The Athos region is very heavily wooded with steep hills of virgin forest in the south where there are no populated areas other than the village of Karyes and several substantial monasteries dotted along the shores both east and west.
The Holy Mountain area is about 60 kilometres long and seven to 12 kilometres wide and it covers an area of about 335 square kilometres.
Mount Athos itself is cone-like and has steep, forested slopes with a barren crest at 2,033 metres. The seas around Athos are notorious for swift currents, especially at the southern end of the peninsula.
Athos has been declared a World Heritage Site and is home to 20 Orthodox monasteries that form a semi-autonomous monastic republic within the Republic of Greece. The borders of the monasterial state are defined by a line from Frangokastro on the west coast to cape Arapis on the east.
There are plenty of sites to visit in north Athos but they are spread pretty thinly and a car or bike is needed for visits as bus services are not great.
Olympiada is the place of most historical interest, named after the mother of Alexander the Great and the birthplace of Greek philosopher Aristotle. The ancient site of Stagira is only 3km away. Excavations began in 1990 and many artefacts have been unearthed there since. Most of these are currently on display in the museum at Olympiada.
Stratoni is also noted for its archaeological finds just west of the town which includes Roman ruins. The most important finds are a burial monument dating to the 1st century BC and two winged statues now on display in the Museum of Poligiros.
At Ouranoupolis is the striking Byzantine Tower of Prosforio on the shore next to the harbour. The tower is the largest and best preserved in the whole of Halkidiki and was built as a defensive tower by the Vatopediou Monastery in the 14th century.
The town of Ierissos is noted for its cultural activities. Major festivals are held throughout the year and the area is noted for its singers and choirs performing traditional Greek songs and music.
The town of Arnea at the foot of Mount Holomontas has the ruins of an ancient civilization but is most noted for its traditional houses and for its hand-woven textiles. Special exhibitions are held and visitors can see the weavers at work. There is also a cultural museum there.
Getting to visit Mount Athos is not easy and needs advance preparation and a battle with Greek bureaucracy. Only 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox visitors are allowed each day.
First, you need to contact the Pilgrims' Bureau. Give plenty of notice – at least six months – if you plan a summer visit as the monasteries can be full of pilgrims. You can give notice of a few days outside the peak season.
The Holy Executive of the Holy Mount Athos Pilgrims' Bureau
109 Egnatia Street.
546 22, Thessaloniki
Greece +30 2310 252578 – Fax +30 2310 222424
If permission is granted you must get a pilgrim's permit or 'diamonetirion' for individuals or groups, issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or by the Ministry of Northern Greece. The permit is issued by the offices of Mount Athos, at Ouranoupolis (on the right side of the port). You need an identity card and must pay €18 (Orthodox visitors) or €35 (non-Orthodox). Foreign visitors also need a passport. If you are Orthodox but not Greek at covering letter from a priest or a baptism certificate will help.
Women are not admitted into the monastic territory and you must be over 18 for an overnight stay. The normal permit usually granted to visitors allows for a maximum three-day stay, visiting monasteries at will. The rarer special permit allows an unlimited stay at only one monastery.
Once you have gained permission from The Pilgrims' Bureau you must contact each monastery where you plan to stay. It is no good turning up unannounced. Without prior notice of your arrival, or if you arrive after 4 pm you will probably be turned away.
Visitors are housed in spartan dormitories within guest houses or 'archontariki'. Simple meals are served. Most monasteries offer no bathing facilities and, if they do, it will be no more than a cold shower. You are not expected to pay but a contribution is welcomed, especially if you stay more than one night.
Mount Athos is for monks to escape the modern world and as a guest visitor, you should respect the strict rules. Conventions vary between monasteries, so ask the master of the guest house if you have any doubts. In general photography of monasteries is allowed, but taking pictures of monks and the interiors of churches are prohibited without explicit permission, as is the use of video camera anywhere.
Visitors are expected to dress soberly – no t-shirts and shorts. While visitors can attend services, there may not always be room and non-Orthodox Christians may not be allowed in some services, such as Communion.