If there’s one place in Greece that everyone in the world knows or dreams about, then that definitely is Santorini – a tiny island in the heart of the Aegean Sea ‘crafted’ by the eruption of a volcano thousands of years ago.
Santorini is one of the most-visited, dreamed about and Instagrammed Greek destinations of all time. People imagine getting married there, honeymooning in its postcard-perfect sunsets, taking selfies on top of the volcano or indulging in the island’s famous sweet-like-nectar wine.
So if you’re one of the thousands planning to visit Santorini then make sure to make time for these five unique travel experiences that shouldn’t be missed.
Visiting Santorini? Do This
1) Visit the Volcano on Nea Kameni
Your Santorini experience wouldn’t be complete without a visit to where it all started. Actually Santorini and the islets of Thirasia, Aspronisi, Nea and Palia Kameni are what’s left after a cataclysmic volcanic eruption approximately 3,600 years ago.
What initially was a single island broke into fragments and over the centuries flows of lava created islands as the sea water filled the void becoming today’s breathtaking Santorini caldera.
The Santorini eruption took place in 1600-1620 BC and is considered to be one of the planet’s largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded.
The word “kameni” actually means “burnt” and refers to both Nea Kameni and Palia Kameni, which were created by the flowing lava that followed the massive eruption. Both islets are protected under the EU’s Natura 2000 program.
Thirasia is the only populated islet of the four and home to five villages while, Aspronisi (which means the white island), initially a submarine volcano, is today a nesting ground for migratory birds. Lastly, on Palia Kameni you can find hot springs.
If you’re visiting Santorini, make sure to take a boat and guided tour of Nea Kameni, the tiny islet you can see across the caldera as you look toward the sunset from the cliff of Fira. Have in mind that the volcano is still active with its last eruption taking place in 1950.
As the boat approaches the island you’ll see the water gets darker and greener due to the sulphur. The caldera of Santorini is actually home to four shield volcanoes, named after their resemblance to a warrior’s shield.
Nea Kameni is a geological wonder and the peak of an underwater volcano. During your boat ride to Nea Kameni guides will you show you natural “evidence” of repeated volcanic eruptions over the centuries as revealed by the layers of lava flows in the cliffs differentiated by color.
The white layer is the result of the 1600-1620 BC eruption – known as the Thera or Minoan eruption – which covered the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri in tephra (ash) and affected areas as far as Crete, 120 kilometers away. It is actually believed that the eruption and the massive tidal wave that followed destroyed the Minoan civilization of Crete and crazy weather reached as far as Egypt.
A visit to the island and later to Akrotiri (see below) may just convince you that the lost city of Atlantis was actually somewhere around here.
As you walk across the sleeping volcano you will see small devices. These are used by the Institute for the Study and Monitoring of the Santorini Volcano (ISMOSAV) to monitor volcanic activity here and on Palia Kameni.
For hundreds of years, the people of Santorini considered both Palia and Nea Kameni to be the dwellings of spirits. I don’t blame them actually. This is some scary stuff.
Escape to Greece with The Greek Vibe monthly Newsletter!
2) Get the Symposion Experience
One of the things you should definitely do while on Santorini is to tune in to the gift of life and of sharing. Most people rush to Santorini, rush to catch the sunset, rush to visit as many beaches as they can. But if you want to experience the true essence of this ancient island: just slow down and tune in to the surroundings, the sounds, the smells, the aura.
That’s exactly what the Symposion Cultural Center is all about. This true gem – the result of passion, dedication and continuous learning – was created by New York-born friend Argy Kakkisis and Renaissance man Yannis Pantazis, who initially set up La Ponta, also on Santorini.
A visit to the center located in the village of Megalochori is an absolute must. Music, wine, art and myth come together in a mystical performance that takes you on a journey through time back to the famous ancient Greek “symposia” which were all about coming together.
For Argy and Yannis, the Symposion Cultural Center housed in an old Santorini winery hopes to initiate visitors into a different way of life offering through the eternal power of music, myth, poetry and wine a deeper connection with the universe, the world and the people around us. At the same time, Symposion is dedicated to preserving Santorini and Greece’s cultural heritage.
How do they do this? Curated concerts and theater performances, hands-on workshops, philosophical discussions over fine wine and relaxing strolls through a mythological botanical garden where each herb has a special story to tell. You will even learn how to make your own ancient Greek pipe like the one the god Pan used play from local cane.
And once your Symposion experience is over you’re bound to want to buy something for loved ones back home, so do stop by the art shop where you’ll find everything from handmade replicas of ancient Greek musical instruments to books and CDs.
Before I end, I want to draw your attention to a local wind instrument Yannis plays: the ancient “askavlos” or its later version the “tsabouna” – a traditional Greek bagpipe that was once played in the Cyclades islands. This instrument which dates back to Ancient Greece is being revived thanks to a group of dedicated musicians who come together in “The Journey of Askavlos” – a documentary by Yorgos Arvanitis who follows the “tsabounierides” (musicians) to Santorini where they meet and play together and later to Athens where it is being integrated into modern song.
The Symposion Cultural Center is open from April to October.
3) Visit the Tomato Industrial Museum
Due to the volcano, the ash-based territory and the dryness of the Cyclades, Santorini produces a tiny but packed-with-taste and antioxidants tomato that is rarely watered. The sweet “Santorini tomataki” was first cultivated in the late 1800s and has since brought fame to what once was one of the poorest islands in Greece. Besides the unique-to-the-island cherry tomato, Santorini also produces a rare white eggplant, capers (kapari), small cucumbers, and of course, its famous fava (split peas or fava beans) – all with little or now watering.
Learn more about this natural wonder highly sought after by chefs worldwide at the Tomato Industrial Museum D. Nomikos located near Vlychada beach.
You’ll be entering a converted into a museum tomato factory which showcases not only the Santorini tomato, awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status years ago, but also the ways it was cultivated and processed as well as its main role in the lives of the islanders.
On show at the Santorini Tomato Industrial Museum are machines dating back to the late 1800s, factory manuscripts, tools, labels and cans, as well as archival material featuring locals who worked at the factory – all telling the story of the Nomikos family, which in 1922 began to produce canned tomato products.
Adults and kids will also have the chance to sample locally made tomato paste, seal their own can of paste using the original machine, and even cook on the spot using the famous tomato with the help of an in-house chef.
The former tomato factory also houses the Santorini Arts Factory (SAF) which organizes workshops, art shows, an annual festival with concerts, puppet shows and theater performances and offers local art and gastronomy products at its café and shop. Do order a Bloody Mary, you won’t regret it.
The museum and art space are open from April to October and tickets cost around 10 euros (free for kids under 12). Audio tours are offered in five languages.
4) Koutsogiannopoulos Wine Museum
A second product that has made Santorini famous far and wide among gourmands is its wine and particularly its sweet Vinsanto.
Today, the island boasts dozens of wineries and all are worth a visit. For beginners, I suggest you head to Vothonas and the Koutsogiannopoulos Wine Museum to learn about the history of Santorini winemaking, the local varieties, old and new practices, and the secrets of the caves.
What makes the Koutsogiannopoulos Wine Museum special is its location some eight meters underground in natural Santorini caves known as “canaves”. In the past, each family would have its own underground canava vault usually formed out of white volcanic tephra known as “aspa” which kept the wines safe and cool.
While there you will be introduced to the phases of winemaking, including vineyard cultivation, harvest, stomping, and weighing of the grapes. You will also have a chance to taste local wines and the island’s famous dessert wine (my absolute favorite) the Vinsanto. There are several tasting options to choose from based on how much you’re willing to spend but worth it.
The museum is run by the fourth generation of Santorini-born winemakers who have taken the art of winemaking handed down to them by their parents into the future. Open all year round and the museum tour is available via audio guide in 14 languages.
Besides the Koutsogiannopoulos Wine Museum, you can visit other Santorini wineries, including the Domaine Sigalas, the Gaia Winery, SantoWines, Anhydrous Winery, Gavalas Winery, or the SantOrganics Farm and Winery, to name but a few. Have in mind that most of the wineries offer guided tours through to the end of October, so call ahead to make sure they are open if you visit off season.
5) Visit Ancient Akrotiri
For some, the Minoan Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri first inhabited by ancient Cretan peoples carries the secret to the lost island of Atlantis and a visit to the site may have you thinking the same.
Unlike Pompeii, where people were uncovered dead and preserved under layers of ash from the violent eruption of Mt Vesuvius, Akrotiri which was found abandoned with very few items of value left behind. It is believed that the 30,000 or so residents of the fishing village turned trade center had been informed that a volcanic eruption was imminent and had fled with their precious belongings. Akrotiri was buried under layers of ash somewhere between 1600 and 1627 BC.
From the preserved roads, buildings, drainage systems, frescoes, pottery and “pithi” (storage jars for wine and olive oil), and art works you can get an idea of what life was like in the Bronze Age on Santorini, and particularity at Akrotiri, which served as a trade route between Cyprus and Minoan Crete. Just think, Akrotiri’s main road, Telchines Street, is almost 4,000 years old!
The eruption and destruction of Akrotiri is believed to have inspired Greek philosopher Plato to write about the lost island of Atlantis that “sank into the sea”. You can see artefacts found on the site on show at the Museum of Prehistoric Thira in Fira.
♫ I end today’s post with a favorite ballad about the ‘miracles’ of Santorini by the Katsimicha Brothers. They wrote and released the song in 1989 describing the importance of believing in the ‘journey‘ and the gifts it brings us.