Thessaloniki has never been touristy in the typical sense of the word. But this is a special city for special people and no one can deny this! What makes Thessaloniki unique and special is more than just architecture and history. After all, there are so many cities in Europe jam packed with historical buildings, museums and archeological sites that it’s rather hard for a European city to compete with such cultural giants as Rome, Paris or London. In most cases the cities that are loved by tourists, have some hidden gems and secrets that feature them and make them something more than a flashy touristy spot with five-star hotels and all the usual extravagance. Thessaloniki is justifiably considered a city of this kind. Let us have a look at our hand-picked selection of the reasons why you should visit Thessaloniki or what this city can offer.
All Roads Lead to Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki is the jewel of the Balkans and is one of the most important cities of this geographical region. Getting to Thessaloniki is much easier than you think. Eleftherios Venizelos airport in Athens has flights to Thessaloniki every day provided by Olympic and Aegean Airlines. Many European cities also have direct flights to this city, especially during the beach season. You can even fly to Thessaloniki instead of Athens and then go from Thessaloniki just about everywhere else in Greece. Of course, Thessaloniki is not the capital, but don’t worry, you’ll not miss anything, coming here first. New adventures will be right at your fingertips!
Express and local trains are another means to get to Thessaloniki, and the spectacular views of the Greek landscape from the window will be an added bonus. The journey from Athens will take you 5-6 hours, yet it’s not a big deal if you consider the benefits of travelling with your laptop. The cost of slow trains is 15 euros, but there are also fast trains with 50-euro tickets, but the difference between the period of time you need to spend is only 1 hour and 40 minutes, so it’s up to you to decide. There are, of course, intercity buses as well from the capital to Thessaloniki and from other nearby cities too. If you don’t mind spending 6 hours while getting here, this may be right for you. Don’t worry about the stops, there are two of them on the way, so it will be enough for hungry travellers to have a snack. Bus tickets cost 35 euros, but you can’t book any of them online. In case you don’t mind seasickness, you can take a ferry from Cyclades or Dodecanese islands to Thessaloniki once a week.
And last but not least, you can rent a car and drive on the National Road from Athens to Thessaloniki. But you may have the impression that most of the Greek drivers have been stuntmen before, that is how they usually drive. I’m not sure about the driver, but the passengers will definitely enjoy the journey of 6 hours through some lovely countryside and along stunning beaches near mount Olympus.
Do the Museum Hopping
One of the first things you should do in Thessaloniki is a visit to the Archeological Museum, which houses a unique collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery and tools. Among the most impressive exhibits, there is the oldest surviving papyrus piece in Greece and the Derveni Crater, a huge Hellenistic vase with carvings of mythical creatures and Dionysos. The Museum of Byzantine Culture is also a must if you are interested in various aspects of Byzantine art and culture of both the early and late periods.
Visiting the Folk and Ethnographic Museum you’ll have a thorough understanding of how people lived in Greece before mass industrialisation. The collection of ethnic costumes, exhibits representing forestry and weaving and the museum building itself are definitely worth your time. The State Museum of Contemporary Art is located in a building of an old monastery and houses a thought-provoking collection of both local and foreign artists.
White Tower being the iconic landmark of this amazing city, not only provides a panoramic view of the glittering sea and the central part of the city, but also houses a museum, where you can learn the history of Thessaloniki through multimedia displays. Quite a good alternative for those, who hate museums with dusty pottery and pieces of antique parchments.
Rich in Culture, Yet Unpretentious
Thessaloniki exudes a huge wave of cultural energy. This city offers a lot to be a favorite place for a history-minded person. Though the city is overshadowed by Athens, which is considered to be the cultural and historical hub of Greece, it still has a myriad of Byzantine churches, museums and some amazing archeological sites to keep you busy. Even if you can’t manage to visit as many museums here as you’d like to, don’t panic, because some monuments and sites in the city indeed make it a museum in the open air. That is to say, you can just stroll along some districts and get your dose of history without spending extra time.
Once you have already wandered around Aristotelous Square and visited the Venetian style White Tower, it’s time to go and discover the rest of the treasures of the city. You can start with archeological sites, some of which were unearthed accidentally during the construction works of the city underground system, which is, by the way, not completed yet. The Palace of Galerius at Navarino Square dates back to 300 A.D. and catches the eye of every foreigner walking nearby, while the citizens, don’t seem to be much interested judging from their faces. But when it comes to Kamara or the Arch of Galerius on Egnatia Street, which is, by the way, the oldest shopping street in Europe, it has become a symbol of the city and a meeting point for many citizens, especially the younger ones. You can easily notice how tenderly the locals pronounce the name of Kamara when they speak about it. It’s more than obvious – they are not indifferent towards this monument. Kamara is a triumphal arch, built in the honour of the Roman Emperor Galerius to mark his victory over the Persians and dates back to the early 4th century A.D. Another fascinating historical monument is the Rotunda, which was a Roman temple and then served as a Mausoleum for emperor Galerius before it was converted into a Christian church.
Special attention should be paid to the Upper Town or Ano Polis in the North of the city. Here you have the chance to get closer to an interesting bit of history set in a great location. The Byzantine walls of the Old Town resonate with the history of the city and you may feel like you have been thrown into a fantastic time whirl, which takes you back to the city’s glorious past. Heptapyrgion or Seven Towers Fortress highlights the Old Town or the Akropolis of Thessaloniki and reflects the glory it has garnered over centuries. Once you are there, seize the opportunity to visit the Byzantine churches of Agios Nikolaos and Vlatadon monastery as well.
Thessaloniki is famous for a multitude of Byzantine churches that jut out at every corner of the city quite unexpectedly. Even if you are not a history nerd, you’ll want to spend just a few minutes inside these churches, once they catch your eye. Agia Sophia and Agios Demetrios are the absolute must-sees of the city that shouldn’t be missed by any means. Interestingly, Agios Demetrios is the patron saint of the city, who was martyred during the Roman rule.
Souvlaki or Kalamaki?
While you are in Thessaloniki, it’s hard to resist the smell of mouthwatering food that is being sold at every corner. Street food is an aspect of everyday life in Thessaloniki, because what the citizens like the most is to be outside when it’s warm and it’s warm most of the time. If you like having everything with a double click, Thessaloniki is a great spot for you. Spanakopita (spinach filo pie), koulouri (sesame seed bread), Tiropita (cheese pie) and Bougatsa are among the most famous Greek pastries you can grab on your way. Stuffed tomatoes and peppers, spicy meatballs, dolmades, grilled octopus, stuffed calamari, clams, mussels, fillet sardines, smoked, grilled skoumpri, smoked and pickled herring, anchovies and tuna and, of course, succulent Souvlaki are the common dishes at every tavern. Keep in mind that if you want to have the famous skewered meat dish in Thessaloniki, you should order “souvlaki”. Most of the tourists coming from Athens call this very dish “kalamaki” as the Greeks from the capital do, thus ordering a straw for juice (kalamaki means a straw actually).
Aristotelous Square, the Waterfront (Nikis Avenue particularly), Navarino square and Ladadika are famous for the huge concentration of Greek cafes, bars and taverns, where food lust will take over you teasing all your senses. Ellinikon and Palati at Ladadika, Vrotos at Athonos Square, Pyrgos at Ano Polis are among the affordable and nice places, where you can taste both traditional delicacies and some European dishes as well.
Thessaloniki is also famous for its fast food traditions. Gyros is probably among the most famous fast food options. It’s quite a downright bargain if you consider what you get for more or less 3 euros, yet the number of calories won’t make people on a diet happy. In case you want classic hamburgers, there is no need to go to McDonalds, cause this is an option you can take almost everywhere. Visit Goody’s, the Greek alternative of fast-food chains, where you can find all the usual salads, pasta and above-mentioned hamburgers common for such establishments.
Crepes are a special topic in Thessaloniki. They can be with both savoury and sweet fillings, like with peanut butter, chocolate, strawberries or bananas and different nuts (the classic version) and bacon, ham, eggs, mushrooms, chicken, tomatoes, olives, different sauces and, of course, lots of yummy cheese on top. Navarinou square boasts the best creperies in the city, but we advise to visit Creco at Aristotelous Square as well. Here you can taste fantastic crepes, with no less fantastic toppings. The head-spinning variety of waffles, desserts and sandwiches will make you come back here again and again.
If you go for self-catering, our advice is to go to the city market near Aristotelous Square to get some fresh and fine food, to test your culinary skills. Here you can find all kinds of seafood, any kind of meat, nuts, spices, fruit and vegetables, a big assortment of halva, cheeses, olives and countless goodies. Anything you need to prepare some good homemade food! There are also some shops selling souvenirs, clothes, leather goods, jewellery, ceramics and any kind of touristy stuff.
And finally, those who hunt for unique sweets should definitely visit Blé, one of the most famous confectioneries in the city. Here you’ll be taken aback by the variety of colors and irresistible flavours. Try not to lose your mind after torturing your body all year before the beach season for that amazing bikini look.
Feel the Heartbeat of the City
Thessaloniki is an intoxicating city! It may not be the first city you visit in Greece, but it will definitely leave a lasting impression on you. The Greeks are famous for their fun-centric living, but the citizens of Thessaloniki hold all the records in terms of taking the best from life. And it has nothing to do with lots of money, because even now when the country faces many challenges, the people never cease to enjoy life. It’s more than enough to walk around the waterfront promenade to feel the vibrancy in the air. But if you want to get under the skin of the city culture, let’s start our walk with Aristotelous Square, which is actually more like a large pavement. Here you can see many street musicians, all having their unique style, people walking or just hanging out at one of the coffee shops or bars nearby. You’ll probably meet some Africans selling balloons, toys and weave bracelets. They usually don’t ask a certain price, but leave it to you to estimate their handwork, thus trying to earn their living far from home. From the square, you can walk down Tsimiski or Egnatia streets, which are two of the most important streets in the city with lots of shops, boutiques and restaurants.
Yet the best way to see the city in its entirety is to do the Volta, an evening walk until late at night. By the way, night is a kind of relative uncertainty in Thessaloniki, because you are likely to see and do more at night than during the day in the city, where the locals are used to sleep from 13:00-17:00 and then the evening becomes the start of their day. The old port and the new promenade (Nea Paralia) are ideal for evening walks. Don’t forget the boat bars, where you can have your cup of Frape, the Greek-style coffee, admiring the city views from the sea. There is no special magic about these bars, but it’s, of course, better to have a drink on one of them, from now and then for a change of scene. The communication tower with a revolving restaurant on the top floor is also a good alternative for a myriad of terraced cafes. Here you can enjoy your huge portion of ice cream admiring the views from above.
The nightlife in Thessaloniki will slap you out of the historical atmosphere and will eventually pull you into the modern era. Ladadika and Sfagía districts become the epicenters of fun, while in many other parts of the city, clubs and bouzoukia venues offer no less amazing parties and evenings with DJs and live music. W Club highlights the city’s night scene and is the favourite place for party aficionados. Here you will enjoy fantastic dance shows and the best club music ever. Like many other foreigners, you’d probably like to wander around various bars, ouzeries and clubs to take your sufficient dose of music and fun. Thessaloniki is, of course, a city where you can do the club hopping until dawn, and still have so much left for the next time. The abundance of music venues, cafeneons and restaurants will cause vertigo, but it’s so hard to resist the temptation to see what’s going on in the nearby club! That’s like telling college students to just take one slice from a free pizza.
Nightlife in Thessaloniki is trendy and spectacular. The only thing you should keep in mind is that taking anything serious is absolutely forbidden. It’s time for exceptional fun!
What About “Khalaara”?
While you are in Thessaloniki, you may have the impression that the Greek people do nothing but rest! The slow paced life and chill-out atmosphere of the city seem to prove the widespread prejudice about the Greeks. But it’s, of course, a bit overdramatic to think that the Greeks are drinking ouzo on the beach or dancing the sirtaki in white robes and sandals while the country is in crisis. Those who have stayed in Greece for a few months, see the reality and plenty more besides. Seriously, these people work even harder than any other Europeans to make ends meet. But the fact is that they can relax and estimate the beauty of life even during hard times.
The beach life is an indispensable part of a classic Greek holiday and the locals are really blessed to have a nature like that. Thessaloniki is a famous gateway to some of the best beaches in Greece, like those of Khalkidhiki.
Khalkidhiki is a peninsula generously bestowed by nature and is a famous destination for the locals themselves. The three prongs of this peninsula are of unrivalled beauty that will put a spell on you, and each of the prongs is unique in its own way. First, one from the side of Thessaloniki is Kassandra, which is probably the most “tourist infested” one. There is a lot of modern life going on here with many clubs, fast food and hotels. That’s, of course, fine for younger holiday makers, who seek nothing but sun and sea flavoured with a huge dose of youthful vibrancy. There is a wide choice of accommodation in Kassandra. Both luxury hotels and campsites are available alongside some smaller family-owned hotels without an opulent interior, but with a nice atmosphere and basic conveniences. Make sure you book your lodge beforehand to be on the safe side.
Those who seek for more authentic Greek life should leave Kassandra behind and head to Sithonia, the next prong of the peninsula. Here you can still find some secluded beaches beside the popular resorts, like Porto Carras Grand Resort and Golf Course. The villages of Sarti and Kalamitsi offer excellent beaches and the best fish taverns ever. So don’t hesitate to move there for both solitude and classic Greek beach life.
Mount Athos is the last peninsula of Khalkidhiki with pristine beaches and a few dozen monasteries, where the women have no access, and the men should have a permit to enter. Anyway, there are excursion boats that sail around the monasteries, in case you want to have a look at them while your adventurous husband seeks spiritual harmony at the monasteries. There is another great option for women left behind – enjoying the nice beaches of the town of Ouranopolis, which seems a gateway to the civilization that separates the holy mountain from the unholy world.
Halkidiki is actually a good choice for those who want to combine cultural tourism, festivals, sports tourism, wine tasting, spa, yachting, hiking and the end of great attractions isn’t still in sight.
Live the Student Dream
Quick quiz: what’s probably the best city to embark on a study abroad program? London? Nope! Rome? Nooo, guess again. Tokyo? Oh, please. Quick answer: Thessaloniki! You may ask why? First of all, the life in this city is the most adapted for student lifestyle. Public transport is cheap, the local food is not only sitting in the OMG category but is also affordable. Finding accommodation is not a big deal as well. There are so many studios and apartments with reasonable prices in Thessaloniki. The crowded nightclubs that pulse with modern beats grace the city. Quite a strong reason for a young student! This renewable source of cultural energy also supports sporting events, festivals, music scenes, hip clubs and bars. All this fantastic mixture of modern delights stands cheek-by-jowl with world class universities, like the City College, that offers a wide range of programs for international students.
Of course, being a student in Thessaloniki is not all honey and roses, because studying is a must, once you are here. And besides studying, there is another challenge to face when you are away from home: you’ll probably have few or no friends here at first. This will especially hurt some cool guys, who are used to being in the center of everything at home, but the longer you stay here, the more you understand that being scared yet progressive is sometimes better than feeling comfortable and stagnant. And last but not least, you can seize the advantage of studying in Thessaloniki on many levels, the most important of them being the fact that cheap air companies like Ryanair and Easyjet support flights to and from Thessaloniki. Travelling in the Old Continent has never been so easy for students. Isn’t this great?