Thessaloniki city guide

You don’t hear all that much about Thessaloniki as a mainstream tourist destination. People usually pick Santorini, Mykonos or Rhodes as their primary summer vacation spots. Others go for Athens if they’re feeling ambitious. People choose Thessaloniki when they’ve seen most of what Greece has to offer or when all their favourite spots are booked. It is often put at the bottom of “10 most interesting…” lists. It’s the second largest city in Greece, “the second capital”. In fact it has always been second, even during its early days they used to call it “the second city” after the Constantinople. People who eventually get past that “second best” idea about Thessaloniki are pleasantly surprised and tend to come back. Most will agree this is a special city, a gem with a real beating heart to it. A huge part of Thessaloniki’s attraction lies in its incredible friendly inhabitants. Even tour guides call themselves “hosts” and aim for the guests to not just see the city but also experience it.

Alexander the Great statue against the sunset sky

Remarkable statue of legendary Alexander the Great on his famous horse Bucephalus situated on the quay of Thessaloniki

There is a history of this exceptional tolerance among the inhabitants of the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, which was a major refuge for victims of the First World War and a base of operations of the allied forces. Thessaloniki always had a very large population of Jews, but that was until the horror of the Holocaust knocked on the door. And some 25 years earlier the Great Fire decimated the city in 1917. History repeats itself so now and then and It seems there arrives always some kind of a catastrophe when things seem to go too well. A scapegoat was needed to be blamed for accidentally starting the inferno. Apparently, it was common knowledge that there was no firearm department in Thessaloniki at that time, and someone leaving the gas on seems a bit too convenient. But yeah, let’s blame the Jews and the refugees. But that was then and although a new influx of immigrants and economic crisis affected Greece seriously Thessaloniki is thriving. Under the new management large parts of the city are rebuilt and restored and the city appears to be stronger than ever, and Thessaloniki is boldly looking towards the future.

Thessaloniki is slow, very chill during the day. People sit around in café’s playing chess while sipping on coffee or ouzo. The evenings, though… this city does a full 180, people wake up and engage party mode, it presumably has the most bars and cafes per capita out of all the European cities. I once was so lucky to receive an invitation for the marriage of my Greek friend in Thessaloniki. Since then I know where the expression big fat Greek wedding comes from. The wedding party was followed up by a lot of after-parties organized by the newly married couple and I still remember how surprised I was by the overwhelming presence of hip bars, cosy taverns and posh clubs in town.

The White Tower in Thessaloniki bordered by trees

The White Tower in Thessaloniki traces its lineage to the 15th century and was built by the Ottomans as a defense tower in the harbor

Not only Thessaloniki nightlife is booming; there are also plenty of things to do during the day. You can start with a tour of all the Byzantine architecture Thessaloniki has to offer. Several of the city’s most important monuments were built to celebrate Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus Augustus, or Galerius in short, Roman emperors loved their long, exaggerated names. In fact, there was an entire Palace Complex of Galerius from which the Rotonda and a Triumphant Arch remain mostly intact. People are guessing that the Rotonda was built in the 4th century as a mausoleum for Galerius, but it ultimately served as a place of worship and currently goes by the name of the Church of Saint George. Nowadays it also serves as the Thessaloniki Sculpture Museum. The White Tower is another relic of the Byzantine era, it currently serves as a viewing platform but it used to be a part of enormous fortifications that protected the city during the Ottoman rule. You can climb it for a great view of the port or enjoy exhibitions of historic artefacts housed within. If you enjoyed that climb you can take it a step further and explore the Upper Town (Ano Poli) with its almost 2000-year-old ramparts, fountains and a few very old churches. It’s also the top spot for a romantic date; a bottle of wine, snacks and a sunset should seal the deal.

It should be around late evening when you’re done with all that sightseeing, perfect time to go out and see what the fuss is all about. Most of the older taverns with live music and the best food are located at the Ladadika district, vis-à-vis the port. Thessaloniki is known for fresh seafood and delicious pastries; you can find all that around numerous markets and street stands spread throughout the city. Igglis Tavern at Irodotou 32 is a bit off the beaten path but it’s one of those authentic Greek taverns where locals hang around. You definitely should give it a try; snack on mezedes (sort of Greek tapas) and wash it down with tsipouro or raki. There are no beaches in the city itself but there’s an impressive seaside promenade with enough bars and clubs to keep you entertained until sunrise. Treat your hangover in Kafodio Elliniko at Ioustinianou 3, a traditional Greek café that also serves craft beer. You know; just in case of an emergency. And when if you still have a desire for sandy beaches: Thessaloniki can serve as an excellent base to travel to the Khalkidhiki peninsula. That is at least what I did to recover from 1 week parties; it is typical an area where the locals go for beach holidays, and that is always a good sign.

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