If you’ve been anywhere near Instagram over the past few years, you’re bound to have seen pictures of Santorini. Shots of the iconic bright white houses with their blue dome roofs have broken the internet and now people all over the world are flocking to this tiny, beautiful island to see it with their own eyes (or rather, take pictures of it with their own phones). The island didn’t even have electricity until 1960, and now it gets 1.5 million visitors a year.
A few weeks ago I took part in a styled wedding shoot there (photos to come soon!!) and Jonathan and I decided to stay for a few extra days and make a holiday out of it. There were three of four main places we visited while we were there, all with their own little quirks and idiosyncrasies, and all very very pretty. I thought while I was out there I’d write a Santorini diary, one entry for each city we went to, starting with the cliff-top city of Fira. I’ve also given you a few little tricks and tips I picked up, just in case you read this, see the pictures and decide to go too! Enjoy!
Fira is awesome.
As you walk up the hill into the city, you gradually enter a labyrinth. Endless little alleys and streets, all lined with classy souvenir shops, jewellers and clothing outlets, punctuated with countless restaurants and tavernas. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you spot another charming little side street just waiting to be explored. You could literally spend a day there strolling up and down alleys and still not see everything, it’s a gold mine.
And everyone is so friendly. The Greek hospitality and customer service is incredible. Shop assistants, hoteliers and waiters are all so genuinely invested in your customer experience that you just want to hug them when you leave. One waitress asked with genuine interest and concern if we liked our meal and when we told her we loved it, she was absolutely, loveably, heartbreakingly over the moon. You just don’t get that in England. This isn’t Fira-specific either; wherever we went in Santorini, we were met with a warmth and care I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the world.
Back to Fira. If you can drag yourself free of the maze of shops, head to the top of the hill and you’ll find a string of restaurants and bars, all with outside seating areas boasting magnificent views of the harbour below.
Fira is more or less right in the middle of the C-shaped island of Santorini, so from this vantage point you can see pretty much the entirety of the inside of the curve. With Akrotiri in the distance on your left, the famous white buildings and blue domes of Oia shining in the sunshine to your right, and the (still active) Tholos volcano rearing up from the middle of the caldera directly in front of you, Fira is a great place to sip a cocktail and take in the island as a whole.
Hundreds of meters below sits the old Fira Port. The port is where all the cruise ships unload their passengers into Santorini, so there’s a constant parade of little boats to-and-frowing from the mammoth ships sat in the deeper waters beyond. This is great entertainment over a cocktail but does have the inevitable side-effect of unleashing waves of cruise tourists on the town, meaning some times are much busier than others. Even so, the maze of shops is so extensive that while we were there, it was never uncomfortably busy. Probably a different story in high season though.
Now for the famous Fira steps. There are 588 steps from the top of Fira town down to the old port of Fira 260m below (it is a real port by the way; note the disinterested and wholly pointless ‘security’ search and the duty free cigarettes on sale!)
It’s just under a third of a mile down on foot, which wouldn’t be too bad if they hadn’t made the (arguably malicious) decision to make the steps so ridiculously slippery. Not good in flip flops or sandals so wear something with grip.
You can ride a donkey up and down the steps for a price but please don’t. By far the most heartbreaking part of my holiday was seeing those poor donkeys. Forced to run up and down the endless steep steps, loaded with fat, ungrateful tourists, with no water and very little shade to protect them from the pounding heat, the donkeys of Fira are simply abused. Apparently new legislation has been brought in to protect them, but it’s either insufficient or it’s unenforced. Either way, however tempting it might be, resist the urge and don’t support it. Or by all means ride the donkey down, but make sure you carry him back up so you know how it feels.
If you manage to make it past the crack security squad, you’re rewarded for your 588 slippery steps with a truly wonderful experience. Restaurants line the water’s edge, giving you what is a rare opportunity in Santorini to spend some quality time at sea level. We sat and ate fresh seafood at one of the restaurants, the water lapping at the harbour beneath our feet and the sunshine twinkling off the crests of the waves. Perfect.
Unfortunately we mistimed our journey back to the top and the queue for the cable cars, recently bolstered by a fresh cruise ship-load of tourists, was hundreds of yards long. So we decided to walk the 700 meter, 588 step climb on foot. Exhausting and sweaty and not at all fun. But good cardio and definitely better than forcing a donkey to do it.
When we got back to the top we got ourselves a well-deserved ice cream and had another little wander in the afternoon sun. Beautiful, and interesting and welcoming, Fira is simply wonderful.
If Instagram were a place.
The photo-hype is real in Oia. It’s literally like every idealistic holiday brochure you’ve ever seen. It’s a dream. An immaculate, astonishing, breathtakingly beautiful, rub-your-eyes-and-blink dream. Blues are bluer, greens are greener, even the stray dogs have a certain spring in their step. It’s just perfect.
The marble walkway that runs along the cliff tops boasts stunning views of the caldera and is lined with restaurants, all with outside seating areas that let you look out over the twinkling ocean while you eat. As you walk further along the walkway, your view of the ocean disappears and the buildings either side get closer and closer. Soon you’re walking down a narrow alley with souvenir shops and boutiques either side, a great place to shop and explore what Greece has to offer.
This is also where you’ll find the famous blue domes, hidden away down little alley ways off the main path. Keep going to the end and on clear nights you’ll get a front-row seat to one of nature’s most spectacular sights: a Santorini sunset. Unfortunately, nature’s most spectacular sight is pretty popular and it gets really crowded (I actually have a really good tip for you if you want to beat the crowds, just read my Akrotiri post in a few days’ time).
Even if you’re not watching the sunset, avoid at all costs the Oia alleyway just after the sun disappears. Masses of tourists all try to exit through the same narrow alley all at the same time and it becomes almost impassable. Especially since people keep stopping to take photos!
I imagine this is all sounding pretty negative, so let me backtrack a little. Oia is stunning, by far the most photogenic place on the island and definitely worth a visit. But its reputation precedes it, so just be warned it’s pretty busy and very very photo-focused.
One evening, I sat on a bench in Oia and watched the world go by. Looking out to sea, I drank in the epitome of Instagram’s Greek island, while just ahead of me the blue and white flag of Greece fluttered sleepily in the evening breeze. I followed a bird idly with my eyes for a second as it rode the air currents above the cliffs, a grey strike against the pure blue sky. A few seconds later I turned back to watch the flag, only to find it now swamped with tourists, snapping hungrily at this newly-discovered photo opp.
And that’s the blessing and curse of Oia. It lends itself so perfectly to being photographed that there’s a danger of it being enjoyed exclusively through a lens. Millennia of history cast aside in favour of offerings to the ‘Gram.
As I sat in the sun, I saw one man walking along the beautiful walkway that caresses the cliffs of Oia, the sun making pearl of the marble beneath his feet. For a hundred yards he trod one of the most beautiful stretches of path the earth has to offer, and all the while his eyes never left the screen of his phone.
Of course, the hypocrisy of this isn’t lost on me and I’m definitely as guilty of this as anyone. As a professional photographer, I’ve conditioned myself to see the world through an imaginary viewfinder and see everything for the photograph it could be. Whenever we go somewhere new, my husband pleads with me to look away from my camera and put it down. But it’s a difficult habit to turn off.
If you’re planning an engagement shoot or a wedding, there’s no doubt in my mind that Oia has to be one of the world’s best locations, a jewel in the Aegean crown and an absolute dream to photograph but go really early in the morning or find somewhere off the beaten track. All I suggest is that if you do come here, do yourself a favour and look up from your phone and resist the temptation to run frenziedly from place to place, pose to pose. Leave your camera behind for a day and just drink it in for yourself. Forget the ‘Gram and make your own memories. Remember the island’s stunning beauty through your own eyes.