12:00 ARISTOTELOUS SQUARE
Your official “check-in” to the city takes place in its largest, most “European” square, envisioned by French urban planner Ernest Hébrard a century ago as a center of commerce and social life, and a “gateway” to the sea. Your first acclimatizing stroll will take in the bustling, outdoor Kapani Market on Menexe Street; Athonos Square, with its traditional tavernas and its herb and spice shops; the Modiano Market (soon to undergo a radical makeover), with its grocery stores and ouzo bars; and Komninon Street, with its bright flower shops.
And if fashion is your thing, you’re in the right place: Tsimiski, Mitropoleos and Proxenou Koromila streets have everything, as you can see by the attention-grabbing window displays of Max Mara and Attica Department Store. Hungry? Stop at The Last Slice (1 Proxenou Koromila) and choose from 25 different kinds of pizza.
15:00 CAFÉ SOCIETY
In Thessaloniki, the key word is halara (“take it easy”), a sentiment clearly in evidence at the hundreds of cafés. At the popular Efimerida (11 Filikis Eterias), the vibe is youthful. At the French-style Mon Frére (6 Karolou Dil), you can enjoy delicious pastries, while the always bustling, all-day Apallou (51 Mitropoleos), with its loud music and fashionista clientele, is great for people-watching.
Perhaps you’d prefer to sip your coffee in an old Turkish bath? If so, make your way to the Aigli Yeni Hamam (3 Aghiou Nikolaou). If you want to mingle with students and play board games, head for Playhouse (2 Aghias Sofias). And if you’re a connoisseur of good coffee, in the landmark building that houses The Blue Cup (8 Salaminos), you can choose from among single-origin specialty coffees prepared by experienced baristas.
All these caffeine temptations are within a ten-minute walk from Aristotelous Square.
17:00 JEWISH PAST
Time to discover some of the city’s rich history, beginning at the Jewish Museum (11 Aghiou Mina), housed in a century-old landmark building. A visit to the hall dedicated to the Holocaust, with objects from the Nazi crematoriums, is a particularly moving experience. The audio tour is recommended; headphones are available at the entrance.
Two minutes’ walk from the museum at 6 Edessis, is the Bensousan Han, an early 19th-century inn that once provided lodging for travelling merchants and today hosts cultural events and exhibitions. The restoration of the building has preserved the patina of the past and the atmosphere is eerily evocative; you have the feeling that the former owner – Samuel Bensousan – may step out of the semi-darkness at any moment to welcome you.
21:00 DINE LIKE A LOCAL
Where’s the best place for your initiation into the delights of Thessaloniki’s celebrated cuisine? That question may prompt much debate, but we propose Nea Folia (4 Aristomenous, Tel. +30 2310.960.383). For 40 years, countless patrons have drunk from its barrels. Today, the eatery retains a cult atmosphere, charming and in no way pretentious. The cuisine is northern Greek, traditional, but with interesting twists. Meat in lemon sauce, rabbit stew, small plates of food (mezedes) featuring local products and good wine will keep you satisfied and at the table for hours. With the bill – which rarely exceeds €30 for two – comes a dessert on the house.
If you’re in the mood for something fresh and modern, try the brand-new Nama (1 Olimpou, Tel. +30 2313.088.241), located in a quiet residential neighborhood, next to the Church of the Holy Apostles. You’ll be greeted with warm bread sprinkled with fresh herbs and paprika, and while the decor may not be remarkable, the cuisine is: succulent pot roasts and amazing sauces, imaginative Greek food for the soul, prepared by creative young chefs working in plain sight in the open kitchen. As for what to put in your glass, there’s a selection of bottled wines – at very reasonable prices – to go with your meal.
23:00 STAYING OUT LATE
If you feel up to it, it’s worth exploring the nightlife of Valaoritou Street, the surrounding alleys and the historic neighborhood of Frangomachalas. For unusual cocktails, choose Gorilla (3 Verias). For a smoke-free environment and a great selection of spirits, including rare whiskeys and rums, head towards the seafront and the bar Vogatsikou 3 – its name is also its address. Both bars are among the hippest watering holes in the city. Cheers!
09:30 BOUGATSA TIME
The obvious choice for your first breakfast in Thessaloniki is… the famous bougatsa! At Anoteron (61 Aghiou Dimitriou), these baked miracles have been ready for you since dawn: crispy pastry outside, soft and buttery inside, with a filling of cheese, minced meat or semolina custard (try all three!).
Alternatively, on Aghias Sofias Street, enjoy breakfast at the patisserie-brasserie Blé, which offers dozens of different types of bread, traditional pies from all over Greece as well as mouthwatering French pastries and American-style cakes.
11:00 A WALK THROUGH THE CENTURIES
A Roman mausoleum or temple similar in design to the Pantheon in Rome, later consecrated as a Christian basilica, then converted into a mosque, before being re-dedicated as a Greek Orthodox church, the Rotunda is an amazing monument that bears living testimony to the city’s complex past; it also provides an ideal starting point for your sightseeing tour. To stand in the restored interior beneath the enormous (30m high) dome is a mystical experience. Trivia: the minaret, a remnant of the Ottoman period, is the only one to have survived in Thessaloniki.
After your visit here, make your way up to Kassandrou Street where, at number 91-93, surrounded by drab apartment buildings, stands the Alaca Imaret (lit. “multi-colored hospice”), a mosque built in 1484 which is now used as a municipal cultural venue. The face of its minaret was once decorated with colorful, lozenge-shaped stones and, on the walls of the mosque, you can still see inscriptions with quotes from the Koran.
Nearby (150m) is the Church of Aghios Dimitrios, the patron saint of Thessaloniki, with its underground bathhouse (which later became a crypt) where Dimitrios was martyred and buried. Close by, as you head towards Olimpou Street along sidewalks flanked by apartment blocks, small fashionable coffee shops and attractive arts and crafts stores, you’ll come to the site of the Roman Agora (2nd c.) with its restored Odeon. Here, don’t just remain on the surface: the reconstructed Cryptoporticus, a covered passageway stretching for 138m, leads to an underground museum with exhibits covering 17 centuries of history.
14:00 FOLLOW THE NOISE
Leaving behind the quiet of the museum, about 300m east of the Roman Agora, you will be greeted by music from a gramophone and the characteristic smell of old wood at the Bit Bazaar, the bustling flea market operating since 1928 and still alive thanks to the efforts of the latest generation of dealers and traders. At the approximately 50 small shops, bric-a-brac hunters will find themselves in seventh heaven, although “serious” antique collectors may be disappointed.
15:00 MEZE SAFARI
Your stomach need wait no longer. Just a 10-minute walk will bring you to the Modiano Market (1925), which was recently purchased by a large real estate developer and will soon undergo a makeover. Until then, the ouzo bars and other eateries in its arcades will continue to pay tribute to the local meze culture. Table surfaces disappear under a sea of small dishes of spicy salads and spreads, mussels, tiny fish and other seafood, sausages and fritters. Everything comes together over tsipouro, ouzo and lively conversation, often accompanied by street musicians.
At the Grocery of Thessaloniki (12 Komninon) you’ll find small-batch products, a wide range of sauces and jars of everything imaginable, olive oil and vinegar, salted fish and canned items. A little further along, Edodimon (26 Vasileos Irakleiou) has cheeses and cold cuts from all over Greece.
Tip: Since you’re already in the area, pick up some moreish sunflower seeds at Harilaos (24 Vatikiotou) or some pumpkin seeds at Iraklis (59 Olimpou). They’ll come in handy later on.
17:30 SEAFRONT LEISURE
Thessaloniki owes its identity to the sea. Few cities can claim to have such an exciting seafront. We suggest you start your walk from the port’s Pier A, where old warehouses have been converted into modern cultural venues, including the Thessaloniki Cinema Museum, the Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art and the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography. If it’s a nice day, the area outside is great for relaxing by the sea or for sipping a coffee at Kitchen Bar, the popular all-day hangout.
Strolling south along the waterfront on Nikis for about 20 minutes, you’ll come to the iconic White Tower, which hosts a multimedia exhibition on the city’s history in its museum and boasts an incredible view of the Thermaic Gulf from its viewing platform, 34m above ground level. From here begins the most beautiful seafront stretch, the Nea Paralia (New Waterfront). Its redevelopment, completed in 2013, endowed the city with a 3.5k-long recreation zone that features themed gardens, playgrounds, wooden decks and countless places for sitting and taking in the sea view (as far as Mt Olympus) or for people-watching.
Here, everyone finds an opportunity to take some time out. A selfie in front of the renowned “Umbrellas” sculpture, a work by George Zongolopoulos, is a must. The hour-long walk is made even more enjoyable by snacking on those sunflower or pumpkin seeds you bought earlier, just like the locals. And don’t forget, you can do this route on a bicycle, too (go to thessbike.gr for information on Thessaloniki’s bike-sharing system).
The Nea Paralia has probably whetted your appetite for seafood. Hop into a taxi and in 10 minutes you’ll be in Kalamaria, at the city’s famous fish restaurant Mavri Thalassa (3 Nikolaou Plastira). It used to be a small coffee shop run by the present owner’s grandfather, who arrived in Kato Toumba as a refugee. It was he who brought the recipe for boiled fish in a thick lemon soup, which remains their signature dish.
On the other hand, you could stay in the city center and dine at the cozy bistro Maitr & Margarita (2 Verias), where you’ll find a convivial atmosphere and exceptional value-for-money Greek cuisine based on quality ingredients sourced from small producers.
23:00 THESSALONIKI BY NIGHT
Visiting Thessaloniki and not getting at least a taste of its nightlife is inconceivable. So: try Thermaikos Café Bar (21 Nikis) for your first (or last) tipple in a vintage atmosphere; this is an all-time classic hangout for locals, and a real experience for visitors. Uberdooze (Danaidon & Sfetsiou) offers loud beats from Greek and foreign DJs in a creative space which at night is transformed into a fashionable club. Dentro sto Bar (25 Vasileos Georgiou) is a good choice for live music from some of the city’s many great bands, while Duende (16 Kalapothaki) grooves to jazz, blues and soul.
And, last but not least, Prigipessa (5 Filikis Eterias) is the place to pay homage to rebetiko music (what some call the Greek blues) and the legacy of the great songwriter Vassilis Tsitsanis, who wrote some of his finest pieces in Thessaloniki during the German occupation. It won’t matter that you won’t understand a word of the lyrics because you’ll still be carried away by the atmosphere: the regulars, aged 18 to 80, all sing along to plaintive numbers written a century ago, and someone is bound to get up and dance in the small spaces between the tables.
04:00 GOT THE MUNCHIES?
Whatever you’ve been up to, a hot, freshly baked bougatsa is the best snack before curling up in bed. Giannis (106 Mitropoleos) takes special care of night owls, adding hazelnut cocoa spread in addition to icing sugar and cinnamon. And if you wash it down with chocolate milk, then you have officially become a local.
There’s no need to get up early to make it in time for breakfast, since you are in the brunch capital of Greece. One of the best-known places is Estrella (48 Pavlou Mela), popular chiefly for its invention of the bougatsan, which combines the semolina custard filling of the bougatsa with the outer structure of the croissant. You will find many other brunch eateries around here (for more suggestions, see here).
Thessaloniki boasts a fascinating museum neighborhood, where centuries are only minutes apart. A convenient starting point is the award-winning Museum of Byzantine Culture (2 Stratou), housed in an architecturally impressive building designed by Kyriakos Krokos, where you’ll find all kinds of objects on display: from early Christian architectural and mosaic fragments and a stepped marble pulpit from the city’s first churches, to sculptures, pottery, farming implements, jewelry, icons and ecclesiastical prints, plates, embroidery, books and silver and gold objects. Ask for a tour (included in the admission price) and round off your visit in the lovely courtyard of the great “B”café-restaurant.
Next stop, less than half a kilometer north, is the beautifully minimalist Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (6 Manoli Andronikou), where you’ll find excellent thematic displays that cover prehistoric times, ancient daily life, the rise of cities, religious worship and funerary customs. Mosaics, sculptures, golden artifacts and the seemingly solid gold Derveni Vase are just some of the highlights.
For your contemporary art fix, the collections of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art (154 Egnatia) contain more than 1,800 paintings, sculptures and works of video art by Greek and foreign artists. At present, the museum is one of the main venues for the 6th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art.
15:30 ANO POLI
For a perfect ending to your Thessaloniki city break, we saved arguably the loveliest, most authentic part of the city. Ano Poli (Upper Town) is a maze of small squares and stone-paved alleys lined with brightly painted houses. Also known as the Old Town, this district hosts two excellent choices for lunch. Established in 1914, Taverna Igglis (32 Irodotou) is one of the city’s oldest tavernas serving authentic Greek cuisine that also tickles the taste buds of tourists.
Radikal (61 Stergiou Polidorou), on the other hand, epitomizes the fresh approach to Thessaloniki’s restaurant scene, from its renovated jewel of a building to its creative mix-and-match cuisine. Before leaving Ano Poli, don’t forget to make a stop at the Trigonio Tower to take the most amazing panoramic photos of the city.