Thessaloniki sits on the northern coast of the Thermaic Gulf like a lopsided turban tilted to the northwest. Central Thessaloniki is bounded on the south by its deep harbor and on the north by the heights of the Ano Poli (Upper City). Thessaloniki's most important square -- the equivalent of Athens's Syntagma Square -- is Aristotelous Square, which runs almost into the harbor. The city's best-known landmark -- but no rival to Athens's Acropolis -- is the White Tower, a remnant of the massive walls that once encircled the city. The great walls -- begun in antiquity and extended and expanded by the Byzantines, Venetians, and Turks -- were torn down as the population grew and the city expanded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Thessaloniki continues to sprawl along the Thermaic Gulf. To the east are the expanding residential districts, while to the west, there are rail and ship yards and neighborhoods as yet unreclaimed and transformed into galleries and restaurants.
The heart of Thessaloniki, with its most important shops, banks, hotels, restaurants, archaeological remains, and churches lies between the heights of the Ano Poli and the harbor. This is also where you will find (to the east) the campus of several universities, the grounds of the International Trade Fair and the Archaeological and Byzantine museums; to the west, there are 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.
Central Thessaloniki is dominated by four main streets running from the southwest to the northeast. The largest, Egnatia, runs across the northern side of the commercial district. 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. Unpronounceable Tsimiski street (if you make a slight sneeze and you try to say Tsimiski, it may help) has lots of hotels and many of the city's best shops and department stores. One block south of Tsimiski and running one-way from west to east is Mitropoleos, with its namesake the Metropolitan Cathedral. Like Tsimiski, Mitropoleost has lots of good shops, boutiques, and sweet shops -- Thessalonians adore sweets. The seaside promenade Leoforos Nikis is 1 block south of Mitropoleos, runs from the shipping yards to the White Tower, and has virtually non-stop outdoor cafes and bars.
Stand in Aristotelous Square at almost any time of the day or night and you'll realize this is the heart of downtown Thessaloniki. Ringed with outdoor cafes and restaurants, it is also the backdrop for the city's major political rallies and demonstrations. Aristotle Street runs to Thessaloniki's other important central square, Dikasterion, where most city buses begin and end their runs. The square overlooks the partially excavated Roman marketplace and has a clutch of shady trees, the Byzantine church Panagia Chalkeon (Virgin of the Copper Workers), and a restored Turkish bathhouse. Sometimes, there's an informal street market here run mainly by migrant workers from Eastern Europe, the former USSR, and Africa. Thessaloniki's main market areas, where you can find anything from fresh fish to curtain hooks, spill around the square.
Ayias Sofias Street, another of the city's main drags, named after one of the city's most important churches, is east of Aristotelous Street. This was once Thessaloniki's most fashionable residential square, similar to Athens's chic Kolonaki Square. Just off the square is pedestrianized Dimitriou Gounari, whose shop-lined length sits on top of a major Roman thoroughfare that went from the Galerius's palace to his monumental arch. 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.
The old Turkish Quarter has lots of names: Ano Poli (Upper City), Eptapirgiou (Seven Gates), and To Kastro (Fortress). This is where you'll find some of the finest Byzantine churches -- and, increasingly, some elegant restored town houses. This is easily the most pleasant part of Thessaloniki to explore -- but walking all the way up is, well, a very steep uphill walk. Your reward is the delights of visiting all those small churches and exploring 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. Note: Remember that most churches are closed from about 1 to 5pm.
If you are driving in and out of Thessaloniki, you'll probably use the Ring Road, just to the north of the Upper City, that loops around Thessaloniki 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.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.