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Visiting Santorini: A Few (hundred) Steps of Gorgeous on A Trip of a Lifetime in Greece

Updated: Mar 23

After only two short, but full, days on the island of Naxos, we hopped on a ferry and made our way over to the island of Thira, better known as Santorini. The ferry ride was short, shorter than the ferry we had taken from Mykonos to Naxos, and very soon we found ourselves once again disembarking in a mad fury off the giant ramp and onto land. What greeted us was nothing more than a chaotic mess of busses, vans, cars and people.



Oia, Santorini, Greece
Oia, Santorini, Greece

Dozens of vehicles, of all sizes, were parked in no apparent order, blocking one another from leaving the small port. The drivers of said vehicles were either holding up name cards or looking to pick up a spontaneous fare from the crowd emerging from the ferry. We quickly moved off to the side and ventured off to find our driver. We had pre-arranged a pick-up through our hotel in Oia, Helianthus Suites, but it was a matter of finding them among the chaos.


Soon after we found our driver, we loaded our bags into his van and were enjoying the air conditioning as we waited for the vehicles blocking us to move. It wasn't long before we were making our way up the steep, winding road up the side of the cliff. Somehow, the chaos works. It was a picturesque and calm forty-five minute drive from the port to the center of the town of Oia.


 

Do you know how to pronounce Oia?

The picturesque town of Oia in Santorini, most famous for its sunsets and blue domes, is pronounced EE-Ya. not Ohh-ee-Ah, as commonly thought.

 

The roads closer to town are narrow and steep, and cars are not allowed on the main strip, so vehicles will park at check points along the route, closest to your hotel. Once we arrived in Oia and parked, we were met by Mario, the hotel representative, and his impressively strong helper, who swooped up our luggage, throwing them both over his shoulder, and maneuvered his way quickly through the narrow paths, and down the many, many steps to our room at Helianthus Suites.



Sunrise View from Prestige Suite, Helianthus Suites, Oia, Santorini, Greece
Sunrise View from Prestige Suite, Helianthus Suites, Oia, Santorini, Greece


We spent a wonderful four nights in Oia on Santorini, staying at the beautiful Helianthus Suites, a traditional family-run cave hotel, literally perched off the side of the cliff. There are only two rooms, the Honeymoon Suite and the Prestige Suite, both with outdoor deck, hot tub and spectacular views. Originally we wanted to stay in the Honeymoon Suite for the entire stay, but it happened not to be available for the dates we had planned to be in Oia, so we opted for two nights in one suite and two nights in the other.



View from the Hollymoon Suite window, Helianthus Suites, Oia, Santorini, Greece

The Honeymoon Suite has a little more privacy, an unobstructed view of the Aegean Ocean, and a small second floor with a reading nook. The view from the window at sunset is phenomenal. The Prestige Suite is a little more spacious indoors with direct access to the stairs up to the main village. Both suites are equally spectacular.




The only disappointment we experienced with Helianthus Suites was bad timing. Though our research, we had read dozens of reviews who mentioned the owner Kiki, each raving about her unparalleled attention and sweet gestures during their stay. It just so happened that Kiki was away during our stay at Helianthus Suite, and though we did communicate via email and with a sweet welcome call, we didn’t get the chance to meet Kiki in person and experience all that her reputation entailed.



Inside the Prestige Suite, Helianthus Suites, Oia, Santorini, Greece
Inside the Prestige Suite, Helianthus Suites, Oia, Santorini, Greece

Mario escorted us down the steps to our Prestige Suite, briefed us on what we needed to know and quickly left us to the quiet and serenity of our private deck. As we began to settle in and unpack, we were greeted by three tiny kittens. Two were braver than the third, who hid in the bushes near the edge of the deck.


Helianthus Suites Review


Other than some salty snacks, we had nothing to give them, but they stepped hesitantly into our Prestige Suite at Helianthus Suites, and ate what we could offer. This began a four day relationship with not only the young kittens, but many other cats that lived and frequented Oia.


From that point forward, we ensured we had plenty of cans of tuna, sardines and other canned fish available for them, and left it out when we had gone exploring for the day. Word spread clearly through the kitty-vine and some nights we were visited by half a dozen different cats.



Much to our surprise, no matter the size or the age, each one of them was gracious and patient with the others, often letting the wee kittens finish eating first before helping themselves. The older cats would come and go, but the kittens were almost always nearby, often sleeping on our doormat, eager for a full breakfast as soon as we were up.





The town of Oia in Santorini, is a very condensed village, with homes, shops, restaurants and hotels all intertwined in a chaotic web of staircases and hills. Having an unobstructed view of the caldera, like the one we had during our stay at Helianthus Suites, essentially means having to climb up and down a large number of steps each and every time. We knew this was going to be the case, and though we tried to “get our legs into shape” before the trip, we hadn’t taken into consideration the odd shapes and angles most steps in Oia have.


Most stairs were built according to the terrain on Santorini, meaning some steps were short, some high, some were angled, some were slanted, some were long and curved. No matter how in shape you were physically, or how many flights of stairs you could handle normally, walking up (or down) steps of inconsistent shapes and sizes, and often landing on an angled platform, would present a challenge for anyone.





Our visit to Santorini landed at the end of our trip of a lifetime in Greece, so we were even more at a disadvantage, having arrived in Oia already sore from a week of walking, hiking and exploring other Greek islands. Needless to say, exploring Santorini (and staying in Oia) was worth every painful step.



The famous blue domes of Oia, Santorini, Greece
The famous blue domes of Oia, Santorini, Greece


The next morning, after a delicious breakfast provided by Helianthus Suites and the nearby café, we joined an exciting volcanic cruise on an old-style wooden sailing boat. Though we prefer to opt for private excursions, our first was a group activity, we booked a Santorini volcanic islands cruise. After boarding the coach at the nearest parking lot, we were transported to the dock and soon boarded an old wooden boat, sailing to the lava islet of Nea Kameni. Once docked on Nea Kameni, we were broken up into small groups and guided up a rocky and slippery path to the top of the volcano.


The few the were able to keep up with the guide, were given some insight into the location, but as there were a lot of areas one could slip, most people took their time and enjoyed the view. The view from the top of Nea Kameni was simply beautiful. We had enough time to walk around the highest point before having to make our way back down. Once we were all back on the boat, we sailed from Nea Kameni to the islet of Palea Kameni.


At Palea Kameni, we had the option to jump into the frigid waters and swim to the nearby thermal waters. Having every intention of swimming, we took the opportunity to change on the boat into our swimwear. The water was deep and dark when you first jumped off the boat (and extremely cold), but became shallow and muddy as you approached the hot springs. Once you arrived, it was definitely warmer and had the distinct sulfur smell indicative of a volcano.



Docked at Nea Kameni, Oia, Santorini
Docked at Nea Kameni, Oia, Santorini


Unfortunately, because the water wasn’t clear, one could not tell when the water level rose and many swimmers collided with the sharp rocks below. After a short time bathing in the springs, we swam back to the boat and dried off in the sun. All our towels, swimsuits and clothes were forever stained with the rusty red of the water, but it felt absolutely wonderful.





From Palea Kameni, we sailed over to the island of Thirassia, where we were given time to explore the islet and eat, choosing from the available open-air restaurants on the island. We, of course, quickly made friends with a very friendly and cuddly kitty at a small café and relaxed with some delicious dessert.


Close to the port where we docked, there were steps leading all the way up to the main road at the top of the cliff. Though we had no intention of climbing all the way, we wanted to climb up enough to capture a beautiful view of the island and surrounding area. This was our first taste of what was to come.


Stuffed and tired, we boarded the boat and set sail again. From Thirassia, we sailed back to Oia. Some guests on the boat had opted for a "Sunset Stop", which allowed them to disembark close to Oia. Though we had not opted for this Sunset Stop and were entitled to sail back to the port and ride in a coach back to our meeting point, we asked if we could disembark at Oia, which we did.



Local donkey handler, Oia, Santorini, Greece
Local donkey handler, Oia, Santorini, Greece


Once on dry land, we had to make it up the cliff to the heart of the town of Oia. We had the option to climb the many steep steps up to the main village, or pay a fee to be carried up by donkey. Neither of us felt comfortable forcing the donkeys to carry us when we could walk, so we opted for the steps.


We knew the steps would be tough to climb, but from the bottom, the cobbled steps appeared wide and long and slanted, which at first, we thought would be a good thing. We were very wrong. The depth of each step made the climb a lot more challenging than we expected, plus had to be weary of the broken sections and the unavoidable donkey poop.


Not only did we often stop to take breaks and catch our breath (and take photos of the beautiful view), but we needed tuck into corners to let the group of donkeys (with riders) pass us on the narrow steps. In the end, it took us a lot longer than we would have liked or expected to make the climb, but we made it. Eventually.


Two days after climbing up all those steps, we chose to take the same path and climb back down in order to lunch and one of the few restaurants located on the pier. After a delicious meal, we opted to hire a taxi to drive us back to the center of Oia.



The many steps from the dock to the heart of Oia, Santorini, Greece
The many steps from the dock to the heart of Oia, Santorini, Greece

Back in the heart of Oia, we made our way back to our room at Helianthus Suites to quickly change, grab our big cameras and find a spot to watch the sunset. Luckily, we knew exactly where to go. The night before, exploring Oia and walking towards the east, we stumbled upon area where many were gathered, presumably to wait for the sunset.


LUXURY TRAVEL TIP: Want to see the famous Santorini sunset in style? Book a private luxury Santorini sunset catamaran cruise. A 5 hour cruise around Santorini, with food and drink, ending in the glorious golden sunset.

Stopping briefly to say hello to a kitty perched high up on a wall, we were greeted by the jealous barks of a small white puppy on the opposite wall. We laughed, said hello and continued on our way, not knowing we would soon come face to face with the energetic puppy once again.


Turning the corner, we happened to witness a group of disrespectful tourists attempting to take an Instagram worthy photo, posing with the water as the backdrop. Not only did they block us and other people from passing, they ignored the signs asking people to not climb over the walls, and they took it upon themselves to move the property of the nearby shop owner that was set on the wall (a large basket and draped carpets), adjusting them to meet their needs for their photos.



Bon Bon at the upper terrace of the Glitzy Windmill, Oia, Santorini
Bon Bon at the upper terrace of the Glitzy Windmill, Oia, Santorini

The owner of the little show noticed and interrupted their photo shoot to explain that they couldn’t touch or move her items, but they willfully ignored her until they captured the photo they wanted. As she stepped out of her shop, the same little white dog appeared and perched himself on the front steps, barking. Witnessing such a disrespectful display, a wave of tourist guilt came over us and we felt obligated to at least enter her shop and peruse her wares. We are so thankful we did.


As it happened, she had some beautiful, artistic items and a lovely space, with chairs set up in the covered shop and a beautiful view of the water., a bench on the side and a rooftop area where you could have an unobstructed view. The owner of this sweet shop (named The Glitzy Windmill) was the charming Cristin Bo and owner to the rambunctious white puppy named Bon-Bon.


She explained that if we purchased something from her shop, no matter how small, we were welcome to stay and watch the sunset, a complimentary drink in hand. We also had the option to sit inside the covered shop, on the bench off to the side or make our way to her rooftop patio, with gorgeous unobstructed views of the water. We opted for a few beautiful painted volcanic rocks and warm tea.



Inside the Glitzy Windmill, Oia, Santorini
Inside the Glitzy Windmill, Oia, Santorini


We spent the next hour with Bon-Bon by our side, waiting for the sun to go down in Oia. We returned again the next evening to see Bon-Bon and to purchase a few more items, and the evening after that, just to say goodbye. If you ever find yourself in Oia, make your way over to The Glitzy Windmill to see what Christine has to offer and say hello to her friendly little Bon-Bon. If you choose to stay, it is one of the best spots in Oia to see the sunset.


On our last full day in Santorini, we opted for a private, customizable tour with a local. We met early morning, our guide was a young woman originally from Crete who had just moved to Santorini a few months earlier and her driver. Our first stop was the beautiful Monastery of Profitis Ilias, perched up on the highest point of the island. The landscape and buildings were beautiful and the views were spectacular.


UNIQUE TRAVEL EXPERIENCE: Want to see Santorini from a unique perspective? Opt for a night hike, dinner and wine tasting tour that begins at the Monastery of Profitis Ilias and follows the Oia-Fira trail by torchlight.

In between sharing historical facts about the Monastery and the wine they produce, our guide, who happened to be a Sommelier, pointed out the vineyards down below. Rather than the traditional hanging trellis you see in other parts of the world, the grapes grow on vines on the ground. The vines curl into a strong basket that protect the grapes and provide much needed shade.



The Monastery of Profitis Ilias, Santorini, Greece
The Monastery of Profitis Ilias, Santorini, Greece


Next she took us to a small local winery, named Gavalas Winery, and as a Sommelier, she provided us insight into some of the best wines in Greece. There, we tasted three different wines, two white wine and a dessert wine called Vinsanto. The history of Vinsanto is fascinating and the drink is delicious and sweet. Not normally dessert wine connoisseurs, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to bring home a bottle of such a special wine.


 

Do you know the history of Vinsanto Wine?

Santorini winemaking was heavily influenced by the ancient Venetians, and through the use of their trade network, Vinsanto became highly sought after. In order to be officially labelled Vinsanto (and not the Italian Vin Santo), the drink must be predominately made from the Assyrtiko grapes. It is made from late harvested grapes that have been dried in the sun for 12–14 days, then crushed, fermented and aged for a minimum of 24 months in oak barrels. Historically, it was monks who first produced Vinsanto, harvesting the grapes by moonlight and having young boys (for their delicate feet) to press the grapes. You can't make this up.

 

Feeling a little tipsy after the wine tasting, we headed to the infamous Megalochori Village, known for its white-washed buildings, multi-bell tower and abandoned cave homes. It was fascinating to walk through a real cave dwelling, now abandoned and on display, where families once lived on Santorini. Though we didn’t have time to dip our feet into the water, we did visit both the red and black beaches of Santorini, both of which were gorgeous in their own unique way.



Bells of the Megalochori Village, Santorini, Greece
Bells of the Megalochori Village, Santorini, Greece


We would have spent more time immersed in the natural environment on Santorini, if we hadn't opted to visit the ruins and archeological site of the prehistoric city of Akrotiri. Considered one of the most important prehistoric settlements of the Aegean, the city of Akrotiri developed into an urban center with sophisticated multi-story buildings, a drainage system and impressive wall paintings and furniture.


 

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It is believed that the inhabitants abandoned Akrotiri in the late seventeenth century as a result of severe earthquakes. The eruption that followed covered the town completely, protecting and preserving it. A ticket to visit Akrotiri is a visit to the active excavation site, viewing the ruins from catwalks above, with or without a guide. There are also sections where guests can walk among the ruins and peer into the buildings. It is fascinating and well worth a visit.



The archeological site of Akrotiri, Santorini, Greece
The archeological site of Akrotiri, Santorini, Greece

Our last stop on our full day  private, customizable tour with a local was a second ancient winery, the beautiful Venetsanos Winery perched at the top of a cliff, which boasted a grand collection of wines and a terrace with a phenomenal view. Here we opted to sample five different wines, from rose, white and red, all of which were delicious. She gave us a small tour of the remains of the old factory before we soaked up the view (and the wine) on the terrace.


Tired (and more than a little tipsy) we headed back to Oia, where we had some delicious food at our now favourite restaurant and took a well deserved nap before sunset. The first time we chose to eat at Thalassia Restaurant was out of convenience, being located just steps from Helianthus Suites in Oia, but it was the service and the quality of food that kept us coming back. We had the absolute best Baklava ever at Thalassia Restaurant, a definite must if in Oia.



Wine on the terrace of Venetsanos Winery, Santorini, Greece
Wine on the terrace of Venetsanos Winery, Santorini, Greece


It was that first lunch at Thalassia Restaurant that we were introduced to the phenomenon that is cruise ship tourists on shore leave. As travellers, our motto is to try to blend in with each location, learn a little about the area prior to arriving, learn a few words in the native language and be respectful to the locals and their traditions. We tend to scoff at tourist who make it painfully obvious that they are on vacation and feel they are entitled to special treatment because of that. The cruise ship tourist (at least those we encountered in Oia on Santorini) is completely different beast.





Though we are confident there are those who do not act in this manner, all our interactions with cruise ship tourists on leave in Santorini, have been the worst kind of entitled traveller. Perhaps it was the limited time allotted to wander, perhaps it was the blind follow-the-leader mentality can occur in large tour groups, or perhaps it was just our bad luck.



The narrow streets of Oia, Santorini, Greece
The narrow streets of Oia, Santorini, Greece

The town of Oia, like many in Santorini, consists of small narrow streets with many steps built into the terrain, often twisting and turning. Even before the cruise ships dock in the morning, the narrow streets and pathways can easily be filled with people bustling about their day, but after, it is near impossible to maneuver through the large aimless crowds.


If you prefer calm, quiet walks, be out before 10am or opt to stroll after sunset. Luckily, cruise ships only dock near Oia twice per week and many tourists come to watch the sunset but sleep elsewhere, so are gone once the event is over. Santorini is a beautiful and peaceful island, with wonderful people who clearly love where they live, but t is easy to see how some locals have developed a disdain for tourists.


All around Oia, there are signs posted asking tourists to respect their home and not climb the walls, but we witnessed many examples of this type of behaviour every day. Whether it was capturing the perfect Instagram shot, that unique wedding photo or just trying to find a spot to watch the sunset, tourists climbed over buildings, onto roofs and into private areas.


 
The grey steps to Helianthus Suites, Oia, Santorini, Greece
Grey steps to Helianthus Suites, Oia, Santorini, Greece

TIP: When staying or exploring in Oia on Santorini, note the colour of the steps. If they are white or stone, it is a public area, but if they are grey, you are entering private residences or hotels, so beware.


While on our private deck, enjoying the hot tub, we had tourists not only wander down the private steps but onto our private terrace. Trying to capture a unique view of the sunset, they ignored the signs and kept descending the steps, oblivious to the fact that they were in a private residential area.

 


Drones are prohibited in Oia, yet we heard them every day in the early mornings. Sipping coffee on our private terrace overlooking the water, we watched the sunrise. It was bright and calm and it would have been perfect, save for the constant buzz of drones overhead. As photographers, we can appreciate the type of footage that a drone can capture, especially in a location as beautiful and unique as Santorini, but one must respect the locals and their rules.



Bad tourists perched on the wall of an ancient castle in Santorini, Greece
Bad tourists perched on the wall of an ancient castle in Santorini, Greece

We thoroughly enjoyed our time exploring Santorini, and especially our time staying at Helianthus Suites in Oia, and can easily see us returning one day. The over tourism of the once serene village of Oia can deter some from staying there, but there are plenty of off the beaten path villages and locations on the island that are worth exploring and visiting. No matter where you wander, remember that you are a visitor who has been given the privilege of exploring someone else’s backyard. Respect it like it was your own. Efcaristo Santorini!


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The town of Oia looks so beautiful. I didn't realise that there's actually many things to do in Santorini. Thank you for sharing.

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Oh I love this story-telling! I was transported right back to this beautiful island. I remember this stairs all too well. We had a great time and also managed to escape the crowds by getting out and about during the afternoons cruise ships would disembark. I love your sunset photo with the dog and that you found all the amazing kittens. Your hotel looks fabulous as well!

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D Marino
D Marino
Mar 23
Replying to

Thanks so much! It was a fabulous time, even with the literal ups and downs :)

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D Marino
D Marino
Feb 01, 2020

Thanks very much! Enjoy NY, it's great.

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These days I will go with https://www.goldenbustours.com/new-york-ny-tours/ with few friends after come back I must go Santorini and visit all these places there. By the way, your article are so amazing .

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