I recently took a road trip through Northern Greece. Having traveled all over the Cyclades islands, the Ionian Islands, and Athens, I knew there was more to see. Specifically the Northern half of Greece is often times looked over in favor of its more popular and iconic islands like Mykonos and Santorini.
I spent ten days traveling the North of Greece, also known as the province of Macedonia. This of course, is not to be confused with the former Republic of Macedonia which recently changed their name to North Macedonia. There is a ton
- 1 Where I went in Northern Greece
- 2 How to travel through mainland Greece?
- 3 Full Northern Greece Itinerary
- 4 Day 1-4: Thessaloniki
- 5 Day 4-6: Meteora
- 6 Day 6-9: Zagori Mountains
- 7 Day 9-12: Lefkada Island
- 8 Day 9-12: Halkidiki Peninsula (Other option)
- 9 Day by Day breakdown of my Northern Greece Itinerary
Where I went in Northern Greece
In total, I spent ten days traveling through the North of Greece.
This is of course more than what most people will have but I thought it really helped me see all the places I wanted to without rushing through it. I also traveled during the times of Coronavirus and was able to work remotely which helped me take the additional time necessary.
Don’t worry, I will help craft itineraries if you have one week or two weeks which is of course the more common route!
If these places ring a bell and sound like the places you want to visit, this is the perfect itinerary for you!
How to travel through mainland Greece?
Unlike the Cyclades which is connected by a fantastic ferry system, Northern Greece is the complete opposite with mountains and long roads. The best way to see Northern Greece is to rent a car.
Car rentals from Thessaloniki airport are very cheap and there are numerous companies that do business. I was able to rent my car (manual of course) for €14 a day which included all insurance. Gas is on the pricier side in Greece compared to the rest of the European Union so make sure to rent a small car.
For car rentals, I used Golden Rent as my provider and they were as good as you’d hope for in a rental car. They provided an easy shuttle to their cars and they people were quite nice. They also had good reviews on Google which is uncommon.
Paying tolls in Greece
There is a new freeway system in Greece that connects most of the big cities to each other. The road is very good so you can drive fast to your destinations. There are tolls in place however keep that in mind to budget around 25 euros or so for the trip.
Tolls in Greece can be paid by cash or credit card.
Full Northern Greece Itinerary
This itinerary starts in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. Thessaloniki is home to many inter European flights and is a quick flight from Athens. From Thessaloniki, I rented a car that I would use for the rest of my trip
From Thessaloniki, I drove to Meteora to visit its world famous monasteries. These monasteries built on top of rocky peaks feel like they are suspended in air. This place is absolutely stunning and was always high on my bucket list. I’m glad I got to cross it off.
From Meteora, the next part of the trip is to drive into the Zagori district. Zagori is the name of a municipality in Northern Greece and is a part of the larger Pindos mountain region. This area is home to absolutely breathtaking Vikos Gorge Canyon which is the second deepest canyon after the Grand Canyon in the United States. The little mountain villages here are insanely beautiful.
From the mountains of Zagora, I then drove to the Ionian Island of Lefkada. The Ionian islands are known for their dramatic turquoise seas and dramatic mountain scenery. Having been to Kefalonia and Zakynthos, I would wager that Lefkada has them both beat when it comes to beaches. If you are looking for the most beautiful beaches in Greece, look no further.
Day 1-4: Thessaloniki
The itinerary starts in Thessaloniki, Greece’s culinary capital. Having already spent ample amounts of time in Athens, I already knew there was a good chance I would like Thessaloniki.
I was not mistaken.
Thessaloniki, like Athens, might not wow you at first sight. Greek cities aren’t the most beautiful when you compare it to their Western European counterparts. Most of Thessaloniki was burned to the ground in the early 20th century so what you see now is mostly “new”.
Nevertheless, you don’t come to Thessaloniki to see the historical sights, museums, or the like. You come here to eat the amazing food, drink delicious cocktails, and witness breathtaking sunsets. Of course there are historical ruins in the city as well as interesting museums, but do not come to this city with the “typical” European things in mind.
Things to do in Thessaloniki
There are so many things to do in Thessaloniki, but here are a couple of highlights you want to check out if you have some time in the city.
- Visit the White Tower of Thessaloniki. Perhaps the most famous landmark in Thessaloniki, you can go inside from 8:30am-3:30pm every day. It has seen many uses throughout its history including being a prison. Nowadays, it is a museum with a great viewpoint of Thessaloniki.
- Arch of Galerius: This Roman style arch is dab smack in the middle of town. It is located nearby to the large Rotunda giving you a bit of that ancient feel that I loved in Athens.
- Go inside the Hagia Sophia of Thessaloniki. Modeled after the original in present-day Istanbul, this church was finally restored in the last 1900’s after a fire.
- Walk along the waterfront: The waterfront is what sets Thessaloniki apart from Athens. It’s a beautiful street with ample sidewalk space. There are also plenty of trendy bars and restaurants here. Make sure to stop at the Vogatsikou 3 cocktail bar for a drink. It’s one of the top cocktail bars in Greece.
- Visit Kapani Market: This is the local bazaar style market of Thessaloniki. Come here to see all the local goods including meats, seafood, fruits, and other goods.
- Latomos Monastery – Church of Hosios David: Located in the Upper town of Thessaloniki, this church is considered one of the oldest churches in the world. Commissioned back in the 5th century AD, the mosaic here is quite beautiful.
Day 4-6: Meteora
From Thessaloniki, the next step is the monasteries of Meteora. You may have seen photos of these “floating” monasteries hovering over the clouds perched on their respective mountains.
It’s easily the most famous and most well known attraction you’ll find in Northern Greece. For good reason. This place will take your breath away.
Settlements in the Meteora area go back to the dark ages and the monasteries you see here began construction in the 12th century. These are very historic pieces of Orthodox architecture!
The name of the game here is to simply drive to the numerous scenic look out spots, and to visit the six monasteries in the area. Each monastery costs €3 to visit so a visit to all monasteries costs €18.
I spent two nights here and I think that is a sufficient amount to see all the monasteries. You could in theory power through all six of them in a day but I wanted to give myself some time to enjoy them all especially in the hot summer heat.
I will summarize the monasteries below but make sure to read my more detailed guide to travel Meteora before your trip!
Which Monasteries to visit in Meteora?
There are six monasteries in total. All of them are open to the public but each monastery closes on one day of the week. Weekends are the best time to visit if you want to do them all in a day as they are all open.
- Great Meteoron (Closed Tuesdays) – Largest monastery. Lots to explore, including three distinct museums, an art gallery, and much more.
- Holy Trinity (Closed Thursdays) – Loads of stairs to get to the top, but you’ll be rewarded with a great lookout point. You can climb on the rocks for some neat photos.
- Varlaam (Closed Fridays) – Second largest monastery, considered one of the nicest. A great place to start your journey, as it has a museum about the history of Meteora. Excellent toilets.
- Roussanou (Closed Wednesdays) – Actually a nunnery. Very pretty to visit and has some nice gardens. Less visited than some of the other monasteries.
- St. Stephen’s (Closed Mondays) – Also a nunnery. Very busy, especially as you don’t need to climb any stairs like you to do with the others.
- St. Nicholas Anapfsas (Closed Fridays) – The smallest monastery and perhaps the least spectacular, but worth visiting if you’re a completionist!
Day 6-9: Zagori Mountains
Last but certainly not least, what long term trip through the Cyclades is complete without a visit to the mother of them all in Santorini. Santorini is the most famous and most visited island in all of Greece, and maybe even the world.
Stop in the town of Metsovo
I actually discovered Metsovo completely on accident. I had no idea what this town had to offer but rather I just needed a lunch stop between Meteora and the Zagori Mountains. Metsovo was somewhat in the middle and Google Maps listed many restaurants in the area.
Turns out, Metsovo is one of the most picturesque little villages in northern Greece. Metsovo has stubbornly preserved its traditional style in architecture and general heritage, which is celebrated and guarded by the locals as much as its natural beauty is. Consequently, Metsovo has managed to completely conserve the way it looked in its height of commercial power in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it exported its famous textiles and woven goods in all the Balkans and even across the Mediterranean.
You don’t need much more than an hour to walk around and see the sights of Metsovo.
After Metsovo, it’s another two hours to the Zagori mountains
Staying in Papigo Village
This area of Greece is known for its numerous mountain villages. Each village is charming and cute in its own way. I decided to stay in Papigo as it was the biggest and most vibrant of the villages. It was still small enough where you felt like you were far away from everything but big enough where it had a few restaurants and cafes to keep you entertained at night.
As you drive towards the village, you’ll notice the incredible mountain scenery. The rocks and peaks remind me of the Italian Dolomites which I think are the most beautiful mountains in the world. Apart from the scenery, the village itself has a remarkable beauty as well. Right after entering, the visitor comes across the central cobblestone square. Along the stoned alleys, there are many great exponents of the Zagorian architecture, also made of stone.
Make sure to visit Astra restaurant for dinner under the mountains and the cafe/bar next door, Κουκουνάρι Πάπιγκο.
Make sure to also visit Mikro Papigo which is a 3km drive (or walk) away from Papigo. Mikro, as you can imagine just means small Papigo. It’s located higher up on the mountain and just offers a different perspective of the beautiful Tymfi mountain range.
The Epirus region of Greece is home to more than 200 stone bridges. They are scattered all over the region and are mostly incredibly preserved. The bridges were constructed hundreds of years ago, in order to enable the crossing of people and horse carts over the usually raging, freezing rivers of the area. All of the bridges are stone-built and follow loyally the traditional architectural style of the region of Epirus in the north of Greece.
I spent a good half day driving from one bridge to the next admiring their picturesque qualities. The good news is that a lot of the biggest and most beautiful bridges are located near to each other so you can see many of them all at once. Some of my favorites are:
- Kokkoros Bridge
- Petsioni Stone Bridge
- Misiou Ancient Stone Bridge
Where you are in the area, make sure to stop in at Lithos Restaurant in the village of Dilofo. This was perhaps the best meal I had in the whole area.
Without a doubt, one of the main attractions in this part of Northern Greece is the Vikos Gorge. It’s the second most deep canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon. It’s sheer vertical walls extend for over 1,000m into the valley below allowing for absolutely stunning views.
Vikos Gorge is very popular for hiking, mountain biking and the like. You’ll see many serious hikers coming this way from all over the world.
What is a canyon without its viewpoints? Don’t worry, there are plenty of places to witness the magic here. Beloi and Oxya viewpoints are the best places to take pictures and soak in the views in my opinion. They are located right next to each other but because of their points on the canyon, it is actually a 1h drive between the viewpoints.
Oxya viewpoint is easily accessible by car and doesn’t require much of a walk. Beloi requires a short and easy 30 minute roundtrip hike to reach. Both viewpoints are stunning but if I had to pick, Beloi would be my winner. Closer to Papigo is the town of Vikos which also has an amazing viewpoint as you can see below!
Day 9-12: Lefkada Island
From Zagori, the next stop is to head to the land of sun and beach. From Zagori, it is a three hour drive to the island of Lefkada.
Lefkada is one of the only islands that is accessible by mainland Greece without a ferry. There is a long bridge that connects the mainland to the island of Lefkada making it easy and affordable to visit. Having been to the other Ionian islands of Kefalonia, Zakynthos, and Ithaki, I knew I had to visit Lefkada as well.
Turns out, Lefkada is the most beautiful when it comes to beaches. Having seen beaches all over Greece, I have to say that the ones in Lefkada are the most stunning.
The beaches of Porto Katsiki and Egremni alone will leave you blown away. In fact, the whole west coast of the island is adorned with long stretches of white pebbly beaches and a dramatic rock facade.
There’s not much else to do in this island besides visiting its incredible beaches. The villages of Lefkada aren’t so beautiful like in Kefalonia but you will soon forget all of this anyhow.
Make sure to read my Lefkada Travel Guide for details on all the best beaches and restaurants in the area.
Day 9-12: Halkidiki Peninsula (Other option)
If you do not want to drive to Lefkada after visiting the Zagori mountain range, consider driving back towards Thessaloniki and visiting the Halkidiki peninsula. This is known as the area where Greeks vacation as you’ll also find vibrant blue waters and less packed beaches.
People from Thessaloniki rave about Halkidiki and every person recommended me going. It’s Thessaloniki’s answer to the Athenians who can hop on a ferry and be in the Cyclades in a few hours.
I ended up spending a day in Halkidiki near the end of my trip just to see what all the fuss is about. The Thessalonikians are right. It is absolutely beautiful here with a fraction of the tourists that other Greek islands have.
The beaches in Halkidiki are very different than the ones in Lefkada. The area is less mountainous so you have more “traditional” looking beaches with long stretches of sand in a relatively flat landscape. The water is very clear, and warmer than that in Lefkada. However, in the end, I don’t think it can compare to natural and “wild” beauty of the beaches in Lefkada. The Ionian sea houses Greece’s best beaches and I’m sticking with my story!
The three fingers of the Halkidiki Peninsula: Kassandra, Sithonia, Athos
Halkidiki consists of three so called “fingers” as you can see on a map: Kassandra, Sithonia, and Athos. The first two fingers are open to tourists and locals alike, whereas the last finger, Athos, is where the male only monasteries are located. These are actually all male monasteries unlike the ones in Meteora which are a big tourist attraction so they are open to everyone. The beaches in Athos are also male only. Not even just male only, you must apply months in advance to go. They only allow a certain amount of non-Orthodox males to the beaches. Long story short, you probably won’t be going to Athos.
So this leaves Kassandra and Sithonia. How to choose between the two?
Simple, if you want a hopping nightlife scene, then Kassandra is your spot. Otherwise Sithonia is more laid back with more family friendly options. Both areas have fantastic beaches so you can’t go wrong with any options.
Day by Day breakdown of my Northern Greece Itinerary
Here is a day by day breakdown of the Greek island itinerary. It’s pretty involved each day so absolutely feel free to spread it out over more days if you have the time!
Day 1: Land in Thessaloniki, explore the cit
Day 2: Full day in Thessaloniki
Day 3: Half day in Thessaloniki, drive to Meteora
Day 4: Full day in Meteora
Day 5: Drive to the Epirus region of Greece (Zagori, Vikos Gorge etc.)
Day 6: Full day in the Epirus region
Day 7: Full day in Epirus
Day 8: Drive to Lefkada
Day 9: Full day in Lefkada
Day 10: Full day in Lefkada
Day 11: Full day in Lefkada
Day 12: Lefkada to Thessaloniki
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