Over the years, I got the same question over and over again: I am a tourist travelling to your city, what is there to see, to experience, what places to visit, which museums worth the trouble and in general, how should I spend my two days there?
Well, as I am tired of trying to come up with a new list every time I get this question, I decided to write posts to answer it. This time, it is about my home town, Thessaloniki.
A bit of history
There is nothing that you cannot find on the internet these days, especially when talking about popular places. The problem is that sometimes you find way too much information, so here’s a distilled version. My version.
Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece and it was founded 315 BC by Cassander, one of the most important generals of Alexander The Great. He was married to the sister of Alexander, whose name was Thessaloniki. So he gave the city the name of his wife :)
The city was always an important one, mainly due to its location. On one hand, the protected waters of the Thermaikos gulf allowed the creation of a pretty big natural port. On the other, the city was located between other important cities of ancient and byzantine times. That’s why it came to be a melting pot for various cultures and religions. And due to this, there are so many interesting things to experience when visiting the city.
Here’s a list of them in categories.
The White Tower is the symbol of the city. And not without a reason: it has been standing in a very central location for almost 600 years, visible from almost any part of the city. It was originally used as a prison during the Ottoman times, and nowadays it features a museum for the history of the tower and the city. Get inside on a warm day to enjoy the cool atmosphere, and get rewarded with awesome views from the top if you manage the climbing. Just beware that the museum itself is not totally English friendly. Many of the exhibit descriptions are unfortunately only in Greek :(
The city boasts a very nice archaeological museum for the ancient times. Various exhibits are to be found, mainly from the Macedonian area, but not only. It takes about 1hour to visit and it definitely worth it.
The most important period of the city was during the Byzantine era. Therefore, a Byzantine museum would be unavoidable. It has been awarded the Council of Europe’s museum prize in 2005 and if you get a chance to visit it, you will understand why.
The Kamara (Arch) and Galerius palace and Rotunda, were built to celebrate the victory of Gelerius against the Sassanid Persians. Not so many people think about this anymore when they choose the Kamara as a meeting point every day. All three monuments are within a few hundred meters from each other and can be see on a single visit.
One of the biggest problems of the city, is the lack of parking spot. Thessaloniki does not have much underground parking spaces, mainly because whenever they tried to build one, they struck extremely important archaeological findings. The Roman forum is one such example right in the centre of the city. Also known as the ‘Ancient Agora’, the forum was constructed by the Romans during the late 1st century AD. It features an aphitheatre, two big stoas, and an underground museum with findings from the site.
Finally, unknown to many people, but Thessaloniki was the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey. The house where he was born is now a consulate of Turkey, and a visitable museum at the same time.
Thessaloniki is strongly connected with religion. There are hundreds of churches in the city, you can find one wherever you are. There are different styles and from different eras, too many to list here. You can find more information online, but here are some that I believe it worth mentioning.
Agios Demetrios (St. Demetrios) is the protector saint of the city and therefore deserves special mention in this post. The church of the saint is the biggest one in the city and it features a special style called Basilica. If you visit it, don’t forget to have a look at the Crypt (Catacombs), where ancient Christians used to worship secretly from the Romans and where it is said that the body of St. Demetrius was dropped after his martyr. The fountain there still gives away a nice aroma.
As the second most important city during the Byzantine days, Thessaloniki deserved its own Hagia Sofia. It is still one of the most important churches of the city, with a very unique style.
Parks and squares
I’ve always said that the best way to experience Thessaloniki is by relaxing and enjoying its rhythm. Therefore, once you are done with the museums and churches, the real experience starts.
If you are in for a long walk, then you should checkout the thematic parks on the waterfront of Thessaloniki. Starting from the White Tower and up until the Music Hall on the East, you can experience 3.5 km of thematic parks. While walking you change environment every a few hundred meters, going from ‘Sound’ to ‘Memory’ and then ‘Water’. It is the perfect way to relax and get away from the routine of daily life.
When you are too tired, you can enjoy a refreshing drink in the most refreshing location: in the Gulf of Thermaikos. Close to the White Tower, there are several boat-bars that you can hop-on and off at will. There is no entrance ticket, you just pay a littttle bit more for your drink (seriously, I am not even sure it is more expensive than normal bars).
The Aristotelous square is the undisputable centre of the city. It’s almost fully pedestrian and I’ve heard many times to be called ‘the biggest square in Europe’. Although I am sure it is not true, I leave it up to you to dispute it ;) It has numerous cafes, ice-cream places and fast-food, that will help you satisfy all your needs.
If you are for a slightly longer trip, you can enjoy a more calm environment for a coffee in Aretsou. It features a slightly more fancy type of coffee places, along a marina.
As the city is build in an amphitheatre style, it is relatively easy to find good places with a good view. You just probably have to climb a bit ;).
If you are into panoramas and good views, the region of Ano Poli (High city) and Kastra (Fortifications), is your place to be. You can reach it on foot, or by bus and you can enjoy the views accompanied with a coffee or seafood.
While you are there, you can make a short stop at the Monastery of Vlatadon, and enjoy the view of the city with the sound of the numerous peacocks that live there.
If you would rather stay in the centre, the Electra palace roof garden is your choice. Located in the famous Absolute square (i.e. Aristotelous Square), you can enjoy your Frappe, but only if you are properly dressed (a smokin is not necessary, but they have a kinda dress code)
Finally, if you want a 360 view of the city, then you should check the OTE tower. This is really for the lazy ones, as you can see the whole city without even walking! Yes, you have your coffee and the tower rotates around itself so you see everything :) One rotation every hour should be enough to see everything.
Where to eat
When it comes to food, Thessaloniki is by far the best place to visit in Greece. Even the Athenians admit this aspect as a granted truth. Again, it is not so much because of the quality of the food as for the atmosphere at the food places.
There are a couple of ‘hidden’ pockets in the city, where you need someone to tell you how to reach. From outside, they don’t seem like anything is inside. But once you are inside, the world transforms with the sounds of traditional music, the smells of delicacies and the very warm atmosphere.
Two of these pockets are Bit Bazaar and the Athonos Square. Both are typical markets during the morning, and transform to a sprawl of tavernas during the evening. Check google maps or ask a local to get you there when you are hungry.
And for waking up, you should try typical Bougatsa for breakfast. The best place to try it is Bougatsa Milkakis. If you go there, tell the owner that you are my friend, and you will definitely get an even better treatment ;)
Another delicacy for which Thessaloniki, and even more the Panorama area, is famous for, is Trigona (triangles). It is a conical/triangular shaped pastry filled with extra smooth cream. Never ever take trigona that are pre-filled as they tend to be dry and sub-optimal. That is why I suggest to visit Trigona elenidi, because the put the cream right on the spot. If you go there, have one for me too ;)
Coffee: a religion of the city
Coffee, and even more Frappe, is like a sub-culture for Thessaloniceans. Maybe even as important as religion. Once again, it is not so much the taste as the environment and the atmosphere. Two of my favourite places for a coffee are offering both.
Pringipos is a traditional coffee place in a rather central location. You can try modern style coffee (frappe, freddo espresso), but also the more traditional greek/turkish coffee prepared in the old style chovoli.
The waterfront offers a huge variety of cafes and bars to choose from. And it is probably the most popular place to have a coffee in the city. However, these places change every year or two, so not much I can suggest (as of 2017, I live for 7 years abroad). There is though a constant on the waterfront, a place that has remain untouched by time and that is as authentic as it can get. Thermaikos has been active for at least 2 decades now and its art deco style gives a very unique personality to the place.
The third place I enjoy having coffee at is Kitchen bar. Located in the old docks of the port, it definitely takes a 10⁄10 for the atmosphere and an equally high rank for the quality of their food and drinks.
For the night time, there is one place you NEED to visit in Thessaloniki: The small streets around Valaoritou street. If you go there during the day, you will consider it a phantom city, abandomed and forgotten. But during the night, it transforms with thousands of people walking, drinking, eating and having overall fun.
Memories to bring back
One of the biggest trouble I have when visiting a new place, is deciding what kind of souvenirs to take back home.
Oli-catessen tries to answer this question by offering something alternative than magnets, shot glasses and postcards. It is a modern grocery store offering a variety of local products, some of which are very traditional while others are innovative. Whether you are into kitchenware made of natural materials or new taste ideas from olives, grapes and fruits, I am sure you will find something to bring back home to loved ones.
This section will need to wait a little bit. But here’s a list of three important festivals happening in the city