- Thessaloniki & Halkidiki
Thessaloniki is Greece’s second largest city, after Athens. Like Athens, it is one of the oldest cities in Europe, having been founded in 315 B.C. on the site of prehistoric settlements dating back to 2300 B.C. And like Athens, it blends modern European amenities with antiquities that denote a rich history.
The city sits in a bowl surrounded by low hills, facing the bay of Thessaloniki, which opens into the gulf of Thermaikos. It has been a flourishing commercial centre and a major commercial port for centuries, whether under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, or Ottoman rule. Home to two large universities (Aristotle University and the University of Macedonia), it hosts the largest student population in Greece, and this imparts a lively dimension to the urban culture.
Thessaloniki is famous for its International Trade Fair, which takes place every September and its International Film Festival, which attracts international cinema celebrities in November. Shopping is good; the city centre features fashionable boutiques and open-air markets, as well as bars and cafes with local delicacies. The waterfront is a popular nightlife centre. Carnival in Thessaloniki is quite colourful, incorporating ancient celebrations in honour of the god Dionysus, as well as the Christian custom of preparing to enter the period of Lent.
A wealth of early Christian and Byzantine monuments in and around the city has earned a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Architectural remains from the Ottoman period are found mainly in the Ano Poli (Upper Town), where beautiful wooden houses overhang the winding streets; there are also a few stone mosques and bathhouses remaining in the city centre. There are many fine examples of Byzantine art, particularly mosaics, in some of the historic churches, including the basilica of Hagia Sophia and the church of St George. Much of Thessaloniki was destroyed in 1917 by an accidental fire. The reconstruction a few years later transformed it from a town with an Oriental character to the modern, European style metropolis that it is today.
Southeast of the city of Thessaloniki lies the Halkidiki peninsula. With its three-pronged shape and legendary as the birthplace of the famous Aristotle, travel guides call it “Greece’s paradise” because it has some of the country’s finest beaches. Halkidiki is also the greenest part of Greece, with pine-studded mountains, lush and fertile valleys, authentic villages and an abundance of lakes and springs. It offers a glorious profusion of wildflowers in the springtime—the best season for hiking in the hills.
Poligiros, the capital of Halkidiki, is on the mainland of the trident, 43 miles from Thessaloniki. It offers glorious sea views, and a variety of archaeological attractions. But the beaches further south, along the prongs of the trident, are the area’s drawing card.
Best known and the closest to Thessaloniki is Kassandra. The most western of Halkidiki’s three prongs, it has the greatest variety of amenities, including discos, bars and water sports facilities. The busiest nightlife is concentrated around Kallithea, whose youthful tourist scene stays lively into the wee hours. Kassandra is also the most cultivated part of Halkidiki; inland, one finds citrus trees, grapes, olives and livestock farms in abundance, as well as apricot and peach orchards, and beekeeping. Most farms still employ traditional methods.
Sithonia, the central prong, has a serpentine coastline that features many small coves and sandy bays. It has some large resorts, but retains some relatively secluded beaches for those who crave a bit of quiet. There are picturesque fishing villages along the west coast; and the scenery around its southern tip is quite spectacular.
The third prong, Mount Athos, has been a religious enclave for more than 900 years. The spiritual centre of the Orthodox religion and an autonomous region of Greece, it is home to 20 monasteries. Visiting is by permit only, allowed for specific purposes (especially if one is not of the Orthodox faith) and only males are admitted. Its beautiful, unspoiled coastline and imposing monastic architecture are nonetheless well worth viewing by boat. Weather The climate is Mediterranean, meaning mild wet winters and hot dry summers. Generally, Greek weather is cooler in the north than the south, and you can expect the temperature to drop as you travel into more mountainous areas.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take a direct flight to Thessaloniki from London and other European capitals, followed by a 75-minute connection to Halkidiki by road. Swiss International, British Airways and Alitalia offer competitive rates. For discount airlines from the UK, try Ryanair or Easyjet. UK tour operators like Thomson operate direct 3-hour charter flights to Thessaloniki and generally include the transfer to Halkidiki in their packages.