Blue Domed churches in Oia, Santorini, Greece

Santorini Cruise Port Guide:Beat the Crowds on DIY Excursion

Santorini’s dramatic beauty makes it a cruise ship favourite, but remember โ€“ it’s a tender port! This means you’ll arrive by smaller boats, adding time to your adventure. Ready to make the most of your day? This in-depth guide will help you plan the perfect independent Santorini shore excursion, from navigating the island to experiencing its stunning highlights.

Ditch those crowded tours and explore Santorini like a local! In this guide, I’ll unlock the secrets of Fira (Santorini’s bustling main town), the easiest ways to reach picture-perfect Oia (by bus or a scenic hike!), and insider tips on capturing those iconic blue-domed church photos. Plus, we’ll strategise to beat those infamous cable car queues!

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Santorini Cruise Port: Is a DIY Excursion Easy? ๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž (Straightforward)

My DIY Shore Excursion rating for Santorini cruise port is ๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž – independent exploration is straighforward. See the criteria I use to rate each cruise port with my DIY Shore Excursion rating here.

My DIY Shore Excursion rating for Santorini is ๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž – independent exploration is easy. See my DIY Shore Excursion rating criteria here.

Santorini’s unique position atop a volcanic caldera means limited port space. All cruise ships must tender passengers ashore. A DIY shore excursion in Santorini begins in Fira, the town perched 260m (850 feet) above sea level on dramatic cliffs.

If you purchase a group tour with your cruise line, you will get tendered into the Port of Athinios instead.

Santorini Cruise Port Essentials: What You Need to Know

Santorini Old Harbour: Fira 847 00, Greece

DIY Sightseers: If you’re touring independently, you will definitely be tendered into the marina at Santorini Old Harbour ๐Ÿ‘‡

First Timer at a Tender Port? Then check out my blog post on what to expect โ€“ Tendering 101 & FAQs.

Port of Athinios: ร“rmos Athiniรณs, Greece

Cruise Line Excursions: ๐Ÿ‘‡ But if you’ve booked a tour with your cruise line, you will most likely be tendered into the port of Athinios to speed up the disembarkation process. There is room for big coaches to park at Athinios, so this also makes the tour logistics easier for both passengers and tour leaders.

If you want to book a tour with a third party operator directly, be sure to agree specifically which port to meet!

  • Currency: Euros
  • Language: Greek but you’ll find most will speak English
  • Official Tourism Website: Visit Greece – Santorini
  • Transport App: I used Google Maps, primarily to navigate. For bus schedules, check them online here and double check them at the bus station when you get there.
  • eSIM for roaming in Greece: Use an eSim data pack from Airalo for a great data connection without the huge roaming fees. I always recommend having a smartphone with a valid plan when youโ€™re at port touring independently. Get US$3 off your first eSIM data pack from Airalo when you use ROXANN1666 when you sign up or apply it at checkout

Santorini Cruise Port Map

Getting from Santorini Tender Port to Fira: Your Options

For a DIY shore excursion in Santorini, there’s three ways up to Fira, from the marina in Santorini’s Old Harbour. Fira is the biggest town in Santorini.

1. Ride the cable car up (and back down) to Fira

The Santorini cable car offers the fastest route from the Old Harbour to Fira. Gondola-style carriages hold six passengers and the ride takes only 5 minutes. If you have a fear of heights, sit facing the cliffs when ascending for a less exposed view. For the full thrill, face the harbour to watch it shrink below you. While the cable car transports 1,200 people per hour, queues can be long. See my tips below on minimising wait times!

  • Walk to Cable Car Station: From the marina where you disembarked from your tender boat, turn left with your back facing the ocean. The station is a short 2-minute walk; you’ll see it on your right. Restrooms are located at the base of the station before you ascend to the ticket booth.
  • Tickets: โ‚ฌ6 for adults and โ‚ฌ3 for children (one-way). Booth accepts cash (euros), credit cards, and contactless card / ApplePay / GooglePay.

2. Mule / Donkey ride up to Fira

Before the 1970s cable car, the only ways to reach Fira were a strenuous hike up 600 steep steps or a mule ride. Mules still offer rides at a price comparable to the cable car, although this option has become understandably controversial. I’ve never ridden myself, so I can’t offer personal insight.

Reaching the Donkey Station: With your back to the ocean (after being dropped off by tender), turn left and walk for about a minute. Look for a staircase on your right; the donkey handlers will be at the bottom. If you see the cable car station, you’ve gone too far!

3. Walk up to Fira

While it’s tempting to conquer the stairs, even experienced cruise directors strongly discourage walking up or down. Here’s why:

  • Safety: The stairs are uneven and slippery, increasing the risk of falls, especially when descending. Many cruise directors have witnessed enough accidents to proactively warn passengers.
  • Hygiene: The path serves as a bathroom for the donkeys and mules, making it both unsanitary and adding to the slipping hazard.
  • Discomfort: During busy times, hikers contend with aggressive donkeys and their waste, creating a stressful and potentially unpleasant experience.

Beat the Santorini Cable Car Queues: Top Tips to Time it Well

If you’re cruising to Santorini, you’ve likely heard horror stories about long cable car queues. Some report waits of up to 2 hours! However, I’ve visited multiple times during peak seasons and never waited for more than 15 minutes. (One such visit was in mid-August with 6 ships at port in Santorini.) Here’s how to beat the queues:

1. Know the Port Schedule

Santorini is incredibly popular, and while a daily limit of 8,000 cruise ship passengers was proposed, there can still be days with 6+ ships!

  • Check the port schedule in advance to gauge how busy your visit will be.
  • Check arrival & departure times of each ship: these are usually staggered to help spread out crowds. Know whether your ship will arrive earlier or later than other ships will help you plan.
    • Disembark early if your ship is the first/second ship to arrive – the first ship will typically be anchored and starting tender operations by 7:30am. Cable cars start running from 7am.
    • Not a morning person? If your ship is at port all day till late, then disembark around 10:30am – 11am. By then, there’s usually no queue for tender boats, worst cable car queues are over and ships arriving for the afternoon aren’t anchored yet. The worst time to disembark is probably 9am to 10am, when you’re competing with at least 2-3 ships’ cruisers.

2. Decide How Long You Want to Spend Ashore

Consider how long you want to spend ashore and what you want to do. Santorini can be enjoyed in short visits or with longer itineraries. The busiest times for the cable car down are generally 2pm-4pm when early arrivers head back to their ships. Plan your cable car times accordingly:

  • Short Visit: Start early, aiming to be back at the cable car station by 1pm. If you arrive later, wait until around 11:30 am (avoiding the crowds from ships arriving at 1pm) and be back at the station by 5pm.
    • This is do-able from personal experience! I disembarked early and was in the cable car station queue before 8am. I headed straight to the bus station and was on the 8:30am bus to Oia. This gave me 2 hours in Oia and a return bus trip back to Fira by around 11am. 2 hours in Fira and with almost no cable car queue down, I was on a tender boat back to the ship by around 1pm, followed by lunch and drink by the pool.
  • Full Day (10+ hrs): Cable car queues are much shorter after 6 pm. You might even consider waiting until after 11:30 am and planning a return cable car ride closer to 9pm.
    • I also did this, when my ship was scheduled at Santorini from 8am to 10pm! I disembarked early and was in the cable car queue around 8:30am and at Fira by 9am. I then walked to Oia – took 3.5 hours including a lunch break. Some sightseeing (and cooling off with a gelato) later, I left Oia around 3pm. Hopped straight on a bus back to Fira and stayed in Fira until around 6pm. By then, the cable car queue was short. I was back on the ship for dinner by 7pm. It was a long day though!

3. Know how (and when) your ship’s tenders are working

Tender procedures vary by cruise line, so find out your ship’s system in advance. Details are usually announced the day before via the ship’s announcements, a letter to your stateroom, or you can ask at Guest Services. Here’s my top tips to maximise your time ashore at tender ports.

For example, Royal Caribbean issues numbered tickets early in the morning, and you’ll need one until at least mid-morning. Some cruisers queue for these tickets as early as 6am for an 8am arrival. Don’t panic โ€“ there’s no need to rush for the first few tenders to avoid crowds. Simply get your ticket as early as possible.

Celebrity Cruises operated differently on my Celebrity Apex cruise, utilising a simple queue system instead of tickets.

If you have loyalty status with your cruise line, you likely have priority tender access. Make sure you know where your designated queue is located.

4. Go to the cable car station straight away

While it may seem obvious, many cruisers linger in nearby cafes to enjoy the views with a coffee or breakfast instead of prioritising joining the cable car queue. This can lead to long waits later.

My Take: Start queuing as soon as possible. Fira offers plenty of cafes and shopping, but it’s best to grab breakfast on the ship beforehand. You can always shop and eat around the marina while waiting for your return tender. And the views are better at the top of Fira!

5. Seek Help if Stuck in the Downward Queue

Most cruise lines will station uniformed crew at the top cable car station to monitor queues. They use walkie-talkies to communicate with staff at the tender station.

If you’re worried about missing your last tender due to a long queue, find your cruise line’s crew members and alert them to your situation.

Completing a Greek Odyssey on Your Cruise?

Love the beauty of Santorini? Your cruise will probably visit other gems next:

Santorini Cruise Port to Oia: Your Options

Oia (pronounced “EE-ah”) is a picturesque coastal town on the northwestern tip of Santorini, approximately 12 km (7.5 miles) away from Fira. Famous for its whitewashed houses adorned with blue domes, narrow cobblestone streets, and breathtaking sunsets, Oia is a quintessential Greek Islands experience.

That classic postcard shot of cascading white buildings and vivid blue-domed churches? That’s Oia! It’s the image that defines Santorini.

1. How to Get from Fira to Oia by Public Bus

  • Find the Fira bus station: Exit the cable car station, turn left, and walk downhill until you reach the main street. Turn right and continue walking slightly downhill.The bus station will be on your left. The walk is about 8-10 minutes.
  • Tip: There’s a WC on your left just before the bus station; the station itself lacks facilities.
  • Check the schedule: Visit the KTEL bus company website for schedules. Note that buses run more frequently in summer. You’ll also find schedules and assistance at the bus station’s enquiry counter. The bus journey takes about 20-25 minutes.
  • Purchase tickets: Buy your ticket from the driver for โ‚ฌ1.80 (cash only, exact change is best).
  • Hop Off at Last Stop: The bus will terminate at the Oia Bus Terminal, within walking distance of all the town’s main attractions.

If you want the best Oia experience, head there first. It gets significantly busier as the day goes on. You can always sightsee in Fira on your way back.

There are very limited number of taxis on Santorini island and there is no Uber or Lyft in Santorini. So the bus is the way to go!

2. How to walk from Fira to Oia

If you’re a keen walker, consider hiking from Fira to Oia! The walk is just over 10 km (6 miles), and offers incredible views. I did the walk myself using this detailed guide from Earth Trekkers โ€“ it took me about 3.5 hours, including a lunch break.

Here are some tips from my experience:

  • Footwear: Wear sensible shoes! Some sections of the trail are in poor condition. Flip flops are no good!
  • Hydration: Bring plenty of water โ€“ there are limited places to buy it along the way. Shops & supermarkets are easy to find in Fira. Stock up before you start your walk.
  • Stay cool: There is almost no shade, so bring a hat and bring sunscreen. Avoid the midday heat, especially during the summer months.
  • Walk Downhill: Fira to Oia is mostly downhill (with some uphill passages), so it’s an easier walk than from Oia to Fira – you guessed it, it’s mostly uphill!

Is the walk from Fira to Oia worth doing?

Honestly, it depends on what you have planned for the day. I did it while on a cruise with a long port stop, so I had plenty of time to enjoy the walk at a leisurely pace. Lots of my fellow cruisers did the same, knowing they could take their time.

From my experience, I’d say the best views are definitely clustered around Fira and Oia. So if you explore those towns, you’ll still see the most stunning parts of the hike! So no need for FOMO if you see Fira and Oia ๐Ÿ˜†

3. How to get to Oia via Boat to Ammoudi Bay

As soon as you step off your tender, you’ll spot ticket counters selling boat transfers to Ammoudi Bay, the charming little port nestled below Oia. Now, Ammoudi Bay is gorgeous, but it’s a good 270 steps up to Oia itself. Most boat transfers will save you the climb by including a shuttle bus up the hill, and then another back to Fira โ€“ all for around โ‚ฌ30 (2023 prices).

Just a heads up โ€“ the return bus usually drops you off at the top of the Fira cable car. That means you’ll still need to queue for the cable car down. So it’s important to time your cable car ride down to minimise queuing.

What to see & do in Fira, Santorini

Fira, Santorini’s bustling capital, is a whirlwind of whitewashed buildings, jaw-dropping caldera views, and a buzzing atmosphere. It’s where you’ll find charming shops tucked into narrow alleys, fantastic museums showcasing the island’s ancient past, and cafes clinging to the cliffside with those picture-perfect sunset vistas.

I’ve rated each attraction below for how easy it is to visit independently from the tender port via the cable car, without joining a group excursion or pre-booking a tour. I call it the “DIY Sweat Index“.

1. See the Three Bells of Fira – DIY Sweat Index: ๐Ÿ˜…๐Ÿ˜… (Straightforward)

The Three Bells of Fira Catholic Church, Santorini, Greece
Image by Klaus Stebani from Pixabay

One of the most photographed churches in Santorini is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, aka the “Three Bells of Fira“. The church has a traditional Cycladic architecture and is considered one of the prettiest blue-domed churches in Santorini.

This is within easy walking distance of the upper cable car station. Take a right from the station towards the cliffs. Walk north along the cliffs, with the harbour on your left. This is also one of the most popular sunset spots on the island.

How to walk to the Three Bells of Fira, aka Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, Santorini

2. Enjoy the iconic caldera views – DIY Sweat Index: ๐Ÿ˜…๐Ÿ˜… (Straightforward)

Iconic caldera views in Santorini, with two cruise ships in the distance

Fira clings to the edge of Santorini’s dramatic caldera, and you better believe those views are breathtaking! Volcanoes, the sparkling Aegean, neighboring islands โ€“ it’s all there.

One of my favourite spots to soak it all in is the cliffside path between The Three Bells of Fira and Imerovigli. This stretch of the pathway is 5-10 minutes walk and truly a must-see on Santorini.

3. Hike up the Skaros Rock – DIY Sweat Index ๐Ÿ˜… ๐Ÿ˜… ๐Ÿ˜…  (Take Effort)

Skaros Rock, Santorini, Greece
Photo by Szabolcs Varnai on Unsplash

Skaros Rock is a rocky headland that protrudes out to the Aegean Sea, just north of the village of Imerovigli. Once the heart of a thriving medieval settlement, it served as an impenetrable stronghold against pirate attacks.

The hike up to its peak can be challenging but your reward will be panoramic views of the caldera against the shimmering Aegean Sea.

4. Museum of Prehistoric Thera – DIY Sweat Index ๐Ÿ˜… (Super-Easy)

This fascinating museum brings to life the rich history of Santorini before the devastating volcanic eruption around 1600 BCE. The eruption, known as the “Minoan eruption”, buried the village of Akrotiri on Santorini.

This museum in Fira houses some of the most well-preserved Minoan frescoes and intricately decorated pottery, figurines, tools that give a glimpse into the daily life in ancient Santorini, then known as Thera.

How to get there: 5 minute walk from the upper cable station, mostly downhill. It’s at the same junction as the Fira bus station to catch a bus to/fro Oia.

Many of the museum’s fascinating pieces were found at the Akrotiri archaeological site. These ruins, open to the public, offer a remarkably well-preserved glimpse into the past. You can get to Akrotiri by bus, but it’s a bit of a trek. Unless you’re really into history or have visited Santorini before, you might find other things on the island more interesting.

What to see & do in Oia, Santorini

Oia might just be the most postcard-perfect village in Santorini. No visit to Oia is complete without taking a few photos in front of those iconic blue-domed churches.

1. Witness the magic of a Santorini sunset – DIY Sweat Index ๐Ÿ˜… (Super-Easy)

Beautiful sunset in Santorini
Image by Gerald Friedrich from Pixabay

Not every cruise itinerary will let you witness Santorini’s legendary sunset, especially in those long summer days when ships often sail away before the show begins. But, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance, don’t let it slip away!

Imagine being perched high on Oia’s cliffs, its whitewashed houses cascading down to the sea, as the sky transforms into a fiery canvas. The setting sun paints the village, the caldera rim, and the Aegean itself with colors so vibrant it’ll take your breath away.

2. Seek out the iconic blue domes – DIY Sweat Index ๐Ÿ˜… (Super-Easy)

Iconic view of the three blue domed churches in Oia, Santorini Greece

You’ve seen them on postcards and Instagram โ€“ those classic blue-domed churches that define Oia’s skyline. While postcards often show a perfect trio, the most iconic view actually features two separate churches: Anastasi Church, with its soft pink bell tower, and Agios Spyridon, with its matching blue bell tower. It’s all about the angle!

So spend time exploring the side streets and staircases to find your own “postcard moment”… .. and maybe a friendly photobomber to complete the scene โ˜๏ธ! Oia’s popularity means you’ll likely have some company in your shot, but hey, it makes for a great story about how breathtaking (and bustling!) this place truly is.

3. Get lost in Oia’s maze of whitewashed streets – DIY Sweat Index ๐Ÿ˜… (Super-Easy)

Oia’s winding alleys beckon you on a treasure hunt. Between glimpses of the sparkling caldera and those iconic blue domes, discover hidden surprises: art galleries showcasing island-inspired works, sparkling jewelry shops, and quirky boutiques.

Don’t miss the souvenir shops offering everything from handcrafted ceramics and local olive oil to the quintessential “evil eye” trinket. These bright blue charms, known as “mati” in Greek, are believed to ward off misfortune and bring good luck.

4. See the old castle ruins – DIY Sweat Index ๐Ÿ˜… ๐Ÿ˜… (Straightforward)

Imagine standing where Venetian lookouts once scanned the horizon for pirate ships โ€“ that’s the Oia Castle Ruins! Sure, it’s a bit crumbled now, but those views? Timeless.

While it’s a famous sunset spot, the caldera panorama is breathtaking any time of day. The ruins are right on the path to Amoudi Bay, just before the steps start.

5. Hike down to Ammoudi Bay – DIY Sweat Index ๐Ÿ˜… ๐Ÿ˜… ๐Ÿ˜… (Takes Effort)

If you didn’t arrive by speedboat, the hike down to Ammoudi Bay is a treat, offering yet another breathtaking perspective on Oia’s cliffs. At the bottom, the reward is twofold: fresh seafood at a waterfront taverna and a hidden swimming spot (known more for its cliff jumping than its sandy shores!).

If you don’t fancy walking you way back up, taxis back to Oia will cost around โ‚ฌ10.

Have an amazing time exploring Santorini! If you have any questions or want more tips, feel free to drop a comment below! If this post has been helpful to you, I would really appreciate you sharing it with your fellow cruisers in your roll call groups!

2 thoughts on “Santorini Cruise Port Guide:Beat the Crowds on DIY Excursion”

  1. Man, thanks for your posts… your website is amazing and helped me to plan all the trips with the correct information about the disembark points. Do you know anything about Rijeka?

    1. Thanks so much Mauricio for your kind words! I’m glad that you found my posts helpful ๐Ÿ˜! I don’t know much about Rijeka but I will in 2 weeks’ time! I’m off on my summer holiday with Azamara and will be heading to Rijeka. What I do know now is that the Rijeka cruise port is close by Old Town and you can just walk off the ship and explore. Things to see and do: Trsat Castle & St Vitus Cathedral. If you like museums, apparently the Maritime & History Museum is good. I’ll write up Rijeka by end July!

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