Thessaloniki, Greece: Stylish and Cultured, Without the Big-City Hassle
Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, is also one of the country’s most trendy and dynamic places to be – and not just in summer.
By Christopher Deliso
Thessaloniki stretches for seven and a half miles (12 km) along the Thermaikos Kolpos (Thermaic, or warm, Gulf), and is the economic and cultural capital of northern Greece. This energetic city with a population of one million is steeped in history and is today a metropolis marked by a blend of influences and traditions, as well as a youthful vitality.
Thessaloniki is packed with 2,300 years of history: it was first established by the ancient Macedonian dynasty, and numerous surviving ruins, churches and majestic fortress walls attest to the city’s later Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods.
Although a devastating fire in 1917 irrevocably changed the city’s layout, the Ano Poli (Upper Town) is still filled with lovely and colorful wood-framed houses clinging to steep and narrow streets.
What the city is most known for among today’s Greeks, however, is its boisterous nightlife and sense of style. Thessaloniki is a dedicated student city and a plethora of eateries, night bars and cafés of all styles and types have sprung up to cater to its chic inhabitants. This center of culture also boasts many museums, cinemas, concerts and special events. Sophisticated shopping and omnipresent Greek sweets also set the city apart.
Further, Thessaloniki is located right between northern Greece’s best beaches: those of Katerini and Leptokaria to the southwest, and the Halkidiki Peninsula just to the southeast.
The latter also offers a more sublime sort of getaway- the remote Mt. Athos, which takes up the third “finger” of the peninsula and preserves austere Byzantine monastic traditions. To get the necessary permissions one must start off at church offices in Thessaloniki (note that according to 11th-century legislation males only are permitted on Athos).
When to Go
While foreign travelers tend to think of Greece as a summertime destination only, Thessaloniki can be enjoyed all year round. In fact, during high summer the city tends to be emptied, especially around the 15th of August, when the national holiday of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary sends city dwellers to do penance on the beaches.
Early summer, before the heat becomes unbearable, is, therefore, a great time to visit, as is the fall. Thessaloniki’s international film festival held in November also presents another nice excuse to drop in. While snow can occasionally fall in the winter, Thessaloniki’s maritime position keeps temperatures milder than more frigid areas to the north. Spring in Thessaloniki is redolent of flowers and pine and comes to life with the colors and flesh of the new year’s latest fashions.
Thessaloniki is accessible by a sophisticated network of transportation, something which has always made it an important regional center. Travelers today can reach the city by air, land, and sea; ferries to the Greek islands leave regularly in summer, and trains and buses to the Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, as well as other points in Greece, are frequent.
It is just over a six-hour drive south from the city to Athens (314 mi/505 km), and it takes about twice as long to reach Istanbul to the east (392 mi/631 km). To the north, the Macedonian capital of Skopje is a little more than three hours away (142 mi/230 km).
While it is small, Thessaloniki’s Macedonia Airport services regular flights from other Greek cities and numerous foreign countries, as well as seasonal charter flights. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly popular with budget airlines, causing big operators like British Airways to offer discounted fares.
One good and centrally located travel agency which offers dependable service is Remember Travel, near Kamara at 119 Egnatia (tel. 2310 246026; fax. 2310 209298; email).
Thessaloniki has no subway, but for your purposes, this will not present a problem. Although the city sprawls lengthwise along the water for seven and a half miles(12 km), and traffic from the bus station in the west and the airport in the east can be heavy, the prime places to visit are located in a relatively compact area around the city center.
As such Thessaloniki is a city for walking; whether you are shopping, going for a stroll along the waterfront, or following the winding alleys of the upper old town, setting out on foot in old ‘Salonica is always enjoyable.
The city boasts very frequent bus service, as well as a host of taxis, making it easy to get around. There are interesting details associated with both.
Bus tickets can be purchased for 45 cents at kiosks (often, ironically, with the exception of those located directly in front of bus stops!), or on the bus itself but for 50 cents; buying a 24-hour ticket for unlimited trips (2 euros) is thus not a bad idea. There are direct buses to the airport, train station and bus station.
Thessaloniki’s taxicab customs include picking up passengers at random, meaning you share a percentage of the fare with others; in general, most places within the city center should cost from 2-5 euros (the fare is slightly higher at night, however).
A trip to the airport, along the ring road to the north of the center, should run 8-12 euros from most places.
Visitors can rent cars, but since parking can be tight and the city is basically walkable, these are only necessary for those looking to travel elsewhere in northern Greece.
Forming a sort of central hub and prime meeting point for locals is the area known as Kamara, on Thessaloniki’s major thoroughfare, Egnatia Odos (street).
The 4th-century Arch of Emperor Galerius stands triumphantly along it, just down from the Roman Rotunda, an enormous circular construction that has been used as a Christian church and Ottoman mosque over the centuries. Across Egnatia, one encounters Roman ruins in Plateia (Square) Navarino, which leads down to the sea and the 15th-century White Tower, Thessaloniki’s most enduring landmark, once a Turkish prison that now hosts a small museum.
It was in Thessaloniki that the Apostle Paul delivered his famous sermons to the Macedonians, and it was here that, eight centuries later, the monks Cyril and Methodius were recruited to bring religion and a written alphabet (Cyrillic) to the Slavic populations to the north.
It’s thus little wonder that the city is rich in churches. The most beautiful of these date from the Byzantine period. The church of St. Sophia, a miniature of the grand Istanbul cathedral of the same name, and the well-frescoed Panagia Ahiropitos run along the northern side of Egnatia, while the 14th-century Monastery of Vlatadon and the Osios David overlook the modern city from the old quarter. The latter was built to commemorate the conversion of Theodora, daughter of Emperor Galerius the arch-builder.
Running perpendicular to the city, and hemming in the old town are the magnificent Byzantine walls of the 5th-century Emperor Theodosius. At their culmination above the city, visitors can enjoy fantastic views of the city and sea sprawled out below- especially nice in summer, at sunset or after dark, with all the lights of Thessaloniki twinkling in the balmy Mediterranean breeze.
Given all it’s history, it is no surprise that Thessaloniki is teeming with museums, among them the
Archaeological Museum (which houses the glorious gold treasures recovered from the tomb of Philip II, among many other things),
a small Jewish Museum
and more, including a Cinema Museum located right on the port.
A useful website created by locals is www.inthessaloniki.com which has lots of useful information for visitors.
To really get the Thessaloniki experience, copious amounts of time must be spent enjoying the city’s numerous cafés and eateries. This is not just a question of food and drink, but of feeling the leisurely pace of the Greek lifestyle.
Savor an aromatic Helliniko kafes (Greek coffee) in a traditional kafeneio (coffee house) where languid conversation melds with the click of backgammon played by black-bearded descendants of Anatolian Greek Pontians. Sip the adopted national drink, a cool Nescafé Frappé, outdoors on the waterfront, surrounded by the city’s dazzling people in the sun.
Be regaled by the bouzouki-driven rembetika, Greece’s version of the blues, in a classic blue-and-white tableclothed taverna offering pungent meats and mixed appetizers (mezedes) like baked eggplant, filo pies with cheese and kalamari.
Thessaloniki is a city that honors the convivial spirit of life lived out on the square- and always seeks to look good while doing it.
For various reasons, accommodation in Thessaloniki tends to be on the pricey side. The five-star Electra Palace, (tel. 2310 294-000; email) has a great location at 9 Plateia Aristotelous, a vibrant square near the sea; even if you don’t stay there, the fantastic views from the rooftop café make it worth visiting for a drink.
The Makedonia Palace (2 Megas Alexandrou; tel. 2310 897-197; email) located on the water and a ten-minute walk east from the White Tower, is another five-star luxury hotel, posh on the inside though not particularly beautiful from without.
On the other end of the price scale, for backpackers there is a Backpaker’s Refuge (Botstari St. 54644, tel. 0030 6983433591), a modest apartment offering basic but clean facilities to budget travelers (15 euros).
Best Eats, Drinks, and Desserts
Visitors to Thessaloniki are spoiled for choice when it comes to eating and drinking; usually a little aimless wandering is rewarded with a unique find. The ubiquitous taverna is a veritable institution in Greece; some of the best can be found in the restored historical quarters of Ladadika (located near the port and once a center for the olive oil trade), and Bit Pazar, a former Turkish market on the other side of Egnatia.
In the former, one standout restaurant is Krikelas (Salaminos 6; the restaurant also has a location in the eastern suburb of Kalamaria, at 32 Ethnikis Antistaseos). The latter location features a curious collection of tavernas and cafés of different types. One, the Evi Evan (Olimpou 68) is known as a mezedopolio, or a place where mixed appetizers (mezedes) are served. Another, the ouzerie Bit Bazaar (Prosfigikis agoras 35-36), is known for its ouzo (the famous Greek spirit distilled from the dregs of the grape and flavored with anisette).
In the quarter of the Kastra above Ano Poli, there are clustered several small tavernas like the To Makedoniko (Papadopolou 32).
Great seafood can be found at the waterfront tavernas of the Nea Krini neighborhood; the most famous one is the always-packed Miami (located at Thetidos 18). On the western side of town, dinner at Mylos, a converted flour mill Mylos (Georgiou 56) lasts long into the night when accompanied by music and dancing.
Those in search of a quick snack can be placated easily; Greek fast food is to be encountered on virtually every street corner in Thessaloniki.
In the morning, a breakfast consists of tyropita (cheese pies) or pougatsa (sweet cream pies dusted with sugar and cinnamon), both of which go well with Greek yogurt.
Later in the day, you may find yourself munching a gyros pita (shaved rotating meat in pita bread) or souvlaki (skewered chicken and pork). Ask for it ap’ola (with everything) and receive this Greek type of sandwich with tzadziki (yoghurt dip with bits of garlic and cucumber), sliced tomatoes, onions and fried potatoes. One unique eatery for sandwiches is the Cypriot-style To Etsi, which serves a variety of grilled meats in dry pitas, located on the tiny alley of Nikoforou Foka, just up from the White Tower.
Formidable baked goods and sweets are also widespread in Thessaloniki; such shops are known, respectively, as artopoieia and zaharoplasteia.
In the former category, one must try the crunchy, golden-brown koulouraki (perfect for dipping in coffee) available at the Kokkinos Fournos, on a corner just above the Rotunda (Apostolou Pavlou 1).
An excellent small chain of sweet shops, Agapitos (several central locations, including Egnatia and Tsimiski Streets) offers a variety of cakes, éclairs, baklavas and other Greek sweets.
Everywhere in Thessaloniki one finds numerous watering holes. The cafés that run along the waterfront are full day and night with well-dressed urbanites and on the eastern edge of the port, adjacent to the Cinema Museum, the enormous Kitchen Bar (Warehouse B, Limani) is a placid spot for enjoying a drink over the waves of the harbor.
An area with a different feel, but also featuring numerous small cafés, is that of Agiou Dimitrou, a long street that runs parallel with Egnatia, several blocks up to the north. Here, H Prigkipos, located adjacent to the Turkish consulate (Apostolou Pavlou 22), carries the hearty coffeehouse feel with weathered wood fixtures and a voluble student presence.
Chicer is Émigré with its sleek and polished interior, located at Alexandrou Svolou 54, a side street to the eastern side of Plateia Navarino. And on a side street to the other side of the square, one of the most interesting places in Thessaloniki to have a drink is Loxias (Isavron 7) a combination café and bookstore whose knowledgeable owner Ioannis is well versed in both the classics of Greek literature and philosophy and in the various kinds of wines and ouzo for which Greece is famous.
After Athens, Thessaloniki has the best and widest range of shopping in Greece. For a taste of the visceral (as well as some great photo opportunities) check out Modiano / Kapani, the open meat-and-vegetable market on the west side of Plateia Aristotelous. It’s full of gesticulating Greek grandmas and burly butchers in aprons wielding great curving knives.
The market is laden down with tomatoes and red peppers, hung lamb and fish and squid on beds of crushed ice, and also is close to more good cafés and eateries.
Thessaloniki’s best shopping is found on busy Tsimiski Street, which runs across the center, the third large street parallel with the water. Here are located the most fashionable (and expensive) of Greek and other European purveyors of clothing, jewelry and shoes, such as Swarovski, Migato, Benetton, Artisti Italiani, Morgan, Marks & Spencer, Intimissi and Zara.
Aside from the concentrated consumerism that is Tsimiski, good shopping can be found elsewhere in the city, especially in the fashionable neighborhood of Kalamaria in eastern Thessaloniki. However, the city also offers numerous small shops sprinkled along Egnatia and practically everywhere else, less brand-conscious but often offering surprisingly good quality for the price. It is just a matter of walking and keeping your eyes open.
Of course, if you are tired of such exertion and are in the market for pirated CDs or African tribal statues and archery sets, just relax in a café and wait for one of the omnipresent Nigerian traders to come and ply you with such merchandise.
Visas and Documents
Greece is a European Union member, which means it conforms to the Schengen Visa system, meaning that many visitors, Americans included, don’t need visas. More information on Greek visas can be found at landguagecourse.net, and also at the website of the Greek Embassy in Washington.
Health and Safety
Life in Thessaloniki is both healthy and safe. There are no strange diseases to beware of, nor is there much in the way of violent crime. Visitors can feel safe almost anywhere, though it is probably not advisable (or necessary) to go poking around the neighborhood where the train station is located late at night. The only sign of unruliness (aside from the frenetic and macho Greek motorcyclists) is found with the not uncommon street dogs, which are generally too lazy to bite. This is Greece, after all!
In addition to the links provided above, visitors might find the following of use:
Christopher Deliso is an American travel writer and journalist living in Skopje, Macedonia. He runs the Balkan-interest website Balkanalysis.com, and has published numerous articles in newspapers, magazines, and websites; a selection of them is available on the Travel Intelligence website.