Planning that Greek Road Trip – Is Thessaloniki worth a few days?

Major cities don’t, as a rule, work well into road trip itineraries – in fact, they imply the very antithesis of the open road, lovely unexpected villages and great landscapes. Anyway, we’re setting off from Athens – so one city is definitely enough! Then there’s the location – it’s a bit of a distance from everywhere – 500kms from the capital and not a lot around it at an initial glance….

BUT – we have a few days to play around with, everyone seems to be going there on mini breaks ( I blame Ryanair!), it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are some great beaches in the region for our last few days resort treat and, finally, we can fly directly home (Ryanair of course!!) so don’t have to return to Athens.

So we go to Thessaloniki…

Location, location, location! In 315 BC, Cassander, the King of Macedonia, consolidated the population of 26 surrounding settlements within the walls of a new city, which he named after his wife, the sister of Alexander the Great. Connecting several trade routes between Europe and Asia, the city quickly became a major hub and seaport and the most important city in the whole Balkan region.

It continued to flourish as a trade, cultural and administrative centre after succumbing to Roman rule in 168 BC. It was second only to Constantinople under the Ottomans. Then of course there were the Ostrogoths, Slavs, Saracens, Normans and Franks – all wanting control of this strategic territory.

Under Ottoman rule, the Muslim population increased and, by c1500, some 8575 Muslims outnumbered the 7986 Greek inhabitants. Around this time, Spain’s Edict of Expulsion demanded its Jewish population convert to Christianity or face torture by the Inquisition. The Ottoman emperor invited fleeing Jews to resettle in his territories and, by 1519, 15,715 Jews formed 54% of Thessaloniki’s population. Roll on to the start of the 20th century and this was the largest Jewish city in the world with some 60,000 Sepherdic Jews in residence.

The Great Fire of 1917 probably started by accident when a spark fell into a pile of straw in a house of refugees. About 1 square kilometre of the city was destroyed, including 9500 houses, 12 mosques, 16 synagogues, banks, schools and most of the newspaper printing houses. Over 50% of the city’s shops were wiped out, 70% of the workforce was suddenly unemployed and more than 70,000 residents were left homeless. It being the Jewish sabbath, the city centre was relatively empty that day so, incredibly, no fatalities were reported. Half the Jewish population, now destitute, left the city to reestablish their lives elsewhere. The Jewish population was further decimated of course, during the German Occupation of WW2.

Holocaust Memorial, Waterfront, Thessaloniki

On June, 20th, 1978, an earthquake destroyed many buildings and killed over forty people.

In 1988, the Early Christian and Byzantine sites of Thessaloniki were declared UNESCO World Heritage Monuments .


The sea has always been an integral part of the city’s history so the WATERFRONT is an obvious place to begin our tour.

The newly renovated 5km PROMENADE stretches from the port to the distinctive Ottoman WHITE TOWER and on to the concert hall….

After the Great Fire, there was no quick rebuild – rather major urban planning on what was almost a blank canvas. The downtown area was redesigned and orientated towards the sea with fine boulevards, apartment blocks, squares and parks.

Heading away from the seafront, the older streets and neighbourhoods have retained their character….

This IS Greece! So there will be plenty of churches to visit (providing a welcome escape from the heat for a while!) and some wonderful frescos and murals to admire…

The ancient walls, castles and excavated sites will keep every historian and archaeologist happy!

It’s worth a bit of huffing and puffing for the spectacular views…

And then there’s the food!

Small Stuff

Getting Around

We had 2.5 days so had time to wander at will and walk everywhere. I couldn’t do it all in one day on foot – especially in the heat (early July). The waterfront and lower town are very manageable – and if the climb to the upper walls and fortifications seems too much, there’s always the Hop-On-Hop-Off service…

Where we Stayed

We wanted somewhere central so we could walk everywhere. It had to have free parking – somewhere we could lock the car and forget about it for a few days. And we didn’t want to pay too much for the accommodation!….

Bit of a tall order in any city these days!!

URBAN DONKEY (Isn’t that a great name!!) fitted the bill. This newly renovated property offers minimalist designed rooms with fridge etc. There is free on-street parking and it’s about a 15-20 walk to the waterfront. (€144 total for 3 nights, July).

What I particularly loved……

I loved the excavated sites surrounded on all sides by the modern city…..

….and the road signs that include the etymology of street names.

Getting to the Beach…

Despite its extensive seafront, the city doesn’t have an immediate beach area – the closest being 17km from the city centre. The beaches are accessible by bus or boat…

Finally – the Verdict!

Was it worth it?

As a mini-break destination, Thessaloniki is DEFINITELY worth a visit. It’s great for a few days – there are plenty of sites, museums, walks, etc. to pass the day and the city is known for a lively night scene that caters for every age and taste.

Having said that, it’s still a city and it demanded a different mindset after spending the previous week wandering through the Peloponnese, Delphi and Meteora.

We enjoyed our few days but I was very glad it wasn’t the end of our trip – we like a few days at the end to relax – preferably at a pool or a beach and preferably in a place with absolutely no sightseeing attractions that might take me away from my book and my cocktail! Thessaloniki was Busy! Busy! Busy!

I don’t think we’d have included it if we had to drive the 500kms back to Athens. We were able to return the rental at Thessaloniki Airport and fly direct from there.


These 3 nights in Thessaloniki were part of a 17 night trip to mainland Greece which included:






Halkidiki Peninsula

18 thoughts on “Planning that Greek Road Trip – Is Thessaloniki worth a few days?

  1. This is actually where we started our long Greece trip last year, having been to Thessaloniki before and feeling we wanted to return. We did several posts about the city while we were there, because we absolutely loved the place. So much character and so many stories. It’s in my top 5 European cities, that’s for sure.

  2. Seems you found plenty to like in a city you weren’t sure you wanted to visit! The food looks delicious and the churches lovely, if nothing else 😃

    1. I knew we’d visit some day, but probably for a long weekend rather than part of a longer trip. There’s certainly plenty there for a few days….

    1. This would make for a perfect cruise stop – its not too big so at a push you’d see the highlights in a few hours with a bit of walking – or a bus tour of course. If there was enough time, it would be worth investigating a trip to Meteora – the guts of 3 hours each way I know but a wonderful experience….

  3. So glad to catch up with this one, Marie, as we were thinking of a 4-5 day trip there next spring, but maybe we should plan on spending less time there? I was attracted to it because it had a beach and i do like at least one day relaxing, but if it’s 17 klicks away then that’s a drive too far. You’ve given me a good idea of the place and what I want to do, I feel we like the same sort of travel, so this blog has been invaluable.

    1. For that length of time you’ll need either beach or even a hotel with a pool – It’s too long otherwise – you’d be exhausted. I like a beach that I can walk to and from – not having to carry the kitchen sink with me for the day! Check the flight times – If you arriving early in the day then I think one night might do – that’s pretty much 2 days sightseeing – and then move to beach for the last few nights? You’ll only have hand baggage anyway… Or 2 nights and then go to beach on 3rd day with all the sightseeing done…. If you stay in Thessaloniki for 4/5 days you should consider a day trip. Can’t remember if you’ve been to Meteora – would be a long day – circa 3 hours each way Mari and a lot of steps which mightn’t suit – but even the views from the bus etc would be gorgeous…. there’s also the other direction – the Halkidiki peninsula – that would probably be bus and then boat trip to see Mount Athos..

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