Taking the train to Thessaloniki? Give the city a few hours and it will win your heart.
A little bit European, a little bit Mediterranean, a little bit Balkan - Thessaloniki has always been a hub of politics, history, religion, commerce, and transportation for the region. As Greece's second largest city and northern hub, Thessaloniki has been a critical port for centuries, even millennia. And as Greece slowly reestablishes its international rail routes, it now seems that all trains, ships, and even boats and planes lead into Thessaloniki.
But in spite of all the international travelers that pass through its train station (and airport, bus station, or port), few are making the most of their layover and taking the time to explore the city. Few travelers take the time to leave the station and explore the city -and it's time that changed.
Maybe there's not many visitors because Thessaloniki - like so many port cities - can make a bit of a gritty first impression. But in just an hour or two, you can see so much beauty and it's well worth putting your bag in a locker and hitting the streets to explore. And if you can spare a full day, you'll find Thessaloniki will easily win your heart.
2 hours or less: Check out Europe's longest boardwalk.
If you're tight on time and have just a few hours to spare, stash your bag at the train station lockers and walk the short distance to the Thessaloniki waterfront. There you'll find the city's famous White Tower, but I think it's much more interesting to walk along the newly refurbished boardwalk - the longest in all of Europe. The ancient tower, the tiny fishing boats, the seaside cafes, the graffiti covered apartment buildings, the distant skyline of the industrial port - this is Thessaloniki in a nutshell. A walk along the water is the perfect way to recharge after a long train ride.
4 hours: Explore the markets.
Thessaloniki is justifiably proud of its diverse food scene, which has strong Italian and Balkan influences. The adjacent Modiano and Kapani markets offer great sightseeing, people watching, and eating experiences. There are shops and stalls for produce, meat, fish, cheese, spices, olives, herbs, teas, flowers, drinks, and more. There's also lots of little tavernas and bars where you can grab a quick bite. The markets are a great place to visit and stock up on goodies before carrying on with your international train trip.
6 hours: Add in some ruins.
If you have half a day to spend in Thessaloniki, combine a visit to the markets with a tour of the city's ancient ruins. Thessaloniki has the world's largest number of UNESCO Byzantine monuments in the world and a large amount of Roman ruins as well. Thessaloniki Walking Tours does fantastic English speaking guided tours of both the markets and the city's historical sites and you can combine both in a private tour. Their guidance was invaluable for me, as Greek and Roman history isn't my strong suit, and their information put everything into context for me.
A full day: See the city's creative side.
Thessaloniki was hit especially hard by the Greek economic crisis and, as a university city, it faced the added burden of a 'brain drain', as its best and brightest were lured away. But Thessaloniki is a city of survivors and there in an incredible youthful, creative energy that is turning things around. No where is this more evident than with Handpeak.
Handpeak is an organization to support and promote local, independent, creative businesses. You can either pick up a map (online or at the tourism board) to do your own self-guided walking tour of Handpeak businesses, or you may contact them directly to arrange a tour. I visited workshops, recording studios, photography galleries, and custom bike shops, but my favourite places were O Olive, which sells artisan olive oil from Crete alongside handcrafted jewelry. It is a place where you can get all your holiday shopping done at once! I also really loved the tiny couture fashion studio of Eleni Chasioti, who creates beautiful, vintage inspired pieces.
As a writer, I was so energized and inspired by the Handpeak businesses. It made me want to run home and make my own office more creative and beautiful and productive! There was such incredible pride in everything they did and such an amazing energy of making things happen. And as a traveler, it was a privilege to meet so many locals and see the heartfelt work that is turning around Thessaloniki's economic outlook, one beautiful bespoke piece at a time. If you ever say that you want to 'travel like a local', make a Handpeak tour a priority for your Thessaloniki visit - you won't regret it.
Take the time for Thessaloniki
I'd love to convince everyone to spend much, much more than just a few hours in Thessaloniki. It's a fantastic city and also makes a great base for exploring Northern Greece. But it's not always possible to spend as much time as you'd like in every single destination and I'm hoping that this guide will give you at least a taste of city I've grown to love. If you can arrange your train tickets so you have at least a few hours -or ideally a full day - in Thessaloniki, it will be well, well worth your time.
What's your favourite city to enjoy a layover? How were you able to make the most of your short visit?
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My visit to Thessaloniki was sponsored by the city's tourism board and Visit Greece in conjunction with the TBEX conference and we thank them for their support.