You can’t separate them: Macedonia and Alexander go hand in hand, and he will always be in the first breath of any discussion of why you should come. But did anyone tell you how beautiful his kingdom is? Rugged mountains, their steep slopes thick with trees, make it a tough land to dominate, hard to weld together. They provide a perfect backdrop for the fertile plains of the Macedonian lowlands, the core of the ancient kingdom, a place to develop a deep and distinct culture and produce fine treasure. Beyond the plains there are the deep blue waters of the Aegean Sea, inviting for us, and a gateway to the islands, but often a threat for Macedonians. And there you have the twin attractions: desperately beautiful country with a history threaded with triumphs and turbulence as Macedonians alternately rise to political and cultural dominance or fight invaders – or each other – for the wealth of the land.
It was this dividable land that was definitively brought together and harnessed by Philip II of Macedon. Our tour will show you the scale of that achievement, right up to the very spot of his dramatic end. You’ll see where Alexander spent his formative years in his father’s kingdom and the wealth that surrounded their Argead dynasty, the profits of conquest fit for the warrior descendants of heroes.
Between the sun-drenched beaches and the snow-dusted mountains, Macedonia has a wealth of sites, well-known and obscure, not only from the time of Philip and Alexander but also of their ancestors, and those of the later masters of the region – Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and Ottomans. As well as world-famous highlights like the royal tombs at Vergina and the embattled imperial splendour of Byzantine Thessaloniki, you’ll come to the great sanctuary of Zeus at Dion in the shadow of Mount Olympus and the towering ruins of Philippi with its enormous Late Roman basilicas. They are matched by a throng of lesser-known marvels: one of Europe’s oldest farming settlements at Dikili Tash, the seat of long-forgotten Iron Age warrior kings at Aiani, and a marvellously-preserved Classical Greek island city on Thasos. You’ll explore the remains of private homes, two millennia old and more, room by room at Olynthos, a great late Classical city doomed at Philip’s hands; you’ll be entranced by a medieval fairytale town rising from a misty lake at Kastoria – and so much more…but for the rest, you’ll need to give in to the temptations of reading the itinerary…
Following the principles of our acclaimed Exploring tours, the best-prepared land tours available, Peter Sommer Travels has crafted an unforgettable itinerary in this extraordinary part of the world, a tour ideal either for the first-time visitor to Macedonia, or as a profound deepening of the experience, revelatory even for those who have travelled there before. Meticulous attention has gone into every detail: superb accommodation in selected characterful locations, fascinating in their own right; excellent meals that reflect the full spectrum of the local tradition, and a succession of site visits offering insights into the breadth of the region’s culture and history, eagerly brought to you by our trademark team of expert guides.
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Leaving the city, we head west, stopping by the Macedonian Tomb at Agios Athanasios, the resting place of a Macedonian nobleman from the era of Alexander. Here, a humdrum industrial landscape reveals one of the region’s greatest archaeological treasures: a large burial mound containing a stepped passage leading to an underground tomb with a temple-like façade, still covered in extraordinarily well-preserved paintings, vibrantly depicting warriors, shields and a symposium or funeral feast.
Onwards, we reach Pella, the city chosen by Philip as his capital, the birthplace of Alexander. This carefully-planned city illustrates the new ambition of Macedonia as a formidable power, with richly decorated and refined houses and a mass of sanctuaries beneath the royal palace. We’ll take in the excellent site museum, and come away with wonderful memories of the famous pebble mosaics and their evocative celebration of the hunting prowess of Macedonia’s transformative generations.
Our first site takes us far back into Greece’s past as we reach Dispilio, one of the most extensively studied prehistoric settlements in Greece. Set just off the shore of tranquil Lake Orestiada, Dispilio is Greece’s only prominent example of an early lacustrine (lakeside) settlement. It was inhabited during the Neolithic, and its waterlogged conditions have ensured the remarkable preservation of much organic material, including leather and wood dating back to its occupation 8,000 to 5,000 years ago. Full-scale reconstructions of houses and their interlinking walkways vividly recreate the site.
We continue along the shore to Kastoria, memorably located on a near-island in the lake, a tree-strewn verdant neck of land set delightfully ablaze by a spill of red terracotta-tiled roofs. This is the romantic setting to one of the most beautiful and significant historic towns in Greece. Its winding streets are lined by impressive stone-and-wood-built mansions of the Ottoman era, rubbing shoulders with some of the finest medieval churches in Greece. Kastoria’s position at the very edge of the Byzantine Empire gave it special political and military significance, endowing it with the distinctive character of a frontier city and leading to its adornment with an astonishing wealth of Byzantine churches from the tenth to fourteenth centuries, distinguished by superb decorative brickwork and a wealth of fresco decoration within (and occasionally without!).
Our time in Kastoria is crowned by a visit to the brand-new Byzantine Museum. Its state-of-the-art displays bring out the beauty of the exhibits, as well as their historical and cultural meaning, explaining how such splendour came to this remote place for a few extraordinary centuries. In the afternoon, having primed our senses, we stop for a wine-tasting in the Amyntaio region, before returning to Edessa.
Our first visit is to Dion, the central sanctuary and shrine of the ancient Macedonians, set on the eastern slopes of Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in Greece and the myth-wrapped home of the Twelve Olympian gods. Dion is an enormous site, a great Hellenistic and Roman city, filled with shrines and temples and still being explored. There’s much for us to see already, including the theatre where Alexander assembled his troops and sought divine favour for the fateful expedition that would plunge into the empire of the Persians and change the world forever.
From the threshold of one imperial downfall, we visit a different era and the aftermath of another, journeying south to the mighty castle of Platamon. A millennium and a half later, and we are at the beginning of the last, endlessly-embroiled phase of Macedonia’s medieval history, as the Fourth Crusade breaks apart the Byzantine Empire, and makes Macedonia the arena for ever-changing competitors to seek regional dominance. This western European style of castle marks the beginning of Frankish Greece, built to stamp the control of Boniface of Montferrat onto his division of the spoils of Byzantium. Fortune didn’t favour him, but leaves us with a long tale of restored Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman rule, and use as late as the Second World War which illustrates the turbulent later history of Macedonia.
We end up in picturesque Naoussa, our base for the next three nights and set in Northern Greece’s most famous wine-growing area.
Our main ancient site today is Aiani, capital of the semi-independent region of Elimea before Philip II imposed his central kingship and union on the Macedonian regions. Overlooking the fertile valley of the River Aliakmon, this was the seat of local rulers, ‘big men’, for centuries, one of multiple regional centres vying for dominance. Here is the best place to explore the genesis of Macedon, from a dispersed and ramshackle region to a centralised first-rank kingdom. The archaeological site itself exemplifies the age-old pattern of an aristocratic citadel surrounded by aristocratic tombs in a splendid lofty setting. The local museum, one of the best in Northern Greece, houses artefacts reflecting the life, ideas and aspirations of those who dwelt and died here.
Afterwards, we visit the town of Verroia, an important centre of medieval Greek culture that has not yet become a major tourist destination. Set in a striking location above the Central Macedonian Plain, its history unites New Testament narrative with Byzantine splendour, Ottoman multiculturalism and the turbulent history of modern Greece, all of which is worn in its architectural heritage. We visit the Church of the Anastasis or Resurrection, decorated with elaborate frescoes in 1315, and the Byzantine Museum with its rich collection of icons and wall paintings.
On returning to Naoussa, we visit one of the local wineries to sample the region’s famous Xinomavro wines. In the evening, you are free to choose where to dine among Naoussa’s multiple fine options.
Our first visit is to the Nymphaion, a shrine to the nature deities, at Mieza which Aristotle chose as the idyllic location for his school when invited by Philip II to educate Alexander and the other sons of Macedonia’s elite, who would go on to found empires and set history on a radically new course. Green and serene now, fringed with aristocratic tombs, we can imagine the debates that fired minds to produce rulers famed not just in war, but for patronising scientists and poets, establishing great libraries and exploring a new, wider world.
We continue to one of the most significant sites in ancient history: Vergina. Once known as Aigai, it was the Macedonian capital before Pella, and home to a magnificent palace built by Philip himself. We visit the sprawling remains of this ornate and luxurious building, a fitting residence for the man who welded the quarrelsome Macedonians into an unbeatable dynamic force. Close by, we visit the end point of Philip’s life, the theatre where his wedding-day assassination was played out, and Alexander’s reign began ominously in blood and confusion.
We follow Philip to the true highlight of the day, the great burial mound beneath which he was buried amidst unparalleled wealth, which was only rediscovered in the 1980s. Transformed now into one of the finest archaeological museums in the world, it displays not only the unbelievably rich and varied grave-goods of so many royals, but also their elaborate tombs themselves. Here, you will come face-to-face with some of the most famous archaeological discoveries ever made, the stunning finds from the tomb believed to be Philip’s – the armour, shield and helmet, the gold casket and bowcase, the ivory carvings, and more. These stunning finds constitute one of the greatest treasures ever found in Greece - rivalled only by the Bronze Age tombs of Mycenae (which you can see on our Peloponnese tour).
We return to Naoussa for our final night there.
Our visit today is Stageira, an ancient city on the eastern coast of the Chalkidiki Peninsula. Founded by settlers from Andros in the 7th century BC, the city famously withstood an Athenian siege in 424 BC. Philip II besieged and destroyed Stageira in 356 BC, but it was rebuilt on a grander scale a few years later, apparently as a favour to Aristotle, Alexander’s tutor, whose birthplace it was. Beautifully set on a hill overlooking the Aegean Sea, the ruins of Stageira include impressive city walls, several sanctuaries and an assembly-place where Aristotle himself may have first experienced political discourse. There is also a monument that has recently been proposed to be his tomb and hero-shrine, since the great philosopher may well have been worshipped as the re-founder of his city.
We continue inland to a famous winery (in the Drama/Kavala wine region), where we sample the local produce, among the most celebrated in Greece, before reaching our hotel in the town of Drama.
Philippi, an enormous archaeological site, has recently been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. It is certainly a high point on our tour: a superb introduction to Eastern Macedonia. Philippi, founded around 360BC by settlers from Thasos, was conquered by Philip II a few years later and has borne his name ever since. Its strategic location on the major land route east that later became the Roman Via Egnatia, but also near the region’s famous gold mines, allowed it to be a major centre for fifteen centuries. Apart from Philip II himself, it was frequented by many other ancient celebrities, among them Alexander, whose army passed through here in 334 BC on the way to attack the Persian Empire; Octavius and Marc Antony, whose troops defeated Caesar’s murderers Brutus and Cassius in the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC; and Saint Paul, who first set foot on European soil here in AD 50 and visited twice more, establishing one of the earliest Christian communities in Greece. The ruins of Philippi are stunning, including a theatre, an agora, and the breathtaking remains of several huge Early Byzantine basilica churches with astonishingly ornate details. An on-site museum completes the experience.
We continue to the ancient city of Amphipolis, set on the banks of the River Strymon, just inland from its estuary. Founded by the Athenians in 437 BC, it was torn from them in a great battle in 422 by the great Spartan general Brasidas, who died in the attempt; we see his burial chest in the excellent site museum. Amphipolis became an independent city-state until its conquest by Philip II in 357 BC, after which it was the centre of Macedonian rule and administration in the east of the kingdom and the place where Alexander assembled his troops in 334 en-route to his epic campaign in Asia.
Our visit takes us to the famed Lion of Amphipolis, a monumental statue which may once have been part of the nearby Kasta Tumulus, the enormous multi-chambered burial monument excavated amid huge public interest a few years ago.
Afterwards we make our way east to the lovely - and lively - port town of Kavala. This evening, you can take your pick from Kavala’s many gastronomic options.
In later times, the town shrank, which means there’s lots for us to see of the ancient city: its stupendous defensive walls, with several well-preserved towers and gates, proudly decorated with reliefs. We’ll see its theatre, altars, shrines and temples, explore the agora, and the remains of the once-bustling harbour. There are few places in Greece where an ancient urban centre can be understood and experienced in its entirety as easily as here. The exploration is enhanced by the superb local archaeological museum, housing a rich array of remarkable finds.
Moving away from the town, we will discover more of the island by visiting Alyki near its southern tip. There, we will explore a mysterious pagan religious site and two Early Byzantine basilicas before exploring the enormous ancient marble quarries,
We return to Kavala in the late afternoon.
First, we head across the lovely Chalkidiki peninsula to Olynthos, an important, but unlucky, Classical city, whose ill-fortune has bequeathed us an amazing archaeological legacy. Rebuilt after near-total destruction during the Second Persian War (480 BC), Olynthos headed a league of local cities resisting Athens, Sparta and all-comers from the 430s onwards. Philip II finally besieged and destroyed the city in 348 BC, its traumatic end leaving us some of the best and most extensive remains of a classical Greek town to be seen anywhere in the Mediterranean. We will roam the 2,500 year-old street grid and visit the private homes of the city that were last inhabited when Philip’s armies were massed outside.
We continue to our hotel in the centre of Thessaloniki. The city is renowned for its countless fine eateries, so this evening is yours to choose one of the countless options available.
Thessaloniki, founded by Alexander’s successor, Cassander, in 315 BC has been the centre of this historically rich and turbulent region ever since. Successively, from its Hellenistic beginnings it’s been the capital of a Roman province, an early centre of Christianity, a Byzantine metropolis, the seat of a Crusader kingdom and an Ottoman multi-ethnic city and centre of Sephardic Jewish culture, right down to its present status as Greece’s second city. This history is written all over the fabric of the city.
Our tour of Thessaloniki reveals its time as an imperial capital under the emperor Galerius, as we visit his palace and his great mausoleum, the Rotonda, in the city centre. We see the city’s time as an outpost of orthodox Christianity and Byzantine power shielded by Saint Demetrios as we visit its extraordinarily fine churches whose quality and decoration stand second only to those of Constantinople, and the imposing and often-defended city walls. A special highlight is a short tour of the Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki, perhaps the finest in the world and a testament to Greece’s standard-setting in museums, where a series of superbly crafted exhibits provides a panoramic understanding of this key part of European history.
We complete our exploration of Macedonia in the spectacular Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, an enormous and extraordinary collection ranging from the earliest prehistory to imperial Rome. Among the many highlights, we’ll tour the breath-taking 'Gold of Macedon' exhibit: finds from aristocratic tombs of the classical era, a pivotal time when Macedonia pushed itself from the margin of Greek history and culture to its centre. The wealth and intricate craftsmanship, and the mix of influences from the Greek world and beyond, illustrate the region’s history once more, setting a context for the achievements of Philip II, Alexander and their successors. At the same time, the exhibits will evoke many of the places we have seen during the previous ten days.
In the evening, we enjoy a final dinner together.
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Arrival and Departure Information
Arrival Airport – Thessaloniki Airport (Makedonia)
Departure Airport – Thessaloniki Airport (Makedonia)
Check in time at your hotel in Thessaloniki is after 14:00 so we recommend choosing a flight that arrives in the afternoon/early evening. Check out time is 12:00 pm. We will arrange local transfers from Thessaloniki Airport and to Thessaloniki Airport on the first and last day of the tour.
Booking Flights The cheapest way to book flights for our Exploring Macedonia tour is directly with the airline online.
If you prefer to book with a travel agent, we are happy to recommend specialists in a number of countries around the world, please contact our office for more details.
Travel Insurance:We consider adequate travel insurance to be essential. You should ensure that you take out a suitable policy, to make sure that your trip is properly covered.
For UK Nationals, travel to the EU will change from 1 January 2021. Please check the current situation regarding visa requirements before you travel. You can find more information online here.
Citizens of European Union member states, the United States, Canada and Australia do not need to apply for a visa to visit Greece for trips of less than 90 days duration.