Ultimate Guide to 2 Days in Thessaloniki, Greece

Written by Teresa Bitler

April 16, 2024
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Thessaloniki, Greece, has ancient sites and museums that rival Athens. Here’s how to make the most of your 2-day visit to Thessaloniki.

The port city of Thessaloniki sits on the Aegean Sea in northern Greece. As the second largest city in the country, it rivals Athens for its museums and historic sites but is often overlooked in favor of the southern tourist attractions and the Greek islands.

For visitors who want an authentic Greek experience in a large metropolitan area, Thessaloniki won’t disappoint. This guide to the ultimate two days in Thessaloniki will show you how to best use your time in this historic city.

Historical Sights in Thessaloniki

Founded in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon (and named for his wife, the half-sister of Alexander the Great), Thessaloniki dates back to 315 BC. After the fall of Macedon, the Romans occupied it, followed by the Byzantines. The Ottomans took over when the Byzantine Empire crumbled, and the Greek army kicked them out in 1912.

Thessaloniki buildings

Much of Thessaloniki was rebuilt following a fire in 1917. Photo by Teresa Bitler

A few years later, in 1917, a catastrophic fire destroyed most of the city. Although much of Thessaloniki appears “new,” you walk on centuries of history as you move about the city.

Roman Forum (Ancient Agora)

Constructed by the Romans in the first century, the Roman Forum (also referred to as the Ancient Agora) was the center of public life in ancient Thessaloniki. You can see it from the sidewalk or, for a few Euros, stroll the forum’s cobblestone streets and enter a small, underground museum. A combined ticket allows admission to several museums, including the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

Roman Forum was the center of Thessaloniki

The Roman Forum was the center of Thessaloniki in the first century. Photo by Teresa Bitler

The Arch and Palace of Galerius

At the intersection of Egnatia and Dimitriou Gounari streets, the Arch of Galerius memorializes the Roman emperor Galerius and leads to the palace he commissioned. You can get an overview of the palace from the sidewalk or pay to walk among its ruins, just as you could at the Roman Forum. Inside the palace grounds, the Arched Hall displays exhibits of the palace, the arch, and the nearby rotunda.

The White Tower

Once a prison, the White Tower was first called the Red Tower after an Ottoman sultan had all the prisoners inside slaughtered. The bloodshed stained the tower’s walls red, according to legend. However, decades later, another prisoner allegedly whitewashed the walls in exchange for his life, and the name changed to the White Tower.

Today, the White Tower houses an excellent museum on Thessaloniki, and it is worth climbing to the top for incredible city views.

White Tower

The White Tower houses a museum with exhibits on the city’s history. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki

One of the largest archaeological museums in Greece, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki has an extensive collection of artifacts from in and around Thessaloniki. On display are pottery, statues, mosaics, and the largest collection of gold wreaths in the world. An outdoor display contains sarcophagi and altars from the city’s early cemeteries.

Other Museums

Thessaloniki has several other excellent museums. Not far from the Archaeological Museum is the Museum of Byzantine Culture, which has more than 46,000 Byzantine artifacts displayed in 11 galleries. The War Museum of Thessaloniki explores the city’s role in modern warfare, including its time during World War I when Allied troops were stationed there.

The small Museum of the Macedonian Struggle tells of the area’s efforts to rid itself of the Ottomans and become part of Greece. Finally, the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki honors the city’s Jewish community, the majority of which was systematically sent to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen to die.

Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki

The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki is one of the largest museums in Greece. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Cultural Sights in Thessaloniki

As a major port city, Thessaloniki attracted people from around the world. Their cultural influences can be felt throughout the city, from Byzantine churches to the latest Italian fashions worn by business people on their way to work. Here are a few must-see cultural sights.

Agia Sofia Church

Built on the ruins of a 7th-century church, the Agia Sofia served as the city’s “Great Church” until 1524, when the Ottomans converted it to a mosque. It reverted to a Christian church in 1912 when the Greeks gained control of Thessaloniki. Today, it stands as an example of classic Byzantine architecture. Inside, you can view its painted ceilings and 1,200-year-old mosaics.

Antique Byzantine Orthodox Hagia Sophia Cathedral in the center of city of Thessaloniki, Central Macedonia, Greece

Agia Sofia Cathedral in Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo by sjhaytov via iStock by Getty Images

Markets

Thessaloniki has several markets where you can purchase authentic products, like olives and souvenirs. The Kapani (Vlali) Market sells produce, fish, cheese, meat, bakery items, and other food products, with some stalls selling flea market items. For more artisanal products, visit the nearby Modiano Market in a historic, 100-year-old building. The Bezestini Market specializes in textiles and flowers.

Olives for sale in the market

Thessaloniki has several good markets where you can purchase items like fresh olives. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Statues

You’ll find significant statues throughout the city, but two stand out. The first is the Statue of Aristotle, located in Aristotleous Square. The statue itself isn’t all that impressive, but the square hosts festivals and serves as a good meeting place in the city. However, the Monument of Alexander the Great makes a dramatic statement against the backdrop of the Aegean Sea. It’s a must for an Instagram or Facebook post.

Boat Tour

It sounds a little cheesy, but a boat tour of Thessaloniki is fun and offers excellent city views from the water. I took a short cruise on a Jamaican-themed boat near the White Tower, but you can also sail on a pirate ship or book a private tour. You may need tickets in advance during the summer, which is high season for Greece. I purchased tickets at the dock with no problem in October.

Monument to Alexander the Great

The Monument to Alexander the Great sits along the shore of the Aegean Sea. Photo by Teresa Bitler

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How to Explore Thessaloniki

Most flights to Greece from the United States arrive at Athens International Airport (AIA), even though Thessaloniki has its own airport. From Athens, you can take a direct flight to Thessaloniki Airport (SKG) or rent a car and drive to Thessaloniki (about 4.5 hours). You can also take the train (35€ or about $37 each way).

Once in Thessaloniki, you can get to most of the sights mentioned above by foot if you stay near Aristotleous Square. When you don’t feel like walking, taxis are an inexpensive way to get around.

Palace of Galerius surrounded by modern buildings

It’s common to see ruins, like the Palace of Galerius, surrounded by modern buildings. Photo by Teresa Bitler

I recommend visiting Thessaloniki in May, June, September, or October since the summer can be sweltering. European families also tend to vacation during the summer, so you will more likely encounter crowds.

If you’re like me, two days in Thessaloniki is not nearly enough. This city is one you’ll want to explore and savor leisurely. This ultimate guide to Thessaloniki will help you make the most of your time there. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more to do when visiting Greece.

Written by Teresa Bitler

Teresa Bitler is an award-winning travel writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, American Way, Wine Enthusiast, and AAA publications. She’s also the author of two guidebooks (Great Escapes Arizona and Backroads and Byways of Indian Country) and a contributor to Fodors Arizona & The Grand Canyon. While Teresa would never miss a must-see attraction, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York City, her favorite travel experiences are the unexpected ones: KoolAid with a Hopi medicine man, lobster prepared by a local on a Belizean beach, or a ride in a World War II-era bomber.

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