Greece may be known for its beaches and islands, but its big cities are about so much more than just connecting airports. Just head to any of its larger cities to discover an exciting and eclectic culture that blends ancient history with ever-changing modernity. Thessaloniki, a hugely likeable city with a multi-cultural heart, is a beautiful mishmash of Greek, Jewish, Armenian and Ottoman traditions, where ancient sites sit quietly between more modern buildings.
Here, the layers of Greece’s complicated history are strikingly obvious, with ancient Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Byzantine architecture visible as a testament to the centuries of occupation and the variety of influences that have left their mark upon the food, culture, and way of life in this unique city.
48 Hours in Thessaloniki
A university town with a huge student community flocking to some of Greece’s oldest and most prestigious colleges, this city is vibrant and young in spite of its ancient roots. Named European Youth Capital 2014, Thessaloniki is dynamic and creative, with a fast-growing street art scene complementing huge numbers of galleries and other art projects, as well as numerous festivals, street performances and cultural events. Independent businesses and innovative startups are prolific, resulting in constant change with funky new bars and restaurants, quirky shops, and inspiring projects popping up all over, while a busy high street and plenty of designer boutiques make Thessaloniki a shopaholic’s dream. Foodies love the Ottoman-influenced food scene around the marketplaces and the traditional Greek taverns, while party-goers will discover one of the best cities in the world for nightlife.
In short, there’s something for everyone to love about Thessaloniki, a warm and friendly city which truly loves you back. Here’s how to pack it all into a short city break…
Start at the famous Aristotelous Square, a 20th century square designed by Ernest Hébrard in an eclectic style which combines elements from Byzantine and Western architecture. This waterfront square is one of the most famous places in Greece, and forms an important part of life in Thessaloniki, making this the ideal starting point for any exploration. Head east along the seafront – where the wide boulevard is a joy to walk in sunny weather – to the misleadingly brown White Tower, and make the most of the view from the top to get your bearings. The interior museum is a fantastic introduction to the multi-layered history of the city and it’s architectural and cultural influences, so this is the perfect place to kick off your trip.
Don’t miss the nearby Georgios Zongolopoulos Umbrella sculpture, another, more modern, Thessaloniki icon, and keep walking along the waterfront as far as the statue of Alexander the Great if you have time, or head to the Archeological Museum to cement your new-found understanding of the city. Also close by is the Museum of Byzantine Culture which contains several important artefacts from this era and is a must for those with a strong interest in history.
Head back along the esplanade to First Pier, where you can enjoy a fabulous lunch and a few cocktails at the super trendy Kitchen Bar restaurant on the marina, before exploring the neighbouring Photography Museum for a glimpse of modern-day Thessaloniki’s culture. Other lunch options include the funky Be* Bar on Komninon Street for New York-London-Greek fusion dishes plus some truly divine cocktails (I recommend the Zombie!), or popular Olympion Café-Bar in Aristotelous Square. Finish off with a coffee at the stylishly minimalist Local Espresso Bar on Paleon Patron Germanou Street, and find dessert at nearby bakery Choureal (try the profiteroles),or at the incredible Sugarangel on Lassani Street.
While away a few hours window shopping and hunting for bargains along the main shopping street of Tsimiski, at the centre of which is Plateia Mall. You’ll find beautiful boutiques and glossy designer stores along Proxenou Koromila, plus plenty of cute independent shops and cafes along the pedestrian side streets around this area, as well as over in Ladadika district on the other side of Aristotelous Square.
Alternatively, take a ride on one of Thessaloniki’s free harbour cruises. Motor boats designed to look like ancient Greek triremes, these depart regularly throughout the day from next to the White Tower, offering an hour’s tour of the harbour provided you buy at least one drink. These free cruises aren’t just for tourists; the locals love them, particularly at night when at least one of the boats plays modern Greek music for a great party atmosphere.
Take a cab or a leisurely stroll up to the North-Eastern corner of the old city walls in time for sunset, where Alysseos Tower (better known as Trigonion Tower) provides exceptional views across the city. From here, you get a great view of the Eastern Wall running down all the way to the White Tower on the seafront, marking Thessaloniki’s original boundaries. Nearby, you’ll find another misleadingly named Byzantine monument, the Heptapyrgion or “Seven Towers Fortress“, a fort which has it’s origins in 316 BC and which is made up of ten towers (of course).
The area of Agios Pavlos around the upper part of the city walls is a lively and bohemian place for an aperitif, with a great nightlife that’s nicely removed from the city centre and therefore fairly devoid of tourists. For dinner, delve into the historic Ladadika District for traditional taverns like those along the pedestrian Karipi Street, a favourite with locals, as well as more trendy modern bars like Kouziva, which is on a pretty plaza with a gorgeous central fountain.
On weekends, the whole of the city centre becomes one huge party, with music and crowds spilling out of bars and merging into one, and street parties popping up in small plazas or on corners. With an 80,000-strong student community, more bars and cafés per capita than any other European city, and a year-round night-life scene that doesn’t depend on tourism, Thessaloniki is a great place to party no matter what you’re style – from traditional Greek dancing at Panellinion in Ladadika, to the all-white interior of super stylish Shark Bar in the coastal suburb of Krini.
Nikis Street, the city’s main boulevard, is full of cafés , bars and clubs, while the elegant Kalapothaki Street is known for it’s high-end restaurants and cocktail bars. Thessaloniki’s younger crowds flock to the historically Jewish neighbourhood of Valaoritou, where you’ll find music scenes to suit any taste, or to the notoriously tough to find Bit Bazaar, a noisy and friendly locale popular with the college community, which is crammed full of tiny, traditional taverns serving up local wine and mezedes (small dishes of delicacies).
Start at the Roman Forum, one of the oldest sites in Thessaloniki; a two-level forum built over the ancient Greek agora. The best-preserved ruin here is the Odeon, or Odeum, an ancient theatre still sometimes used for summer concerts. Close by, you can also find the Byzantine-era church of Panagia Chalkeon, and the Ottoman-era Bey Hammam bathhouse, effectively taking you through the four major layers of the city’s history.
Walk down a few streets to discover some of the cities major markets. First is the centuries-old Kapani Market, a covered market heaving with stalls selling spices, coffee, dates, cheese, fish, meat, and delicatessen products. Just around the corner is the bigger Modiano Market, a once bourgeois deli-market built in 1926, where the decaying arcades and antique signs are steeped in history. Both markets are a fabulous place to explore the scents and tastes of multi-cultural Thessaloniki, or to simply while away some time people watching and listening to the lively cries of hawkers touting their wares. Finally, head to the Louloudadika Flower Market, alongside the beautiful old Ottoman structure of the Yahudi Hammam, for a vibrant splash of colour and perfume.
Simply fill up at the various stalls and bakeries in and around the markets, or put together a Thessaloniki-style picnic by picking up Greek delicacies at To Ellinikon Green Family deli on Vatikiotou Street, traditional Pontian snacks at Ragian on Balanou street, and the best homemade pies in the city at Dia Hiros Resiniotou on Kastritsiou Street.
Alternatively, head to the nearby Athonos Square, a local favourite, where you’ll find plenty of taverns, restaurants, cafés and bars. It’s one of the most popular areas of the city, and with good reason; this fantastically creative area is rammed full of dozens of tiny art galleries and quirky shops selling vintage clothes or handmade jewellery. Don’t miss Alexandra Theodosiou’s pottery store on Papamarkou Street, located in one of the city’s oldest shops, or the fabulously off-beat Aravella, where everything is handmade and up-cycled. It’s easy to while away several hours exploring this one tiny area of Thessaloniki, so make sure to leave time to browse.
About 1km east of Athonos Square are two more Roman sites; the Arch of Galerius (298 – 299 AD), another of the most iconic sites in Thessalokini, and the Rotunda (306 A.D), a surprisingly well-preserved structure home to many ancient mosaics. In the surrounding area you’ll find numerous churches, both ancient and less-so, including Agios Panteleimonas and Metamorfosi Sotiros, but the most impressive is the Agia Sofia Church, named after the iconic Constantinople temple.
Once you’ve had your fill of history, wind down with a traditional Greek coffee or an ice-cold frappé at any of the incredible cafés around Thessaloniki, or get a last-minute cultural fix at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art. If you can’t resist a bit more shopping, the Mediterranean Cosmos Mall in Pilea is a favourite with locals, or for the young at heart there’s the Magic Park theme park across the road.
If you have another night in the city, head to Dentrospito (“Treehouse”) in YMCA Square near the famous Umbrellas, a much-loved local hotspot with drinks, snacks, and excellent cocktails.
Extend Your Stay
Just an hour or so along the coast you’ll find the first peninsula of Halkidiki, the Kassandra Peninsula, where exceptional white-sand beaches and those iconic turquoise Greek waters form the perfect setting for a day or two of serious rest and relaxation following a few days in Thessaloniki. The Lefki Ammos beach bar is an excellent choice, with luxurious sun loungers and beach beds, a lively bar, and occasional live music – all in an exquisite setting. The perfect end to any stay in Thessaloniki!
These tips are based on my own experiences and on recommendations from locals I spoke to whilst visiting last month. Many thanks to the Thessaloniki Hotels Association, Thessaloniki Walking Tours, and Handpeak Tours, for their help in researching and writing this post.