Many people ask me how I manage to travel so much, accusing me of always being out of the country. The reality is, I work a full time job. However, one of the biggest perks of my job is the holiday allowance. My holiday year ends in June and starts again in July, and being only allowed to carry over 5 days into the next holiday year I found myself needing to use 10 days of holiday before it all expired!
When I realised one of my travel buddies, George, was going to be in Greece in June, I jumped at the opportunity to experience Greece from the perspective of a local. I met George in Laos back in 2017. At the time, he was living in Australia but I was thrilled to find out that he relocated to London! George is Greek originally so being in London meant he often visited Greece to see his family, and this time I was invited to join him.
Flights to Thessaloniki aren't super cheap, especially not last minute, but I managed to bag some return flights for around £200 via Athens courtesy of Aegean. Not bad considering I would be visiting 5 cities over the course of my week... but now I'm going to tell you about Thessaloniki.
This was my first time visiting mainland Greece, my last and only experience of Greece being a trip to Crete around 5 years ago. Thessaloniki is not a super popular tourist city like Athens so I had no idea what to expect but that was part of the fun. For the time I was in Thessaloniki, I was staying with George's best childhood friend, Vaggelis, and his super sweet Greek family. His mum was totes adorbs and the best cook you'll ever meet, I can still taste the home made Greek dish she had waiting for us when we came home; the traditional Pastitsio.
Usually, with solo trips, I would research a little into where I'm going ahead of arrival; not this time. I decided to let my Greek guides take the reigns- they did not disappoint! George met me the airport and took me into town where Vaggelis picked us up and our adventures began.
So what has Thessaloniki got going on? Well, my fine reader(s), a lot more than you'd initially think!
Thessaloniki is actually the second largest city in Greece and has over a million people living there. That means the city is always buzzing, especially after 9pm! As it's hot during the day, people tend to go out at night and it's not uncommon for the streets to be very busy even as late as 10 or 11pm. The life of the city is by the waterfront, where you'll also find the city's most iconic monument.
The White Tower
This landmark can be seen from afar; it's round [nearly] white exterior hard to miss in contrast to the rest of the city. It is said to have been painted white by a prisoner in exchange for his freedom many many years ago whilst the tower was still a prison, now it is a museum displaying the history of Thessaloniki. The top floor gives you panoramic views of Thessaloniki and if it's a clear day you may even see Mount Olympus!
One of my favourite places in Thessaloniki, the waterfront is full of life and you will see thousands of people walking up and down the waterfront particularly at night. Across the road are dozens of cafe's and bars all offering a view of the sea and on the waterfront there are performers, entertainers, food stalls and more.
Walking beside the water as the sun was setting created absolutely stunning colours in the sky and over the sea. I was drawn in by a beautiful umbrella art installation that looked stunning against the pink backdrop.
When I thought things on the Aegean sea couldn't look more spectacular, a pirate party ship sailed by completely lit up all over! I nudged George, "look at that!", he was all like "oh yeah, that's free to go on." like all casual and stuff... FREE?! My eyes widened, nothing's ever free in the UK!
So here you go, you're welcome. The number one thing to do in Thessaloniki on the waterfront is take a FREE boat ride on one of their party ships. Just buy a drink and enjoy the 30 minute boat tour on the water. P.S do not swim in this water, people have been known to catch diseases from it!
Drinks, Food & Dancing in the Streets
I already mentioned the many bars along the waterfront but that's not the only place for great night life. Head a bit more centrally and you'll find Thessaloniki has fantastic night life!
The Greeks have a traditional dance and I was delighted to stumble across a square next to the Ellis City Vibe club where traditional music was playing and strangers on the street were dancing. Did I join in? Of course I did! *see instagram for video evidence*
I didn't make it to Thessaloniki's rooftop bars but I was informed that Orizontes Roof Garden had some great views over the city.
Food wise, Thessaloniki has wonderful restaurants for all kinds of food whether traditional dishes like Pastitsio and Yesmista or for Italian, French and other cuisines but if you really want to eat like a local, grab some gyros!
Don't miss out on the traditional Greek sweets either, but go easy on them - they are incredibly sweet! My favourites were baklava and tulumba.
If you're grabbing a quick breakfast, Greek filled pastries are the thing over there; spanokopita was my go to pastry made up of spinach, feta cheese, onions and egg.
Thessaloniki also has many day markets selling fresh produce, if that's your thing, head over to Ermou Street where you can be tempted by the sweet aromas and bright colours around you!
Thessaloniki is a heavily historical place, as indeed many parts of Greece are. Just exploring the streets expect to see ancient ruins right next to newly built flats or churches that are thousands of years old among decade old buildings.
The Ana Poli area is the centre of the historical district with gardens, towers and churches to explore in this region.
My wonderful local Greek friends took me to some of the most amazing historical spots.
This is one of the most famous churches of Thessaloniki and some believe the most important. It's notably different in architectural style than other churches in the city and it contains a rare hexagonal style shrine. A number of mosaics recently discovered after a fire date as far back as 7th century AD. There is also an ancient crypt beneath the church where the saint Dimitros is said to have been imprisoned and died.
Holy Church of Panagia Dexia
A particularly special church as this is where George's parents married, this stunning church has some of the most beautiful decor within. It's worth a visit being right beside the Arch of Galerius and many visit throughout the week to make prayers or simply enjoy the atmosphere.
The Arch of Galerius
Along with the white tower, this is one of Thessaloniki's most visited monuments. Distinctive in its roman 4th century monumental architecture, the arch was commissioned by emperor Galerius Valerius Maximianus in order to celebrate the victorious campaign against the Sassanid Persians in 298 A.D. and the capture of their capital Ctesiphon. (Credit: here)
The Galerius Palace
Built by Galerius, one of the four co-emperors of the Tetrach of the Roman Empire at the end of the 3rd century (ta google for the facts). He created this large palace complex when he decided to make Thessaloniki his main home and now a large portion of the complex has been excavated and is viewable by visitors.
Another construction owed to Galerius, the Rotonda was built in 306 A.D. by the Romans. Rotunda is one of the oldest religious sites in the city of Thessaloniki.
The "Beach" at Aretsou Marina
Okay so I'm just gonna straight up say, don't go to this beach for swimming. The water is not great here and there are a ton of other beaches close which offers much clearer and prettier seas (I mean it's the same sea but less dodgy). But do go here for some chill time and great gyros!
The docking area is a nice relaxing walk if you like to check out fancy boats and pretend that you own them. Or if you actually own a boat (which clearly I do). I enjoyed strolling along the water and fantasy picking out my dream yacht and/or fishing boat.
There is also a fairground (which I was convinced had been abandoned but apparently not) which you need to go by to get to this little cafe/canteen area.
So as you can see Thessaloniki is well worth a visit, so I definitely recommend adding that one to your list! Plus, it's well connected to other parts of Greece which is how I managed to visist 5 Greek cities in a week! More about the other spots I hit up soon!