Years ago I had the chance to visit Athens, Greece and explore some of the most famous historical sights around the city. While it is an extremely impressive city and the Acropolis of Athens with its surrounding monuments are universal symbols of the ancient world, several of the surrounding islands were what enticed me back to Greece. After years of fantasizing over visiting the stunning destinations, I finally booked tickets to see two of my absolute dream islands: Santorini and Zakynthos.
Santorini- the stunning white washed walls contrasting with the brilliantly blue domes built on the side of cliffs that overlook a vast ocean, need no introduction. Nearly every traveler has seen photos of this incredible island and dreamt of exploring the winding streets of Santorini then watching the sunset over its magical cities. Yet even the breathtaking photos do not do the island justice.
After spending nearly a week in Santorini, I came to the conclusion that there are not really any bad views there. While some of the particularly famous places should not be missed, around almost every corner is an instagram worthy view. There are several cities around the island to explore which are connected by bus or trails and are easy to visit. I stayed in the city of Fira which was close to the airport and centrally located on the crescent shaped island. It is filled with a maze of shopping streets spilling their wares into the narrow alleys and surrounded by restaurants on the edge of the cliffs, each offering an incredible view of the bright blue ocean far below. Several of the notable churches are spread between Fira and Oia usually just off the busy sidewalks.
-The Three-bells of Fira- one of the most popular blue dome churches is located just on the main route connecting Thira to Oia which is about a 10km stretch between the two that takes roughly 3 hours to hike depending on how frequently you stop to take photos. The Three-bells of Fira is the first iconic stop along the route and is located just off the main walkway. In the afternoon there is a steady flow of people in the parking lot directly behind the church, but it is easy to find and when I went for a run at 6:30 one morning, it was completely empty and provided an excellent spot for watching the sunrise.
-Ekklisia Theoskepasti- along the route from Fira to Oia there are numerous spots to deviate from the path and explore a bit more. One of the most obvious trails leads out to a massive free standing rock on the edge of the cliff called Skaros Rock. The first morning I arrived, I did not have a plan for the day when I left so was wearing sandals instead of the recommended hiking shoes for the route. Looking down on the rocky trail leading out to Skaros, it was obvious that close-toed shoes would be a much better option than sandals, but the views were worth being uncomfortable for the brief hike out. At first I just assumed the vantage point from the top of the rock must be amazing since so many people were hiking out, but soon discovered that a lone church was situated on the far side of the large rock formation. Sitting on the precipice of the edge is Ekklisia Theoskepasti. After taking pictures from just about every angle of the church, I passed off my camera and hoisted myself up on the roof (which is probably not encouraged). Climbing over the dome roofs, I walked out to the ledge and soaked up the incredible view. Standing at the edge, the expansive ocean stretched to meet the sky in the distant horizon and was one of my personal favorite spots.
-The Three Blue Domes- when I finally made it to the end of the trail and began exploring Oia, I was amazed at how many beautiful blue domes spotted the city. However, at the end of the night when I was flipping back through my photos, I was disappointed that I had not found the Three Blue Domes which are in basically every calendar and article about Santorini. There were several similar churches, but not the exact one. A few nights later when I went back to watch another gorgeous sunset, I finally found them! Surprisingly, the road leading to the church is not marked or identified in any way other than a crowd of tourists, which is not much different from anywhere else in the city. Tucked away in the center of the hillside though was the famous Three Blue Domes which were every bit as beautiful as all of the pictures. It may be easier to find the spot by searching the GPS coordinates for a nearby overlook- 36.4612, 25.3758.
-Santo Wines- there are several vineyards dotting Santorini and many offer tours and tasting. After asking the other travelers and staff at my Hostel for recommendations, I opted for the slightly more expensive Santo vineyards due to the quality of wine and impressive location. About 20 minutes south of Fira by bus, unsurprisingly the vineyard was situated at the top of a cliff facing towards both of the famous coastal cities on the inside of the island. The most popular choice on the menu was a sampler which included a full tasting of six of their most popular wines and a small spread of cheese and olives. I had planned only to go for an afternoon tasting, but lucked out with a last minute cancellation on a dinner reservation and was able to get an excellent table to enjoy a bottle of wine that evening. Although the setting was not quite as spectacular as Oia for the sunset, it was still magnificent with hues of orange and red filling the sky!
-Golden Hour in Oia- one of the absolutely most incredible places to watch sunset is also seemingly the main attraction of the city. For the two hours leading up to sunset, tourists from all over the island make their way via packed buses to Oia in order to catch a glimpse of the display. About an hour before, crowds begin staking out their spots to claim a good piece of terrain with nothing blocking their view. As the final descent of the sun begins, every winding street in the city is packed with admiring photographers. Side note- after the fact I realized that this was one of the most glamorous events that I have ever attended. All of the women wore fancy dresses with full hair and makeup done and their escorts were equally dressed to impress looking very dapper. It felt more like a fashion show than a crowd gathering for a sunset, but I quickly learned that in this particular corner of the world, every girl was transformed into models posing in front of the beautiful backdrop and their significant others were their own personal photographers. Turns out it was the perfect place for a glamour shoot as the entire sunset was simply remarkable.
The appreciation from everyone around was palatable as people oohed and ahhed similar to a fireworks display. As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, everyone began applauding and cheers could be heard from people on boats in the water below. It was truly incredible! However, when you visit don't fight the crowds back to catch the bus out of Oia. Most of the best photos I took were shortly after the sun had set and the crowds began thinning out. It was definitely worth waiting to watch all glimmers of the evening light fade as the city lights began flickering to life. Literally I cannot say enough positive comments about the exceptional sunsets in Oia.
Next on my itinerary was Zakynthos or Zante Island, which is most recognizable for its fairly recent addition to the island- Shipwreck Bay which is also known as Navagio Beach. In October of 1980 a freighter boat smuggling cigarettes and tobacco was spotted by the coast guard resulting in a pursuit in which the pirates managed to escape. However, they did not make it far before running out of fuel and eventually became stranded on the small beach in a hidden cove. While the pirates fled the scene and were never caught, today the rusted skeleton of the boat remains on the beach where visitors are free to climb around the remnants.
Fast forward to modern day Zakynthos and the small idyllic beach hosts a consistent rotation of tour boats passing through the waters. The overlook at the top of the cove is equally popular with many visitors stopping for an iconic shot of the dramatic white cliffs and brilliant blue waters. On my first day, I signed up for one of the many boat tours available that toured the coastline from the blue caves around to Navagio Beach where I spent an afternoon snorkeling around the inlet. The second day, I rented a little motor scooter to drive all over the island. However, as I neared the cliffs on the far north side of the island, dark clouds rolled in overhead so I quickly pulled over at a little street cafe for lunch. Moments after entering the cafe the skies let loose and the sky turned white with rain. Just as quickly as the storm moved in, it passed on and I resumed the journey.
At the top there are several areas designated for taking pictures, but most of the ground is rather rocky. That did not deter people from hiking out along the crest to find the perfect spot to snap the classic photo of Navagio Beach. The previous day my tour guide told me that there has been an increase in the number of selfie deaths per year at the cliffs- and that is exactly how it sounds. Every year people fall of the edge of these 650ft tall cliffs trying to take a selfie. While I desperately want to go back and BASE jump into Shipwreck Bay, I am much less interested in taking quality selfies on the edge of a cliff. There were plenty of small trails that offered excellent views of the beach and surrounding spectacular cliffs. On the way back down to Laganas Beach where I was staying, I took the alternate route along the eastern coast and stopped at the most adorable roadside pit stop offering fresh squeezed orange juice. Although I was becoming accustomed to beautiful views after spending a week in Santorini and Zakynthos, it was still a lovely place for a break on my day of road tripping.
Both Santorini and Zakynthos are excellent places to visit for a short holiday with brilliant shades of blue waters, mouth watering Greek cuisine, and gorgeous beaches. Santorini has the classic and very iconic blue domes with incredible sunsets, while Zakynthos offers more affordable accommodations with equally impressive ocean views and far less tourists. If you can't decide which you want to see more, you will be happy to discover how cheap the airfare between the Ionian and Agean islands can be!