Greek Macedonia, or the Macedonia region in Northern Greece to be more precise, includes most of ancient Macedonia, the kingdom of Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great. It is the largest, most diverse and the second most populous region in Greece.
The Macedonian capital Thessaloniki (also known as Salonica) is the second largest city in Greece, and also one of the trendiest, with a young, urban population. There’s no better place in Greece for shopping, good food, nightlife and a large variety of cultural events. But the backdrop that enhances this modern image, is the historical remains of Thessaloniki, with the famous White Tower at the waterfront, the Byzantian walls, the Roman Rotunda, the engraved Arch of Galerius and a smattering of important Orthodox churches. Thessaloniki can easily match the modern, cultural offerings of Athens, but doesn’t suffer from the heavy traffic and concrete jungle feeling of the Greek capital.
The Halkidiki peninsula south of Thessaloniki is the most popular holiday destination in Northern Greece. The three ‘fingers’ of the peninsula stretch south into the sea, and each have their own profile. Kassandra, the westernmost of the three, has taken the brunt of the tourists. This has resulted in overcrowded beaches and plenty of tacky resorts. Sithonia, the middle one, has much less developments but possibly even better beaches, and should be your destination if you decide to enjoy the beach life at Halkidiki. There are also many camping sites available if you dont regular accomodation.
The easternmost part of Halkidiki is Mount Athos, a semi-autonomous region, run by the monks who live there. This 1000 year old legacy of the Byzantine empire is a very unusual place. Women are not allowed entry at all, and non-Orthodox men need to apply in advance for a 4-day visa, if they wish to visit. Thankfully there’s also boat tours that at least give everyone else the possibility to see the monasteries from the outside..
Kastoria lies on the shore of Lake Orestiada in western Macedonia, backed by the mountains Grammos and Vitsi. Kastoria’s beautiful mansions were once home to rich fur merchants. Because of intensive hunting, the native beaver in the surrounding forests went extinct in the 1800s. Since then the local fur industry is based on imports from Northern Europe and America. The nearby Nestorio River Festival, held in July/August, is the largest Greek music festival in the world.
The town Florina, in northwest Macedonia is famous for its peppers. Only 40 km north is the city of Bitola, in the Republic of Macedonia. There’s still a minority of the population who speaks Macedonian, especially the older people. Florina has a nice old town, a few small museums and a nearby Hellenistic site. But its main function is often as a startinng point to explore the Prespa lakes to the west.
In northwestern Macedonia lie the Prespa lakes and wetlands, which are among the most important bird habitats in Europe. The two lakes Megali Prespa and Mikri Prespa are often referred to as the Prespes. The area is both tranquil and beautiful. Mikri Prespa is mostly on Greek territory, and its reeds are home to a large variety of birds. Megali Prespa is shared between the Republic of Macedonia, Albania and Greece. It is one of the oldest lakes in Europe, with some dramatic rock formations. Because the Prespa lakes are a national park and a somewhat forgotten part of Greece, you’ll still find traditional stone houses and plenty of ancient ruins.
Between Florina and Thessaloniki lies Edessa, which is famous for its waterfalls. They plunge from cliff amidst lush vegetation. Many of the best ones can be seen in a park near town. Other than the waterfalls, Edessa also has an old quarter worth visiting.
Pella was the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and is a short distance west of Thessaloniki. The ruins at Pella have some wonderful mosaics, illustrating scenes from Greek mythology. One of the mosaic courtyards is surrounded by six reerected columns. The small museum at the site has more mosaics, as well as a partially recreated house, a table which may have belonged to Philip II and various other small exhibits.
South of Pella is Vergina, the burial site of Macedonian kings, and also the first capital of Macedonia. In 336 Philip II was assassinated here, at his daughter’s wedding. This is currently a World Heritage Site. The royal tomb includes four burial rooms, including one believed to belong to Philip II. The one probably intended for Alexander the Great has never been used, since he died far away in Babylon.
The nearby palace from the 3rd century BC, was probably used by Antigonos Gonatas as a summer residence, and has several splendid mosaics.
In southern Macedonia you’ll find the highest mountain in Greece, Mount Olympus, often cloud covered, where the ancient Greeks believed the Olympic gods lived. Mytikas, the highest peak at 2918 meters, wasn’t reached by humans until 1913. The 1700 plant species on the slopes, combined with a varied bird life, made this the first national park in Greece in 1937.
Right north of Mount Olympus you can find Dion, which was dedicated to various fetility gods, including Dionysos, which it is named after. There are also sanctuaries to Isis and Asclepius on the site. The theater was used during emperor Augustus’s Olympus Festival. The most interesting remains are the mosaics and several statues.
Kavala is the easternmost town in Macedonia, and also a very charming place. It has a castle overlooking town, the remains of a grand aqueduct, palms by the harbour and a colorful old town, including its Panagia Quarter. It has been a center for trade in the northern Aegean since it was named Neopolis.
How to get there
As the second largest city in Greece, Thessaloniki an international airport with plenty of connections to other European countries, as well as most other airports in Greece.
Ferry traffic also goes from Thessaloniki to Crete as well as the nearby island groups of the Sporades, northeastern Aegean and the Cyclades.
From Thessaloniki there are train and bus connections to the rest of Macedonia, as well as regular train correspondence with Athens.