“So, which island did you visit?” asked the taxi driver in Athens.
“We didn’t visit any of the islands,” I replied.
“You’re American, no?”
“Yes, we’re American.”
Baffled, the taxi driver continued, “No islands? Then where did you go in Greece?”
I’ll tell you where we went: Halkidiki. While there, we met no other American travelers. The taxi driver in Athens wasn’t the only person to ask us “which island” we visited, nor was she the only person who was surprised to learn that we were American and visiting Halkidiki. As one shopkeeper told us, “Americans do not come to Halkidiki.” Let me tell you, fellow Americans: you’re missing out. Halkidiki is quite possibly the best place in Greece you’ve never heard of.
The region of Halkidiki is in northern Greece and is part of Central Macedonia. Halkidiki itself is a peninsula, beginning on the mainland near Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. It continues southward to form three sub-peninsulas, or “legs” as I learned from the locals. Thought to resemble Poseidon’s trident, the three legs of Halkidiki are Kassandra, Sithonia, and Athos.
One giant peninsula branching out into three more peninsulas can mean only one thing: a lot of water. And all that water can mean only one thing: beaches. But the beauty of the landscape doesn’t end there; rugged mountains and dense pine forests provide a dazzling backdrop for Halkidiki’s diverse beaches. When it comes to nature and outdoor recreation, Halkidiki truly has something for everyone.
The westernmost peninsula is the most developed and is home to an array of resorts and nightclubs. This is where the holidaymakers go to have a good time. Highlights include:
Nea Moudania: The city of almost 10,000 is considered to be the commercial and financial center of Halkidiki. The hillside streets are teeming with shops, cafes, banking institutions, and restaurants. Climb the streets upward to the newer-but-traditional-looking Church of Nea Moudania, and downward to perfectly sandy beaches. The largest open-air market in Halkidiki is in Nea Moudania and takes place every Wednesday. The sights, smells, and variety of wares on offer all make the market worth a stop.
Pefkohori: The most happening spot on the Kassandra Peninsula, its roads are lined with beach resorts and holiday rentals. The beaches of Pefkohori are quite popular and can become crowded in the high season. But venture away from the sandy beaches and head up to the town’s charming Old Square. There you will find shops selling local products, from honey to handmade jewelry; neo-classical buildings; and outdoor tavernas offering live music almost nightly.
Afytos: We visited Afytos on the recommendation of Sakis, a shopkeeper we met in Pefkohori. If Sakis hadn’t told us about Afytos, we would have never known it was there. Tucked away off the main roads and perched high above the sea, Afytos is the most adorable village in Halkidiki. After climbing a few of the cobblestone streets, you may be tempted to turn back, thinking you’d seen enough of Afytos. But, trust me, you’ll want to continue going uphill. Find a cafe or taverna at the top and just enjoy the sea breeze and the neverending views.
Compared to Kassandra, the peninsula of Sithonia is more rugged and laid back. Many of the beaches lead out to calm, crystal blue waters of protected bays, and are backed by lush, dark green vegetation. Our base in Halkidiki for the first half of our trip was Psakoudia. On the mainland, Psakoudia is almost exactly halfway between Kassandra and Sithonia. Since we would be staying on Kassandra for the second half of our trip, we used our time in Psakoudia to explore Sithonia. We managed to cover a good portion of Halkidiki’s second leg, and each town we came upon was cuter than the last. Highlights include:
Vourvourou: The beaches of Vourvourou are my kind of beaches and, as a self-proclaimed non-beach person, that’s saying a lot. Vourvourou won me over with its protected coves and see-through water surrounded by boulders fit for scrambling and mountains covered in pine forest. We spent a couple of hours at Karidi Beach in Vourvourou, and it was no surprise to see that it is a favorite among families with young children. The calm waters are perfect for the kids to swim and play in. Trees lining the beach provide ample shade should anyone need to escape the sun for a bit. Vendors operating out of trucks and even walking the beach offer everything from bottled water to doughnuts to cold beer. Again, my kind of beach.
Sarti: Driving southeast from Vourvourou on our way back to Psakoudia, we came upon the beach town of Sarti. Not knowing anything about the town, we parked the rental car in a free public lot and set off on foot. We walked a paved pathway along the beach, noting that the open waters were rougher there than the protected bays of Vourvourou. It also afforded us a spectacular view of the western face of Mount Athos (more on that in a bit). Sarti has a good number of shops and cafes and a completely laid-back vibe. We popped into a beachside taverna with superb beach views and enjoyed a late-afternoon lunch of tzatziki and other assorted spreads; roasted pepper stuffed with cheese; and local beers.
Halkidiki’s third leg is said to be the most beautiful and the most pristine. I couldn’t tell you from first-hand experience, though, as I’m not allowed to visit Athos. You see, women are barred from visiting Athos. More than 1,000 years ago, the Byzantine Emperor Basil I declared Athos the exclusive domain of monks and hermits (all males). The first monastery on the peninsula was founded in the year 963. Over the years, the population of Athos swelled to more than 40,000 monks and the number of monasteries reached 40. Today, approximately 20 monasteries remain along with the no-women-allowed rule. In fact, the no-female rule on Athos even extends to domestic animals and livestock. (The only female animals allowed on the peninsula are wildlife.) Men may visit Athos but must request special permits, in advance, to do so. Despite the belief that women violate the sanctity of the peninsula, there are still a couple of highlights:
Ouranoupolis: Believed to be the “gateway to heaven” and the border between the human and the divine, Ouranoupolis is as far as female visitors (and male visitors without advance permission) can go on land. Ferries and small cruise boats operate out of Ouranoupolis to provide all visitors with a look at the peninsula and the monasteries – but from a distance. Not only are women not allowed on Athos, but they are not allowed within 500 meters of the shoreline. The sightseeing boats are careful not to violate this distance rule. The Athos sightseeing cruise runs approximately three hours. Tickets can be bought from the boat captain right on the pier. Back on land, visitors will find modern conveniences like ATMs and sporting goods stores. Dining options also abound and, being surrounded by water, you can imagine that seafood is of the highest quality. After the sightseeing cruise, we enjoyed a waterfront dinner at The Golden Hook. We wanted seafood, naturally, and unable to decide on which kind, our server invited me into the restaurant’s kitchen to pick out the exact fish for our dinner. That was a first for me! We ended up with grilled, whole sea bream, which our server masterfully filleted table side. That meal stands as one of the most exquisite dining experiences of my life.
Best time to travel to Halkidiki
It all depends on what type of holiday you’re looking for. We visited in mid-to-late September, Halkidiki’s low season. If small-to-nonexistent crowds at the beaches and restaurants are what you prefer, then September, near the end of tourist season, would be the best time to visit. Craving more excitement, a party atmosphere, and warmer temperatures? According to the locals we met, July and August is when you want to go. Keep in mind that Halkidiki kind of shuts down at the end of tourist season; exact dates vary by property and establishment. Definitely check ahead.
Getting to and around Halkidiki
The easiest way to get to Halkidiki is by flying into Thessaloniki. Several regional and budget airlines fly into and out of Thessaloniki International Airport “Macedonia”. We purchased round-trip tickets from Chicago to Athens on Scandinavian Airlines, then purchased separate round-trip tickets between Athens and Thessaloniki on Ryanair. It was seriously hassle-free and it saved us approximately $1,000USD on airfare (round-trip flights between Chicago and Thessaloniki were averaging $1,200 per person).
Some Halkidiki resorts offer transfers from Thessaloniki International Airport. We had planned to spend one night in Thessaloniki so we had our rental car from Avance delivered to us at our hotel (at an additional charge). At the end of our trip, we returned the car to the Avance lot at the airport in Thessaloniki. It was quick and easy. Avance and the other car-rental companies provide shuttle services from the car lots to the airport terminals.
The main roads of Halkidiki are well-maintained and gas stations are plentiful. Just a word of caution: some of the roads along the peninsulas’ coastlines have steep drop-offs and sharp turns. Drive slowly and carefully. Also, if driving across the peninsulas – especially Sithonia, where you’ll drive through national forest areas – the roads are narrow with vegetation leaning into the roadway at some points.
Another transportation option is KTEL Halkidiki bus service. Buses run between Thessaloniki and various towns on Kassandra and Sithonia, and to Ouranoupolis on Athos. Be sure to check the KTEL website for current schedules and timetables. Lastly, there is no type of train service on the peninsulas of Halkidiki.
More on Halkidiki
- English is widely spoken throughout Halkidiki. Visitors can easily get by without knowing a lick of Greek.
- Highway signs are well-marked, written in both English and Greek.
- Cell service (if you have an international plan) is reliable in the bigger villages, but it can be spotty in some areas. Therefore, it is a good idea to be adept at reading maps and highway signs if you normally rely on your phone’s GPS for driving directions.
- Wifi is largely available but, again, can be spotty.
There will be more to come about Halkidiki, including where to stay!
Disclosure: As a member of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association, I was on assignment in Halkidiki, and my accommodations were complimentary. I also received a media discount for the rental car. All other expenses were my responsibility. Be assured that all opinions contained herein, as always, are 100% my own.