For those who want to get out of the way of the crowds of the bigger towns, I highly recommend renting a car on Santorini. Wary of the high prices in Oia proper, we had selected an Airbnb that was fairly rural. In lieu of walking ages to the nearest bus stop, we decided to rent a car and had the most amazing day exploring the island!
Less than an hour from top to bottom, I found driving around Santorini to be the perfect day trip for the island. Since we were traveling in the off season, renting a compact car was fairly inexpensive and the roads were quiet. It was a bit busier near Oia and Thira, but otherwise we were often alone on the roads. Public parking was plentiful, though the only advice I got for street parking was ‘don’t park somewhere unless someone else parked there first’. There were also a few paid parking lots that were more conveniently located in exchange for their fee. Santorini is mountainous, so drivers should be confident making their way through steep and narrow roads. Technically, a International Driver’s Permit is required, but mine was never checked.
With the two most popular tourist towns being Oia and Fira, we’ll assume that the road trip starts from one of those two points.
Start your day off right by heading to Pyrgos for breakfast with a view at Penelope’s Ouzeri. We had some really tasty coffee under the blue dome of an old church while overlooking the surrounding town. After fueling up at Penelope’s, we explored the town. Small and beautiful, walking around the much quieter white painted houses was a wonderful way to begin our trip through the island.
Continue past Pyrgos to the highest point on the island- the Prophet Elias Monastery. Built in 1711 and recently restored after an earthquake, the Monastery itself is not open to visitors, but the Chapel and the giftshop are interesting to visit. My favorite part, however, was the incredible view of Santorini offered by this location. As the tallest peak on the island, the 360 views are entirely unobstructed- you can even see planes take off at the Santorini Airport! This Monastery is only accessible by car or by hiking up from Pyrgos, so there won’t be a ton of visitors to maneuver around.
Time for the beach! Santorini has several excellent beaches, but we elected to visit the black sand beaches on the south shore. While Perivolos and Perissa Beach are both the same stretch of sand, the more northern section of Perissa was somehow the more enjoyable of the two. By this time, you may find yourself getting hungry, so head on over to the colorful vegan restaurant of Tranquilo. All of the meals we ordered were really flavorful and delicious. They also have beachside service for those looking for a drink on the beach.
Time to head to the Southernmost point of the island- Akrotiri Santorini Lighthouse. While there is parking close to the summit, I recommend parking at the spill off further down the hill- we had an issue where the main parking lot was full and it was very difficult to turn around. The lighthouse itself is not open to the public, so you’ll have to settle with taking a look from the base. There are a bunch of rocks to climb around at the very tip of the island, we went out as far as we could to get the best view. It was at this point that it really hit me that we could see the entirety of the island with one glance. The island curved around the the caldera, so from the lighthouse and straight across the sea, there was a perfect view of Oia in the distance- it was pretty incredible.
To be honest, we didn’t spend a lot of time in Fira. It was just as choked by the crowds as Oia, though there was a much wider space to wander through. This was definitely a good place to go souvenir shopping or bar hopping for a better price than may be available in Oia. Fira also has a set of steps to climb down for a closer look at the sea, though in addition to walking or taking a mule ride, there was also a gondola ride option to return to the main town. While we didn’t have the time to attend, the Volkan Cinema playing the cinematic classic ‘Mamma Mia’ on their open air theater every summer night at 9pm.
Since we were living in Oia, it was easiest to end our road trip there- though obviously it can be substituted by Thira instead. Here, we decided to pay 12 euros for 5 hours of nearby parking since the price was worth it compared to the headache of fighting for free parking outside town. I wrote about Oia pretty extensively here, but despite the crowds, the sunset from Amouldi Bay was one of my favorites, and you can’t go wrong with dinner at Roka!
Some other excellent sunset views would be from Akrotiri or Pyrgos- but keep in mind that you’ll be driving back home on those narrow winding roads in the dark.
Since we were driving, we did have some unscheduled adventures- the car rental agency dropped the car off near empty so we had to figure out how to get petrol in Greece. As it turns out, the attendants will fill your car for you- or maybe we just looked particularly confused.
At one point we missed a turn and ended up at the Santorini Venetian Castle so we parked and went to take a look. It had a decent view of the Northern half of the island, though it’s probably not worth adding to your itinerary given that it’s mostly in ruin.
Paid parking lots are usually marked pretty clearly- if you don’t see a sign, it’s probably free. The first time we drove to Pyrgos, we missed the free parking and by the time we realized we should have turned around we were halfway to the Monastery!
Don’t be intimidated by the idea of driving in a foreign country! Road trips are one of the most fun ways to explore an area- especially with friends. You’re on your own schedule and can visit the places that you may not be able to to by public transportation. While we hadn’t initially anticipated driving around this particular island, this was my favorite day of the whole visit.