A lot of tourists make a short stop in Thessaloniki on their way to the beach. Of course, the beaches are nice, but Greece’s second largest city is an attraction in itself. Thessaloniki was the co-capital of the Byzantine Empire together with Constantinople, nowadays Istanbul. During the Roman Empire, the city was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. Then, together with Izmir, it was one of the two biggest trading port cities during the Ottoman Empire. To our delight, the city has successfully preserved all these historical layers. That’s the city’s glorious past. Thessaloniki today is a vibrant city, full of young creative people, great coffee everywhere, bars galore and a restaurant offer that rivals (some would say beats) that of Athens. So, what to do in Thessaloniki for 5 days? Discover architecture, enjoy the city’s atmosphere and head to the beach!
What to Do in Thessaloniki for 5 Days
Day 1 – Roman Thessaloniki
King Cassander of Macedon founded Thessaloniki around 315 BC. However, the city grew to prominence during the Roman Empire. In fact, in 41 BC it was granted free city status and soon became a major trade hub. To our amazement, all archaeological roman remains are in the city center. As cool as it sounds! Walk along pedestrian Gounari Street until you see the Galerius Palace Complex, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Continue up north on the same street until you get to the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda, two impressive monuments part of the palace complex. Take note that the Rotunda was once an orthodox church and a mosque. Before you get there, you will reach noisy Egnatia Street. Turn left and walk a bit until you reach a large park-square on your right. The Roman Forum or Agora is behind the park. The main sight on the forum is the ancient amphitheater – Odeion.
As mentioned above, Thessaloniki’s importance peaked during the long-lived Byzantine Empire (roughly from 4th till 14th Centuries). We had no clue that the city had so many impressive monuments from that period. In fact, in 1988 the Unesco included the Rotunda, together with 12 Byzantine churches and monasteries, a Bath and the City Walls in its World Heritage Sites list. Though you can walk starting along Egnatia Street, we believe it’s better to turn left and right into the smaller side streets. By doing so, you avoid pollution while exploring the side cafés and shops.
You’ll spot two churches near the Arch of Galerius: the tiny Metamorphosis tou Sotiros (Church of the Saviour) and the large Aghios Panteleimon; both built during the 14th Century. Once you reach Patriarchou Ioakim Street turn left to get to the unique Aghia Sophia from the 8th Century. Take your time and soak in the beauty and peace of its interior. If you continue right on Agias Sofias Street you’ll reach the Church of the Acheiropoietos. Built in the 5th Century, it is the city’s oldest surviving church. Before you get to the Roman Forum be sure to stop by the 11th Century Panagia Chalkeon.
The Old Town (Ano Poli) + City Walls (Kastra)
Head up northeast to the Old Town in the afternoon. On your way there you’ll stumble upon several Byzantine churches including the reconstructed Hagios Demetrios, with a historical crypt, and the Church of Prophet Elijah further up the hill. After crossing Olimpiados Street you’ll find yourself inside the Ano Poli or the Old Town. Unlike most of central Thessaloniki, the great fire of 1917 didn’t affect Ano Poli. Don’t rush and wonder about its curvy cobbled streets.
Take small Elefsinos Street and turn right on the first corner in Theofilou Street. You’ll find several historical houses there. Continue along the same road (name changed to Akropoleos), until you reach the Alysseos Tower on the ancient City Wall. If you slightly deviate from your route you’ll see the only remaining Byzantine Baths. Remember to go all the way up to the Heptapyrgion Fortress. Young friendly Greeks and fantastic views of the entire city and the sea await you. You guessed it; sunset is the best time to be there.
Day 2 – City Center
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Thessaloniki was a large Balkan city with beautiful buildings, but a chaotic urban grid. So after the fire of 1917 destroyed most of the city center, the Greek government decided to build a new one. They appointed the French architect and urban planner Ernest Hébrard to make a new European Thessaloniki. He designed a symmetrical orthogonal grid parallel to the sea, with diagonal avenues accentuating the plan.
Aristotelous Street is the city center’s main drag. This wide pedestrian street is full of shops and restaurants. Begin your walk at the monumental Aristotelous Square by the sea and walk along Aristotelous Street all the way to Egnatia Street and the Roman Forum behind it. Thessaloniki is full of car-free areas, so we really enjoyed walking about the city. Some of the best cafés in the city are on Agias Sofias and Iktinou, both pedestrian streets southwest of the Agia Sophia Church.
Marketplaces and Ladadika
Thessaloniki’s main marketplaces are close to Egnatia, on both sides of Aristotelous Street. Dating back to the Ottoman empire, Kapani Market on the left is the city’s oldest market. The Modiano Market (Jewish Market), next to it, is from the 20th Century. On the other side of Aristotelous Street, you’ll find small Athonos Market. The market is food heaven! You can’t go wrong with the numerous small shops, food stalls, and great local restaurants serving fresh food. No western industrial franchises here!
As mentioned above, the fire of 1917 wiped most of Thessaloniki’s city center. Tiny Ladadika Neighborhood is the only neighborhood downtown that survived the fire. Due to its location near the port, during centuries it was an important market place. By the beginning of the 20th Century, the area had turned into a red light district. Nowadays it is one of the city’s nicest neighborhoods with cobbled streets, little squares, and cool bars and restaurants.
The city was under the Ottoman Empire from 1490 to 1912. Fortunately, several interesting Ottoman buildings have survived to this day. Close to Kapani market, you will find the Yahudi Hamam, the bath of the Jews. You can’t go inside. Pretty close you will find the textile market, the Bezesteni. The place is still working, with people selling all sorts of stuff. Do not forget to check nearby Hamza Bey Mosque. Built in 1467, this beauty is the oldest surviving Islamic worship place built in Thessaloniki. Not only that but with a total area of 1150 meters, it is the largest surviving mosque in Greek territory.
You’ll find the Bey Hamam on the park along Egnatia Street. Currently, the baths are used for cultural events and exhibitions. Behind the Agios Dimitrios Church lies the Yeni Hamam. You simply cannot skip this place. In fact, we liked it so much we went several times, both for lunch, coffee, and late night drinks. Not far from there is the Alaca Imaret Mosque, built in the 15th Century and now under reconstruction. Another fascinating place not to be missed is the Atatürk Museum on Apostolou Pavlou Street, next to the Turkish Consulate. This beautifully reconstructed house is where no other than Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born in 1881.
We had no clue that Thessaloniki had such an important role in Jewish history. What’s more, we didn’t know that Judaism was so important in Greek culture. In fact, the earliest Jews in Europe are the Romaniote, an ancient culture that spoke Greek and Hebrew and that thrived in and around ancient Thessaloniki. But that’s not all. When the Spaniards kicked out the Sephardic Jews back in the 15th Century, loads came to live in Thessaloniki. By the turn of the 20th Century, when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire, out of its 157,000 inhabitants, 80,000 were Jews. They prayed in the 40 synagogues and 50 chapels scattered all around the city! Let’s not dwell on what Nazi Germany did to the Greeks, Jews and just about anyone.
The small Yad Lezirakon Synagogue is in between the Kapani and Modiano Markets. It’s hard to find, but trust us it’s there! You won’t have trouble recognizing nearby Monastirioton Synagogue. Unfortunately, we were unable to access both of them. A listed building dating back to 1906 on Agia Mina Street houses the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. This museum serves to acquaint the public with the city’s Jewish historical and cultural heritage. Villa Olga is on downtown Vassilissis Olgas Street. Until 1978, this crumbling yet beautiful villa was the Italian Consulate. During the war, Italian cónsuls granted dozens of Greek Jews forged identity cards claiming they were Italian so they could be saved from deportation to concentration camps.
Day 3 – Thessaloniki Seafront
Thessaloniki lies on the shore of the Thermaic Gulf on the periphery of the Aegean Sea. As you can imagine, the entire city goes to the 10km seafront promenade for a walk. Fantastic Ottoman mansions lined the coastline until the great fire of 1917. Today large monotone buildings occupy their place. However, take your time and you will find some real jewels of postwar architecture. Plus you’ll see some of Thessaloniki’s main landmarks.
Start your walk at the warehouses near Ladadika. The Museum of Photography, the Cinema Museum and the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki are all there. Walk along the shore and you’ll pass again by the majestic Aristotelous Square. If you continue in the same direction you’ll arrive at the White Tower, the symbol of the city. Who would have thought that this elegant building was once a prison where mass executions took place? After the tower, the seafront expands to include green spaces. Finish your walk by the Alexander the Great Statue and the Zongolopoulos Umbrellas.
If you are into architecture and history Thessaloniki won’t disappoint you. Go to the beginning of Leof. Vasileos Georgiou Avenue, next to the Umbrellas monument. Walk down south along the avenue and don’t let the countless concrete residential buildings discourage you. Amongst them, you’ll find several interesting old villas and even a mosque.
After a short walk, the two interesting houses you’ll spot first are the Villa Michaelidi and the Salem Mansion. Turn left on Archeologikou Mousiou Street and on your right you’ll spot the Yeni Mosque. Go back to the avenue and continue towards the south. After a few steps, you’ll spot the Scholi Tyflon (School for the Blind or Hafiz Bey Villa) and the Former Melissa Orphanage. After a few minutes, you’ll see a garden on your right. Go inside to visit the Jewish Villa Modiano and the Folklife and Ethnological Museum. Continuing further south you’ll see the Ottoman Villa Mehmet Kapanci on your left and then the National Bank of Greece and the ruins of Chateau Mon Bonheur on your right. If you are still not tired go all the way to the Ottoman Villa Mordoch and the Jewish Casa Bianca.
Thessaloniki is not a street art Mecca like Athens or even Belgrade, but it does have a few very large and impressive murals that you shouldn’t miss. Some pieces are part of the Face Art Public Mural Project launched in 2011 during the 15th Biennial of Young Artists. Others are the works of great artists such as BLU, DALeast or Faith47. In 2017 the city hosted the Street Art Festival Thessaloniki but unfortunately, it didn’t become an annual event.
The area around pedestrian Gounari Street has several interesting murals. One is directly in the street. Another one is right across the Rotunda in Konnou Melenikou Street, next to the ancient City Wall. On the corner of Egnatia and Socratus Streets there is a pretty big one, and also on Mitropolitou Gennadiou Street near the Athonos Market. A bit away from the center, in Nestoros Teloglou Street, there are two cool murals. There’s a hilarious one about the Greek financial crisis. Finally, you’ll find the nicest mural in Ladadika, on Tsimiski Street. This powerful piece is about domestic violence.
Day 4 – Thessaloniki to Chalkidiki – Possidi Beach
Due to its odd shape, people refer to Chalkidiki as the three fingers. Most beaches are on the two fingers closer to Thessaloniki. The third finger is monastery central, including the so-called Holy Mountain. Since most beaches favor massive tourism, finding a peaceful one can be a challenge.
Do not despair! We were able to find a relaxed beach 100 km from the city, in the Village of Possidi, Kassandra Peninsula. Take note that buses from Thessaloniki to Chalkidiki leave from Halkidiki Bus Station near the Airport. We took a taxi from the city center to the station and then the bus to Possidi and were there in two hours.
Day 5 – Possidi, Chalkidiki’s Nicest Beach
Possidi village is named after the God Poseidon. We are talking about a handful of hotels, guesthouses, bars, and restaurants along the coastline. Walk 10 minutes north until you pass the ruins of the ancient Temple of Poseidon and a lighthouse from 1863. A few meters away, you will notice a beautiful sandy triangle surrounded by the sea. You have arrived at Chalkidiki’s nicest beach.
Though doing nothing and staring at the sea is an option, the area has some interesting hiking routes to discover. There is a hill with private mansions above the ruins. We walked all the way to the top to admire the views. Then we continued on the road through a pine forest to go back to the village. In Possidi, we spent our time on the small beach in front of our hotel. At night, we would have dinner at any of the local taverns. They serve fresh seafood and homemade wine.
Where to Eat and Drink in Thessaloniki
Without a doubt, Greek food is one of the world’s most varied. In Thessaloniki, you can find anything from local flavors to all types of international cuisine. For an unforgettable experience dine in one of the markets. You won’t have trouble finding good food at Kapani, Modiano and Athonos markets. Be adventurous though, and try to find the hidden Bit Bazar.
For drinks go the delicately refurbished Yeni Hamam, behind the Hagios Demetrios Church. Whope in Ladadika is another cool place to hang out. You’ll love its garden atmosphere. In fact, Ladadika is a great place to have lunch, dinner and go for a drink.
Where to Stay in Thessaloniki
To feel the charm of Thessaloniki you have to stay in the middle of its historical center. That is the area inside the city walls. The best option is the Electra Palace Thessaloniki, literally in the center of Aristotelous Square. This top class hotel is part of a historical compound. Another superb hotel in a historical building is the Antigon Urban Chic Hotel. Other great hotels downtown are the Hotel Olympia and the Plaza Hotel. If you rather stay in an apartment check the Suitcase and the Ornament Suites. Finally, don’t hesitate and book a room in the Makedonia Palace Hotel if you are into modern architecture and sea views.
In Possidi we stayed in Hotel Paralio. They offer super comfortable rooms with sea views and delicious breakfast. It’s on the beach, so you can jump directly into the sea.
How Many Days in Thessaloniki
We designed this guide for people wondering what to do in Thessaloniki for 5 days. If you have up to three days in Thessaloniki stay in the city and skip the beach. If you have four days spend two in the city and two on the beach. Another option is to skip the beach altogether. There are so many things to see and do in Thessaloniki that you can easily spend a week there without getting bored. In fact, there is a chance you might fall in love with this old Mediterranean lady, as we did.