Northern Greece - When and where to visit


Climate

Kavala Greece by Andrew Mayovskyy, ShutterstockKavála © Andrew Mayovskyy, Shutterstock

Northern Greece has a Mediterranean climate near the coasts and a continental climate at higher altitudes, especially on Olympus and in the Rhodope and Pindus mountains, where heavy snow is common in winter. Occasionally, in winter, Macedonia is buffeted by the mighty Vardaris wind, that descends down the Vardar valley from North Macedonia, then meets the high mountains of Greece, where it picks up steam and swoops down to Thessaloníki. Although there are occasional thunder showers, spring is lovely everywhere, especially in the months of May and June. Summers can be very hot, especially on the plain of Thessaly where 40°C is not uncommon, but the Aegean coasts and islands are cooled by the meltémi wind from the north, which can occasionally wreak havoc with ferry schedules. The rainiest season is in autumn, especially after mid-October, but it’s also when the mountain woodlands burst into colour.

When to visit

Any time is a good time to see some part of northern Greece. Winter offers a lively city scene in Thessaloníki, a chance to play in the snow in the many ski resorts, or see archaeological sites in lonely splendour (a loneliness punctuated only by a few Japanese tour buses, the only consistent winter travellers to Greece). Spring is a time for wildflowers, pleasant temperatures and for participating in Greek Easter, the biggest holiday on the calendar. May and June are generally calm and warm (beach hotels stay open from Easter or May into September or October) and great for hiking or touring by car. July and August are the most popular months for sun lovers and people with children – the busiest, hottest and priciest time. The coasts are cooled by winds, but inland it can be stifling. The weather generally stays fine into mid-October, with the bonus of brilliant colour in the mountain forests. The wet season begins at the end of October when it can rain ‘tables and chairs’, as the Greeks say.

Highlights and suggested itineraries

Highlights

Church Skopelos northern Greece by Aetherial Images, ShutterstockOne of the Sporádes islands, Skópelos has that archetypal Greek look © Aetherial Images, Shutterstock

Chalkidikí 

The huge three-pronged peninsula is lined with stunning Blue Flag beaches and the most glamorous high-end resorts in northern Greece. The easternmost peninsula, the 1,000-year-old monastic republic of Mount Athos couldn’t be more different, and fascinating to visit – as long as you’re a man. 

Édessa

The little city that puts paid to any idea that Greece is an arid country: channels of water stream through the centre of Édessa before plummeting over a cliff in a mighty waterfall. 

Ioánnina

The capital and silver-working centre of Epirus is one of the most atmospheric cities in Greece, with its beautiful lake, island, castle and other sites associated with the notorious Ali Pasha, immortalised by Byron. 

Kavála 

This attractive port has an evocative historic centre and sandy beaches, and lies only a short hop from Ancient Philippi, where St Paul introduced Christianity to Europe, and the island of Thássos, a pine-wooded, beach-fringed jewel and ancient powerhouse. 

Meteora

The medieval monasteries atop their towering pinnacles are one of the most striking sights Europe can offer and, since their star turn with James Bond, attract visitors and pilgrims by the coachload. Not to be missed, but go in the off season to avoid the queues.

Mount Olympus

The highest mountain on the Balkan Peninsula and home of the gods is spectacular from all angles, either from the summit or from the ancient city of Dion. Even if you don’t make the ascent, there are ravishing walks on all sides.

Pelion Peninsula

‘Bucolic’ seems to have been invented for this rugged peninsula dangling from Mount Pelion. Where centaurs once roamed, its stunning villages, rushing streams, traditional mansions converted into guesthouses, beaches, heritage railway and breathtaking natural beauty are a year-round attraction.

Préspa Lakes 

Tucked way up on the borders of North Macedonia and Albania, these two ancient lakes ringed by towering mountains have a unique, otherworldly atmosphere. 

Samothráki 

Thrace’s lush, wooded mountain in the sea – site of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods of the Underworld – is full of lingering mystery.

The Sporádes Islands

The three emerald islands off the coast of Magnesia are among the most beautiful in Greece: beachy fun-in-the-sun Skiáthos; serenely idyllic Skópelos; and Alónissos, with Greece’s oldest national marine park.

Thessaloníki 

Once the second city of the Byzantine Empire, modern Greece’s second city is buzzing with life and youth, with great restaurants and clubs alongside World Heritage mosaic-filled Byzantine churches and a fantastic archaeology museum. 

Vergína 

Otherwise known as Aigai, the capital of ancient Macedon, this is where Philip II built his extraordinary palace, and where his son Alexander the Great buried him in a royal tumulus, filled with glittering gold works and unique frescoes from the 4th century BC.

Zagorochória 

The world’s deepest canyon offers some of the most spectacular trekking in Greece. Just as spectacular are the surrounding Zagorochória: traditional mountain villages of stone, linked by cobbled mule paths and spectacular stone arched bridges.

Suggested itineraries

Below are suggestions on how best to organise a driving tour of the highlights.

A weekend

Thessaloníki is a year-round destination – in fact it’s livelier out of season with its numerous festivals. Visit its World Heritage-listed Byzantine churches, the Galerius Palace complex and Rotonda, its fabulous archaeology and Byzantine museums and take in the vibrant restaurant and bar scene in and around the Ladádika district.

Eight days in ancient Macedon

Spend the first two days in Thessaloníki, as described above.

Day 3 Head south to Ancient Dion in the morning and to Litóchoro on Mount Olympus in the afternoon for a brief stroll up the beautiful Enipéas Gorge. 

Day 4 Take the scenic route via Trílofos to Vergína for a morning in Ancient Aigai; then to Aristotle’s school, the tombs of Lefkádia, and Náoussa.

Day 5 Visit Alexander’s birthplace, Ancient Pella, then take the fast Egnatía Ódos east to Philippi, overnighting in Kavála.

Day 6 Take in Amphipolis and Aristotle’s birthplace, Stageira; then late in the afternoon, Ouranoúpolis.

Day 7 Enjoy a cruise around Mount Athos, and relax on the beach.

Day 8 Visit Olynthos and more of Chalkidikí, depending on your flight arrangements.

Two weeks

Follow the eight-day itinerary above for the first three days.

Days 4–5 From Litóchoro, drive through the Vale of Tempe to Vólos and the Pelion.

Day 6 Cross the plain of Thessaly in 2 hours to Kalambáka for Meteora.

Day 7 Have lunch in Métsovo, then travel on to Ioánnina.

Days 8–9 Explore the Zagorochória and Víkos Gorge.

Day 10 Visit Kónitsa with its beautiful bridge and Samarína, before winding up to Kastoriá.

Day 11 Spend the morning in Kastoriá, and the afternoon at the Préspa Lakes; overnight there or in Flórina.

Day 12 Take in Édessa and the hot springs of Loutráki.

Day 13 Head to Véria and Vergína for the royal tombs. Day 14 Make time for a visit to Ancient Pella before returning to Thessaloníki.

Three weeks

Follow the two-week itinerary above for days 1–14, then from Pella take the highway around Thessaloníki for Lake Kerkíni, and overnight in Sérres.

Day 15 Go hiking or kayaking in the Néstos Gorge; then overnight in Xánthi.

Day 16 Spend time in Xánthi and Ancient Abdera, then cross the Néstos Delta for Alexandroúpolis.

Day 17 Explore the Évros Delta, Féres and Dadiá Forest, or alternatively – if ferry schedules permit – make an overnight/day trip to Samothráki.

Day 18 Visit Ancient Philippi and Kavála.

Day 19 Amphipolis, Stageira and Ouranoúpolis.

Day 20 Take a morning cruise around Mount Athos, or see more of Chalkidikí or Thessaloníki

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