For many, Santorini represents the Greek islands in a beautiful, sophisticated, luxurious and photogenic way, as showcased through the oodles of Instagram photos featuring the stunning sunsets and blue-domed churches. In our recent travels, Santorini seemed like an obligatory stop when traveling to the Greek Islands. The most photographed village of Santorini, land of the gorgeous sunsets, is Oia. But, is Oia worth it? Is Santorini overrated? Would we go back? Read on to find out.

Oia Santorini at Sunset

AUTHOR

Kristen Cummings

CATEGORY

Lodging, Couples

DESTINATION

Santorini, Greece

POSTED ON

August 29, 2021

Recently my husband, Jason, and I traveled to Greece for the first time. We knew we wanted to visit the island of Crete, but we also felt compelled, and even weirdly drawn, to see the island of Santorini, as well. It’s a bucket list destination, so it had to be done at least once. With 227 inhabited Greek islands (and several thousand uninhabited islands), many with similar landscapes, history and architecture, Santorini beckoned us like the song of Homer’s sirens. Or was it the 7.5 million photos on Instagram with a #santorini tag that actually compelled us to go? 

The Greek Island of Santorini

Santorini is one of the southernmost islands in Greece. Once upon a time is was an island volcano, but in 1600 B.C., during the time of the Minoans, the volcano blew the island apart. Now what’s left is the moon-shaped island of Santorini, which would make the right half of the volcano’s caldera, a small chunk of island called Thirasia that is what is left of the left side of the caldera, and a small island in the middle that is the volcano, itself. It is still an active volcano, but not in a cool, Hawaii, lava-flow kind-of-way. More like a pile of rocks with occasional steam venting up.

The caldera side of the island is a steep cliff, with villages lining the top ridge, and houses also built into the cliff below the ridge. Oia (pronounced “eee-yuh”) is the village on the north side of Santorini, on the caldera, that is famous for its stunning sunsets and blue-domed churches. When you’re seeing all the Instagram shots of Santorini, chances are you are seeing photos of Oia.

Santorini and the Problem with Overtourism

The island of Santorini is 35 square-miles,  making it smaller than my home airport, Denver International Airport, which is 52 square-miles. There are 15,500 permanent residents who share their island with 18 vineyards and 2 million tourists, most between the months of April and September.

In the last five to ten years, Santorini has become one of the most popular destinations in the world, which has made it a financial success story in a country otherwise still impacted by a drawn-out financial crisis. But, this small, rural farming island does not have the infrastructure to keep up with the increasing tourism, as documented by the EU’s transport committee. The ferry port gets more traffic than it can handle, the roads are in need of repair, the mobile networks can’t keep up with the data usage on the island, and waste management. Vacation rentals have driven up housing costs significantly, and labor has to be imported from other countries. Steps are being taken to curb the number of visitors to Santorini with measures like allowing only 8,000 day-visitors per day. However, day visitors don’t spend a lot of money in Santorini, and are adding to the problem without contributing to the economy.

I find the draw to Oia for sunset to be absolutely comical.

Is Oia Worth It?

With so many people flocking to Oia, it begs the question: Is Oia worth it, or is it overrated? I’ll break it down, below, and let you decide!

Oia is Beautiful and Unique

When my husband, Jason, and I first walked to the most popular village for tourists, Oia, (we had to walk because we stayed in a less touristy village to avoid the crowds) it was just as stunning as we hoped it would be. Around every corner it was more beautiful than the last. It was insane to look down, look ahead, look behind, look above. Everything is built on top of each other (it’s a pedestrian village; definitely no cars there) and there are hidden pathways and stairs in every direction. Oia is not just beautiful from one vantage point, it’s like being in a three-dimensional painting no matter where you are in the village. 

And where are my 80s kids at? You know one of the final scenes of the David Bowie’s Labyrinth movie, when Baby Toby, the Goblin King and Sarah are on stairs that are upside-down, sideways, and Sara was struggling to find the path to the baby? That’s what Oia reminded me of: “Hey! What a cool church at the bottom of the hill! I wonder how we get down to it?” And getting down to the church involves going up the hill, back where you came from to a new set of pathways, first. That sort of thing. But I digress.

Windmill in Oia Santorini
Kristen Cummings, Blogger and Author of Touristish

I’m Kristen… your tour guide that will lead you away from the crowds of tourists and toward unique experiences that leave you only feeling touristish.

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Oia is Expensive

Lodging in Oia is significantly more expensive than other parts of Greece. In Crete we found that average Airbnbs cost between $45 and $90 per night. In Santorini it was a struggle to find an Airbnb for less than $200 per night. For us, that was so expensive that we opted to only stay for only three nights compared to eight nights in Crete. 

The shopping in Santorini is very expensive, too, especially in Oia. Instead of finding small, local merchants, luxury international brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and Chanel dominated the store fronts, as well as exclusive art galleries. 

Dining also costs much more in Santorini than other parts of Greece, or even than where I live in the United States. We used a Greek Salad as our measuring tool as we looked at menus, since they are identical at every restaurant. In Crete a Greek salad large enough to feed two to four people, depending on if it was eaten as a main or a side, was always 4 to 6 Euros ($5-$7). In Oia we saw Greek Salads for 9 to 16 Euros ($10-$18). Just to give you an idea.

Santorini’s Food is Not Super Fresh, Aside from Seafood

I will preface this by saying that we went to Santorini after a week in Crete, an island that is completely self-sufficient, and grows all of its food locally. Food doesn’t get any fresher than the farm-to-table norm of Crete. Santorini is much smaller than Crete, and therefore doesn’t have as much land to dedicate to agriculture. The land that it does have for agriculture is used primarily for vineyards and wineries. The seafood in Santorini is very fresh, but the Landfood is all imported, and therefore not as fresh. For example, I found that the tomatoes were not as red and the olive oil was not as green and flavorful as what we ate in Crete.

Santorini Residents are Kind, Hospitable People

We found that the lodging hosts were very kind and helpful people. No matter what island we were on, Greeks make great hosts, and really go above and beyond in the hospitality department. Our vacation rental host in Finikia arranged our transportation to and from their lodging, met us in the village parking lot so we wouldn’t get lost, and would chat with us and answer all of our questions about the island.

We had a MAJOR travel snafu (that is a totally separate article to write) and the kind hosts at Annio Flats Hotel went above and beyond to make sure that we made a last minute ferry back to Crete that was a scramble and change of plans, and meant we couldn’t spend the night with them afterall. They even offered to drive us themselves if our transportation to the ferry port didn’t work out. (As a side note: They were so great and their property so beautiful, we would definitely stay with them again in Imerovigli.) During our time in Greece, we always left properties and even restaurants feeling that we wanted to keep in touch, and hoping we had made a new friend. Santorini was just as hospitable in that regard.

Santorini is Lacking Greek Locals

One of our drivers, a man from the country of Georgia, told us that he lives six months of the year in Santorini, driving tourists around, and the other six months in his home country of Georgia. He told us that 75% of the people living on Santorini are not Greek, because it is a popular place for foreigners to work, and the local population couldn’t possibly manage the influx of tourists on their own. This statistic is obviously heresay, but it does illustrate a point: between tourists and foreign workers, there just aren’t a lot of Greeks in Santorini. While I enjoyed meeting people from Georgia, the Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria, for people looking for a more authentically Greek experience, Santorini might not be the place to do that, as far as the people are concerned.

Santorini Has a Ton of American Tourists

Because I strive to be Touristish, for me, I like to travel where there are not a lot of people like me. When we were deep in the mountains of Crete, one of our hosts told us, “We are so excited that you are from America! We can’t believe you are here! Americans only go to Athens and Santorini. What made you come to Crete?” This really surprised us, but she wasn’t exaggerating. We only heard an American accent during our time in Crete two times, and one was in the line to catch the ferry to Santorini. For some travelers, this may be a pro of Santorini because they take comfort in being surrounded by their kin-folk. For me, I was disappointed that there were so many American tourists in Santorini, because it didn’t feel as if I was… I don’t know… traveling to a far away land? And several times I found my fellow American tourists to be rude and obnoxious. But maybe the Europeans are also rude tourists, and I just can’t understand what they are saying? And maybe when I’m having a bad day, and in a grumpy mood, I appreciate being in a place where people can’t understand me to know that? *grin* I think it just seems like everyone is happier and more polite when you can’t understand what they are saying.

Sunsets in Oia are Overrated

I can’t stress this enough: Oia at sunset is INSANE. 

I knew this going into my trip, and had planned to avoid Oia at sunset. If we had had a reservation at one of the fancy restaurants with unobstructed sunset views, that would have been one thing. But we had no interest in throwing elbows with thousands of people just to have sunset pictures that showcased those thousands of people. So, we were going to avoid the crowds by eating at a taverna in Finikia. However, it was early (dinner really doesn’t start until at least 9:00pm), and empty, so we decided to walk toward Oia to find a good sunset view. 

But, like Lemmings, we just kept getting sucked further and further into Oia, and it eventually became more about wanting to see the spectacle than wanting to see the sunset. 

And spectacle it was. Hoards of people were going the same direction down, narrow, cobblestone walkways. Assholes were clogging up the people-rivers for selfies in the worst spots. We would come to a landing overlooking the ocean, and hundreds of people would be crammed together like sardines taking pictures of the sun. Do these people not realize that what makes Oia sunsets spectacular is that it throws pinks and shadows on the white buildings? So why is everyone taking pictures of the sun? Like, do they know you can take pictures of a setting sun from just about anywhere, and that this area of 80 people climbing on each other and lifting people on shoulders to get a sun picture could also be taken from… a few feet away where there are no people? I was more enthralled by taking pictures of the people taking pictures of the sun.

Sunset in Oia is it worth it

We were content to watch the sunset next to a windmill without others. But, leaving Oia after the sunset, Jason pointed out it felt more chaotic and had more trample potential than leaving a rock concert. Especially because many of these tourists were day-trippers and about to miss their tour bus. This experience is not for those with social anxiety or claustrophobia.

I find the draw to Oia for sunset to be absolutely comical. First of all, almost every island or western-facing shore in the world has beautiful sunsets, especially if you are just interested in seeing the sun, itself. Second of all, if you are wanting to see a sunset that bounces shadows and colors off of white buildings, you have about 200 inhabited islands in Greece with Cycladic architecture to choose from for that same experience. Third, if your heart is set on a sunset in Santorini, you can have a similar experience in any of the other caldera-side villages (Imerovigli would be my first choice), but with a fraction of the people. Just something to consider.

Crowds in Oia at Sunset

Oia Tourists are Ridiculous

It’s sad to me when locals feel like they have to post signs reminding people that human beings live there, and to not trample their homes like you are on a playground. However, sadly it had to be done, and there are signs that read, “Respect. It’s your holiday, but it’s our home. We welcome you. Please respect Oia.” 

Even with that gentle and kind reminder, that does not stop some tourists from jumping barriers and roped off stairways and alleyways, or climbing onto the roof of someone’s home for that perfect Instagram photo. These tourists are easy to spot. They are almost always women. In high heels. (High heels on these steep, uneven, cobblestone walkways make no sense.) Wearing something akin to a red carpet dress, and more makeup than is possible to maintain in 100 degree temperatures. Some of them even have a photographer following them around and instructing them to trespass. Others are barking orders at their girlfriends, husbands or boyfriends that they aren’t getting the angle right. It felt icky. But, I started getting a kick out of photographing the Instagram model hopefuls. Here, maybe I can help?

Two overdressed tourists posing on the roof of someone's house in Oia, Sanotirini
Sign About Respecting Oia

Does that mean that my husband and I didn’t take any pictures in Oia? Of course we did. But, you will be happy to know that no alleyways were blocked, no homes trespassed, no fellow tourists were annoyed, and no Instagram model careers were formed in the creation of these selfies:

Kristen and Jason taking a selfie in Oia, Santorini, Greece
Kristen and Jason taking a selfie in Oia, Santorini, Greece
Kristen and Jason taking a selfie in Oia, Santorini, Greece

How to Enjoy Santorini Without the Crowds

Just remember that Oia is not the be-all, end-all of Santorini. Is it neat? Yes, very. But do Imerovigli, Fira, and Finikia have the same charm and photogenic landmarks? Yes, they do. 

I would recommend not staying in Oia unless you want other tourists climbing on your roof, walking steps away from your swimming pool, watching you sunbathe, and looking in your windows. I would also avoid Oia at sunset unless you have a front-row table reservation at one of the pricey, fancy restaurants. 

Think about staying in the sweet village of Finikia or Imerovigli (I recommend Annio Flats for the best bang for your buck). Oia can be visited in a half-day shopping trip. Or, consider staying on the non-caldera side of the island that is far less busy and has beach-front properties instead of cliff-side properties. Then it is easy to take public transportation to the cliff-side villages.

Also consider traveling in the shoulder-season or off-season. The shoulder season would be April, early May, late September and October. In recent years, Santorini has become a year-round destination, as well, though many places could be closed in the winter, and not as many activities would be offered.

You can also head out on the water. There are many sunset cruises offered to see the Oia sunset from down below. Depending on your budget, you can make a sailing adventure as private as you want it:  

Other Islands to Visit Instead

When people think about the white-building-Greek-island experience, they almost always think of Santorini and the party-island of Mykonos. However, so many islands have that same architecture and same sunsets, but have much fewer people. One of our vacation rental hosts said that Paros would be the best island to have a similar experience without the crowds. These are my recommendations for a Santorini-esque vacation without going to Santorini:

  • Crete (the southern towns including Chora Sfakion and Loutro)
  • Paros
  • Naxos
  • Milos
  • Serifos
Footpath in Chora Sfakion, Crete
This cute footpath is in Crete.

Is Oia Overrated?

In conclusion, I do think Oia, and Santorini as a whole, is overrated. I think it is beautiful, unique, and full of charm, but that can be said about most of the Greek islands. I have a theory… Follow me on this one: I believe that Santorini used to be no different from the other Greek islands (except for being built on a caldera of a volcano). Back in the olden days, when people would go on vacation, and return to show photos or *gasp* slides to their friends and family, Santorini was just one of the Greek islands. But, when Instagram came along, and some model or travel photographer got that perfect, beautiful shot of Oia at sunset, it went viral on the ‘Gram and suddenly everyone had to go. Celebrities, models, influencers…. And everyone wanted those same shots. What if the early days of Instagram had a model taking the perfect photo in Paros instead? Would Santorini still be a quiet and peaceful hidden gem?

Would I Return to Oia?

Meh… probably not. Not on my dime, anyway. I mean, not because I had a bad experience, because that’s not true. It was very cool and beautiful. Mostly just because it’s super touristy and not the least bit Touristish. And there are just too many other places in the world to see, including Greek islands. Like, if someone surprised me with a trip to Santorini, would I be sad about it? Not in the least. But I would probably spend all my time in Imerovigli and Fira and not return to Oia.

Comparison of Expectation versus Reality of visiting Santorini
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