Home Destination Guides Accommodation 27th January 2020


 Mount Athos monasteries near Ouranopolis
Halkidiki, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, is located on the North East Mainland coast of Greece, looking like a bulbous extension of the mainland with three slim peninsular ‘fingers’ stretching gracefully out into the blue waters of the Aegean sea. The area was colonized in the 7th and 8th Century BC, by people from the city of Halkis (now known as Halkida, on the island of Evia), and it was from these early residents that the name of Halkidiki originated.
Being a northern province, Halkidiki has higher rainfall than its southern counterparts, and this has given the area a natural beauty, with aromatic pine forests clinging to the mountainsides, lush vegetation and fertile valley meadows.  Halkidiki is surrounded on three sides by the sea and boasts a wonderful coastline with ribbons of golden sandy beaches stretching for miles.



Steeped in history, lovely Halkidiki has retained its local customs, traditions and character, resulting in an unspoilt and very ‘Greek’ experience for visitors.  In addition, Halkidiki offers a good choice of hotels and resorts, crystal clear water (many of the beaches having been awarded the coveted Blue Flag), top quality service and local cuisine.  Hospitality abounds and whilst the area was always popular with a discerning few, Halkidiki has only recently been attracting attention from more mainstream tourism, so it currently remains relatively un-commercialised.

The northern region of Halkidiki lies next to central Macedonia and is dominated by the scenic Holomondas mountain range, with Mount Holomondas rising to an impressive 1,165 metres.  Dense forests cover the mountains and there are many traditional villages with buildings of a unique architectural style, scattered throughout.  This is an excellent area for walkers and hikers, with some good forest walks and wonderful panoramic views.  The valleys are covered with rolling farmland and the main source of income for the local people is agriculture.  The hillside olive trees, the fields of grain and the endless vineyards are carefully tended and harvested.  Beekeepers, wine producers, fishermen, foresters and merchants are all professions that are kept alive in this area, by being handed down through the generations. 
On the southern side of Mount Holomondas lies the town of Poligiros, capital of Halkidiki, which has an excellent Archaeological Museum, and to the west is the village of Galatista, famous for its churches and a 14th Century tower.  North of Mount Holomondas is the small market town of Arnea, well known for its local handicrafts, hand made rugs and beautifully preserved architecture.  South west of Poligiros and just above the Kassandra peninsular, is the historical site of the ancient village of Olynthos.  This site shows the ancient village layout, paved streets and lovely mosaics of a bygone era.  Following a dirt track from Olynthos for approximately 4 kilometres, will bring you to the 14th Century tower of Mariana which stands 15 metres high.  If visiting this site in high season, don’t forget the all important sun hat and water.
To do justice to Halkidiki, car hire is essential for exploring, particularly the inland villages.  There is a coastal dual carriageway direct from Thessaloniki to Halkidiki’s popular Kassandra peninsular and good roads onward to the other 2 peninsulars.  The dual carriageway passes the coastal town of Nea Kalikratia which lies on the Thermaikos Gulf and is an important fishing port / commercial centre.  Inland from Nea Kalikratia is the famous site of the Cave of Petralona, where the ‘Archanthropos’ or Ancient Man  - fossilized human remains believed to be around 700,000 years old - were unearthed.  However, it is probably the magnificent underground caverns with their awesome stalagmites and stalactites and the displays of other archaeological finds in the Cave which keep the tourists coming back for more.
Just north of the Kassandra peninsular is another important fishing port at Nea Moudania.  Fishing is an integral part of the local people’s life and every July Nea Moudania holds the ‘Festival of Sardines,’ where the whole catch of sardines is given away.  The town also has a new Fisheries Museum commemorating the important role that the fishing industry has played in the lives of the local community.
     Halkidiki spreads across three peninsulars, the most westerly is the Kassandra peninsular, named after the Macedonian King Kassandros, the brother-in-law of Alexander the Great.  Kassandra is virtually an island, separated from the mainland by the Channel of Potidia, the channel is spanned by a bridge.  All along the coastline there are long stretches of sandy beaches and attractive coves, the western side is quieter with the more lively resorts in the east.  We stayed in the beautiful west coast resort of Sani, famous for being a 1,000 acre reserve of evergreen landscapes, with aromatic pines, white sandy beaches and aquamarine seas.  The focal point is the attractive, recently enlarged, Sani Marina with its motor yachts, fishing boats and exclusive villas for rent.  Around this lovely marina are a cluster of interesting shops with local handicrafts and ceramics, a mini market, lively bars, and some really excellent restaurants and tavernas.  Here you can sit by the waterfront watching the boats come and go and on a clear day you can see the Greek mainland on the horizon, with Mount Olympus in the distance. Nearby is and excellent laid-back beach bar and a peninsular where open-air music festivals are held annually. Water sports (including windsurfing and sailing – but check each new season) are available on the beach and small motor-boats can also be hired.  There are some interesting walks in the area through the pine forests, nightlife is low key and the emphasis is on chilling-out.
       On the eastern side of the Kassandra peninsular the first resort you come to is the small traditional village of Afitos, which overlooks a small sand and shingle beach.  There is a choice of shops, cafés, bars, tavernas and restaurants, perfect to unwind in.
For those who want to sample more shops and some nightlife the neighbouring resort of Kalithea will fit the bill. There is a local bus service from Afitos to Kalithea, taxis are available, or alternatively cars can be hired locally.  Kalithea, meaning literally ‘good view’, sits on a lovely bay with a gently shelving sandy beach making it an ideal choice for families.  There are good amenities here with shops, mini markets, cafes, restaurants, bars, tavernas and discos.  Kalithea’s popularity has increased in line with its nightlife, which is livelier than neighbouring resorts and good for those looking for some action.
Kriopigi is located just south of Kalithea and is named after its natural water springs.  This is a small, traditional village with an assortment of shops, bars and tavernas and the nightlife is very low-key.  The coarse sandy beach is narrow but long and the sea is crystal clear.  This is an ideal resort for those looking for relaxation and you can always hop on a local bus if you wish to sample some of the delights of Kalithea.
Continuing to travel south, the next village is Polichrono, another quiet, traditional village for those looking for a place to chill out.  It has a great sand and shingle beach with a seafront promenade where the nightlife revolves around a good meal in one of the many tavernas.
The next resort is Hanioti, which is now one of the liveliest resorts on the east coast of the Kassandra peninsular.  There are good facilities for all age groups with an excellent sandy beach offering water sports in high season, a range of shops, restaurants, bars and tavernas and a go-kart track for the kids to enjoy.  At night the village square comes alive with noisy bars and discos and even a nightclub.  If you are hiring a car, take the mountain road across the peninsular to Nea Skioni.  It seems a lot further than its 8 kilometres because of the winding road but the views are fabulous and just south of Nea Skioni is the 17th Century Church of the Virgin Mary (Panagia) with its courtyard by the sea.
South of Hanioti lies Pefkohori, which is split in two by the coastal road that runs through it.  On one side is the traditional village and on the other the rather cosmopolitan tourist resort.  The beach is a long swathe of sand, backed by aromatic pine trees from which the village takes its name.  This is another resort that is great for all age groups, with good facilities including a choice of shops, bars, restaurants and tavernas.   There is a PADI registered Diving Club that offers courses and individual tuition for those interested in learning to dive or improving their skills.  The waterfront promenade is a focal point where you can enjoy a meal overlooking the sea and nightlife is reasonably good, with dance bars for those looking to loosen up.  The area is also good for walkers who can spend some time exploring the surrounding pine forests and olive clad hillsides.
However, the forest fires in August 2006, which swept across the hills of this area (mainly between Hanioti and Polychrono) burning everything in their wake, are a timely reminder of the fragility of this beautiful environment.  Extra care should always be taken to extinguish cigarettes properly and never throw them out of a car window.  No attempt should be made to make a fire, for any reason.  Glass can also be a culprit in starting fires; therefore bottles and debris should be disposed of carefully when eating in the open air.
Local buses link all of the above resorts on the east coast of Kassandra; alternatively taxis are available, as is car hire.
     The middle ‘finger’ of Halkidiki is Sithonia, named after the son of Poseidon, the ancient Greek God of the Sea.  Sithonia is quieter and less well known than neighbouring Kassandra, but is still famed for its breathtaking scenery and fantastic sandy beaches.  The centre of Sithonia is mountainous, dominated by Mount Itamos, and the roads climb round hair-pin bends as they negotiate their way south.  Pine, cypress and olive trees cling to the hillsides that drop to a coastline of beautiful beaches of Blue flag merit and clear turquoise seas.
     The largest resort is Neos Marmaras, located approximately half way down the western coast of Sithonia, sitting on a series of marvellous sandy bays.  Neos Marmaras is a modern, cosmopolitan resort with excellent facilities and superb views across the Toroneos Gulf.  The focal point is the harbour area packed with café bars and fish tavernas.  There is such an array of shops, restaurants, bars, cafes and tavernas that you will be spoilt for choice.  Next to Neos Marmaras is the luxury resort of Porto Carras offering accommodation, golf, a luxury Marina and a host of holiday experiences.  Behind Neos Marmaras is the traditional hill village of Parthenon, which can be reached by foot in approximately 1 hour.  This village has a Folklore Museum and very interesting architecture.  Although it was once abandoned, the village has now been restored because of its historical importance.  If you have driven to the village by car, you can follow the dirt track from the village up through tree clad slopes, to reach the peak of the imposing Mount Itamos, where the panoramic views of Halkidiki will take your breath away.  This is a good area for hikers, who wish to spend time exploring the foothills.
    Taking the road south of Neos Marmaris, you will pass through the Mount Meliton vineyards before coming to the small village of Toroni, the Byzantine Castle of Lecythus and the natural port and marina of Porto Koufo.   Beach lovers should look out for Kalogria and Lagomandra, which have lovely sandy beaches.
     The eastern coast of Sithonia is wild and unspoilt with no big resorts.  Vourvourou in the northeast is an area of outstanding natural beauty, protected by the European Union programme, NATURA - this traditional village is surrounded by lush vegetation and sweet-smelling pine trees.  The south-eastern tip of Sithonia hides the village of Kalamitsi, with its lovely secluded sandy beach.
     Car hire is readily available on Sithonia and essential for exploring this peninsula.
     The third and most easterly peninsular is almost completely given over to the autonomous monastic state of Mount Athos.  Mount Athos is known as the Holy Garden of the Virgin Mary and embodies the Byzantine Greek Orthodox traditions.  It is closed to all females (both human and animal apparently!) and is only open to a restricted number of males who meet the stringent requirements needed to obtain an entry permit.  The history of the state is truly fascinating, and whilst no one is sure when, exactly, monastic life was established on Athos, there are records of hermits arriving there in the 7th Century.  The state is self-governing and administered by 20 ruling monasteries.  Each monastery is self contained and independent from the others. It is estimated that there are over 1,700 monks of different nationalities living in the monasteries, who spend their days in prayer, meditation and monastic labour.  This is truly a refuge of peace and tranquillity from the modern world and has attracted some famous visitors, including HRH Prince Charles, who has visited several times.  Every monastery is unique in both layout and architecture and they all house treasures including rare documents, sacred icons, fragments from the Holy Cross, sculptures and other Holy items, all watched over by the Virgin Mary.
    The peninsular is dominated by Mount Athos which rises over 2,000 metres high and the monasteries are built like fortresses, many perched precariously on the high craggy rocks, their balconies overhanging the cliffs, supported by wooden struts.  However, the monastic life doesn’t revolve solely around prayer as the monks cultivate the land to provide most of their needs. Any surplus produce is sold on the mainland and the monks are particularly renowned for the quality of their grapes made into wine, bottled and then sold under the monks’ own label.  This wine was readily available in Ouranopolis when we visited and the red was a particular favourite of mine - once we discovered it, we drank it for the rest of our stay!! 
     Ouranopolis is the closest town to the closed border of Mount Athos, and its name derives from ‘heavenly city’. We stayed in a quiet area just outside of this pleasant working town. The main street with tavernas and shops leads down to a square by the village quay where the 14th Century Tower of Prosphorion looks out across the sea.  From the quay, regular ‘Mount Athos’ boat trips cruise along the western coastline to view the monasteries from the sea - which is as close as the majority of us will ever get, as no landings are permitted. Boat trips to the small islets of Dhrenia are also available.  The village square doubles as the main bus station where both the local buses and the express coaches from Thessaloniki terminate.  The square can be pretty chaotic in high season when additional coaches arrive, laden with tourists, to join one of the many coastal boat trips.  However, don’t let this put you off, as the Mount Athos boat trip is really enjoyable with excellent views of the monasteries (lots of us took binoculars for an up-close look at the architecture), an absolute ‘must do’ trip if you are in this area.   To the side of the quay, a pedestrianised street lined with cafés and an assortment of tavernas and bars runs parallel to the beach and is a great place for a bite to eat after the boat trip.
     Opposite Ouranopolis is the tiny island of Amoliani, and being so far off the beaten track, it is totally unspoilt.  Ferries run to Amoliani every day from a small quay at Tripiti a few kilometres outside Ouranopolis.  The island has one small hamlet, a few ‘basic’ roads and some excellent beaches, notably at Ftelis and Tsarki (also known as Alikes) Bay.
      The nearest large town to Ouranopolis is 15 kilometres to the north at Ierissos on the Akanthios Gulf.  Ierissos sits on a large bay with a good sandy beach, has plenty of cafeterias and tavernas and a working shipyard for those who like to browse.  From Ierissos, in season, you can take a ‘Mount Athos’ boat trip which cruises the eastern coastline of the monastic state. This will enable you to see the monasteries that face east, but again, no landings are permitted.
Thessalonika airport is the airport for Halkidiki and the 3 peninsulars.  Fortunately the airport is located to the south of Thessalonika itself, so you do not have to drive through the city centre to get to the 3 peninsulars.  The drive time from the airport to Kassandra varies from approximately 1 hour (Sani) to 2 hours (Kriopigi) depending on which resort you are staying in.  It will take between 1 and a half to 2 hours to reach Sithonia and just over 2 hours to reach Ouranopolis.  Package holidays are available from both the major and Greek specialist tour companies.  Charter airlines fly direct from the U.K. to Thessalonika during the summer months, usually from April to October.  Flying time from the U.K. is approximately 3 hours 20 minutes.  Olympic and British Airways offer scheduled flights from the U.K. to Thessalonika all year round.  Olympic Airways has daily domestic flights from Athens to Thessalonika and some of the larger Greek islands also have direct flights to Thessalonika. The flight time from Athens is approximately 40 mins.
Thessalonika has numerous ferry connections to many of the Greek islands in the Aegean.  However, ferries to the smaller islands are usually circuitous, and it should be remembered that changing schedules and adverse weather conditions can affect all ferries; therefore timings should always be checked locally. 
The foregoing information was last reviewed in November 2006. Things change, and whilst we are often travelling in Greece we do rely to some extent upon others to provide updates in order to keep the site as current and accurate as possible!  If you have updates or information that you think should be included here, please mail the webmaster@aguide2greece.com  - thank you.


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