There's a lot more to Thessaloniki than the modern City Center. North of the Center at the top of the hill is the Old Town, also called Ano Poli or Upper Town. This used to be the main Ottoman Quarter, as well as the home of a large part of the Jewish community. It is a fascinating contrast to the city at the foot of the hill, with cobblestone and brick streets, stone house, and pastel-colored shops and restaurants.

Since this area escaped the fire of 1917, it still has a labyrinth of streets that look like a place out of time. Stone homes seem to cling to the steep streets, and alleys suddenly become precipitous stairways down to the next level of homes and shops. This is where you can still find sections of the ancient walls of the city, that at one time ran from the Trigonio Tower on the hilltop all the way down to the White Tower.

The ancient Walls of Thessaloniki

The views from the Ano Poli are just incredible. You can look out at the entire city spread below you, and see the deep blue and green waters of the Thermaic Gulf as it gives way to the Aegean. On a clear day, you can see Mount Olympus rising in the background. It is in the Ano Poli that you the feel of what life may have been like hundreds of years ago, and it truly feels like an authentic Greek village, set apart from the city.

There are historic points of interest of course, including the former home of Kemel Attaturk and Byzantine churches. What we enjoyed most however was the quiet and peaceful Vlatadon Monastery. After greeting two donkeys penned near the front entrance, we walked through the gates and into another world. All around us was serene and green. The walls block the sounds of the city, so all we could hear was birdsongs. As we explored the buildings and grounds, passing dozens of cats stretched out and lounging in the sun, it was hard to believe that we were just a mile or two from the vibrant City Center.

The monastery

If you visit the Ano Poli, I recommend you do what we did and take a taxi to the top of the hill and save yourself some sweat and effort. It was quite pleasant to stroll about the town on foot, and walking back down the hill we were able to follow sections of the old city walls, all the way down to the Aristotle University and back to the 21st century.

Thessaloniki was not an expensive visit, as our AirBnB (one bedroom, full kitchen, living and dining room, balcony, bath and washing machine in a great location) costs us only about $60/night with cleaning and service fees included.

Thessaloniki is easy to get to, either by cruise ship or from Athens via rail or airline. Our flight from Athens one-way was just $89 total for the two of us – actually cheaper than the trains, which would have cost about $150 for two.

Would we live there? Probably not, but mostly because while we enjoy visiting larger cities, we don’t really want to live in one. But I can say that in Thessaloniki we felt quite comfortable and safe as we traveled around town, and we enjoyed some wonderful little local restaurants with outside dining under the trees. The locals we spoke to were all friendly and helpful, and we had no language difficulties despite our knowledge of Greek being limited mostly to “thank you” and “hello”. Even most signs around the city were in English or had the English words beneath the Greek. We would definitely recommend that if you are going to visit Athens, plan to take some time to experience a different side of Greece in Thessaloniki.

Follow the adventures of Jim and Rita in real time as they try out the roving retirement lifestyle on the podcast "Travels With Jim and Rita".