If you are looking for a base to explore the southern Balkans and northeast Greece, Thessaloniki is a great city to spend a few days. The airport has plenty of service to the main European hubs and once you’re there, it’s less than 4 hours to get to nearby destinations such as Meteora, the Pelion Peninsular, Athos or Mount Olympus. Sofia is also about 4 hours away by bus, so this is a good stop for an inter-Balkan route. Start off with a walk along the cafe-lined waterfront along the Aegean – that’s also great for a morning jog.
Thessaloniki is a very walkable medium-sized city with a great waterfront promenade.
The city’s history differs from the rest of Greece as it stayed under the Ottoman Empire much later – until 1912 – than the south and west of the country. There are more reminders of the Turkish presence, although as about a third of the city was burnt down in the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 it has a mostly early/mid-20th century along its downtown streets – heading up the hill gives you a feel with more original buildings having the typical Ottoman-style overhanging upper level balcony.
A walk up to the old town at the top of the landward Ottoman city walls takes you through winding streets to a view over the old fortifications and the Aegean.
The Hamzar Bey, a 15th-century Ottoman mosque, later converted post-1912 to a movie theater called the Alkazar, remains closed while they restore it and also dig up the street underneath.
Kemal Ataturk (aka Mustapha Kemal) was born in Thessaloniki, as commemorated in 1933. His house is open to visitors.
But the Romans were here first, and they eventually morphed into the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium. The 3rd Century AD Rotunda of Galerius was originally constructed as a Roman temple, and then became an Orthodox Cathedral under the Byzantines, before conversion to a Mosque under the Ottomans. It is one of the most impressive standing structures in town and in excellent condition.
St George sits above the Ottoman-era entrance which ushers you into a cavernous interior that has served Roman pagans, Byzantine orthodox, Ottoman muslims and now random visitors from all over.
The ceiling frescoes are insane: they depict the cathedrals of Byzantium – all of which fell under the Ottoman invader, as did this one. The frescoes were plastered over to avoid damage, and many weren’t uncovered until well into the 20th century.
The detail on the frescoes is immense.
Thessaloniki’s main street is the Via Egnatia, which is what the Romans also called it as their main route from southern Europe to their eastern provinces. There are plenty of reminders of the Romans, from the ruins of the forum to the 4th Century AD Arch of Galerius, a ceremonial gateway over the Via Egnatia.
Aside from the formal attractions, you can get sucked into just wandering around – it is very neighborhoody throughout and human-sized.
The early Christian and Byzantine presence is also felt – often in the subterranean cellars of churches. The Church of Agios Nicholas Orphanos is a simple early 14th Century church with an ornate frescoed interior – covered until the late 1950s.
The Church of Agios Dimitrios is one of the larger original churches (from the 600s AD) commemorating the saint martyred by the Romans as well as having crypts below.
Many Byzantine-era chapels are stuck in a sea of apartment buildings.
It’s also worth taking the walk up the hill to the small but incredible 5th Century AD Church of Hosios David or Latomou Monastery. The fresco, dating from the 11th Century and covered over during the Ottoman period, is quite remarkable and the staff are keen to walk you through the symbology. It’s unusual in that it depicts an unbearded Christ as a teenager.
You can have your fill of Greek Orthodox iconography at the Museum of Byzantine Culture.
Thessaloniki pays attention to its food culture and the mezze style along with a frenetic social life means people hang out past midnight at restaurants. There is a good concentration along Katouni Street, southeast of Tsimiski, as well as in the side streets that run northwest up to Salaminos. The nightlife is very busy and goes on very very late – start in the Katouni area and go from there. The retsina was pretty good, and wasn’t as sweet as I was fearing, and of course tsipouro, the local clear spirit, can be had with or without aniseed.
Some great options are:
Full tou Meze on Katouni 3 would be where I’d go if I just had one choice – it has a comprehensive Greek menu and is perpetually busy with a nice location on a small square.
Another excellent alleyway restaurant is E Rouga (Η Ρούγα) on Karipi 28.
Toicho Toicho (Τοίχο Τοίχο) on Stergiou Polidorou 1, just outside the old walls, is a good place to go in the upper city.
If you happen to be in town in early September watch out for the annual beer festival which features very drinkable Greek microbrews. We went and in a way it was probably for the best that we couldn’t stay long.
We stayed at the Caravan B&B on Rempelou 1, thecaravan.gr which is a nice B&B.
If you fly in, there is a bus that calls at the passenger terminal and drops downtown. If you are impatient or tired, a taxi is about 20 euro downtown. While the railway station is just northwest of downtown on Monastiriou, the main KTEL intercity bus station is located further out, about 4 kilometres west of the center at Giannitson 244. It’s a short cab ride or you can catch a bus along Monastiriou.