Today's Santorini owes its dramatic looks to a huge volcanic eruption in about 1600 B.C., which was so powerful that it sent tsunamis to the island of Crete, thought to have caused the wiping out of the Minoan civilization there. The water-filled caldera that remains is the island's unique natural feature, held in the semi-circular pincer grip of the main island.
The volcanic eruption that destroyed Minoan cities on Crete also destroyed Akrotiri on Santorini, one of the few Minoan sites outside of Crete. The city dates back to about 4,000 B.C. and was abandoned by its inhabitants due to earthquakes immediately preceding the eruption. Excavations since 1967 have turned this into one of the most significant archaeological sites in the Aegean.
For a fuller appreciation of Santorini's history, visits to three museums in the main town of Fira are essential: the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Ancient Thira (the original name for Santorini), and the Santozeum. The last one displays brightly-colored wall frescoes which miraculously survived the destruction of Akrotiri.
Best Day Trip
If you want to see a Greek island that's more typical, geologically, take a ferry to Ios. The journey is only 30 to 45 minutes and there are several ferries a day in each direction. The main town, Chora, a 15-minute walk from the harbor, is a typical Cycladic settlement, its narrow streets impossible for cars to negotiate. It's touristy but fun.
Off the Beaten Path
On the edge of Kamari on Santorini's east coast is the winery of Argyros Canava, but the wine isn't the only attraction. The caves from the original winery, which opened in 1861, now feature Art Space, the echoing chambers showing paintings and sculptures from many of the country's finest modern artists. The Nychteri dry white isn't bad either.
The main town, Fira, naturally has the most nightlife, with bars open till about 3 a.m. and clubs till dawn. The main streets to head for are Marinatou and Erythrou Stavrou, with the surrounding streets also throbbing with clubs and bars.
Neighborhood to Explore
Ask any local where Jewelry Street in Fira Town is and they'll direct you to where there is, unsurprisingly, a large number of classy jewelry shops. It's one block east of the street that runs along the caldera, going north from the cathedral. Be prepared to have your eye pop at, first, the designs, and then at the prices. You can try a little gentle haggling.
One of the best spots for relaxed people-watching is during the sunset at Oia, but for a little light relief keep your eyes peeled when on the black sand beach. New arrivals have no idea how burning hot that volcanic sand gets, and those that walk onto the beach in bare feet will soon be dancing the hot sand dance.
Best History Lesson
The Tomato Industrial Museum might not sound like a must-see place, but it's a fascinating look at, yes, the island's history of tomato-growing. Located on the south coast at Vlihada, it's part of the Santorini Arts Factory complex, where exhibitions and concerts are also held.
Best Waterside Experience
If Oia is too crowded for you, take the challenge of walking the 300 steps down to the fishing port of Ammoudi, far below it. Enjoy the waterside tavernas and the fresh fish brought in on the fishing boats you'll see in the harbor. There are beautiful views too, of the island's red cliffs, even with the uphill walk back.