The inside guide to Thessaloniki, Greece’s offbeat second city

Greece’s quirky second city sat at the heart of great empires for two millennia. Today, it offers up historic sites alongside some of the country’s best nightlife and cuisine.

By Helen Iatrou
Published 4 Mar 2021, 08:46 GMT, Updated 12 Mar 2021, 12:19 GMT
Wickerwork stalls in Athonos Square in Thessaloniki.

Wickerwork stalls in Athonos Square in Thessaloniki.

Photograph by Yadid Levy

It’s impossible to understand the offbeat charm of modern-day Thessaloniki without first knowing a little of the forces that shaped it. The Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires all staked a claim to the port city, founded in 315BC, and each saw the addition of new monuments, crypts, churches and culinary quirks that paved the way for today’s affluent melting pot city.

Any introduction to Thessaloniki should start with Aristotelous Square, designed by French architect Ernest Hébrard after a fire devastated the city’s labyrinthine Ottoman lanes and Jewish quarter in 1917. Note the sophisticated Electra Palace Hotel, with its rooftop restaurant, and the grand Olympion Cinema, before promenading along the three-mile waterfront — a favourite local pastime. 

Here, views of Mount Olympus compete with manmade wonders like the 20ft-tall statue of Alexander the Great, unveiled in 1974 and sculptor George Zongolopoulos’s stainless steel Umbrellas, installed in 1997 to celebrate the city’s designation as European Capital of Culture. 

Another icon of the city lies on this waterside stretch: the White Tower (originally called the Lion Tower by the conquering 15th-century Ottomans, who built it to bolster their defences), which houses a permanent exhibition celebrating the city’s multicultural past and present.  

Continue the history lesson at the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. It tells the story of the city’s once-thriving Jewish population (dating back to the city’s founding in 315 BC), which was all but wiped out during the Holocaust.

A short walk brings you to the well-preserved ancient Agora, the Roman-era heart of public life. Today, young creatives flock to art shows held at the nearby Nitra Gallery and Bey Hamam, the city’s oldest Ottoman bathhouse. Meanwhile, down at the port, abandoned warehouses have been repurposed into equally dynamic venues: don’t miss MOMUS Thessaloniki Museum Of Photography or MOMUS Experimental Centre For The Arts

If exploring has worked up your appetite, you’re in the right place: considered Greece’s culinary capital, Thessaloniki takes pride in its amalgam of flavours borrowed from Anatolia and the Middle East. Check out comforting meze at Full Tou Meze and faultless seafood at Marea Sea Spirit

When night falls, students bar hop in the cobblestone alleyways of Ladadika, the former oil and spice merchants’ district, and along Valaoritou. Pop into Vogatsikou 3 for an extensive gin list, then head to The Blue Cup for cutting-edge cocktails. Finish the night in true Thessalonian style at Aigli Geni Hamam, a 16th-century Ottoman public bathhouse converted into an atmospheric club-restaurant. 

How to do it
Book a walking tour with Thessaloniki Urban Adventures.

Love food and travel? Get to know Greek cuisine at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 17-18 July 2021 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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