Throughout history, the city of Thessaloniki has always came in second place—the second-biggest city in modern Greece, the second-biggest city of the Byzantine Empire, and the same fate under the Ottoman Empire. No harm, no foul though, because the phrase ‘second is the best’ exists for a reason. Thessaloniki is an incredibly easy city to love. A laid-back attitude exists no matter where you turn, from the winding streets of the old neighborhoods in Ano Poli all the way down to the city’s expansive sea front. It’s a big city with a beach mentality, and the city pulses with a multicultural vibrancy that can be found in the cuisine, architecture, and people. Thessaloniki manages to integrate its history into its modern bustle in such a seamless way that you might overlook a 1700-year-old monument without blinking an eye. You won’t want to, though—there’s no rush here.
Take a food tour and get your (Greek) history on.
Morning: Walk through Aristotelous Square and Athonos Market
At the centrally located, lamp- and rose-bush-lined Aristotelous Square, families, walkers, and elderly people sit at cafés and take in the sea-front location. In the surrounding streets of the square, you’ll find the popular central market. In the wee hours of the morning, chefs come to grab the best pick of seafood (there’s nothing like the smell of raw fish to really get your blood pumping early in the morning). Fish markets rub shoulders with the meat markets, which rub shoulders with fresh fruit stands and small shops. If you’re not entirely keen on picking up some anchovies to bring back to the hostel, you can buy olive oil, fresh flowers, and cheap clothes, too.
Lunchtime: Learn more about Greek cuisine
What better way to get to know the city of Thessaloniki than through its food? A local expert will lead you on a guided food tour where you’ll be introduced to a variety of classic dishes, including fresh seafood, handmade breads, and platters of meze.
Afternoon: Stroll through the Roman Forum
One of the things Thessaloniki does very well is integrating old stuff with new stuff. A good example is the Roman Forum (Ancient Agora) that lives smack dab in the middle of a popular restaurant and café neighborhood. The Forum features your typical Ancient Greek remains, including two pools and a theater that once sat 400 people. Underneath, there’s a museum that gives a thorough history of the city and the site. An interesting tidbit: the square was occupied by the Germans during World War II and was used as a concentration site for prisoners. The best pictures of the large forum can be taken for free, and the admission price is primarily if you want to go to the museum.
Next, make some time to check out the Jewish Museum. Thessaloniki was once known as the “Mother of Israel,” and Jewish history is virtually inseparable from the history of the city. The city became a safe haven for Jewish refugees from Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Italy, and North Africa, and by the late 19th century, half of Thessaloniki’s population was Jewish—nearly 70,000 people. In 1917, the Great Fire of Thessaloniki occurred, and most of the Jewish neighborhood was destroyed, leaving 53,737 Jews homeless. On July 11, 1941, Axis Powers occupied the city; about 50,000 Jews lived here during this point. By the end of World War II, 99% of the city’s Jewish population was lost in the Holocaust. This museum and Holocaust memorial is an incredibly sobering and critically important museum to visit, and we highly recommend that you make the time to do so.
Evening: Take a sunset tour of the region
There’s no better way to end your first day in Thessaloniki than with a guided sunset tour of the surrounding area. You’ll explore the town of Kalabaka and the village of Kastraki, an 11th-century church, and several other local sites during the excursion. Wear comfortable shoes and be sure to bring water!
Stretch your legs on some steep city hills and then soak in the calm at a gorgeous Greek church.
Morning: Climb the hills of Ano Poli
Things that don’t get easier with time: goodbyes, stage fright, and climbing up the steep hills of this neighborhood. You can distract yourself with the winding roads and pastel-colored surroundings, but at the end of the day it’s still a sweaty feat to be conquered. And sure, you could take the bus, but then what would you complain about? It’s worth it though. The neighborhood has maintained its Ottoman and Turkish influences, seemingly untouched by a 20th-century fire. Notable landmarks in the neighborhood include Vlatadon Monastery and Trigonou Tower, which offer the best views of the city, the walls of the Ottoman fortress Yenti Koule, and the hostel Little Big House, which might as well be a landmark in our humble opinion.
Lunchtime: Take a cooking class from a local
Climbing all those hills will definitely work up an appetite. If you ask us, the best way to fill your belly is with homemade Greek food in a local’s own private kitchen. Sign up for a cooking class for a behind-the-scenes look (and taste) at how the people of Thessaloniki dine.
Afternoon: Walk around the Rotunda and under the Arch of Galerius
The Rotunda of Thessaloniki will spin your head right round as you gaze up at its large dome and rectangular recesses. While it’s gone through some serious wear and tear since 300 CE, there are still remnants of the mosaics and murals left on the concrete walls. Originally created as either a temple for ancient cult worship or as a royal mausoleum (not sure how those two can be confused, but whatever), the rotunda was converted to a Christian church, then to a mosque, and then again to a church (they really need to make up their minds). You might be tempted to lie on the floor to get as much of the dome in your photo as possible, but we recommend you don’t from our personal, dirty experience.
Next up is the Church of Agia Sophia. Greek Orthodox churches have a flair for the dramatic, but we’re not mad about it. This Thessaloniki church is a prime example, featuring intricate wall decorations, shimmering gold mosaics, and a huge low hanging chandelier made of, we kid you not, golden fowl. The church was a once a basilica, then a church, then a mosque, and then went back to being church in 1912. It’s a place for worship more than a tourist destination, so cover those shoulders and bring your respect.
Evening: Nosh on some street food
Thessaloniki’s round-the-clock street food scene is guaranteed to satisfy you no matter what you’re looking for. From sweet and flaky bougatsa, to classic spanakopita, to uber-flavorful souvlaki, your tastebuds will be singing as you sample your way through the city streets. These cheap eats pair perfectly with a pint or a cocktail and are the perfect way to end your stay in the city.