A far cry from the traffic of Athens and the high season island tourism, Northern Greece is noteworthy year-round for its diverse landscapes, ancient history, and innumerable activities both hedonistic and adventurous. The continuous flux of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East into the towns and villages has resulted in a melting pot of culture and cuisines, while nature provides its own spectacle from East to West. Here are three areas to visit in Northern Greece in the spring, with wine routes and unforgettable accommodations along the way.
Known as the homeland of Alexander the Great and the heart of the Hellenistic Empire and with a climate conducive to excursions throughout the year, Thessaloniki—the only northern city with an international airport, and also easily accessible by train from Athens—provides an excellent starting point. A vibrant city by the sea, active by day and after hours, Thessaloniki is often considered to be the cultural capital of Greece. It’s arguably the culinary capitol as well, certainly so for more adventurous palates, due to the gastronomical influence of the influx of the Turkish, Roman, Byzantine, Jewish, and French over time.
Thessaloniki is great place to visit over a long weekend, and luxury boutique hotelThe Excelsior, located just off of Aristotelous Square and the seafront promenade, provides an elegant and convenient location to enjoy the city’s main attractions.
In addition to the Archaeological Museum, the White Tower and the Museum of Byzantine Culture, the Kapani Market is worth a detour, more for the ambiance and fragrant mix of spices and ground coffee than for eclectic shopping that runs the gamut from clothes to meat and fish. Athens-based personal chef and catererCarolina Doriti leads culinary tours in Thessaloniki and beyond and shares her current top picks in town as follows:
In traditional Greek kafenio (coffee shop) style, Pezodromos serves fish-centric daily specials in a leisurely manner while patrons patiently chat and sip on chilled tsipouro (aromatic Greek brandy).
Polished locals and traveling foodies head to Sebrico for gourmet Greek with a Cretan twist in a modern-industrial setting. Try the potato salad and eggs fried in onion.
Generous portions of multicultural renditions of Greek cuisine are served in this cozy-yet-animated meze-taverna tucked away on a small pedestrian street.
Northeast of Thessaloniki, in Greek Macedonia, the port town of Kavala serves as an excellent base for visiting the ancient city of Philippi and wine tastings around the semi-continental Rhodope mountains. Check in at the Imaret, a former Muslim seminary, built in 1817 by Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt. Enjoy the views and take advantage of the hammam and massage before heading out to dinner at one of several walkable local taverns. The Araliki Tavern and Bachari are excellent taverns for grilled meat and traditional salads and sides, while Tavarna Savvas and Psaraki Kavala specialize in fish, both in slightly more upscale waterfront settings.
While Kavala’s small village does have some shops, it’s worth a drive to Drama for a coffee and shopping in the streets along the Agia Varvara springs. Nearby Xanthi is known for sweet local treats and charming historic Ottoman houses. Heading west, one discovers the mountains, canyons, wine routes, plus incredibly diverse natural beauty.
Stopping first at Nymfaio, a traditional settlement about two hours from Thessaloniki, where opulent stone mansions lie in the midst of a vast beech forest, the Neverland Villa is a perfect location to visit the one of the 40-odd wineries on the wine routes or to visit Arcturos, Greece’s only bear and wolf sanctuary.
Grevana, to the south, is a quaint village recognizable for its arched stone bridges, mushrooms, and snowboarding. There is a half-pipe at posh Vasilitsa resort and Valia Calda National Park is nestled into a valley nearby as well. Venture up to the gorgeous Great Prespa Lakes on the border of Greece, Albania and the Republic of Macedonia where the protected national park boasts more than 1,000 plant species, 40 species of mammals, as well as spectacular birdwatching.
Settle down for the final phase of the trip at the Aristi Mountain Resort in the Zagori Region, perched at above the Vikos Gorge and not too far from the lakefront city of Ioannina. Admire the peaceful panoramic view from the hotel’s spa or venture out to Vitsa village for regional mushroom-centric cuisine at Kanela kai Garyfallo. Also check out Papigo village for organic and artisanal cuisine at Astra Restaurant, or a coffee and sweet at Sterna in Papigo (also in Kapesovo).