Thessaloniki is set in a region of wonders. Whether you are a fan of Archaeology, Adventure, or Wellness, there is a destination for a perfect and easy day trip.
One of the premier archaeological sites in all the world was only discovered in the 1970s. Vergina – or ancient Aigai – was the first capital of Ancient Macedonia, and was the burial place of Phillip II, father of Alexander the Great. His tomb in situ, along with three other royal tombs, form the focus of an outstanding museum experience of true emotional impact. Artifacts of unimaginable beauty, including a wreath of leaves of gold so delicate they seem to flutter, and the golden chest that held the bones of Phillip, glow in the semi-darkness of the museum – which itself is under a mound. A fresco on one of the tombs of the abduction of Persephone is painted with mastery of a Rembrandt. An unforgettable experience of history, archeology, and art.
If you plan the day well, you can also visit Pella for a complete experience of Ancient Macedonia. Pella was the later capital of Ancient Macedonia, and the place from which Alexander the Great set out for his campaigns of the east. This advanced city with its grid plan and magnificent mansions and a vast Agora was the model for the cities Alexander would build along the way. See beautifully detailed mosaics in situ in the vast excavation, stroll among the streets imagining the grand villas that once lined them, then visit the extraordinary museum, filled with beautiful artifacts that bring this ancient place to life.
Abode of the twelve gods of the Ancient world, glorious mount Olympus is just about an hour from Thessaloniki – in fact, you can see it on the horizon, across the shimmering bay of Thermaikos. A hike to the summit at 2918 meters is definitely an overnight affair (mountain shelters can host you by advance arrangement), but an up-close experience of the mountain can be had in a day. There is a lovely flat walking path to get a taste of the sweet mountain air, or you can hike up the foothills as far as you wish towards the mountain shelter to work up a hearty appetite. At the lower shelter, where you can park your car, you can enjoy the traditional specialties that sustain climbers, including “fasolada” (bean soup) or a simple and delicious spaghetti bolognese, in beautifully rustic surroundings. Alternatively, you can dine at the chic gourmet Gastrodromio in beautiful Litohoro. If time permits before or after your climb, you can also visit nearby Dion, a sacred site of Ancient Greece. Chosen for its proximity to the gods and the abundance of water, this was a place of dedicated to Zeus, where a nine day festival of athletics and drama in honor of Zeus and the nine muses was held. It was also at sacred Dion that the victory celebrations of the Ancient Macedonians were held.
With so many fabulous beaches, such along the 500 kilometer coastline of glorious Halkidiki, you may be surprised to head inland for a fantastic water experience. But do: near Edessa with its glorious waterfall, and close to the ski slopes of Mt. Kaimaktsalan flow the therapeutic waters of Pozar. The name means “under the fire” in Serbian, and true to their name, the waters are a steamy 37 degrees in summer and winter alike. This is an unusual spa experience. While there are beautifully appointed private rooms to enjoy the waters alone or with a small group of friends, the more interesting bathing options are outside. There are natural pools – one with a hot therapeutic waterfall flowing into it, directly beside the rushing cool waterfall of the river. Here, the steam rises from the water up to the tall trees. There is also a 25 meter swimming pool among the trees. Go early enough to hike along the river – the natural setting is splendid. And also try to leave time for a massage, to make the most of the healing waters’ therapeutic properties – there are massage centers with skilled therapists on site. The restaurant right at the springs serves wonderful local specialties with style, in a gorgeous room with a view of the springs.
Amphipoli, Phillipi, and Kavala
More sites of Northern Greece’s rich Ancient Macedonian heritage are found west of Thessaloniki. Stunning Phillipi is an Archaeological site that spans nearly 18 centuries of history. It was originally settled by the Thassians (the island Thassos is visible from the shores of nearby Kavala) and called Krinides. This strategic location – controlling the passage between Amphipolis and Neapolis (present-day Kavala), and near rich gold mines – was conquered by Phillip of Macedon in 356. He promptly named it after himself. This is a vast archaeological site that offers a broad range of findings. In Phillipi, you’ll see a Greek theater, the ruins of a Roman forum, and also of some early Christian churches. This is a significant site for Christianity. St. Paul arrived in Europe in Neapolis. The Acts of the Apostles confirm that Paul preached here in Phillipi. Phillip was finally abandoned in the 14th century after the conquest of the Ottomans.
Amphipolis, about 50 kilometers away, is the site of an ongoing archaeological excavation of great interest. Most significant of the findings is the Kasta Tomb, first discovered in 2012 and entered in 2014. This is the largest Macedonian tomb thus far discovered, considerably larger than that of Phillip II in Vergina. Naturally, its discovery has inspired much excitement and speculation; it is not known yet whose tomb this is. Other significant findings include the Lion of Amphipolis – a massive sculpture some 4 meters in height, two magnificent Sphinxes guarding the entrance to the tomb, and a large and splendid mosaic depicting the abduction of Persephone.
Kavala, a beautiful harbor town, makes a fine stop for a first rate lunch of freshly-caught seafood. While here, you can wander the charming streets of the Ottoman Old Town, visit the Archaeological Museum, and the Tobacco Museum.