Santorini is one of the most popular destinations for cruise ships in the Mediterranean, and it’s not hard to see why. With its white-washed buildings, blue-domed churches, stunning sunset views of the Aegean Sea, and charming villages like Fira and Oia, Santorini is a true gem of the Greek islands.
And despite the crowds, it is still one of our favorite places in Greece. Whether on a shore excursion or as part of a more extended vacation to the Greek islands, we love this place.
However, many cruise guests who arrive at the port of Santorini feel overwhelmed by the crowds and the queues. And you may feel unsure of the options for getting around the island.
This article will explore how to visit Santorini without booking a shore excursion. You will also learn the best ways to get from the port to see Fira and Oia.
Santorini – from ancient times to modern day
The island of Santorini is located in the southern Aegean Sea, about 120 miles southeast of Greece’s mainland. It is part of the Cyclades island group and is situated between the islands of Ios and Anafi.
Santorini is a volcanic island with a long and fascinating history. The island was formed by a massive volcanic eruption around 3,500 years ago, which created a large caldera and shaped the island’s unique landscape. The eruption is believed to have been one of the largest in recorded history and is thought to have contributed to the decline of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete.
Over the centuries, Santorini was inhabited by various civilizations, including the Minoans, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines. The island was also occupied by the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks before finally being incorporated into modern Greece in the 19th century.
Getting to Santorini port by tender boat
Santorini’s port is not big enough to accommodate large cruise ships. Instead, they anchor off the coast, and a tender boat gets you safely into the port. Enjoy a scenic ride to the shore and see the island differently.
The ride from the cruise ship to the shore can take 10 to 30 minutes. It varies depending on the sea conditions and the number of tender boats waiting to dock in the harbor.
At least one tender boat will arrive every 10 to 15 minutes so it will get busy. Your tender boat will bring you to the port known as the “Old Port of Fira.” There is another port, Athinios. However, this is used mainly for tender boats that bring in cruise guests who have booked a shore excursion with the cruise line.
During the peak holiday season, many cruise ships can arrive on the same day, making the port very busy. One of the biggest challenges on the island is the potential for long lines and wait times. You can see how many cruise ships are due to visit Santorini on the day you arrive by checking Cruisemapper. For each additional cruise ship, the lines for the cable car will become longer.
Planning and allowing enough time to get to and from the port is essential. If you have booked an independent shore excursion, many tour operators have a meeting point in Fira at the top of the cable car station. Assume you must queue for the cable car and plan your meeting time accordingly.
You also need to be sure you get back to the tender boats in the port in time to be back on board your ship for a prompt departure.
What to do when you reach Santorini
From the port, you can take a cable car, ride a mule, or walk up the 588 steps to reach Fira (also known as Thira), the capital of Santorini.
The cable car is the fastest and most convenient option, as it takes only a few minutes to reach the top. However, cable car lines can be extremely long during the peak holiday season. You may have to wait over an hour to get on, so be patient, but it is the smoothest and quickest way to get to Fira from the port.
Riding a mule is a traditional and unique experience but can also be uncomfortable. We feel that the animals are not always well-treated. Walking up the steps is a great workout but can be exhausting, especially in the heat. And the path can also be slippery due to the cobblestones and mule excrement. We do not recommend this option.
If you don’t want to deal with the crowds and the hassle of waiting for a cable car, you can start your day by speed boat to Oia. Oia is located on the northern tip of Santorini. This is our favorite way to see the island when arriving on a cruise ship tender boat in the port: start at the port with a boat ride to reach Oia, then take a local bus to Fira in the afternoon, and finally use the cable car to get back down to the port to your tender boat.
How to use the water taxi or boat from the port to Oia
Several tour companies offer rides from the port to Oia, but you can also hire a private boat to tour the whole island.
You can buy tickets in the port from one of the many ticket offices for a local boat to take you to Oia. You will dropped off at Ammoudi Bay.
The advantage of taking a boat is that you get to see the stunning coastline and the caldera cliffs of Santorini from the water, and you avoid the cable car crowds or the steep climb up to Fira.
When you reach Ammoudi Bay in Oia, walk up the road and buy a ticket to take the bus to the village’s center. The road is a slow, steep climb to where the buses park, so take your time; it can be pretty tiring in the heat.
When you are ready to leave Oia, use a local bus to reach Fira, the journey is about 25 minutes. And when you have finished exploring Fira, head to the cable car to get back to the port to catch your tender boat to your ship. Expect to queue and plan accordingly. Waiting for the cable car for around 2 hours is not unusual.
Exploring Fira and Oia
Fira is the main town of Santorini, and it offers plenty of things to see and do. One of the main attractions is the caldera, the large volcanic crater that forms the central part of the island. You can take a scenic walk and admire the breathtaking sea and cliff views.
There are also several churches, museums, and galleries in Fira, where you can learn more about the history and culture of Santorini. And, of course, there are plenty of shops, cafes, and restaurants where you can enjoy some delicious Greek food and purchase souvenirs.
If you have some spare time while in Fira or need to get out of the heat and do something fun, then visit the beautiful Anhydrous Winery. You can also book a guided tour or wine tasting on their website before you leave home. While there, sample their award-winning wines and traditional Greek food, it's a perfect afternoon.
Oia is a smaller and quieter village, but it is just as charming and picturesque as Fira. Many frequent buses travel between Oia and Fira during the day. The journey is about 20 minutes.
Oia is famous for its sunset view, considered one of the most beautiful in the world. You can find a spot on the cliffs overlooking the sea and watch as the sun slowly sets over the horizon, painting the sky with shades of orange, pink, and purple.
But keep an eye on the time and make sure you plan your visit to make it back to your tender boat in good time! Perhaps your itinerary doesn’t allow you to be in Oia at sundown, which is a great excuse to return to Santorini again on a future vacation!
Oia also has several art galleries, boutiques, and cafes where you can relax and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere.
Where to buy tickets for the cable car or boat ride
Cruise guests can buy tickets for a boat ride or the cable car at ticket booths at the Old Port. You’ll find them easily; the ticket booths are near the cable car and boat departure points.
Tickets for the cable car from the Old Port to Fira
For the cable car, there are typically two types of tickets available – a one-way ticket and a round-trip ticket. The one-way ticket will take you from the port to the town of Fira (or from Fira to the port), while the round-trip ticket will take you from the port to Fira and back again.
The cost of the cable car tickets can vary depending on the season but typically range from €6-€8 per person for a one-way ticket and €12-€16 per person for a round-trip ticket.
Tickets for a boat ride from the Old Port to Ammoudi Bay, Oia, and a bus to Oia village
There are a few options for the 30-minute boat ride to Oia. A boat ride and a bus ride from Ammoudi Bay, where your boat drops you, to Oia village costs from €20 to €40 per person, depending on the season you visit.
Other tour companies offer boat excursions that depart from the port and take guests on a tour of the island, stopping at various points of interest such as the Red Beach and the Hot Springs.
These tours usually include a guide who provides information about the island’s history and culture. The cost of these tours can vary depending on the tour company and the length of the excursion but typically range from €40-€60 per person.
Alternatively, if you want to visit Oia or other parts of the island independently, you can take the public ferry from the other port, Athinios. The public ferry runs regularly and stops at several ports around the island. The ferry port Athinios is 20 minutes by bus, south of Fira.
The cost of the public ferry can vary depending on the destination but typically range from €2-€10 per person. However, remember that the public ferry can be crowded and may not offer the same comfort and amenities as a private boat tour.
It’s essential to plan and allow enough time for transportation, especially during the peak holiday season when the port can be crowded and cable car or boat lines can be long.
If all this seems too much for you to do yourself, research the types of shore excursions in Santorini that either trusted suppliers such as Viator offer or the tours offered by your cruise line.
When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a commission. Here’s how it works.
Essential items to bring with you on a visit to Santorini island
When visiting Santorini during the day, you must get a few important items from your cruise packing list to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Here are some recommendations for onshore things to bring:
- Sunscreen: The Mediterranean sun can be intense, especially during the summer, so protecting your skin from sunburn and damage is essential. Bring a high-SPF sunscreen and apply it regularly throughout the day.
- Sunglasses and a hat: In addition to sunscreen, bring sunglasses and a hat to protect your eyes and face from the sun’s rays. This will also help you to see clearly and avoid glare when taking photos.
- Comfortable shoes: Santorini is a hilly, rocky island with steep, sometimes slippery steps and narrow, cobbled pathways. Leave your flip-flops and sandals on the ship and wear comfortable shoes for walking and exploring.
- Lightweight clothing: Wear lightweight and breathable clothing such as cotton or linen to beat the heat. Avoid dark colors that absorb heat and opt for light and airy colors that reflect the sun’s rays.
- Water and snacks: Stay hydrated by bringing a refillable water bottle and filling it up at one of the many water fountains or shops around the island. Additionally, bring snacks such as fruit or energy bars to energize you throughout the day. Stop often for a break out of the sun at one of the many cafes on the island.
- Cash and credit cards: While many places on the island accept credit cards, it’s always a good idea to bring some euros in case of emergencies if you want to purchase items from local vendors or markets, or hop of the local buses.
- Camera or smartphone: Santorini is a picturesque island with stunning views and photo opportunities around every corner. Don’t forget to bring a camera or smartphone to capture these moments and create lasting memories.
By being prepared and bringing the right items, you can make the most of your visit and enjoy all this beautiful island offers.
The best souvenirs to bring home from Santorini
Santorini is known for its unique and beautiful souvenirs, and there are many options for travelers to bring back a piece of the island with them. Here are some of the best and most popular souvenir items travelers can bring back from Santorini and where to buy them:
- Handmade ceramics: Santorini has a long history of pottery-making, and the island’s volcanic soil creates unique and beautiful ceramics. You can find handmade ceramics such as vases, plates, and bowls in many shops and studios around the island.
- Local wines: Santorini is home to many vineyards and wineries, producing various local wines. Book a wine tour and purchase bottles of your favorite wine to bring home.
- Jewelry: Santorini has a thriving jewelry industry, with many shops offering unique and beautiful pieces made from precious metals and gems. You can find everything from simple bracelets and necklaces to more intricate and ornate pieces.
- Local honey and olive oil: Santorini’s volcanic soil and unique climate create ideal conditions for producing high-quality honey and olive oil. You can purchase bottles of local honey and olive oil to pack in your check-in luggage and take home.
- Greek sandals: Greek sandals are a popular and stylish souvenir item, and Santorini has many shops offering handmade leather sandals in various colors and styles.
- Artwork and prints: Santorini’s stunning views and beautiful architecture inspire many local artists, and visitors can find a variety of artwork and prints depicting the island’s scenery and landmarks.
You will find the largest selection of souvenir items in the many shops and markets around the island, including the main shopping areas of Fira and Oia.
Additionally, many souvenir shops offer shipping services, making it easy to send larger or breakable items back home without carrying them around during the remainder of the trip.
Visiting vineyards on Santorini and wine-tasting experiences
We love tasting locally produced wines when visiting the Greek Isles.
Santorini’s unique climate and volcanic soil make it an ideal location for wine production. The island’s vineyards primarily grow the Assyrtiko grape variety, which is well-suited to the island’s dry and windy conditions.
Its high acidity and citrus flavors characterize Santorini’s dry white Assyrtiko. Other local grape varieties include Athiri, Aidani, and Mavrotragano. Santorini is also famous for its sweet Vinsanto wine, made from sun-dried grapes and aged for several years in oak barrels.
Here are some of the vineyards to visit in Santorini and the locally produced wines:
- Santo Wines: Santo Wines is a cooperative of local growers and winemakers and offers stunning views of the island’s caldera. They produce a dry white Assyrtiko, a sweet Vinsanto, and a rose.
- Venetsanos Winery: Venetsanos Winery is in a unique spot on the island, built into the cliffside overlooking the caldera. They produce a range of beautiful wines and are happy to organize shipping a case to your home.
- Gaia Wines: Gaia Wines is a modern winery that produces many wines, including a dry white Assyrtiko, a red Agiorgitiko, and a rose.
- Estate Argyros: Estate Argyros is a family-run winery producing wine for over 100 years. They specialize in Assyrtiko wines and make wines such as Aidani and Mavrotragano.
- Gavalas Winery: Gavalas Winery is a small, family-owned winery producing wine for several generations. They produce Assyrtiko wines and others such as Nykteri and Vinsanto.
We highly recommend booking a wine tour to learn more about the island’s wine production and sample some local wines. Many vineyards offer tours and tastings, and some even have restaurants where visitors can enjoy a meal with a view of the caldera.