Discover thrilling adventures in northern Greece
 

Start in Halkidiki

Halkidiki is best known for its perfect coastline. But while its golden sands and pearlescent waters are undeniably picturesque, beyond their lure lie traditional villages, ancient cities, wild mountains and one of the most mysterious corners of Greece. From Aristotle’s birthplace to the clifftop monasteries of Mount Athos, there’s plenty to get you up off the sand here.

Culture lovers should...

Discover Greece’s past

Humans have occupied Halkidiki for at least 700,000 years. The fossils found in the impressive Caves at Petralona are proof of that, with trips into its bauxite-red belly well worth taking, revealing giant stalactites, a ceiling furred with roots and a rare window on prehistoric life in the region.

Elsewhere, there are fine relics from its classical age, too, in the form of the ancient monuments of Olynthos and Stageira. Both cities met a similar fate, being razed by Philip II of Macedon. The latter, however, was the birthplace of Aristotle, tutor to Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, and was duly rebuilt by the king in gratitude to the great teacher. The remains of both are well worth exploring. 

Land on a monastic state

While many know Halkidiki for its beaches and coast, there is another side to the region few see up close. Mount Athos, an autonomous monastic state, occupies the bulk of the easternmost peninsula yet it might as well be another world.

For 1,000 years, this region has been a holy pilgrimage site. You’ll find no hotels, bars or even women; only men can set foot here, and even then just ten non-Orthodox visitors a day, so permits need to be booked far in advance. 

Access is usually via boat, and those unable to land can still see Athos’s monasteries from a distance, on cruises. But if you do make it ashore, days are spent strolling clifftop trails and gardens, dining with monks and visiting Byzantine relics cloaked in high walls, all traces of modernity erased.

Find Halkidiki’s traditional side

Halkidiki is in some ways a modern creation. Most of its coastal towns date from the 1920s, when many Greek settlers were driven out of Minor Asia and settled here. But in its mountains you’ll still find a more traditional way of life.

The northern mademohoria, or ‘ironworker’, villages make up a dozen communities scattered over hilly north of Halkidiki. Of these, Arnea and Varvara are among the most vibrant, laced with tight cobblestone alleys and Macedonian-style architecture that is a joy to wander on foot. 

Spare time also for Sithonia’s Parthenonas. Abandoned in the 1970s for the flourishing towns along the coast, those who left to make their money later returned to restore the old cottages of this hilltop village. It now offers a pristine glimpse of how this area once looked.  

Nature lovers should...

Become a turtle whisperer

Mavrobara Lake lies halfway down the Kassandra peninsula, in the mountainous forests between Kriopighi and Polychrono. It’s a gentle 3km walk from the lake sign to the water’s edge, but you don’t come here to bathe.

This is a protected nature area, and amid the tall grasses and pond weed you’ll find one of Halkidiki’s rarest surprises.

Its green waters are alive with wildlife, in particular two little-seen turtle species: the Caspian and European pond turtle. The pair thrive among the reeds, and can easily be spotted basking on rocks or hunting for tiny fish during the day.

Uncover trees, bees and secrets

The green slopes of Mount Holomontas (1,165m) aren’t exactly inconspicuous but hide plenty of wild secrets. In its deepest forests live wolves, wild boar and scores of raptors, with sightings of eagles, falcons and condors common overhead.

The flora is incredible, too, with the 60,000-acre University Forest of Taxiarchis home to trails winding dense clusters of beech, oak and fir best explored on foot or in the saddle of a horse. To get even closer to nature, you can spend the day with a beekeeping family, learning to tend the hives and collecting Halkidiki’s famous honey from the source. 

Go island hopping

The coastline of the Sithonian village of Vourvourou is speckled with nine pine-tufted islets. These form a mini archipelago that arcs around the coast to create a beautiful natural bay, perfect for a gentle spot of kayaking, with Diaporos island a particularly great spot for kayakers seeking clear, calm waters.

Paddlers are protected from the rougher seas by the ring of islands, so its an easy paddle to hop between them or just skim the coast in search of a quiet cove.

Guided trips here typically make for the largest island, Diaporos, first. Here, you’ll also find the Blue Lagoon, a thin strait of white sand that creates an almost glacial look to its waters. Tumble out to snorkel its shallows and soak in the warm water before picnicking back on the beach.

 

Halkidiki isn’t short of Blue Flag shores. Some 96 dot its coast, with the south-west well represented. But it’s no secret. On the Kassandra peninsula particularly, resorts pepper its upper reaches, though thin out the further south you go. Certainly, the twinkling lagoon of Glarokavos is well worth the drive and sees far fewer visitors.  

 

For more isolated beauty, hop to neighbouring Sithonia, which is generally more untouched. It also has a few surprises. Wander traditional houses and cobbles in Nikiti’s ‘old town’ then explore its pristine shore below; relax on the white sands of Vourvourou before paddling its islands; or  spend your day hopping hidden coves in Kavourotripes.

The sands here also get quieter the further south you go, and if you’re happy to trek or bike, finds like the hour-glass-shaped Lemos beach, on the crest of the cape, feel truly deserved as you walk barefoot in utter solitude.

Even on the east coast of Halkidiki, which is less heralded, you’ll find pleasant surprises. Olympiada beach is surrounded by a protected forest of plane trees, and makes a serene spot for camping with lots of hidden coves and bays to discover.

Adventure lovers should...

Snorkel ancient fortifications

The waters off Toroni, a small town in the south of Sithonia, hide an interesting fact. Some 3,000 years ago, this was one of the wealthiest cities in Halkidiki. Its defences once expanded far out along the shoreline, and now this history is hidden, with the outer foundations of the old wall utterly submerged in the water.

So, what better way to discover them than to strap on a snorkel?Or, why not take a diving lesson? The area closest to the harbour can be dived even by beginners, with sections of the old city lying just a few metres below the surface. The base of the the remains of Lekythos Castle is particularly rewarding: here you can spy the old foundation stones of the city below the bobbing fishing boats above.

Wander back through history

The best way to explore Halkidiki is on foot. There are trails everywhere here, particularly in the lush Sithonia peninsula where walks through the forests of Mount Itamos (811m), named after the trees that speckle its slopes, march in the footsteps of old goat herder’s paths to its scenic peak. 

To the north-east, the Aristotelian Trail takes a more storied route, tracing a line from the modern village of Stageira to the ruins of its ancient coastal namesake, the birthplace of philosopher Aristotle. Thread your way across a pastoral sketch of Halkidiki, ending with fine views over the Aegean and ancient monuments to explore. Better still: combine with a detour to the forests and waterfall of nearby Varvara to cool off.

Pedal an entire peninsula

There are plenty of manageable day rides that give cyclists a taste of the Halkidiki coast, but few match a coastal tour of Sithonia for its sheer variety.

From the village of Nikiti, the road drops south as it wraps the headland back up to Vouvourou. The route is barely 100km in length and easily broken up across a few days as you take it slowly, skimming past cobbled villages and the vineyards of Porto Carras, then casting out for the wild shores of the Sithonian Cape.

Finish on the ridges above Vouvourou, spying its islands twinkling offshore before hurling yourself into the blue waters below in triumph. 

Head to Thasos

The emerald island certainly lives up to its name. Much of Thasos is still wrapped by thick forests of pine, oak and plane trees, which trickle down to its perfect shoreline giving it an almost Caribbean feel. Yet there’s substance here, too. Its visible history turns wandering the ancient capital, Limenas, into a thrilling history lesson, and escaping to the island’s traditional mountain villages offers a different pace of life, with fantastic trails to explore among the forests.

Culture lovers should...

Wander an ancient city

Thasos has a long history, and was a wealthy island during antiquity thanks to its abundant marble deposits. You’re reminded of this around every corner in capital Limenas, where the remains of its ancient city are a thrill to wander, working up from its harbour and stone fortifications to the acropolis that lies above the town. Winding the trail past theatres, temples and its old agora is a refreshingly sweaty lesson in Greek history, with the relics dating as far back as 700BC. Don't miss the Ancient Agora, or ancient market which was once the political, administrative and religious centre of the island: some of its colonnades still stand, and seemingly palpitate with the power this place once held. After, head to the Ancient Theatre which dates back to the 5th Century BC and offers views high above the sparkling Thracian Sea. Less than a ten minute walk away is the Acropolis of Ancient Thasos lying on a peak 137m above sea level: a wall built from marble in the 5th century BC still stands. The next peak along holds the remains of the temple of Athena while at the third and final peak you will find the sanctum of Pana, where you can admire the rock carvings. 

Be sure to stop by the city’s fine archeological museum to put everything in context, which houses distinguished collections from the 7th century BC to the 7th century AD. As a companion, it’s also worth visiting the small peninsula of Alyki, on the south coast. This was once an ancient centre for the island’s marble production and its old quarry is now partially submerged, allowing you to explore the ruins on foot or even by snorkelling.

Step back in time

While the island’s coastal towns are more built up, its mountain villages, often hidden among a thick brow of pines and maquis, offer a glimpse of more traditional life.

Panagia is a perfect example, though was once rather grander in its status. This was even the island capital for a brief spell during the early 19th century, as evidenced by the impressive marble basilica at its centre.

Wandering balconied houses and cobbles shaded by towering cypress is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, with Potamia, Theologos and the twin villages of Kazaviti all peaceful escapes. Though if you arrive in time for Easter, things tend to get much more lively.

Discover a miraculous story

Religious sites cover much of Thasos, boosted in number by its proximity to Mount Athos, whose monks have visited the islands regularly over the years to set up churches and monasteries.

The largest and most famous of these is the Monastery of Archangel Michael, which dangles spectacularly on a cliff’s edge near Alyki. It also has an unusual story.

When the Ottomans seized Athos, its reliquaries were scattered for safety. One boat carrying a nail said to have come from the crucifixion stashed the item here in the monastery chapel after an attack. It was only uncovered centuries later and is now the centrepiece of a fascinating collection that draws pilgrims.

 

It’s hardly surprising that olives, honey and goat’s cheese are the backbone of island cuisine here. Much of Thasos is made up of rural villages, and food takes on a rustic heft in the mountains, where you’ll regularly find hearty meat stews and spit-roasted lamb’s head served in the shadow of the plane trees.

More traditional fare includes peppered cabbage, a winter dish consisting of spiced pickled cabbage and white beans, while Greek classics such as stuffed courgette flowers and more Minor Asian-influenced cooking, including the vegetable-filled roasted aubergine dish imam baildi, can also be found in the more rural tavernas. Don't miss the pitarakia,  a very light fritter made from thin slices of courgette dipped in mint and spice-flavoured flour and quickly fried. They are usually serve with zucchini relish, giving them a sweet taste and pair perfectly with a glass of wine or ouzo. 

On the coast, menus skew more internationally, but seafood is ubiquitous. Locally caught fish are typically served by the weight, including hefty dorado, bream, grouper and mullet, while grilled sardines are an indelible favourites among locals and visitors alike.

For those with a sweet tooth, the sweets of Thassos have a special flavour originating from their secret ingredient, Thassian honey. The most well-known among these is the walnut sweet, made of walnuts that are picked early in the spring to make a very tasty and nutritious sweet. Other sweets are made from fig, pumpkin, orange, rose, and quince.

Whole walnuts, still green from the trees and soaked in syrupy honey, are one of the more indulgent comfort foods, best served with a dollop of thick yoghurt. Trigono is another dessert popular across this region; it’s similar in look to an Italian cannoli but made with layers of filo pastry, a custard filling and drowned in syrup. It is one of the best and most traditional sweets from Thessaloniki and you can find them in many varieties all across the island.

Nature lovers should...

Stumble on a magical shore

If there’s one clear rival to the perfect shores of Halkidiki’s Sithonia peninsula, it’s Thasos. The island’s thick greenery often runs down to the water’s edge, wrapping the shoreline in a green collar, and it has created some wild settings.

Vathi is a remote emerald bay of beautiful sands reached only via a dirt road from Makryammos but is worth the rather sweaty trek. Saliara, or ‘marble beach’, is equally unique for its bleached-white pebbles, while the blue-green waters of Giola Lagoon, a natural rock-cut pool hidden down a long dirt track, has become an Instagram favourite in recent times. Take your pick. 

Explore an underwater world

Thasos has only embraced diving over the last few years. Where once there were few options, you’ll now find a half-dozen dive schools across the island, with PADI-certified courses and boat dives exploring the south coast and tiny islands such as Panagia and Kinira. 

There’s expeditions for all levels, from the walls of Kefalas where the currents allow for a gentle drift dive, to the caverns of San Antonio where soft coral, octopus and moray eel linger among the rocks. A gentler introduction is the reefs of Pefkari; here, beginners can find their feet among schools of eager jack fish and grouper at depths of just 10m.

Escape to the forests

It’s little wonder Thasos is dubbed the Emerald Isle. Dense forests of pine, oak and plane trees smother much of the island, and while forest fires have taken their toll over the years, it remains the green wonder of the Aegean.

One of the best places to experience this is the twin villages of Kazaviti, walking up the Prinos Valley. Here, a grassy mule track from Prinos whittles past olive groves as the mountainous horizon rises up to meet the sky, revealing the first of the two villages seemingly buried among the walnut trees. From there, thick forests of moss-wrapped plane trees and the remains of old mills scatter the hills rising up the gorge, as you sink into a green wilderness. 

Adventure lovers should...

Summit the highest peak

For the best views on the island, you’ll need to strap on your boots. The peak of Mount Ipsarion rises high above the village of Potamia like a forbidding uncle, scraping 1,204m. But it’s not a daunting hike, and although a little narrow in parts, the way is clearly marked. If you’re reasonably fit, it should only take about three hours one way.

Once at the top, the view out to the coast is remarkable and tends to be clearer earlier in the day, so it pays to set off at sun up. Bring lots of water and prepare to be blown away.  

Cycle a mountain trail

Thasos is a cyclist’s dream. Pedalling mountain roads past old watermills, seas of olives trees and the rural heartland of the island rewards with a close-up view of everyday life, though you’ll want an e-bike if you’re not used to big climbs.

For a challenge, follow in the tyre treads of the 58km MTB Thasos Cup route, a trail that sets out from Potos, on the south coast. Pedal east, rising past the mountain village of Theologos and skirting chapels, farms and former marble mines to the slopes of Trikorfo (825m) before circling back. It’s a breathtaking day’s ride but easily abbreviated to just the pretty Theologos section if you’d prefer to take it slowly.

Paddle to an uninhabited island

The coast of Thasos is pocked with hidden caves, coves and islets otherwise unreachable by land. If you want to discover them for yourself, kayak tours are the only way.

The rocky south-west coast offers the chance to drift into tears in the cliffs to discover vast, echoing caverns toothed with stalagmites. Alternatively, make for the green shores of the north-east where pine trees tumble down to the water’s edge. Here, the uninhabited islet of Gramvousa is within paddling distance of Skala Potamia, and in between snorkelling its shallows and clambering the steps of the tiny chapel, stop to take in the wild view back to the mainland.  

Discover Samothrace

The island of Samothrace still feels like somewhere yet to be discovered. It’s a wild, natural escape, and home to the highest peak in the Aegean Islands. Parts of its rugged south are unreachable to all but the most adventurous, and stumbling upon relics of its ancient mysterious cult, wild beaches, cooling vathes and thermal springs make it seem like a lost world compared with the rest of Northern Greece.

For culture lovers...

Discover a mystery cult

Set on the coast, north of capital Chora, the remains of the Pan-Hellenic temple complex Sanctuary of the Great Gods are every bit as curious as its pagan history.

The Thracian roots of the temple date back to 1,000 BC. But unlike other Greek ‘mystery’ cults, anyone could worship here, as long they’d been initiated – one rite of passage was a baptism in bull’s blood. It even drew celebrity pilgrims. Everyone from historian Herodotus to Macedon king Philip II were said to have undergone initiation. 

Paganism fell out of favour in the late Roman empire, and not much of the temple survived. The site’s most famous statue (of winged Nike) sits in Paris’s Louvre. The iconic example of Greek Hellenistic art was carved from marble from Paros (one of the finest marbles in all of Greece) as an offering to the gods for a sanctuary on Samothrace. The statue shows the goddess of Victory alighting a ship which has just won a battle at sea. A reproduction still stands in the museum, which offers a great overview of the site.

Play king of the castle

Nothing lasts forever. Above island capital Chora, a pretty little town of stone-built houses in the lee of the hillside, stands the eerie ruins of its 15th-century fortifications. A fascinating relic of its Byzantine past.

Built by Samothrace’s Genoese ruler, Palamedes Gattilusio, the citadel was an attempt to secure the island from attack. Not for nothing is Chora set back from the coast and almost invisible from a distance; pirate raids were a regular threat and further towers (Paleopolis and Fonian) were built along the shoreline.

The fall of the Byzantine empire in 1453 meant Gattilusio’s days were numbered, and both Samothrace and its castle passed into Ottoman control. But it’s still a thrill to wander up from the town and explore its remains. 

Soak up island life

Barely 3,000 people live on Samothrace. The island isn’t large, but much of the centre and south-east are taken up by mountains and gorges. Locals wisely settled to the west and north, with the modern port town of Kamariotissa now overtaking capital Chora in terms of size.

In fact, ‘capital’ is a rather misleading term. Chora is more a pretty village of balconied houses dug into the hillside. Each jostles for sunlight like a field of terracotta daffodils and its steep cobbles hide tiny jewellery shops, tree-shaded cafes and a charming Folklore Museum to while away the day.

Outside of the capital, villages are mostly sparse, rural collections of houses strung up against the foothills. Many make for a peaceful stroll, with the village of Profitas Ilias in particular blessed with glorious views out to the islands from its taverna, as you tuck into a plate of spit-roasted goat.

Nature lovers should...

Splash in the vathes

The water that trickles down from the tip of Mount Soas forms streams that filter the valleys to create waterfalls and small natural pools known as vathes. There are about 100 of these on Samothrace, with forest trails offering visitors a chance to dive into their emerald waters to cool off.

Both the Fonias and Gria Vathra valleys are filled with natural pools. Walking routes run much of their lower reaches, trailing the streams past several waterfalls. At Fonias, the furthest (Kleidosi) is a two-hour walk from the car park, but its 35-metre drop is among the most impressive and well worth the slippery trek up the rocks.

Relax on a wild beach

Samothrace isn’t blessed with many golden shores; the exception is the popular sands of Pachia Ammos where the road along the southern coast terminates. East of here, the beaches tends to be wild and difficult to reach, making it all the more satisfying when you do.

From there, hiking or sailing the southern shoreline first reveals the hidden cove of Katarti, then the sands of Vatos beach, which lies at the end of a canyon riddled with caves that tumbles quietly into turquoise waters. Your only company here are the wild goats that typically exit quickly, skittering up the rocks.

If you want wilderness but don’t want to hike, the black beach of Kipos is the last shoreline linked by road in the far south-east. It’s rarely busy, surrounded by scrubby hillside and has the feel of somewhere more remote than it is.

Spot migrating bird in the wetlands

In the north-west corner of Samothrace lies the Cape of Akrotiri, a finger-like promontory that is notorious among sailors caught in the currents off its coast. There’s little to see here but a few wildflowers and a saline lagoon named after the old chapel, Agios Andreas. But it isn’t scenery you come for.

For birding enthusiasts, the cape is one of a pair of prime locations, along with the seasonal wetland of Vdelolimni that lies at the north-east mouth of the Fonias river. They are great bases to spy migrating egrets, teals, cormorants and the occasional pelican resting up en route to the mainland’s Evros Delta where many birds spend the winter or just pit-stop in spring.

Adventure lovers should...

Climb the highest peak in the Aegean Islands

Therma is the jumping off point for an adventurous trail that clambers the tallest peak of Mount Saos (1,611m), the granite behemoth that stands at the heart of Samothrace.

With sharp ridges jagging out from its centre, Saos looks meaner than it is, but it’s a long day’s walk. The trail mostly follows the E6 route and takes around six hours one way, so you’ll need good fitness, plenty of water and an early start.

Along its paths you’ll find natural pools and cross great forests of oak and plane trees. Then, as you emerge onto the barren upper slopes, it’s a rocky scramble to the top for the best views in the Aegean.

Sail the hidden south coast

Mount Saos was once an active volcano, shaping an island from tough granite and softer volcanic deposits. The effect is a ragged coastline of wild geological formations, especially in the remote south-east, which can only be accessed by water or a long march on foot.

Only boats can properly explore here, with tours typically cooling off on remote beaches before stopping to spy weird geological oddities such as the ’Tis Grias ta Pania’ (Old Woman’s Laundry), strange white veins seemingly etched into the steely grey of the granite cliffs. The highlight is surely the Kremastos waterfall, a 100m-high drop that pounds relentlessly into the sea from the high cliffs as you swim below. Unforgettable.

Go canyoning in the foothills

The further you go up the foothills of Mount Soas, source of the island’s rivers and streams, the more vathes you encounter and the trickier it is to explore. This is where canyoning tours come in – a wild mix of climbing, scrambling and swimming.

Trips typically take place in the north, around the valleys of Fonias and Gria Vathra. More hardcore excursions venture south to Gyali, the largest canyon on the island, and it can be pretty involved. Multi-day trips include camping overnight before scrambling down to the island’s wild beaches. But it’s worth it to go places that other travellers just often don’t see. 

 

If you ever needed reminding of Samothrace’s volcanic origins, just visit Therma, on the north coast. Fewer than 100 people live here but the fame (and smell) of its sulphurous hot springs stretch far and wide.

The area’s reputation for its healing waters dates back to the Byzantine era, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a treatment centre was set up. This runs from early summer until autumn, though nearby you’ll also find a scattering of stone baths on the hillside that are free to use any time and boast sweeping views down to the coast. 

The town is a base for hikes up into the mountains and walks among the Gria Vathra valley, with a post-hike soak the perfect finale to the day. By the evening, Therma is a friendly mix of hikers and campers from the nearby campsites and older Greeks in search of its curative waters, with the tavernas continuing to serve long into the night.

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