A three-fingered peninsula in Central Macedonia, Chalkidiki is mainland Greece’s sun and sand holiday paradise. The region has 72 Blue Flag beaches on 550 kilometres of coastline, and is sprinkled with archaeological sites like Stagira where the philosopher Aristotle was born.
The Kassandra and Sithonia Peninsulas to the west and centre are the tourist go-tos, with beaches that can be as fun-loving or sleepy as you like. The easternmost “finger”, Mount Athos, is a World Heritage Site with 20 monasteries and is one of the holiest places in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The only problem, and it’s a big one, is that women are forbidden.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Chalkidiki:
1. Mount Athos
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Mount Athos (The Holy Mountain) to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The peninsula is a single World Heritage Site, where more than 2,000 monks live at 20 monasteries.
There has been a Christian community here for 1,800 years, and the oldest monasteries go back to the 8th century AD. The lucky few who make it to Mount Athos will find a feast of priceless Medieval art, manuscripts and vestments, all still used in everyday worship.
But there’s a caveat: Only men are allowed to visit Mount Athos, and preference is given to Orthodox pilgrims.
Just to set foot on the peninsula you’ll need written permission from the “Mount Athos Office for Pilgrims”. After that you have to arrange your visit with the monasteries in advance.
But if you’re determined and prepared (and a man, sadly), you’ll be in for an experience that you won’t soon forget.
2. Petralona Cave
Discovered by chance in 1959, this limestone cave made headlines around the world in 1960 when a fossilised hominid skull, purported to be 800,000 years old, was found by the anthropologist Aris Pouliano.
The skull’s age and origin is the source of some controversy because, for it to be that old, it would contradict the evolution models of the genus Homo and the Out of Africa theory.
At any rate, the cave has spellbinding stalagmite and stalactite formations, and has yielded a wealth of animal fossils.
At Petralona’s Anthropological Museum is the oldest evidence of a man-made fire, believed to be 1,000,000 years old, a model of what the Archanthropus hominid might have looked like, a reconstruction of a prehistoric mausoleum and the fossilised shell of a tortoise from the Mesozoic era.
3. Ancient Stagira
The birthplace of Aristotle, and possibly the place where he was buried, Ancient Stagira is on a promontory near the modern coastal village of Olympiada.
The city was reduced to rubble in the 4th century BC by Philip II of Macedon, but the king reconstructed the city not long after as Aristotle had tutored his son, Alexander the Great.
The former citizens were freed from slavery and invited back to their old homes.
If your curiosity is roused by stories like this, make for the ancient city, which was abandoned in the 1st century AD. Quite a lot has been excavated, like the fortified walls, the ground floors of houses, the citadel, agora and the city’s tower, where beautiful mosaics have come to light.
After your historical adventure you can cool off at one of three coves around the peninsula.
4. Ancient Olynthus
Just in from the Toroneos Gulf, Olynthus is a site that has been inhabited since the Neolithic Age.
It’s a city rooted in Greek mythology, supposedly founded by the brother of Olynthus, son of Strymonas, the King of Thrace.
Another, more plausible explanation for the name, is that it comes from “olunthos”, the “fruit of the wild fig tree” as it rests in a fertile plain.
The city’s golden age came during the Classical Period from the 5th century BC when it joined the Delian League.
Most compelling of all are the aristocratic villas in a suburb of the ancient city, laid with some of the earliest floor mosaics to be found in Greek art.
Many of the artefacts recovered at Olynthus are at the museum where you can find out about the city’s street plan and infrastructure, and learn the intricacies of its economic life.
5. Agios Ioannis Beach
Off the main road that trails down the west coast of Sithonia, Agios Ionnnis is a beach that has escaped the tourist rush and doesn’t fill up until the height of summer.
It sits a couple of kilometres from the resort of Nikiti, where a gentle green hillside dappled with poplar trees meets the shore.
On the east end, by the main road is a pair of beach bars renting out sun loungers and parasols and offering full service.
Agios Ioannis has a wide tranche of white sand and the sort of shallow, transparent surf that people travel thousands of miles for.
6. Kallithea Beach
Low-key resorts are fine if you need to recharge your batteries, but sometimes you need more life, and Kallithea is a buzzing resort.
The main beach is edged by apartment blocks and hotels and there are seven tavernas and cafes within a five-minute radius, while a mini-market is also close at hand.
It’s the kind of beach where the bars play upbeat music through speakers all day, and the sun loungers go right down to the water.
Come on a fine summer’s day and the sea will be a picture-perfect turquoise hue.
7. Nea Potidea Canal
On the Kassandra Peninsula, the small harbour town of Nea Potidea is near the narrowest point of the Potidea isthmus that binds the peninsula to the mainland.
This position was chosen for an ancient engineering project that is still navigable: A 1,250-metre canal linking the Toroneos Gulf in the east with the Thermaic Gulf in the west.
Built either by the Macedonian King Cassander in the 4th century BC, or by the Romans 200 years later, the canal promoted trade by saving a long voyage around the peninsula.
It was also a useful way of defending the city from attackers by land from the north.
Forty metres wide and eight metres deep, the canal was updated twice in the 20th century, in 1930 and 1970 when the bridge was built.
8. Kalogria Beach
On the Sithonia Peninsula facing the Toroneos Gulf, Kalogria Beach is a half-kilometre curve of fine golden sand.
The water is what brings the crowds to Kalogria because you have to go out a long way before it starts to get deep, so couldn’t be better for swimming, snorkelling, paddle-boarding or just drifting on an air mattress.
In places the beach can get narrow, but it’s long enough that there’s room for everyone and has a constant backdrop of evergreen trees.
The public space is in the middle, while at either end there are rows of sun loungers for the Hotel Mango, which cost a little to hire and offer waiter service.
9. Byzantine Tower of Nea Fokea
On a hillock over the east side of the port in Nea Fokea is a tower from a Byzantine fortress built around 1407. Almost 30 metres high the tower is Nea Fokea’s signature sight and is all that is left of a fortress that was destroyed in 1821 during the Greek War Independence.
At that time the fortress was the base of Emmanouel Pappas, leader of the Greek insurgency in Macedonia, after he landed with 4,000 fighters on Chalkidiki.
Originally the fortress had been raised to protect a metochion (embassy church), which is now in ruins although you can see what’s left of the south and east wing.
10. Possidi Beach
While many of Chalkidiki’s best beaches are tucked into gulfs away from the wind and open sea, this beach on a cape at the very southwest of the Kassandra Peninsula is right on the Aegean.
The size and location of the beach have kept amenities to a minimum so you’ll need to pack a picnic and a parasol.
Possidi is a triangular sandbank, with currents converging at the tip to form some large waves.
On many days the wind, currents and depth of the water on the east side aren’t suited to younger children, but there’s no denying the natural splendour of the location.
When the weather is clear the water on the west side is tranquil, pristine, and fine for kids to play in.
11. Agios Nikolaos
This mountain village is at the top of the Sithonia Peninsula in an agricultural region known for its honey, wine, tsipouro (pomace brandy) and olive oil.
Agios Nikolaos is a quaint place to stop for lunch or dinner during a drive down the peninsula.
At the heart of village is the main square, enclosed by 19th-century houses with stone walls and wooden balconies.
Around a plane tree and fountain, almost every building on the square is a cafe or restaurant.
There’s a cordial atmosphere whenever you come in summer, but try to be here for the celebrations for the village’s patron saint, Agia Paraskevi around July 26.
12. Ouranoupoli Byzantine Tower
Welcoming voyagers into the port at Ouranoupoli on the Mount Athos Peninsula is an intact Byzantine tower.
This fortification is from 1344 and was erected to spot pirates and defend the Vatopediou Monastery from raids.
You can’t go inside unfortunately, but the tower is a great photo opportunity from your ferry as you arrive at the port or on the beach.
Ouranoupoli is the final settlement before the border with the monastic state of Mount Athos, and is the gateway to the World Heritage Site as it hosts the “Mount Athos office for Pilgrims”. This is where you collect your “Diamonitirio”, written permission to visit the lower portion of the peninsula.
13. Sani Marina
We’ve journeyed to traditional villages and seen traces of Ancient Greece, but there’s also a modern, high-luxury side to Chalkidiki.
This is most ostentatious at Kassandra’s new Sani Marina.
At the end of a 50-metre canal, the oval-shaped marina is bordered by manicured gardens, fashion boutiques, patisseries, restaurants and the 5-star hotels and villas of the Sani resort.
As an everyday sightseer you could walk the quay, wonder at the luxury yachts berthed just a few metres away and soak up the rarefied scene a cafe or restaurant table.
Moments on foot is the fine sand and rippling turquoise water of Sani Beach.
14. Tzikas Vineyard
Winemaking has a heritage in Chalkidiki dating back long before the days of Aristotle, and you could spend a whole trip immersing yourself in the region’s viticulture.
There are six wineries to visit, although a couple are on Mount Athos and so are restricted to men.
A standout is the Tzikas Vineyard in rural Kassandra, a personal, family-run establishment where you can chat with the vintner Yiannis, who will take you on a guided walk of the organic vineyard and give you a well-informed tasting session.
This winery’s full-bodied Limnio comes highly recommended.
15. Boat Rental
To get the most out of Chalkidiki you’ll have to take things into your own hands and hire a motorboat.
This couldn’t be easier, and you won’t need a licence for boats under 30hp.
Sithonia, which has the most indented coast, is the best place to begin your voyage.
At Vourvourou there’s a directory of companies renting out boats for you to tour the archipelago of namesake islands a few hundred metres out to sea.
Bring a picnic and within minutes you can weigh anchor in search of deserted beaches like Myrsini and the “Blue Lagoon”, a shallow strait between the islands of Agios Isidoros and Diaporos with water so pure it will seem like your boat is floating on air.