Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece and widely considered the culinary capital. After spending time in Athens not only as a tourist but also living in Athens as a digital nomad, I knew I was keen for more Greek city exploration. Sure the islands in the Cyclades get all the attention and fame because of their impossibly charming white houses, amazing beaches, and dramatic landscapes. However, I really enjoyed my time in Athens and absolutely love the Urban Greek vibes.
Thessaloniki is like a smaller more compact version of Athens. Although it doesn’t have the famous Acropolis and Parthenon, it offers a lot in its own right. Located right on the sea, it is the hot spot for amazing nightlife and delicious food.
Greece is my favorite country in Europe and I traveled extensively through the country. If you need inspiration for other parts of Greece, make sure to read my Ultimate Greece Travel Guide that details everything yo need to know about Greece and the places I’ve been to.
Getting to Thessaloniki from the airport
Thessaloniki airport is located 14 kilometres from the city centre and is accessible by public bus going to and from the airport. Express bus line 78 (and 78N at night) connect the airport to the city centre. Tickets can be purchased from vending machines on board the bus (exact change required) and the fare is EUR 2. Travel time between the airport and the city is 40 to 50 minutes and buses run every 30 minutes.
Taxis from the airport to the city center are roughly €20 one way. They are readily available outside of the airport and they are metered. There is no Uber in the city unlike in Athens, but the city taxis are available on the Uber app.
Getting around Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki is actually a very small city. The city center is only 20 minutes from one end to the other. The upper town is only 20 minutes by foot from the city center. It might seem like a big and chaotic city because of how densely packed everything is but there really isn’t that much.
I would recommend exploring Thessaloniki entirely on foot.
The only choice for public transportation in Thessaloniki is public buses, but they make for a good way to get around the city. There is a dense network of bus lines connecting most parts of the city and suburbs. Tickets cost EUR 1 when bought from street kiosks (periptera) or EUR 1.10 when bought from vending machines on board the buses. Tickets must be validated in one of the special machines found on all buses.
Taxis are also readily available and can be booked via Uber. There is no Uber officially but rather official Thessaloniki taxis use the platform as part of their own.
What to do in Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki is a beautiful city in its own way. It doesn’t hook you in like a typical European city with beautiful gothic architecture or giant cathedrals but rather the character of the city grows on you. As far as “traditional” European city sights, there aren’t too many to speak of in Thessaloniki. Nevertheless, here are some of the must see things in the city.
Upper Town (Old Town)
Ano Poli (or the Upper Town) is enclosed within the city’s old fortifications at the highest point of the city. The historic area survived the great fire of 1917 so has retained much of its old-world aesthetic, and is one of Thessaloniki’s most charming neighbourhoods. Spend some time exploring the narrow streets and alleys filled with beautiful ottoman houses and traditional taverns. Due to the area’s elevated location, Upper Town is a great way to see Thessaloniki from above. You can get here on foot, but if you’re short on time or don’t feel like hoofing it, take bus 23 from the city centre.
Street Mode is an annual music, art and sports festival that has been held in Thessaloniki since 2009. It is the largest festival in North Greece, hosting more than 40,000 spectators each year. The three-day program (usually around the end of August) involves more than 50 live music performances on multiple stages and DJ sets, as well as street art, street dance, parkour, skateboarding, children’s activities and much more.
This is one of the oldest churches in the world. it’s also home to a beautiful mural that dates back to very olden times. Dating back to the 4th century AD, this church is located in the Upper Town of Thessaloniki and is open to the public.
Situated in the center of Thessaloniki, Rotunda was turned into a Christian church after it was constructed in about 300 AD. With the Ottoman occupation, the church was turned into a mosque. Once it was liberated, Rotunda was again turned into a Christian church and later into a sculpture museum.
Arch of Galerius
Known as Kamara, the Arch of Galerius was originally constructed to commemorate the victory of Roman general Galerius over the Persians. Kamara is currently a passageway and a famous meeting point in the city.
The Roman Forum, also known as “Ancient Agora,” was constructed by the Romans. Situated near the Aristotelous square, the building was the center of the political and public life in the city.
The Galerius Palace
The Galerius Palace is an important monument in Thessaloniki. It has received awards from the European Union in 2008 for the exceptional conservation of its ruins that turned into an educational site that is now a major attraction in the city.
Visit The Fabulous Museums In Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki is famous for its museums, owing to its history dating back thousands of years. In fact, this city holds some of Greece’s best ancient artifacts. Here are some of the best museums you can visit in Thessaloniki:
- The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki houses an extensive collection of thousands of years old artifacts and is a must-visit if you’re interested in ancient Greek history.
- The Museum of Byzantine Culture showcases more than 3000 artifacts, mosaics, and jewelry from the Byzantine period. If you wish to learn about the Byzantine culture and life during the Byzantine era, this museum is worth visiting.
- The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki presents the history of Sephardic Jews and the Jewish life in the city. It houses several monumental stones, inscriptions, and series of photographs, explaining the history of the Jewish people who lived in Thessaloniki.
- The Thessaloniki Olympic Museum was established to preserve the sporting heritage and is a great place to learn about the history of the Olympic Games.
Other museums in Thessaloniki include:
- The Photography Museum
- The Museum of Cinema
- The Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki
- The War Museum
See The Beautiful Churches In Thessaloniki
There are several churches in Thessaloniki dating back thousands of years. Most of these churches are among the best instagrammable places in Thessaloniki. Here are some of the best churches that are worth a visit while you’re in Thessaloniki:
- Hagios Demetrios, also called The Church of Saint Demetrius, is dedicated to Saint Dimitri.
- Hagia Sophia is one of the oldest churches in the city. This Byzantine church is included as a World Heritage Site on the UNESCO list.
- Agios Pavlos is located on a hill and is a beautiful church in the city.
- The Church of Panagia Chalkeon is an attractive Byzantine church with a gorgeous garden.
If you didn’t visit the White Tower you were not really in Thessaloniki. This is the most emblematic, iconic image the city has to offer. No one really knows when or by whom it was built, but its construction is attributed to the Ottoman Empire in 1530 A.D.
Historically the tower has played an important role in the development of the city. Today it is used as an exhibition center and museum, where you can find more information abut the history of the tower.
Free walking tour of Thessaloniki
There is one company that does the free walking tours through Thessaloniki. I booked an afternoon Upper Town tour with him and a few other tourists joined. The guide Giorgos was very informative and being a local of Thessaloniki his whole life, he really took the time to learn about the history of his city.
We explored the upper town sights and visited all the churches and historic sights in the process. The most interesting part of the hike really were his own personal recounts on the history of the city including the history of the traditional Greek Bouzouki (a small guitar) and the Turkish-Greek population exchange.
I had heard about the population exchange between Greeks and Turks in the early 20th century before but never in much detail. He recounted how Thessaloniki was once a thriving hub for Turks, Greeks, and Jews alike. Much of the upper town was home to Turkish communities that more or less built the city as it is today. However, after World War 1, the population exchange of a million Turks living in Greece and Greeks living in Turkey turned everything upside down.
Where to stay in Thessaloniki
There are no shortage of places to stay in Thessaloniki. Being a densely packed city means you’ll have all sorts of options available to you.
As the city is quite small, anywhere in the city center will ensure that you are close to the action. The Airbnb offerings in Thessaloniki are abundant and great. With very cheap prices and quality apartments, you can’t go wrong with this.
I stayed in an Airbnb in the upper town with absolutely unreal views of the city. It was located right next to Agios Dimitrios Church and you could see the entire city as well as the sea. There literally is nowhere better to get views of the city than from my apartment, not even the walls of the Akropolis.
However, staying in the upper town meant walking up and down a hill 15 minutes every time I wanted to go into the city. If you would rather have a shorter commute and be right in the action, then I would stay more central nearer to the waterfront.
Where to drink in Thessaloniki
Like Athens, Thessaloniki is known for its trendy cocktail bars and various other institutions for imbibing. I love me a good cocktail and am probably too old to be going to college style bars. However, if you are of that age, then make sure to walk through the Galerius Square to see the young college nightlife.
For the rest of us, there are some amazing cocktail bars making world class drinks. They aren’t super cheap like they are in Albania for example, but they are still much cheaper than you’ll find in places like New York, Singapore, or London.
Vogatsikou is located near the waterfront and is one of the top cocktail bars in the country. They have legit bartenders that are masters of their craft and the drinks resemble that. I had some of the best drinks of my trip here and would highly recommend a stop in. It’s also nearby to many great restaurants so you can have a nice meal afterwards.
Coq Tail mix bar
If you want a cocktail bar with great views of the city, look no further than Coq Tail mix bar. This is definitely a great hangout spot for locals and tourists alike. Located in the Upper Town near to the city walls, this bar has unobstructed views of the city.
Where to eat in Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki is known for its culinary prowess. There are restaurants and bars literally at every corner of the city. The city center is home to many amazing Greek restaurants, many with a more trendy flair to it. Nevertheless, prices are still reasonable by Greek standards and the food is delicious.
Another way to get a feel for local life is visiting Modiano and Kapani markets. These city market serve as a delicious introduction to Thessaloniki’s vibrant culinary scene. Both markets offer a glimpse (and taste) of traditional Thessaloniki foods and are across the street from each other. Wander through both for a sensory overload of colourful spices, produce, meats, cheeses (oh, the cheeses), olives, and many local snacks and prepared items.
Gyros and Souvlaki are staple fast foods in Greece and among my favorite street meats in the world. I can’t count how many gyros I’ve eaten during my many months in Greece but it’s enough to say I have a problem.
Thessaloniki has their own style of gyros. They are made exceptionally large, and served with mustard and ketchup. Yes, you read that right. They are served with ketchup and mustard like a hotdog instead of using their prized tzatziki. I was a bit shocked when discovering this at first and have no idea why the Greeks would butcher such a good thing. Thankfully, you can just tell them no mustard/ketchup and to add tzatziki.
Gyrodiko is located outside of the main part of town but it is the most famous place for gyros. They have four giant rotating spits with 500kg of pork meat spinning all day and night. The gyros are 2x the size of normal gyros. They are all still just as delicious and my go to street food of choice in Greece.
Going to Meteora from Thessaloniki
If you’re in Thessaloniki for at least 3 or 4 days, then one of the best day trips you can take is to the monasteries of Meteora. These thousand year old monasteries are among the most stunning and picturesque religious buildings you will ever see.
They are built on the top of mountain peaks that look like they’re floating over the sky. From Thessaloniki, you can take a bus to the town of Kalambaka and do a DIY tour of the area. Otherwise, you can book a day trip from Thessaloniki to Meteora which will take up the entire day.
I visited Meteora as part of my Northern Greece road trip itinerary but if you are only here for a few days, then I would recommend just doing the day trip.
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