Discover Thessaloniki and Macedonia
Extending across the panhandle of northern Greece, the mountainous region of Macedonia combines every attribute that makes this ancient nation so appealing. Want to hike among ancient gods? Then head to Mount Olympus (9,573 feet), Greece’s highest peak and the mythological home of Zeus & Co. But don't stop there—you'll find many mountains to choose from, draped in pine-forests and sloping down to valleys peppered with lakes and medieval villages. That's to say nothing of the stunning beaches on the Halkidiki Peninsula.
This region also exudes history. It's the famed land of Alexander the Great—king of Macedon. Don’t miss the fascinating archeological sites at Pella and Vergina, and be sure to visit Athos, the “monk’s republic,” with its 20 monasteries, many perched on cliffs overlooking the sea. The dynamic city of Thessaloniki is a historic destination too, featuring ancient sites spanning the Roman to Ottoman Empires. It's also a foodie gastronomic destination and rivals Athens for culture. Then there's the party—Thessaloniki never sleeps. One festival follows another, and after sundown, the party never ends (National Geographic named it one of the world’s top 10 nightlife cities).
If this region whets your appetite for more classic Greece, see our list of the other best places to visit.
Founded in 315 BCE, Thessaloniki was an early center for Christianity in the Roman Empire—second only to Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire—and an integral part of the Ottoman Empire (1430-1912 CE) until Greek independence. Historically compelling and architecturally stunning, the entire city is UNESCO listed as an Open Museum of Early Christian and Byzantine Art.
But there’s more to Thessaloniki than architectural gems—its setting is also striking. Mountains border the city to the north and east, and the azure waters of the Gulf of Salonika run up to its southern edge. Much of the city is modern (rebuilt following a 1917 fire), including a sleek New Waterfront. Arcing around the gulf like a scimitar, you'll find the city's main draws here in a radius around the White Tower monument, and in the inland area around the ancient city walls.
The city is walkable, but for an even better perspective, take advantage of Thessaloniki's free harbor cruise. And when night falls, the waterfront zone of Ladadika is the place to be for its many bars, tavernas, and nightclubs. Here are some other highlights not to miss:
Ano Poli & Kastra
The Αno Poli (Old Town) neighborhood is one of the few areas to survive the 1917 fire. This is the most picturesque part of the city, with narrow streets that rise to the ancient Acropolis, or Eptapyrgio. Built over several centuries, it is enclosed within a stone circuit wall, originally with a four-mile circumference and dating back to 390 BCE. On the upper slopes, at its eastern end, the Kastra—a 15th-century castle citadel—stands sentinel above the city and is today a cultural center.
The eastern walls slope down to the well-preserved Anna Palaiologina gate and circular Trigoniou Tower, from atop which you’ll have a panoramic view over Thessaloniki. Some 500 yards to its west, the 16th-century Vlatadon Monastery may interest history buffs for its rich archive of documents dating back centuries. Thessaloniki is also blessed with stunning churches. A five-minute stroll southeast from the Trigoniou Tower brings you to one of the finest, Agios Pavlos (Church of St. Paul).
The Ottomans built many Turkish baths (hamams) in Thessaloniki during five centuries, although they've now fallen into disuse. The most impressive—and largest—is Bey Hamam (“bath of paradise”), built in 1844. The ornate walls are still rich with decoration
Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art
For art lovers, the contemporary Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art (154 Egnatia Street) displays some 2,000 works by Greek artists. Culture vultures will also appreciate Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s Teloglion Foundation of Art, which features paintings, drawings, sculptures, and literary works by Greeks and Europeans, including such notables as Toulouse-Lautrec.
Museum of Byzantine Culture
Housed in a modern Cubist building, the Museum of Byzantine Culture has 11 halls dedicated to the history of Byzantine Macedonia, from the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The exhibits are more spellbinding than the dour red-brick exterior suggests.
Rotunda & Arch of Galerius
Built for Roman Emperor Galerius in 306 CE as his future mausoleum, the circular Rotunda of Galerius, in Navarinou Square, never served its purpose (Galerius died and was buried in today’s Serbia). Under Constantine the Great it became Thessaloniki’s first Christian church—Agios Dimitrios—and, under the Ottomans, a mosque (it acquired the city’s only minaret).
In 1912 it was reconsecrated as a Greek Orthodox Church. It has 8th-century frescoes and the silver reliquary of Dimitrios, a Roman soldier/Christian martyr, and the city’s patron saint. One hundred yards south of the Rotunda, the Arch of Galerius (CE 303) arcs over a spacious grassy boulevard lined with bars and cafés. Built of red brick with marble friezes, it celebrates a victory over the Persians in 279 CE.
Among the most beautiful regions in Macedonia, Halkidiki is comprised of three peninsulas—Kassandra, Sithonia, and Agion Oros—that puncture the Aegean Sea like a trident. Located about 30 miles southeast of Thessaloniki, they're meant to be enjoyed together.
Kassandra, the westernmost peninsula, is lined with sandy beaches and boasts several archaeological sites. Note that it can be clogged with weekending Thessaloniki families and European package vacationers in summer. Party animals gravitate to the beach of Kalithea, but Pefkohori has nicer sands and more solitude. Located in the center, the Sithonia peninsula combines secluded beaches with timeless villages, offering a more low-key vacation option than the resorts of Kassandra.
The easternmost peninsula/mountain of Agion Oros (also known as Mount Athos) is an independent, luxuriant, self-governing monastic state. It's the spiritual capital of the Orthodox Christian world and is accessible solely to men. (Even female animals are barred—although apparently an exception is made for cats, as they're valued for their mouse-hunting prowess.) This unspoiled mass rises to the marbled summit of Mount Athos (6,670 feet). Perched alongside it are monasteries—20 in all—atop pedestals overlooking the sea. They can be visited only after submitting a copy of your passport to the Mount Athos Pilgrims' Bureau and require a three-day monastic stay. The easiest way to see it is on a boat excursion from the beach resorts of Kassandra and Sithonia.
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Streams ripple through the heart of Edessa, a mountain town some 50 miles west of Thessaloniki. Situated atop a precipice above a broad agricultural plain, Edessa is famous as the site of Greece’s largest waterfall, which plunges 230 feet into a wooded park at the east edge of town. You can clamber up a path to take photos behind the falls.
Little of the old town remains here; alas, In 1944, the Nazis set Edessa ablaze in retaliation for the killing of a German soldier by the Greek resistance. However, it has a fine archaeological site at the location of the original city, which flourished from the 4th-century BCE into Byzantine times. You can find it below the cliff-face, southeast of town.
A port city rich in Byzantine, Ottoman, and Early Christian history, Kavala's sloping city plan lends it an amphitheatrical setting. Concentrate your time in the hilly, cobbled lanes of the old Panayia district. It's located on a peninsula that formed an ancient Acropolis enclosed by fortified walls. A clamber to the 15th-century Kastra (castle) is well-rewarded with views from atop its circular tower.
The tangled roads below lead south past the ruby-colored Halil Bey Mosque to Mehmet Ali Square, which sits at the tip of the peninsula. Here, Ottoman ruler Pasha Mehmet Ali’s former 18th-century home is today a museum detailing Ottoman rule. Some 200 yards north, don’t miss the former 18-domed Imaret—Mehmet Ali’s enormous kulliye (religious school)—which is today the sumptuous Hotel Imaret.
Extending north from Panayia, Kavala’s most notable monument is a triple-tier, 150-foot-high aqueduct—the Kamares—built in 1550 by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent to bring water to the ancient city. In the 19th century, Kavala was a center for tobacco cultivation and processing. The city’s many beautiful neoclassical mansions attest to the wealth that accrued during that time. Pop into the Tobacco Museum, which narrates the history of Kavala’s heyday.
Mount Olympus National Park
The ancient Greeks venerated Mount Olympus (9,573 feet) as the home of the twelve Olympian gods. Its serrated skyline looks like one of those gods took a hacksaw to its peak. Often draped by clouds, and dazzling white under winter snow, Greece’s highest mountain offers hikers quite the challenge (although you can actually drive to the summit). The thickly forested mountain range—enshrined since 1938 within Mount Olympus National Park—is cut by deep gorges where wolves, jackals, and deer roam.
This cobbled stone village, located at an altitude of almost 4,000 feet on the slopes of Mount Vernon, is a model of peace and tranquility. Reborn after being abandoned in the 1950s, the restored mansions and churches here, now with gleaming zinc roofs, are a singular sight in Greece. The town's charm is reason enough to visit, but to enjoy it fully you need to spend the night. While here, don’t miss the Arcturos wildlife sanctuary, located a 15-minute walk northeast of the village. Here, former circus bears (and brown bears, wolves, and various other creatures) live out their happy retirement.
Set like jewels in the remote and rugged mountains of western Macedonia, these twin lakes—Megáli Préspa (Large Prespa) and Mikrí Préspa (Little Prespa)—are a nature lover's delight and a birder’s paradise. Waterfowl by the tens of thousands glide through the air, and you'll find egrets, pygmy cormorants, even great white pelicans as well. Its mountains are the last refuge for the European brown bear and grey wolves. At Mikrí Préspa stroll a half-mile-long floating bridge to reach Agios Achilleios, an islet with the ruined Byzantine monastery from which it takes its name. The sleepy village of Ágios Germanós has an information center.
The lovely little town of Florina is the gateway to the Prespa Lakes. It's nestled at the base of mountains close to the Albanian and Macedonia borders and is compelling for its eclectic turn-of-the-century buildings. They're adorned with carved-wood doors and other decorative delights.
Ready to plan your trip to Greece? Check out our tours and itineraries for inspiration, like this two-week tour of Athens and Thessaloniki or this itinerary that pairs mainland exploration with the fascinating island of Crete.