Mention Greece and the conversation is quickly swept away by “oohs and aahs” over the islands. But Greece’s mainland is a storybook of its own. The ancient land is inspiring to say the least. Drives through villages in the mountains put your imagination into overdrive. You almost expect a Greek philosopher to show up along side you in a chariot.
Starting in Northern Greece, these are five must-sees on the mainland:
Thessaloniki is a foodie’s paradise. Known as Greece’s second city, it’s smaller and quieter than Athens. And it has castles!
Here is a one-day itinerary that gives you a good overview of the city:
Grab a coffee and pastry from a local bakery for breakfast. Visit the castle, Heptapyrgion, that dates back centuries. It’s located above the Old Town and offers great views of the city and Aegean Sea. Take the opportunity to walk through the neighborhood below as well. Also, stop to see the city walls that still stand from the Byzantine era.
Enjoy a relaxing lunch at a seaside restaurant. Try the house wine with your meal. Take a stroll on the promenade along the water’s edge. Perhaps with a gelato in hand! Discover more of the archeological sites, churches, and monuments around the city.
Have a late evening, candlelit Greek feast. Greeks eat “family style”—do the same and order a variety of traditional dishes from the menu to share. Ask your server for an opinion on what to try. Often times Greece’s mainland dishes vary from city to city.
Magical is the first word that comes to mind when attempting to describe Meteora. It’s as if you’re in a fairy tale. It will take your breath away from morning to night.
Meteora is an area of giant vertical rock formations. Some reach 1,200 feet. Previously there were upwards of 24 monasteries built on top of the rocks in the 14th and 16th century, but now only 6 remain intact and are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Meteora is located in central Greece just outside the village of Kalambaka.
Stay 1-2 nights and take in the views from different angles. You can hike or take a car or bus up to the monasteries. When visiting the monasteries you’ll need to have your shoulders/arms and knees covered. On-site staff will provide a wrap for you if your skin is showing.
Meteora is also a sought after location for rock climbers. Other activities in the area include truffle hunting and food and wine tours. You will not be disappointed by this stop on Greece’s mainland.
Situated on the side of a mountain, the views from Delphi are spectacular and the miles of scenery to get there is half the fun. If you’re coming down from Meteora you can arrange for a hotel up by the site or down near the sea in the village of Kirra. Or if you’re staying in Athens, you can visit Delphi on a day-trip. Go via bus or rent a car if you prefer to go off the beaten path along the way.
This famous archeological site has finds that date back to 4,000 BC as well as the tale of a famous oracle. As you walk through the ruins and continue uphill, you’ll eventually reach the stadium. Even if you’re dripping in sweat and don’t think you can make it up there, it’s a must-see.
Stop for a mid-day meal at one of the restaurants just outside of the archeological site. There are some that have seating overlooking the valley down below. You can also take advantage of the photo opportunities walking around the village.
Αθήνα is the largest city in Greece. It’s a bustling epicenter—the transportation, tourism, and business hub of the country. I often refer to Athens as a place where Europe and the Middle East start to blend. While it is all things Greek, it offers hints of multiculturalism and influences from countries to the west and east.
Doing a walking tour in Athens is the best way to experience the city. If you only staying a day or two, there is a hop-on/hop-off bus that will help you get around. The metro system is also very easy to use. If you’re in Athens for less than three days, focus your time on the archeological sites and “touristy spots”.
There are many things to see in the city. Check out my 2-day Athen’s itinerary if your stay is short.
Safety Tips: Pedestrians don’t have the right-of-way. Be sure to look both ways (and behind you!) when crossing streets. Cars sometimes drive on pedestrian only streets, on sidewalks, and the wrong way on one-way streets. Also, pickpocketing is very common in Athens, as in most major cities. Be aware of where your valuables are and be extra cautious on the metro and in crowded areas.
Nafplio is located on the eastern coast of the Peloponnese peninsula. It is a beautiful gem on Greece’s mainland. With narrow streets lined with traditional Greek architecture, the medieval Old Town is inspirational and romantic.
The Palamidi Castle dominates the landscape above the city. It’s quite a trek to get up to it, but well worth the experience and view. And a must-see is Bourtzi—a Venetian fortress that sits on a rock in the sea. You can only access it by boat (available at the port for a small fee to take you over). It’s fun to explore the little island and feels as if you’re in a movie.
You can get to Nafplio from Athens by bus or car. It can be done in a full day—leaving early morning and getting back late evening. If you take a car, you can also stop to see Korinthos and the canal, which connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf. You will still pass over the canal via bus, but you’ll need to be rather quick with your camera.
These five unforgettable places are only the beginning. Greece has much to offer throughout the mainland and the beautiful Peloponnese peninsula. From its history and culture to the olive groves and vineyards, it does not disappoint!