Still little known to European tourists, Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city after the capital Athens, is a perfect destination for a city break away from the usual tourist itineraries.
There’s enough art and culture to keep you busy for several days, including ancient ruins, museums ranging from the classical era to contemporary art, majestic churches, imposing Byzantine walls and an enigmatic tower, but if you want a more frivolous vacation you can explore the shopping districts, elegant squares and the pleasant waterfront.
Young, energetic and optimistic, Thessaloniki may not have the iconic charm of Athens but it knows how to entertain its visitors, with clubs to spend the evenings having a drink or two and important cultural events such as the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
If the heat becomes unbearable, just hop on a ferry or a bus to reach the beaches of the surroundings or the more distant Chalkidiki Peninsula.
The beating heart of Thessaloniki is the central and monumental Aristotle Square, stretching towards the sea. The area around the square is full of bars, souvenir stores, bookstores and boutiques; you can then continue shopping in the main streets of Tsimiski, Mitropoleos, Egnatia and the coast of Nikis.
If you just want to stroll, the waterfront is the best place, cooler and with many bars for a drink stop.
The huge church of Agios Dimitrios is almost a symbol of the city: dedicated to the patron saint, this very old church dating back to the 5th century was built on the site of the martyrdom of St. Dimitrios, killed by order of a Roman emperor during the persecution of the early Christians.
Only five of the beautiful frescoes that decorated the church survived the fire of 1917: you can admire them above the altar.
Built in the 8th century on an early Christian temple from the 3rd century, the Church of St. Sophia is reminiscent in name and design of Istanbul’s more famous Agia Sofia. Check out the exceptional mosaic depicting the Ascension of Christ in the dome.
The most famous monument in Thessaloniki is the White Tower: built as a defensive tower in the 15th century on the remains of a pre-existing Byzantine tower, it was used by the Ottomans as a prison and torture chamber, earning it the unflattering nickname of the Tower of Blood.
Today the 34-meter-high tower houses a museum dedicated to the history of Thessaloniki; you can climb to the top to enjoy a panoramic view of the city.
At the intersection of Egnatia Street and Gounari Street you can see the remains of the Arch of Galerius, built around 300 BC to celebrate an important victory over the Persians.
Originally it consisted of four pillars supporting a dome, but today what remains are only three pillars; the sculptural decorations depict scenes of Galerius’ victorious campaign against the Persians.
Another evidence of Roman rule in Thessaloniki are the remains of the Roman agora (or forum), which you can see north of Aristotle Square. Don’t miss the fortress that dominates the city from above and the Byzantine walls, built in the 4th century BC and fortified by Emperor Theodosius.
Although Thessaloniki cannot compete with Athens for the quantity and prestige of its ancient museums, the city boasts a good number of art and history museums that are well worth a visit:
While Thessaloniki is a seaside city with a harbor and waterfront promenade, it is not a seaside resort: in fact, there are no city beaches.
That said, it is possible to add to the cultural visits a couple of hours of relaxation by the sea reaching the beaches of the surroundings. With a few euros you can take a ferry that leaves from the city pier and stops at several beaches in the area, all within 50 minutes of travel.
They are mostly equipped beaches, with bars and restaurants: they will not be the most beautiful beaches of Greece, but the sea is cleaner than well known locations of our Adriatic.
If you are willing to move further away, you can reach the Chalkidiki peninsula by bus, but organize your day well otherwise you risk spending it all by bus (or worse waiting under a hot sun).
Thessaloniki is a vibrant city, full of places of interest, and is located in the northern part of Greece. As the second largest city in the country, Thessaloniki offers numerous accommodation options whether you want to reach it for vacation or business.
Able to satisfy even the most demanding travelers thanks to its excellent hotel facilities, Thessaloniki manages to combine the characteristics of a modern city with those of a Byzantine one. Choose an accommodation in the city center, perhaps in one of the small hotels housed in historic buildings, treat yourself to a stay in one of the charming and luxurious facilities a few steps from Aristotle Square or stay in excellent apartments and studios scattered around the city.
Thessaloniki is a bustling metropolis that doesn’t go to sleep when the sun goes down. The aperitif is almost a sacred rite, celebrated by the locals with joy: if you want to join them, the best place is the waterfront, between Aristotelou Square and the port, with its wide choice of bars and cocktail lounges.
The evening continues with dinner, which according to Greek tradition is eaten very late and is an important moment of socialization. Choose one of the typical taverns around the covered market for a fun evening of mezedes and traditional music.
You may decide to stop here, because it will already be late, but the Thessaloniki night continues in the clubs of the suburban district of Kalamaria or, in the summer months, in the clubs of the coast, all less than an hour’s drive away.
Getting to Thessaloniki couldn’t be easier: it is connected to the rest of Europe by direct flights from various cities. It can also be reached by bus from Athens, but it’s quite a long journey, between five and seven hours.
Thessaloniki is the main city of Macedonia, the northern region of mainland Greece. It rises on a bay in the gulf of the same name and is bathed by the Aegean Sea.