If you’re the kind of person who craves the undiscovered or places that are off the beaten path, you need to visit southeastern Europe. Today, we’re pleased to introduce you to Dusty Cressey who just spent almost two weeks exploring three of the region’s most amazing countries: Greece, Bulgaria, and Cyprus. Today, he’s here to share all the secret locales he stumbled upon during his travels, plus the info you need to replicate his journey.
I started my travels in Orma, a charming little village in northern Greece with rustic charm and views of rolling hills and vineyards. As luck would have it, I was there during the Chestnut Festival, which gave me the opportunity to try these delicious nuts in all their glorious forms (roasted, glazed, candied, and more) and experience traditional dancing and singing. The next day, and after a quick visit to nearby Thessaloniki (and its lovely waterfront), I took to the road to discover the nature of the region. First up were the grand Edessa waterfalls, and then one of the holy grails of nature lovers: Mount Olympus.
Perhaps the most famous mountain in the region, Mount Olympus holds extraordinary cultural and mythological significance. According to Greek mythology, it’s the home of the ancient Greek gods and is symbolic of divine power for millions of people. For all these reasons, it has long been on my list to visit. I chose to do the hike as part of a guided tour. We started off in the morning, climbing upwards through the gorgeous golden foliage of the autumnal landscape. Partway up, we stopped at a beautiful, rushing waterfall (the perfect moment for a long exposure shot). At the end of the hike, I had an astounding view of the landscape below, which stretched out in all directions and wore the gorgeous colors of fall. Tip: there are several refuges on the mountain as well as a monastery. I really enjoyed exploring them and delving into Mount Olympus’ vast history.
Lake Kerkini National Park
Another day, another adventure. This is how I like to live. After Mount Olympus, I moved on to Lake Kerkini National Park, a lush wetland, a haven for rare birds, and a serene escape from the busy world. I chose to traverse the park on horseback, which turned out to be one of the best decisions I made on this trip. After mounting and heading off with my guide, I trotted toward the lake, which my steed rode through with grace. With the water behind us, we made our way toward the mountains and spent the rest of the day riding through the gorgeous landscape. One surprise: I encountered flamingos! I knew the park was a bird sanctuary, but I hadn’t expected to encounter some pink friends. Before returning, I made a stop at a beautiful old church, which stands peacefully overlooking the lake. It was the perfect way to end an unforgettable day.
Sofia, the incandescent capital of Bulgaria, was the first stop on my trek through the region. Though I would have loved to stay a little longer, I decided that my outdoor adventures called more strongly, rented a car, and began headed to my first destination: the Devetashka cave.
The Devatashka cave is a natural marvel on a scale I’d never experienced before. It has massive chambers, adorned with stalactites and stalagmites that have been created over millennia of geological activity. As you walk up through each chamber (yes, it’s a bit like a hike—instead of descending, you ascend), you quickly begin to feel the grandeur of our planet. Most impressive of all was the view through an opening at the top, which gave you a clear look at the place where you started.
I was so impressed with the Devetashka Cave that I decided to visit another one nearby: the Prohodna Cave, famous for its iconic “Eyes of God” rock formations. And boy did it live up to my expectations. The “Eyes of God” are two openings facing skyward, which let you peer at the heavens from this peaceful subterranean spot. In witnessing this natural phenomenon, I was astonished. The incredible symmetry and location of the cave holes filled me with awe and a sense of mystique about the world.
Rila National Park and the Seven Rila Lakes
After my cave escapades, and with excursions around lovely Sofia in between, on my third day I drove an hour and a half south to Rila National Park. One of the things I had heard about Bulgaria before visiting was that the seven lakes in this gorgeous nature reserve demand attention. After the drive and a cable car ride up the mountain, I started my hike. As I strode up the mountain, the air got chilly, and the flora changed. And then, I caught sight of them, the seven lakes like shimmering jewels on the mountainside. Below, in the distance, I could see the thick forests and vast agricultural land that I had driven through that very morning. The views were spectacular. Before going back to Sofia, I made a quick stop at the Rila Monastery, an architectural and spiritual masterpiece, and an ancient symbol of Bulgarian Orthodox heritage. I highly suggest visiting!
With Bulgaria and Greece behind me, I arrived at my final country: the incomparable Cyprus. After all my hiking and wandering through mountains, forests, and caves, I was happy to have some sun and sea time. On my first morning, I strolled through the city of Larnaca before heading to Cape Greco. I walked along the coast and ended up at the famous “Lovers Bridge,” which is one of the most iconic rock structures in the region. There was also a beautiful cliff jumping spot there, and the water below was turquoise and clear all the way to the bottom. In other words, perfect for a swim!
The next day, my plan was to explore Limassol, with many stops on the way: the first one was White Rocks, one of the most enchanting beaches of the Mediterranean. Lucky for me, I had it all to myself! This brings up a good point. Traveling in the off-season is a great thing to consider. With fewer visitors, you often get to experience things nearly alone. Places like Cyprus are also lovely and sunny, even in the colder months. After White Rocks, I headed toward the mountains nearby for a relaxing hike and the chance to admire the rugged landscape. At the end of the hike, I stopped at the Kaledonia Waterfall, and after that, admired the landscape. By that point, I’d worked up quite the appetite, so I stopped at the village of Platres for lunch, and then finally arrived at Limassol.
My final day in Cyprus was truly memorable. I kicked it off with a 7-kilometer sea kayaking tour along the coast. I paddled by massive limestone cliffs, and then stopped at a beautiful cave with a little hidden beach inside. On the way back, my guide took me to another beach for coffee and for the chance to see the place where turtles nest and their babies hatch.
- In North America, Greece is often known mostly for its islands. But there’s so much more. I loved getting to explore the north of the country and seeing the mainland’s terrain. Mount Olympus and Lake Kerkini were definitely highlights. The stunning trails and views around the mountain and the calming nature and wildlife beside the lake really exemplify how diverse Greece is! I was also excited to see flamingos at Lake Kerkini, something I totally didn’t expect.
- Bulgaria was a treat. I loved how expansive the countryside was. The Devetashka and Prohodna caves were incredibly beautiful, and the scale of these sites was immense. I also really enjoyed hiking in the Rila mountains and getting to see the beautiful lakes.
- Cyprus was a unique destination. The stunning blue waters made for a great place to relax, and exploring the coast by kayak was truly special. I also loved how diverse the landscape was and didn’t expect such sweeping views and beautiful waterfalls.