One of Europe’s rising stars, Thessaloniki holds yet another ace up its sleeve. Around an hour’s drive away are experiences that are unique for European city breakers… exotic beaches, royal tombs, an ancient palace, the mountain of the gods and wetlands and lakes. It’s the very best of northern Greece, with landmark cultural monuments and natural escapes that change with every season. From the best known to the hidden gems, welcome to a city break with an adventurous twist.
The beaches of Halkidiki
How many city breaks come with a day on an exotic beach? That’s exactly what you get with Halkidiki, famous for its blue-green sea and boundless beaches, many with cafes, restaurants and water sports.
Entering Kassandra (the first of Halkidiki’s three peninsula ‘legs’, just 1hr from Thessaloniki), you find Nea Potidea, Nea Fokea on the east coast, and Sani to the west, well organised, shallow-watered beaches ideal for couples and families. If you feel like venturing a little further down the coast, sand-filled Possidi and (to the southeast) Pefkochori and Glarokavos, are also within daytrip reach.
The Royal Tombs in Vergina
One of the great museums! The Royal Tombs of Aigai, an hour from Thessaloniki, are the resting place of King Phillip II (father of Alexander the Great) and other members of the ancient Macedonian dynasty from the 5th-4th centuries BC.
As well as marvelling at the palatial tombs, you’ll witness some of the most astonishing finds in archaeology in a museum incorporated within the tomb tumulus, including the golden larnax containing Philip’s remains and the intricate golden wreath he was buried with. The lighting captures the mood perfectly.
The archaeological site of Pella
The perfect accompaniment to Vergina or a day trip in its own right. Just 45mins west of Thessaloniki, Pella was the capital of Ancient Macedonia, with a glory that represented the full majesty of the kingdom. It is perhaps best remembered as the birthplace of Alexander the Great and, from the remains of the palace and its surroundings, we understand that it was one of the most modern cities of its time. The highlight is, without doubt, the beautiful floor mosaics, some still in place and others in the on-site museum.
The legendary mountain of the ancient gods and the tallest point of Greece needs no introducing. What you might be surprised to discover, however, are the many ways there are to explore it. Using the town of Litochoro as your base (1hr10min from Thessaloniki), you can easily hike up the beautiful Enipeas Gorge to Prionia.
Continuing to one of the peaks will likely need a second day and alternatives include mountain biking, canyoning and rock climbing … all within Greece’s original National Park.
The Axios River Delta
One of Greece’s richest wildlife reserves and, despite being just 50mins west of Thessaloniki, a hidden gem known only to the lucky few. The delta is the product of numerous lagoons, estuaries and rivers (including the Axios, Aliakmonas, Loudias and Gallikos) and home to around 300 bird species and dozens of species of mammals, amphibians and other animals. Aside from the many footpaths to explore, there is an observation tower in Nea Agathoupoli perfect for birdwatching and an information centre in Halastra. During winter months, you can see flamingos in the Kitros lagoon.
A little further away than the other experiences, but the scenery alone makes the journey worthwhile. Lake Kerkini is another of Europe’s most important ecosystems (like the Axios Delta, part of the Ramsar convention of protected wetlands). It hosts an astonishing number of activities, including hiking, horseback riding, 4x4ing, cycling, canoeing, boating and more. As well, of course, as a wealth of wildlife, including 320 species of birdlife, water buffalo roaming freely and (at the right time of year) flamingos and pelicans strutting their stuff. Don’t leave without visiting a store in the village of Porοia to buy some local products, like homemade pasta made with buffalo milk.
Finally, around an hour’s drive northwest of Thessaloniki, is the small town of Goumenissa. Dating to Hellenistic and Roman times, it developed during the Byzantine Empire into a religious centre (as testified by the Monastery of the Virgin Mary) and by the 19th century was an economic and cultural hub too, with the Church of St George (today the Metropolitan Church of Goumenissa) and the town’s school serving as a centre for Hellenism during the Turkish occupation.
You will find both the church and the old schoolhouse in the town centre. Look out for the Macedonian architecture, as well as the French Fountain (built by departing World War 1 soldiers) and the Chrysalis Silk Factory (from the dominant industry in the first half of the 20th century). There are also a handful of wineries in the area that can be visited, producing the fruity reds for which the region is known. Built on the foothills of the Natura 2000-protected Mt Paiko, Goumenissa is surrounded by the largest chestnut tree forest in Greece, with plenty of paths to explore on foot or bike.
7 magical getaways close to Thessaloniki
What more could you ask for? Cherry-pick your perfect holiday escape – culture, nature or a day on the beach (or perhaps a combination of the three) – to create the complete city break experience in Central Macedonia.