Tourism is Santorini's major industry and adds more than 1 million visitors per year to a population of 7,000. As a result, Fira, the capital, midway along the west coast of the east rim, is no longer only a picturesque village but a major tourist center, overflowing with bars, shops, and restaurants. Many of its employees—often Eastern Europeans or young travelers extending their summer vacations—hardly speak Greek.
To experience life here as it was until only a couple of decades ago, walk down the much-photographed, winding staircase that descends from town to the water's edge—walk (carefully, trying to avoid the many slippery mule droppings) or take the spectacular cable car ride back up, avoiding the drivers who will try to plant you on the sagging back of one of their bedraggled-looking mules. It soon becomes clear what brings the tourists here: with its white, cubical houses clinging to the cliff hundreds of feet above the caldera, Fira is a beautiful place, an exhilarating Greek extravaganza.