The Best Things To Do In Northern Greece

Most people imagine Greece as being paradise islands with white sand beaches, or whitewashed villages overlooking crystal clear blue waters. But Greece is so much more than just its seaside locations. The country is rich in culture, tradition and history, all of which can be seen wherever you go.

Northern Greece is not a region tourists often think to visit, but is just as, if not more, beautiful than the south with its Ottoman architecture, areas of natural beauty and specialised cuisine.

So, for more information on the best places to visit in Northern Greece, read on below.

Pindos National Park is one of the best places to visit in Northern Greece

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17 Top-Rated Things To Do In Northern Greece

In late spring this year we spent a month exploring Northern Greece as part of our European road trip from the UK to Turkey. We had no expectations and ended up being blown away by the places we visited. These are our top rated things to do in Northern Greece.

1. Become Mesmerised by Monasteries at Meteora

Meteora is a highlight not only of Greece but of Europe, and a place in northern Greece to dedicate at least a day or two for exploring. Meteora is a unique landscape where large rock pillars dominate the surrounding plains.

Atop the rounded pillars of Meteora, you can find one of the largest complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries. Originally there were 24 monasteries, each own their own pillar, boulder or cave, but today there remains only six, all of which are open to public visits.

Each of the monasteries is closed one day of the week so if you have a particular monastery in mind, you’ll have to plan your visit accordingly. The complexes vary in size and impressiveness. Most require a basic level of fitness to enter as access is usually via a steep set of stairs.

Dotted around the scenic valley drive there are also several jaw-dropping view points which make for beautiful photos and a lovely place to enjoy sunset. The quaint village of Kastraki is a good base from which to explore the valley and is home to several good tavernas and guesthouses.

2. Relax by the Crystal Clear Waters of Halkidiki

Halkidiki is an area of Northern Greece known for its three, finger-like peninsulas. The peninsulas have a winning combination of clear turquoise water, white sandy beaches and rocky coves, backed by forests of Mediterranean trees. For this reason, it is the most popular summer destination in Northern Greece.

The eastern most peninsula is home to Mount Athos, which is sacred area and requires permits to visit. Sithonia is the peninsula with the most beaches whilst Kassandra is the most developed for tourism. During your visit to these beautiful peninsulas you can enjoy a cycle ride, tour the vineyards or simply relax on one of the many beautiful beaches.

Add Halkidiki to your Northern Greece bucket list if like sandy beaches

3. Explore Greece’s Second Largest City, Thessaloniki 

I may not be a huge city fan but Thessaloniki is certainly an exception to the rule. This perfectly placed port city is packed with things to do.

Whilst Athens may get the historic limelight, Thessaloniki is home to its own rich history, most of which can be seen scattered throughout the city. Top ancient sights include the Roman Agora, Rotonda and Arch of Galerius in the centre of town and the Byzantine era Baths and Agios Demetrios Church. You can visit all the top sites on this hop-on hop-off bus tour.

Depending on your interest, there is a wide choice of museums to visit in Thessaloniki and it’s also a paradise for shoppers and foodies alike. Delve deeper into Thessaloniki’s culinary scene on this walking food tour.

Once evening rolls around, head to the promenade where you can enjoy a sunset stroll or climb up the Ottoman-era White Tower. Alternatively, venture to Eptapyrgio Castle to catch the last rays of sunshine glimmering over the Agean sea.

Thessaloniki is the biggest city in Northern Greece

4. Enjoy a Hike in Pindos National Park

Pindos National Park is a true delight for hikers and a real hidden gem of Greece. Spread across 2000 km2, the park is a mix of lush green forests and steep craggy peaks. Covering a section of the Pindus mountain range, the park contains several peaks over 2000m and a collection of black stone villages, all linked through well-marked trails.

Two of the best hikes to enjoy in Pindos are Vikos Gorge and Dragon Lake (Drakolimni). Sitting at the foot of Mount Tymfi, Vikos Gorge is actually the deepest canyon in the world but at only 20km in length, it’s possible to walk the gorge in just one day. Since the gorge is covered in trees, the hike is sheltered from the blazing sun for most of the route which can be a huge benefit in the summer months.

For those that want to experience the finest alpine views Greece has to offer, don’t miss a hike to Dragon Lake. Climbing over 1000m and taking around 4 hours one-way, this hike is no stroll in the park but is achievable in one (big) day. If you’d prefer to break up the hike you could opt to spend a night at the Astraka refuge. Either way, the hike hike to Dragon Lake is extremely special and was a big highlight of our trip through Northern Greece.

Climbers should head to the village of Kipoi to tackle the range of climbing routes on offer nearby.

5. Wonder at the Stone Houses and Bridges of Zagori

You don’t need to be a hiker to enjoy the wonders of Pindos National Park. Scattered around this vast national park are the 46 villages of Zagori. These traditional mountain villages are known for their stone houses which are very different in appearance to the whitewashed houses found near the coast. Some notable villages include Papingo, Mikro Papingo and Monodendri.

The villages are linked by stone paths and bridges which date back to the Ottoman period. Many of the noteworthy bridges are located near the village of Kipoi. Some of the bridges that are particularly impressive include the 3-arched Bridge of Plakida or Kalogeriko, and the large single arched Bridge of Kokkori.

6. Learn About Alexander the Great at Pella

Ancient Pella was the capital of Macedon and the birthplace of Alexander the Great (as well as his father Philip). Today Pella is a small town located in the region of Central Macedonia.

There are two very big reasons to add Pella to your Northern Greece bucket list. One is the ancient archaeological site of Pella and the other is the archaeological museum of Pella. The ancient site is a large complex and takes several hours to walk around, however the majority of noteworthy points are centrally located. A few mosaics remain at the site, whilst the more intricate ones have been moved to the nearby museum.

If you buy a ticket at the archaeological site, the museum entry is included in the price and I certainly recommend a visit to this informative museum. As well as showcasing the mosaics, there are other artefacts which were found in the area such as pottery, coins, clothing and furniture. It also has a room dedicated to Alexander the Great, the Greek ruler who probably needs no introduction.

Mosaics at Pella

7. Walk With the Gods at Mount Olympus

As the tallest mountain in Greece, Mount Olympus rises from the Agean to a towering height of 2917m. The lower mountain is broken up into gorges which are packed with a huge range of flora and fauna  The mountain, which is steeped in myth and supposedly home to Greek gods, is part of a larger area known as Mount Olympus National Park, the first of Greece’s national parks. 

Whilst trekking to the top of Mount Olympus is possible, it takes at least 2 days and should not be underestimated. For an adventurous activity in Northern Greece, there are guiding operators available to lead inexperienced hikers up the mountain. For a less strenuous option, instead hike one of the scenic gorges where there are numerous waterfalls and caves to explore. For those interested in history there is also an archaeology site on Mount Olympus called Dion.

A good base for exploring Mount Olympus is the pretty town of Litochoro which has delightful tavernas and a selection of hotels. The visitor centre here provides good information about the geology, flora, fauna and monasteries on the mountain. 

Mount Olympus is a great location to enjoy nature in Northern Greece
We found this gorgeous waterfall during our hike on the lower slopes of Mount Olympus
 

8. Relax at the Beach Town of Parga

Parga is located in the North-Western regions and is one of the best places to visit in Northern Greece if you’re on the hunt for those gorgeous sandy beaches. Not only is the area full of beautiful natural landscapes, but it also houses some of the most important monuments and landmarks of years gone by.

One of these vital pieces of architecture is the Venetian castle, which sits at the top of the mountain, overlooking the ocean. The castle is thought to have been built before the 15th century, but has had to be rebuilt four times since its first opening due to the attacks launched by various other empires. This doesn’t matter to the people of Parga though, as the castle was built to protect the city from the invasion of pirates and other civilisations in the first place. Today, it is one of Parga’s greatest tourist attractions and is open to the public most days of the year.

However, despite the historical importance of the castle, Parga’s main tourist attraction is the beaches. There are so many beautiful stretches of sand such as Sarakiniko beach, which is tucked away in a cove surrounded by luscious greenery. For the water-sports enthusiasts, Valtos beach offers lots of different activities such as surfing and water-skiing.

Parga is a top destination in Northern Greece for white sandy beaches

9. Explore the Architecture of Kavala

Greece is a country in which every town holds some kind of cultural gem. However, if you are looking for the full Greek experience, then Kavala is the city for you. Everything about this beautiful town is unique, whether that be the architecture, the cuisine or the natural landscapes.

The most prominent feature of the city is the fortress at the top of the hill, sat overlooking the houses in the city below. Similarly to the Venetian castle in Parga, this fortress gave the Venetians an excellent lookout point when it came to spotting oncoming attacks. Today, tourists and locals can hike to the top of the hill to enjoy the impressive view. 

Another excellent piece of architecture in the city is its one of a kind water-pipe system. Whilst this may not sound like a particularly interesting feature, the city contains a large, Colosseum-like structure also known as the aqueduct, which houses the city’s main pipelines. 

One of the best things to do in Northern Greece, and any European city for that matter, is to appreciate how history can be seen all around. Western cultures often tend to knock down historical buildings, replacing them with contemporary accommodation. Kavala is just one example of a Greek city which has managed to preserve its beautiful Ottoman cobbled streets and colourful housing.

Aside from the feats of engineering Kavala can offer, one of its most prominent events is the fish auction. The city is known for having a prominent fishing community, and both tourists and locals can enjoy the huge variety of freshly caught produce available for purchase.

Head to Kavala in Northern Greece if you want the full Greek experience

10. Take a Boat Trip at the Lakeside City, Kastoria

Kastoria isn’t as well-known as some of the other cities in Northern Greece, but it has such a wide variety of activities to do and places to visit. It’s surrounded by mountains, lakes and forests, all of which are excellent for hiking through. During the winter, many tourists like to take advantage of the mountainous terrain and practice their skiing skills, whilst those who prefer the summer months are able to take boat tours to explore the lakes surrounding the city on both sides.

Other than being full of historical buildings, excellent shopping opportunities and a few museums, the city has many hidden natural phenomena, like the Dragon’s Lair Cave. This gorgeous landmark contains no less than seven underground lakes and is nestled in the forestry surrounding the town. 

One of the man-made landmarks in the area surrounding Kastoria is the ghost village of Gavros. The town was abandoned many years ago, which the locals suspected to be due to a snake and bear problem, and so visiting the empty village can be pretty eerie.

Kastoria is a lesser-known tourist attraction in Northern Greece

11. Wander Vibrant Ioannina

Sometimes when you visit a place it just has a certain buzz about it. Ioannina is one of those places that feels like it is full of life. The lakeside cafes are filled with locals catching up over a coffee whilst the lake itself is teeming with birdlife.

Set on the western shore of Lake Pamvotis, Ioannina is a fortified city which thrived under Ottoman rule. Explore the city inside the walls with a visit to the Its Kale Acropolis, where you can see the Fethiye Mosque and visit the Byzantine museum.

Beyond the walls take a boat trip on the lake to the island with no name, stroll around the lakeshore and enjoy a coffee at one of the lakeside cafes. Head to the eastern shore of the lake if you want to spot birdlife.

Fethiye Mosque

12. Explore Waterfalls and Ruins at Edessa

Edessa is a city in central Macedonia which was first known as the City of Water. The reason for this becomes quickly obvious once you discover the plethora of waterfalls at the city’s edge, in the appropriately named Waterfalls Park.

This water power has been utilised for centuries to power mills and turned Edessa into an industrial centre. Today much of the  water is used to grow cherries and it’s said that the Edessa-Vodena cherries are the best in the world. Plan your visit for mid-May to catch the Gastronomic Fair of Eddesa where you can sample these cherries, along with honey, olives and wine.

Outside of the city, a short drive brings you to the ruins of ancient Edessa. At these ruins you can see a colonnaded street with intricate carvings on the pillars and some ancient graffiti carved by a foot soldier who guarded the city gate. Whilst these ruins aren’t as impressive as nearby Pella and Vergina they are a great site for history buffs, especially if you chat to the knowledgable guide who looks after the site. 

13. Get Lost in History at Vergina

Vergina is one of the smaller towns on the list, and is usually best for a one-stop day trip as there are few other tourist attractions in the surrounding area. However, the size of the village in no way reflects the importance of its historical landmark. In Vergina, you’ll be able to find the tombs of Phillip II, King of Greece, alongside other historical figures such as Alexander the Great’s son. 

You’ll be able to see all areas and rooms inside the elaborate tomb, including the one containing Phillip’s coffin. More commonly known as “the gold larnax”, the casket holding the bones of the former king weighs just over 11kg and is made of pure gold. Alongside the tombs, you’ll be able to visit the ruins of the Palace of Agai. This was once the Greek Royal Palace and was home to King Phillip II and his family.

 

14. Revel in Nature at The Prespa Lakes

Prespes is one of the most prominent regions in Northern Greece, and houses two of the largest lakes in the country. The larger of the two, Lake Megali Prespa, spans over 290 square metres and sits in three separate countries: Greece, Albania and North Macedonia. Mikri Prespa, the smaller lake, crosses the border into Albania but can’t quite boast the same size as the larger lake.

Both lakes contain a huge volume of different species including various types of fish, birds and many plants and flowers as well. Alongside this, the lakeside towns are all surrounded by mountains and forests which are perfect for hiking through. The village of Laimos provides an excellent experience for visitors as it contains one of the best hotels in the region, overlooking the gorgeous lakes.

15. Visit the Town for Gastronomy, Metsovo

Metsovo is another historic city which is rich with culture, as can be seen through its many museums, galleries and other creative societies. This town in Northern Greece is best visited during the winter as it spends a few weeks of the year blanketed in snow, meaning you can take full advantage of the ski season in the mountains.

However, Metsovo’s greatest feature is the residents’ love for food. The town is one of the only places in Greece to cultivate grapes, using vines imported from France, which are turned into local wines. The winery offers a guided tour explaining the wine-making process and a tasting experience at the end. The wine shop is also open to the public on weekdays. 

Not only does the city produce fine wine, but it is also well-known for its selection of local cheeses. The Metsovella hard cheese, named after the region, is produced in the town itself by the locals and the galotyri soft cheese can also be bought from local producers. 

The tavern in Metsovo has created a menu using almost entirely local ingredients with everything from local meats and cheeses to salads made with freshly picked mushrooms and wild greens from the surrounding forests. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could even take a pie making class with the family who own and run the tavern.

Metsovo is the gastronomical centre of Northern Greece

16. Appreciate Birdlife at Lake Kerkini

Lake Kerkini is an area of natural beauty and a hotspot for any keen birdwatchers visiting Greece. With a plethora of different species living around the lake, you could spend hours looking out for some of the rarest animals. But Kerkini has more to offer than just birds.

Mount Agkistro, situated next to the lake, produces its very own natural hot springs, which are used by residents and tourists alike to warm up on a cold day. Sometimes, they can reach up to 37 degrees Celsius!

The locals living in the area often run two-day trips up and down some of the surrounding mountains, such as Mount Belles, either by bike or on horseback. It usually takes a day to reach the summit, where you’ll sleep under the stars with a view of Lake Kerkini, before descending the following day. 

Lake Kerkini is a great place in Northern Greece for spotting birdlife

17. Visit The Party City of Xanthi

Xanthi is place to be if you’re a social butterfly. Due to its high student population, the city is known for its excellent nightlife, containing no end of pubs, bars and clubs for you to choose from. However, the parties aren’t reserved for the night. The old town festival occurs every September as local artists, performers and other creative minds come together to put on a display of music, theatre and art for the whole town to enjoy.

Alongside its attractions for the young, Xanthi also contains some rich historical culture. There are over 1200 listed buildings throughout the city which have been officially labelled as “landmarks” due to their importance to the study of Ottoman architecture. Xanthi’s weekly bazaar brings together a collection of sellers from across the region with their handmade goods. You’ll find everything from clothes and accessories to unusual local delicacies at the largest open-air market in Greece.

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Top Destinations In Northern Greece Summary

Northern Greece is packed with top-rated activities to enjoy and beautiful locations to explore. For nature lovers there is a vast array of beautiful landscapes to enjoy such as Pindos National Park and Mount Olympus. For history buffs there are important historical sites such as Pella and Vergina, whilst foodies can enjoy cuisines in Metsovo and Zagori.

Shoppers will enjoy the goods on offer in Thessaloniki whilst those looking for a beach escape should head to Halkidiki or Parga. Whatever your interest, there is something to offer everyone on a visit to Northern Greece.

 

Louise

Louise is a tour leader from South Wales who runs adventure tours in Africa, Asia and the Americas. She lives in her converted campervan & is currently based in the UK. Louise is trained in mountain leadership and is a published photographer.

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