If you’re trying to plan a trip to Mainland Greece, you’re probably torn between having to choose between Athens or Thessaloniki. These are two of Greece’s largest cities, and both have a lot to offer in terms of culture and history.
That said, there are some key differences between Thessaloniki and Athens, so if you are trying to pick just one, we’re going to break down the reasons why you should pick one over the other.
And now, time for the head-to-head smackdown: Athens vs Thessaloniki. Which should you choose?
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Where to Stay in Athens
Check this accommodation guide to Athens or this article if you’d like to book a room with unforgettable Acropolis views.
Budget: If you’re looking for a budget hotel in lively Monastiraki, book a stay at Fivos Hotel. Located right by Monastiraki Station, the hotel has free wifi and ensuite bathrooms. Check out prices and availability at Fivos Hotel here.
Mid-range: If you want more traditional accommodation, stay at the Kimons Athens Hotel in Plaka. The rooms are cozy and there’s a roof terrace that guests can enjoy. Check out guest reviews, prices, and availability at Kimons Athens Hotel here.
Luxury: To enjoy a bit of luxury in Monastiraki, check into the four-star Emporikon Athens Hotel on Agia Irini Square. The rooms are sophisticated and swanky, with a traditional take on comfort. Check out guest reviews, prices, and availability at Emporikon Athens Hotel here.
What City Should You Choose Between Athens and Thessaloniki…
Choose Athens if…
… you are a history lover
While sure, Thessaloniki has its share of historical monuments of importance – the White Tower, the Agora, and many historic mosques, hammams, and churches – nothing can truly beat the Acropolis when it comes to history.
>> Read Next: 10 Big Mistakes to Avoid When Visiting the Acropolis <<
On just one hill in the middle of Athens, you can see several important sites in a single day at the Acropolis. In one day, you can easily tour the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Propylaea.
That’s not to mention several other important ruins and archaeological wonders scattered throughout the city, such as Hadrian’s Arch, the ancient Agora, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Why not visiting both Athens and the magnificent Cape Sounion on the same day, at sunset? This tour combines the best of both with a convenient afternoon trip!
…. you’re a UNESCO collector
If you like visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites, then Athens is perfect for you! It is quite easy to visit several UNESCO sites on a day trip from Athens. Stephanie managed to visit six while based out of Athens!
There is, of course, the Acropolis in Athens itself, which is unmissable if you visit Athens. But there are also several other important UNESCO sites you can visit easily while based out of Athens.
>> Read Next: Delphi or Meteora: Which Historic Greek Site is Right for You? <<
Other UNESCO sites accessible within a day trip from Athens include the Archaeological Site of Delphi, the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus, Mycenae & Tiryns, the Monasteries of Chios, and Meteora.
… you want to take ferries to other islands
While Thessaloniki is close to beaches of its own (more on that later!), Athens is way better connected to the islands. Therefore, if you’re planning a Greek island hopping trip by ferry, you’re going to want to start in Athens as it is much better connected to the islands.
Thessaloniki has a few ferries – to Limnos and the Northern Sporades cluster which includes Skopelos, Alonissos, and Skiathos – but they take a long time and there are very limited options.
Meanwhile, Athens will connect you easily to dozens of islands, the nearest (Aegina) a mere 40 minutes away. You can do a day trip to three of the islands nearest to Athens, or you can use Athens as a jumping-off point to further away islands such as Santorini, Mykonos, and Crete or more offbeat island choices.
However, if you plan to fly (which can be cheaper than ferries, by the way) both Athens and Thessaloniki have good connections to the islands.
… you want amazing city views
While Thessaloniki has some nice views, it certainly can’t top Athens when it comes to cityscapes.
Athens has no shortage of amazing rooftop bars where you can get gorgeous views of the city. Believe me, there is nothing quite like staring at the Acropolis all lit up and glittering at night or bathing in the afternoon glow as the sun starts to set.
Another great place for a cityscape is atop Mount Lycabettus, where you can take a taxi and then walk up (many) stairs or take the funicular up to the top, where there is a quaint church as well as some of the most jaw-dropping sunset views of Athens.
You can also dine in the restaurants here: there are two options, one quite pricy and the other more affordable. The more affordable restaurant is of decent quality but nothing spectacular – you are paying for the view!
Choose Thessaloniki if…
… you want a more offbeat experience
Thessaloniki is the second-largest city in Greece, so it is far from being a “hidden gem,” but that said, it doesn’t get even a fraction of the tourism of other places in Greece.
Most visitors to Greece tend to just visit Athens and then a handful of islands. By visiting Thessaloniki, you’ll see a very different part of mainland Greece, one that is heavily skewed towards locals than tourists.
Thessaloniki is a city dominated by young people, as the largest university in Greece – the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki – is there. As a result, it has a unique hip vibe to it, which makes it a great destination for offbeat city breaks.
While it doesn’t have the same attractions that Athens has, that’s what keeps it quieter than other vacation destinations in Greece that get slammed with tourism in the summer.
Check out the neighborhoods of Ladadika for the best coffee shops, buzzy restaurants, and chic boutiques, or head up the hill to Ano Poli for a unique neighborhood filled with street art and cozy tavernas.
… you’re combining it with other Balkan cities
If you’re planning a longer trip throughout the Balkans as a region, and you can only pick one Greek city, pick Thessaloniki over Athens. It’s much closer to other Balkan cities such as Skopje and Sofia so you’ll spend less time on a bus.
It’s also a city that requires less time than Athens, so if you’re short on time, Thessaloniki is easier to discover in a few days whereas Athens can easily take at least a week to do justice.
Thessaloniki also has a much more Balkan vibe to it than Athens, in my opinion. If you’re after that offbeat Balkan experience, you’ll certainly get it a lot more in Thessaloniki, whereas Athens is a little more touristic.
… you want to see some of the prettiest beaches in Greece
While Athens has the edge on Thessaloniki for islands, Thessaloniki has Athens beat for beaches. Few people know that some of the most beautiful beaches in Greece are not on the islands but rather in the Halkidiki peninsula, a short bus ride or drive from Thessaloniki.
While not an off-the-beaten-path destination for Greeks, Halkidiki is rather under-discovered by travelers to Greece, so if you want a more authentic Greek experience while still enjoying beautiful beaches and robust tourist infrastructure, head to Halkidiki.
Kassandra is the most developed of the three ‘fingers’ of the Halkidiki peninsula, so if you want the most options for hotels and activities, that’s where you should go.
If you prefer a more quiet area, then Sithonia is a better bet. There is also Athos, the third finger, which is relatively undeveloped and most of which is home to one of the most important monasteries in Greece, Mount Athos.
We also love the quiet beach town of Agia Triada, which is just 20 minutes by cab from Thessaloniki’s airport and super laid-back.
While not as beautiful as Halkidiki, it’s a lovely place to relax in Greece if you want an offbeat beach trip (and it’s home to some of the most delicious Greek restaurants we’ve ever tried, so there is also that!)
Visiting in Winter? Discover the best of the city from the comfort of a bus with a tour like this one!
… you’re a foodie
While Athens certainly has delicious food, I’m sorry, I have to give the win to Thessaloniki here.
The food scene in Thessaloniki is incredible, with so many amazing tavernas, ouzeries, and restaurants serving up fantastic Greek food for amazing prices: think a soul-filling meal for two including plenty of wine for about 25 euros including tips.
While there is certainly great food to be found in Athens, you will have to wade through more middle-of-the-road options catering to tourists, whereas Thessaloniki is more geared towards discerning, picky Greeks who know their cuisine and will only accept the best.
A few of my favorite places I ate at in Thessaloniki are To Prytania, Hoveza, Kanoula, Panselinos, and Rouga – a full restaurant guide to Thessaloniki to come!
Choose both Thessaloniki and Athens for…
… incredible wine and food for low prices
Sure, I gave Thessaloniki the edge when it came to food, but only slightly. Food everywhere in Greece is incredible. I had fried halloumi with a chili-tomato chutney in Chania, Crete that nearly brings tears to my eyes to think about, and I will never get over the fried calamari I had at a random beach restaurant in Agia Triada.
Your average taverna in Greece will have delicious mezes, seafood, and meats for affordable prices, and carafes of wine for as little as 4 euros. Of course, there are more upscale options, but I love the perfect simplicity of Greek food. Even the humblest of street foods, a souvlaki pita wrap, is simply perfect here!
Also, this Californian is happy to report that there is acceptable quality Mexican food in both Thessaloniki and Athens. If you’re a North American living in Europe, you know how rare this is to find! (Tip: Head to Mama Roux in Athens and Hola Mexicana in Thessaloniki)
… wonderful Greek hospitality
I love Greek people: their warmth, their humor, their hospitality. If you show Greek people kindness, they will match it – and then some.
It was rare that I left a restaurant in Greece without receiving some free dessert, drinks, or coffee, and service was always kind and prompt (not necessarily a given in the Balkans).
… exploring one of the most important cultures the world has known
The Greek empire gave the world so much throughout the centuries: democracy, the Olympics, amazing contributions to the fields of math, literature, philosophy, religion, and science… there is something truly special about being in one of the so-called “cradles of civilization.”
As an American, my country’s history feels relatively “new” due to the lack of ancient architecture you find throughout a place like Greece. Walking around modern-day Athens or Thessaloniki and just strolling past an ancient forum or amphitheater is kind of insane.
Thinking about the incredible contributions that the Greeks have given the world is remarkable and it’s wonderful to see the legacy live on in present-day Greece, and no matter which city you choose, Thessaloniki or Athens, you will surely be impressed by it.
5 Things to Bring with You to Greece
If you’re planning a trip to Greece, you’ll want to pack all the normal essentials, but here are a few things we strongly recommend bringing that may not have crossed your mind. For more packing tips, check out our complete Greece packing list.
– A physical guidebook, on paper or Kindle. We love Lonely Planet Greece for this region and strongly recommend it to supplement blogs. Blogs are great, but a combination of a blog and a guidebook is key to having the best access to information easily at your fingertips.
– A water bottle with a filter. While generally, the tap water in most of Greece is drinkable, we generally recommend using a water bottle with a purifying filter to reduce your plastic consumption and ensure you won’t drink any funny-tasting water on your stomach that could make your trip unpleasant! There are places in Greece, especially on the island, where the water tastes like minerals.
We recommend the GRAYL water bottle – it filters water perfectly in an instant so that you can even drink from lakes, bad taps, etc.
– Motion sickness pills. Santorini roads are winding, especially around the coast. If you have a weak stomach as we do, save yourself and bring some non-drowsy motion sickness pills.
– Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, TP & other Balkan transit needs. Bathrooms in the Balkans tend to be… how can we say it?… not so well-stocked. Save yourself the disappointment and bring a mini-rescue pack of wet wipes & hand sanitizer.
– Travel safety items. We think Greece is safe to travel to, but at the same time, it never hurts to be prepared! Some people like to carry money belts, but neither Allison nor I use these. Instead, we both carry the same PacSafe anti-theft backpack.
It has locking zippers, slash-proof construction with metal mesh hidden in the fabric, and tons of other smart security features — all while being cute and stylish enough to be our everyday bag. We recommend it highly for both male and female travelers, as it’s neutral enough to be unisex. We also strongly recommend travel insurance! Our recommendation is at the bottom of the post.
Read More: Essential Greece Packing List: What to Wear & Pack for Greece
More Greece Travel Resources
First read our guide to planning a trip to Greece, which covers visas, budgets, vaccines, and much more. We also have a separate guide to tipping in Greece so you know what to give to different servers and staff while you’re here.
Next, you’ll want to read our all-season Greece packing list.
If you are still trying to figure out your Greece itinerary, check out our guides on where to go in Greece, the best places for island hopping in Greece, and when is the best time to visit.
If you know you’ll be spending time in Athens, check out our Athens Instagram guide, the best Athens day trips, and our complete Athens hotel guide. We also have a guide to the best things to do in Athens in winter.
Check these Athens safety tips for a hassle-free trip. We are currently working on our mega-post of things to do in Athens as well as our itineraries, so stay tuned!
We publish new content about the Balkans almost every day! For more information about traveling to Greece and the Balkans, bookmark our Greece and Balkan travel pages so you can find out what’s new before your trip.
Don’t Travel to Greece without Insurance
Finally, make sure you always travel to Greece or anywhere in Europe with valid travel insurance. Greece is a very safe place to travel, but accidents and theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
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Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.