When you think of Greece, it is easy to picture the Parthenon in Athens, the windmills of Mykonos, and the famous blue-roofed houses of Santorini. But hop on a short flight or take a beautiful five-hour road trip north of Athens, and you will arrive in Thessaloniki, a sustainable metropolis, cultural hotspot, and Greece’s second-largest city.
Thessaloniki, or Θεσσαλονικη, as it’s written in Greek, can be overlooked by tourists seeking to experience the historical Greek culture or relax on the scenic beaches. Yet this vibrant port city not only offers rich history and beaches, but also stunning views, prominent nightlife, and distinguished restaurants, committed to using local ingredients and sustainable practices.
Greeks have a famous expression called χαλαρά, or halara, which can roughly translate as “take it easy.” Halara is a way of being, a mental and physical state of relaxation. Read on to discover some of the best things to do in Thessaloniki and enjoy the “halara” lifestyle!
Twelve of the best things to do in Thessaloniki:
1. Aristotelous Square
When you arrive in Thessaloniki, you cannot miss Aristotelous Square due to its sheer size and glamorous architecture. The city’s main square is lined with authentic Greek cafes and elegant apartment buildings. This Thessaloniki attraction is a great place to enjoy a sweet frappe coffee and famous treats like baklava or kadaifi, which is a mix of nuts, cinnamon, and spiced syrup rolled up in a phyllo pastry. Aristotelous Square leads down to the Thermaic Gulf, where you can take in the sunset along Nikis Avenue, which leads to the stunning Thessaloniki promenade. This is also a great area to stay in Thessaloniki as it is so centrally located. Check out the eco-friendly hotel, City Hotel, one block from the square.
2. Roman Forum
As you walk up from Aristotelous Square, along Pl. Aristotelous, you will soon arrive at the Roman Forum, another must-see area of the city. This structure dates back to the second century and is now surrounded by refurbished apartment buildings and hip cafes. The Roman Forum of Thessaloniki was discovered by accident in the 1960s, and today it is preserved as a two-tiered site that includes an ancient theater that was used for gladiatorial fights, Roman baths, and columns. Grabbing a cocktail or a bite to eat while sitting on the edge of this ancient site and enjoying the Greek sun is definitely recommended!
3. Bit Bazaar
After visiting the Roman Forum, the Bit Bazaar is another one of the best things to do in Thessaloniki. The Bit Bazaar is only a short walk from the Roman Forum and is known for its affordable drinks and traditional small plates, or mezedes as they are called in Greek. This plaza can be hard to find as it is hidden between larger buildings but ask any local, and they can point you in the right direction. The Bit Bazaar was once an old refugee settlement and now it has turned into a market of small local shops and traditional Greek tavernas. It is popular among young people and students, but you will also find locals of any age enjoying the live Greek music playing inside.
4. Modiano and Kapani Market
The Modiano and Kapani Markets are located just above Aristotelous Square and only one block apart from one another. Both offer local products, spices, cheeses, olives, and more. In the morning hours, the markets can be recognized by their strong smell of fresh-caught fish. Here is where you will truly feel the local Thessaloniki vibe and soak up all the great food the city has to offer. If Greek dishes of fish and other meats are not for you then be sure to check out rOOTS Vegetarian & Vegan Place, which lies around the corner from Modiano Market. This restaurant pairs the flavors of Greek cuisine with exclusively vegan and vegetarian recipes, such as vegan gyros and Cretan dakos, which is a dish similar to bruschetta.
5. Hagia Sophia
Also within walking distance is Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest churches in Thessaloniki and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church is typical of Byzantine architecture with domed ceilings and intricate mosaics, and was built in the 7th century as a miniature of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans captured Thessaloniki in 1430 but was then reconverted to a church after Thessaloniki’s liberation in 1912. During the winter months, the area around the church is beautifully decorated with hanging blue lights leading to the entrance. Hagia Sophia lies between the popular Egnatia and Tsimiski streets. These avenues offer many large brand stores but tucked in between the two streets you can find locally-owned shops, like Kontogouris Vintage Clothing and Elephant Gang, selling things like name-brand jackets, jeans and intricate blouses.
6. Navarinou Square, Arch of Galerius, and the Rotunda
After visiting Hagia Sophia, continue walking to Navarinou Square – another fun street to sit and soak up the Greek culture. Ancient ruins stand protected in the middle of the square and they are surrounded by many restaurants and other modern buildings housing local jewelry shops and tattoo parlors.
Navarinou Square leads up to the Arch of Galerius, which is one of the most famous Thessaloniki attractions. The 4th century arch was originally an eight-pillared gateway but today only three pillars remain standing. The two main pillars intricately depict the battles of the Roman emperor Galerius and even though this area is crowded with people it is easy to get lost in these depictions and history of Thessaloniki. The arch is also a popular meeting point as it connects Greece’s largest university to the city center.
Cross the street from the Arch and you will see the Rotunda of Galerius. This structure was originally intended to be a mausoleum and has walls more than six meters thick. The monument, built in 306 A.D., also functions as a church, making it the city’s oldest. It is also protected under the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
7. White Tower, Alexander the Great, and the Umbrellas of Thessaloniki
As a port city, Thessaloniki offers many great attractions and things to see along the Thermaic Gulf. Arguably the most iconic of these attractions is the White Tower of Thessaloniki. This monument is the postcard picture of the city and a site you can’t miss when you visit Thessaloniki. The White Tower lies on the waterfront and is no longer white but now a mix of gray hues. During the Ottoman rule, it was a former prison but now it is the city’s main landmark and museum. You can climb up the circular staircases to the top of the tower for 360-degree views of the harbor and city streets. As you go up you can also visit different rooms that highlight the city’s history, main events, and cultural distinctions of the Byzantine empire. This is a busy area as the main avenue by the water can cause some congestion with pedestrians and cars, but the greenery by the White Tower is a great place to grab some local Greek treats and enjoy the sunshine overlooking this historical site and sea.
Keep strolling south along the promenade, and you will quickly reach the Alexander the Great statue, standing over six meters high. As one of the world’s greatest military generals, Alexander the Great is an important figure for Greeks. Born in Macedonia and educated by Aristotle, he created a vast empire, allowing the Hellenistic culture to become widespread. Here you will find many people walking along the promenade and on a clear day, you can even see Mount Olympus across the bay.
Another wonderful Thessaloniki attraction along this stretch of the promenade is the Umbrellas by Zongolopoulos. George Zongolopoulos was a famous Greek architect who designed these “Umbrellas of Thessaloniki,” as they are more commonly known as. The umbrellas are mounted on steel poles and at night they light up to look as if they are floating. Be sure to visit this attraction at sunset to see the light shine through the poles depicting the umbrellas and people sitting alongside the water as silhouettes in the distance. It is definitely a part of Thessaloniki nightlife not to be missed.
8. Ano Poli, Trigonion Tower, and Heptapyrgion of Thessalonica
The sun setting over the Aegean Sea is spectacular, but the view is not complete until you see it while ascending up through the city’s ancient walls to the old town of Thessaloniki. Called Ano Poli, or upper town, you should be prepared to break a sweat as you climb. You can start your hike up from any place in the city center but is popularly reached starting from the Roman Forum or Rotunda. The tiny streets of this neighborhood are lined with traditional Greek houses and small tavernas that are often packed during dinner. If you have a large group of people, it is definitely recommended to call ahead to make reservations. You can find some of the best local restaurants in Ano Poli tucked away among its tiny streets. Ano Poli is a great place to try traditional Greek wine or sip some ouzo and tsipouro, the popular Greek spirits. For a great local restaurant, check out Rediviva Cucina Povera and taste their authentic plates with fresh-grown ingredients from their back garden.
Keep winding up through the tiny streets of Ano Poli, and you will soon find the Trigonion Tower. As part of the ancient Byzantine walls enclosing Ano Poli, the Trigonion Tower offers impressive panoramic views of Thessaloniki from above. The tower was built in the 15th century to protect and prevent the city from invasion. There is no entrance fee to visit the tower, and you can even walk along the walls to take in the entire neighborhood of Ano Poli and the city below as it hugs the Thermaic Gulf.
Continue 500 meters up to reach the Acropolis of Thessaloniki. Heptapyrgion is a Byzantine and Ottoman-era fortress that was converted into a prison until 1989. Today it has been restored and is open to visitors. Once entering the fortress, the walls tower over you, and there is still an eerie presence as you walk inside through the confinement wing of the old prison.
9. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and Museum of Byzantine Culture
Another way to experience and learn about Thessaloniki’s history is to visit one of its museums. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki showcases the city’s history through artifacts excavated. You can easily spend 1-2 hours walking through this museum, learning all about the ancient kingdom of Greece. The Archaeological Museum is another one of the best things to do in Thessaloniki.
Across the street is the Museum of Byzantine Culture. Here visitors can explore the 11 permanent exhibitions which detail the daily life, customs, traditions, and timeline of the Byzantine Empire. Ticket prices for each museum cost 8 euros, however, they both offer many discounts, and you can enter for free on certain Sundays throughout the year.
10. Kalamaria and Thessaloniki Concert Hall
If you have a desire to get out of the city center for an afternoon, continue walking south along the promenade until you reach the charming neighborhood of Kalamaria. Even though Kalamaria is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Greece, it still feels like a retreat to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Kalamaria’s coastline is 6kms long and includes many sailing docks, fishermen, and families enjoying the slower pace. The smell of fresh seafood will draw you into any local restaurant for a cozy meal after a nice stroll along the bay.
Sitting on the north side of Kalamaria is the Thessaloniki Concert Hall. This massive two-structure hall can be seen across the bay from the other end of the city. The first building seats up to 1,400 people in the main hall, and the building beside is a contrasting, glass-enclosed construction. The concert hall offers year-round performances, including operas, ballets, and international conferences.
As home to the largest university in Greece, Thessaloniki’s nightlife has a lot to offer. And there’s no better area to enjoy the nightlife than Ladadika. After a fire destroyed much of the city in 1917, this area was left abandoned for many years. But now, the streets are filled with fun cafes and highly rated restaurants during the day and popular bars and clubs by night. The cobblestone streets come alive with students going out to enjoy the electric atmosphere. Another great way to explore this area is to rent a bike and ride through the streets and markets, either solo or with a local guide. Consider also spending an afternoon on a local food tour to discover Thessaloniki’s hidden gems and most popular dishes. After all, Thessaloniki was recently awarded Greece’s first Creative City for Gastronomy by UNESCO!
12. Peraia Beach
After exploring the vibrant city center, going out for traditional Greek food, and enjoying Thessaloniki nightlife in Ladadika, a day at the beach is exactly what is needed. If you are staying in Thessaloniki for a week or more, Halikadiki is a great place to travel around. It is less than two hours from the city center and offers many picturesque beaches throughout its three peninsulas. But if you don’t want to rely on public buses or rent a car then Peraia Beach is a nice alternative and very easy to reach by ferry, as it is across the bay. Here you can find white sand beaches with locals, tourists, and students enjoying the day. Rent a lounge chair on the beach and then check out the restaurants that offer table seating right next to the ocean shore. There is nothing better than enjoying local tzatziki or a crisp Greek salad with your feet in the sand and the clear ocean water only steps away. The ferry leaves frequently throughout the day from Ladadika or the White Tower and costs around 5 euros (or less with a student ID card).
The Bottom Line
While these are a few of the main highlights in Thessaloniki, the best way to explore this city is to wander and enjoy. This guide to the best things to do in Thessaloniki offers ideas for restaurants, drinks, hip areas, and historical sites, but the “halara” lifestyle is best enjoyed by taking it easy and soaking it all in at your own pace.