Things to do in Thessaloniki Greece: A Comprehensive First Timer’s Guide

Things to do in Thessaloniki: Ano Poli is the oldest part of town
Things to do in Thessaloniki: Ano Poli is the oldest part of town

There are enough things to do in Thessaloniki to warrant you spending a long weekend in Greece’s second city. While Thessaloniki may not have the same concentration of ruins and archaeological sites as Athens, or the idyllic beaches and coastlines of the Greek islands, the city has a rich and diverse history that dates back thousands of years. 

Despite its size, Thessaloniki has an air of small-town charm about it. The city’s location also makes it a perfect jumping-off point for visiting Halkidiki or embarking on a wider Greece itinerary. 

Stroll Along the Waterfront Promenade 

There are dozens of lovely bars and coffee shops that extend along Thessaloniki’s waterfront – all the way from the White Tower down to the old port. Sit inside one of the cute establishments here and people watch with a Freddo Cappuccino (I really like Elyti Cafe). All of the coffee places here position their chairs to face out to the water so that you can take in the sweeping sea views over the Thermaic Gulf. 

Admire the Frescoes of Beautiful Orthodox Churches   

Greece is an Orthodox country. It is no secret that the culture has strong roots in religion. My friends and I have often joked that churches in Greek towns and cities are like Starbucks in America and the UK – there is one on every corner! Thessaloniki is no different in that regard. 

Even if you are not a religious person, you can still appreciate the spiritual, almost ethereal ambiance of Thessaloniki’s churches, their ornate interiors, and their vibrant frescoes. Each Orthodox church that you stumble open is seemingly more beautiful than the last. You can wander inside most churches that you pass in Thessaloniki with no admission fee. 

The Church of Agia Sophia is one of the oldest religious sites in Thessaloniki, as well as a UNESCO world heritage site. Even after venturing inside countless churches around Greece, you will find something special about this one – it is altogether more dark and gothic in design than most Orthodox churches.  

The Church of Panagia Chalkeon is another particularly special structure. The Byzantine church is encompassed by beautiful verdant gardens where dozens of stray cats play and stretch out beneath the sun. 

Take a Brutal History Lesson at the Abandoned Heptapyrgion Fortress

While the Parthenon watches protectively over downtown Athens, Thessaloniki has a more sinister structure that looms on the hills above it – the abandoned fortress and prison complex of Heptapyrgion. A fortress has existed on this site in some form or another for thousands of years. The Heptapyrgion fortress site that stands today was rebuilt by the Ottoman Turks. 

This eerily abandoned fortress is synonymous with the idea of torture and executions. Prisoners have been held and executed here for centuries. Over the course of the last century, those held include captured Nazis during World War II and political prisoners. Heptapyrgion was infamous for the poor treatment and abuse of captives. 

As you enter the prison site today and roam around its narrow corridors, you get the creepy feeling that the former inmates are still trapped here somehow. Towering, thick stone walls prevent any light and sounds from the outside wall getting into the prison. The solitary confinement wing with its rusted metal cell doors is particularly eerie. Did you hear chains rattling and doors clanging in the distance or was it just your imagination?  

Get a Bird’s Eye View from the White Tower 

Things to do in Thessaloniki: Visit the White Tower
Things to do in Thessaloniki: Visit the White Tower

The White Tower of Thessaloniki is undoubtedly the city’s most iconic landmark. The tower was erected in the 15th century on top of an old Byzantine fortification. It was built so as to improve Thessaloniki’s defenses, particularly along the coast. 

Over the centuries, the tower has served several different purposes. Originally a garrison, the tower became a prison during the Ottoman rule in Greece and was nicknamed “the tower of blood” on account of the tortures and executions that took place there. In 1891, the tower was painted white, at which point it received its current label as the White Tower. 

Today, the White Tower is a mini-museum which contains exhibits about the history and culture of Thessaloniki. From the top level, you can enjoy excellent panoramas of Thessaloniki’s port area. This is particularly breathtaking at night when the sky is illuminated with pink and orange hues. 

Uncover the Remnants of the City’s Ottoman Past 

Bey Hammam is a glimpse into Thessaloniki's Ottoman past
Bey Hammam is a glimpse into Thessaloniki’s Ottoman past

Thessaloniki, like the rest of Greece, was once under the control of the Ottoman empire. The Turks left their mark on the city by constructing mosques and hammams around the city – several of which still stand today. Unfortunately, not all of these buildings can be accessed, but they are worth making a note of so that you can check them out when you pass by. 

Two ancient hammams (traditional Turkish bathhouses) still stand in Thessaloniki – Yahudi Hammam, and Bey Hammam. While both sites are no longer functional, they date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. It is possible to enter both sites. Bey Hammam is particularly interesting and its interiors are filled with grand decorations and exquisite paintings.

Keep an eye out also for the Hamza Bey mosque – a 16th-century Ottoman mosque. Unfortunately, as of August 2019, the mosque is surrounded by scaffolding and renovation work is ongoing.   

Explore the Coastal Areas Around Thessaloniki 

Watching a beautiful sunset in Nea Iraklia
Watching a beautiful sunset in Nea Iraklia

Many of those that want to visit the beach during their Greece trip use Thessaloniki as a jumping-off point for Halkidiki. However, if you are limited on time, it’s quite a trek to reach the peninsulas of this coastal area. Lesser known to international tourists are the coasts that await just 15km away from the city – such as the scenic suburb of Peraia and the town of Nea Iraklia. 

Don’t expect these places to be completely crowd-free – they are very popular among locals on account of their proximity to the city centre. That said, they certainly provide an easy respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, along with a more “local” experience. Several beach bars are scattered along the coast providing refreshments and amenities during the day, and a pleasant place for a drink when the sun goes down. 

Wander the Quaint Narrow Streets of Ano Poli 

Ano Poli, Thessaloniki
Ano Poli, Thessaloniki

Ano Poli is one of the most quaint and colourful neighbourhoods in Thessaloniki. Here, eclectic boutique store, old tavernas, and traditional Ottoman line the cobbled streets. Ano Poli (translating to Upper Town) is just a short walk from the centre of Thessaloniki, but the ambiance here makes it feel like you have been transported to a different city entirely.  

Browse the Exhibits at the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum 

The Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum is one of the largest museums in Greece and a must-see for anyone interested in history. The museum awaits just a short walk away from the White Tower. 

The permanent exhibits that are held here focus on the Central Macedonia region of Greece where Thessaloniki sits. The artifacts date back as far as 200,000 years to the time of pre-historic Macedonia and follow through to the Iron Age and Late Antiquity. 

Visit the Monastery of Vlatadon 

While there are many churches and monasteries throughout Thessaloniki, the Monastery of Vlatadon is considered to be the most important. The grand Byzantine structure is UNESCO protected and dates back to 1350 AD. It is believed that Hesychasm was practiced here – a controversial and alternative form of Orthodox prayer. 

Hang Out with the Thessaloniki Couchsurfing Community

If you are travelling alone (or you’re not and you just want to meet some locals), Couchsurfing is a great way to do that. Thessaloniki has a great community of Greeks, travellers, and expats and you can meet some wonderful new friends by popping along to one of the meetings or organising one of your own. I hosted several dinner events while I was in Thessaloniki and made some great friends doing so. 

Visit a Bouzoukia in Ladadika 

Ladadika, Thessaloniki
Ladadika, Thessaloniki

Ladadika is to Thessaloniki what Gazi is to Athens. This is the city’s nightlife and student district and the streets are packed full of bars, clubs, and souvlaki joints. While you will not be short of options here for socialising with new friends until the sun comes up, I would strongly recommend checking out a bouzoukia for a quintessential Greek experience. 

Bouzoukias are live music places where you can listen to traditional Greek folk music while eating and drinking ouzo and tsipouro. When the food is gone, it’s customary for people to sing, dance, and join in from their tables.

Bouzoukias vary from small scale tavernas with live bands, to huge music halls. In Ladadika, you can check out Caramelo and Αβανταζ live stage. 

Visit a Taverna in Kalapothaki 

Having dinner with Couchsurfing friends in Kalapothaki, Thessaloniki
Having dinner with Couchsurfing friends in Kalapothaki, Thessaloniki

Kalapothaki is an adorable little alleyway in Ladadika, Thessaloniki that you would probably completely bypass unless you knew it was there. A Greek friend led me to one of the tavernas down Kalapothaki one evening and honestly, as we walked past countless closed-down market stalls and empty alleyways I wondered where she was taking me. 

As you reach the end of Kalapothaki though, you will find a charming little area that is packed full of traditional tavernas, each with different specialties. If you are only in Thessaloniki for a day or so, I would strongly recommend that you make a beeline here for dinner. You will not be disappointed.  

Enjoy a Coffee Break in Navarino Square 

Sitting outside in a crowded piazza and drinking coffee is essentially the national pastime of Greece. Indeed in Thessaloniki, there are plenty of excellent places where you can participate in the sport. Ladadika, Menemeni square, and Kalamaria are all beloved local spots for enjoying a lazy afternoon beneath the sun drinking coffee. For the definitive Thessaloniki experience though, head to Navarino Square.  

Navarino Square oozes trendy bohemian vibes. Centered around the crumbling remnants of an old Roman palace, the square is filled with creperies, coffee shops, and tavernas. The square attracts a young, lively crowd on account of its proximity to the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. 

Indulge in some R&R at a Traditional Turkish Hammam 

While it’s unfortunate that the Bey and Yahudi Hammams are now just historical sites, there are several hammam facilities in Thessaloniki that recreate the traditional bathing experience. Two local spas with excellent reputations are the Polis Hammam in Kalamaria and the Hammam Baths at Makedonia Palace. 

Hammam treatments start from just 15 euros, though booking a treatment package is an indulgent and enjoyable experience. Sweat it out in the steam room and then opt for a full-body scrub and massage to feel completely rejuvenated.  

How Long to Spend in Thessaloniki 

One or two days is plenty of time to spend in Thessaloniki. Most of the sights contained within this post can be seen in a day. The neighbourhoods that extend out of the centre of Thessaloniki do have their own personalities and charm, however, they have been hit hard by the Greek economic crisis. Most Thessaloniki attractions and points of interest are situated in the city centre. 

How to Get to Thessaloniki from the Airport 

Thessaloniki, Greece
Thessaloniki, Greece

From Thessaloniki Airport Makedonia (SKG), hop on board the X1 bus to Thessaloniki centre. Signs in the arrivals area indicate where you need to go to board a bus and tickets to the centre can be purchased from the kiosk for just 2 euros. 

The X1 bus stops at all important points throughout the city – including the White Tower area and Aristotelous square. The route ends at Macedonia bus station in Menemeni. The LED displays on the bus are in English so it’s fairly easy to see where you are going. 

If you prefer to take a cab to get into the city, you can hail one outside the airport or use the BEAT taxi app (Greece’s answer to Uber). A cab should cost you no more than around 25-30 euros depending on the traffic. 

Where to Stay in Thessaloniki 

Things to do in Thessaloniki

During my month in Thessaloniki, I rented an apartment in Menemeni which was a nice residential neighbourhood which was so quintessentially Greek. That said, it was a little far out of the centre and it’s a pain to have to start every day with a long bus commute. 

I’d advise you to try and find a Thessaloniki hotel that is close to the White Tower or the Arch of Galerius so that you are within walking distance to the city’s main points of interest. A number of excellent Thessaloniki hotels that suit a variety of budgets are detailed below for your reference. 

Electra Palace Thessaloniki 

As far as luxury Thessaloniki hotels go, Electra Palace has it all – plush hotel rooms, a chic rooftop bar, and sweeping views across the sea. What better way to relax and unwind after a long day of sightseeing than by hanging out in one of the hotel’s two pools? Rooms start from €120 per night.

Browse the latest availability and rates here

The Met Hotel Thessaloniki 

With a sleek and contemporary design, the Met Hotel is one of the best choices for boutique accommodation in Thessaloniki. The rooms and communal areas are decorated with crisp, clean monochrome colours, and stunning art installations are present throughout the premises. Rooms start from €90 per night.

Browse the latest availability and rates here

Colors Thessaloniki Living

This hip retro design hotel markets itself as being a “budget luxury hotel”. While that might sound like something of an oxymoron, that message is pretty much spot on. Colors Thessaloniki Living combines plush colourful rooms with an affordable price tag. Pops of colour and pop art style graffiti add personality and artistic flair to this central Thessaloniki hotel. Rooms here start from €70 per night.

Browse the latest availability and rates here.

Have any further questions about things to do in Thessaloniki or travelling in Greece in general? As you may know, I’ve been living in Athens for the last two and a half years. In August 2019, I decided to base myself in Thessaloniki for three months and got to know the city pretty well during that time. 

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