A cradle of civilization, Santorini was among the first places in Europe with paved roads and elaborate water, and sewage systems as archeological discoveries at the ancient site of Akrotiri have revealed.

It’s also fascinating to know that before the catastrophic volcanic eruption in the 2nd millennium BCE, the vertigo-inducing, awe-inspiring caldera that makes this island such a desired destination, consistently ranking among the most beautiful in the world, was not here.

In a 2016 paper titled Post-eruptive flooding of Santorini caldera and implications for tsunami generation, professor Paraskevi Nomikou, and his colleagues revealed that the modern caldera did not exist before the eruption. Back then, Akrotiri was an important Mediterranean port, with three-story buildings, an advanced writing system, and thousands of residents. What’s left of the once-mighty city won’t do it justice if you are not a history and archaeology buff, but you can go back home and proudly state that you’ve seen one of the most glorious wonders of the Minoan world, a cradle of civilization by all accounts if not the most advanced civilization of its time. And there’s a secret to taking in this island as it truly deserves to be discovered: stay away from the tourist traps and explore its heart. You may love the beach, but hiking will take you to places of indescribable beauty.

The sea-drowned caldera shapes an irregular horseshoe in the Mediterranean and rises enough to give you Greek-style amphitheater rows to the best sunsets in the world. The crowds gather long before sundown on rooftops and whitewashed walls to see a multicolored coat of amber melting above the honey-dipped waves of the sea. Because all travel guides and postcards point to Oia, this stunning village on the slopes of the caldera is the best to see the views. But take a hike, seriously, do take a hike: it all gets better.

Most visitors to Oia will just hike on the 300 steps from Ammoudi to the heart of the village – and it takes stamina to reach the top. But adventure beyond the borders of Apano Meria for off-the-beaten-path landscapes like off-road beaches, villages full of cultural attractions like Vlichada and Pyrgos.

And then, there’s hiking from Fira to Oia, or from Oia to Fira, depending on where on the island you are when you start your journey. Get the Santorini self-guided app to keep track of the route and have your camera ready to capture some of the most breathtaking sights you’ve ever seen.

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