Thessaloniki may not have the Parthenon but it does have an acropolis, 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 29 museums dedicated to everything from archaeology to the avant-garde, mouthwatering menus, never-ending nightlife plus an impressive swathe of seafront from which, on a clear day, you can catch a glimpse of Mount Olympus – home of the ancient Gods.
Today, Thessaloniki is home to more students than gods (there are four universities here), breathing life and verve into the city where every area is a mix of new and old. Trendy rooftop bars look down on ancient ruins, traditional dressmakers work alongside contemporary designers. Even the septuagenarian mayor has multiple tattoos and actively promotes graffiti art.
Aristotelous Square, the largest in Greece, bustles with cafes and bars and restaurants. This is where locals gather after work, before heading to one of the many bars and nightclubs strung along the harbour front. Café Nikis 35 is a favorite.
From here a short stroll takes you past the port and into the nearby Valaoritou District, the former Jewish quarter. During the war nearly a quarter of Thessaloniki’s 200,000-strong Jewish population was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. A memorial on Freedom Square commemorates what was once the largest Jewish community in Greece. Today the area is home to numerous bars and restaurants.
Alongside runs Ladadika. Literally meaning “olive oil area,” this was once the central market and is now a pretty maze of pastel-coloured buildings and quirkily decorated tavernas. A bicycle hangs on the wall of Rouga restaurant and nearby Karipi St. is strung with colorful birdcages. Head upstairs to the dining area of Ouzou Melathron (“ouzo palace”) and you will be rewarded not only with fine food and drink but a good view of a model frieze, depicting the traditional crafts and pastimes of the city: bear dancing (now banned), shoe making, photography, fishing and baking.
Thessaloniki’s justifiably famous bakeries serve an eclectic mix of traditional Greek baklava, Turkish Greek Trigona Panoramatos (a triangular pastry filled with cream), and a regional Sephardic bagel – the koulouria sold from carts on just about every corner.
Heading west along the esplanade you pass the iconic White Tower. Once part of the defences, it now houses an exhibition on the city’s history. Nearby is a fountain where children cool down in summer, and a fabulous sculpted wall of suspended metal umbrellas. A mile or so further on, the Concert Hall juts out to sea. If you’ve walked far enough you can pick up a bicycle from the bike-sharing scheme for €1 per hour.
It’s hard to get lost, with the sea always there, glistening at you whenever you turn a corner, and a source of excellent seafood. On my first night I dined at To Helleniko, a taverma/ouzeri where the walls are lined with hundreds of different bottles of ouzo (who knew there were so many?) Each glass comes with a meze of local fare; octopus, mackerel, sardines, whitebait, slices of buffalo sausage and skewers of pork, all served with the ubiquitous Greek salad.
Thessaloniki might be Greece’s second city but it’s arguably its gourmet capital. In the far north of the country, the city has always been a melting pot of cultures and this is reflected in the blend of spicy Eastern and traditional Mediterranean flavors of its cuisine.
The food markets of Kapani, Mondiano and Vlali (all built by the wealthy Jews of the city in the early 1900s) bustle with activity and scents as fish are unloaded from the harbor and stalls fill up with olives, meats and cheeses. The ingredients and flavors that come from the old Byzantine capital are transformed into recipes such as gemista (baked vegetables stuffed with rice, mint, raisins and pine nuts), yiaourtlou kebab (grilled meat in yogurt sauce) and soutzoukakia (meatballs with cumin cooked in tomato sauce). Thessaloniki is also famous for bomparia (stuffed goat intestines) and mpampes dishes (stuffed pig intestines). Macedonia is also one of the oldest (and coldest) wine-making regions of Greece, with several estates producing a variety of fine wines.
The city center is easy to navigate by foot and strategically placed signs tell you the distance to the next landmark, how long it will take you to walk and, on some, even the number of calories you will burn to get there!
I doubt I have walked far enough to burn off all I have eaten, as I head to the Roman Forum (still being excavated) and through the triumphal 3rd Century Arch of Galerius to the Rotunda, which has been both church and mosque and boasts the city’s only remaining minaret. A short stroll from the Rotunda takes you to the Turkish consulate; this backs onto the former home of modern Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Atatürk, which is now a museum.
Make the effort to walk (or take a taxi) up to the acropolis dubbed “the balcony of Thessaloniki” from where you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city and the gulf beyond. Immediately below are the university buildings; nearby, an enclosure of Nissan huts surrounded by tanks is a reminder that this is where the Greek army is based, close to the borders with Turkey, Albania, FYROM and Bulgaria.
The seven turrets of the castle dominate the acropolis. Heading downhill past a maze of timber-framed houses, you pass the Bey Hamam, Thessaloniki’s first bathhouse and the most important one in Greece. Known as the “Baths of Paradise”, it was built in 1444 and is one of the last examples of Ottoman culture still standing in the country. Further along is the magnificent church of Agios Dimitrios. Nearby, Agios Sofia is a must for its spectacular mosaic dome ceiling alone.
If sightseeing doesn’t wear you out, you can shop until you drop. Tsimiski Street is where you can find all the usual high street brands. Perpendicular to it, Agias Sofia Street has recently been pedestrianized and you can find some local brands, while parallel Mitropoleos Street is full of independent local stores and small designer boutiques.
Thessaloniki is not a city that sleeps. Lonely Planet listed it as the 5th ultimate party city. Current hotspots include Urania, where DJs spin on the rooftop, Monkey Bar, Propaganda and Plan B.
There is enough to keep you occupied for days but the surrounding area also boasts numerous unspoiled and empty beaches, vineyards, wildlife sanctuaries (bears and wolves roam the mountains on the border with Bulgaria) and one of Europe’s most important wetland areas, the twitchers’ paradise that is Lake Kerkini.
For a second city, it’s first-rate.
Lizzie Enfield traveled as a guest of Visit Greece:
She stayed at hotels Excelsior, Thessaloniki, which has doubles
from about €140: http://www.excelsiorhotel.gr
British Airways, Easyjet, Ryanair and Thomson Airways
fly direct to Thessaloniki.