Thessaloniki, Greece: Travel guide to the historic city center, cultural upper town and nearby beach
Nobody stays without a home
I’m not fully sure what drew me to Thessaloniki. I had planned the most nights here out of all of Greece, as well as being one of my longest stays in one city on the whole 3 week trip. I think I was attracted to the historic essence of this town and it being closer to other areas in the Balkans region. Interestingly, it considers itself part of the Balkans and that term was used often there as compared to the rest of Greece which is more commonly referred to as Mediterranean, even the parts along the aegean sea. The last minute change of plans of stopping in Kalambaka shortened my stay to 3 nights which still gave me so much time to get to know the city as well as have at least one relaxing beach day.
Thessaloniki is full of archaeological sites and historic ruins from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It has a lively art scene, nightlife and young feel with the university making up much of its population and therefore a quieter feel sometimes during the school holidays. This port city has incredible views over the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean sea with Mt. Olympus in the distance. The food from the local taverns here was the best greek food I had out of the 4 places in Greece that I went!
Because of all of that and more, I absolutely loved Thessaloniki! The free city walking tours, the best greek food of my life, fantastic place to stay, better weather and friends I made with 3 other solo traveling girls here made it one of my favourite cities and experiences of Greece and the Balkans.
Zeus is Loose hostel is one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in. It was a brand new build, with incredible spaces such as rooftop bar with stunning views, full kitchen, cafe, recreational room and more. The location is excellent being right in the centre of town, and just about 5 minute walk to the meeting areas along the waterfront and also a close walk to the train and bus stations. The rooms were fantastic with all the extra detailed outlets, lights, curtains, locked storage, very nice shower and bathroom, etc. The standard was like a high end hotel look with the vibe of a backpackers hostel. It was very affordable too at just $20 per night, but I think that was a newly listed promotional price.
Food and drink
Family style local tavern experience in Thessaloniki is essential to an authentic greek food experience. There are so many good ones all over the city and I did not record the names of the three that we went to. Menta was fantastic for brunch and coffee. Drinks to try at a local cafe: Masticka liquor, or also called ouzo. Racomelo- Honey, cinnamon and rikeel, usually served hot. Retsina-White wine & Coca Cola, only common in northern Greece. Frappe baileys, Snake drink.
Walking tours — city center, upper town, greek mythology
Bicycle along the waterfront
Stroll through the art garden and squares with artwork
Cafe with local drinks and feel free to stay for hours
Tavern family style dinner
Listen to Rebetiko music
Shop in the main market
The Old walls in upper town
St. David church in upper town
Temple and Catacomb of St. John the Baptist
The White Tower
Sunset over the city from upper town
We spent the last full day swimming in the sea, sipping radler hard lemonade, eating gyros and soaking in that August european sunshine. Halkidiki was highly recommended but we chose a slightly closer beach that was an easy 30min bus ride from right outside our hostel directly to the beach with a convenient timetable. The beach was small and lively but not crowded, with enough lounge chairs available. The bar and restaurant selection was good. The area is called Epanomi and there is a historic shipwreck nearby as well. We relaxed to the max as this was my last day in Greece before venturing more into the Balkans, and it was my friend's last day in Greece, too, before her flight back to the UK! After our beach day, my hair was lined with more salt than I had ever seen from swimming in the ocean and I knew all that sea salt soak was beneficial.
Temple and Catacomb of St. John the Baptist
Right in the heart of Thessaloniki and a place in which you'll venture down underground on the city tour. Things to notice: John the Baptist holds his own head. Holy trinity and double nature of Christ from the hand signal. IC and XC both refer to Jesus Christ. Sofia means wisdom. Wash your sins not your face is written in letters backwards above the water fountain.
Turkish monuments were mostly destroyed after independence but this one was too expensive to destroy. Circle architecture is Turkish. In 1500, this was the worst prison in the city. They say they can hear screams and see blood come out. It was called the red tower because of all the blood.
St. David church
Located in upper town, the church is open daily 9-4pm for free, Mosaic church without a beard. It is small and mostly unknown which is unfortunate because we miss it’s beauty but also good because it’s untouched.
It is acclaimed to be the most beautiful art piece in the city. Apollo is the god of the light / sun, every water source is a god, the old god is afraid of the new god.
Thessaloniki music which was formed from resistance. It is like the blues because it is commonly played around drugs and in jails, beginning in the 19th century with the guitar and pazuki. The police would take and destroy the instruments. The local singer Sisane with his talent, turned the music from the most discriminated to the most famous. Our tour guide took out a pazuki and played a song for us called oh god almighty. He sang it in greek and then translated some of the words after: “I smoke in front of your face and you laugh…Now that I’m stoned, please send your angels to me”
Fun facts from the city tour:
Thessaloniki - Niki in Greek means victory (like the brand Nike) which creates the meaning of the city — Victory of the Thessalonians, founded in 315 BC.
We met in the aristotelean square and the tour guide asked us…What is the connection between Aristotle and Thessaloniki? Answer: nothing, he died 7 years before the city was established. Yet the ideologies often connect the two.
The fire of 1917 destroyed 65% of the city. It is a pity as it caused so many important monuments and treasures to be lost.
Thessaloniki was greatly affected by the economic crisis in 2009. There are over 8,000 abandoned buildings which typically are left that way because the children cannot agree. A city with great potential.
From the crisis, wall of kindness was created in which people donate clothing, and there are more than 10 of these found throughout the city.
Tunnels were built in 1st century and used until the large buildings collapsed them.
Jewish tombstones all over the city were used for street construction.
The rotonda built in 300BC, has a straight line to the center of mount Olympus.
Kamara, which means art in Greek, is the most common meeting point in the city
A number of free mason and lumanati signs in buildings and on streets were pointed out on this tour. A Greek free mason company — the company of the friends.
1821 was the year that Greece gained independence from Turkey.
Fun facts from the upper town tour:
1979 law of no knocking down houses so it’s remained like a Balkan village
Ruins date back to 330 (found during the construction of the metro stations - still unfinished)
Old city walls from the 4th century
1430-1912 Turkish rule for almost 5 centuries, therefore being a Turkish settlement with Turkish names
1492 Spain kicked out the Jews and they came to Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki had the biggest Jewish cemetery in the world until it was destroyed by the nazis, read more about it here.
St. Paul church and neighborhood - he came here to the caves which we looked upon (and are now filled with water).
Monastery overlooking Thessaloniki and the Gulf. Peacocks at the monastery for security and it also looks like the eye on its feathers.
More than 100,000 students In Thessaloniki they are the life of the city.
Jupiter the biggest planet and all its moons are names of his lovers.
Greek mythology explains that hercules was a naughty baby. As he was breastfeeding, he pulled away and the breastmilk sprayed so high that it created the milky-way.
They call Thessaloniki the mother of the refugees — anything built outside the walls was built by refugees.
I'll leave you with a few quotes from our outstanding tour guide:
"Romans were the best in 3 things: construction, making clothes and killing."
"Alexander the great - a great bastard!"
"Not a beautiful woman, the more you fall in love with her."
"Letter to the Thessalonians — god is coming…He had to write the 2nd letter because the economy dropped."
And in the last words of Thessaloniki, "Nobody stays without a home."