Going to Santorini and not visiting Oia is like going to Paris without taking even one photo of the Eiffel Tower or going to Rome and not seeing the Colosseum. I know you’ll be thinking that it will be full of tourists, with crowds of people. And, to be truthful, you’re not entirely wrong. I’ve lived in Santorini for almost 5 years and these are my local tips for visiting Oia.
Oia, the village of sailors and captains
Let’s take a step back in time, because Oia, the village on Santorini where everyone wants to admire the sunset, has a very interesting history.
Let’s start with its name. So that you don’t make a bad impression, let me tell you straightaway that it’s not pronounced as it’s written, but simply ‘eea’. Until 1930, this village didn’t even have a name! It was simply the village of the Kastro of Agios Nikolaos or ‘Pano Meria’. Pano meria’ literally means the ‘high part’ (of the island, that is). And that’s what the inhabitants of Santorini called, and still call today, Oia, which has always been considered the most important part of the island. If you want to impress a local, ask about Pano Meria’ and you’ll see a smile light up their face!
By 1200, the Venetians had already realised the potential of this village and made it their trading base. With its two harbours, Ammoudi and Armeni, the soul of the village of Oia, since ancient times, has always been connected to the sea, to voyages and trade. Sailors, captains and various craftsmen were the locals of the past, and the architecture of the village is testimony to this.
The architecture of the village of Oia: Iposcafa and Capetanospita
Stroll through the streets and look for the clues to the history of the village. Its main street, known as ‘Marmara’, is paved in marble and is a sign of the village’s illustrious past. It divides the village into two parts: the caldera, with its houses hanging over the cliffs, and the inland part, with its neoclassical villas, the captains’ houses. Things (as well as prices!) are a bit different now, but at one time the cave houses (iposkafa) overlooking the volcano were the homes of sailors, workers and those who were unable to build a house, and so made their homes by digging into the rock. That’s why the famous cave houses of Oia are on top of one another, almost one inside the other, with private space almost non-existent today, as it hardly existed in the past. The captains, on the other hand, with more economic means, built their houses (capetanospita) inland, in a neoclassical style, with wonderful terraces from where their families could look out every day to see if the captain and head of the family was on their way home.
Is Oia worth visiting today?
My answer to this is most definitely yes! Oia is a village that tells the history of Santorini (its past) and also the story of its present and future. It’s true that at sunset you’ll find huge crowds of people who, like you, have come to watch the sun sink into the blue waters of the Aegean. If, like me, you’re an early riser, my advice is to get to Oia in time to see the sun rise. As the soft light of the early sun hits the pastel colours of the houses, you’ll be treated to a sight that will stay with you forever. You’ll walk through the narrow streets of the village in absolute silence.
But if getting up in time for dawn is not for you, be patient and find a spot close to the ruins of the Castle of Agios Nikolaos, (although if you’re with your partner and are looking for a romantic atmosphere, this is not ideal). If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, once you’ve visited the village, set off just before sunset and go and lie on Baxedes beach (less than 10 minutes’ drive away), where you’ll find a bit of solitude and the same spectacular sunset.
What not to miss in Oia
Castle of Agios Nikolaos
The castle is the place to watch the sunset from (see above!)
If you’ve eaten a few souvlaki too many, then this is your chance to work off those calories! Put on your trainers and walk down the 278 winding steps from the castle to the harbour. You can then walk back up if you have any energy left, or call a taxi (but please don’t use the donkeys)!
There are various spots throughout the village and you’ll have no problem finding them because there’ll be long queues to join before you can take your photo. This is another reason why it’s best to visit Oia in the morning!
Unmissable are the Blue Domes: when you reach the churches with their blue roofs, it will be like a dream come true. And you’ll gain a few more followers.
A local’s guide to Oia: a list of alternative things to do
- Take the water taxi that leaves from Ammoudi and visit the tiny island of Thirassia, just a few hundred metres from Oia. Only 250 people approximately live there and it’s like being in Oia in the ‘60s or ‘70s.
- Visit the small Maritime Museum to learn a bit more about the interesting history of the village.
- Seek out the local artisans/artists. Oia has always had a place in the hearts of those who make a living from their creativity, such as the highly talented painter of sacred icons, Dimitris: spend some time in his studio full of history and love for Greek culture.
- Buy a book in one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops, Atlantis Bookstore. A cave full of books, literature and philosophy.
- If you love the sea, you could take a dip in the waters of the caldera and book a diving tour. Certainly one of the more alternative ways of exploring the beauty of Oia.
Where to eat in Oia without breaking the bank
- Breakfast: at Vitrin, brunch at a café with sunset views. Almost impossible to find a seat in the afternoon, so go there for an amazing breakfast of crepes and waffles in the morning. Or there’s the To Fourni bakery for a simple koulouri or pita, if you want to start the day Greek style.
- Street Food: for the best souvlaki, go to Nikos, behind the square where the local buses stop. If you need to kill some time as you wait for the bus to Fira, why not spend it eating a souvlaki pita?
- Dinner: Roka, a small restaurant with a garden, hidden among the little streets with the captains’ houses, near the post office. There’s no view, but some things need to be sacrificed for a dinner that’s excellent value for money, in a wonderful atmosphere!
- Ice cream: if you fancy something cool and sweet, the ice cream at Lolita’s is for you. The pistachio flavour is really delicious!
- Typical sweets: a stop at Melenio is a must if you want to savour some traditional Greek desserts and admire the deep blue waters of the Aegean.
- Wine: visit my friends George (there are two of them and they look alike!) in the beautiful courtyard of Oia Vineyart. Here you’ll find wines exclusively from Santorini! If you don’t have time to visit the wineries on the island (you’ll find Sigalas and Oeno P very close to Oia), this is the place to go. Even just for a coffee, it’s the ideal spot for taking a breather from the crowds or having a chat with the young locals.
Oia is certainly Santorini’s most popular village today. Even though I’ve lived on Santorini for years, I don’t have a magic wand and, especially in high season, it will be hard not to find yourself surrounded by hordes of people. But if you go a bit against the tide and follow my tips, Oia is sure to amaze you!