Mediterranean Europe is currently one of the trendiest sunny destinations globally.
Famous for its ancient cities that straddle a typically turquoise coast, flavorful cuisine, and warm weather, it draws in millions of visitors in search of that dolce (slow-paced) vita.
While the likes of Liguria, in Northern Italy, Sicily, Côte d’Azur and Spain’s Costa del Sol all make headlines as popular beach spots, however, other parts of the Mediterranean, especially to the East, tend to be forgotten, even though they have just as much to offer.
That is the case with Northern Greece, a region that is often tossed to the side when paired with the world-renowned Greek islands, but arguably one of the most underrated destinations in Europe:
Is Macedonia The Most Beautiful Region Of Greece?
Greece may be highly sought-after among tourists in the Mediterranean basin, with destinations like Athens and Nafplio piquing the interest of culture enthusiasts through their Hellenic heritage, and the Aegean islands, particularly Santorini and Mykonos, being renowned for their tropical party scene.
Unlike Albania or Montenegro, Greece needs no formal introduction.
Everyone is familiar with the view of the Acropolis perched on a hilltop overlooking a sprawling urban mess below, or the whitewashed villages with vibrantly-painted blue doors, framed by pink Bougainvillea arcs.
These are not representative of all of Greece, however, as two of its lesser-known territories, Macedonia (not to be mistaken for the neighboring country of North Macedonia) and Thrace, which comprise the Greek North, remain largely unexplored by sun-seekers, who normally flock into the islands instead.
Though it is on the mainland, Northern Greece has beaches that are just as beautiful, small, quintessentially-Greek towns that, unlike Oia or Corfu, have not become tourist traps and are yet to be ruined by the crowds, and a cosmopolitan regional capital sure to give Athens a run for its money.
A Cosmopolitan Regional Capital
The North is more commonly represented by the 1-million-people-strong Thessaloniki, the largest city in Greek Macedonia, as well as the second largest within the country after Athens, and a major cultural and financial center that rivals the capital.
Thessaloniki itself has no shortage of manmade wonders.
It has a well-preserved Ano Poli, or Old Town, laden with cobbled streets that lead up to a central castle with sweeping views of the city and its port, a landmark medieval White Tower that, much like the Athenian Acropolis, is a symbol of Greece, and a modernized boardwalk lined with restaurants.
As great as it may be on its own, perhaps as a weekend getaway, Thessaloniki is far from being Northern Greece’s only attraction.
The Natural Wonders Of Halkidiki
One of Greece’s prettiest regional units is a short one-hour drive from Thessaloniki: called Halkidiki, this Macedonian peninsula resembles a hand with three crooked ‘fingers’, namely strips of land stretching out into the sea, and it is filled with sandy beaches and unspoiled nature.
As the tourist offer is so vast, Halkidiki could easily get a stand-alone article, but for the sake of this story, we will keep it short.
The First Finger
The first ‘finger’ is named Kassandra, and it’s the easiest to reach from Thessaloniki at only 55 miles from the city center. It is the most developed out of Halkidiki’s three fingers, where a majority of the tourist towns with bars and nightclubs are centered.
Kallithea is a particularly trendy spot, and a weekend party destination for Thessaloniki residents looking to socialize while being closer to the sea. Paliouri is not to be missed, also, with its thin-white sand Xenia Beach.
If it’s a luxury all-inclusive holiday you’re after, a five-day stay at the five-star Sani Resort, which is located right on the sandy Sani Beach, will set you back by an acceptable $1,344 this fall.
The Second Finger
Sithonia is the second finger, and dare we say, where the best beaches and marine reserves are.
It lacks Kassandra’s riotous nightlife and up-and-coming resort scene, and it’s somewhere you go for relaxing by yourself, or with friends, at crowd-free beaches lapped by the teal-colored Mediterranean and maybe a little village stroll for a balmy early fall evening.
Campers are certain to love Sithonia, as there are multiple camping sites with impressive facilities around the province, as well as hiking points.
When it comes to beaches, it’s an impossible job to try and narrow them down, but three of the best swimming areas include Armenistis, where the waters are so shallow and warm you will feel like you’re in a heated pool, the secluded, tree-bounded Kavourotrypes, and the paradisaical Diaporos islet off the mainland.
If you’re basing yourself in Sithonia to explore Halkidiki, you are likely to find accommodation in the well-equipped towns of Nikiti, Sarti, or Vourvourou.
The third part may be a bit controversial.
The Third (Inaccessible) Finger
The third and final finger in Halkidiki, Mount Athos, or ‘Holy Mountain’, is a bit trickier for men, and essentially impossible for women to visit.
That is because it is a monastical territory, and they have banned females from visiting since the 11th century.
An autonomous entity within the Greek Republic, the Monastic State of Holy Mountain is overseen by the monks who inhabit it, and it is Halkidiki’s cultural and religious center, dotted with medieval Orthodox monasteries stocked with ecclesiastical art and treasures.
Males can still visit Mount Athos when holding a special permit, usually obtained through a licensed tour company in partnership with monastical leaders, but females cannot go beyond Ouranoupolis City, the gateway to the peninsula.
This may be disappointing for the girls, but they can still enjoy the boundless natural wealth and crowd-free beaches of Sithonia, and the youthful atmosphere of Kassandra without limits.
Other Stunning Spots In Northern Greece
Polygyros, the capital of the unit, sits on the ‘palm’ of the peninsula’s hand, and though it does not straddle the coast, and thus does not offer access to the sea or Halkidiki’s electric beach bars, it is worth a visit as well, as it a traditional Greek settlement with a more bucolic feel.
Away from Halkidiki, in Thrace, near the borders with Bulgaria and Turkiye, yet another hidden gem of North Greece can be found in Kavala, a coastal port notorious for its pastel-colored townscape, crowned by a hilltop fortress.
A stone’s throw away from Kavala, the Greek island of Thasos will satisfy the sun-seeking island-hopper in you.
With its unruffled beaches, ancient ruins with origins lost to time, and historic Byzantine churches, it is a far cry from the jam-packed, tourist-run Santorini.
The white village of Panagia is particularly stunning, as it features the traditional blue doors and shutters and flower arrangements that make Aegean island towns so picturesque, yet there are no hordes of tourists or huge lines to be seen anywhere.
For more culture and idyllic scenes, make sure you check out the ruins of Pella, an hour Northwest of Thessaloniki, as it is the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and Edessa, a small spa town best known for its majestic waterfalls and natural thermal pools with healing properties.
We could go on and on about the marvels and wonders of Northern Greece, but it’s best we wrap it up here before this turns into an excessively long feature.
The Greek Government Wants You To Visit These Off-Path Destinations
The good news is the Greek Government wants you to visit lesser-known locations in Greece like Kavala, Thassos, and the Macedonian and Thracian hinterlands, and flying into the region via Thessaloniki Airport just couldn’t be easier.
It hosts nonstop flights from all over Europe, sometimes as cheap as $30 one-way, but sadly, Americans can’t fly there directly unless they are already on the continent.
No need to despair.
Athens hosts year-round flights from the States, notably from New York-JFK, and seasonally from Washington-Dulles, Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta, Boston and others, and the Athens-Thessaloniki rail link is a reliable fast service linking both destinations at the shortest travel time of 4 hours and 40 minutes.
Alternatively, you may fly first to a third European hub, such as Frankfurt or London, where you can then board a second flight to Thessaloniki.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com