Greece is a land of history, mystery, and outrageously scrumptious food. Between its nine regions, each has its own landscape, story, and personality. My husband and I fell in love with the region of Macedonia and we encourage anyone planning to visit Greece to include this stunning area in their itinerary.
After exploring the remarkable city of Thessaloniki, we rented a car and began our road adventure. We stopped in charming villages, visited magnificent archeological sites, delighted in rugged mountain vistas and sandy beaches, indulged in extraordinary cuisine, and met some of the kindest, friendliest people you’ll find anywhere.
Below is our itinerary for a Macedonia road trip packed with things to do and opportunities to relax. These are only suggestions. You can linger in areas that appeal to you or abbreviate your trip. If you drive directly from Thessaloniki to the farthest point on the Halkidiki Peninsula, it will take approximately 2.5 hours. So you can plan your vacation to fit your interests, timetable, and budget.
We are grateful to the Municipality Of Veria, Halkidiki Tourism Organization, Philoxenia Hotel Psakoudia Halkidiki, and Athos Sea Cruises Halkidiki for their generous support and assistance throughout our Macedonia road trip. All opinions are entirely my own.
Instead of heading south in the direction of Halkidiki, we first drove west to the charming town of Veria. Immersing ourselves in its rich historical and religious heritage was definitely worth the detour.
Ioannis, our knowledgeable and generous host, shepherded us around Veria showing us the highlights. We meandered through the picturesque old town with its narrow streets lined with colorful houses, quaint shops, and tempting cafés. Veria is a walkable town and we were able to see all the wondrous sights on foot.
Veria was one of the first sites in Greece where the Apostle Paul preached Christianity and there is no shortage of churches in the town. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, Veria was one of the most important Byzantine centers in Macedonia, with an impressive 72 churches. Today, 48 Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches, with their stunning frescoes, grace the city center.
We stepped into the 11th-century Old Cathedral of Veria, one of the greatest examples of middle Byzantine construction. An architectural masterpiece, the church’s interior dazzled us with its beautiful fresco-covered walls. During World War II, Nazi occupiers used the building to board military horses. Hopefully, the 2016 restoration removed any last remaining remnants of this desecration.
The Jewish Synagogue
Ioannis brought us to the oldest synagogue in Northern Greece. We entered Veria’s Jewish District, dating back to 50 A.D., and in its heart stood the haunting 1850 stone synagogue. The elaborate interior was breathtaking with its carved-wood ceilings, vivid mosaics, and symbols of the religion once practiced there.
We were fortunate that Evi, a passionate supporter of the synagogue, was giving a presentation to a tour group. She outlined the history of the once-thriving Jewish community, then told, in horrifying detail, of its permanent destruction at the hands of the Nazis. The synagogue is all that’s left to bear witness to the presence of Jews in Veria and represents their spiritual, artistic, and architectural contribution.
Besides feeding our minds with fascinating history, Ioannis made sure our bodies were fed to the point where we waddled our way back to our comfortable room at Villa Elia Hotel, located within easy walking distance of all the main attractions.
If you choose to remain in Veria, consider a day trip to Vergina, one of Greece’s most important archaeological sites. Vergina is located near the site of Aigai, Macedonia’s ancient capital and the burial place of royalty, including Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II.
In 1977, archaeologist Manolis Andronikos discovered a large mound. What lay beneath revealed priceless treasures and secrets that had remained buried for over 2 millennia. Besides the intact tombs, Andronikos uncovered stunning examples of exquisite craftsmanship, fine art, and extraordinary wealth.
We saw these treasures and more at the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, which was located underground in order to preserve the original atmosphere of the site. A large, double-chamber with magnificent columns held a golden larnax containing Phillip’s remains. The last exhibit in the museum was the tomb believed to have been that of Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s young son, and his mother, Roxane.
Following our mind-boggling underground experience, we spent a short time at the burial ground with more than 300 tumuli, some of which dated from the 11th century B.C. Next, we explored the Polycentric Museum of Aigai displaying ancient jewelry, pottery, and many other fascinating artifacts. Finally, a 15-minute drive from Vergina brought us to the Holy Monastery of Saint John the Forerunner at the Skete of Beroea, where we stopped to take in the phenomenal view.
The Halkidiki Peninsula consists of three finger-like land masses jutting out into the crystal-blue Aegean: Kassandra, Sithonia, and Athos. The region has its own brand of charm, offering a myriad of possibilities for relaxation, recreation, and exploration.
My husband and I stretched a 90-minute drive into a day trip. Our first stop was the quaint village of Galatista and the magnificent Byzantine tower for which it is famous. Our delightful lunch at Sta Pefka on the main street consisted of sharing plates of grilled octopus, greek salad, and savory meatballs. The food was outstanding, as was the friendly service.
Before the peninsula split into its three fingers, we visited the traditional mountain village of Taxiarchis, surrounded by lush pine forest and home to the church of Archangel Michael. Getting there involved a challenging 30-minute drive on twisty mountain roads, but the destination was well worth the effort.
In the late afternoon, we made our way to Psakoudia Village on Halkidiki’s middle finger of Sitios to begin our 4-night stay at the Philoxenia Hotel. This family-friendly resort provided us with a clean comfortable room, amenities such as a pool, and an array of excellent choices on the breakfast and dinner buffets — including scrumptious Greek specialties.
We spent the next 3 days enjoying the resort, golden beaches, and glorious sunsets. Our wanderings took us to several historic villages — including Toroni with its castle ruins and Nikiti with a folkloric museum, hillside chapel, and magnificent view over the ocean.
On our last morning, we made the hour-long drive to Ouranoupoli on Athos and boarded an Athos Sea Cruises boat for a 3-hour jaunt to view some of the 20 monasteries of Mount Athos. This gave us the unique opportunity to get as close as possible to the 1,000-year-old autonomous community, where only men with specific credentials are allowed to enter. Women — as well as men without credentials — can approach up to a distance of approximately 1,600 feet, but only by boat. As we looked out on the passing rugged mountain terrain, a fascinating multilingual recorded narrative outlined the history and customs of the monasteries.
On our way back to Thessaloniki, we couldn’t resist stopping to explore the archaeological site of Olynthos, the first city in the world designed and constructed according to the Hippodamian city-planning system. It took some climbing, but what greeted us was beyond incredible. Positioned on two rounded hills lay a site dating back to the 7th century B.C.
Archaeological excavations uncovered visible outlines of structures lining narrow streets. Some of the outlines still contained parts of their ancient mosaic floors. We found many artifacts retrieved from this site on display at the nearby Archaeological Museum of Polygyros.
Our road trip from Thessaloniki to Halkidiki Peninsula, with its constant flow of priceless experiences, had come to an end, but the diversity and beauty of Macedonia enriched us beyond measure. We combined culture, cuisine, history, nature, and nonstop enjoyment in one unforgettable journey that will forever live in our hearts.