Like most of my trip, my itinerary has been dictated by price. The cheapest way to get from Italy to Greece was by flying from Naples to Thessaloniki.
I had never heard of Thessaloniki before, but I knew I wanted to see a different part of Greece before meeting my mom in Athens and seeing Santorini and Mykonos with her. I debated going to another island, but the island ferries are even more expensive than some mainland flights and take much, much longer.
As I researched the city leading up to my arrival, I got pretty excited. This city in Northern Greece has consistently been ranked as one of the best vacation destinations for young people. In 1997 it was nominated as the Cultural Capital of Europe and in 2014, it was named the European Youth Capital. Thessaloniki is known for its modern cafes, unique pastries, and vibrant nightlife. It’s also one of the most historical cities in the region. It was a major hub connecting Europe to Asia. During the Roman and Greek empires, it was a capital city and then became the second largest city behind Constantinople during the Byzantine era. Even though a fire destroyed the city in 1917, it was rebuilt and even though the city now has modern high rises, there are still ruins scattered between the streets!
I had a Couchsurfing host lined up who had great reviews. Apparently he picks up visitors directly from the airport and his mom makes them home cooked meals! How could I pass that up? Unfortunately a week before I was due to arrive, my host cancelled. Luckily Thessaloniki has plenty of young people who are active hosts on Couchsurfing. I messaged a woman my age named Katrina. She immediately replied saying she was out of town during that time, but I was more than welcome to use her empty apartment for free!
It sounded too good to be true. Who would let a total stranger into their home unattended? I decided to see how far this would go! Katrina explained that she would leave the keys with the cashier at the 24-hour store downstairs.
My flight was uneventful and I arrived in Thessaloniki around 9pm. I caught the bus from the airport and immediately fell in love with the city. The streets were so alive! Even though it was late on a Thursday, people were out enjoying coffee with friends. Everyone was dressed up with their makeup done perfectly. There were modern cafes with creative branding and design everywhere! It felt like I was back in Auckland where the vibe of the city was upscale and posh.
I was still weary about the apartment situation. I didn’t have a backup plan! But I easily got the keys and discovered that I was staying in a 5th floor unit overlooking a busy street near the university. It was in the heart of the city!
In the morning, I enjoyed some coffee on the balcony before heading to join the free walking tour. Since I didn’t know much about Thessaloniki, I figured it was a great way to find out. The tour group had several others from Europe and Cyprus, but I was the only American.
Our guide, Yannis, told us stories about the haunted buildings and showed us the old Roman agora. I’m not the biggest history buff, but I loved hearing about the urban development of the city. I had been wondering why there wasn’t a metro system for such a modern city. Apparently officials keep trying to get one built, but each time they start digging, they find ruins or run out of money! Yannis joked about how mismanaging money is in Greek DNA.
He also explained why the city is made of ugly apartment buildings with no design aesthetic. Back in the day, the city was desperate for land. They agreed to give free housing to anyone who would sell them land. As a result, numerous apartment buildings had to be constructed quickly and cheaply.
During the tour, we went inside the Church of Saint Demetrios. As legend goes, he was a Christian who was imprisoned for preaching his religion during a time when Thessaloniki was ruled by pagans. They kept him in an old Roman bathhouse. During the gladiatorial games, a young warrior beat all of the more experienced gladiators and credited his victory to the Christian teachings of Demetrios. The king had no choice but to execute them both. After Demetrios’ death, they realized his body didn’t emit a foul odor like other humans, but it smelled like flowers. They created an elixir from his remains that healed the sick and wounded. As a result, they hailed him as a saint and many worshippers come to the church (located above the bath house in which Demetrios was imprisoned) to pay their respects.
After the walking tour, I went to the grocery to get food to meal prep. Eating out used to be my favorite part of traveling, but it’s not as much fun when you’re alone! And the language barrier makes the process very exhausting. I’ve mistakenly ordered the wrong thing more than once! Plus it saves money. Unless I only ate street food (yummy but unhealthy!) then I’d be spending 20-30€ per day on food. Instead, I got four days worth of food for 17€!
Usually grocery shopping is my favorite activity. Sometimes I explore supermarkets in foreign countries even if I don’t buy something. It’s so interesting and there are always new and unique foods. But there’s definitely a learning curve. In Italy, I had to get used to printing off produce codes myself instead of having the cashier do it like in America. But Greece has definitely been the toughest country to shop in. Nothing was in English! Usually labels at least have a brief English description… but not in Greece! And there was no pre-packaged meat. I’m not talking about hot dogs or lunchmeat. There’s no ground beef or chicken breasts to pick from. You have to order from the butcher directly. I love this concept, but it’s hard when the butcher doesn’t speak English and I can’t point and grunt.
I ended up buying frozen meatballs to make a Greek vegetable soup. For lunch, I got smoked sardines to eat with eggs (unrefrigerated of course!) and steamed broccoli. I made it work without fresh meat!
The next day, I wanted to see the waterfront. Our tour had covered the interior of the city, but Greece is known for being on water! The entire city is shaped like a horseshoe around the bay. There’s a long seaside sidewalk that runs the entire distance and it seemed to be a popular activity to take a stroll. It was only 75 degrees, but the sun was STRONG. I was sweating just walking!
I stopped by a cafe to get a coffee and people watch. It was hard to find a spot! The restaurants and cafes had people packed in like sardines. The drink of choice in Greece is a “Freddo espresso.” It is essentially black espresso that is shaken with ice, creating a foam on top. You can also get a “Freddo cappuccino” that has milk and a much thicker layer of foam. I tried both and preferred the espresso.
See the ruins in the background? It used to be the palace of Emperor Galerius. My favorite cafe overlooks this historical site and and really makes you think about how even the powerful fall someday.
The majority of my trip was spent cafe hopping! The weather was gorgeous and, unlike Italy, it is Greek custom to spend hours relaxing at a cafe. I even verified with Yannis and he said Greeks are much more leisurely than Italians. I also used cafes for their WiFi! The only downside of my free apartment was that it doesn’t have any. I ended up downloading episodes from the Netflix app and watching them on my phone in the apartment during downtime.
The only confusing part of cafe culture is how they deliver the bill. Usually coffee is served with a cookie (all cafes use the same cookie company so they’re bland and prepackaged, unlike in Amsterdam where you get freshly baked cookies) and a glass of water. This seems like an invitation to enjoy a leisurely snack, but the bill is also given at the same time as the coffee! I suppose it is so you can pay whenever you’re ready, but it also prohibits ordering anything else. I also had a bad experience at a cafe where the waitress (after only 15 mins) asked if I was ready to pay. I said I wasn’t finished and she said, “Ok well you pay now anyway?” Maybe she was getting off of her shift, but I felt rushed and not at all welcomed!
During one afternoon at a cafe, my host texted me. She said she realized she had forgotten to return a library book and asked if I could please drop it off. I wasn’t doing anything else so I said sure! It was a fun adventure to go to the local library. There should be a website or app that lets travelers run errands for locals. It’s a great way to see the city! Otherwise, I loved wandering through the waterfront parks. There are so many! My favorite was the area around the White Tower – perhaps Thessaloniki’s most iconic landmark. The Ottomans constructed it as a fortress to protect the harbor but it was also used as a place for executions.
In true Katie fashion, I scheduled myself too much time in Thessaloniki. It’s known for being a party city, but since partying isn’t a priority on this trip, there wasn’t much to do once I had seen all of the historical sights and tried the local coffee. I tried to connect with other travelers, but there weren’t any Couchsurfing meetups. Thessaloniki reminds me a lot of Portland – it’s a vibrant, youthful city with a great quality of life and amazing restaurants and bars, but otherwise not a whole lot to see or do.
I am on my way to Athens to meet my mom. We have about two days to explore the city. It’ll be interesting to see if that is the perfect amount of time. It doesn’t seem like much, but you can do a lot in 48 hours!