aAs far as cities on the water go, Thessaloniki isn’t that quaint. Instead, tucked into its turquoise bay of the North Aegean, it’s a resilient patchwork of port city filled to the brim with 20th-century and Byzantine architecture (and a little bit of everything in between). In addition to postcard perfection, it positively expresses character, complete with graffiti, traditional bouzouki music and a thriving arts scene.
A vibrant enclave of northern Greek culture, the city is a world away from the whitewashed island towns we imagine when we picture Greece in a travel brochure; Instead, it carries its spirit through galleries and wine bars, with mixed Orthodox, Ottoman, Sephardic Jewish and Balkan heritage, and fully maintains itself as Athens’ quirky little sibling.
Thessaloniki has all the cool factor of a sunny seaside city, including a three-mile waterfront path for slow cycling, ice cream strolls, and a navigable, grid-like street system. Stroll it to see the colorful umbrellas, sleek hotels and stylish, enterprising locals, always with an iced cappuccino in hand.
What to do
Absorbs the culture
For art lovers and history buffs, a full day of gallery browsing is definitely a must. Modern, ancient or a bit of both, you can wander around MOMus – the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Byzantine Culture or the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki – to see the city through the ages. You can even stop by the Selfie Museum if sitting on a platform against a glowing emoji backdrop is your thing. Happily, most of the temporary and outdoor exhibitions in the city center are free for visitors, only the permanent collections require a ticket. Prices range from approximately €4 to €15, depending on the show.
See the city from the water
A waterfront lunch or breakfast stop is also a must here; but if you’re feeling adventurous, turn those random dining reservations into a mini-cruise to Thermaikos Gulf; boats depart hourly from the city’s White Tower. From hour-long trips to half- or full-day trips, exploring the waters here by boat gives off Southern-Medicine vibes, and given the variety of boats available, the experience can be as intimate or as luxurious as you like. You can explore Thermal Bay on a six-hour tour to Shipwreck Bay; tickets start at €83 and the boats operate from May to October. Or lighter 30-minute excursions can be found in the form of “floating bars”; the iconic Klio tops them all. It’s not a nautically refined place, but a fun one mastic (pine resin liqueur) mojito with nice tunes. Works from May to October.
Meet in Ladadika district
After seeing some of the sights, you’ll want to head into the city, and almost all of Thessaloniki’s must-sees are located in the super-cool neighborhood of Ladadika. Here, old tea and coffee warehouses have been transformed into dive bars, and fairy lights are draped around effortlessly cool dining and drinking spots. Bohemian boutiques, pubs, cafes and Rembetik Music venues spill out onto the cobbled streets. it’s especially magical at dusk, when the soft hum of laughter and clinking of glasses ushers in the night.
Where to stay?
Opened in April 2022, the luxurious ON Residence occupies a luxurious Art Deco building on the seafront. A stone’s throw from Aristotelous Theater Square, this laid-back yet polished hotel embodies the youthful soul of Thessaloniki with a distinctly downtown vibe. An attentive doorman greets guests from the checkerboard entrance lobby and coffee is served by a chic clientele. The large rooms are airy enough to hint at minimalism, but with all the decadence (such as a minivan-sized shower) and amenities you’d hope to find in a five-star hotel. Doubles from €164; onresidence.gr:
On the energetic Mitropoleos Avenue, The Excelsior Hotel offers a sophisticated boutique option, complete with luxurious interiors and a short walk to the city center. Offering only double rooms and suites, this surprisingly affordable hotel is full of modern charm and has nothing when it comes to inner-city noise. Expect soft jazz playing in the corridors and a chic salon full of fashion books on the coffee table; An all-day menu of steaks, burgers, sandwiches and salads on the middle level of Charlie D. Brasserie, and there’s no shortage of olives or cheese for breakfast. Double rooms from 159 euros and suites from 265 euros; excelsiorhotel.gr:
For a budget break, City Hotel is affordable without any sacrifices. With bamboo swings, exposed stone walls, sea views and local food, this eco- and green-themed four-star hotel is a sweet urban wonder that shares a street with the city’s best bars and restaurants. Double from 90 euros; cityhotel.gr:
Where to eat?
Coffee and cake
It’s no secret that the Greeks make the best iced coffee in the world, and you can buy it in almost every neighborhood in Thessaloniki. Cafe culture is a huge part of this city’s identity, and no matter the day or time, cafes and coffee shops are full of rowdy people, often huddled over board games. For the frothiest freddo cappuccino to go with something sweet, visit Terkenlis Bakery, a family-run chain with several shops in town; their dark chocolate sorbet is the stuff of myth and legend.
Breakfast and lunch
Breakfast culture in Greece has made a huge leap in the past five years, along with a steady cultural move towards vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets. Achilleion is the place to go for Greek-style eggs, indescribably fluffy donuts and freshly ground coffee, and no options. For a casual pub meal, there is no better place to visit than Neos Galerios (Apellou 3, Thessaloniki 54622). Traditional fava plates (split-pea puree), meatballs, salads, and more tolmads (stuffed grape leaves) than you could ever pass are brought to cantina-style tables with English-language menus for non-locals and no reservations required.
Charoupi, meanwhile, is Ladadika’s modern rustic Cretan restaurant serving up towers. Daco (crusted bread topped with feta and tomato), smoked lamb and fried sea bass plates. The menu also appears as a giant printed paper tablecloth. Beautiful.
Markets and street food
Food markets and hawkers pepper the city, and a Saturday morning at the Kapan Market is quite the sensory treat. The sheer amount of fresh produce is mind-boggling, and an entire section of the space is dedicated to jams, honeys, teas and anything else your kitchen cupboards could desire. Elsewhere, Modiano Market is one of the city’s oldest and most traditional markets and a multicultural center for Greek, Italian, Balkan and Jewish culinary delights. The goal is to fully restore it to its former grandeur with plenty of crafting delights.
Where to drink?
For a low-key, jeans and T-shirt night, head to Upsilon. Tucked away in the smallest streets of Ladadika, this cafe and bar is an art space and work center by day, and a quiet candlelit den by night. Light (remembering we’re in Greece) snacks are on offer and the whole place and crowd is big on creativity. Expect to find gallery show invitations and files on your desk.
If you’re looking for cocktails, Gorillas is in Ano (Upper) Ladadika. It’s dark and moody and really everything a late night cocktail bar should be. They are also not short of unusual ingredients.
Casablanca Social Club
Casablanca Social Club is the epitome of 20th century glamour, a central hangout for dressy occasions for dining or drinking. This is a high-ceilinged, large-windowed establishment, and you won’t be out of place in anything tailored or flashy. Guest mixologists and themed cocktail weeks keep things lively and ever-changing.
Where to shop?
Salons are great for vintage shopping. The deep-rooted music scene clearly influences the city’s fashion sense, and the locals clearly love a nineties metal band. As well as the expected European high street chains, the town is home to a number of boutiques, second hand shops and vinyl record stores. For bohemian, alternative and vintage clothing, head to the Rotonda district, which is as Byzantine as it is hipster.
V for Vintage won’t let you down for your favorite goodies, and Ladida jewelry will wrap you up in evil eyes and sultry earrings. Closer to the center, the streets surrounding the Kapan market are loaded with antique stalls and vintage homewares; Delivery of goods to your living room is possible. For glitzy boutiques and high street staples, visit Cominion; and typically a mall, but for a reliable shop, Hondos Center is what you want.
The White Tower crowns the waterfront of the city. a tall, brick monument dating back to the Ottoman Empire. It has a small museum open daily from 8am to 8pm and is a popular spot for a quick local history lesson.
Nuts and bolts
What language do they speak?
Greek, but most people in Thessaloniki have a good level of English.
What currency do I need?
Should I tip?
10 to 20 percent is fine and gratefully accepted, but no one will frown if you don’t.
What is the time difference?
Like the rest of Southern Europe, Thessaloniki keeps it consistent two hours ahead of GMT and BST.
How should I bypass it?
The town is walkable and easy to navigate with the help of a phone or local tourist map, and all the essentials are within 20 minutes. Cycling is also encouraged and you will see obvious bike lanes in the city centre. If you prefer to drive, taxis are plentiful and cheap, and the city’s bus system is extensive, but not always time-sensitive (so if you have specific plans, allow extra time). Hop-on, hop-off bus tours are an option for curious sights and can be booked independently or through most hotels.
What is the best view?
Grab a seat at the end of the pier at sunset.
Every month there is a festival of some kind in Thessaloniki. Whether it’s art house movies, street food, hip hop or craft beer, be sure to check online in advance to be a part of the fun.
Trying to fly less?
Take the Eurostar to Paris and a train to Milan to get to Italy. From there, take a train to Bari, where you can take a ferry to Patras, Greece. From there there is a bus to Thessaloniki twice a day.
Is it good to fly?
Find direct flights to Thessaloniki (SKG) with EeasyJet, WizzAir, Aegean, British Airways and Ryanair traveling from most European international airports.