Discovering Thessaloniki

While we were in Pogradec, I was trying to decide whether I should check out Korçë  before heading to Thessaloniki, or just head straight to the second largest city in Greece. The locals I’ve met were trying to persuade me to stay in Albania by saying the Greeks aren’t as nice as the Albanians. My friend agreed, and he shared all the bad things that happened to him when he was there a couple of weeks ago. Like how his bag was stolen. And when someone broke into the car they rented and stole all their stuff. And how people in general aren’t happy to help you out. It’s true they’re not as nice as Albanians in general— but it’s not fair to compare people from other countries with Albanians when it comes to their friendliness and hospitality. Pretty much everyone else is bound to lose 😉 . In the end it made more sense to me to proceed directly to Thessaloniki and spend more time there. I’ve been to Thessaloniki before but I just passed through without checking out the sights. Also, I was looking at pictures of Korçë and the place didn’t seem all that interesting to me.

From Pogradec there’s a bus heading to Thessaloniki. Don’t worry if you can’t find any on booking websites online. All the locals I’ve asked in Shkodër and Tirana assured me that there is. And true enough, when I got to the ticketing office in Pogradec there’s one leaving daily. A single journey bus tickets costs 21 euros. They only accept Euros, which I found really annoying. Good thing I still had a couple of Euros on me. If I didn’t have any euros left I’d have to exchange some of the local currency I had. I wasn’t too keen on doing that because the exchange rate at the banks and at those money changers in Pogradec sucks. It really doesn’t make sense. Yeah i get it. The euro is a more stable currency and there’s a good chance the local currency would keep depreciating relative to the euro. That’s why some establishments in Albania prefer euros. But to say you can’t accept local currency no matter what just isn’t practical at all.

There’s no bus station by the way. The buses just stop on the street in front of the ticketing office. It’s actually the same bus that’s coming from Shkodër which also passes through Tirana. I could have taken that bus from Shkodër that leaves past midnight, but then I’d miss out on those places in between. I also wasn’t too keen on spending more than 15 hours on a bus. These aren’t sleeper buses with seats that are ideal for sleeping. These are just ordinary air conditioned buses. A single journey bus ticket from Shkodër to Thessaloniki costs 32 euros. If you’d choose to take this bus from Tirana, it costs 28-30 euros.

The bus was almost full. Apparently there’s high demand for buses plying this route because many Albanians work in Thessaloniki and elsewhere in Greece. We spent almost an hour at the border— the border agents were very thorough in checking everyone’s stuff. After that though, it was smooth sailing. The entire trip took about 5 hours.

From the bus station in Thessaloniki, it’s easy to get to the city center by public transport. Simply hop on bus # 8, 12, 31, or 78. A single journey ticket only costs 1 euro. You can purchase tickets either at the OASTH ticket booth at the bus station or on the bus itself (with a 10 cent surcharge). If you’re carrying a lot of bags, taxis aren’t too expensive. Taxis usually cost about 8 euros to the promenade or to the city center. Since I’m incredibly thrifty though, I chose to take a 45 minute leisurely walk lol.

Before I arrived, I was informed by other travelers that Thessaloniki wasn’t a city I’d want to spend a lot of time in. They pretty much said the same things my friend said. People aren’t too nice, the crime rate is high, the city was a bit run down— basically they didn’t like it. While I was walking from the bus station, I did see what they were talking about. I passed through a number of shady areas with old dilapidated buildings. I passed by several shady looking people on some of the side streets. Once I was close to the Promenade where most of the hotels are located, the surroundings started to change drastically. All the buildings started to look fairly new. In contrast, hostels aren’t located in this area. Hostels are located closer to the city center or in the outskirts, which could explain why some people I met had a bad impression of Thessaloniki— they all stayed at hostels which were located on the grittier areas of the city. I’m glad I walked all the way from the bus station though. If I took a cab and went straight to the promenade I wouldn’t have seen the other side of Thessaloniki.

I stayed at a hotel this time— The Makedonia Palace (thank you credit card points! woo-hoo! 😀 ) This was a welcome change, and I think that’s one reason why I liked Thessaloniki overall. I stayed in one of the more polished areas of the city. The views on the promenade were beautiful, especially during sunset. It also becomes a hub of activity at night where a lot of locals hang out. Lots of vendors also come out to sell various food and trinkets, and you’d see a couple of people busking. The location is also ideal for sightseeing since a number of attractions are within walking distance. No wonder most of the hotels are located at the promenade. Not only is it an ideal location to unwind in the city, it’s also a good place to based oneself if you’re going to explore Thessaloniki.

The most popular attraction in Thessaloniki is right at the PromenadeThe White Tower. What was once used as a prison now houses a museum inside. From here, walk northeast away from the sea and you’ll eventually reach the ruins of the Palace of Galerius.  Walk farther and you’ll reach the Arch of Galerius, which is said to be the ancient town’s main entrance. The reliefs on this arch are remarkably well preserved. The Holy Church of Panagia Dexia is nearby. It was built in the 1950’s so it doesn’t hold much history. It’s still worth checking out though for its architecture.

From the arch you can also see the Rotunda of Galerius, another significant ancient monument. It was originally intended to be a temple, but later on converted to a Christian Church. It became a Mosque during the Ottoman rule, then reconsecrated as a Church again when the Greeks captured the city. It is said to be the oldest Christian church in the world. There’s a lot of history in this monument, so it’s definitely a must see attraction.

From the Rotunda, it’s about a 15 minute walk to the Hagia Sophia. Yup, like the one in Istanbul, only less massive.  When it was built, they actually based the structure on the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul). Like the one in Turkey, it was alternately used as a church and a mosque at various points in history.

From the Hagia Sophia, it’s about a 10 minute walk to Aristotelous Squarethe main city square in Thessaloniki. This place is also by the promenade. There are lots of hotels clustered here as well as various restaurants. It’s another good place to watch the sunset over a couple of drinks. It’s understandably quite pricey to eat in this area. If you’re tight on cash, there’s no need to worry. There are lots of cheap places to eat in the city, some are even close to the promenade. Just walk away from the sea and you’ll come across a couple of cheaper restaurants and bars.

Thessaloniki may not boast of the same number of attractions as Athens, but it’s still definitely worth a visit. There’s enough history here, and with the amazing view of the sunset it’s definitely worth stopping by for a day or two before heading elsewhere. I basically just passed through the city on my way to Bulgaria two years ago. I’m glad I allotted some time for it this year. I understand some concerns. Yeah the crime rate is fairly high, but I could say the same about many cities I’ve been to. As long as you avoid certain areas and remain vigilant at all times there’s really nothing to worry about. It’s not the primary destination for most travelers heading to Greece. But after seeing what the city has to offer, I feel that it should be.


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