Central and Northern Greece Travel Guide

Central and Northern Greece Travel Guide

  • Author’s Note: I am a local of Thessaloniki and this incredible part of the world is my favorite. Over the years I have found dozens of hidden treasures and some incredible food. It is deserving of several weeks of travel.

Central and Northern Greece is a beautiful continental section of Greece quite different from the southern part – it is mountainous, lush green, and crisscrossed by streams and rivers, but full of antiquities, vibrant communities, and beautiful beaches nevertheless.

In my Central and Northern Greece guide you will learn all about it and how to visit it – from not-to-miss sites, cities to explore, and traditional villages to get yourself lost in, to the most local food to try and blue flag beaches to relax on.  

Highlights of Central and Northern Greece

Rent a car or embark on a train + coach trip of the region to visit:

  • mythical Delphi and otherworldly Meteora,
  • oriental Ioannina with its picturesque mountain villages in the Epirus hinterland,
  • hike around the Zagori forests and Pelion peninsula before heading to the hippiest city in Greece –
  • Thessaloniki and its very own riviera – Halkidiki.

Keep reading to find out how to do it plus much more in my Central and Northern Greece travel guide.

The rolling hills of Central Greece

What is Central and Northern Greece?

Central and Northern Greece is the region above the capital city of Athens and Peloponnese, bathed by the Ionian Sea to the east, Aegean Sea to the west and south of Greece’s northern neighbors of Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

The single biggest city is Thessaloniki (also known as the co-capital of Greece), followed by centrally positioned Volos, Ioannina, Larissa, and Lamia and northwestern cities of Kavala, Xanthi, Komotini, and Alexandroupolis, which is also the one furthest from Athens – 800km.

Central and Northern Greece Map

Map of Central and Northern Greece

How is Central and Northern Greece Different?

Greece is both a Mediterranean and a Balkan country and its Balkan essence is strongest in its central and northern parts which remained almost a century longer under the Ottoman occupation than Athens and the Peloponnese.

This means the architecture, local flavors, and customs, the way people go about their daily lives and everything else feels a bit different than in Athens or the islands – the pace is more relaxed and it is not overly touristified.

Plus, the hilly terrain provides a much different landscape than the southern one. You can’t truly know Greece until you’ve ventured north of Athens and the Peloponnese!

The lush foliage of the Pelion peninsula, Greece
The lush foliage of the Pelion peninsula, Greece

Best Time to Visit Central and Northern Greece  

Although the region has a similar climate to the rest of Greece, Fall (Autumn) comes earlier and the final days of September mark the end of the swimming season.

However, that means the region is just perfect for hiking, urban exploration, culture and gastronomy trips, and wine tours during the shoulder season, and ski breaks during the winter.

TIP: The region can be rainy, so pack accordingly if traveling outside the summer months

Best Ways To Get to and Around Northern and Central Greece

By Air

Thessaloniki is a major transportation hub with an international airport serving dozens of international lines, along with many local ones. Thessaloniki airport is the second busiest in Greece with over 7 million passengers in 2023.

Kavala International Airport in Kavala in northern Greece is a handy airport to fly into to reach the Northeastern Aegean Islands.

Flying into Kalamata International Airport (Captain Vasilis Konstantakopoulos)lands you at the doorstep of spectacular Elafonissis Island and the beaches of the Peloponnese.

Volos Central Greece Airport (Nea Anchialos National Airport) is the best airport to fly into for reaching the Sporades Islands from Volos.

Finally, if you’re planning on holidaying on Lefkada Island, Aktion National Airport is only 12 miles (20 kilometers) away.

By Train

Thessaloniki is also a train hub. The main train line connects Alexandroupolis to the east, and south, all the way to Athens.

By Bus

Finally, KTEL intercity bus system enables you to reach pretty much any place around the region either directly or via Thessaloniki. International bus service and international rail service is also available.

Thessaloniki, Greece – September 29, 2022: Bus of public transport in Thessaloniki.

By Rental Car

As good as the transport system may be, the region is best discovered by rental car.

My recommendation is to rent one in Athens and make a fantastic road trip or fly to Thessaloniki and rent one there with the drop-off option in Athens.  

What to See and Do in Central and Northern Greece

1. Visit the bellybutton of the ancient world – the Delphi archaeological site

Arguably the most important archeological center in Greece after the Acropolis, Delphi is a place nested in the lush Parnassus mountain, where the ancient Greeks thought the center of the earth is.

This is why the essential oracle was there, along with the stadium, theater, the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, and the sanctuary of Athena. The modern museum is an essential addition to the preserved ruins – don’t miss it.

Tholos of AthenaPronaia, Delphi
Tholos of Athena Pronaia, Delphi, Greece

2. Climb the Meteora monasteries

One of the visually most striking sites in Greece, the Greek Orthodox monasteries of Meteora, are like boulders suspended in the air.

Monasteries of Meteora, Greece

The rocks rising from the grounds of Thessaly region, each crowned with a monastery, were too much to miss even for Hollywood – half of the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only was shot there.

The monks had been living in the rock caves since the 11th century, moving higher as the dangers of the surrounding plains rose, gradually ending up on the tops and communicating to the ground-level world only by wicker baskets and ropes.

Nowadays, roads full of cars and buses replace the pulleys, but the grandeur remains untouched.

3. Discover Mt. Olympus, the home of the gods

The mythical mountain Olympus, where the Zeus pantheon resided is a destination in itself, but a section of it can be visited during a road trip of the region. There’s lots to do here:

Interior of Ag. Triada monastery of Mt. Olympus
Interior of Ag.Triados, Mount Olympus
  • Visit the local town of Litochoro for its cobblestoned streets and
  • Olympus National Park Information Center,
  • cool down in the Orlias Waterfalls, and
  • pay homage to the old monastery of Agios Dionysios, devastated by the Nazi forces during the WW2 occupation of Greece.  

4. Vergina (Aigia) and Pella – the trail of Alexander the Great

One of my favorite museums in all of Greece is the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai in Vergina, a place where the tomb of Alexander the Great’s father, King Philip II of Macedon was discovered in 1977.

The museum contains ancient Greek jewelry and artifacts of the most remarkable beauty and sophistication and one of them is the Gold funeral wreath of Queen Meda (aka the Myrtle wreath of Vergina) – the most amazing female crown I have ever seen anywhere.

Tomb of Phillip II, Vergina, Greece

Continue with the ancient history further north to Pella, a capital of the Macedonian kings and the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

5. Visit the Oriental city of Ioannina

Ioannina is to Greece what Philadelphia or Boston was for the Colonial United States.

A seat of Ali Pasha (the most powerful overlord of the Ottoman Empire) and one of the great cities of the whole Balkans.

Entry to the Castle of Ioannina
Entrance to the Castle of Ioannina, Greece

With its Ottoman layout and architecture, a lake, a citadel and a mosque, museums and shops, and a cage-like mausoleum, Ioannina is an oriental treat in a nutshell.

Truth be told, it is also a contemporary booming university town and a gateway to the Ionian Sea.

6. Explore Legendary Epirus – the land of ancient hardships and untold beauty

Epirus is the region around Ioannina full of super scenic landscapes and wild beauty, among which the Zagori gorge in the Pindus Mountains with its cliffs, streams, and ancient pathways stands central.

Stone bridge in Arta
Stone Bridge in Arta, Greece

Most of it nowadays is protected as part of the Vikos National Park.

It is one of those places where you imagine people living in the past and ask yourself – how did they have the strength to do all that in such a demining landscape?  

Well, not only did they manage, but thrived as observed in some of the most picturesque stone bridges in this part of Europe. Now, you just hope all of it remains unspoiled.

Epirus ends on the Ionian coastline, where the Greek version of Cinque Terre called Parga stands, as well as another seaside resort of interest – Sivota.

7. Volos and Pelion – the Land of the Centaurs

I promised that Central and Northern Greece would be mountainous, green, rocky, and close to the sea. Well, I stand good on that, especially in the city of Volos, the Greek capital of Tsipouro, and its hinterland called the Pelion peninsula.

Volos, Greece

Greeks here love that area because it’s very versatile – in the spring it is a major trekking destination.

In the summer, some of its Aegean-oriented beaches are rivaled only by the Cyclades.

In the fall you go chestnut picking and sausage tasting, while in the winter you go skiing during the day and relax with a glass of red by the fireplace during the evening. No wonder it is that popular!

8. Thessaloniki – the hippest city in Greece

The artists’ hub, the portal to the Balkans, the underground club scene, the ancient waterfront in the historic city center, the Unesco Byzantine churches between the farmers’ markets, the taverns that beat the heartbeat of the city, the monumental White tower, street art, the Film Festival, the Roman avenues, all that in a bustling metropolis living its past much more intensely than Athens.

Thessaloniki Waterfront, Greece

Since 2021, Thessaloniki has been a UNESCO City of Gastronomy too. Expect the best food in all of Greece, from street stalls with a twist in Modiano market to gourmet restaurants.

9. Halkidiki: Poseidon’s Trident

If Athens has the Cyclades, then Thessaloniki’s Riviera is the Halkidiki region, shaped like a trident.

Kassandra, the first prong of the trident is the place to be, Sithonia, the second prong, is a pristine natural paradise, while Athos, the third prong, is a millennium-old autonomous monastery republic with its own laws and rights, to that extent that women are not allowed and men enter only with a visa.

Sunsets in western Kassandra are work of art
Sunsets in western Kassandra are works of art

Wherever you go, expect beaches to be out of this world, but crowded in the summer.

What to eat in Central and Northern Greece

  • Bougatsa – vanilla custard phyllo pie sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. A mainland Greece breakfast staple.
  • Gyros – much larger and taken more seriously than in Athens and southern Greece.
  • Syrup sweets in Thessaloniki – try baklava, sekerpare and galaktompoureko.
  • Koulouri Thessalonikis – Greek-style bagels
  • Wine: Xinomavro is the variety of the North, make sure to try it in Kir-Yianni’s L’Esprit Du Lac (Rosé) or Boutari’s Grande Reserve (Red).