When you think about Greece, you will probably have images in your mind of beautiful islands, full of whitewashed houses set against a backdrop of a stunning blue sea. You might think about the historic monuments of the ancient Greeks such as the Parthenon and Acropolis in Athens, Olympia – the birthplace of the Olympic Games, or maybe Knossos, the ancient city of Crete that was wiped out by the devastating volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini about 3000 years ago.
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The Pelion Peninsula
However, there is so much more to Greece than sand, sea, and blue skies. There are lots of amazing places all around the mainland that you may not have heard of before. One such place is the gorgeous Pelion peninsula, which is located on the east side of the mainland, approximately halfway between the cities of Athens in the south, and Thessaloniki in the north.
I first visited this part of Greece about 20 years ago, and instantly fell in love with it. It is a place of immense natural beauty, picturesque villages, sandy beaches, and untouched hamlets, and so much more.
The city of Volos is the gateway to the Pelion peninsula and there are train, bus, and sea connections, as well as the Volos Airport, located slightly outside of the city, which has domestic and international flights during the summer months.
I traveled to Pelion by car from Athens where I lived. The journey took approximately 4-5 hours, but this included an hour’s stop on the way, where I was able to stretch my legs and enjoy a coffee by the sea. If you don’t stop, you could easily reach Volos in around 3-4 hours from Athens.
We actually got close to Pelion after sunset, so there was not actually much to see out of the car window. However, before you reach Volos, you have to take a mountainous road that also passes along the coast. After a certain turn, if arriving at night, you see the entire city in front of you lit up like a Christmas tree. You can also see the lights in some of the mountainous villages located around Volos such as Makrinitsa and Portaria, two very famous villages that I’ll talk about later.
This first impression of Pelion and Volos is one that has stayed with me ever since. I’ve traveled to many places in Greece, as well as Europe, but none have ever made such an instant impression on me from the moment I set eyes on it.
The peninsula is shaped like a hook, and there is a huge coastline that connects the waters of the Pagasitic Gulf with those of the Aegean sea. There are lots of stunning beaches all around the coast where you can enjoy swimming or simply relaxation. Many of the beaches are never too busy, and you’ll always be able to find a quiet place for yourself.
Boufa (Koropi) Beach
One of my favorite beaches is the beach called Boufa, which is located between the villages of Kala Nera and Koropi. This is a wonderful sandy beach that stretches for at least a couple of kilometers. The waters are crystal clear and very warm. There are also several underwater springs in the sea where you might suddenly feel a rush of cold water while swimming. This beach only has a couple of café bars near to the entrance. There aren’t any shops, hotels or anything else. It’s a perfectly placed beach and one where you can’t help but unwind and relax.
There are several other beaches close by along the coast of the Pagasitic Gulf. The beach in the neighboring village of Kala Nera is very popular and is a favored destination with residents of Volos who come here for a swim in the summer. The name of the village actually means “good water” and the crystal-clear waters are the obvious inspiration for the village’s name.
Whenever I’ve been to Pelion, I’ve usually stayed in one of the coastal villages not too far from the city of Volos. During the winter when I have traveled to Pelion, I’ve stayed in the mountainous village of Portaria, which is about 15km from Volos. You’ll easily be able to find suitable accommodation in Pelion whenever you visit.
It is actually a popular holiday destination all year round. During the summer there is an amazing choice of coastal resorts and beaches where you can relax and have fun. The seasons of spring and autumn are great times to visit, especially if you enjoy various outdoor activities such as trekking, climbing, or biking.
The beautiful scenery is one that cries out to be explored, and you can drive around the peninsula at your own pace, stopping at the beautiful traditional villages you’ll find along the way, such as Aragalasti, Horto, and Milina in the south, or Zagora and Tsagarada in the northeast.
There are so many wonderful villages to visit, with each one having its own charm. Most of the villages in Pelion haven’t changed in centuries and have maintained their unique traditions and customs. In the coastal towns and villages, you’ll find a little more in terms of tourism, but again, they have not changed too much either.
There isn’t anything similar to what you might find at some of the famous Greek islands where mass tourism has taken over, and everything is catered to international visitors. If you want an authentic taste of Greece, then Pelion is where you need to visit.
Pelion is also a very popular winter holiday destination, and during the winter months, when the snow has settled on the mountain, the ski center of Agriolefkes opens up, catering for visitors from all over Greece and beyond who come to enjoy skiing and other winter sports. The ski center of Agriolefkes was actually one of the first ski centers to operate in Greece.
When I’ve mentioned to friends of mine that there are actually over 20 ski centers all around Greece, many of them stare at me in disbelief. They all have the same impression that Greece is all about sun and beaches, and the thought that it actually snows there never seems to cross their minds.
There are several interesting museums in the region that you should try and visit where you can learn about the history and traditions of the region.
The most famous is the Archaeological Museum that is located in the city of Volos. At the museum, you can see some amazing artifacts dating back thousands of years that were discovered in places nearby. In fact, just outside of Volos are three very important archaeological sites that have helped researchers learn so much about the ancient years of the city and Pelion. The archaeological sites of Dimini, Sesklo, and Fthiotides Thebes are all worth visiting if you have the chance, and you should be able to visit them all in a day.
In Pelion, there are some other interesting museums such as the Museum of Art Folklore, which is located in the village of Makrinitsa, and which houses a range of artifacts such as books, flags, guns, and clothing. Another very important museum is the Greek Museum, or the “Old School of Rigas” as it is also known, which is the oldest school in all of Pelion and was the place of study for many famous Greeks. One of the students at the school was Rigas Ferreos, who was the leader of the revolution against the Ottomans.
The village of Zagora in the North-East of Pelion, where the Greek Museum is situated, played a very important role in the fight for independence from Ottoman occupation. Incidentally, the village of Zagora is also is home of the famous Zagorin apples that are famous throughout Greece and beyond.
Another interesting sight in this part of Pelion can be found in the mountainous village of Kissos. Here you will find the stunning church of Agia Marina, which dates back to 1650. Inside the church are some amazing iconostasis and religious artworks. Though fairly small in size, this really is a one of a kind church, and I always try to pay a visit whenever I’m in Pelion.
I love the eastern side of Pelion, especially the beautiful village of Tsagarada, which is one of the most famous in the region. In the main square of the village, you will see the huge plane tree, which is over a thousand years old and has a diameter of more than 14 meters. It’s a sight you really need to see with your own eyes, as a photograph can never do justice to just how impressive this tree is.
There are also some great beaches on the eastern coast such as Mylopotamos, Agios Ioannis, and Horefto. The waters of the Aegean Sea are very cool and fresh – more so than those of the Pagasitic Gulf, which you will find around the southwestern coast of the peninsula.
This part of Pelion is very popular with visitors during the summer, though if you are able to visit in September or October, you will find that the weather is still very nice and warm, with cooler evenings, and the beaches are almost empty.
Moutzouris-Smudgy Steam Train
Pelion is famous for many things, but one of the most special and unique is the famous steam train of Pelion – “Moutzouris-Smudgy”. The train was the work of an Italian engineer called Evaristo de Kirico, son of famous artist Giorgio de Kirico. He developed this stunning railway route around the mountain and the beautiful steam train, which still operates today, takes visitors on a magical journey around the peninsula, passing over bridges and gorges and through dense forests.
During the summer you can head to the village of Milies, where the train departs. From here the train takes you on a journey down to the coastal town of Lehonia. If you are visiting Pelion with kids, this is the perfect afternoon activity to enjoy with them. Just check the timetable before heading to the village, as the train runs once a day and you might need to reserve your tickets in advance.
Portaria and Makrinitsa
As mentioned earlier, two of the most famous villages in Pelion are those of Portaria and Makrinitsa. Both are located in the west of Pelion, above the city of Volos. In fact, Makrinitsa is also known as “the balcony of Pelion” due to the amazing views you can find there which stretch over Volos and the waters of the Pagasitic Gulf.
These two traditional villages are a prime example of the beauty and charm of Pelion. You can take a walk along the winding paths, enjoy a meal or drink in the main squares, and enjoy the peace and quiet of the mountain. Makrinitsa is especially peaceful as cars are forbidden from the central part of the village.
If you are someone who loves the outdoors and nature, then Pelion is the perfect holiday destination for you. There are lots of activities that you can enjoy here. In addition to water sports and the ski center, you can also enjoy horse riding, walking, sailing, and Diving. A couple of years ago, I came to Pelion with a small group of friends and we all brought our bikes along with us. We did a lot of cycling around the southern part of the Peninsula, visiting some of the villages such as Platanias, Mikro, and Trikeri. This is a truly stunning part of Pelion, and the time you spend outdoors will give you so many fond memories.
This is the magical thing about Pelion. Once you’ve visited for the first time, you want to keep coming back time and time again. Over the past 20 years or so, I’ve visited many places around the Greek mainland, as well as many of the islands.
Though each is a very beautiful part of the country in its own right, not one place has had the same impact on me that Pelion has. I guess that’s why I travel there at least twice a year when possible – once during the winter and again in the late summer (once all the crowds have been and gone).
If you want to visit Greece but avoid all the crowds and the tourist places, then I cannot recommend anywhere apart from Pelion.