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This Gorgeous Region in Greece Is Where the Greeks Go on Vacation — With Magical Blue Water, Friendly Villages, and Local Food

If you feel outpriced for a vacation in the Greek Islands, you’re not entirely out of luck — there’s a lesser-known alternative to experiencing the same magical blue waters, friendly village vibe, and fresh Greek food.

Greek-Macedonia, the country’s northern region, offers a broader variety of experiences for history buffs, beach lovers, and road-trippers, and still has an ancient history that compares to Athens, dramatic coastlines similar to the Greek Isles, some of the most extensive spans of green olive groves in the world, and the country’s most spiritual sites — all within a few miles from each other.

Northern Greece is also easier and more affordable to navigate independently than elsewhere in the country. Rent a car or hop on a public bus; stay at a beachfront bungalow, a village guesthouse, or camp at a beach or inside a forested national park.

With milder climates, fewer crowds, and great prices (including many free attractions), it is no surprise that this is where the Greeks themselves prefer to go for their summer breaks and long weekends.

Top 5 Can’t Miss

  • Grab a drink, listen to live music, enjoy the nightlife, and people-watch in the vibrant Ladadika district of Thessaloniki.
  • Visit King Phillip II’s gleaming royal tomb, complete with delicate artifacts, discovered in the lost city of Aigai after 2,000 years.
  • Take a day cruise to the Athos Peninsula and admire the remote architecture of 1,000-year-old monasteries. The autonomous region is considered the spiritual center of Orthodox Greeks and is not easily accessible to travelers.  
  • Book a dinner at Hierion Restaurant at Athena Pallas Resort. You will feel like a Byzantine emperor as you taste a medieval menu with Mt. Athos paired wines inside a space replicating a portico of a Byzantine monastery. 
  • Take a scenic drive from the mountain town of Litochoro through winding roads overlooking the sea and mountains into Mt. Olympus National Park.


Sucheta Rawal/Travel + Leisure

Start your trip in Thessaloniki — Greece’s second largest city and trade junction, with a major airport and seaport along the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. Named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, Thessaloniki is where some of Greece’s best chefs experiment with traditional flavors and modern cooking techniques. Locals, known as Hellenes, will tell you this is where the Greek coffee culture originated. A common sight is friends and families lingering for hours at al fresco coffee shops, discussing everything from world affairs to office gossip over cigarettes and bitter coffee.

Visitors often overlook the modern European economic hub, but it offers many historical sites, quality restaurants, bustling nightlife, and plenty of shopping at a fraction of the prices compared to other well-known parts of Greece. The city’s extensive makeup of working professionals and university students provides a nonstop street party atmosphere. It is common to find otherwise quiet neighborhood streets and abandoned buildings transformed into temporary live music venues (without the high-priced cover charges) thumping beats until after midnight. Stay away from the crowds at the artfully-decorated Elisabeth Boutique Hotel, located in a historic building.

It’s easy to explore the 2,300-year-old city on foot, uncovering layers of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman history, especially around Ano Poli, the upper town. Among 15 Byzantine UNESCO monuments in the area, you can visit the catacombs at the Baptistery of St. John the Baptist near the sixth-century Hagia Sophia, the seventh-century Church of Hagios Demetrios, Aristotelous Square, the Archaeological Museum, Byzantine Museum, and White Tower Museum. In the evening, walk along Aristotelous Square and the bustling waterfront, where it feels as though the entire city is out running, walking, watching street performances, and enjoying happy hours around the lively areas.

For dinner, there are hundreds of traditional Greek, international, and even vegan restaurants along the narrow alleys of Old Town and Ladadika districts. Try Frutti de Mare for seafood, Roots for vegan Mediterranean, and Oval Bistronomy for modern Greek with a view of the tower. 


Sucheta Rawal/Travel + Leisure

Drive about 45 miles west from Thessaloniki to Vergina to see one of the best-preserved moments in archeological history. From the outside, the grassy mound may not look like much, but once you go underground, your eyes will adjust to the bright gold objects stored in a dark and cool museum.

Here, you can see a glorious, shiny tomb of King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, who died in 336 BC. The Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, constructed by the Kingdom of Macedon at Aigai, was only identified in 1977, and the museum was completed in 1997. Inside, you can see silver and bronze vessels, carved ivory, gold armor, delicate jewelry, weapons, shields, and the king’s bones in the Golden Larnax. Entry tickets are half-price between November and March.

To continue on the trail of Alexander the Great, you can also visit nearby Polycentric Museum of Aigai in the restored part of Macedon’s Royal Palace, which, in its day, was three times bigger than the Parthenon.


Sucheta Rawal/Travel + Leisure

Head further south to the region of Pieria, a quaint weekend mountain escape outside the big city of Thessaloniki. Many Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbians, and Albanians drive to the area for active adventures, fresh air, and quiet retreats. Litochoro is a charming 14th-century traditional village at the foothills of the mythical Mount Olympus, offering stunning views of the sea and the mountains.

Stroll around the cobblestone streets, and you will find adorable Macedonian-style houses decorated with rose, olive, and fig trees, rustic stone chapels, and a dozen tourist shops selling local wine, honey, herbs, and traditional sweets. A romantic dinner for two, including a bottle of Greek wine at one of the nicer restaurants — Hairi Green and Μεζέ Μεζέ — costs less than $30. Join local residents at one of the many taverna and ouzo bars to watch a game and spark a conversation.

Take the scenic 30-minute route from Litochoro village to Olympus National Park, the first national park in Greece established in 1938. Windy roads will bring you through 11,000 acres of alpine vegetation, including oak, black pine, beech, and white pine, to a monastery in Mount Olympus’s heart. Visit the open-air Monastery of St. Dionysios, destroyed during World War II, and take a short hike along the icy Enippeas River to the holy caves.

Mount Olympus is a sacred place for Greeks and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for its diversity of flora and fauna. You can book a day-long guided hiking, mountain climbing, or canyoning tour, or for a more leisurely pace, take the trail from the village to see the spanning gorge and Enipeas waterfalls.

In the afternoon, drive a few minutes south of Litochoro to the beach town of Plaka, where you can take a relaxing swim in the glistening blue waters, have drinks and snacks at an old train tunnel transformed into Galleria Café, or take in panoramic views from the Castle of Platamon.

Sithonia Peninsula

Sucheta Rawal/Travel + Leisure

Head east of Thessaloniki toward three legs of the Halkidi peninsula. Each has a different vibe, focusing on hiking, beaches, and religion. The middle — and the largest peninsula in northern Greece — is Sithonia, which resembles the Greek Isles without the whitewash. Instead, you will find red terracotta rooftops, quiet hamlets, and expansive hills filled with Cyprus and olive trees. Greek vacationers prefer to sprawl around laidback villages dotted with 100 or so Blue Flag-recognized Aegean beaches boasting milder climates and pristine beaches. In Vourvourou, teenagers and families rent small self-piloted boats and move the day-long party to the crystal clear water.

As you circumvent the 26-mile-long panoramic drive along the coastline, stop at ancient settlements, olive-tasting rooms, and beachside cafes. Make time for the old village of Nikiti, Neos Marmaras, the ancient ruins of Toroni castle, and the village and beach of Agios Nikolaos. Climb to the top of Mount Itamos for a coffee and panoramic peninsula views. Sithonia is dotted with affordable Greek restaurants where you can drink tsipouro and eat fresh-caught seafood with your feet still in the sand.

Catering to all types of travelers, the Sithonia Peninsula offers accommodations for as low as $50 per night, ranging from campgrounds and apartments to beachfront villas and luxury resorts. To experience part of the Byzantine era, stay at the family-owned and operated Athena Pallas Resort, where the food and architecture are inspired by Mt. Athos monasteries. Taste different aspects of Greek culinary history at one of the onsite restaurants and get access to the famous Elia beach.

Mount Athos

Sucheta Rawal/Travel + Leisure

Mount Athos is the third peninsula of Halkidiki, also known as the Vatican of Greece. There are 12 fully autonomous 1,000-year-old Byzantine monasteries currently operational on the peninsula. While the holy mountain is visible from many spots in Greek Macedonia, it is not easily accessible. Male pilgrims must apply for limited permits to enter the sacred Mount Athos region, while women are not allowed to enter.

From the water, anyone can enjoy the pristine natural beauty and grandeur of the monasteries’ architecture. Drive to the village of Ouranoupolis and embark on a three-hour cruise with Athos Sea Cruises to sail along the peninsula. From your boat, you can see many of the Monasteries of Mount Athos, with their large campus and remote locations nestled amidst the lush mountains.

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