While the majority of visitors to Greece head straight to its picture-perfect islands and white sand beaches, the Northern part of the country is often overlooked. Northern Greece is an area of bountiful charm and as diverse and spectacular as the rest of the country and simply should not be missed.
Sunvil’s Greece experts have chosen their top 10 places to visit in Northern Greece:
Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloníki is a cosmopolitan hub of art, culture, architecture and gastronomic experiences. Evidence of its turbulent Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman history remain, especially around Ano Poli, the upper town. It has a lively, metropolitan vibe both day and night mainly due to the large number of students studying in its university.
Stella Proctor, Greece specialist, says: “The waterfront, with its iconic White Tower, is ideal for walking, cycling or enjoying a cocktail or coffee in one of the many bars and cafes. The remarkable cuisine celebrates the city’s gastronomic identity which is a fusion of local flavours enriched by the cultures that have passed through the city and recipes the Greek refugees brought with them from Asia Minor.”
Northern Greece’s lush region near Thessaloníki is home to three peninsulas. Kassandra, the first, is famous for its many resorts and beaches, while the second, Sithonia, is less touristy and boasts hidden coves, mountainous villages, verdant valleys and isolated beaches. The third is Mount Athos, a monastic community where only men are allowed.
Mark Willson, Greece specialist, adds: “With over 550km of pristine coastline, Halkidiki is a mecca for beach lovers and one of the most visited destinations in Greece. Away from the beach, Halkidiki offers some of the best outdoor activities in Northern Greece, including mountain biking, riding, bird-watching and trekking.” The region’s proximity to Mount Athos is of considerable religious interest.
Mount Athos, or Agio Oros, is simply one of the rarest peninsulas in Europe and also the monastic centre of the Greek Orthodox Church, a living museum and spiritual centre of Greece. Screened by acres of forest, its steep slopes are interspersed with 20 monumental monasteries that have an enormous wealth of historic, artistic and cultural elements preserved by a monastic community of 1,400 monks.
Visitors are welcome but numbers are kept to a minimum as not to disrupt the tranquility of the monks’ way of life. Remember, that only male visitors are allowed and permits are required, so plan your visit well in advance.
Rachel Jelley, Sales and Marketing Manager, says: “Olymbiada in Halkidiki is a beautiful fishing village, tucked away from the crowds and built along a sandy beach which stretches out to the edge of a natural harbour surrounded by verdant mountains.
The sea here is rich in fish and seafood, and the cultivation of mussels in Olymbiada has a long tradition. The unique way in which they are farmed gives them a wonderful, distinct flavour. Often drizzled with Ouzo and either baked in the oven, steamed or fried, this is a prestigious gastronomic experience.”
A short walk from Olymbiada, jutting out into the Aegean, you’ll find the impressive ruins of the walls of ancient Stagira, the birthplace of Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great. Overgrown and abandoned for centuries, the home of the man who influenced 2000 years of history finally saw the light of day when the site was excavated in the 1990s.
Noel Josephides, Sunvil Chairman, says: “If you want to learn more about the history of the ancient Greek Macedonian Kingdom and to see one of the best archaeological sites in Greece, you should head for Vergina and the nearby ruins of the ancient city of Aigai. Here you can visit the stunning Macedonian tombs of Vergina, where the remains of King Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, were unearthed in 1977.”
One of the most important discoveries of the 20th century in Northern Greece if not the whole county, this UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the intact tomb of Philip II and the Tomb of the Prince, which purportedly belongs to Alexander IV, grandson of Philip II and the son of Alexander the Great. The exhibition features an array of amazing artefacts, including two golden urns, containing the bones of Philip II and one of his wives, and two oak and one myrtle golden wreaths worn by the royal dead.
Ancient Philippi is a city in eastern Macedonia founded by King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, and is one of the great cities of the ancient Greek world.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is vast and includes a Greek-Roman theatre, a Roman forum, several Byzantine basilicas, remains of houses with mosaic floors, city walls and a sizable stretch of the famous Via Egnatia that connected Rome with the eastern empire.
Serres was a melting pot of cultures and religions which is reflected in its architecture and cuisine. Many artefacts from the Neolithic, Roman and Byzantine eras are housed in the Bezesteni archaeological museum, an impressive six-domed Turkish textile market which dates from the 15th century.
Dudley der Parthog, Director of Greece, says: “If you have a sweet tooth, try the Serres specialty ‘Akanes’, a sweet similar to loukoumi that is flavoured with goat’s milk, butter and almonds, and dates back to the time of the Ottoman rule in Greece.”
For lovers of birds and wildlife, Lake Kerkini National Park is an hour’s drive north from Serres and considered to be one of the top birding sites in all of Greece. The lake is surrounded by forests and mountains which provide nesting for eagles, falcons and owls.
Xanthi is the gateway to Thrace, and the most scenic town in Northern Greece. To Greeks, it has a distinct exotic reputation with minarets, Eastern cuisine and Turkish spoken on the street. The old quarter showcases the grand homes of Ottoman-era tobacco barons, in various states of repair.
To the north, the magnificent Rhodopi Mountains rise to the Bulgarian border: go for forest hikes and thermal baths, and a glimpse of the Muslim Pomak culture in the villages. To the west, take a pretty walk along the Nestos River, or a kayak ride. South of Xanthi, the ports of Keramoti and Kavala have ferries to Thassos and other islands.
Just an hour’s drive from Thessaloniki is Kilkis, surrounded by spectacular mountain landscapes dotted with countless lakes and rivers; all of these offer wonderful walking and hiking for nature lovers. Be sure to visit the stunning cave in the hill of Agios Georgios – the Paiko mountains with their beautiful waterfalls – and the Mouria Forest, a listed natural monument.
For reflective contemplation, visit the beautifully and lovingly kept British Cemetery at Lake Doiran (40 minutes’ drive north of Kilkis) which is a moving and stark reminder of those who died during the first and second world wars in this remote part of Greece.
Mount Olympus is Greece’s highest mountain and the home to the 12 Gods of Greek mythology. It is part of the Olympus National Park which was declared Greece’s first national park in 1938 and which in 1981, was designated a ‘Biosphere Reserve’ by UNESCO.
Justin Blaza, Greece specialist, concludes: “The awe-inspiring ridges of the mountain, the verdant Enipeas Gorge and the view of the Thermaikos Gulf create a landscape of unique beauty. Some 1,700 different wildflower species are found in Olympus National Park, along with rare birds and many species of butterflies. There are many opportunities in the wider Olympus area for outdoor activities, including trekking, hiking, birdwatching, wildlife photography, rock climbing, and paragliding.”
This post on Northern Greece is sponsored by Sunvil
Sunvil includes a UK-based 60-strong expert team of passionate travellers, enthusiastic advocates of truly sustainable tourism, based in Old Isleworth, SW London, plus 30 loyal, knowledgeable Sunvil representatives in much-loved areas of Greece and Cyprus, who always go the extra mile.
It’s about numerous agents, ground handlers and expert guides around the world who understand our ethos, who value their customers and who appreciate the benefits that tourism delivers to their destinations. Plus the longstanding airline/car hire partners and airport teams – not forgetting brochure and web designers, photographers and printers. Read more on the Sunvil website.