A highlight of any visit to Halkidiki is the wonderful wine and food. You will encounter all types of cuisine at a wide range of places from ouzeries and tavernas to gourmet restaurants, the latter mostly in the five-star resorts. Most of these places do incorporate local, seasonal products even if recipes stray from the area or country. Of course, staying around the coast in towns and villages like Vouvourou, Nea Fokea, Nikiti, Olympiada and Ouranoupoli you will be spoilt for choice dining on fresh seafood; enjoy the local recipes for octopus cooked with rice and lentils or served with the local green bean “louvidia”, as well as various takes on stuffed squid. The mountain villages of Arnea and Taxiarhes are the places to feast on wild boar, wild mushroom dishes or pies like “pigdopita” made with fatty chunks of pork.
There are large groves of olive trees in the south of the region, mainly growing the large green Halkidiki olive variety, which, when pressed, produces a high grade, bold and flavourful golden oil. Honey is another product that features highly, and there are a handful of different kinds – pine, thyme, chestnut and orange blossom are the most commonly produced. The village of Nikiti is one of the main centres of apiculture, and its honey is considered among the finest in Europe.
Every good meal demands an accompaniment of pleasing wine and the local ones certainly won’t disappoint. Aristotle mentions his local red wine made from the Limnio variety, which continues to be produced to this day. Viticulture has been on the up in Halkidiki for some time now, and there are some seriously good wineries in the region, which rivals Nemea as a location for enchanting wine tours. Names to keep in mind are Domaine Porto Carras, Tsantali, Agios Pavlos, Ktima Tzika and Papayianni Estate, and a visit to the area determines a wonderful excuse to taste many of these award-winning wines. Where there’s wine there’s “tsipouro”, so if you go native you will no doubt enjoy the odd glass or two of this fiery spirit at some point of the day.
More to check out:
- The annual Gourmet Festival hosted at Sani Resort that brings over local and global award-winning chefs to prepare new dishes. There are culinary workshops as well as wine tastings and pairings. Oh and one of their restaurants has been awarded a Michelin Star.
- The Women’s Association in Taxiarchis who make spoon-sweets by hand. Try the white pumpkin “Dolma”, fruity jams, Greek pasta “trachana”, and flavoured liqueurs. At Varvara village, the Women’s Association produces spoon-sweets, compotes and preserves.
- The food grown and produced by the Athos monks; simple seasonal dishes with a smattering of fish every once in a while. Interestingly enough, in most monasteries both wine and olive oil are served every other day, a dietary practice scientific research shows offers great health benefits.
- Mount Athos’ award-wining wines produced by the Holy Seat St. Eustathios, the Holy Monastery of Agia Lavra and Tsantali Metohi Chromitsa Winery.
- Honey from the cooperative Sithonia. When buying honey, look for the Sithon Honey label, as it is considered the best.
Holidaying in Halkidiki doesn’t simply have to be about sunning yourself on a beach. The paradisiacal ancient landscape with trails and tracks that meander and undulate over lush, mountainous peninsulas provide explorers with thrillingly diverse natural attractions and spectacular vistas. Take your pick from a range of activities on offer: go hiking on one of 20 clearly marked paths, ride on horseback through dense pine forests and along sandy shores, mountain bike over rugged mountainous paths or take a jeep safari exploring the many dirt roads.
You can travel through traditional mountain settlements like Parthenonas in Sithonia, built up with robust, traditional stone houses, Taxiarchis and Vrastama on Mount Holomontas, surrounded by deep forests of beech, chestnut and fir. Relish in following the so-called Aristotle’s trail, the historical ‘peripatetic’ hike along a beautiful 18km path from the village of Stagira to the ancient ruins of the same name where the philosopher was born. You will come across wetlands like those at Sani that are inhabited by countless awesome wildlife species. You can take in astounding sea views from the rugged and wild Kapros peak on the southern tip of Sithonia. And why not enjoy a curative soak in the thermal spring waters at Agia Paraskevi, in pine-clad Loutra?
The shores around the peninsulas make for superb scuba-diving experiences, observing rich submarine wildlife. There are underwater caves at Porto Valitsa on Kassandra and, a little further south, the best reefs in the area at Agios Nicholas. Divers can also explore the wrecks of the old German vessel Mytilini, sunk in 1961, and an old iron Turkish ship at Porto Koufo in Sithonia. A few kilometres to the east of this lies the 60m underwater cave Erica.
More to check out:
- Waterskiing, wake-boarding, SUP and other pleasurable water-sports at the beaches of Sani, Posidi, Armenisti, Polichrono, Vouvourou, Nikiti and Agios Nicholas. You can also charter a boat to sail or motor around the endless coves and bays.
- Rock-climbing near Loutra on Kassandra, where there is a range of climbs up shoreline cliffs.
- A cruise around the monastic peninsula of Athos. It is as close as women are allowed to get to this male-only Greek Orthodox sanctuary.
- Sea-kayaking around the endless glittering coastline of Kassandra and Sithonia. One of the best places to kayak is in the waters of Vourvourou. Paddle to the islet of Diaporos in the calm waters of the bay or down to the aquamarine lagoon of Livari.
It was the seafaring Euboeans who really gave this area a cultural impetus of historical significance. Coming from Eretria and Halkis (hence the name Halkidiki) these colonisers incorporated the area into their cosmology and myth-making, heralding a new hierarchy of divinities – the pantheon of the 12 gods of Olympus. This defining religion was to last for 1,000 years, spanning two great civilizations, that of the Greeks and that of the Romans. Hence, the peninsula of Kassandra was once known as Flegra, “the place of fire”, where the Olympian gods defeated the giants and creatures from the underworld, the symbols of the old order. Some of the cities the Euboeans founded include Toroni, Scione and Mende, but perhaps the most significant is that of Stageira, which was founded by the Andriots. It was the birthplace of the great polymath and philosopher Aristotle, who was a student of Plato and teacher to Alexander the Great.
Herodotus writes that during the Persian wars, after the fleet of Xerxes was wrecked off the coast of Athos, he proceeded to dig a canal at the isthmus of that peninsula (which is no trivial exploit) for his fleet to pass through. Another isthmus of note is that of Potidea, where Kassandra begins. The city there is where the attritional and ultimately destructive Peloponnesian wars began.
The towns and lands of Halkidiki were then incorporated into the Macedonian and then the Roman empires. After the east-west schism of the latter into the Byzantine Empire, the population converted to Christianity. In 963 AD the first monastery, “Great Lavra”, was built on Mount Athos.
During the 14th century Kassandra was under the control of the Venetians whilst the rest of the region was in the hands of the Serbs. In the mid 15th century they came under the yoke of the Ottomans, playing a leading part in the Greek War of Independence in 1821, although it was not to gain independence until 1912. In 1922, after the troubles in Asia Minor and the expulsion of the Greeks, many refugees came to settle in Halkidiki, building new settlements and serving to greatly enhance the culture and economy of the area.
More to check out:
- The Anthropological Museum at Petralona. It houses paleontological finds from Nea Triglia, Euboea, Ptolemaida and some from Africa.
- Mount Athos, for men only. For those wishing to visit Athos, it’s essential to schedule your arrival and stay in advance. It can take up to three months for visitor’s permits to be obtained. Unless you’re the Prince of Wales, of course.
- Ancient Olynthos and the Archaeological Museum there. The city was built using the Hippodamean town-planning system, of which you can still see evidence, and in 423 BC was the capital of Halkidiki. The museum features audiovisual exhibitions that recount the history of Olynthos and depicts it in its former glory.
- Ancient Akanthos, near Ierissos. Built by Andriot colonists in 655 BC, this was an important and wealthy city. It is one of the best-preserved ancient sites in Halkidiki.
- The Pyrgos Prosforeiou, a 14th century Byzantine tower in Ouranoupoli. It now houses a museum exhibiting local artefacts from the ancient times up until the end of the Byzantine era. There are also maps and detailed images of interesting places in the area bordering Mount Athos.
- The Byzantine towers of Nea Fokea, Mariana at Olynthos and Krouna at Ierissos.
The Folklore Museum of Polichrono; the Folklore Collection at Vavdos; the Folklore Museum at Polygyros; the Folklore Museum at Afytos, and the History and Folklore Museum at Arnaia. These fascinating establishments all exhibit objects and utensils that help tell the story of life in Halkidiki during the past two centuries.
Halkidiki is a bulbous peninsula that separates into three long fingers pointing out into the North Aegean. Four mountain ranges dominate the landscape: Holomontas, Athos, Stratoniko and Itamos. To the north is Mount Holomontas, with thick forests of oak and pine on the lower slopes that change into fir, chestnut and beech as one rises towards the 1165m peaks. The mountain is home to deer, hares, wild boars, wolves and foxes, as well as birds of prey such as golden and snake eagles, griffon vultures, peregrine and Eleonora's falcons and eagle owls.
Run-off from the gulleys and canyons on Holomantas pours into the largest river of the area Havrias, which flows into the Gulf of Toroneos, to the east of which lies Mount Itamos, its highest peak rising to 811m, making it Sithonia’s highest. Swathed mainly in pine forests, there are still a few of the indigenous and very rare Itamos trees, while the mountain is also an important habitat to impressive flora and fauna similar to that of its northerly neighbour Holomantas. The mountain dives into the sea and on these edges are many beautiful and wild beaches.
To the east, Mount Athos towers at 2,033m above sea level. Thick pine and oak forests cover much of the northern part, which features a number of streams running through weathered ravines. To the south it is dryer and the vegetation becomes sparse.
Kassandra, the flattest and most fertile of the three peninsulas is also the most developed, but nevertheless it has many gorgeous beaches, quite a few of which are dressed with rich vegetation that starts where their golden sands end, like Kryopigi, Nea Potidaia, Paliouri, Glarokavos and Pefkohori. There are also wetlands protected by the European network Natura 2000, such as Mavrobara at a height of 300m above sea level and set within a charming pine forest. This sweet-water lake between Polichrono and Kassandrino is home to two rare species of water turtle, the Emys orbicularis and Mauremys caspica. They share their aquatic habitat with many other reptiles, including water snakes, frogs and salamanders.
On the east coast of Sithonia, beneath Mount Dragoudeli, is the enchanting Kavourotripes beach, famous for the mermaids carved onto large rocks. From here, Mount Athos and some of its monasteries are visible. On the southern tip of Sithonia is Kalamitsi beach, with fine sand, cobalt water and a small island within swimming distance.
More to check out:
- The gushing waterfalls near the village of Varvara, deep in a woodland of beeches, alders, lindens, and wild hazels. The location and the profound feeling of tranquility it inspires will make you feel you have discovered a small paradise.
- The geologically and archaeologically significant Petralona Cave. Not only is it adorned with stalactites and stalagmites but a fossilized skull known as Archanthropus europaeus petraloniensis was also discovered there. Mooted by some to be a whopping 700,000 years old; mainstream theories date it more conservatively at between 160,000 and 240,000 years.
- The sunsets from the delightful beach of Karidi, 400m to the east of Vourvourou Bay.
The Sani wetlands above Nea Fokea. Over 200 species of birds can be spotted in this 110-hectare wetland of brackish marshes. Of these, four are critically endangered: the Montagu’s harrier, corn bunting, graylag goose and the glossy ibis.
Halkidiki's world-renowned luxury profile ensures that every summer it welcomes high-flying visitors as well as frazzled parents and cosmopolitan bunches of friends eager for rest, recreation and relaxation in a breathtakingly beautiful natural setting while receiving all the pampering they can handle. The area’s idyllic landscapes and seascapes, combined with sophisticated accommodation, are delightful enough to keep visitors so busy they can even attempt a technology detox, according to Lonely Planet, which describes Halkidiki as a place where “there are gleaming beach resorts, seafood tavernas steps from the shore, and air scented with ouzo and sunscreen".
Although Halkidiki never becomes unbearably crowded, there are some areas that are definitely busier, such as Kassandra peninsula where most of the luxury resorts like Sani as well as all other ranges of accommodations are to be found. Highly-developed Kassandra is also the liveliest zone for nightlife – it is comparable to that of cosmopolitan Mykonos and doesn't fail to attract beautiful people finding great ways to entertain themselves. Needless to say, many guests at luxury resorts prefer to stay put on their hotel grounds where they can find all the creature comforts they dream up at minimum effort: romantic dinners on the beach, spa treatments, quality services, gourmet gastronomy, and a social buzz. Just one example, Sani's promotional literature boasts a “vivid bar and roaring cafe society” at the resort.
Sithonia also attracts a glittering crowd, thanks to luxury-style accommodation Resorts, where many A-list Hollywood celebs and other personalities have stayed throughout the years. But the scene on this peninsula is more low-profile, proving especially attractive to families.
More to check out:
- The popular settlement of Kallithea. With its stunning pine-embraced beaches in Kassandra and a lively after-hours scene, it attracts a modish crowd.
- Boat charter for luxurious exploration. Get away from the hoi polloi and lose yourself in areas exclusively reached by boat like Limanakia coves, or dock at Neos Marmaras fishing village with other yachts and sailing boats to kick back in a lively area for traditional-style delectable fresh seafood and chilled wine.
Porto Koufo on Sithonia, one of the largest natural harbours in Greece, protected by two huge bluffs. This is a popular place for ouzo and fresh seafood overlooking the fishing boats, after a long day on the beach.