The Greek island of Santorini is part of a small circular archipelago, leftover by one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The eruption, which happened 3,600 years ago, split what was once a singular island into Santorini and its neighbours. It may also have led to the collapse of the Minoan civilisation on the island and in Crete thanks to a resulting tsunami.
These days, people travelling to Santorini do so because of its wild beauty, climate, clear waters and its rich history. Here are eight of the best historic sites and museums worth exploring on your holiday in Santorini.
Perhaps top of the pile is Akrotiri, known as the Minoan Pompeii, which was destroyed and preserved by the volcanic eruption. The city, an outpost of Crete civilisation, was settled by Minoans around 3,000 BC and was in its element in 2,000 BC. It was destroyed in 1,450 BC.
Today visitors can walk along Akotiri’s main street, which is fronted with warehouses and stores, and see three-storey houses, some with balconies, and the remains of frescos.
Emporio is the biggest settlement on the island and is located on the foothills of Mount Prophet Elias. The village retains a medieval character and most of the houses have been well-preserved. The village houses a 15th century fortress, which was built by the Venetians, and north of the village is a stronghold in which villagers sought refuge from pirates. There are also two quaint, blue-domed, typically Cycladic churches at the entrance to the village.
A must for wine-lovers
Wine enthusiasts booking holidays to Santorini won’t want to miss the wine museum, which is housed in a cave 8m below the ground. The only one of its kind in Greece, the museum tells the story of wine from the 1600s in a 300m labyrinth. The museum is a labour of love for the Koutsogiannopoulos family, who established a small family wine business in 1880.
The stages of winemaking are explored, along with the various machinery used in the process. Audioguides are available and visitors are able to taste some of the wines made.
The Icons & Relics Collection of Pyrgos houses a collection of icons, wooden sculptures, metal art works and other ecclesiastical objects, most of which date back to the 17th and 18th century. The oldest item in the collection, which is located in a former Catholic church in Agia Triada, is an icon dating back to the 16th century. Admission is free in summer.
Santorini’s long relationship with the sea is explored at the Naval and Maritime Museum in Oia, once one of the most busy and famous ports on the Aegean Sea. Housed in a former captains’ home, the museum enables you to explore maritime history at the start of the 19th century. It includes old handmade maps, photographs, models and other related objects.
Step back in time
Another Santorini museum that explores the comparatively recent past is Argyros Mansion in Mesaria, a renovated mansion and one of the few surviving examples of neoclassical architecture in the Cyclades.
The ground floor was built in 1860 and the present building was built on top of this in 1888. Abandoned in 1980, it was restored by the Ministry of Culture.
Although most of the frescos from Akrotiri are now in Athens, the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, which houses finds from the remains of the city, is worth exploring. It includes a human figure dating back to the third millennium BC, Neolithic pottery, early Cycladic pottery, elegant jewellery and various objects dating back to Roman and Hellenistic times.
Head for the hilltop remains of ancient Mesa Vouno
On top of a stark, rocky mountain separating the resort of Perissa from that of Kamari is the remains of an ancient city called Thira, believed to have once been a colony of Sparta. This naturally fortified spot high above on Mesa Vounos was an ideal spot for a city.
The settlement shows remains from the archaic Greek and Roman periods, and while impressive in itself provides spectacular views on to the sea. Walk down streets with the remains of Greek temples, and see Hellenistic shops and Roman baths. You can also visit cemeteries and the Terrace of the Festivals, where boys danced naked to honour Apollo.