I’ve felt an ache in my heart for Santorini ever since the first photo of its beautiful whitewashed, blue-domed churches appeared on my Instagram feed. Since then, friends I’ve met during my travels have raved about their visits to this breathtaking Greek island. Naturally, I had to see it for myself.
Perhaps rather unnaturally, however, I visited Santorini at the end of December. I fit the island excursion into my schedule by sandwiching it between stays in Vienna for Christmas and Athens for New Years.
Santorini is typically characterized by raucous activity, crowds of tourists and soaring temperatures during its summer high season…or so I’ve been told. I was looking forward to seeing the island with fewer tourists, but I was not quite prepared for the relative ghost town I encountered.
I arrived after dark at the Santorini airport, where the owner of the guesthouse were I was staying kindly met me. The next morning, I set out on foot toward the town of Fira to see what I could find to explore. The air was chilly, but the sun was bright…and there were very few people around. By the time I arrived in Fira about 20 minutes later, having left the guesthouse without having coffee or breakfast (a crucial error on my part), I was feeling just a little frustrated. I looked around. A few cafes were open on the main square, patronized mostly by older men in sock caps enjoying their cigarettes, but many restaurants and all of the shops were shuttered. Where was the island life? Where was the bustling activity? And where were those whitewashed, blue-domed churches?
“I will salvage this situation,” I thought. “I can make the best of this.”
I spotted a tour agency with a huge sign listing a variety of tour options posted on the side of its three-story building. I stepped inside and said hello to the two travel agents leaning languidly against the front counter. When I asked about the boat excursions, one of the agents reached below the counter and pulled out a flyer with a map on one side and a list of tours on the other. He placed the tour side face-up on the counter, and with a pen, he put a huge “X” across the page.
“None of these tours are operating now,” he said. “We have one boat tour per day. It’s a three-hour tour to the volcano and hot springs, and it leaves at 11 a.m.” He helpfully wrote the departure time on the map side of the flyer.
I looked at my watch. It was 11:09.
“Okay, thank you!” I said brightly, taking the flyer and attempting to breathe normally as I turned on my heel and quickly left the office.
I talked myself through the disappointment and used the map to find the side of Fira that overlooks the water. The tiny pedestrian streets all along the coastal cliffs are packed with cafes and tiny shops, and all but one or two were closed. I passed two or three similarly dejected-looking tourists, wandering aimlessly. I took a few photos of the water and nearby cliffs, and turned back toward the town for some sustenance. I was definitely in need of some caffeine and protein.
Luckily, the latte and big Greek omelet helped, and the rest of my visit was significantly better. The moral of the story is that Santorini can be great in December, but it’s helpful to plan ahead (what a concept!) and know what you’ll find when you get there.
In addition to seeing fewer tourists and avoiding the sweltering summer heat, you’ll also find some great deals on accommodation when traveling in the off-season. I booked a private room through Hostelbookers.com for just 25 Euros per night. My guesthouse was conveniently located within walking distance of beaches and the town of Fira. The room included a queen-size bed, bathroom and a basic kitchenette with a small refrigerator.
On the first afternoon, I walked to Pyros for views of the entire island from the hilltop. The weather was a little foggy, so the views could have been better, but I had fun exploring the narrow winding pathways that curved up the hill. I had the area entirely to myself and didn’t see another soul until I had begun the walk back to Fira.
After my trek to Pyros, I returned to Fira in time to catch a gorgeous sunset over the water.
My second morning in Santorini was bright, clear and absolutely beautiful. I debated between participating in the three-hour boat excursion, which cost 20 Euros, or doing the hike between the towns of Fira and Oia, which would be free. I wanted to get to Oia, which is where all the most beautiful photos of Santorini are taken, so I decided on the hike. I’m so glad I did.
The hiking trail wound from Fira north along the coast, following paved and gravel pathways, uphill and down, passing through a couple of other small towns along the way. The majority of the pathway is within view of the water, so the sights were absolutely incredible. I actually got rather warm hiking in the sunshine and felt very comfortable in just short yoga pants and a thin, long-sleeved cotton top. Not bad for late December!
During the entire two-and-a-half hour hike, I only saw a handful of people along the trail. The pathway stretches for long intervals between towns. I saw some snack bars along the way that are presumably open in the summertime, but in December they were closed. If you decide to take on this trail, be sure to take plenty of water along.
I had only one slightly unnerving experience during this gorgeous hike. I had recently passed through a town and was heading uphill on a gravel pathway when I heard someone in the distance behind me yelling out “You-hoooo! Seniorita!” I turned around to see a smallish guy in sweatpants hurrying after me from quite a distance away. I wondered what he could possibly want. Had I dropped something? Was I headed toward something dangerous? I waited while he ambled up beside me. I noticed that he had something in his hand, and then I watched as he put that hand behind his back. That made me nervous.
It was midday…bright and sunny, but we were standing on a pathway along the edge of a cliff, and the area was deserted. What, exactly, did he have in mind?
“Hi,” I said, with a question in my voice.
He was young and dark-skinned, about 5’5″ and obviously not in great shape. He was out of breath when he asked, “Hi. Do you have a boyfriend?”
I looked at him incredulously. “Yes. Is that all you wanted?” (Seriously, you interrupted my lovely walk for that? So rude!)
“I have a house…back there,” he said in broken English between breaths. “You are very beautiful. Do you want to come with me to my house?”
Umm….no. It turns out that the item he was holding behind his back was a set of keys. Of course I said that I had a boyfriend and that he was meeting me in the next town. He persisted with the invitation and tried to accompany me up the steep hill. Luckily, I’m in better shape,which really wasn’t saying much! I waved goodbye and powered my way up the hill as fast as I could. On the descent, I caught up with two guys who were also hiking the trail. I turned to looked back and saw that my wannabe Casanova was gone.
Thank you, Lord.
I soon forgot about the strange little man and enjoyed the amazing views on the rest of the hike. When I finally got the first glimpse of Oia, I felt like I had arrived in the promised land. This was the Santorini I’d been looking for!
I happily explored the streets of Oia and took maybe a million photos of the beautiful little town. I also met a tour guide who told me that the three-hour volcano tour I had skipped really wasn’t worth doing anyway. (Ah-ha! I had make the right choice!)
In the late afternoon, when I had finally tired of taking photos, I shared a taxi back to Fira with a nice couple from Little Rock, Arkansas, that I met while waiting for a bus that never came. (Beware: busses are notoriously unreliable in Santorini!) I made it back to Fira just in time to explore a bit more and see my last sunset on the island before boarding a plane to Athens the next morning.
While visiting Santorini in late December initially felt like a mistake, the short trip turned out to be a beautiful and memorable experience. I’m grateful for the gorgeous weather, stunning views and low prices! Visit Santorini in the wintertime, but only if you’re satisfied with hiking and taking in the views. If you’d like to avoid the crowds but prefer to be able to swim, shop and generally enjoy the island’s typical attractions…September may be a better idea. Either way, I do recommend a visit!
Farewell, sweet Santorini!