In tourism, Greece will forever symbolize the Acropolis and the gorgeous beaches and islands. Northern Greece is usually forgotten by most western visitors. But, in a matter of a few days, we visited some of the most unforgettable places we’ve ever been to. We swam in the natural hot mineral water in the mountains of Loutraki, visited the birthplace of Alexander the Great, awed at centuries old Monasteries built on top of 1000ft natural rock pillars and climbed Mount Olympus.
Here is a snapshot of our itinerary and the route we took.
Day 1 – Cross the border into Greece and head through Pella and spend the evening swimming in Loutraki.
Day 2 – Drive from Loutraki to the Edessa waterfall, stop in Vergina, and arrive in Thessaloniki.
Day 3 – Explore Thessaloniki
Day 4 – Rent car from Thessaloniki Airport and head for Litochoro (Mount Olympus)
Day 5 – Summit Mount Olympus to refuge A (Spilios Agapitos) and drive to Meteora
Day 6 – Explore Meteora, drive back to Thessaloniki and return rental car. Fly to Athens.
Our trip started by crossing the Macedonian-Greek Border. We were lucky enough to be taken by car by our favorite Eastern European tour guide, Vlado. The border crossing was a breeze… We were sad to see a very large refugee camp not far down the road. Hundreds of tents lined up in a large field. All kinds of people were there, just trying to live as normally as possible. Unfortunately, even with nowhere to go this was still better than where they came from.
We continued driving south for another 100km, we were heading for Pella the birthplace of Alexander the Great! There is a really interesting museum and ruins of the ancient city here that you shouldn’t miss. As well as the obvious giant statue…
After spending an hour or so marveling at the artifacts that were preserved from this ancient site, including armor & swords, the typical Greek style vases & pottery, and gorgeous gold jewelry; it was time to head to our next stop – Loutraki.
Surrounded on all sides by beautiful mountains, the small town of Loutraki was quite a sight to see. After quickly checking into our hotel, we were excited to head off to the natural hot springs about 5 minutes drive down the road, up into the mountains. Wow, we were blown away by this place! It felt like we were at Disney World, the setting was too picturesque to be real.
Entry was only 3 Euros/ person and we spent a couple of hours enjoying the water and natural beauty. The springs are nicely set up. There are 2 pools, one seen above that is like a regular swimming pool filled with warm, natural water and the other is much smaller and has a large waterfall. We chose to stay in the swimming pool area as unfortunately the small waterfall pool was very crowded when we arrived. There are also dressing rooms, showers and a nice café which is the perfect spot to grab a coffee and warm up after getting out of the water.
One night in this small town was enough for us, although we could have spent longer soaking it up in the springs. We awoke the next day and drove south on an unbelievably scenic drive towards the Edessa waterfalls. They are the tallest in Greece at nearly 200ft tall and are quite a spectacular sight to see. This alone was worth the trip, but little did we know of all the treasures to come :).
After leaving Edessa, we were headed to Vergina – we had planned a quick stop here to see a museum where many of Macedonia’s ancient treasures are displayed and where Philip II (Alexander’s father) is buried.
Unfortunately, when we arrived we noticed that it was a ghost town… It was May 2nd and to our surprise, basically the whole of Greece takes a long, long weekend to celebrate Orthodox Easter. The museum and mausoleum were sadly closed, we will have to make another trip in the future!
Onto our next stop, Thessaloniki! This beautiful waterfront city is often always overlooked by tourists, who are usually just stopping by the Acropolis enroute to Mykonos or Santorini. We really enjoyed our time here and will be writing a more in depth post on all the must-sees of Thessaloniki. Here are some of our favorite spots from the city, The Arch of Galerius, the inside of the Massive Rotonta, the White tower and the statue of Alexander the Great (second one we know, but what an awesome skateboarder!)
We spent 2 nights exploring the city before saying goodbye to our guide and tour group. The two of us rented a car for the rest of our Northern Greece adventure. First on our list to see was Mount Olympus.
Litochoro/ Mt. Olympus
It’s easy to see why the Ancient Greeks called this the Home of the Gods. Only 17km from the Aegean Sea, its snowy peak juts out over 2,918 metres (9,573 ft). It is breathtakingly beautiful and we planned to hike up it!
Unfortunately we were a week too early for the summit refuges to open up, otherwise we could have spent the night halfway up the mountain and attempted to summit the next day. We ended up spending the night in a beautiful town at the base called Litochoro. Charming is the perfect way to describe it.
The next morning we woke up early, ready to start our 12 km hike up (then back down) the mountain. The drive up to the starting point, Prionia is quite spectacular as you are winding up this great mountain with the Aegean at your back. There are lots of places to stop and enjoy the view. Due to a big cold front blasting through a few days before our arrival, making it all the way to the summit was impossible without a guide, and some serious mountaineering equipment. But we still planned to hike to the first refuge and back.
This was definitely the most challenging hike either of us have ever done as neither of us have any hiking experience (Florida doesn’t provide much uphill hiking terrain). The vertical incline from Prionia (the starting point) to the summitting refuge (Spilios Agapitos) is around 1000 meters (3280 ft) and the trail is about 12km long in one direction. It took us about 2.5 hours to reach the refuge and we were definitely going at a brisk pace, albeit we did stop to enjoy the scenery, take pics and rest a few times. But the feeling we got when we saw the refuge point in the distance was amazing!
The way down might have been even trickier than the way up! When we reached the bottom we were both exhausted. We treated ourselves to some wine at the base!
Afterwards it was about a 2.5 hour drive to Meteora. The whole reason that we had gone on the road trip in the first place was to make it to this special place. We arrived just in time for sunset and it did not disappoint. Meteora, as its name suggests, looks like you’re on another planet, but in reality, “meteora” in ancient Greek means “in the air”. It is basically a collection of massive rock pillars that have sprouted up from the ground. It looks like nothing we’ve ever seen, some of them are over 550 meters (1800 ft) in height. They would be absolutely mind blowing on their own, but that is not their only appeal. On top of some of the rocks are monasteries! These monasteries were built in the 12th Century by hermit monks to avoid oppression and be able to practice their religion on their own terms (they have never been controlled by an outside state). They even had a rope that had to be sent down to allow someone to come up. When you witness the monasteries, it is literally jaw dropping at first, then glee, then contemplation of life. This place truly felt sacred.
We spent only one night in Meteora but sorely wished we had spent more time. The serenity, geology, theology and natural landscape combine to make you feel something deep inside.
Our next stop was to drop our rental car off in Thessaloniki, spend a few days there and head south for Athens.
Have you ever been to Northern Greece? What did you think?