It often seems like Thessaloniki is in constant party mode. Year round, people gather in the streets and squares for all sorts of events, from movie nights and concerts to food festivals.
Inspired by the city’s International Film Festival, cinephiles also throw their own events, adding entertaining twists such as screening films at ancient sites or focusing exclusively on local filmmakers. And as if that wasn’t enough, there are music festivals, street art festivals, dance festivals, festivals promoting sustainable living, and a festival for people with hearing disabilities.
There are festivals celebrating brunch, beer, street food, picnics and plenty more. And while it might seem like the city is under the spell of some hot new trend – a temporary event frenzy – this phenomenon isn’t a recent development.
Innovative event organizers have been cheering each other (and the city’s creatives) on for over a decade already. For example, the documentary “World Naked Bike Ride Thessaloniki Greece”, featuring the city’s annual edition of the worldwide event, won the Audience Award at the 2009 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
How did it start?
“Thessaloniki has always been a cultural city,” says Despoina Polychronidou, who runs the press office for the September music festival Reworks. She mentions, among other milestones, the city’s 1997 stint as European Capital of Culture.
“But in the first decade of this millennium, things started to evolve. A shift seemed to take place from what we consider conventional cultural events, such as concerts, theater performances and exhibitions, to creative entertainment where those things were incorporated.”
Chris Exarchopoulos of the Soulfood Thessaloniki organization, which hosts a number of food festivals throughout the year, saw the change coming.
“We’re a university town full of creative people, with weather suitable for outdoor events for more than seven months a year. So, in a way, it was natural that a strong festival scene would grow here. When we started 10 years ago, Reworks was the only large established festival around, but then the crisis encouraged people to follow its example, and also to look for inspiration abroad. I myself acquired my knowledge from working at street markets in Berlin before we started the Street Food Festival” (next year’s edition will run from 15-17/5/20.)
Remember flash mobs? In the middle of the ‘00s, crowds all around the world were freezing and un-freezing, or bursting into seemingly spontaneous dance routines in order to entertain, surprise, and disrupt people’s boring everyday routines.
In Thessaloniki, the Sfina collective planned over twenty such events over the course of two years. “Before 2008, Thessaloniki very much lived up to its unflattering nickname “Frappedoupoli” (Iced Coffee City) – a town where all people did was hang out at cafés,” says the collective’s founder Mario Spiroglou. “We wanted to bring some life to the city with events that were exciting and out-of-the-ordinary, like turning Aristotelous Square into a beach by urging people to come out in their swimsuits and flippers, or like having organized pillow fights in the street.”
Then, in 2012, Sfina threw the country’s first color party, MMTX (“Mera Me Ta Xromata,” or “Day of Colors,” 29-30/8/20), inspired by India’s Holi festival.
“We only advertised it on our Facebook page, and 300 people came out for it. We considered that a great success! The next year, we did it again, and got 2,000 visitors. We didn’t intend for it to become an annual event, but now it’s officially a festival. In 2015, 33,000 people joined in the biggest party we ever threw. Since then, we’ve introduced an entrance fee, but we still get 10,000 visitors every year.”
The Street Food Festival, held every spring, also had immediate success, and SoulFood Thessaloniki is still growing. After hosting several more food festivals in the city, they’ve now taken their Street Food Festival on tour, popping up in ten Greek cities throughout the year, aiming to introduce people to Thessaloniki’s contemporary flavors and turn the city into the gastronomic capital of Greece.
“We all support each other, we have a very active community of young creatives, and they like volunteering,” says Polychronidou. “Another important reason that festivals work here is the compactness of the city; nothing happens outside of town, everything is embedded in the urban landscape, and it’s all easy to get to as well.
“That’s also how each event gives back to the community; visitors don’t spend all their time in just one place. They move around inside the city, discovering new things and spending their money in different neighborhoods.”
Half of Reworks’ 20,000 attendees are from out of town, and a quarter are from other countries. “Festivals are one of the things people look at before they book a trip to Thessaloniki, and those who don’t book tickets in advance gather around the noticeboards in the city’s hostels, which are always full of posters for events,” Polychronidou says.
Spiroglou agrees: “I believe with all my heart that we’re all bringing something important to Thessaloniki, turning it into a destination and a hub of creativity, as every successful event is a source of inspiration for others.”
Save the Date: Some Great Thessaloniki Events
Stall owners collaborate with musicians, actors and artists to create this event, which features creative installations and performances at the Kapani Market. The lineup for 2020 has yet to be announced, so keep consulting their website.
Two-day event, every autumn, kapaniproject.gr
A worldwide institution, Open House offers the public a free inside peek at historic and architecturally interesting buildings. Taking place in Thessaloniki for the eighth time this November, it’s already a much-anticipated event, drawing 47,000 participants last year.
Two-day event, November 23-24, openhousethessaloniki.gr
The world’s largest music documentary festival In-Edit takes place in more than 10 countries around the world. Next year’s Thessaloniki edition is taking place at four venues and will feature dozens of film screenings, concerts and DJ sets.
Seven-day festival, April 23-29, in-edit.gr
Naked Bike Ride
The Naked Bike Ride takes place in cities all over the world, promoting both body positivity and environmentalism. Come, as their motto says, as “bare as you dare.”. One-day event, June, gymnosophy.gr
Local Short Film Festival
Thessaloniki is never short of new filmmaking talent. What’s more, the previously bimonthly Local Short Film Festival will become a larger annual festival in 2020, giving local filmmakers the chance to reach a wider audience.
Two-day festival, April, facebook
Pic-Nic Urban Festival
Pack a blanket and a basket and join the locals at the site of the ancient Roman Agora for a mass urban picnic. Entertainment includes live music and movie screenings.
Four-day festival, September 10-13, urbanpicnic.gr
Street Mode Festival
One of the largest festivals in Thessaloniki, Street Mode presents every expression of street culture, including graffiti, breakdancing, skateboarding, parkour, hip-hop, ska/reggae and more.
Three-day festival, September, streetmode.gr
Nea Paralia Nea Pasarela
Local professional and amateur designers and models team up annually to produce Nea Pasarela, a fashion show with a focus on upcycling and sustainability that takes place at a different seaside spot every year. Keep an eye out on Facebook for next year’s theme, which will be announced in the spring; a temporary costume exhibition will follow in November.