Thessaloniki: The Hidden Gem of Greece's Mainland
January 1, 1970
by Kyla Michelle
Struggling to even pronounce the city’s name? Don’t worry, you are not alone. Despite being Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki (pronounced like this) remains relatively unheard of. This is definitely to the advantage of travellers looking for a more authentic Greek experience as Thessaloniki comes with all the classic features of a Greek island get-away but with fewer selfie sticks and a much nicer price tag.
So why visit Thessal-what?
It is a city that has a lot to offer a wide range of interests so no matter what you are into, you won’t be disappointed. The climate is also very pleasant for most of the year, with the usual European extreme highs in July/August and lows in December/January but with the majority of days featuring the classic Greek holiday sunshine.
Food, glorious food
Where Thessaloniki is starting to develop a name for itself is its food scene. Whether you’re into fine dining or street eats, are a carnivore or a plant lover, there are plenty of options to keep your taste buds satisfied. This is a city of food lovers and from midday onwards, Thessaloniki’s streets are filled with locals sharing delicious looking small plates (mezedes), and this busy dining scene continues each day until early hours of the next morning. Here are some of the areas you must visit for an authentic Greek gastronomy experience.
Although it’s a bit of adventure to actually find, once you have made it you won’t be disappointed by a night spent at Bit Bazaar. Located north of Aristotelous Square and next to the Roman Forum, this area is a plaza surrounded by what look like ordinary suburban streets filled with antique shops. Find one of the several open entrances (or walk down a dark alleyway) and an array of traditional Greek tavernas will appear before your eyes.
Choosing which Taverna to eat at is probably the hardest part but if you go early (before 10 pm is considered ‘early’) you will likely have waiters offering you deals such as ‘buy a litre of wine and get your second litre free’. Come after 10 pm on a Saturday and Sunday and you will probably have to wait for a table, however, the buzzing atmosphere will add to the ambience and make for some great people watching.
The locals will tell you that only students go to Bit Bazaar (as indeed, its cheap prices mean it is popular with young people) but in reality, you will find people of all ages there. When you can get enough food to feed yourself for the next 3 days and drinks for about €10 per person, who could blame them really.
A collection of beautiful cobblestone streets in the city centre, this area started its life as a central market and its location right next to the Port meant that it was also once home to a number of brothels servicing visiting sailors. Today, however, this fully pedestrianized area acts as the beating heart of Thessaloniki’s entertainment scene and is a great place to start your night with a delicious meal.
Now, once again, if you ask a local they will likely shake their head and tell you this area is ‘touristy’ but remember to keep it in perspective as in Thessaloniki that just means ‘popular with foreign people’…and there is a reason for that!
You can choose from any of the many tavernas which have similar menus full of traditional Greek cuisine, but my recommendation is to grab an outside spot near one of the water fountains as you will have front row seats for the musical performances which accompany your meal. When ordering, keep in mind that it is also customary for restaurants in this area to offer you a complimentary dessert….and it’s usually delicious so try to save space for it.
After filling up on gyros meat and eating your weight’s worth of tzatziki, you are going to need to do some sightseeing in order to walk it off. Luckily Thessaloniki has an endless supply of museums, churches, ruins and historical areas just waiting to be explored (with minimal crowds of course).
A visit to Thessaloniki isn’t complete without exploring Ano Poli (upper town). The best way to see this area is definitely by foot, and walking from the centre of town (although all uphill) will give you an extra sense of satisfaction when you reach the lookouts with amazing views over the whole city. Plus you can treat yourself to more Greek food when you get there!
My advice is to walk up the pedestrianized Dim Gounari street as this will take you past highlights of downtown Thessaloniki like the Arch of Galerius and the Rotonda and then wind you through colourful streets full of character as you get higher. The point you want to aim for on your walk is Trigoniou Tower (use this in google maps to guide you), and you should stop at a local corner store and buy a few cold beers to enjoy at one of the many seating points when you reach the Tower.
If you are considering a trip to Thessaloniki, it’s likely that you have already read about Halikidi, a somewhat famous region about an hour’s drive from the city where you can find beautiful blue post-card worthy waters.
For budget travellers, catching the bus to Halkidiki is actually quite an effort (as it can be anywhere from 2-4 local buses, totalling over €30) so if there is more than one of you, it’s actually a lot easier and cheaper to hire a car. Plus you will need it when you get there to explore the area.
If you don’t fancy going that far, you can also catch a water taxi from the Port or the White tower to two local beachside towns, Perea and Nei Epivates, for about €3.50 one way. Although the beaches are not what you will find in Halkidiki, they are lined with high-quality tavernas and overall make for a great day out.
Once you are there, Thessaloniki will no doubt continue to surprise you.
Indeed, one of the most unusual ‘must do’ things on your Thessaloniki list is a trip around the harbour on the infamous pirate ship, complete with a real-life pirate! The ride itself is free with the only catch being you are expected to buy a drink, but who would complain about enjoying a beer, wine or cup of tea on a 45-minute cruise which offers a view of the city from a different perspective.
Go now, eat, drink, explore and enjoy!