Thessaloniki is set to become the newest destination with bragging rights for independent travelers. Greece's second largest city is the gateway to Macedonia, with connections to Alexander the Great and his tutor Aristotle. Its two major universities attract a large student population and with them a youthful music, arts, and sports scene. The city's restaurant and cafe culture is eclectic. Thessaloniki, listed by UNESCO as an Open Museum of Early Christian and Byzantine Art, is also filled with a rich history, from 15th-century towers to amazing museums displaying treasures from long ago.
But maybe the reason this dynamic Greek city is finally popping up on adventurous travelers' radars is that it's easier to get to than ever before. Various airlines offer one-stop flights from most major American and Canadian cities.
From high art to street art, popular culture to cultural excellence—Thessaloniki reels from one international festival to another throughout the year.
- Reworks: This September event brings together a range of music, from modern classical and contemporary electronic dance to experimental sound. It's four days of performances by well-established and emerging Greek and international artists.
- The Street Mode Festival: A three-day celebration of over 20 events, this huge festival includes live, street-based performances in art, music, and sports. This late September festival has DJs, graffiti, and street art shows and competitions, plus street sports like parkour and BMX.
- Thessaloniki International Film Festival: This late October-early November celebration started in 1959 and features several days of the best in contemporary film-making with shows, forums, professional masterclasses, and discussions.
- The Dimitria Festival: In October, this major cultural event combines art exhibitions, music, theater and dance performances, films, discussions, and workshops with artists and experts from all over the world.
Nightlife is one of the main reasons Thessaloniki should be on your hot list. There is something for everyone, with the party going into the wee hours around the city.
Try Mylos, a vast entertainment and nightlife space that was once a flour mill in the warehouse area of Port. It's full of cafes and bars, restaurants, music venues, performance spaces, and hundreds of milling revelers. Or check out what's happening at the Fix Factory of Sound, a venue that has concerts and club nights and a kind of mosh pit scene.
For less hectic nightlife, stroll the historic district of Ladadika, where there are plenty of bars and cafes with music. And look for rembetika, the traditional, political blues music of Greece, in rembetadiko—small tavernas (Greek restaurants) where musicians sit on the edge of the stage and perform while people eat and drink.
Thessaloniki's great variety of informal dining at reasonable prices has won the city the title of "Gastronomic Capital of Greece."
Try Ladadika for lively bistros and a casual, young atmosphere. In the seafood and vegetarian heaven that is Greece, Palati is a good restaurant for meat-eaters and there's usually bouzouki (a mandolin-like instrument) music.
The Port area is a bit pricier because of the seafront views, but the people-watching is great. And for a bust-the-budget blowout, try 7 Thalasses for fresh and delicious seafood.
For some great views and smaller, family-run places, head uphill to Ano Poli (Old Town) where you can overlook the whole city and port, beside ancient castle walls. Downhill from there, Tsinari Square has airy, open cafes and accomplished, modern variations on traditional mezethedes (appetizers).
While in Thessaloniki, look for Eastern European-influenced dishes such as the puff pastries piroshki, and the local specialty known as trahana, a cracked wheat or couscous dish served with yogurt or sour milk.
Considering the city's location at the crossroads of European and Ottoman culture, you'd naturally expect Thessaloniki to have some terrific museums of ancient history, and the city does not disappoint.
- The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, one of Greece's largest museums, traces the civilization of Macedonia from pre-history to late antiquity and is crammed with dazzling ancient treasures.
- The Museum of Byzantine Culture opened to much applause in the 1990s and is home to collections that cover the transformation of Roman religion and the early Christian Church to the 15th-century fall of Constantinople.
If you're not into ancient history, there are several wonderful contemporary museums and galleries to check out in Thessaloniki.
- Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art: An architecturally interesting destination, this has over 2,000 works of photography, painting, sculpture, and engraving by Greek and international artists.
- MOMus-Thessaloniki Museum of Photography: This museum features regular Greek and internationally relevant exhibitions and events.
- Thessaloniki Cinema Museum: The only such museum in Greece and hub for the city's annual film festival, this small site has many significant and rare exhibits.
- The Olympic Museum of Thessaloniki: The only museum of its kind officially recognized by the Olympic Committee, this one has exhibits on the history of the games, the science of sports, and more.
- The ARIS Basketball Museum: This museum displays trophies, shirts, photos, and other items honoring the professional ARIS Thessaloniki team.
Like most major cities in the Balkans, Thessaloniki has suffered many war wounds. Much of the city has been built or rebuilt during the 20th and 21st centuries. But the evidence of ancient Byzantine and Ottoman architecture is dotted all around the city.
The White Tower is a prominent symbol and was a 15th-century Ottoman fortification, built to replace an earlier Byzantine fortress. Only 70 visitors are allowed in at one time. Climb to the top (about 10 stories) for the views.
Others, like the Byzantine Baths, are found in hidden corners of residential districts. The baths were built around 1300 and, remarkably, were fully functional for almost seven centuries—until 1940.
The Thessaloniki International Film Festival, taking place over several days from late October into early November, is Southeastern Europe's top film festival.
Starting as the Week of Greek Cinema in 1960, the festival went international in 1992 and is known for presenting some of the world's most innovative independent films. The event includes a non-competitive panorama of Greek films, an international competition, and more.
If you are up for an easy day trip, there are some guided tours to beautiful sites less than two hours from Thessaloniki. Relax at the Pozar Thermal Baths, natural hot springs with the lovely Mount Voras in the background. The adventure includes a traditional Greek lunch at a pretty village near Pozar and a stop at the local market. The final destination is Edessa, the first capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon—you'll see the Balkan's biggest waterfalls, Edessa Waterfalls.
Thessaloniki is listed with UNESCO as an Open Museum of Early Christian and Byzantine Art. There are 15 different sites in the listing that covers the transition from Roman through early Christian times to the Ottoman occupation.
You can follow the trail of the Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki around the city, or at least visit the Rotunda, one of the city's oldest and most remarkable buildings that has survived earthquakes and empires and has fragmentary remains of beautiful early mosaics. It is known as the Church of Agios Georgios but most people refer to it simply as the Rotunda. A huge and impressive example of late Roman architecture, it is a must-visit site.
If the whole family wants to learn about the region's eats from expert insiders, go on a fun 2.5-hour “Thessaloniki tasty exploration” walking tour. Your guide will not only provide you with local brunch pastries, snacks, and coffees, but will teach you about Greek cuisine and traditions through interesting storytelling. The journey will include a visit to the colorful open market (Monday to Saturday); you just might feel like a local.
Αno Poli, the Old Town also known as Upper Town, is approximately 2,300 years old, making it the oldest part of the city. It's also the highest point of Thessaloniki and thus offers great views and a peaceful feeling from up above. From this area you can view the Byzantine wall with its towers, ancient religious sites with Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, and other historic remnants. Check out the narrow streets, stone-paved alleys, and traditional homes.
Tourists and locals love walking, running, cycling, taking photos, and enjoying other recreational activities at the Waterfront of Thessaloniki, which is about 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) in length. The area is split between the Palia Paralia (Old Waterfront) and the Nea Paralia (New Waterfront). It includes several green spaces with themes such as the Garden of the Shadow and the Garden of Roses.
Modiano Market is a historically significant destination for visitors and is the city's biggest indoor market. It was built between 1922 and 1930 by architect Eli Modiano, who was part of a renowned Italian-Jewish (Sephardic) Thessaloniki family.
Vendors sell everything from cheese to fish to fresh produce. New and traditional and restaurants, tavernas, and bars are inside the building. Note: the market is going through renovations, so confirm whether it is open before going.
About a 50-minute drive from Thessaloniki is an archaeological site called Pella, the capital of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia and the place Alexander the Great was born. Archaeological excavations found the Agora (public open space) built in the fourth century BCE and featuring many mansions, sanctuaries, and shops in an area of about 10 city blocks. Pella is known for its pebble-mosaic floors; see the mosaics in the House of Dionysus and the House of the Abduction of Helen.
The Chalkidiki (Halkidiki) tourist area houses some nice peninsulas with gorgeous beaches that are within a few hours of Thessaloniki by car.
- Kassandra has public beaches in forested areas, luxury hotels, spas, and golf courts. Restaurants, bars, and taverns are found in this trendy area, as well. Sani Beach is a favorite, with white sand, turquoise water, and rare birds.
- Sithonia is known for its amazing scenery, from beaches to peaceful villages and great architecture, along with entertainment venues. Kartalia's rocky and quiet beaches impress visitors.
- Mount Athos is the farthest from Thessaloniki and is full of monasteries, only accessible to men. Women may visit other areas like the beaches, restaurants, and nightclubs, or go on a cruise around the peninsula.