made up of thousands of islands, but one in particular pretty much achieved legendary status. The blindingly white villages perched on the cliffside, blue-domed churches, and ancient ruins that most equate with this Mediterranean destination are all hallmarks of Santorini.

It’s one of the few destinations that actually lives up to all the postcards and Instagram posts-where the tiny fishing villages actually have octopus hanging out to dry in the sun and the azure waters are even more vibrant when you see them with your own eyes. In Santorini, all the country’s old-world draws sit alongside natural wonders like a hikable (and active!) volcano and otherworldly beaches that feel more like Mars than the Mediterranean.

So it’s no wonder you may have to throw some elbows for a prime sunset viewing spot or dodge honeymooners taking photoshoots along the caldera. The island welcomes about 2 million tourists each season, which mainly runs from June to September, hence why some have argued you should skip a visit altogether in favour of islands that remain a bit under the radar.

But consider this: If it’s the quintessential guidebook experience you want, that’s what you’ll get browsing in evil-eye-filled shops in Oia or taking a tour around the island’s most popular archaeological site. But if your ideal Greek getaway involves exploring less-traversed villages, sipping ouzo with the locals, and plunging deep into the Aegean from the tip of a weathered church, you’ll find that here too. From world-famous attractions to tucked-away villages, here’s everything you need to see when you’re on the island.

Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images

Visit the Akrotiri archaeological site

To kick off your trip, see an ancient city that got buried under volcanic ash. Taking a tour of the Akrotiri archaeological site will help you understand why this island is so darn pretty. While most know Santorini as one large, crescent-shaped island, it’s actually an archipelago with five islands in a circle that was formed after several volcanic eruptions split up the original land mass. As a result, all of the islands, collectively known as Santorini, have jaw-dropping cliff coastlines and are situated around a large volcanic crater under the sea called a caldera.

When the largest eruption hit the island 3,700 years ago, Akrotiri was covered in volcanic ash and layers of pumice, which preserved parts of the city. It wasn’t until 1967 that the ancient city was discovered in an archaeological excavation, and today it’s one of the most popular-and awe inspiring-tourist destinations on the island.

At the archaeological site, traverse the ruins on your own and you’ll see houses, art pieces, and remnants of the city’s streets and shop basements. Or take a guided tour on site for a few euros per person to get an expert’s intel about what life was like here at that time. The entire site and exhibits are housed indoors with a roof that regulates airflow, making this a perfect respite from the isle’s stifling summer heat.

Ivan Mateev/Shutterstock
Ivan Mateev/Shutterstock
Ivan Mateev/Shutterstock

Take a dip in the volcanic hot springs

To continue learning about the island’s volcano, head straight to the source. When looking out to sea from the western side of the island, you’ll see two small land masses called Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni (old burnt and young burnt), which house Santorini’s active (yet dormant) volcano.

Boat tours of the volcano leave several times a day from the old port of Thira. You can either sail around and see the volcano from the water or pull up to take a hike over black lava rocks to the top, 300 feet above sea level.

After working up a sweat, the boat takes you to Agios Nikolaos, a small cove on the Nea Kameni islet that has therapeutic hot springs. The water here is heated up to around 90 degrees F and is a rich yellow thanks to concentrated amounts of sulfur, said to be healing for the skin and joints. Though thanks to the almost-orange colour of the water at this one spot, you might want to leave any white bathing suits in your suitcase for a different beach day.

Levente Bodo/Moment/Getty Images
Levente Bodo/Moment/Getty Images
Levente Bodo/Moment/Getty Images

Avoid the crowds and see the sunset over the sea

As the Santorini sky starts showing off its orange hues, throngs of tourists head to one of the northernmost points of the island, Oia, and for good reason. The island’s famed sunsets are especially dazzling against the contrast of the bright white buildings around town. But if you want to avoid the crowds, book a sunset cruise instead.

There are dozens of yachting companies to choose from, employing vessels that range from modest catamarans to full-scale yachts. Caldera Yachting and Santorini Yachting Club have fleets that go out at sunset every day. Trips include sightseeing before the sun goes down and docking at a nearby destination like the cove of Thirassia Island or Amoudi Bay for dinner on board.

Pitogyros Traditional Grill House
Pitogyros Traditional Grill House
Pitogyros Traditional Grill House

Eat gyros, moussaka, and all the feta, olives, and tomatoes you can

All that cerulean water has to be good for something other than Instagram posts, and Santorini’s restaurant scene proves it by serving up some of the best seafood around. The island’s signature dish is grilled octopus served on a bed of fava, a yellow split-pea puree. A trip to any taverna around town also promises heaping piles of prawns and the catch of the day lightly fried with a quick squeeze of lemon.

Beyond seafood, be sure to enjoy the island’s briny pleasures like supple olives and oversized capers. If you’ve ever gone to the farmers market and been overwhelmed by the scent of tomatoes fresh off the vine, you already know the appeal of Santorini’s namesake tomatoes. Because the local soil is filled with nutrients from ancient volcanic ash, this cherry tomato variety is packed with intense flavour and aroma like nothing you’ve ever tasted. If eating tomatokeftedes (tomato fritters) at every meal isn’t enough to cure your craving, head to The Tomato Industrial Museum to purchase sun-dried and canned varieties to take home.

As for where to indulge in these local delicacies, one of the oldest restaurants on the island is Aktaion, a homey restaurant in Thira that’s currently celebrating its 100th year in operation, with a superb moussaka dish to show for it. Other star picks include To Psaraki, which overlooks Vlichada’s fishing port, and Pitogyros. But you can’t go wrong wandering into a little taverna that sits off the beaten path and covering your table with souvlaki, tzatziki, hummus, and saganaki. For finer dining, Selene is a restaurant housed in a converted 18th Century Catholic Monastery and has been a destination for the last four decades. It offers multi-course tasting menus that highlight seasonal ingredients in the restaurant’s stunning black- and white-tiled courtyard.

Olga Gavrilova/Shutterstock
Olga Gavrilova/Shutterstock
Olga Gavrilova/Shutterstock

Hike along the caldera from Thira to Oia

One of the best ways to see the length of the island while getting fresh air and stretching your legs is on a hike between Thira and Oia. Sidewalks, cobblestones, and dirt paths skirt along the top of the cliffs, making the multi-terrain hike a doable six and half miles, often done in about two or three hours. Along the way you’ll pass through the villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli, where you can hop off the walking path to refuel. Start early to avoid the peak day heat, and plan to take a bus or taxi back to your origin point rather than repeat the hike in the opposite direction.

Solomakha/Shutterstock
Solomakha/Shutterstock
Solomakha/Shutterstock

Visit beaches that span the rainbow

While Santorini comes up short on the ritzy beach clubs that islands like Mykonos are famous for, the island’s volcanic history has made some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world. With pumice, ash, and volcanic lava lining the seashores, Santorini treats visitors to a whole host of mystical beaches that make you feel like you’ve stepped into another world.

Arguably the most famous beach in Santorini, the Red Beach gets its colouring (and name) from iron oxidation in the volcanic sands. Located in the southern part of the island, it’s an ideal detour during a day exploring Akrotiri. Getting to the waterfront requires a short hike down a footpath, but once your feet touch the sand, you can bask in the sun for hours, enjoying the contrasting sand and crystalline water while lounging on a sunbed. Just be sure to bring your own refreshments, as this secluded beach offers few amenities.

Around the corner from the fiery sands of Red Beach, a tiny beach sits under the glow of a dramatic wall of white cliffs. The White Beach is only accessible by boat, so hop on a boat taxi or have your catamaran make a pitstop and enjoy an ultra-exclusive beach day.

Finally, Santorini has several black sand beaches. Perivolos Beach is the longest (stretching over four miles) and also boasts the most amenities of Santorini beaches, as it’s studded with beach clubs, restaurants, and places to rent water sports equipment. On the southeastern coast, Kamari Beach has some of the island’s darkest inky black pebbles and plenty of waterfront tavernas and beach bars.

kavalenkava/Shutterstock
kavalenkava/Shutterstock
kavalenkava/Shutterstock

Jump into Amoudi Bay from a waterfront chapel

With so much rocky landscape, it’s no wonder daredevils find plenty of thrills cliff jumping in Santorini. One of the most picturesque places to make your heart race is Saint Nicholas Chapel in Oia.

Take the 214 steps down to Amoudi Bay, where some of the best seafood in the city lines the port. Go past the restaurants to an obvious path that takes you around the tip of the island over some rocks, where people lounge on a boulder-filled beach. There you can jump into the pristine water and either hang out paddling around or swim the very short 100-foot distance to a tiny island topped by a church.

To the left of the island, you’ll find a rope helping you up onto land. You can then head up towards a church that sits on the edge of the cliff (aka the jumping off point). Here, many people jump off the stone platform and plunge into the crystal clear waters of the Aegean.

As a reward, hang around Amoudi Bay for a bit, which many consider the most picturesque port in Santorini. Choose a taverna with freshly caught octopus stretched across a line outside like Sunset by Paraskevas, Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna, and Ammoudi Fish Tavern. Clink glasses to your bravery with a bottle of ouzo, an anise-flavoured liquor that’s only produced in Greece from the remnants of winemaking. Just beware: It’s strong enough to make you want to jump again.

Unsplash/Think Big Designs Co
Unsplash/Think Big Designs Co
Unsplash/Think Big Designs Co

Explore the small villages of Imerovigli and Pyrgos

Beyond the essential visits to Oia and the capital city, Thira, smaller villages provide plenty of real estate to explore, where you’ll find donkeys roaming the cobblestone streets and old-world neighbourhoods where there are more churches than houses.

Imerovigli provides all the iconic sights that Oia boasts in a more laid-back environment. It’s also home to another hike that’s popular with tourists: Skaros Rock. The jagged black rock headland was inhabited during the medieval era, because its location protruding over the sea was perfect for keeping pirates at bay. The ruins of the original castle fortress remain today. A hike to the area is about a half mile each way, making it an easy way to see the island from a different vantage point.

Another village that remains a bit under the radar is Pyrgos. Once the bustling capital of Santorini, the area is now a popular destination for history buffs, as it houses one of the best preserved medieval settlements on the island. Santorini of the Past is a cultural village and museum. Other popular historic sites include the Venetian castle of Kasteli and the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, which dates back to 1660 and remains one of Santorini’s largest places of worship. Plus, Pyrgos sits in the foothills of the Profitis Ilias mountain and is one of the highest points on the island, making for exceptionally underrated views.

Domaine Sigalas
Domaine Sigalas
Domaine Sigalas

Learn about Santorini’s unique winemaking style

With so many famed wine regions around Europe, don’t forget that this Cyclades island knows a thing or two about winemaking. For more than 3,700 years, Santorini has been exporting crisp dry whites made from the indigenous assyrtiko grape variety and the amber-coloured, unfortified dessert wine known as Vinsanto.

Vineyards like Domaine Sigalas and Santo Wines offer tours and tastings-just don’t expect the sprawling lines of greenery you’d find in the European countryside. Santorini’s grapes are kept unstaked and are manipulated to stay low to the ground in a halo shape, looking like low bushes, to protect the grapes from intense winds and brutal sun.

To sample wine made by multiple producers without making multiple pit stops, Selene Antique Caves offers private and small group tasting experiences where you can sample the local terroir and compare Greek wines to varietals from other lands. All of the tastings in this cavernous space in Thira are curated by Master of Wine Yiannis Karakasis, who’s one of just 416 experts in the world to hold that distinction.

Photo courtesy of Katikies Hotels
Photo courtesy of Katikies Hotels
Photo courtesy of Katikies Hotels

Where to stay in Santorini

Most of the action in Santorini occurs on the western coast along the caldera, making Oia, Thira, and Imerovigli the most popular villages to stay in. For the picture-perfect Santorini experience, Katikies Hotels are the move. The boutique luxury hotel group owns five properties on the west side of the island.

Options range from the flagship property situated the heart of Oia to the more secluded, wellness-focused Katikies Kirini where you can spend the afternoon at the spa or dip into your own private plunge pool just steps from your bed. Each location features Santorini’s signature chalky walls and stairs (which the hotel repaints daily to keep up the stark white appearance). With infinity pools, stunning cavernous rooms, and top-notch alfresco restaurants that were recently upgraded by lauded Greek chef and restaurateur Ettore Botrini, Katikies is creating a luxurious experience you’ll never want to leave.

Staying in a hotel with caldera views is quintessential, but what Andronis Concept Wellness Resort lacks in a wash of white buildings, it makes up for in sprawling pools and serene accommodations set back from the hustle and bustle in Imerovigli. Beachfront hotels like the Kamari Beach Hotel and Santo Mira Mare, and cave-like homes on Airbnb are other strong alternatives for those who want a more secluded stay.

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Liz Provencher is an editor at Thrillist. You can follow her on Twitter or see what she eats on Instagram.

Travel

Find Volcanoes, Wine Islands, and Thrills in Auckland

One minute you're on a ferry to wine island, the next you could be bungy jumping off of New Zealand's tallest tower.

things to do auckland
Photo: Natasha Bazika

The city of Auckland is a free spirit. It is easily the most geographically blessed city in New Zealand. Within an hour, you could be tasting wines on an island, chasing more than 50 volcanoes, or leaving footprints on a black sand beach. Keep in mind, that Auckland is the country’s most populous city but certainly doesn’t feel cramped.

Instead, the city is buzzing with trendy eateries, boutique shops, quiet streets, and expansive green parks. Around every corner, you’re never too far from something beautiful to see.

From world-class wines to kickass thrills, here’s where to find what you’re looking for in Auckland.

things to do auckland

Seek the thrills

If you thought Queenstown was the home of the adrenaline rush, wait until you see Auckland. In the middle of the city, you can jump off a sky tower or a bridge, zip through the jungle, and scream on a high-octane jet boat ride. The Sky Tower, which can be seen from every corner of Auckland is more than just a landmark. Take a ride to the top and sign up for a Skywalk, where you can wander around the platform, which just so happens to be 192 metres above the ground. If that doesn’t get your heart pumping, you can always jump off it. It’s New Zealand’s highest jump, and can only be described as just like being a movie stuntman, or a superhero. 

The other iconic place to jump off of is the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Unlike the Sky Jump, this one will have thrill seekers dipping their hands and head in the ocean. It’s a 40-metre Bungy, and a great experience. Although, if you’d rather still take advantage of the bridge views, book a climb, which takes you right to the top for sweeping views of the city.

Another way to take in the city is via Auckland Adventure Jet, which takes passengers for spins and tricks on the water.

Just a 35-minute boat ride from Auckland is Waiheke Island, where thrill-seekers will find Eco Zip Adventures. Across three separate lines, you will zip high above a working vineyard and lush, ancient forest canopies, soaking up incredible views back to the city and beyond.

things to do auckland
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Sip wine on Waiheke Island

Whether you want to spend a weekend or a day, Waiheke Island is a must-visit. It’s around a 35-minute ferry ride to the island from Auckland, and once there you can hop from winery to winery. The island is quite large and the terrain is rugged, so trust the experts and book a tour with Ananda Tours. The small, family-run business is owned by Jenny who has been on the island since before the vines were planted and she’s the best person to seek out when getting the Waiheke Island experience. You can book a private tour or group tour, and they can be catered to your preferences and tastes. A few standout stops include Kennedy Point, where they produce fully certified organic Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay wines. You can also state estate-grown olive oils, which the island has plenty of. Enjoy a tasting on the deck with views of Kennedy Bay, or enjoy a picnic under the olive grove.

For the best views on the island, head to Batch Vineyard. As the highest vineyard on Waiheke, you will be treated to panoramic views of the rolling hills, blue waters, and even Auckland city. Their sparkling wine, Blanc de Blancs is a must-try.

When it comes to lunch, there are two spots to choose from. The first is Stonyridge, which is also where you can taste premium award-winning wines, including a Cabernet blend Larose‚ÄĒNew Zealand’s cult wine. The second is Mudbrick, a romantic spot, set amongst beautiful gardens with even more spectacular views, and a bar and bistro serving up some of the best dishes on the island.

things to do auckland
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Eat your way through the city

Auckland’s dining scene isn’t pretentious, but the food quality is good enough to rival the best restaurants in New York‚ÄĒbut the city doesn’t like to brag. Instead, it celebrates good food in every setting, from waterside restaurants to trendy Mexican eateries in a shopping centre.

Inca, is helmed by critically acclaimed chef, Nic Watt. Inspired by Watt’s travels to Peru, diners can expect to find Nikkei cuisine, including spicy chicken karaage, hand-pressed corn tacos filled with pork cheek and spicy tuna. You wouldn’t expect to find such a good restaurant in a shopping centre, but there it is.

Another great trendy restaurant is Hello Beasty, which is home to the famous, prawn and crab toast. This work of art starts with a slice of crispy deep-fried bread, smothered with prawn and crab mousse. On top, there are slices of wagyu, drizzled with a sweet and sour sauce. Although, there are plenty of other great dishes on the menu, including a Sichuan tuna tartare, Korean fried cauliflower, and potstickers swimming in chilli oil. Try the yuzu mandarin soda if you’re looking for something fizzy to go with dinner or lunch.

Deli De Bossi is a recent opening and already becoming a favourite breakfast spot. Apart from coffee, you can get all kinds of toasted sandwiches, filled with everything from mushrooms to hams and salamis.

Another iconic eat-hit list is Parade in Ponsonby. Here, the burgers are served in a pretzel bun and filled with chicken or beef.

Most of these restaurants are casual, but if you’re looking for something a little fancy, book a table at Kingi. Taking cues from Sydney’s own Josh Niland, the dishes at Kingi focus on sustainable seafood, caught locally by local fishermen. The blue cod wings are a must. They’re covered in burnt lime and served with a ranch sauce for dipping. The stracciatella with feijoa is also a standout dish, that’s light and a great start to a meal. Inside, the dining room is cosy with bench seats, fire heaters, and exploded brick walls.

After dinner, walk down the street and grab dessert from Miann. The flavour of the day is always chocolate, and they serve up seriously good desserts. Try the tasting platter for a piece of each pastry on the menu of the day, or pick one that is most desirable to you. Although, the tasting platter is only $23 and you’d be missing out on tasting a little of everything they offer if you didn’t get it.

things to do auckland
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Discover art, culture, and movie magic

One of the best ways to learn about a city or country is by visiting its top museums and galleries. The Auckland War Memorial Museum sits atop a hill in Auckland’s Domain, which also happens to be the city’s oldest volcano. This museum is one of the most important as it tells the story of New Zealand’s natural and military history. Take a self-guided walking tour to explore at your own pace. There are plenty of interactive features for the kids and adults. The museum also hosts exhibitions. An ancient Greek exhibition is currently on display and is one of the largest exhibitions the British Museum has ever loaned to Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Art lovers, spend a few hours wandering around the Auckland Art Gallery, Toi O TńĀmaki. You will find artworks from around the world, including a Picasso or two. Although, the exhibitions are a real treat. Yona Lee’s, An Arrangement of Five Rooms is an incredible installation, spanning multiple rooms, which you can sit on and touch‚ÄĒto immerse yourself in the artwork. Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda, is another must-see exhibition exploring the most pressing issues of our times: climate change and resilience, tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty), activism and social justice.

While art and history museums are insightful and a great way to educate a visitor, there are some other museum types that can be a lot of fun and interactive. Weta Workshop Unleashed is a new Auckland attraction and an incredible experience you don’t want to miss. Step into the world of filmmaking, explore how horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films are made and at times feel as if you’re in a movie. Comedic tour guides will introduce you to movies that are in production and explain every aspect, from prop making to effects, and more. There are even mysteries to be solved, making it fun for the whole family. It’s truly an unmissable experience in Auckland, and one of the best, unique tours you might ever experience.

things to do auckland
Photo: @sidwithlens

Walk on a volcano

Erupting over 100,000 years ago, Pukekawa is one of Auckland’s oldest and most popular volcanoes. Today, the Domain parkland is the remains of the explosion crater and most of the surrounding tuff ring of Pukekawa. Most days you will see people running around the park, families picnicking on the weekend, and tourists snapping photos by the pond or under a magnificent tree, grown from an experiment conducted by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society. Enter from one end, enjoy a picturesque walk, and exit through the historic Parnell shopping and restaurant area. On a sunny day, the atmosphere is charged with romance, but even in the rain, it’s a moody, beautiful sight to see. The Auckland War Memorial Museum’s large neo-Greek architecture is also a standout, commanding top-of-the-mountain views.

where to stay in auckland

Where to stay in Auckland

If you’re looking to sleep on top of the world, you can’t beat a room in Cordis Auckland’s new Pinnacle Tower. From the pillowy-cloud-like beds, guests have sweeping views of the city from the Sky Tower to Rangitoto and Mount Eden. Enjoy a breakfast buffet in the Eight restaurant downstairs, and canapes and drinks in the Cordis Club lounge on the 14th floor. There’s also a health club, spa, and swimming pool. The hotel is within walking distance to some of the best eateries in Auckland, making it a prime option.

Although, if you’re looking to stay in the heart of Britomart, Auckland’s hub of shopping, eating, and drinking, then The Hotel Britomart is where you want to be. From its exterior of hand-made bricks to its beautifully timber-lined rooms, The Hotel Britomart does detail like nobody else. Plus, the best of downtown waterfront Auckland is just outside your front door. With 5 Green Star Design and Build ratings from the NZ Green Building Council, The Hotel Britomart is the country‚Äôs ONLY 5 Green Star hotel, and has sustainability built in from the ground up.¬†

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