Reasons to visit Thessaloniki (Greece)
I wouldn’t tell anyone that Thessaloniki has to be visited. That would make me a liar. I also won’t tell you that it’s a very attractive city. It’s not. BUT it does have a few significant sites of interest and the food is great. It is also a bustling, young city (the 2nd largest in Greece) with friendly people and a happening café and bar scene.
Main train routes through the Balkans (black) and the route we’ve taken on this trip (purple)
For us Thessaloniki was the place to take the train to Bulgaria. When we had decided to do our “train adventure” from Split to Istanbul we had two choices: 1) Split up to Zagreb, Budapest, then down through Belgrade towards Istanbul 2) Split across to Italy, down the coast on the very efficient Italian high speed trains, back across to Greece and on to Thessaloniki through a combination of ferry and bus. Thessaloniki would be the place we could get back on the major train lines. Having previously been in Zagreb, Budapest and Belgrade in winter (when they are all grey and cold) we had opted for the southern route. That’s why we were in Thessaloniki.
Above: Thessaloniki’s center from the White Tower
Downtown Thessaloniki is mostly modern, the result of an incredible fire in 1917 that burned down two thirds of the city. Because of this most of what you’ll see will be a densely packed mix of 20th century buildings. But between the modern blocks there are some impressive Roman and Byzantine remains.
The most impressive is the Roman Rotunda. It was built it 306 AD by the Romans (306 AD!! I just couldn’t get over that) in the time of Emperor Caesar Galerius. Originally built to be a Mausoleum for Galerius, it never served this purpose. Instead it has served as a church for early Christians (that’s when the Rotunda was adorned with the incredible mosaics that still exist today), then as an Orthodox Christian church, then – when the Ottomans took over in the 14th century – it became a mosque (this explains the minaret). After liberation from the Turks in 1912, the mosque was then reconverted into a church dedicated to Saint George. The Rotunda has 6 meter thick walls and rises almost 30 meter. Despite many earthquakes it has survived through the ages.
Next to the Rotunda is the Arch of Galerius which was built at the same time. Together, the Rotunda and the arch make up the Galerian Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best preserved Roman sites in Europe.
The next ‘must see’ site in the city center is the Church of Saint Demitrius. Built as a Byzantine church in the 7th century, the interior is a work of art with its mosaics and wall paintings. Much of the church was destroyed in the 1917 fire and it has undergone massive restoration. One of the unintended benefits of the fire was the discovery of a crypt and more (previously undiscovered) mosaics. It’s a beautiful church.
Above: Church of Saint Dimitrious
The most famous building in Thessaloniki is the White Tower, a tower built along the waterfront by the Ottomans in 1530. It served mainly as a prison at the time. Today it is a museum. The top of the tower has great views over the city.
Above: the White Tower
There are a few other interesting (but less spectacular sites) in the center: the church of Saint Sophia, the Roman Agora (this complex, which includes a forum, was the center of Roman life in Thessaloniki), and Aristotelous Square which is the largest square in the city.
Above: church of Saint Sophia
Above: Roman Agora
Above: Aristotelous Square
In the Old Town (the historic “Ano Poli”)
If you climb the hills from the center, you’ll come across Ano Poli, the historic old town. This area leads up to the Heptapyrgion fortress at the very top of the town.
Ano Poli wasn’t destroyed by the 1917 fire and retains an Ottoman air with a maze of steep, cobble-stoned streets and low-level buildings. You’ll find little squares and some nice neighbourhood cafés and restaurants (“Igglis” was a favorite. I’ll have a few recommendations further below).
Up at the top of the hill, Heptapyrgion fortress is worth exploring and has great 360 views on Thessaloniki. More recently it was a prison. You can visit the cells and climb the walls.
On the way to the fortress (just slightly down the hill) are some of the city’s ancient walls. The whole of the old town used to be surrounded by these walls. A great spot to enjoy the views is the Trigonion (or Alysos Tower as it is also called).
The Good and the Bad. Thessaloniki is quite compact and you can see all the major highlights in 2 or 3 days. And I really think some of the city’s highlights are quite impressive. Architecturally however, Thessaloniki is not the most attractive city. And you might be shocked by the overflowing garbage bins and the number of stray dogs. BUT – People are friendly, the level of English is good (especially compared to Italy) and food is excellent. We enjoyed Thessaloniki and would recommend a few days.
Below: we made a friend
Thessaloniki has excellent cuisine, its influences shaped by Eastern and Greek elements.
In the Center: “To Elliniko”, “Molyvos” and “Akadimia” offer excellent Greek food at mid-level prices. A more upscale restaurant is “Clochard”.
In Ano Poli: “Igglis”, a little tavern with great food at low prices (very popular on weekends). “Rediviva Cucina Povera” is another very charming Greek restaurant with excellent food.
Greek wine and Ouzo are pretty good too!
It’s worth taking a walking tour as well as a food tour. As I say, the cuisine in Thessaloniki really is excellent.
If looking for an Apartment: Blue Suite Group Mesitiki.
Above: the local wildlife that often showed up outside our door 🙂
Bus. We were coming from Corfu which meant taking the ferry from Corfu to Igoumenistsa (90 minutes). From Igoumenistsa we took the bus to Thessaloniki (4 hours). Bus schedule here (KTEL is the major bus company in Greece). The bus station is situated at the extreme west of the city (too far to walk. Best to take a taxi, it cost us 8 Euros from our apartment in Ano Poli).
Train. The train station is also heading west of the center (about a 20 minute walk from Aristotelous Square). Train website here. International routes include Belgrade, Sofia and Skopje. There doesn’t seem to be any way of buying tickets online – we went to the train station the day before to buy our ticket to Sofia.
Air. Thessaloniki is served by Macedonia International Airport (code SKG) which receives flights from all over Europe.
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