Overview of Halkidiki
Astounding sandy beaches and idyllic bays, crystal clear sea in all shades of blue, traditional mountain villages welcoming guests to their perfectly preserved atmosphere, lively sea-front towns hosting summer guests from all over the world, lush pine forests running down till the gentle sea waves, extensive olive grooves and fragrant vineyards, charming small islands and islets spread around, golden sunlight reflected in the turquoise waters – these are some characteristics of that piece of land looking like Poseidon’s trident, spiking into the north Aegean Sea, Halkidiki. A region with many differences, pairing harmoniously sea and mountains, locals and visitors, life and history, all under the warm caress of greek sun. Among this intoxicating blend of blue and green there is a perfect place for everyone in Halkidiki.
Halkidiki is widely known as a top summer mainland destination and has that characteristic configuration of 3 “legs” or oblong peninsulas covered by vivid landscape, ending in lacy shores, many small gulfs, hidden beaches and surrounded by calm, warm waters. The peninsulas, from left to right, are generally called Kassandra, Sithonia and Mount Athos and are full of that distinctive Greek light, unspoiled scenery, colours and fragrances while at the same time each has its own unique charm, character and history. Apart from the famous “legs”, Halkidiki also has a northern mainland – now rising on tourist maps due to its well preserved traditions, culinary and architecture.
Perhaps Halkidiki‘s most important characteristic, after the exceptional beaches and crystal clear sea, is the wide variety of villages and small towns, starting from lively, crowded spots along the coast of Kassandra till the traditional Macedonian villages on Mount Itamos of Sithonia, with fresh air and picturesque locations. Add to that the perfectly preserved Christian monuments, stunning architectural and archaeological sites and even a unique cave that are located on grounds, which are inhabited since ancient times and are still carrying a traditional style with a rich gastronomic and cultural heritage. So, as Anita Isalska for Lonely Planet said “.. it would be a crying shame to head straight for the sunlounger in a region that ripples with vineyards, groans with ancient history and has terrain ripe for diving, kayaking and cycling.”
If you are looking for a place to stay in Kassandra, check on the south end Paliouri and Agia Paraskeui with its hot thermal baths, one of Europe’s finest baths for balneotherapy. If you want to avoid long driving from Thessaloniki’s airport, check pisturesque Afytos on the beginning of the peninsula – east coast and Sani on the west coast.
Afytos is a seaside village famous for its preserved traditional architecture – narrow paved streets, stone built houses and beautiful churches like the old church of Agios Dimitrios dating from 1859. While here, pay a visit to the natural springs of Moudounou and Vrysitsa, the temple of Zeus, the ruins of ancient Afytos and the folklore museum. Sani is famous for the homonymous and renowned resort while if you look for even more privacy paired with vast spaces, Villa Pine offers a private 330 sq.m. modern holiday residence with 5 bedrooms, private outdoor pool and 3200 sq.m. of perfectly landscaped private garden, all under the cool shade of long-lived pines.
For a nature lover, Sithonia is the place to stay. Here you’ll find a vivid green pine forest covering the most of the peninsula and several charming seafront villages, with the most famous and fully developed one being Neos Marmaras. Closely is located one of the most famous and big vacation resorts of Greece, offering a private marina, golf course and casino among others. Plus, here you’ll find the largest in Greece and one of the largest in Europe single organic vineyard, created in 1965 on a 4,750 acres spread amphitheatrically on a hill that “looks” at the clear waters of the Toroneos Gulf. Salvador Dali used to spend time here, enjoying the splendid wines of the domaine. Other famous visitors where Francois Mitterand and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. A private residence to check here is Villa Mare, offering 5 bedrooms, private infinity pool with breathtaking panoramic seaview, access to the vineyard as well as the private beaches located in a very short distance.
Mount Athos and general area
On the third “leg” of Halkidiki, Athos, the easternmost and roughest of the three peninsulas, is located the worldwide famous Agion Oros. Agion Oros is for more than 1000 years now a self-governed Orthodox monastic state of Greece and is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople. From 1988 Agion Oros is on the list of World Heritage Monuments. Athos peninsula is covered by Mount Athos, from where occurs the other name, Holy Mount (Agion Oros in greek). There has been no development on Agion Oros apart from the 20 major monasteries, 12 hermitages, 700 cells and retreats and, because of this isolation, it’s considered one of the most unspoiled landscapes in Greece. The untamed beauty here is extraordinary. Women are banned from stepping onto monastic land while male visitors need a special permit for visit.
The monastic state is delimited by a stone wall stretching from east shore to west shore of the peninsula while the area before the wall, named Mount Athos Area, is well developed and famous among Mount Athos viitors. Forthermore, Mount Athos Area is famous for its special gastronomy and prefered by travelers who search for peaceful vacations, avoiding overcrowed places. There are many hotels in the area but if you really need some peace of mind and stunning surroundings, both indoor and outdoor, check Villa Ostraco I, Villa Ostraco II, Villa Ostraco III and Villa Ostraco IV – a peacefull and luxurious seafront villa complex.
Halkidiki is also surrounded by many small islands and islets, in the majority inhabited only by goats except from the beautiful island of Ammouliani. Ammouliani is the only permanently inhabited island of Halkidiki with the nearby uninhabited islets called Drenia, both famous for their fine beaches and fresh delicious fish and seafood. Also famous are Kelufos island, opposite Neos Marmaras and the islands opposite Vourvourou, located on the east side of Sithonia peninsula. The last are the secret paradise of Halkidiki and a place of recreation for the few. It is a cluster of eight islets that surround the large island of Diaporos and are offered for swimming and snorkeling, especially in the stunning bright blue waters of “Blue Lagoon“, the passage between the islands of Saint Isidore and Diaporos, a point famous for its warm and shallow turquoise waters.
Highlights of Halkidiki
Halkidiki offers a wide variety of sights, monuments and interesting places. Due to its characteristic shape, the best way to visit the points of interest is by car, which gives the visitor the chance to admire at the same time the nature, explore the mainland and spot all those great beaches on the way. One could say Agion Oros is the most famous monument on Halkidiki. Both monks and male visitors live a simple, monastic life, without any modern facilities, based on prayer, fasting and growing their own food. There is also the opportunity of a cruise on the west side of Agion Oros peninsula for everyone who wishes to see Agion Oros. You can choose between the daily boat trips or a yacht option, with the second offering more pleasure, especially if is paired with a guide narrating the history and all about this magnificent place. The ultimate upgrate for this tour is a helicopter flight offering you a whole picture (both west and east side of the peninsula) through panoramic views and some great sceneries for your instagram feed.
Another very significant place of Halkidiki is the cave of Petralona, located close to Kassandra. Petralona Cave is one of the most famous caves of Europe since here were found the often designated as the “Petralona skull“, the oldest European hominid, two pre-human skeletons dated about 800,000 years, a great number of fossils of various species and what is considered as the oldest traces of fire known to this day. The cave, except from the archeological finds, has its own beauty as it’s adorned with stalagmites and stalactites, presenting an impressive sight to visitors while next to the cave is located the Petralona Museum, which hosts many of the findings.
- The Archaeological Museum of Poligiros, hostsing exhibits from excavations from all around Halkidiki, such as the ancient sites of Acanthus, Mende, Olynthos, Potidea and Stagira. Among the exhibits, there are marble statues, funeral columns, parts of temples, weaponry, tools and jewelry.
- The charming, traditional Parthenonas village is a must-see, located on a hillside 7 km from Neos Marmaras. It’s a well preserved settlement with narrow streets, well preserved buildings of local architecture and the most breathtaking view of Sithonia and Toroneos Gulf.
- Arnea, possibly the most beautiful village along with Parthenonas. It is located close to Poligiros and kept almost entirely untouched, nestled as it is in the vast lush forest of Halkidiki’s mainland. Arnea is a great destination the whole year, offering an alternative, cool hideaway from boiling touristic spots during summer, a magical village scenery with beautiful stone houses with smoking chimneys covered in snow in winter, an explosion of colors and smells during spring and a romantic place to enjoy fall with the astonishing colors of the surrounding forest.
- Vourvourou, a stunning spot on the east coast of Sithonia peninsula, with turquoise waters hosting nine lush islets that create a magnificent sight. The islands opposite Vourvourou, except from their natural beauty, have a long history, as evidenced by the findings in the coastal hill “Cuckos” of Diaporos. In the area there are remains of prehistoric buildings from 3000 BC and the settlement of the island dates back to the Early Bronze Age. In the natural bay “Kryftos” are still standing ruins of the pre-Byzantine church of St. Andrew, the oldest Christian church in the Sithonia region, dating to about 500 AD. Impressive are the tiled graves in the cemeteries of Diaporos, where were buried some of the early Christians of the region.
Festivals in Halkidiki
Halkidiki is a mixture of traditions and festivities, so numerous cultural events, open air theatres and music festivals take place throughout its villages and towns, especially during summer. Some of the major events include the following:
- The Kassandra Festival, taking place in the auditoriums of Nea Moudania and Siviri, one of the most important cultural institutions of Northern Greece. Within the two months of operation (July, August), it highlights and covers a wide range of options in all forms of art and human expression (music, song, theater, dance, artistic interventions). In its long course, the Festival has hosted great names of Greek and international scene.
- Sani Festival and Sani Gourmet, the only private-sector initiative international festivals of music & culture and gastronomy in Greece with a significant presence at home as well as abroad. Both of the events are hosting great names of Greek and international scene and culinary respectively.
- Mount Athos Area Kouzina – lasting a whole month in the late spring-early summer, the event focuses on local tradition and marries it with gourmet creations, always based on local organic produce from Agion Oros and Mount Athos Area. You can participate in contests, take cooking classes, try flavours from Asia Minor, ancient greek recipes, monastic culinary, Mediterranean and gourmet dishes created by monks as well as local and celebrity chefs.
- The exhibition at the Byzantine tower of Palaiologos in Nea Fokea with art exhibits, theater and concerts from July to September.
- The 3-day Kalithea Festival with folklore, cultural and sports events from July 27th to July 30th.
- Afytos celebrations from July to August where visitors can enjoy some abstract street art, traditional dances and classical or modern music performances.
- The Cultural August with traditional singing and dancing during the month of August at Poligiros.
- The Fair of St. Ilias at Vavdos which is a dane festival with food and wine taking place at an altitude of 1050 m. from July 19th to July 20th.
- The Trade Fair taking place at Ag. Mamas which is a fair of cultural events with local delicacies from September 1st to September 5th.
- The Sea Festival, an extraordinary theatrical performance with unobstructed views to the emerald Aegean and the Holy Mountain of Athos from July to August at Moudania.
In addition to the above mentioned festivals there are many other religious and cultural celebrations and regional festivities taking place in Halkidiki all year round including the Olive Festival, the Sardine Festival, the Mushroom Feast, the Mussel Feast and the Cherry Fair as well as the so called “Panigyria” which are the celebration of local saints, usually accompanied by music, traditional dances, local food and wine.
Fun activities to do in Halkidiki
Good news for all those visitors searching lively crowded beaches with beach bars, loud music, clubbing and similar kinds of entertainment – there is an exciting day life on those famous long, sandy beaches of Kassandra and Sithonia, with beach bars starting to party from early noon, delivering the baton to the clubs for the night!
Halkidiki is also home to many earthly paradises for those who want to feel the unspoiled nature and its beneficial properties. Paths for mountain biking and hiking or just short walks cut their way through forests of pine, oak, fir and chestnut trees. Here you can feel the pure refreshing air and the crystal clear cool water gushes from dozens of hidden springs for you to quench your thirst. Recommended destination for healing and rejuvenation – the natural thermal baths of Agia Paraskevi, where you can relax at the up to date spa‘s facilities which include pools, saunas, steam baths, showers, hot tubs (individual and group).
While crossing Halkidiki, you’ll meet some of the famous wine estates and vineyards of Greece. The whole region is dotted with many wineries open to visitors, making it ideal for wine tourism. You can either follow the Wine Roads of Halkidiki – part of the Wine Roads of Northern Greece, an excursion proposal that suggests selected routes that cross the most scenic spots, or draw your own route on the map and fill your days with flavors from the tasty and worldwide recognized wines of Halkidiki.
Anyone who wants to truly feel the vastness of the Aegean, needs to devote a little time to some serious sea sports! Windsurfing, kitesurfing, diving, water skiing and many other sea sports activities are all on offer when you are in Halkidiki – you’ll find good facilities in Kassandra and Sithonia. Furthermore, every July a major swimming event takes place at Toroneos Gulf, one of the world’s largest events at 26 km, the Swim Across the Toroneos Gulf, an open water competition attracting swimmers from all over the world.
And sailing of course! Sailing while in Halkidiki does not end at a cruise around Agion Oros. All those magnificent beaches, hidden coves, bays approachable only by sea, small virgin islands with their secrets are waiting for you to pay them a visit. Choose the vessel that fits your personality and your needs best, make your trip a romantic memory with a simple, charming fishing caique or turn it into a multi day cruise all around the “legs” with a fully equipped yacht.
When you’re having so much sea around you, fishing is one of the first things that comes on mind. The gulfs of Halkidiki along with the north Aegean are suggested both for beginners and professional fishers and here fishing can even be a family activity. Here you’ll find many perfect fishing spots and according to your qualifications, your equipment, the weather and the season, you can catch many different kinds of highest quality fish and seafood. The waters are full of life and if you are good, you can end up catching your own meal everyday, from sea directly to your pan!
Gastronomy and wine
Halkidiki’s cuisine has mostly been influenced by flavours of the Mediterranean cuisine and Asia Minor while the gastronomy brought from Mount Athos is a whole different section worth of study. Some of the local products one must try while visiting the region are the high quality olives and olive oil, goat cheese made of pure goat milk, tsipouro made of honey (mountovina), sweet preserves – the so called spoon sweets – made of fruits growing in the region, the Holomontas potatoes, mushrooms (variety avgomilakia), local chestnuts, barbounofasoula (variety of beans) from Neochori village.
Two more products absolutely worth standing by are local wines and honey. Halkidiki is the “mother of beekeeping” With 6,500 beekeepers (32% of the national total) and 1,910 tonnes of production of excellent quality honey annually, it’s fairly characterized as the center of beekeeping in Greece. The beekeepers of Halkidiki utilize in the most pure way the rich flora of Kassandra, Sithonia and North Halkidiki. The large amounts of micronutrients in pine honey, one of the local varieties, make it a highly nutritious honey. Production areas: Kassandra, Nikiti and Arnea. Plus, you can also try and purchase honey brought from Mount Athos.
Talking about wine, in Halkidiki of antiquity were also produced famous wines. Testimonials dating from the 5th century BC indicate the white dry and semi-sweet wine of Mende. Renowned for their wines were also Ierissos and Afitos while at Stagira, his hometown, Aristotle planted the first standard vineyard. Today vine is cultivated in central and mountainous Halkidiki, Mount Athos and Sithonia, which hosts the largest vineyard in Greece (4,750 acres).