With its soaring peaks, forested islands and ancient treasures, Northern Greece is a magical destination (Photo: Getty Images)

With its serene lakes and soaring peaks, sandy beaches and forested islands, Northern Greece is a magical destination. The region is also a trove of ancient and medieval treasures, which are tucked between modern towns that showcase their own distinct cultural identities. At its heart lies the fabulous city of Thessaloniki, packed full of historic sites and offering superb cuisine and buzzing nightlife.

Linger in Thessaloniki, Greece’s alluring city

Thessaloniki, Greece

Be sure to set a few days aside to properly discover all the charms of Thessaloniki (Photo: Getty Images)

Greece's fascinating second city Thessaloniki is steeped in history, as well as being a magnet for aficionados of contemporary culture and the superb traditional cuisine of the north. The city's lively seafront is bookended by the iconic White Tower and the old docks, which have been converted into a cultural hub, including the Museum of Photography and the Experimental Center For The Arts. Take a walk to the Upper Town, with its Byzantine ramparts, and be rewarded by sweeping views across the city to the bay.

There are further traces of Byzantine influence in the form of exquisite churches such as Agia Sofia and Agios Dimitrios. Other historic sites include the Roman Arch of Galerius, Rotonda and Forum, as well as Atatürk’s House. The most impressive collection of antiquities is housed at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

Visitors can look forward to an eclectic range of cuisine in Thessaloniki, often a hybrid of the city's Ottoman, Sephardic and contemporary Greek influences. Botargo at MonAsty, Thessaloniki, Autograph Collection is a case in point, offering a blend of traditional recipes, fresh seasonal produce and contemporary flair. The hotel lies just round the corner from central Aristotelous Square and, in Ennea, has a stylish rooftop pool bar – perfect for relaxing with a refreshing cocktail as you take in stunning views of Thessaloniki.

Immerse yourself in Northern Greece’s stunning nature

Mount Olympus, Greece

Beyond Thessaloniki, a whole world of adventure awaits in Northern Greece, not least in the form of Mount Olympus (Photo: Getty Images)

Northern Greece is blessed with some of the country’s most dramatic scenery, especially Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the ancient gods. Rising almost 3000m out of the nearby sea, it is possible to reach the peak at Mytikas and descend within a day but most visitors make do with a stroll into the Enipeas Canyon from the pleasant village of Litochoro.

There are also two major destinations for bird lovers. In the far northwest of Macedonia, straddling the Albanian border, Prespa National Park comprises wild forest and two interconnected lakes that are home to waterfowl such as cormorants, egrets, crested grebes and pelicans. Northeast of Thessaloniki, Kerkini Lake has no fewer than three hundred species of birds and even a herd of water buffalo.

Marvel at the ancient wonders of Macedonia

Meteora, Greece

The medieval rock monasteries of Meteora really have to be seen to be believed (Photo: Getty Images)

The jewel in Northern Greece’s ancient crown is undoubtedly the astounding complex of the first Macedonian royal capital at Vergina, which includes a wealth of gold relics from the Royal Tombs, most notably that of Alexander the Great’s father Philip II. The cutting-edge Polycentric Museum of Aigai helps the visitor make sense of Vergina, by explaining the site's layout and putting the exhibits into historical context.

En route from Thessaloniki to Vergina is the later Macedonian capital of Pella, which boasts a small acropolis and some impressive late 4th-century mosaics. To the east of Thessaloniki lies the ancient site of Philippi, which marks the spot of the pivotal battle in 42 BCE and was where Saint Paul began his mission in Europe.

Perched precariously on rock pinnacles jutting from the Thessalian plain, the unique medieval rock monasteries of Meteora are another unmissable sight. Still active religious communities, their churches are decorated with beautiful 16th- and 17th-century frescoes. 

Unwind on the pristine beaches of Chalkidiki

Chaldiki, Greece

The three-pronged peninsula of Chalkidiki offers a wealth of sites to enjoy – not to mention beautiful beaches (Photo: Getty Images)

Offering some of the best beaches in Northern Greece, the three-pronged peninsula of Chalkidiki makes for a peaceful escape from the urban buzz of Thessaloniki. The western “leg”, Kassandra, contains picturesque Afytos, with springs issuing from the cliffs. On the south-facing coast, there are splendid beaches around Possidi.

The middle peninsula of Sithonia contains some beautiful coves on its eastern side. Driving along this coast also allows uninterrupted views of Chalkidiki’s third prong, holy Mount Athos, the monastic community open only to males.

A great base for exploring Chalkidiki is The Met Hotel, A Member Of Design Hotels in Thessaloniki, which has an excellent spa for pampering yourself.

Sample the distinctive delights of Northern Greek cuisine

Greek olives
A simple dish of olives takes on new dimensions when enjoyed in the Greek sunshine (Photo: Getty Images)

Thessaloniki is often designated as Greece’s gastronomic capital. The best areas for traditional cuisine are portside Ladadika and Platia Athonos, where there is a cluster of tsipouradika – restaurants serving small plates alongside the fiery spirit tsipouro. The city’s main Modiano market is the place to find regional produce like Chalkidiki olives, Florina peppers or Naoussa peaches.

Further afield, Thrace is famous for a unique, meat-based variety of the usually sweet bougatsa pastry, sold in the morning at bakeries, while soutzouk loukoumi is a Turkish-influenced jelly sweet.   

The region is also blessed with some great wineries like the one at Epanomi. At The Met Hotel, A Member Of Design Hotels, the rooftop Sky Bar offers some excellent Greek vintages, as well as a range of cocktails.

Explore the historic towns of Naoussa, Kavala and Xanthi

Kavala, Greece

Macedonia’s second-largest city Kavala offers one dramatic vista after another (Photo: Getty Images)

The attractive town of Naoussa is best known as the home of Boutari, one of Greece’s largest vintners. Just out of town, Agios Nikolaos park is a quiet oasis of streams and towering plane trees and there is also a nearby ski centre in winter.

The dramatically located port of Kavala is Macedonia’s second-largest city, whose Ottoman past is best seen in the Panagia district’s cobbled streets that rise from the port towards the citadel. Another notable feature is the vast Kamares aqueduct, while the Archaeological Museum features gold ornaments from the Amphipolis tombs.

Further east in Thrace, Xanthi still has a large ethnically Turkish community, most visible in the lovely Ottoman old town. Every Saturday the town hosts a massive street market.

Hop across to the beautiful islands of Thassos and Samothraki

Panagia, Thassos, Greece

There are delightful moments of discovery at every turn in Thassos (Photo: Getty Images)

The popular island of Thassos is easily accessible from the mainland. Its lively capital Limenas has an ancient acropolis, temple of Dionysos and agora (central market and meeting place). A circular tour of the wooded island reveals a series of wonderful beaches and some traditional inland settlements such as the Kazaviti villages, with their stone houses and plane-shaded squares.

Further east, off the coast of Thrace, the island of Samothraki is a marvellous escape, with Mount Fengari (meaning Moon) at its core and some wonderful beaches around its perimeter. Many, such as Pachia Ammos and Kipos, remain uncrowded even in high season. In ancient times the island was home to a mystery cult, the remains of which can be visited at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the north coast.

Enjoy the hidden gems of lakeside Kastoria and clifftop Edessa

Kastoria, Greece

The lakeside setting of pretty Kastoria lingers long in the memory (Photo: Getty Images)

Two of the most scenic towns in Macedonia are Kastoria and Edessa. The former, whose name derives from the Greek word for 'beaver', juts out into Lake Orestiada. A peaceful walk round the uninhabited pensinsula takes you past the interesting Cave of the Dragon. The town is also famous for its many exquisite Byzantine churches. 

Edessa is built on top of a high escarpment and has sweeping views across the plain below. The delightful enclave of Varosi, with its stone houses, is the oldest neighbourhood. Near here are the waterfalls the town is renowned for, as well as the fascinating Water Museum of Edessa and the Folklore Museum, which opens a window onto traditional Greek life.

Published: April 05, 2024

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