1. Drink your Morning Coffee in the Chaos of the Marketplace
Thessaloniki’s gastronomic soul finds its roots at the Kapani market. Central to the life of the city since the Ottoman era, this is still the place to shop for fresh produce, meats, fish and seafood, cheeses, spices, and housewares. Its boisterous charm may not be for the squeamish – carcasses swing from hooks, and fish scales litter the damp pavement along the central axis. But the lively mood is infectious. At the intersection of Kidoniatou and Vlali, you can shop for olives, browse at small stores selling icons and religious supplies, and drink in the atmosphere over a traditional Greek coffee at Modigliani.
2. Take in Thessaloniki’s Impressive Urban Pedigree by the Roman Agora
Fine monuments of Thessaloniki’s Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman eras are just a stroll apart. The wonderfully atmospheric Bey Hamam, a 15th C Ottoman bathhouse, was in use until the 1960’s. You can go upon the roof and see the domes at the Palio Hamam Cafe – a great favorite for a coffee or an afternoon glass of wine. Across the park is the 11th century Panagia Chalkeon – the Virgin of the Coppersmiths. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the prettiest Byzantine churches in town. The Roman Agora is across from the park’s upper edge. Highlights include the cryptoporticus (an arcade) and the Odeon, plus an underground museum in the northwest corner, where still more of the city’s history is revealed. The gloriously restored Agios Dimitrios, church of the city’s patron saint and a site of pilgrimage, is just another block above. After visiting the church and the catacombs, you can enjoy a coffee in the shade at tables directly overlooking the Roman Agora at The Blues Bar.
3. Catch a Ferry and Drink Ouzo in Your Bathing Suit
The suburban beaches of Perea and Neoi Epivates are just a gorgeous 50 minute cruise away. Catch the boat (departures throughout the day and evening) at the end of the first pier of the harbor (across from Plateia Eleftherias) or from the White Tower, and disembark at either Perea or Neoi Epivates – the quieter end of the beach. The sea here is generally calm, and the waters shallow. You’ll find beach bars with lounges and umbrellas. Especially around Neas Epivates, there are plenty of casual seafood tavernas, with their tables nestled right in the sand. A boat ride home by night is especially romantic. Tro to do this on a weekday, as weekends can find both the ferry and the beaches crowded in high season.
4. Cool Off and Wise Up at the Museums
The intense heat of midday is a perfect time to visit the museums. Of Thessaloniki’s many fine museums, two are not to be missed. The Museum of Byzantine Culture’s permanent exhibition acquaints the visitor with the art, life, and vast history of Byzantium, as well as the post Byzantine era. The building, by Kyriakos Krokos, is an experience itself- so splendid that it is listed by the Ministry of Culture as a historical monument and work of art. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki is just next door. An engaging, informative narrative and beautiful exhibits- some from the immediate era- bring the past vividly and comprehensibly to life. Through October 31st (and November 15th in the case of the Archaeological Museum), the museums are open daily, 8:00 – 20:00, making it easy to schedule your visit. If you plan to visit both, the combination ticket- valid for three days- also gains you admission to the White Tower, the Roman Agora archaeological site and museum, and the Galerian complex.
5. Get Lost in the Old Town of Thessaloniki – Ano Poli
Thessaloniki’s Ano Poli (upper town), untouched by the fire that reshaped much of the downtown, has an entirely different character from the city below. This charming hillside neighborhood has traditional houses along a tangle of shaded narrow alleys. Ano Poli was always prized for its views and fresh breezes, and still is. Take a bracing short hike, or a taxi, to UNESCO world heritage site Osios David (Latomou Monastery), a late 5th/early 6th C church. Osios David has an outstanding mosaic – considered by UNESCO to be one of the great masterpieces of early Christian art. Then wander downhill through Terpsithea square, where you’ll pass the exotic tourbes (mausoleum) of Sufi holy man Musa Baba. Walking further west, you’ll have the impression of suddenly being lost in a rustic village. This is Tsinari, a particularly charming corner of Ano Poli that takes its name from the Turkish word for plane tree, and the perfect place to enjoy a coffee or lunch in the shade.
6. Go for the Wine, Stay for the Culture – Visiting the World Class Winery Ktima Gerovassiliou
Thessaloniki is the gateway to lands rich in vineyards and wineries. One of the closest to the city – not a half hour’s drive, and 2 km from public transportation – is a destination for wine and culture that delights on every level. Ktima Gerovassiliou makes wines of distinction and worldwide recognition. In addition to tours of the winery, there are tastings of wine and food (reserve in advance) as well as a seasonal menu in its beautiful welcome center, floating over the vines. Serving Ktima Gerovassiliou’s broader vision of sharing the culture of wine and of the vine is a superb museum- a worthy destination in itself. A vast and beautiful collection of authentic artefacts illustrates the history of wine from antiquity to today (the collection of corkscrews alone is a delight).
The Georvassiliou family are also passionate collectors. Amid the vines, you will find fantastic sculptures by Greece’s leading modern and contemporary artists. The tasting room is also a wonder place to see some excellent contemporary Greek art.
The winery also hosts cultural events throughout the year. If you would like to explore more of the region’s wineries, the organization Wine Roads of Northern Greece provides routes including restaurants and points of interest along the way.
7. Explore One of Europe’s Longest and Loveliest Seafront Promenades
Come evening, Thessaloniki’s modern and gorgeous waterfront promenade is the place to be. Start at the White Tower, where the festive carnival-like atmosphere – complete with popcorn and cotton candy vendors – soon gives way to serenity as you stroll east. George Zongolopoulos’ marvelous sculpture “Umbrellas” is a beloved icon of the city – even locals line up to take one of Thessaloniki’s classic photos. The broad promenade is shared with cyclists and joggers, young couples out for a romantic stroll, and older couples who still take care to dress up for the evening. Fishermen are set up along the boardwalk, as rowers enjoy a twilight workout. This is a city that delights in its long urban coastline- one of Europe’s loveliest. You’ll find refreshment at charming makeshift bars and cantinas, and if you want to cover more territory, plenty of bike rentals are available at Thessbike https://www.thessbike.gr/en/ or BikeIT, who also offers specialty bicycles- including bikes for two or four (http://bikeitrentals.com/en/)
8. Have an Aperitif in the Neighborhood of the Moment
Like in many cities, some of Thessaloniki’s commercial neighborhoods are finding new identity as hubs of culture and nightlife. First the Ladadika, and then the neighborhood centered around Valaoritou street have long held sway and are still lively. Halfway between them though is the intersection of the moment: the Ano (“upper”) Ladadika – Plateia Emporeiou (Commercial Square). This has been a point of interest for centuries- Evliya Celebi mentions it in his 17th century travelogue Seyahatname. In the centuries to follow, the neighborhood’s many khans (also called hans) hosted generations of travelers and merchants. After a long decline, this vital intersection is again vibrant with energy, especially after dark. The broad handsomely repaved sidewalks are filled with the tables of restaurants that suit every taste, and the choice of bars includes a charming new wine bar and a rooftop cocktail bar. Two of the former khans are now multi-use cultural venues: the Bensousan Han and Ypsilon, in the former Kirtsi Han.
9. Visit a Secret Garden in the Ladadika
Along a cobblestone alley of the Ladadika is one of Thessaloniki’s very newest arrivals, unique in the city. What was once just a large empty lot has been transformed into a slice of what actually feels a lot like Mykonos. Welcome to Whope – this spacious, shaded, all outdoor space is a “beach” bar so relaxing you won’t miss the beach. Named for the Sioux spirit of Peace and Friendship, Whope is a wild and carefree refuge in the urban jungle – but not so wild you will need to go without great cocktails, coffees, and food.
10. Spoil Yourself with the Yacht Club Experience
Thessaloniki’s nautical and marine athletic clubs have scored some of the city’s most gorgeous real estate. Happily, they also serve as locations for restaurants that offer unparalleled views and plenty of authentic charm. At the Friends of the Sea club – the first club you come to, 2 km east of the White Tower – you’ll find elegant Ciel. Watch the rowers return as you enjoy dishes by celebrated chef Ettore Botrini. Next door, gentle waves nearly splash the tables at beachside Omilos- for cocktails, coffees, and a contemporary all-day menu.
11. Enjoy the Thermaikos on a Platter – the Best View of Thessaloniki
Two of Thessaloniki’s classic picture postcard images are the view of the Byzantine walls of the upper town alglow in the night from the city below, and the splendid vistas of the city and bay from the walls themselves. A pleasant hike along the walls starting at Elenis Zographou street, or a short taxi ride, bring you to a favorite spot of both visitors and locals alike- the Trigonio Tower. The panorama of the city below, the whole of the bay, and Mt. Olympus majestic in the distance, is particularly enchanting at sunset. Enjoy more of the view at leisure from the tavernas along Leoforos Ochi just below. It’s like being on a balcony suspended over the whole of the city.
12. Watch a Film Under the Stars at a Summer Garden Cinema
Outdoor summer cinemas – called “Therina” (summer) in Greek – are one of the greatest secret pleasures of the Greek Summer. Join the locals in this film-friendly by enjoying a film in a garden cinema under the stars. The films screened are generally in their first run, or recent popular films, with the occasional screening of a classic. Films are shown in their original language, with Greek subtitles (except for children’s features, especially animated films, which are often dubbed). These summer cinemas all have cantinas – serving snacks, refreshments, and alcoholic drinks. The Alex (on Olympou, above Egnatia), the Natali and the Apollon (a little east of the White Tower), and the Ellinis (across from the Archaeological Museum) are a walk or very short taxi ride from Aristotelous Square. For a few days in August, rooftops around town become cinemas too, for the Taratsa (rooftop) International Film Festival, featuring independent short films from Greece and all over the world.
13. Cruise Around the Harbor with a Cocktail
If you don’t have time to take the ferry out to the suburban beaches, you can still experience the Thermaikos and the beautiful view of the city from the water. Those faux pirate ships docked by the White Tower may look like a tourist attraction, but truly it’s the locals who just love taking a refreshing cruise around the harbor. You’ll find schedules posted outside – these are for departures. The cruises take a half hour to 45 minutes, and cost just the price of your drink.