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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In the afternoon, we head west to 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 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 Phillip 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, the gold casket and bowcase, the sculptures – rivalled only by the Bronze Age tombs of Mycenae (which you can see on our Peloponnese tour) as the greatest treasure ever found in Greece.
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 mediaeval 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.
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.
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, giving it 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 facing 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 airy 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.
Near Philippi is Dikili Tas, a prehistoric settlement of paramount importance for our understanding of early prehistory in the Balkans. The site is an enormous magoula or tell, i.e. a hill composed of layer upon layer of human settlement debris, deposited slowly throughout a period of more than four millennia in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Only small parts of Dikili Tash have been excavated and studied so far, revealing fascinating information, including the recent discovery of some of the earliest evidence worldwide for the cultivation of grapevines and the processing of grapes.
We continue on to stroll around the Aristotle Park at New Stageira, which offers insights into Aristotle’s work as a scholar and especially as a scientist, by presenting a number of experiences based on the optical and physical experiments Aristotle is known to have undertaken.
A free afternoon in which you can explore Kavala or relax in one of its many bars or cafes.
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 in Thasos. 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, by one of the enormous ancient marble quarries, we will explore a mysterious pagan religious site and two Early Byzantine basilicas before returning to Kavala in the late afternoon.
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.
Leaving Amphipolis, 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. Phillip 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.
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 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.
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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 Travel insurance is a requirement of our booking conditions and we recommend you investigate the options thoroughly to make sure that your trip is properly covered. Please be advised some insurers may require you to take out a policy within 15-20 days of booking your holiday to receive all of their insurance benefits.
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.