Walking Tour of Thessaloniki Attractions, Greece: ruins, churches and seaside cafes galore!

Walking Tour of Thessaloniki Attractions, Greece: ruins, churches and seaside cafes galore!

Big hair, statement lips, neon colors and overalls… Landing in Greece was like traveling back to the 80s in a cloud of cigarette smoke and whiffs of pasteries. It was quite the combination! People with bold gestures, exaggerated mannerisms and loud personalities, plopped in cafés by the sea for hours at a time, nursing frappes. It wasn’t hard to imagine why Greece is in an economical crisis, when it’s people spend all day slowly sipping coffee and refusing to sacrifice island holidays, but as I spent more time there, that’s all I really wanted to do too.

Thessaloniki chose me more than I chose it. Well, Simone (a girl I traveled with in Granada, Spain) and I wanted to meet in Albania and taking a bus from Greece was the cheapest and easiest way to do it.

Walk by the sea in Thessaloniki, Greece

Walk by the sea in Thessaloniki, Greece

The more I travel, the more I realize that the quicker I get out of cities, the happier I am. It’s easy to get to cities, they often contain a high concentration of attractions and have better public transportation but they’re never my favorite part. I like nature and locals who slow down and want to get to know you. Thessaloniki surprised me with delivering a relaxed and more authentic Greek experience, with a pleasant seaside location that diffused the claustrophobic feeling that I sometimes get in other metropolitan areas. I’m glad I’m not the only traveler that shares this adversity to populated places- Paul Theroux, one of my heroes has a similar perspective:

“I hate big cities, probably for the same reason many city people hate wilderness (which I love) because I find them vertiginous, threatening, monochromatic, isolating, exhausting, germ-laden, bristling with busy shadows and ambiguous odors. And the mobs, and all the shared space. Cities look like monstrous cemeteies to me, the buildings like brooding tombstones. I feel lonely and lost in the lit-up necropolis, nauseated by traffic fumes, disgusted by food smells, puzzled by the faces and the banal frenzy”
-Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Anyway, back to Thessaloniki: it has all the benefits of a city (accessibility, walkability, a large number of college students, plenty of stores/services) with such a relaxed vibe that makes you feel like you’re on summer vacation on the coast… without tourists!  It’s incredible!  Even better, the city is easy to navigate (sandwiched between the sea and a castle overlooking the city) and you can easily do a walking tour in a day.

Famous white tower monument and museum of Thessaloniki

Famous White Tower monument and museum of Thessaloniki

Walking Tour of Thessaloniki

I recommend you start your walking tour, as I did mine, at the White Tower monument and museum, which is a well-known symbol of the city.  I didn’t actually go inside because it operates under an erratic and mysterious schedule, as do many attractions in the city.  It’s a free attraction, allowing 75 visitors at a time, supposedly open from 8:30-3 PM (except for Mondays) with exhibits that give an overview of the city.  You’ll soon realize that given timetables in Greece are more guidelines than anything- throughout the day, I lucked out with my timing and actually could go into the visitor’s information booth at Aristotle Square and the rotunda, but they were closed an hour or so later, even mid-day, for no good reason (except someone probably wanted a coffee break).  From a stone’s throw away from the white tower, you can also catch a free harbor cruise, which depart periodically throughout the day.

Local Markets/Commercial Hubs

From the harbor, walk along the seaside path up to Aristotle Square, one of the central hubs of the city and the location of the tourist info booth (which probably won’t be open).  The Electro Palace is one of the city’s fanciest hotels and even if you’re not staying there, you can splurge on a coffee or a cocktail to enjoy amazing views from their top-floor terrace.

Alternatively, you could keep walking all the way to the port.  On your righthand side, there’s a really neat old-market area that I wish I had more time to explore.  Ladadika translates as “shops that sell oil products” and it used to be the central city market until it was destroyed by a fire.  Now it’s filled with cute tavernas, coffee shops and bars and a hot-spot for night-life and entertainment.

Traditional Greek cafe, getting ready to serve me some delicious bougatsa... they sprinkle it with powered sugar and cinnamon

Traditional Greek cafe, getting ready to serve me some delicious bougatsa… they sprinkle it with powered sugar and cinnamon

Speaking of markets, right near Aristotle Square on Egnatia Street, you can experience some of Greece’s modern markets.  You can find vegetables, fresh fish, flowers shops and  cheap clothes but also an assortment of artisan crafts: woodwork, fine jewelry and metal products.  It’s a good stop if you’re looking for hand-crafted souvenirs from a traditionally run market with a more contemporary twist.  It’s also a good area for street food.  See if you can find bougatsa, a cheese or cream-filled pastry of Turkish origin that this area is famous for (it’s one of the things about Thessaloniki who my friend who studied here misses the most!).

Remnants of the patron saint of Thessaloniki at  Hagios Demetrios

Remnants of the patron saint of Thessaloniki at Hagios Demetrios

From there, I wandered through grassy plazas, past ruins of an old Roman Forum, to Hagos Demetrios, one of the city’s many (but largest) church.  This UNESCO site dates back to the Byzantine empire and supposedly holds the remains of Saint Demetrius, the city’s patron saint.  As a Catholic, I knew a little about the Greek Orthodox religion but I could tell this was a different kind of church than I was used to.  Silver caskets were scattered around the perimeter, holding sacred relics which people kissed and left notes on scraps of papers.  Flickering candles illuminated shimmery gold leaf mosaics of saints.  The altar itself contained elaborate carved chairs for an army of priests.  A Greek Orthodox friend of mine described their masses as very sensual, and with the candles, incense and visitors who prostrated themselves in front of an abundance of shiny objects, I could see why.  Around the church especially, you’ll see a variety of shops selling mosaics, Byzantine art, ornate silver chandeliers and other religious paraphernalia… if you’re looking for a priestly velvet cloak and a scepter, you’ve come to the right place!

Arch of Galerius- one of the main meeting points in the city, especially for college students

Arch of Galerius- one of the main meeting points in the city, especially for college students

From the church, I suggest you head back down to Egnatia road, the city’s main strip of stores, to wander over to the Rotunda and Arch of Galerius.  In addition to being quick and easy sites to see, university students meet up here before choosing from a host of affordable bars and restaurants.  Here, I met up with my couch surfing, Penny, an adorable architecture student from Aristotle University.  I opted for a simple Greek salad but the fresh greens, simple oil-vinegar dressing and incredible slightly-salty cheese made it infinitely better than any American knock-off.

Katie and Penny enjoying a simple (but delicious!) Greek meal.  Greeks always need crusty bread as an accompaniment to soak up any remaining sauces

Katie and Penny enjoying a simple (but delicious!) Greek meal. Greeks always need crusty bread as an accompaniment to soak up any remaining sauces

Once refueled, a good place to end your walking tour is with a 20-minute uphill climb to the city castle.  The castle doesn’t contain a museum or anything… just a few tourist shops and cafes.  However, it provides a spectacular view of the city and the coastline.  It’s also fascinating to walk through the neighborhoods and glimpse everyday life, since people have built homes on both sides of the walls.

Before leaving Thessaloniki…

Before leaving the city, make sure you indulge in some al fresco socialization.  Spend some time in the cafes by the seaside path.  In many, a 3 euro coffee comes with a platter of cookies/sweet bread/ other kinds of treats (it’s the cafe version of tapas!  I love it!).  The Greeks are used to lingering over their frappes for hours and the atmosphere of these establishments facilitate getting cozy.

Greeks are very social creatures so they love to meet up at nighttime to grab a beer or share a table full of mezzes (appetizers) at a Taverna.  When I met up with Penny, she was sitting with one friend at a bar by the Rotunda.  That didn’t last long… university friends would walk by, stop to exchange greetings and kisses then decide to stay awhile and before we knew it, we had a table of almost a dozen people, sticking around for 5 hours. Suddenly it’s 2 in the morning and you’re in animated conversation about Mormons and soul music. Good times!  I’m usually a productive person but there’s something in the air in Greece that makes you want to slow down and enjoy life. It may not help their financial situation but it does the heart good!

Song of the Moment: Λαδαδικα – Μητροπανος & Τερζης– a song about Ladadika, an area I visited by the port, back when it was Thessaloniki’s red light district

If YOU want to come to Greece: Greece is part of the European Union so Americas don’t need a visa to enter and they use the euro. From the airport, bus 78 will take you to the city center cheaply and quickly (0.80 euro). Buses aren’t always on time but affordable, frequent and bus stops are well labeled. Fortunately, once you’re downtown, the city is very easy to navigate and the main attractions are all within a 15 minute walk. English isn’t too widespread but everything is relatively straightforward. Definitely try the bougatsa, a cream/cheese-filled pastry that the city is famous for.

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