Should you 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hotels. A couple of great upmarket options in the center (both near the highlights): Makedonia Palace and Electra Palace Thessaloniki. Mid-range: Bahar Boutique Hotel.
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. Related: Taking the train from Thessaloniki to Sofia (Bulgaria)
Air. Thessaloniki is served by Macedonia International Airport (code SKG) which receives flights from all over Europe.
Thanks for Reading!
Related: A Visit to Corfu Town (Kerkyra), Greece
Related: 10 Greek Islands you must visit (a local’s guide)
Related: Taking the Train from Thessaloniki (Greece) to Sofia (Bulgaria)
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You’ve found some unique and beautiful places places to visit in Thessaloniki and the cuisine looks tempting too! Great pics!
I would love to go there. Keep sharing!!
the apartments look quite dreary, but the historical stuff looks amazing!
Yes, same architecture throughout the center..with pockets of old stuff that are, as you say, interesting.
We liked Thessaloniki, it had a nice atmosphere, especially along the promenade. I wasn’t too keen on the climb up to the fortress though, that was a bit of a killer!!
You liked the promenade? I found there were too many people, wanted to elbow someone off the edge 🙂
Yes, I had Lissette get a bit upset about that climb. Me and my damn views…
Long time not commenting but always reading, good article about Thessaloniki, following your posts, this year starting September until October 19 we will be visitingfirts time Croatia (Split-Trogir-Hvar- Zadar and Dubrovnik, and Istanbul, second time but looks like first too, last time was in 1984, Athens, Santorini, Naxos and Mykonos, any bar – restaurant – dishes suggestions for these places?
Say hello to Spanky, how is your Barranquillian boy doing?
Hi Carlos! Great to hear from you, nice to know who is (still) reading out there.
If you need any help on Croatia, don’t hesitate with any questions. Glad to help…and make sure to see Omis and Makarska. https://bbqboy.net/11-favorite-places-croatia-visit/ And if you book hotels always really appreciate if you use our Booking.com link. And you are absolutely going at the best time of year.
Sorry, not touring the Greek Islands any time soon, no recommendations for that region 🙁
Still sponsoring our girl in Barranquilla! Spanky says hello back.
By the way, the last time you commented was a few years back on Spain. We’ll be going back in early 2020 and will explore the suggestions you mentioned at the time. We’re actually thinking of making Spain our next base (we both speak Spanish so it makes sense) so the idea is to scope out some towns and cities.
All the best Carlos and don’t forget to write with any questions on Croatia.
Nice to hear about both of you, thank you for everything, if I have questions, I will get back yo you, on our way from Miami to Europe and then Miami again, we are spending 5 days starting our trip in Barcelona and coming back 5 days in Madrid, if I fond something that might be of interest for you, I will let you know.
Although not particularly attractive, I can see myself visiting when we tour Greece. The excellent cuisine would be a good reason to visit, but also the Roman sites and the old fortresses all look very interesting. I always love getting a birds eye view of a place?
I always love views Gilda, especially if they’re from a fortress. Chances are that if you go through northern Greece you’ll end up going through Thessaloniki. I think it’s worth a visit, but I wouldn’t stay more than 3-4 days.
First post, greatly enjoy your site!
I have to ask about the photo of the White Tower. It “seems” to have a bit of
a Leaning Tower vibe to it? I can’t tell if it is the angle of the photo… or some
sort of other optical illusion?
So is the darn thing straight?
Continued safe travels, I’ll be following along. Enjoy the ride!!
Michael in Kyiv
Hi Michael! Thank you for leaving a comment.
I think it’s an optical illusion. Spanky took the photo, she tends to lean to the left 🙂
We’re looking forward to getting back to Ukraine!