1. Aristotelous Square
City breaks in Thessaloniki are best begun at this square on the waterfront, boasting some of the city’s most beautiful buildings and sights, not least the open expanse of the Thermaikos Gulf. Take your pick of al fresco restaurants and bars to enjoy the atmosphere, or head up to the roof terrace at the Electra Palace Hotel for a coffee with a view.
2. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki
Named after the half-sister of Alexander the Great, Thessaloniki was once part of the powerful kingdom of Ancient Macedonia and as you might expect, has a fascinating story behind it. Learn more at this comprehensive museum, split into seven eras from prehistoric to the early Christian period (around 300AD) and arranged chronologically from bottom floor to top. There are both antiquities to marvel at, and modern multimedia exhibits to provide context and you’ll find great insights into a city at the height of its significance during the Hellenistic period and later as a Roman metropolis.
3. Eat koulouri
Breakfast on the go like a proper local – koulouri is just the thing to set you up for another day touring Thessaloniki attractions. Stalls on many a street corner sell these pretzel-like sesame dough rings, which were allegedly invented in the city. A bready bargain at an average of 60¢ a pop. Get there early at Koukos on Vogatsikou to try their freshly-baked version. Fan of street food? Take a look at these tasty – and sometimes terrifying – treats from 12 top foodie destinations around the world.
4. Arch of Galerius and Rotunda
These original Roman structures from the time of Emperor Galerius (fourth century AD) originally formed part of the same grand complex. Look out for hand-carved battle scenes on the pillars of the Arch, depicting events from the Persian campaign of 298 AD. The Rotunda is an impressively stout building which has been a Roman temple, a Christian house of worship and a mosque in its time, as well as surviving several earthquakes with its beautiful mosaics and 30m-high dome intact.
5. Ano Poli & Heptapyrgion
Ano Poli, or the Upper Town is sweaty to get to (get the 23 bus to save time on a short break in Thessaloniki), but this is the most atmospheric, if confusing, portion of the city, largely undamaged by the great fire of 1917. Up here you can amble amid Ottoman alleyways, and climb the stairs following the old city walls up to the Heptapyrgion, a run-down but evocative Venetian fortress. It once formed the main citadel, or Acropolis of Thessaloniki, during the medieval period, and more recently, served as a prison until 1988.
Opening times: (Heptapyrgion) 8am – 3pm most days
Location: Thessaloniki 546 34
6. Vlatadon Monastery
Spend a little longer in Ano Poli to take in one of Thessaloniki’s most tranquil attractions. Today only the chancery of the original fourteenth century Vlatadon Monstery remains, but this was once the same site where St Paul preached in AD51. Inside you can still see Byzantine frescoes, though arguably the finest sight is the panorama of the city you can see from here, stretching all the way to Mount Olympus on a fine day.
Opening times: 7.30am – 5pm & 5.30 – 8pm, museum 10am – noon Sun
Location: Corner Eptapyrgiou & Agathangelou
7. Hagia Sophia
One of the oldest Byzantine churches in Thessaloniki, this domed basilica has weathered all kinds of social and political upheaval, from the Iconoclastic wars to the Crusades to Ottoman rule, and was restored after the 1917 fire. Hagia Sophia is somewhat more impressive inside than out, revealing gorgeous wall-to-wall decoration in the form of mosaics and paintings dating back as far as the eleventh century.
8. Navarinou Square
Thessaloniki has the largest student population in Greece and a lively vibe as a result. Young people – as well as street artists, buskers and people-watchers of all ages – like to hang out on pedestrianised Dimitriou Gounari, or in Navarinou Square, at the heart of the thoroughfare and home to the ruins of the Galerius Palace. While you’re in the neighbourhood, nip down to Elenidis, a no-frills bakery serving the city’s best trigona panoramatos – cream-filled triangles of tooth-decaying sweetness.
If a toga-wrapped ancient philosopher time-travelled to modern Thessaloniki they would surely choose to booze here. Open until the early hours, Loxias (Isavron 5) is a cafe-bar with a literary edge: its walls are lined with bookshelves, its tables full of intellectual types debating over beer and tsipouro (grape brandy). Try to bag the table on the balcony which hovers right over Roman ruins.
10. White Tower of Thessaloniki
The solid, stocky White Tower guards the waterfront as it has done for more than 600 years and is the most recognisable symbol of Thessaloniki. Built by the Ottomans, the 34m tall turret once punctuated a protective sea wall. It also served as a prison where thousands of rebels were slaughtered; at that time, it was known as the Red Tower. It’s not so bloody now – there’s a museum inside and good views from the top out into the Aegean Sea.
Opening times: Tues to Sun 8.30am – 3pm
Location: Coastal Avenue
Price: Adults €3, Concessions €2
11. Walk the waterfront
The centre of slope-stacked Thessaloniki slides down to the Thermaic Gulf and the point where land meets sea used to be pretty tatty. But in late 2013 a regenerated waterfront reopened: 5km of spruced up shoreline, freshly paved for walkers and cyclists, interspersed with alfresco art and backed by a series of thematic parks. It’s the place to prom of a summer’s evening – and in winter too, if you can brave the chill vardaris wind.
12. Modiano & Kapani markets
These two clusters of commerce virtually segue into each other, located in the middle of the city near Aristotelous Plaza. Between them, they purvey the very best produce from Thessaloniki: fish fresh off the boats, creamy cheeses, olives of all sorts and sizes and piles of herbs and spices. Small tavernas and bars line the edges serving thick coffee and breakfast bougatsa (filo pastry filled with semolina cream).
It’s about 25km from Thessaloniki to Epanomi Beach – a short bus ride or a doable cycle, using that regenerated waterfront for good measure. That’s just 25km to swap the car-honk and city bluster for a Blue Flag sandy beach, turquoise seas and a cheery strip of cafes and bars. There’s also a shipwreck just off shore, and the area is abundant with birdlife. A low-key holiday spot loved just as much by locals as visitors. Want more sun-drenched beaches? Check out 20 beautiful Greek Islands you must visit while you’re here.
14. The Mind Trap
Remember the Crystal Maze? This is your chance to be in it (though, alas, with no bald-pated Richard O’Brien to turn up the tension). Mind Trap purports to be ‘the largest escape room in Europe’. Take the cranky lift up to a floor of deep-red walls and secretive doors to test your mettle against the fiendishly tricksy tests within: solve riddles, break locks and perform increasingly tough tasks to win your way out. There are several different rooms, including horror-themed rooms which involve live actors, and all designed are for 2 – 6 players.
Opening times: Varies – you’ll need to book a slot in advance
Location: Komninon 18 & Tsimiski
Price: €9-12 (depending on number of players)