Driving on Santorini...

The prospect of driving on Santorini or any of the Greek Islands can be daunting for many people. Even those of us who are used to driving on the right side of the road, driving in Santorini or any of the Greek Islands may seem a little frightening. This is a shame because you will miss out on a lot by not exploring the Island with the freedom that only a car can provide.

There are many benefits to driving on Santorini and other Greek Islands. The roads are quiet on the whole, which means you can virtually guarantee how long it will take you to get somewhere, because there is virtually no congestion or traffic jams!

The bus service is good in Santorini, but travelling this way will restrict you in your ability to explore. They are usually quite infrequent usually just one an hour or so.

Greek drivers have such a bad reputation, and that reputation seems well founded when you take heed of the statistics for accidents and road deaths in the country as a whole. There are many reasons for this bad record, and I think these are some of the main ones.

  • The Greek character
  • Poor or inadequate road signs and markings
  • Quality of roads

The Greek Character

I think it helps if you are aware of the Greek personality when it comes to driving on Santorini and sharing their roads with them.

An important factor in the Greek personality is their it-will-never-happen-to-me mentality, probably due to the fact they put a great deal of their faith and safety in the hands of God. Don't be surprised if you see a family of 4 on a scooter, complete with dog in the front basket!

In place of fluffy dice, most cars will have worry beads dangling from the rear view mirror, and many cars (including taxis) will be adorned with pictures of saints and other icons.

So, with this fail-safe back-up, why bother with a seat belt? You'll also often see children frolicking in the car without being strapped down too.

Surviving hurtling round a sharp bend at high speed is placed in the hands of the Almighty!

Unfortunately, we can't all rely on such Divine attention, and so it's a good idea to take extra care and maintain maximum vigilance - always expecting other drivers to behave badly.

Use of the horn is commonplace, but don't take it personally. They use it in Greece as it should be used - as a warning signal of their approach. In the UK, the horn is almost exclusively used as an indicator of annoyance or an expression of anger or aggression. Not so much when driving on Santorini. This lays bare the great urban myth of the Greek driver - rude, impatient and aggressive.

It is true that the shortest measurement of time in Greece is the period between the traffic lights turning green and when the first car is expected to move off. Failure to move away quickly often results in a blast of horns. But don't jump to the wrong conclusion about this either. This is another big myth perpetuated by many ex-pats and foreigners driving in Greece.

Although this might happen (I know it happens in the UK too), a close look at the Greek road junction will explain another reason for this apparent "impatience".

Unlike in the UK and most other north European and American cities, the traffic lights at junctions in Greece are set close to the waiting car or high above on a gantry. Usually, there's no traffic lights on the opposite side of the road. Quite often therefore, the first car can find it hard to see the light change because they are too close or slightly behind.

Hence, the habit of drivers in the queue telling the first car that the lights have changed to green with a toot on the horn.

Although friendly and welcoming, Greeks are generally a volatile and excitable race. They are quick to raise their voice and seemingly unafraid to express their emotions, and this reflects in their driving. Couple this with roads that are of a poorer quality than most serving the same volume of traffic, and you produce accidents - and one of the worse traffic accident records in the Europe in fact.

Santorini Road Signs and Markings

You'll need to know road signs and markings are generally poor on Santorini and all the Greek islands, and sometimes downright confusing, so keep your wits about you. Driving on Santorini and other Greek Islands you'll find it's not uncommon for some signs to be completely obscured by vegetation, advertising stickers, graffiti - and gun shot holes!

Greeks are generally good at ignoring road signs and speed restrictions. The double solid white line in the centre of the road prohibiting overtaking is frequently ignored, so don't rely on it as an indication that nothing will be heading at you on your side of the road when approaching hills and bends.

Nearly all direction signs are bi-lingual, showing the place names in Greek and English. This is helpful when driving on Santorini. They often look nothing like each other, but in all cases (almost) the English equivalent is actually a true phonetic representation of the Greek version.

Speed limits in Greece

Speed limits are indicated by road signs, but be careful because signs are often obscured by vegetation - and not seeing them is no defence.

  • 50km/h (30mph) is the maximum in cities and built up areas
  • 80km/h (50mph) outside cities, and
  • 90km/h (60mph) on the National Road (although 100km/h and less than 90km/h on certain sections)

Courtesy and some driving conventions in Santorini

Despite popular belief, and what you might hear from many foreigners living in Greece, the Greeks are courteous drivers. Bad manners are often misinterpreted out of cultural and other misunderstandings.

For example, in the UK it is a rule that pedestrians have priority when crossing at a designated zebra or pelican crossing. This is not the case on the Greek Islands. So don't expect drivers to stop if you are waiting to cross at what looks like a zebra crossing. They aren't being rude, just following the conventions they and other drivers are used to.

Another convention at traffic signals is important to be aware of. You will sometimes see flashing amber lights, particularly flashing amber arrows. If you are turning in the direction of the arrows, you must expect pedestrians to be crossing (because they will have a green light to cross), and give way to any already crossing the road.

In short, flashing amber means: yes, you can go, but you don't have priority or right of way.

Because of the nature of many roads in Santorini, it won't always be possible for vehicles meeting each other from opposite directions to pass safely. This means that one will have to stop and let the other through when driving on Santorini.

The convention here is the same as the UK. The vehicle on whose side the obstruction is (if there is one) gives way. If you do give way, don't be surprised or upset if you don't get a thank you or a smile. Greeks don't do that, just as they won't expect or need a thank you from you if they let you pass. So when driving on Santorini don't interpret this as rudeness, it's just why should I expand the energy thanking you for something you should do in the first place!

You can generally put this economy of action and attitude down to the heat! But also a raised open palm often used in the UK as a 'thank you' to drivers is a rude gesture in Greece. It is equivalent to sticking up two fingers in the UK!

Are Greeks rude? No!

Greek Road Side Shrines

Shrines are a common sight along the roadsides in Santorini (and Greece and many other countries), ranging from small glass cabinets on metal legs to elaborate brick built altars.

You'll see many when driving on Santorini. Mostly these shrines are erected by family members to honour and remember loved ones who have died in traffic accidents, but also the Greeks erect shrines to saints too.

Inside you will often see candles, pictures of saints, icons and often some personal items belonging to the person to whom the shrine is dedicated.

Traffic Police!

Travelling around Greek roads you may sometimes see police flagging motorists down. These are the drivers who have been caught speeding by Radar.

The equipment at their disposal is quite sophisticated and often discharged from a concealed police car further up the highway.

For minor speeding offences you can expect a small fine paid at the post office. Going well over the speed limit may result in a court appearance!

It's true to say that you don't often see the police while driving on Santorini. Certainly they are not as evident as they are in the UK. This has a lot to do with the fact that there is such a low crime rate in Santorini.

There is a consequence. Many Greeks will try to get away with some things on the road, so be prepared for drivers going through red lights (especially when the road is quiet). Also, the wearing of safety helmets appears optional - it's not, but sometimes the police don't seem to bother!

Drinking and driving on Santorini and anywhere in the world for that matter, is a very bad thing and those who do it can expect severe penalties if caught, and a very good chance of being in an accident.

Filling up

Filling up with fuel is easy in Santorini - you don't have to get out of your car!

Almost always (unless there is a prominent sign saying Self-Service which is very rare) an attendant will fill up for you. Just say how much you want in Euros, or say "Full!"

You don't have to tip (but you can of course!)- he or she will be happy for your custom.

What you need

If you are a European Union citizen, your driver's license works in Greece, otherwise you would need an international driver's license.

Car hire is freely available and all the big European companies are represented, but there are a wealth of smaller Santorini car rental firms all over the island. Rates are good, and there's a wide choice of models. Check out our Car Rental Section for more valuable information.

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