Often eclipsed by the islands to the south, Northern Greece’s Halkidiki peninsula stretches into the Aegean Sea and offers blissful beaches that are an idyllic setting to relax and unwind.
There are a plethora of dreamy beach options and dazzling nightclubs to visit in this part of Greece, so we asked Maria Paravantes to map out what you should see if you plan a 4-day trip to this peninsula.
Writing about the people, places, cultures and traditions in this beautiful world has been my job for more than two decades. Yet every time I visit a new destination, I love my homeland Greece even more: its ebullient light; its delectable flavors, its welcoming people and warm hospitality; its illustrious history; its wondrous nature; its exhilarating waters. In one word: it’s home.
Why you should visit Halkidiki
“There’s nowhere like Halkidiki.” That’s what the locals say about this region in Northern Greece, about an hour’s drive from Thessaloniki. This peninsula of stunning coastal scenery – think lunar-like rock formations, shore-touching pine forests and pristine beaches with powder-soft sand – is made up of three smaller peninsulas (which Greeks call “legs”).
Whether you’re into camping and exploring or sightseeing and partying, Halkidiki has it all, with each of its three “legs” boasting its own vibe. Kassandra attracts a younger, fun-seeking crowd with its beach bars full of happy people and endless shorelines lined with sun beds – not to mention lots of music, sea and sun. Oriented toward families, campers and outdoorsy types, Sithonia offers wilder beaches, low-key seafront bars and plenty of activities. Mt Athos, meanwhile, takes you off the beaten track as you tread along ancient footpaths, refresh under secret waterfalls and unwind over fresh fish and Greek wine on tiny islets in the middle of the Aegean – with the Holy Mountain (known as “Agion Oros” in Greek) as a dramatic backdrop.
Ready? Let’s begin our exciting four-day trip to my Halkidiki. Combine any of these day-long itineraries however you wish. You may choose to proceed (carefully!) by car or motorbike, or catch the regular intercity (KTEL) buses from Thessaloniki to each of Halkidiki’s peninsulas.
Start at Petralona Cave
On your drive to Halkidiki from Thessaloniki (one hour), make a stop at Petralona Cave, off the main road, where remains of our ancestors dating back some 300,000 years ago were discovered alongside prehistoric animal fossils. Today, you can admire the cave’s impressive, millennia-old stalagmites and stalactites. (After restoration work, the cave is scheduled to reopen in May 2023, its museum in August of that year.)
If you’re traveling in July, don’t miss the bustling fishing town of Nea Moudania and its annual sardine festival: a big, fat Greek party complete with free grilled sardines and wine, singing and dancing.
Bougatsa and a view
As you pass into Kassandra, stop for a photo op on the scenic Nea Potidea Bridge. And since you’re probably hungry by now, pop into Lemonis Bakery for a traditional bougatsa custard pie and a dose of coffee. From there, make your way to Nea Fokea to visit Agios Pavlos’ church and tower, both overlooking the bay: built in the 1400s, the tower served as a headquarters during the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Move on to Afytos (or Athytos), a village on a cliff with old stone houses and spectacular views. Sit down to lunch at Notos All Day Bar (try the American burger and potato wedges), followed by a luscious ekmek ice cream from Zoyia’s.
Beach at Cape Possidi
Time for the beach. It’s hard to describe the perfection of the waters and the uninterrupted shorelines full of draped tents and private cabanas here; at Cape Possidi – named after the sea god Poseidon – you’ll see what we mean. Two of the three heavenly beaches here have their own beach bars and sun beds, with the third (known as Myti, located in front of a lighthouse from 1864) letting you do your own thing.
Once you’ve caught some rays and splashed around a bit, head to Siviri beach for a romantic sunset and dinner at a seaside taverna with your bare feet on the sand. Fish lovers might also consider Trizoni Sea Treasures in Kryopigi, three miles from Kallithea.
Clubbing in Kassandra
As night falls, it’s time to get into party mode. Kassandra’s legendary nightlife gets going around 11pm, with many beach bars keeping the party going until 9am the following morning. Follow the pumping music and strobing lights in Kallithea to Ahoy Club or Pearl Club, or to the Markiz Experience for concerts and DJ sets. If chilling is more your style, indulge in cocktails and finger food Spitaki Cocktail Bar (we recommend the Dead Zombie, Iron Bird or Paloma Sunrise).
Get active in Kassandra – or just unwind
Start your next day in Kassandra with a visit to Cape Sani and its ultra-luxury retreat, Sani Resort. This complex houses five award-winning hotels (including an adults-only option), an idyllic beach with azure waters, a tranquil marina, a buzzing shopping arcade and dozens of eclectic bars and restaurants. (We love the quinoa bowls at Marina Creperie for lunch.) Just a few minutes away, the 16th-century Stavronikitas Tower (or Tower of Sani) boasts commanding hilltop views of the sea.
If you’re into water sports, you can enjoy paragliding, Jet Ski rentals, pedal-boating and stand-up paddleboarding (if you’re not, treat yourself to a sunset cruise). Active travelers will love the fresh air and bird-watching at the Stavronikitas wetlands, which has several trails through the woods beginning at the Sani Beach Hotel parking area. If mountain biking is your thing, this is also where to start. If you visit in July, the grand Sani Festival attracts international stars from the opera, jazz, pop, world-music and rock worlds.
Unwind at thermal springs
Your next stop is Agia Paraskevi, and an exhilarating dip in its thermal springs and hydromassage pools ($8 to access) with panoramic views to the sea. Or indulge in a $20 hydromassage treatment or steam bath, with water temperatures ranging from 37°F to 102°F.
Feeling renewed, head west to the beach. Start your beach hop at Paliouri and from there to Pefkohori – beach-bar heaven. Mamalouka caters to laid-back types, Fiki attracts a stylish crowd, Elephant is filled with the boho TikTokers, Glarokavos offers classic sophistication…and these are but a few.
If you arrive midday, do as Greeks do until the sun sets: get yourself an umbrella and sun bed at one of the many bars of your liking, order a snack or a flashy cocktail and spend the whole day swimming, sunbathing, reading a book and enjoying the view. Time passes slowly here.
As the hour wanes, enjoy a cocktail at Porto Valitsa before dinner at Sea of Tastes restaurant. Try the shrimp ravioli with kakavia (fish soup) and a vegetarian version of moussaka – and pair it with a dry, smooth Assyrtiko white wine. You can also consider the great fish carpaccio, seafood tartare and ceviche at Carpaccio in Paliouri. Later into the night, get romantic by gazing up at the stars at Glarokavos beach (aka the Blue Lagoon) near Pefkohori.
Day 3: Live beach life to its fullest on Sithonia
Picture an endless coastline dotted with one Instagrammable beach after another: you’ve arrived in Sithonia, Halkidiki’s wilder side, which will cater to the explorer in you. Lush forests, majestic mountains, enchanting villages, divine beaches, the country’s largest campground and accommodations for every budget await.
Sithonia is more low-key, offering a back-to-basics Greece experience. Besides swimming and water sports, the peninsula has great hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Most of the stunning beaches here are not as “organized” as in Kassandra – meaning fewer umbrellas, beach beds and bars. If you’re into the tranquility of nature, this is the place to be. At 65 miles long, Sithonia can be covered in a single drive if you’re up for it. But to take in its full beauty, I suggest you focus on one of two routes.
Option one: The beach of Sithonia western route
Your first day in Sithonia begins with a stroll in the town of Nikiti. Grab a coffee and a cheese pie (tyropita) at Gavanas Bakery on the main road as you head some 4.3 miles south to Kalogria beach, a wonderful stretch of silky sand and aquamarine blue. With its shallow waters, Kalogria is also perfect for kids.
After soaking up some sun, it’s off to the country’s largest organic winery, Domaine Porto Carras. A two-hour tasting of the award-winning vintages here, followed by a stroll through vineyards with sea views, costs $15 – and is worth every penny. If wine isn’t your thing, choose to go off road on a 4x4 adventure on Mt Itamos, or start your beach tour with a stop at Azapiko.
Keep driving southward to Tristinika beach, a spectacular seaside setting complete with its own sun-kissed beach bar, Ethnik. If you’ve got a soft spot for history, check out the remains of a castle at ancient Toroni, or keep going to Porto Koufo, Sithonia’s southernmost point, a natural harbor that looks and feels like Greek paradise. (Even ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote about this place.) Sit down to a fresh-fish feast at Tzitzikas, and drink in the view.
Option two: Take to water along the Sithonia eastern route
The day begins by heading south from Nikiti to Vourvourou, an uninterrupted coastline laced with coves and inlets. At pine-shaded Karydi beach, you can charter a boat for the day (no special license needed) and explore Diaporos island on your own; canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (a big trend in Greece) are also on offer. Other nearby beaches include Myrsini, Kryftos and Blue Lagoon.
Though it might be hard, it’s time to leave beach bliss behind and drive toward Greece’s largest campground. Armenistis offers breathtaking views to Mt Athos (Halkidiki’s third “leg”), as well as bungalows or even beach houses for rent. Active types will love the beach here, with everything from stand-up paddleboards and wakeboard to tubes and paddle boats for rent. Look to the instructors at Bareside Water Sports to show you how it’s all done.
Next up are Kavourotrypes Paradise and Portokali Beach, both with lunar-like rocks, velvety sand and pine trees stretching down to the shoreline. For a change of scenery drive up to Sykia village, at the foot of Mt Itamos. Walk through the old town and into the 200-year-old stone church of Agios Athanasios, with its vibrant interior colors.
Traveling southbound past Sykia beach, head to Tigania beach, which has flat, multilayered stones perfect for sunbathing, and is home to a divine beach bar. Tigania’s three coves cater variously to naturists, campers, couples and solitary types.
Bring your own shade and water to Kalamitsi, and enter nirvana mode. Think exquisite pinkish sand and iridescent Bahamas-style waters perfect for snorkeling (best near the tiny island in front of Chica Beach Bar). Stay here until the sun dips into the sea.
For a late dinner (remembering that Greeks eat around 9 or 10pm), head back to Nikiti, home to some of Halkidiki’s finest restaurants. We love the fish savoro and the kunefe with cheese and honey at Arsanas, the shrimp dolmades at the popular Boukadoura and the burger at Ergon Beach House. For a splurge, the Ekies Treehouse in Vourvourou (at the Ekies All Senses Resort) has not just amazing views but a stupendous 11-course tasting menu incorporating local ingredients and traditional recipes. Be sure to book ahead.
Mt Athos – Reconnect, Rebalance, Reset
Known as the Holy Mountain, Mt Athos forms the easternmost leg of the Halkidiki peninsula, and it’s the perfect place to reconnect with nature and your inner self. Start your day with a drive up Mt Holomontas, through the untouched University Forest of Taxiarchis, which offers both active pursuits (hiking, horseback riding and mountain bike trails) and serenity (bird-watching, the sound of the wind and coursing streams). From there, head northeast to Arnaia, a mountain town built in the 15th century filled with historic stone-and-wood houses and cobblestone footpaths. With its earthy shades of blue, red, pink and orange, Arnaia offers a taste of traditional Macedonian architecture, a blend of Byzantine and Ottoman influences.
Stop for honey at the Georgaka family organic shop
Next, you’ll make a sweet stop indeed, at the Georgaka family’s organic shop for a tasting of honey – a specialty of this region thanks to the nearby forests. Try the heather honey (sousoura) and moundovina, a PGI-certified local extract made from aged honeycomb syrup.
Continue your walk towards the Arnaia Folklore Museum, which offers a glimpse of village life past. In a two-floor mansion built in 1870 just opposite, learn about the intricate art of weaving through displays of handmade kilimia rugs and blankets of wool, cotton and silk. (One $2 ticket gets you entrance to both museums.) Move on to the church of Agios Stefanos, which has a glass floor through which you can view ruins of past temples, churches and tombs that once occupied the same site.
No Greece experience would be complete without a visit to a village kafenion, a traditional coffeehouse in the central square that served as a hub for the community. In Arnaia, that role is played by Kafenion Lanara, where locals enjoy Greek coffee and homemade sweets. For a more modern take, Aristotelous serves French toast and vegan burgers.
Hike to Stageira
Fueled up, set off on a hike to ancient Stageira near the town of Olympiada, where Greek philosopher Aristotle was born in 384 BCE. You can walk part or all of the 15-mile, signposted trail through protected woodland (with a detour to Varvara Waterfalls – an amazing sight). We recommend hiring a guide ($35). If you have little ones, make sure to visit Aristotle Park in Stageira, which has fun, interactive, physics-inspired games – remembering, or course, that Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great.
As an alternative, skip the trail and head to the seaside town of Ierissos, which has an inviting beach as well as shipyards where the traditional Greek kaikia boats – those colorful ones you see in all postcards of Greece – were once manufactured.
Ferry to Ammouliani island
Head south to Trypiti and hop on the ferry to Ammouliani island (departs every 45 minutes in the summer and every two hours from October onward; $7), the only island in Halkidiki with permanent residents. The island offers a range of beaches: the popular white-sand Alykes; Ai Giorgis, a quiet paradise; Karagatsia, great for fishing and snorkeling; and Megali Ammos for a killer sunset. You can also rent a boat and discover the nearby islets of Tigani, Gaidouronisi and Pontiki.
Back on the mainland, complete your tour of the Athos peninsula with a visit to the scenic village of Ouranoupoli (“City of the Sky”). The imposing and photogenic 11th-century Prosforion Tower houses a museum exhibiting ancient objects. Walk south toward the 10th-century Monastery of Zygou, where the road ends and the entrance to holy Mt Athos and its monasteries begins.
A self-governed monastic state, Athos is the Eastern Orthodox world’s most sacred center and an Unesco World Heritage Site. With its ancient traditions, alas, women are not permitted to visit, and only a limited number of male pilgrims (which have included King Charles and Vladimir Putin) qualify for a special permit from the Pilgrims’ Bureau in Thessaloniki to embark via ferry from Ammouliani or Ierissos toward the holy mountain. Even if you can’t enter the complex, a day cruise of the Athos peninsula offers spectacular views of Mt Athos and its monasteries from the sparkling water.