Planning a Trip
By Plane -- Thessaloniki's Macedonia International Airport, 17km/11 miles south of town, is served from Athens International Airport (tel. 210/353-0000; www.aia.gr) by Olympic Airways (tel. 210/966-6666, or 2310/368-311 in Thessaloniki; www.olympic-airways.gr); Aegean Air (tel. 210/998-8300, or 2310/239-225 in Thessaloniki; www.aegeanair.com) has flights from Athens. EasyJet sometimes serves Thessaloniki; go to www.easyjet.com. From the U.S., there are no direct flights to Thessaloniki. Connections can be made at a number of European cities, including London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Zurich, and Vienna.
The airport (tel. 2310/411-997 or 2310/473-312) is a 30-minute drive from the city center. Bus no. 78 runs into the city (usually stopping in Aristotelous Sq. and at the train station) from about 6am to 11pm and costs 1€ ($1.30). A taxi ride runs about 12€ ($16).
By Train -- Five daily express trains officially make the trip from Athens to Thessaloniki in about 6 hours, but most are extremely crowded, without air-conditioning, and subject to unexplained delays. If you must take a train, choose the fast InterCity, preferably the overnight sleeper, which has first-class compartments for four to six passengers and sleeper compartments for two to six passengers. Make reservations for sleeping compartments well in advance at the Larissa train station in Athens (tel. 210/323-6747; www.ose.gr). In Thessaloniki, you can purchase tickets at the OSE (train) station, 28 Monastiriou, the western extension of Egnatia (tel. 2310/599-068). Coach tickets Athens to Thessaloniki cost from 35€ ($46), express train service from 50€ ($65), sleeper service from 65€ ($85). A taxi ride from the station to Aristotelous Square takes about 10 minutes and costs about 6€ ($8). Avoid the trek to the train station to get information and buy tickets, and use the OSE (train) office instead, at 18 Aristotelous Sq. (tel. 2310/517-517; www.ose.gr), 9am to 9pm Tuesday to Friday; 9am to 3pm Monday and Saturday; closed Sunday.
By Bus -- Ten air-conditioned buses from Athens make the trip daily to Thessaloniki in about 7 hours (includes one 20-min. stop at a roadside restaurant with toilet facilities). Buses usually arrive on time. Make reservations in advance at the Athens bus terminal, 100 Kifissou (tel. 201/512-9233). A one-way fare costs about 35€ ($46). Many buses arrive in Thessaloniki at the station at 65 Monastiriou (tel. 2310/510-834) opposite the train station, where there are taxis. Some buses stop at the newer bus station at 194 Iannitsou (tel. 2310/595-408), west of the train station. For general information on Athens-Macedonia schedules and fares, call tel. 210/512-4910 or go to www.ktel.org.
By Car -- From Athens, take the 516km (320-mile) National Road, a four-lane highway that's the best in Greece, although stretches are always being repaired or widened, which leads to frequent delays. The road, a major truck route, is also often the scene of serious accidents. Plan on at least 6 hours, if you stop en route. Much of the drive is extremely scenic. Gas stations are common along the National Road, but you often must exit to reach them.
If you're driving from other places in Europe, you'll probably take the ferry from the Italian port of Bari, Ancona, or Brindisi to Igoumenitsou on the northwest coast of Greece, and then drive across the Pindus Mountains to Thessaloniki. The trip is spectacular; allow at least 5 hours. The southern route (via Ioannina and Kalambaka to Larissa and the National Rd.) is much less treacherous than the northern alternative (through Kozani) -- particularly in winter, although snow can close both routes. The southern route also passes Kalambaka and the monasteries perched on the awesome pinnacles of the Meteora. You will almost certainly encounter the continuing roadwork on the National Highway (called the Via Egnatia, after its Roman predecessor) designed to link Patras (in the Peloponnese) with Central Greece and on to Macedonia.
A GNTO (Greek National Tourist Organization) office is in the city center at 136 Tsimiski (tel. 2310/221-100; www.saloniki.org).
Thessaloniki rests on the northern coast of the Thermaic Gulf like a lopsided turban tilted slightly to the northwest. In its center sits the city's most famous landmark, the White Tower, the best-known remnant of the walls that once encircled the city. The great walls -- begun in antiquity and extended and expanded by the Byzantines, Venetians, and Turks -- came down as the population grew and the city expanded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To the east sprawl the ever-expanding residential districts, while to the west, situated in the area once defined by its fortresslike Byzantine walls, is the city's commercial heart.
In this latter area, bounded on the south by the harbor and on the north by the rising heights of what is called the Ano Poli (Upper City), are Thessaloniki's most important shops, banks, hotels, restaurants, archaeological remains, and churches. On its western edge are the train station, most bus terminals, many shipping docks, the Customs building, and streets lined with warehouses -- many now converted into the chic restaurants and galleries of the Ladadika district. Ladadika blurs into Ksiladika, the woodworkers' district, which is beginning to lay claim to its own chic restaurants and shops, in addition to the carpenter's workshops that originally gave the district its character. On the city center's eastern side, just north of the White Tower and outside what was once the eastern gate, are the grounds of Aristotle University, the International Trade Fair, and the Archaeological and Byzantine museums. Between the latter and the White Tower lie the Municipal Park and the State Theater of Northern Greece.
The commercial area of the city is traversed by four main streets running on an oblique angle from the southwest to the northeast. The largest, Egnatia, runs across the northern side of the commercial district. On its western end at Vardari (Dimokratias) Square, it connects with roads to the west, north, and east. On its eastern end (under the name of New Egnatia), it connects with highways to the airport and to the peninsulas of Halkidiki. In the heart of the city, Egnatia is home to discount shops, cheap hotels, and affordable restaurants. The city's second-most-important commercial route, Tsimiski, parallels Egnatia 2 blocks to the south and runs one-way from east to west. Along its tree-shaded length lie the city's most prestigious shops and department stores. One block south of Tsimiski and running one-way from west to east is Mitropoleos, so named because the Metropolitan Cathedral sits near its center. Like Tsimiski, it has a number of fine shops and boutiques. Finally, another block to the south and running along the seaside promenade is Leoforos Nikis. Also one-way from west to east, it begins at the shipping docks and ends at the White Tower. Along its length is a virtually uninterrupted line of outdoor cafes and bars.
The spacious expanse of Aristotelous Square, which borders the sea, is the heart of downtown Thessaloniki. Ringed with outdoor cafes and restaurants, it is also the backdrop for the city's major political rallies. Running north and south and connecting Aristotelous with the city's other major square, Dikasterion, is the street named Aristotelous. A number of book and record stores flank its arcaded sidewalks. Dikasterion Square overlooks the partially excavated Roman marketplace and offers welcome trees, the lovely Byzantine church Panagia Chalkeon (Virgin of the Copper Workers), and a restored Turkish bathhouse. You might find an informal market here held by Greek and other refugees from Eastern Europe. Most local buses begin and end their city runs here.
To the south of Dikasterion Square, across Egnatia and on either side of Aristotelous, are the city's main market areas, where you can find flowers, fish, sandals, and just about anything else you can think of. The city's second main north-south route, Ayias Sofias, lies to the east of Aristotelous Street. In its center, between Egnatia and Tsimiski, stands the church of St. Sofia. Look for excellent clothing stores along Ayias Sofias. Pavlou Mela runs diagonally southeast from the rear of the church to the White Tower and sports a number of fine bars and cafes; leading directly south to Tsimiski from virtually the same point are the tree-lined pedestrian walkways of Iktinou and Zevksidos, sites of several outdoor cafes and restaurants. Two blocks east of the rear of Ayias Sofias Square is Thessaloniki's major pedestrian walkway, Dimitriou Gounari. Its shop-lined length covers a major Roman thoroughfare leading down from the arch to the Palace of Galerius. The palace area, now partially excavated, opens onto the tree-shaded park of Navarino Square, which is crowded with outdoor cafes, bars, and tavernas, and second only to Aristotelous as the city's major gathering place -- although many of the artists and intellectuals who gather here would place it first.
Another 2 blocks east lies Ethnikis Aminis. While it runs one-way south from Egnatia down to the State Theater and the White Tower, it becomes a two-way street above Egnatia at Sintrivaniou (Fountain) Square (the former eastern gate of the city) and leads into winding roadways that run outside the ancient walls to the Upper City.
On the hillside leading down to Thessaloniki proper from the Upper City is the old Turkish Quarter. Called, variously, Ano Poli (Upper City), Eptapirgiou (Seven Gates), and To Kastro (Fortress) it is where some of the finest Byzantine churches -- and, increasingly, some elegant restored town houses -- are located. This is easily the most pleasant part of Thessaloniki to explore, especially the winding streets around Kalitheas Square, such as Irodotou, as well as pleasant squares such as Romfei Square, in the district known as Koule Kafe, and Tsinari Square, at the juncture of Kleious and Alexandras Papadopoulou. Severe fires in 1997 and 1998 greatly damaged the pine forest of Seih Sou on the upper hills. Although a reforestation project has begun, it will be years before new growth brings back Thessaloniki's "green lungs."
The Ring Road, just to the north of the Upper City, goes around Thessaloniki from the southwest to the southeast and connects the National Road from Athens with highways to Thrace and Halkidiki and to the airport at Mikras along the sea to the east.
Finding an Address
Because of the orderly east-west, north-south arrangement of streets, finding an address in the city center is relatively easy. Numbers begin at the eastern and southern ends of streets and go upward, with even numbers on the right and odd numbers on the left. That said, it's useful to know that most Thessalonians think of addresses in terms of the cross streets or well-known structures near them, and buildings almost never have visible numbers; ask for what you want by name, not by number.
Outside the city center, particularly north of Egnatia, finding what you want is difficult, as the streets begin to meander. Even with a good map, you'll probably have trouble, but take it, as the Greeks say, "Siga, siga" ("Slowly, slowly"), and you'll find your way.
City maps and two excellent guides to the city (The Thessaloniki Handbook [with section-by-section maps], by Christos Zafiris; and Monuments of Thessaloniki [with an excellent city-center map], by Apostolos Papagiannopoulos) are usually available at bookstores, including Molho, 10 Tsimiski, Ianos, 7 Aristotelous; and Malliaris, 9 Aristotelous.
In the city center, a 20- to 30-minute walk will take you to most attractions, restaurants, and shops. Taxis are usually easy to find, unless you're going to the Upper City. Taxis are reluctant to make this trip because there is little guarantee of a return fare down, and they may -- unlawfully -- refuse. But if you're in the cab before you state your destination, there's little the driver can do but take you there. Otherwise, it's a steep uphill walk of at least 20 minutes, or you can hop on bus no. 22, which leaves from Eleftherias Square.
By Bus -- Buses with double cars are boarded at the rear, where a conductor gives you a ticket and makes change. Single-car buses are boarded at the front; on these, exact fare is required. Deposit the fare in the ticket-issuing machine behind the driver's seat. Keep your ticket in case a conductor boards the bus to check them. Fares vary according to the distance traveled; an average journey within Thessaloniki costs about .75€ (95¢).
By Taxi -- This is your best bet except, when you want to go to the Upper City. Take along a map or have someone write out your destination in Greek, so that you can show the driver where you want to go. Rates are moderate compared to those in the U.S.; tips are not expected, although rounding up the fare is appreciated. Make sure that the driver turns on the taxi meter and that, within the city limits, the rate it uses is no. 1. Rate no. 2 is for outside the city limits. There's an extra 5€ ($6.50) charge for trips from the airport. After midnight, all fares on the meter are doubled.
By Car -- There is little reason to use a car within Thessaloniki. Traffic is terrible and legal parking spots are almost impossible to find, even at the large public parking lot in Plateia Eleftherias. But having a car for excursions into Northern Greece will allow you to see and enjoy a lot more than you would either from a bus or on a guided tour. Keep in mind that if you take a day trip, you'll spend at least an hour getting out of and another hour getting back into the city. It makes much better sense to see what you want outside of town on your way in, or out, of Thessaloniki.
Most car-rental agencies, including Avis, Budget, Europcar, and Hertz, have offices at the airport. A car with unlimited mileage costs from 60€ ($78) per day in high season. (Reminder: High season is not summer but the time of the Sept-Oct trade and other festivals.) Be sure to ask if the price quoted includes all taxes and insurance -- and be sure to take full insurance if your credit card does not provide it. Tip: It is invariably cheaper to book a car with an international agency from abroad, not from within Greece.
If you must park within Thessaloniki, and the centrally located pay garage in Plateia Eleftherias is full, you might try the free Municipal Parking Lot just south of the Museum of Byzantine Culture at the eastern end of Vas. Olgas. It's about a 20-minute walk from the city center but very near the White Tower and Archaeological Museum. Unfortunately, this is not a very savory spot late at night.
Driving in Thessaloniki -- The best tip for driving in Thessaloniki is: don't! Driving here is as vexing as in Athens (the system of one-way streets is not indicated accurately on maps). Officially, there is one car for every three Thessalonians -- although it often feels closer to one to one! If your hotel does not have parking facilities, your best bet will be to leave your car in the large parking garage in Eleftherias Square, as on-street parking is very difficult. Thessalonians are inventive parkers: When I was last there, the hotel manager said he would show me the hotel parking, stepped outside, and graciously waved me up onto the sidewalk! When Thessaloniki gets its long-promised Metro, congestion here, as in Athens, should be greatly alleviated. Until then, park and lock your car and walk, or take buses or taxis.
By Boat -- It's possible to take ferries and boats from Thessaloniki to a number of Aegean islands (including Crete, Santorini, and Mykonos) and to the Sporades (Skiathos, Skopelos, and Alonissos). Many travel agents around Plateia Eleftherias and Aristotelous Square sell ferry tickets. Centrally located agencies include: Polaris Travel, 81 Egnatiou (tel. 2310/276-051); and Zorpidis Travel, 4 Salaminos (tel. 2310/555-955; www.zorpidis.gr). The harbor police/port authorities can be reached at tel. 2310/531-504 to -507. www.gtp.gr (Greek Travel Pages) is also useful for boat schedules.