Thessaloniki is a fantastic city break destination. Greece’s second largest city is built like an amphitheater around the beautiful Thermaikos bay. Many of the sights are very close to each other and it’s easy to see much of Thessaloniki on foot.
The city is easy to navigate, but its history is complex. You’ll pass by sights from all of Thessaloniki’s historic eras without even trying. The city is filled with Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ruins. The Byzantine churches – some well over a thousand years old- are of course not ruins at all, but the centres of the city’s contemporary spiritual life. And there are beautiful and historic buildings from the era right before the First World War, too.
Thessaloniki’s long multicultural history makes this is a great place to eat. Thessaloniki has the reputation of having some of the best food in Greece (and that’s saying a lot).
The nightlife here is also world famous. This is a great city for cafes and bars and live music, too.
Here are some of the best things to see and do in Thessaloniki:
52 Amazing Things to Do in Thessaloniki
1. Get Oriented at the White Tower
“Lefkos Pirgos”. This early 15th C. tower was built by the Ottomans as a fortress and prison. Its dark days are long in the past though, because now this is one of the most popular landmarks in the city. It’s very dear to the people of Thessaloniki. The White Tower now houses the Museum of the City of Thessaloniki. Make sure you then go to the observation tower for a great view and great photos.
2. Meet at “Kamara”
This word just means “arch” in Greek. But in Thessaloniki, it means this specific arch. One of Thessaloniki’s most recognizable landmarks, this is a central meeting point on Egnatia. This triumphal arch was built by Galerius at the very end of the 3rd, century AD. It celebrates a victory over the Persians; reliefs on the arch tell the story.
3. Enjoy the soaring splendor of the Rotonda
Just up from the triumphal arch is an enormous building, Thessaloniki’s oldest. Emperor Galerius built the Rotonda in the early 4th century AD, just after the Kamara. With walls 8 meters thick, this 30m high open space has managed to stay standing for 17 centuries. The mosaics, which were recently restored, are wonderful. This is a must.
4. Look up at the last Minaret
Thessaloniki used to be full of Minarets, tall towers where the faithful of Islam are called to prayer by the Muezzin. The Rotonda, which became the Church of St, George, was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman era. That is also when the fountains outside were added. You’ll se an Arabic inscription over the door.
5. Visit the outdoor excavation at the Octagon Palace
The Galerian complex extends from the Rotonda down to this Octagonal Palace ruin with fantastic floor mosaic. The whole complex has been excavated and there are plenty of informational panels to read about it as you wander through. There are also the ruins of a Roman Bath on site.
6. Visit The Archaeological Museum
If you like seeing how everything fits into place, you will love Thessaloniki’s Archaeological Museum, which has excellent informative signs throughout the exhibits. Most of the things were found close to the museum. You will get a great picture of life the daily life of the ancient past through household objects, jewelry, mosaic floors, furniture, pottery, and many descriptions.
7. Embrace Byzantine History at The Museum of Byzantine Culture
This award winning building by Kyriakos Krokos is a monument in itself. Inside, explore the whole of Byzantine culture though exhibits, artworks, and artifacts. This gives you a context to enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage recognized Byzantine churches that will be part of our sightseeing.
8. Learn about Modern Art in Greece at MOMus
Across from these other two museums and located in the fairgrounds, the former Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art- now renamed after it merged with the State Museum of Contemporary Art- houses a dynamic collection of modern and contemporary art from International artists and Internationally known Greek artists, like Takis, Pavlos, and Gaitis.
9. Stroll along the “Palia Paralia”
The “Old Waterfront”- named to distinguish it from the “new waterfront”, which is the section east of the White Tower and stretching to the Thessaloniki Concert Hall, is the most beautiful art of the city. Historic neoclassical and interwar buildings line the small stretch of Nikis Avenue from the White Tower to the Harbor.
10. Have a Beer with Pirates
Docked by the While tower is there are a couple of boats (one of them looks like a pirate ship). These are floating café-bars that make a nice cruise of the harbor, for the price of a not at all expensive drink. They post their schedules and prices outside. It’s great by day, great by night, and sensational at sunset.
11. And an Ouzo at the Kafeneio
A “Kafeneio” is an old-style classic Greek Café, usually filled with old men. In addition to coffee, they always also serve drink- beers and especially ouzo. And they always have something called an “Ouzo-mezze”- a little plate of tasty salty bites like olives and fish – to enjoy with a glass of cold, cloudy ouzo.
12. Explore the “New Waterfront”
From the White Tower as you face the sea, walk to your left along the fabulous new waterfront promenade. It’s crowded with people in any season because Thessaloniki is really all about the sea. Everyone congregates here to enjoy it.
13. Take a Photo with an Umbrella
… even if it isn’t raining. One of the beloved landmarks of Thessaloniki is this wonderful huge sculpture “Umbrellas” by the artist Giorgos Zongolopoulos. It has been a beloved part of the cityscape for over 20 years, and looks great here in its new spot (it used to be further east and not as visible). It’s such a popular place for photos you may have to wait your turn!
14. Cover More Territory by Bike
By the seafront side of the Macedonia Palace Hotel (you can’t miss it- it’s just past the umbrellas), there is a bike rental place. A bike path runs the length of the seafront and this is a great way to explore.
15. Beachside Snack
On a nice day, there are lots of vendors at the waterfront, particularly near the White Tower area. There are old-school metal carts with popcorn, cotton candy machines, and little bags of nuts. It makes the atmosphere feel like a carnival.
16. And a Beachside Cocktail
Great new additions to the beachfront are roving cocktail carts. Keep an eye out for them. Some are set up near patches of grass with music, pillows, and hammocks.
17. Explore the “Exoches”
A little past the Macedonia Place hotel is a neighborhood once known as the “Exoches”, which means: ”outside the city walls”. Stating at the end of the 19th century, Thessaloniki’s wealthiest residents built mansions out here by the beach. Many of them were torn down so that apartment buildings could be built, but there are still some excellent buildings to see, and most plat a role in the life of the city culturally.
18. A Museum in a fantastic house
At Vasilissis Olgas 180- quite a walk from the Macedonia Palace but easy to get to by bus- is the Municipal Art Gallery of Thessaloniki. The building, by Pierro Arrigoni- has round windows and a steep roof- very Art Nouveau and beautiful. Inside there are contemporary exhibitions and also a fantastic collection of works by the late 19th C artist Nikolaos Gyzis. The works are magnificent and very accessible.
19. The last Sultan
Further to the east from here on the same street is the palatial mansion of the Gallatin family, in a garden so large it looks like a park. When modern Turkey was founded, the last Sultan was deposed and sent here to live out his days in graceful exile.
20. The Cultural Center of the National Bank of Greece- MIET
At Vasilissis Olgas 108 is another mansion that has become a museum. The exhibition space for the cultural foundation of the National Bank of Greece has beautifully curated exhibitions over the building’s two floors. The Building is called the villa Kapandji, and was also designed by Arrigoni.
21. Folk culture and Coffee
At Vasillisis Olgas 68 is the French Style mansion designed by Eli Modiano for his father the banker Jacob Modiano. It is now the Ethnological Museum for Macedonia and Thrace and has a stunning exhibition of traditional costumes, among other informative exhibits. The large garden is a very pleasant and shady café.
22. A Heroic House
One of the largest and most interesting mansions is still standing, at Vasilissis Olgas and Archaeologikou Mouseiou Street, crumbling amid its overgrown garden. This was once the Italian Consulate, and the site of a heroic undertaking. During the German occupation, in WWII, consular officials under Consul General Zamboni, forged papers for many Jewish citizens, claiming they had Italian citizenship and so could pass into the Italian sector, and into relative safety.
23. Cosmopolitan Tsimiski
Thessaloniki’s main boulevard, parallel to the sea and a couple of blocks up from the waterfront, is the main shopping street, always crowded and fun. With wide, tree-lined sidewalks it’s perfect for a stroll and some people watching
24. Agia Sophia
A wide street links the white tower and Aga Sophia, one of the city’s main churches. The church occupies its own large plaza, sunken now below the contemporary street level. This 8th-century church is built on the site of an earlier smaller church. The domed Greek Cross Basilica it is modelled on Istanbul’s Agia Sophia, and one of the main examples of this style from the idle byzantine period. The mosaics in the dome – Christ surrounded by the Apostles and the Virgin Mary, is splendid.
25. A secret Church
Across the street from the back of Agia Sophia is a sunken garden. Go down the stairs and you will see it is a church, below street level, and from here you can go down into catacombs. The church of Agios Ioannis is a wonderful discovery.
26. Aristotle Square
Thessaloniki’s main plaza feels like it’s always been here but it’s a relatively recent addition to the city. Thessaloniki had a huge fire in 1917, and much of the center burned. The architect and urban planner Ernesto Hebrard designed a plan to transform Thessaloniki into a modern European city, but this marvelous square is all that was ultimately realized. The red colonnade and the motifs on the buildings pay tribute to the city’s Byzantine heritage.
27. Eat a Koulouri
All over the center of town, especially in the mornings, there are vendors set up selling sesame bread rings called “koulouri”. They come in thin and crisp, and thicker and chewy, and both are much more delicious than they look.
28. See the Flower Market
On the corner of Vasileous Irakleou and Komninon, florists have set up shop in the street. It’s a lovely corner of Thessaloniki. Right behind this is the Yehudi Hammam- the Jewish baths, from the 16th century
29. Drink a Greek Coffee
At the edge of the Kapani Market on the pedestrian street Vlali is a café with a large covered outdoor space. It’s called Modigliani and it’s a perfect place to have Greek coffee and watch the shoppers pass. Greek coffee is ordered with the sugar you want- none, medium sweet, or sweet.
30. Check out the Fish
The Kapani market is the central market of the city and it is very chaotic and fun. The meat displays may be shocking for some, but the fish is really fun- the catch of the day on ice, with the fishmongers calling out the virtues of their wares and the prices.
The works for this neighborhood means “oil warehouses”. Years ago, the tiny warehouses lining these cobblestone alleys were taken over by tavernas and cafes and bars and now it’s one of the liveliest parts of town. The best spot to take it all in is Zythos, on the square. Zythos means “beer” and they have a great section, along with very good dishes to go with it.
32. Learn about Greek Cinema
Thessaloniki has a large International Film Festival each year, and is a city that loves film. And Greece had a very active film industry in the 1950’s and 1960’s especially. Learn about the whole history of Greek Cinema at the Cinema Museum of Thessaloniki- it’s a very English-friendly experience with all exhibits and clips translated or subtitled. The museum is in one of the converted warehouses of the harbor
33. Photography Museum
Greece’s only museum solely dedicated to the art of Photography is also in the harbor. They have excellent exhibits of Greek and International photography arranged around central themes.
34. Take a ferry to the beaches
In the summer months, a ferry leaves from the end of the pier and goes to the beach suburbs Perea and Agia Triada. It’s a lovely ride of 50 minutes, and the beaches have shallow waters. You can swim with a view of the city in the distance.
35. Plateia Emboreiou
The “Commercial Square” now looks like a back street off of Tsimiski. But the sea was once closer, and this was the busy commercial center of activity near the harbor front. In the last few years, it has become a great nightlife area with bars and restaurants.
36. The Bensousan Han
Right off the Plateia Emporeiou, this former Han, or sometimes known as “Khan” was a forerunner of the modern hotel- it was simple accommodations for travelers above, and stables for their animals below, plus room for storing their wares. Now, it is a multi-purpose creative center with everything from Tango evenings to avant-garde theater performances. Even if nothing is going on at the moment, it still offers an atmospheric taste of Thessaloniki’s past.
37. The Jewish Museum
Thessaloniki was one of the largest Jewish communities of Southern Europe, and Jews made up the largest segment of the population of Thessaloniki for centuries, until WWII. Thessaloniki lost over 95% of her Jewish citizens during the war. This beautiful and poignant museum is housed in a historic building that was once the Bank of Athens and later a newspaper building (L’Independant). Come to learn about the history of this once vibrant community, and pay your respects in the room of remembrance. The Museum is near the Plateia Emboreiou and Venizelou Street.
38. The Stoa Malakopi
Here in the thick of the old commercial downtown, the wealthiest once had their mansions. This was the home, then the bank of the Allatinis, richer than all the rest by far. It was built by Vitaliano Poselli, whose work we will see ore of because he built some of the most important Belle Epoque buildings in the city. Now you can stop by the beautiful Stoa Malakopi for a beer at a Czech beer hall, or get a slice of excellent pizza, at a place named… Poselli, of course. While you’re here, look at the clock- it stopped the second a large earthquake hit Thessaloniki in 1978.
39. Nightlife around Valaoritou Street
The Stoa Malakopi is near the main area for bar-hopping, including some rooftop bars, perfect for summer nights.
40. The View from Trigonio Tower
Thessaloniki’s Byzantine walls crown the city- you can see them glowing gold in the night from the city below. Come up to the Trigonio Tower day or night for a fantastic view of the city, the Thermaikos bay, and Mt. Olympus beyond.
41. Explore Ano Poli
The area just below the walls is called “Ano Poli’- which means “upper city”. Because of the breezes and the views, this is where the Turks chose to live during the Ottoman Empire. The neighborhood is full of traditional Ottoman-style houses, narrow alleys and stairs. This is a great place to get lost, just wandering, and tae in a completely different atmosphere.
42. See a Byzantine Masterpiece
Thessaloniki is home to 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, most of them Byzantine Churches. There are many large and impressive Byzantine churches. This tiny Church of Osios David is almost impossible to find but so worth it. You will have the most moving and personal experience of the past here, in one of the oldest of the city’s Churches (5th century). The mosaic inside, of the Vision of Ezekiel, is absolutely amazing, and considered by UNESCO to be a masterpiece of Early Christian Art.
43. … And the Tomb of a Dervish
In the Plateia (Square) Terpsithea, the Tourbes of Musa Baba, a Sufi Holy man, is the only remaining Tourbes in the city. Christians of the neighborhood also lit candles seeking his help, because they believed him to be the incarnation of St. George.
44. A Byzantine Bath
The Byzantine Bath House, recently restored, served the community for nearly 700 years, from the late 13th or early 14th century until 1940. It is one of the best preserved Byzantine Baths of Greece.
45. The Roman Agora
Remember Aristotle Square? It was supposed to extend above Egnatia Street, and culminate in a palace of Justice. So in the 1960’s, they started digging for the foundations and they found this instead! The Roman Agora was the center of civic life from the 1st C AD and in use through the 6th Century (the center of activity moved during the 4th C. to the Galerian complex). There is a small but extremely informative museum hidden underground (more text than objects), and the excavation includes an Odeon, Baths, and Crytoporticus.
This seasoned meat roasted on a vertical spit and saved into thin slices and stuffed into a pita bread is popular all over Greece. But there is a difference of opinion: Athenians call this a “Souvlaki”, whereas a “Souvlaki” is meat on a small wooden skewer in Thessaloniki. The Thessaloniki version puts all others to shame, bursting with juicy seasoned meat that the pita cannot even contain (don’t unwrap it- just eat it in its paper)
This flaky hot pie with tender phyllo is a specialty of the Greeks who came from Asia Minor. It comes in several versions: sweet cream which is dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon is the most popular. There is also spinach, minced meat, or cheese. All are delicious! You’ll find bougatsa shops all over the place. Most are open from very early in the morning until around 14:00 or 15:00.
48. Day trip to Vergina
One of the most moving and exciting museums is located about 45 minutes away from the city. At Vergina, you will see all of the findings from the excavations of four royal Macedonian tombs. The exhibitions are in semi-darkness, arranged around the very tombs, preserved where they were found. The findings are marvelous, from exquisitely detail miniatures to the gold Larnax (chest for the ashes) of Phillip II, father of Alexander the Great. His tomb is on site.
49. Excursion to Pella
Pella was the principal city of the Kingdom of Macedonia, and the excavation of the city-with wonderful mosaics and the very clear foundations of buildings and street plan- gives a sense of monumental grandeur. The outstanding museum opened the same year as the Acropolis Museum and is splendid, rich in well-displayed findings giving a picture of Macedonian life in all its aspects. When Alexander the Great set off to conquer the East, this is where he left from. Pella and Vergina can be seen in one day on a planned excursion.
50. Excursion to Meteora
A natural and spiritual wonder, Meteora means “suspended in the air, between heaven and earth”. And that is exactly what it is. In the middle of a flat plain, great stone pillars with straight sides soar towards the sky, from 300 meters to over 600 meters high. On top of these, starting in the 14th century, monks built monasteries which themselves are very beautiful and significant sacred sites. This is truly a wonder. You can take a day trip from Thessaloniki to enjoy this unique experience.
51. A trip to the warm springs of Pozar
With the beauty of the Aegean and the beaches getting all the attention, the therapeutic thermal waters of Greece often go unnoticed. And this is a shame, because Greece is a paradise of healing waters. Close to Thessaloniki are some of the finest. The springs at Pozar, in a densely wooded area in the foothills of Mt. Kaimaktsalan, gush forth at a toasty 37 degrees C.
The nice thing about Pozar is that there are wild-looking outdoor natural baths to enjoy the waters under the trees by a rushing waterfall, a large swimming pool, and also private indoor cabins to enjoy alone or in small groups. This is also a great destination for hiking and a really fun place to take a swim in the cooler weather or even in the depths of winter. This makes a fun day trip from Thessaloniki.
52. A day trip to Dion
Dion is located at the foot of mountain Olympus, the home of the Olympian Gods. The excavations at the archaeological park brought to light an ancient city with fortified walls. Today the visitor can see the remains of public buildings, houses and shops. One of the most important findings is the Dionysus Villa which contained a large Dionysus Mosaic that can be seen at the museum.
Outside the walls, the excavation unearthed the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus, the sanctuary of Isis and the sanctuary of Demeter among others. Other important findings include a Roman Theater. Near the archaeological park is the archaeological museum of Dion that houses findings from the excavations like the statue of Isis, the large Dionysus Mosaic and an ancient hydraulic organ.
Thessaloniki and the surrounding area is a place you shouldn’t miss on your next visit to Greece. It can be visited all year round, and during the summer months, it can be combined with nearby beaches of Chalkidiki.
Have you ever visited Thessaloniki? Did you like it?