Mainland Greece offers an incredible array of attractions: mountains, ancient ruins, fortresses — as well as delicious food and sunny beaches! Over several trips to mainland Greece, I’ve been struck by how every sub-region offers an endless array of sights to explore — as well as places to relax and enjoy the good life : )
Greece’s capital of Athens is a city that has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years and set the foundations for modern democracy. Beyond the layers of history, it is a vibrant, bustling city with plenty to see — and eat!
Of course, at the top of everyone’s list should be the Acropolis, the 5th Century temple with well-preserved ruins (most famous for its massive columns). It’s a bit of a hike to the hilltop and I found that it was best to buy advance tickets and avoid the lines (in pre-Covid times, the crowds were massive!) At the southern base of the hill is the Acropolis Museum with artifacts unearthed at the site.
North of the Acropolis is the Athens Agora and adjacent Roman Agora, as well as the Library of Roman Emperor Hadrian. The Temple of Zeus is also nearby and worth a visit. (Be sure to check out Hadrian’s Arch on your way!)
The National Garden is large, green park and serves as a great escape from the hectic pace of the city– and its central location makes it a good transit route if you’re exploring Athens on foot. At the base of the garden is the white-marbled Panathenaic Stadium, the site of the first Olympics (in 1896) — an impressive site!
As you can imagine, there is no shortage of museums in Athens, but I was especially impressed by the (somewhat off the beaten path) Byzantine Museum, with artifacts dating back to the 3rd Century, underscoring Greece’s importance in the Byzantine Empire. It is located next to the Army Museum, which has a good collection of military hardware from across the ages.
I also recommend visiting the top of Lycabettus Hill, which offers outstanding views over the city and of the Acropolis (at a distance). If you don’t feel like making the hike up (which is pleasant and scenic, but a bit of a workout), it’s also possible to take a cable car.
Eating and Drinking / Lodging
There’s no shortage of amazing restaurants in Athens, so I’ll just flag a few places that were particular impressive. First is Psaras Tavern, a small restaurant on a hill north of the Acropolis that serves delicious Greek fare and has exceptional atmosphere. I recommend going here for dinner (or to one of the adjacent restaurants), for a cozy, scenic open-air experience.
The nearby Old City neighborhood of Monastiraki has several restaurants, cafes, and bars. I especially liked the downstairs outdoor patio at six d.o.g.s – a hip a bar / cafe with a laid-back atmosphere.
Another great restaurant in the middle of the shopping district is Ladókolla, which offers grilled Greek fare in an upscale (but not overpriced) environment. Meanwhile, if you’re in the market for a unique (and slightly campy) Renaissance experience, then don’t miss Excalibur Bar, which offers plenty of medieval flare.
For an upscale experience, I highly recommend grabbing a drink on the roof deck of the Hotel Grande Bretagne. The service and menu are great and it provides up-close views of the Acropolis. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s well worth a visit!
I stayed at the Hilton Athens, which was nice, centrally located and offered reasonable prices. The roof deck bar offers outstanding views of the city, but it’s quite expensive! The adjacent Agora Select restaurant was an airy, higher-end restaurant with good food.
As the second city of Greece (and the former second city of the Byzantine Empire), Thessaloniki is a dynamic, engaging port city in the north– and yet it’s rarely on anyone’s travel radar. In my view– Thess is an underrated destination — and one that I was most pleasantly surprised to discover (and revisit) over the years. It’s also a great hub for travel in northern Greece.
The center of town is at Aristotelous Square, a broad waterfront plaza surrounded by several good restaurants and cafes. Just to the west is the MET Hotel, which is very clean, modern, spacious, and offers a rooftop pool.
Other key sights around town include the White Tower — the city’s landmark — which used to be an Ottoman fortress. Also nearby there is the Museum of Byzantine Culture — a large, modern museum with an extensive collection of artifacts and artwork. Besides Byzantine history, it also gives a good sense of the importance of Thessaloniki throughout history.
After visiting the museum, don’t miss the Arch of Galerius — dedicated to the Roman Emperor Galerius’s victory over the Persians. It depicts scenes from the battle and is in surprisingly good condition, considering it was erected in 303! Also nearby are the ruins of a Roman Rotunda and Agora. The nearby Church of Panagia Chalkeon dates back to the 11th Century and has a classic Byzantine brick design. On the northern outskirts of town is the Heptapyrgion, an ancient fortress that provides a sense of the city’s ancient defense structure.
A good traditional waterfront restaurant is Balconaki, which offers upstairs dining and views over the harbor (watch the low ceilings though!) Another (more modern) option is To Elliniko, which has outstanding food and tall shelves lined with various styles of ouzo (the licorice-flavored national liquor). This restaurant has a fun, laid back atmosphere with outstanding food and would be the first place I would return to in Thessaloniki.
West of Thessaloniki is the beach resort town of Paralia. It can get fairly crowded in the summertime, but is still a fun getaway– especially with a group of friends. I stayed at the Dion Hotel, a small place with friendly owners and immediate beach access. The owners cooked up a lamb bbq one night and we had a bonfire on the beach, which made for a memorable stay! The nearby town of Dion has a massive archeological park with plenty of Greek and Roman ruins, as well as a local museum with artifacts found in the area. Finally, Mount Olympus is nearby and it’s possible to organize a climb — but I’ve been told it’s fairly strenuous, so it’s best to go with a group or guide.
The Monastery Complex at Meteora consists of six Eastern Orthodox monasteries that are built on top of massive rock pillars, forming one of the most unique and visually stunning destinations imaginable. While these monasteries are a draw for tour groups -and were even featured in a James Bond film, they remain functioning monasteries that date back centuries. Ironically, they were started by hermetic monks who sought to get away from people (ie., the original social distancers) and devote their lives to prayer. Naturally, their remote dwellings have become a global tourist attraction : )
While it’s possible to tour the area on your own, I booked with Visit Meteora— both a sunset tour to get my bearings and a monastery tour the next day. They provided a great overview of the area, with knowledgeable guides. It was an inexpensive way to get the most out of a stunning location on my tight schedule. (They also picked me up from my hotel when I arrived late.) The Sunset tour was very enjoyable — we first visited the ancient Holy Temple of Dormition of the Virgin Mary, and then went to an ideal viewing spot to catch the dramatic sunset. There were lots of other tourists there jostling for the best sunset view, so I didn’t get in the fray, but hung back and just enjoyed the experience. We also stopped by a cliffs where ascetic monks had climbed up the sheer rock faces and made homes in various caves on the cliff face — to live out lives of solitude.
The next day, we visited several monasteries including The Great Meteoron Monastery, as well as a convent. The monasteries have beautiful frescos and are architecturally fascinating, with pulleys and baskets to raise and lower goods up the rock pinnacles. Some also featured the skulls of previous monks who had lived there.
After visiting several monasteries, we went to the nearby Theopetra Cave, which contained the artifacts from early humans.
Most visitors stay in nearby Kalabaka, which is an inviting small town nestled amongst cliffs and rock pinnacles, making for a dramatic backdrop. There are plenty of great cafes and restaurants scattered around town, so you really can’t go wrong for food options. I stayed at the Doupiani House Hotel, which I highly recommend. It is a clean, stylish, boutique hotel close to the town center with beautiful gardens and a relaxed atmosphere.
Just south of Thessaloniki is Halkidiki, a palm and three fingers of land that jut across northern Greece. This small chunk of land is a real gem of Greece — and off the beaten path. Heading across the northern portion, the town of Arnaia is quite scenic and has a Balkanesque, cobblestone and timber wood design to many of the houses.
Heading south on the westernmost finger, you’ll encounter plenty of stunning beaches with fine sand and clear blue water. Sane Beach has pristine coastline and great resorts, arguably the nicest beach on this coast. The Sane Club is a great place to spend the day if you want the amenities of a nice resort.
Heading further south, near the westernmost point of that peninsula is the town of Possidi — my personal favorite small town beach getaway spot. It’s a low-key, no frills village, but the long stretches of beach and the rural character is the most relaxing thing in the world. I stay at the Paralio Hotel every time I come here, which offers inexpensive, spacious oceanfront rooms, as well as great food and beverages served to you on the beach. The wifi signal also reached my lounging spot on the beach, which was convenient. The staff are very friendly and hospitable, as well.
The middle of Halkidiki’s three fingers has rolling hills and a picturesque coastline. I especially recommend eating at the Mpoukadoura, a remote taverna that sits on a point surrounded by water — they grow their own herbs and feature a variety of creative seafood dishes based on whatever is in season. It’s truly outstanding! Further south is Porto Carras, a pleasant beach town with a deep water port, used strategically in WWII. There’s also a winery nearby that has been closed whenever I’ve tried to visit, but I’m told it’s good!
On the third, easternmost finger is the town of Ouranoupoli, which is the gateway for trips to Mount Athos. Ouranoupoli is a pleasant small town, with plenty of Orthodox icons and souvenirs. It features (you guessed it) very nice Greek restaurants, bakeries, cafes, and a scenic beach offering sunset views. The ancient Tower of Prosphorion is the most famous landmark in the city, marking the spot where boats depart and arrive.
From here, it’s not possible to venture further into the easternmost finger, as you’ll quickly reach the border of Mount Athos— an autonomous region within Greece that has existed since the Byzantine times, requiring its own entrance permits (for men only). I will cover this in more detail in a separate post.
Something for Next Time: I am eager to to visit the Peloponnese region, especially Sparta and Kalamata, and more ruins attributed to Greek mythology. I’ve been told of an outstanding boutique hotel in that area, which will be on my list to try!