Are you in two minds?
Trying to figure out which city to choose – Athens vs Thessaloniki?
It’s hard to know which will be the right choice, especially just from researching and seeing pictures online. We get it, we have also wondered the same because we’ve heard great things about both places!
After living in Athens for 2 months and visiting Thessaloniki, we think we have a better idea and understanding of how to choose between Athens vs Thessaloniki.
In this blog post, we are going to share our honest thoughts on the 2 cities, comparing the key differences and hopefully helping you make the right decision for yourself!
How Far Is Athens From Thessaloniki?
Athens and Thessaloniki are both located on Greece’s mainland. Now, that doesn’t mean they are close enough together to see in one trip.
The distance from Athens to Thessaloniki is about 310 miles (499 km). If you drove from Athens to Thessaloniki, it would take you about 5.5 hours to get there! The fastest way to get from Athens to Thessaloniki or vice versa is by taking a flight which is only 40 minutes of air time.
What’s The Main Difference Between Athens vs Thessaloniki?
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the information out there and it makes choosing between Athens vs Thessaloniki even harder. I added this section to help you get a picture of the key differences at a quick glance.
Athens is the staple Greek city for most tourists to land in and starts their Greek adventure. I mean that’s what we did too for our honeymoon! We arrived in Athens, spent about 3 days there and off to the islands we went.
Thessaloniki is the 2nd most important city in Greece. It’s located on the mainland like Athens but much further east. Matthew and I visited Thessaloniki on our 3rd visit to Greece while traveling from the Balkans!
Let’s discuss the key differences between Athens vs Thessaloniki:
- ⛴ Athens is a gateway to the islands. Looking to hop on a ferry to Santorini, Mykonos or beyond? Athens allows you to easily access all these islands via ferry. Thessaloniki doesn’t have ferries operating to get to popular islands (Santorini, Naxos, Mykonos, etc).
- 🚶♂️ Thessaloniki is a more off-the-beaten-path destination. Want to get away from the usual tourists and forge your own path? Thessaloniki (while still popular) is less visited than Athens which can give you a more unique, authentic local experience.
- 🏛 Athens is a must-visit Greek destination. Let me put it this way: If you don’t visit Athens, have you REALLY been to Greece? If it’s your first time in Greece, Athens is a no-brainer in our opinion.
- 💰 Thessaloniki is cheaper than Athens. We found prices for food, coffee and activities were much lower in Thessaloniki vs Athens. As Athens is a top Greek destination, it makes sense that things like accommodation, dining out and activities would cost more.
Now that’s just a quick summary of the key differences between Athens vs Thessaloniki. The rest of this blog post will go into more detail to help you thoroughly compare the two Greek cities.
Is Thessaloniki Cheaper Than Athens?
Yes, it can be!
We found we got much better value for money in Thessaloniki vs Athens for things like accommodation. For example, we paid $119 USD for 2 nights at a centrally located Airbnb in Thessaloniki. As you can see from the pictures below – it was a modern, beautifully decorated 1 bedroom apartment.
In comparison, we paid $106 for 1 night at a centrally located Airbnb in Athens. You could almost say Athens accommodation can about almost double. Keep in mind, both these trips were in October/November which is a shoulder season! The prices for accommodation for both Greek destinations fluctuate depending on whether you visit during low vs peak season.
What about food, coffee and activities?
We found that Thessaloniki was cheaper but honestly, not by much! It was probably on average around €1-€3 cheaper than what you would pay in Athens. In saying that, we found that the variety and quality of food/restaurants were much better in Athens!
Bottom line? Thessaloniki can be cheaper in many ways but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Athens is more expensive than Thessaloniki but it’s got cool accommodation and a wide variety of restaurants!
Athens vs Thessaloniki: Which Greek City Should You Visit?
I know it seems like Athens is the obvious one but Thessaloniki does have a few surprises up its sleeve. Thessaloniki is worth visiting for several reasons but you also can’t not visit Athens, right?
It’s such a hard choice even after having been to both Greek cities. There’s a lot to love about each place but there are certainly some key differences that can help make your mind up.
Athens is the capital city of Greece – a true landmark in Europe and one of the most iconic cities in the world. Is it really a trip to Greece if you don’t visit Athens at least once in your life? I’m not so sure… Athens is a must-visit destination because of its world-class preservation of artifacts and monuments, historical significance and it’s become a gateway to the beautiful Greek islands.
Thessaloniki is the 2nd largest city in Greece. This Greek city is a lesser-known destination as it’s located further east of mainland Greece. Thessaloniki is a beautiful place to explore historical sites, eat local Greek food and walk along the unique promenade with panoramic views of the ocean.
We get it, it’s hard to choose between Athens vs Thessaloniki. But here’s some reasons why you should choose one over the other – yes, we’re going there!
You Should Choose Athens If…
…it’s your first time visiting Greece.
This isn’t a definite one but it’s my opinion that you should visit Athens if it’s your first time (ever) in Greece. You’ve got iconic sights to tick off your bucket list right? Athens will give you that experience whereas Thessaloniki’s landmarks may not be as iconic or well-known.
Athens is also a great first taste at all Greece has to offer – the beaches, the food, the culture can all be found in Athens.
…you want easy access to the islands.
Looking to travel to popular Greek islands like Santorini, Naxos, Mykonos, etc?
Athens is the best place to catch a flight and a ferry. If you fly to the islands, getting to and from Athens International Airport is fairly accessible with only a 30-40 minute journey depending on your chosen route.
If you want to take the ferry, it’s even easier! Athens is spoilt for choice when it comes to ports – there are 3 hubs (Piraeus and Rafina being the most popular) within an hour of the city center. You can easily book ferry tickets only to smaller islands like Paros and Milos from Piraeus port and obviously the bigger islands too – Santorini, Mykonos.
What about accessing the islands from Thessaloniki? Yeah, it’s not as easy (or even possible). There is a port in Thessaloniki but it doesn’t usually go to the Cyclades islands. It would also take you almost double the amount of time if you went from Thessaloniki – no one willingly gets on a boat for 10+ hours!
Traveling to other islands from Athens is cheaper, easier and faster than Thessaloniki. If you want easy access to the islands, this could be a key reason to choose Athens over Thessaloniki.
…you’re ready to hit the streets shopping.
As Athens is the capital city of Greece, it only makes sense that the best shopping will be found in Athens!
You can find all your popular clothing stores like Zara and H&M on the main shopping street called Ermou. But one thing we have found – Athens is a much better place to shop for souvenirs!
Thessaloniki is a much more local and less-touristy Greek destination which is why we couldn’t find many tourist souvenir shops around. It was much easier to spot them in Athens! There’s also a huge array of selections in Athens from olive oil to jewelry and so much more.
…you want good weather year-round.
Athens is located on the lower end of mainland Greece which means it doesn’t get as cold in the winter. In saying that – it still very much has a winter season but it’s just not as cold as northern Greece (or Thessaloniki).
The winters in Thessaloniki are much more harsh and cold. If you plan on visiting during winter which is also the low season – just be ready for it to be pretty cold.
If you want to visit Greece during the low season (which is the best time if you want lower prices on accommodation and tours), Athens is probably the better choice if you’re sensitive to the cold. A few degrees can make quite a difference!
…you’re looking for vibrant nightlife.
A bigger city, a higher population, a more popular destination? Athens has to have the best nightlife in mainland Greece!
There are plenty of clubs, bars, speakeasy bars and rooftops with panoramic views of the Acropolis. It’s going to cost a little more than the nightlife scene in Thessaloniki but Athens has some pretty cool and unique places to visit.
Our favorite rooftop bar with reasonable prices is Anglais Athens – the view is absolutely stunning and it’s only around €5 for a drink! Looking to go to a bar – how about a world-class one? Baba au Rum located in the heart of Athens has been ranked #20 out of the World’s 50 Best Bars list.
With multiple bars on the World’s Best Bar list, Athens is the winner when it comes to having a vibrant nightlife scene!
…you’re a history lover.
Want to be transported back in time? Athens has quite a few historical landmarks that every history lover should visit at least once. The Greeks have done a great job at preserving these precious sites so we can all enjoy them still today.
Athens’ most iconic historical sites to visit are:
- the Acropolis
- Temple of Zeus
- Aeropagus Hill and
- Panathenaic Stadium
More than that, Athens has some very cool ruins as well:
- Hadrian’s Arch
- Ancient Agora
- Temple of Athena Nike
The great thing about all these sites in Athens is that most of them are located in the city center, making it easy to get from each site. This also means you can hit all the historical landmarks within a day or two and obviously, you can take your time to soak it all in if you have more time.
Choosing Athens Over Thessaloniki
Athens is a pretty popular tourist destination – for a reason. The delicious Greek food, the nightlife scene, the historical monuments, the culture and the access to popular Greek islands make it a great choice.
Were those enough reasons to make you choose Athens over Thessaloniki? Well, it’s time to see why Thessaloniki might be the place you’re looking for instead!
You Should Choose Thessaloniki If…
…you’re a history lover.
Yes, it’s the same point as Athens but you’re in Greece – one of the most significant countries in the ancient world. There’s going to be some deep history and archaeological sites scattered all across the country.
Thessaloniki has some pretty impressive archaeological sites such as the Roman Rotunda, Arch of Galerius and most famously known, the White Tower of Thessaloniki. You also have the opportunity to learn about the Byzantine Empire, its history in Thessaloniki and the impact it had on the world at the Museum of Byzantine Culture.
Some would argue Thessaloniki has a deeper history than Athens and others would argue that Athens does. We found both to be great places to learn about Greek culture and history!
…you want an off-the-beaten-path destination.
Most people that visit Greece likely stop in Athens for a few days. But Thessaloniki? It’s not as likely and that’s what makes it such a great ‘hidden gem’ destination in Greece.
You have to choose to go to Thessaloniki as it’s pretty far easy from Athens and the islands. A lot of people choose to visit Thessaloniki because of the authentic Greek vibe you might not feel in a big (and super tourist) city like Athens. It still has the wonderful small-town feel (although it’s a large city) where you will feel welcomed by the locals.
When we visited Thessaloniki, it felt like we were getting a real picture of what Greece was like. We were able to see how the Greeks lived their daily routines, ate their local cuisine and it seemed easier to understand Greek culture while in Thessaloniki too.
If you want a new, unique experience, you might just choose Thessaloniki over Greece.
…you want to explore the Balkans.
The Balkans is a region in Eastern Europe that consists of countries like Croatia, Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania and more. If you look at a map, you can see that Thessaloniki is quite close to these countries – making it very easy to access the Balkans.
Matthew and I were digital nomads in North Macedonia, we decided to take a minivan from Skopje to Thessaloniki. Surprisingly, it was only a 2.5-hour drive away! We were shocked at how close it was and it was a no-brainer for us to visit Thessaloniki for a few days.
Thessaloniki becomes a real attraction destination over Athens if you want to travel further and explore the Balkan region!
…you’re ready for the real Greek foodie scene.
The best Greek food scene is found in Thessaloniki (apparently).
There are quite a few restaurants that serve local Greek food, not only to the cuisine but to the region. Bougatsa is a popular dish that was born in Thessaloniki and they are very proud of it – if you don’t have bougatsa in Thessaloniki, you’ll need to go back and try it lol! Bougatsa is a flaky pastry filled with a sweet custard and it’s normally eaten for breakfast. Bougatsa Giannis is a popular spot to try the dish!
A lot of people say that the quality of food and prices are much better in Thessaloniki. Personally, we preferred the meals and restaurants we had while living in Athens for 2 months. However, we only had a few days to explore Thessaloniki so maybe we didn’t make it out to the right spots!
If you go to both Athens and Thessaloniki, you can decide for yourself which has the better food scene!
…you want to lie on beautiful, less-crowded beaches.
Thessaloniki is very unique in this way. There are plenty of beaches with fewer crowds and pristine waters along the coast than in Athens. Sure, Athens has easy access to the islands but the beaches along Thessaloniki are much more secluded and untouched if you will.
You will need to have a car rental or be willing to figure out the public transportation system to get to those beaches.
The Halkidiki peninsula has 3 spots you can explore: Kassandra, Athos and Sithonia. It’s not as developed for tourists but that just means you might get a whole beach to yourself! If you really want to experience these beaches, we recommend getting a car rental so you can come and go as you please.
If you’re choosing between Athens vs Thessaloniki based on the beaches, Thessaloniki has to take the win on this one! Athens does have some pretty good beaches close to the city but you can’t compare them to the beach nearby Thessaloniki!
Should You Visit Both Athens And Thessaloniki?
Why choose between Athens vs Thessaloniki when you can visit both?!
If you love Greece as much as we do, you’ll probably want to see Athens and Thessaloniki. I’d say visit both if you plan on going to Greece more than once in your life. We have been to Greece 3 times in the last 4 years and absolutely love this country enough to keep exploring more destinations (popular or not)!
Conclusion: Athens vs Thessaloniki – Which One Wins?
I have to preface this and say: You decide the best place to visit based on the experiences you’re looking for, the amount of time you have and obviously your budget. Athens and Thessaloniki are both great cities and you really can’t go wrong with choosing one or the other.
But if I had to choose and make it very simple to help you narrow it down, it comes down to this for me:
- If you’ve never been to Greece before, visit Athens.
- If you’ve been to Greece before, visit Thessaloniki.
At the end of the day, it’s what you think is best for you at the time. We have visited both and loved both Greek cities! You’ll enjoy all the historical monuments, archaeological sites, Greek food, Greek culture and of course Greek people no matter which city you choose.
You really can’t go wrong with choosing between Athens vs Thessaloniki!