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After spending so much time in Southeast Asia, now when I think of islands I immediately conjure up images of bright green, leafy jungles, steep karst mountains jutting out of the ground and aquamarine water. Santorini has none of that.
Created by a number of volcanic eruptions over the past, oh, couple million years, the island is essentially just a volcanic rock. There aren’t any rivers and relatively little vegetation, though due to the mineral-rich soil there is quite a bit of agriculture on the island (like vineyards!). Though it’s nowhere near the tropical getaway I’ve become accustomed to, Santorini has its own sort of beauty and is one of those places, due mainly to its iconic architecture, that looks unlike anywhere else in the world.
The island has two main towns, Fira and Oia (pronounced ee-ya). Though both towns are situated on the edges of the island with pathways and buildings placed one on top of the other overlooking the Aegean Sea, Oia Santorini is the more magical of the two and where you will see the famous blue-domed churches.
While Fira and Oia are both incredibly touristy and only filled with hotels, restaurants and shops, Oia’s more charming, and even more authentic-feeling, than Fira. I quickly breezed through the different paths in Fira, but in Oia I was happy wandering by myself for hours seeing the town from all angles – it looks different from every point. There’s character and depth to Oia that I didn’t find in Fira.
There also seemed to be more to discover. More steep and crooked paths that lead to unexpected views, more boutique hotels built into the side of the cliff (and more expensive ones – unassuming entrances lead to exclusive suites like these…one can dream…), and more artist studios and shops that offer a good story than just your typical tourist souvenir stands (though there are plenty of those too).
In Oia I wandered into a dark studio space where a painter was working on traditional Greek Orthodox icons, painstakingly detailed paintings of Jesus and Mary in the Byzantine style. He said he had been doing it since he was a little boy. Atlantis Books was another welcome find with its cave-like shop stuffed with unique books in a variety of languages, letter-press prints and a collection of animals. It felt like you had discovered a secret spot…
…not that it’s really a secret – the independent bookstore has been featured in publications around the world like The Guardian and The New York Times – but the shop still retains a very strong sense of self.
Of course, nothing on the island is a secret. It’s one of the most visited places in Greece and stats on the number of yearly tourists to Santorini range from 500,000 to 1.5 million.
Since I was there in mid-October, the very tail-end of the tourist season, many hotels and shops were already closed for the year and I practically had the place to myself…
…until it got closer to sunset. Though most of my time in the afternoon had been spent wandering the crooked streets by myself, starting around 4:00 p.m. people started pouring in, running around taking photos and trying to grab a spot to watch the sun go down.
Oia’s often been called one of the best places in the world to watch the sunset – the transitioning light makes the town’s whitewashed buildings change colors and take on the hue of the sky and sea.
In my opinion, it wasn’t worth the waiting or the crowds. I much more enjoyed spending time walking through town in the afternoon than dodging the tour groups and selfie sticks waving in the air trying to capture a clear shot, but I still left that night with that warm travel glow people go to new places for – I had seen something unlike any other place I had ever been to before. (For more Santorini shots scroll through my Instagram feed….you’ll want to start planning your trip…)
Unless you’re on your honeymoon and spending a ton on a room, you probably aren’t going to stay in Oia. The local bus network connects the town to all other parts of the island and is simple to get to (although if you stay for the sunset, you’ll probably be waiting in line for a bus if you try to leave right away). Also, rather than getting lost in the sunset crowds, try visiting Santo Wines in the late afternoon instead!