Beyond Athens: six other must-visit Greek towns and cities
A wealth of enticing places await those who decide to venture beyond the Greek capital
Greece’s ancient capital may steal the limelight in the city break stakes, but it’s far from being the only game in town. While some historic Greek centres such as Sparta may have paled in importance over the years, and others such as Kalamata and Preveza function primarily as regional air gateways, many others remain ripe for exploration, awash with charming old towns, unique cultures and vibrant local cuisines. Here are six of the best.
Notwithstanding the excellent Archaeological, Byzantine and Olympic museums, Greece’s second largest city, on the northeastern coast, cries out to be explored with your feet and tastebuds. Its unique energy, cuisine and architecture comes from a fascinating fusion of historic influences, from Greek and Roman to Ottoman – Thessaloniki is an open air museum with its Byzantine and Paleochristian monuments on Unesco’s World Heritage list.
Revitalised areas such as Ladadika and Ano Poli throng with inviting bars, restaurants and fancy buildings, while walking tours curate grand gestures such as the Rotunda of Galerius, Aristotelous Square and Heptapyrgion fortress, offering sweeping views over the city. Scenic strolls along the coastal promenade, meanwhile, are watched over by the city’s emblematic White Tower.
Every year Thessaloniki plays host to major cultural events, including the Thessaloniki International Fair (September), the International Thessaloniki Film Festival (November) and the International Book Fair (May).
Halkidiki’s sun-soaked resorts are within easy reach, too, as are the epic landscapes and trails spilling out from Mount Olympus. Alternatively, conjure a beach-backed twin centre by adding time in Kavala, which is just 160km to the east. Wine-lovers need not look far to sample the local drop, with the Gerovassiliou Winery and Wine Museum being well worth a visit – the city also has some exceptional wine roads.
Located halfway between Athens and Thessaloniki on the Greek mainland, Volos is a mythical destination where tourists can walk along paved Argonauts Avenue on the seafront and bask in the region that the centaurs called home.
The city of Volos has a rich history. Grand mansions and government buildings tell their own tale, while walking along the seafront you can pop into one of the small restaurants for the famous tsipouradika, named after tsipouro, the traditional spirit of the area, which is perfect when combined with seafood teasers. You’ll do it while overlooking the harbour’s picturesque fishing boats and yachts – and even a replica of the ancient ship the Argo.
Sightseers can visit Volos Castle, in Palia, towards the west of the city, or head to Agios Konstantinos, a pretty corner of the city that that is perfect for wandering around – or rent a bike and cycle on the city’s 10km cycle lane network. The region stretching out around Volos is beautiful. Visitors can tour archaeological sites, explore nature, get to know the picture-perfect villages of Pelion or set sail for the lush-green Sporades islands.
This northwestern charmer owes much of its allure to its idyllic lakeside setting, ringed by mountains. Cosy cafés dot the shady, tree-lined promenades edging Lake Pamvotis, offering a great place to kick back over a drink or a bite. More attractions await those who venture out to its island, not least the Ali Pasha Museum and fresco-filled Byzantine monastery.
Another of Ioannina’s draws is the sixth century Byzantine castle area, which remains inhabited. It’s a fascinating place, the Byzantine Museum, Silversmithing Museum and Acropolis of Its Kale, which feature among its highlights.
Ioannina has a rich gastronomic tradition based on the use of high-quality fresh local produce. A wide range of spices and herbs are used to complement local delicacies such as eels, trout and frog’s legs.
The town also makes a great base for touring the wider area, from the mystical monastic landscapes of Meteora, so beloved of hikers and photographers, to the national parks of Pindos and Vikos-Aoös, with its famous gorge and natural springs.
Gastronomes find much to savour in the airport-backed Cretan capital. In the market of Heraklion, one of the richest in the Mediterranean, visitors can find all sorts of modern products, as well as traditional Cretan products such the famous Cretan olive oil, raki, local wine, honey and herbs. Fresh local produce and snacks also flavour the Central Market on 1866 Street, vying with souvenirs for visitors’ attention – be sure to check out the monuments, many of which date back to the Middle Ages, such as the Venetian Loggia.
Beautifully floodlit by night, Koules fortress, by the old Venetian port, adds an air of romance to pre or post-prandial harbourside strolls while the impressive archaeological museum helps school visitors ahead of a visit to Knossos, pictured. The major Minoan site is but a short bus or taxi ride away, as are some lovely elevated inland villages such as Archanes. Exploring the latter makes for a pleasant diversion, powered by tasty pastries from the local bakeries, or extended stops at welcoming tavernas.
Not for nothing has Chania been prized as a settlement since Neolithic times. Served by an international airport, the city offers a more compact and characterful alternative to Heraklion, some 145km east along the northern coast.
Despite its clear Ottoman and Byzantine influences, and Minoan and Roman roots, much of its prized architecture hails from the Venetian era, including the remnants of the fortified walls and harbour. The latter help define the Old Town where myriad bars and restaurants grace the narrow stone alleyways, and squares such as Eleftherios Venizelos. Bargains await at the central market while the inviting harbourside eateries make worthy outcomes for evening strolls along the promenade.
Outside of town the pink-sanded beaches of Balos and Elafonissi await, with Samaria Gorge National Park catering to active types.
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