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Thessaloniki, the Ouzeri Capital of Greece

My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.

The promenade of Thessaloniki during sunset.

The promenade of Thessaloniki during sunset.

Thessaloniki in a Nutshell

Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece and is near and dear to my heart. Not only do I still have family there, but it is the region of Greece where my father came from. He was from a village named Malakasi in the Pindus Mountains. When my father left Greece to immigrate to the United States, I am told he crossed through the Pindus Mountains on his journey.

Let's go over some general information on Thessaloniki, a brief history, some demographics, etc., and then on to the essential things to see and do once you are there.

Some History of Thessaloniki

The city was founded in 315 BC and with over one million residents in the metropolitan area, Thessaloniki is considered the cultural capital of Greece, hosting several vibrant festivals annually. Over the years, Thessaloniki has received some important recognitions. In 2013, National Geographic placed Thessaloniki among its top tourist destinations worldwide, in 2014 Financial Times, FDI magazine declared Thessaloniki as the best mid-sized European city of the future, and in 2014 it was selected as the European Youth Capital. Thessaloniki is also a very popular destination for many street photographers. In 1997, it was named The European Capital of Culture by the European Union.

Education Sector and Age Demographics

Throughout Thessaloniki, the 42 universities, colleges, and advanced educational facilities offer some 250 programs for students. It's no wonder there is a huge population of youth here. The younger demographic gives way to making this a vibrant city with the country’s best nightlife. This past summer, I spent some time in Thessaloniki and was amazed at the number of young people who were at the bars and restaurants. I’m told the crowds were “light” since schools were out for the summer.

Beautiful sunset in Thessaloniki

Beautiful sunset in Thessaloniki

A Few More Historical Facts

The Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 started as an accidental kitchen fire, destroying many homes, churches, and mosques while leaving over 250,000 people homeless and over 70% of the population unemployed. Suffice it to say, that the city center was all but destroyed.

The government of the time decided to slowly rebuild and plan an urban renewal similar to that of other European countries. The plan that emerged took population growth into consideration and the streets were designed in a grid fashion. Room was made for large public buildings and plans were made to rebuild the churches and mosques that had been destroyed. The street system, to this day, is still very efficient!

The Port—an Important Aspect of the Economy

The Port of Thessaloniki is one of the largest in the Aegean Sea. It is considered the second most important commercial port in Greece. Over the last ten years, it has been added to many cruise ship itineraries. In fact, in 2017, it was one of the ports on an Eastern Mediterranean cruise I was on.

Monument of Alexander the Great

Monument of Alexander the Great

My Time in Thessaloniki

I’ve been to Thessaloniki several times; I've been not only as a solo traveler but as part of a couple and part of a tour. It never disappoints. There is something to do for every category of interest, age group, price point, and activity level. My visits have been in spring, summer, and autumn. I have not had the opportunity to visit during the winter months, but my family tells me it does get cold and snows a couple of times per season.

This past summer when I was visiting, we did, however, get very lost looking for the hotel—and not just a little lost, very lost. We were in a rental car and ended up paying a taxi driver to let us follow him to the hotel! The memories you make on trips are priceless! The taxi driver refused to take our money after having a big laugh with us. We call that “philotimia,” brotherhood, love of people, or goodwill.

Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments of Thessalonika

Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments of Thessalonika

 Arch of Galerius

Arch of Galerius

Things to See and Do

The city center is in the core area of Thessaloniki and is inside the Byzantine walls, forming the oldest part of the city. Interestingly enough, this area was not destroyed during the Great Fire of 1917. It is here where you will find the touristy sites, though they might be better described as antiquities.

As mentioned above, when the city was rebuilt following the fire, the streets were set up in a grid-like fashion with all roads running parallel or perpendicular to the sea. If you're not familiar with the city, a rule I have heard over and over again is, "if a road runs downhill, it will lead you to the sea." That should be easy enough to remember!

Like many cities in Europe which are built on the sea, Thessaloniki has a pedestrian promenade that is always a hive of activity. Thessaloniki’s promenade is six kilometers long. The city’s famous White Tower sits where the old promenade meets the new. Walking in this area gives you a chance to hop on sightseeing tour boats and sunset cruises. You will also come across vendors, families strolling, and bicyclists. In this area, there are also many green areas, 13 themed gardens, and play areas for the kids. In my opinion, one could spend a whole evening here and never get bored.

The Promenade of Thessaloniki is six kilometers long. The White Tower can be seen in the background.

The Promenade of Thessaloniki is six kilometers long. The White Tower can be seen in the background.

The Culture of Ouzeri

Ouzeri is a cultural term that refers to the meeting over meze that is then washed/chased down with ouzo, tsipouro, and retsina from the barrel. This is a time-honored tradition in Thessaloniki.

Meze (translated as “taste”) are small plates served as appetizers in Greece that typically consist of cheeses, fish, olives, peppers, and/or grilled eggplant. They are served at Ouzeri as snacks while socializing. Think of meze as the peanuts and chips that are served with cocktails in the United States.

All over Thessaloniki, you will find Ouzeri, which are basically taverns that specialize in meze. This social activity is for young and old alike, natives and foreigners—really for anyone who likes to have cocktails and great food which then turn into the evening’s entertainment!

The White Tower

The White Tower

The White Tower

The White Tower

The White Tower

The Tower is formerly a prison and the site of numerous mass executions. It is now the symbol of Thessaloniki. Originally built as a fortification by the Ottomans, it has undergone many changes over the centuries. Today, it stands proudly at the sea. It houses a museum with both permanent and temporary exhibitions depicting the history of the region.

Until the end of the 19th century, the tower was known as “the Red Tower” or the “Tower of Blood” because of the bloodstained walls that resulted from mass executions and other horrific acts of violence. The whitewashed tower we in pictures came to be in the late 1880s–90s. The whitewashing is meant to be a symbol of cleansing and to rid the horrible reputation the tower had earned through the years. It remains whitewashed today.

The Byzantine Walls and other Byzantine Historical Sites

Portions of the western walls and the city walls which fall at the most northern parts of the city are still standing. Of these protective enclosures, the White Tower is the only tower left standing.

There are many Byzantine churches to visit as well, all of which were built between the 5th and 14th centuries. In 1988, Agios Demetrius and Agios Sophia, which were built in the 7th and 9th centuries respectively, were added as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Also, Make Sure to See . . .

  • The Turkish Public Bathhouse,
  • Bey Haman and the Bezesteni, a former Ottoman market of precious metals and jewelry,
  • The Alatza Imaret, an old Ottoman home for impoverished people, and
  • Hamza Bey Camii, which was restored and is used today for exhibitions.

Museums of Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki has a rich and interesting history dating back to its founding in 315 BC. It has all the makings of a great book or movie! There are notable biblical implications as well as wars, hostile takeovers, financial scandals, and most importantly—survival. To capture this fascinating history, there are some fantastic museums. The list is as follows:

  • Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum. This covers the history of Macedon from prehistory to Roman times.
  • Museum of Byzantine Culture. An award-winning museum that took the Council of Europe's 2005s prize for best Museum of Europe.
  • The museum at the White Tower (discussed above).
  • Thessaloniki Science Center and Technology Museum. It offers a 150-seat digital planetarium, a 300-seat Cosmotheatre with the largest flat screen in Greece, a 200-seat amphitheater, as well as a motion simulator theater with three platforms.
  • Atatürk House. The house where Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern-day Turkey, was born.
  • Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art
  • The Teloglion Foundation of Art which is related to sports.
  • Museum at Aghios Demetrios. St. Demetrios, a native of Thessaloniki, is the city’s patron saint. This church was first built in the 5th century AD and is dedicated to St. Demetrios.
  • State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki
  • Thessaloniki Museum of Photography
  • Museum of Cinematography in Thessaloniki
  • Folklore and Ethnological Museum of Macedonia and Thrace
  • Municipal Gallery of Art
Shopping in Thessaloniki

Shopping in Thessaloniki

Dining in Thessaloniki

Dining in Thessaloniki

Shopping

Thessaloniki is renowned for its major shopping streets. I promise the shopping does not disappoint! Tsimiski Street and Proxenou Koromila avenue are the city's most prominent streets for partaking. On those streets, you can find a plethora of international brands, boutiques, and high-end international department stores. For a less expensive shopping experience try Egnatia street. Trust me, major credit cards are accepted! I could spend days shopping in Thessaloniki, and I have.

Ouzeri Thessaloniki

Ouzeri Thessaloniki

Arrival and Departure

Getting in and out of Thessaloniki is relatively easy. There is an international airport with transportation to and from your hotel. I’ve had great experiences arriving and departing. Whether it be by air, sea, or road, Thessaloniki is easy to get to. Many busses arrive and depart Thessaloniki for other European destinations. Getting around the city is also easy, with plenty of taxis and busses available.

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Thessaloniki Pirate Ship Sunset Cruise

Thessaloniki Pirate Ship Sunset Cruise

My Impressions

As you can see, there are plenty of things to do and see in Thessaloniki, placing it in my list of my top five favorite European cities. It’s a city that is smaller, less overwhelming, and less expensive than Rome, Paris, or Athens. And, it’s a “can’t miss” for great food, vibrant nightlife, and shopping galore. Plus it is very family-friendly. I find it more of a get-away trip than a hustle-bustle trip.

Until next time friends, remember, "To Travel is To Live!"

© 2022 Dee Nicolou Serkin