The road less travelled: exploring Northern Greece

Kavala, Xanthi, Thasos and Samothrace may not spring to mind as your first ports of call on a trip to Greece, but these gems have charm in abundance. Here’s a two-week itinerary on how to make the most of a tour around the north of the country.
On Samothrace, there are plenty of opportunities to cool off in blissful solitude in one of many small pools of crystal-clear, deep green water at the foot of waterfalls.
Photograph by GNTO
By Greek National Tourism Organisation
Published 19 Dec 2019, 12:48 GMT

How to spend a week in Kavala and Thasos

Offering stunning views of the Aegean Sea, the coastal town of Kavala is a popular stepping stone to nearby islands, but stay at least one night and you’ll be tempted to linger longer to explore what was once a key port in the tobacco trade. Today, it’s a thriving city with Blue Flag beaches lined with waterside tavernas serving fresh seafood.

Start your trip at the city’s old wharf, watching wooden fishing boats haul in the catch of the day, before hiking up Simbolo Mountain to the Byzantine fortress built on the foundations of an ancient acropolis, for a view of the city and glimpses of Thasos in the distance.

Wander down past the 16th-century aqueduct and the Imaret, an impressive building erected in 1817 as a theological college for imams, before stopping for a snack at the bustling Agios Nikolaos Market. Follow your nose and enter the Tobacco Museum to learn how tobacco helped the city prosper. Discover how the crop was grown and processed and browse an intriguing collection of machines, cars, photographs and cigarette packs.

After lunch, allow time to travel 10 miles to the ancient city of Philippi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, named after Philip II, King of Macedonia, who fortified it in 360 BC to ward off the Thracians. Take a tour of its Roman ruins, before visiting the first Christian church on European soil, founded by St Paul the Apostle in AD 49–50, as well as the prison where he was kept.

Kavala is a thriving city with Blue Flag beaches lined with waterside tavernas serving fresh seafood.
Photograph by Getty Images

While Kavala’s beaches are attractive, nothing can rival those found on Thasos, just over an hour away by ferry. Golden Beach is the most celebrated place to soak up the rays, with over two miles of white-powder sand and crystal-clear waters, but the coastline has numerous hidden coves easily accessed via a road that almost rings the island. Although best known for its beaches, its nickname, the Emerald Isle, is indicative of another treasure — a mountainous green interior with an impressive network of hiking and cycling trails. Many of these lead to sleepy mountain villages like Kazaviti, Panagia and Theologos, lined with elegant mansions and traditional, stone-built houses.

End your trip with an evening in Thasos Town, known locally as Limenas, exploring its seafront tavernas, shops and bars. Be sure to see the ancient Roman acropolis and watch a Greek tragedy or opera in the amphitheatre in summertime.

Beaches are unrivalled on Thasos, with Golden Beach the most celebrated place to soak up the rays.
Photograph by GNTO

How to spend a week in Xanthi and Samothrace

With one of the best-preserved ancient cities in the country, multicultural Xanthi is known for its kaleidoscopic architecture, with Byzantine Greek churches, grand neoclassical mansions and Ottoman-era mosques sitting side by side.

Stroll along its pedestrianised cobbled streets and visit the colourful bazaar that pops up at Zoagoras Square every Saturday, soaking up the exoticism that defines this city. The cuisine reflects its diverse population; the area is a real melting pot, with dishes heavy in flavour and spices. Famous for its confectionery, mostly of Oriental origin, indulge in a variety of syrupy filo dough pastries from baklava to walnut pie or soak up the nightlife, which is surprisingly vibrant due to a large student population.

This cultural mix can also be seen at carnival time in February and in the Old Town during autumn, with art exhibitions and concerts among the numerous events taking place. Those seeking tranquillity can head 15 miles south east to Lake Vistonida, one of the most beautiful wetlands in Europe, where you can spot over 260 species of birds, including flamingos.

Visit Xanthi's Old Town during the autumn festival or February’s colourful carnival.
Photograph by GNTO
On Samothrace, there are plenty of opportunities to cool off in blissful solitude in one of many small pools of crystal-clear, deep green water at the foot of waterfalls.
Photograph by GNTO

Travellers who really want to be immersed in Mother Nature should head to Samothrace, a pristine green island home to forests, countless waterfalls and ancient legends. While the absence of an airport has continued to safeguard it from development, it’s actually only a pleasant two-hour ferry from Alexandroupoli, on the mainland.

Once there, leave the port and main hub of Kamariotissa and travel north around nine miles to Therma, a lush paradise with warm mineral springs to take a dip in, surrounded by tall chestnut trees and myrtles. Stay for sunset to enjoy an almost hippy vibe with traditional food, beer and the sound of guitars gently strumming in the background.

Sleep under the star-studded sky and rise early the next morning to begin the long hike to Mount Saos, the highest mountain in the Aegean, where legend has it that the sea god Poseidon sat and watched the Trojan War. Waymarked red signs will direct you to the first peak for the best views, with plenty of opportunity along the way to cool off and skinny dip in blissful solitude in one of many small pools of crystal-clear water at the foot of waterfalls. 

Brave souls can continue to the top of Fengari (5,285ft), the highest peak, but must be prepared for a strenuous scramble. End the day in Chora, the capital of the island, located four miles from Kamariotissa to enjoy the sunset in a local taverna sipping ouzo or local wine and tucking unashamedly into the famous stuffed lamb of Samothrace.

If you only do one thing in...

Kavala: eat fresh seafood in an authentic Greek waterside taverna
Thasos: relax on a white-sand beach or hidden cove
Samothrace: hike a mountain taking regular dips in one of the abundant hidden waterfalls and natural pools
Xanthi: visit the Old Town during the autumn festival or February’s colourful carnival

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