Thessaloniki: Sophistication and Sustenance in Greece’s Cultural Capital

By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2006)

While old ‘Salonika’ is weighed down with history, it is also livened up by an irrepressible young population that gives it an ambiance of fashionable dynamism. The youthful spirit of modern-day Thessaloniki, combined with the city’s wealth of things to see and do and its excellent eateries, make the city an appealing destination and a natural antidote to overcrowded islands and the congestion of Athens.

Thessaloniki is also the natural axis for travelers seeking to explore northern Greece. Not far to the west are Vergina, site of the burial tombs of Philip II of Macedon, and picturesque country towns like lush lakeside Kastoria and Edessa with its thundering waterfall. To the southeast of the city are the three ‘fingers’ of the Halkidiki Peninsula, the first two being popular beachfront getaways in summer and the third host of the monastic communities of Mt. Athos, which have existed for over a thousand years and preserve traditions in churches whose artwork attests to some of the most important surviving creations of the Byzantine era. Since all visitors to the Holy Mountain must pick up their permission note in Thessaloniki, the city (which also has regular buses to all points east and west) makes a good point of origin. Beyond Halkidiki, further to the east of Thessaloniki one reaches the port town of Kavala, the forested island of Thasos, magical Ottoman-era houses in lovely Xanthi, and eventually, Istanbul (about a 10-12 hour drive from the city).

Salonika: Awash in History

Modern-day Thessaloniki has been shaped by a turbulent history. A catastrophic fire in 1917 gutted large parts of city’s the oldest architecture, while the Nazi occupation during World War II resulted in the destruction of what had been a thriving Jewish presence. As a result the city was reborn, for better or worse, according to a grid plan of compact apartment blocks, white facades and square balconies shining in the sun, scattered over and around the remnants of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman structures.

Near the very center of the city, a point known as Kamara, stand some of Thessaloniki’s most well known ancient landmarks. The 4th century Arch of Galerius, a Roman construction with figurines depicting battle with the Persians frozen in time, stands alongside Egnatia St. It is just down from the Rotunda, another Roman construction that was originally an imperial mausoleum, then a Christian cathedral and finally an Ottoman mosque. Today it is being restored and is open to the public.

On the other side of Egnatia, in the Plateia Navarino (Navarino Square), a long section of excavated Roman ruins leads down to the sea, where stands perhaps the best known emblem of Thessaloniki- the White Tower. Once a prison that saw savage massacre of naughty janissaries in Turkish times, this 15th-century construction now hosts a small museum and offers great views of the Thermaikos Kolpos (Thermaic Gulf).

Despite the easy proximity of these sites and others stretching westwards along Egnatia, such as the churches of St Sophia and Panagia Ahiropitos with its exquisite paintings, Thessaloniki’s most intriguing sites are found in the little streets of Ano Poli (‘Upper Town’), where remain the few traditional houses built before the catastrophic fires of and 1918. One can enjoy the walk up through narrow alleys of colorful old wood-shuttered houses or lope up along the Byzantine walls of the 5th-century Emperor Theodosius. From the top, in the shade of the walled gate, romantics can enjoy magnificent views of the city and waterfront; they are best viewed at night when the city is lit up beneath, and a couple of nearby Greek tavernas make for hearty dining.

The upper town also features more charming churches such as the stately 14th-century Monastery of Vlatadon and the much older Osios David, built to commemorate the conversion of Theodora, daughter of Emperor Galerius – a fond persecutor of Christians. Some of Thessaloniki’s grandest monuments, such as the triumphal arch and the Rotunda, were built by this emperor in the first decade of the 4th century.

Indeed, the past is never far in Thessaloniki, whose streets are named after philosophers and patriarchs and presidents. The city has numerous excellent museums, such as the centrally located Archaeological Museum (which houses the loot from the tomb of Philip II) a Museum of Folklore and Ethnology, a Museum of Byzantine Culture, small Jewish Museum, and more, including a Photography Museum located right on the port.

Strolling by the Seaside and Life in the Cafés

The waterfront has always been a prime spot for evening walks in Thessaloniki, and it is strung across with cafés and bars. Greek café culture is pronounced in Thessaloniki, enjoyed as it is by all age groups and as often as possible. A wide range of cafés serve perennial favorites such as black-bronze Greek coffee and the airy frappé, made with whipped-up water, sugar and Nescafé, though plenty of espresso-based drinks, fresh-squeezed juices, delicate teas and more are to be found.

Establishments run the gamut from the austere to the chic. The traditional Greek kafeneion has today more often than not become characterized by an uncomplicated, almost unfurnished interior reclaimed by elderly men in well-worn suits conspiring over diminutive cups of leathery Greek coffee. Trendier places come with delicate furnishings and plush couches and crumbly cupside cookies. However, Greeks young and old alike go in for backgammon; the whir and click of black and red chips being tossed and stacked is a fixture of café life in Thessaloniki during the day.

Although this laid-back university town seems to be decorated with more than its fair share of Communist protest posters, an antipathy to labor rather than ideals is probably more the reason for ferment, such as there is. The Greek love of leisure and good conversation lends a different feel to café life here, and it is infectious; indeed, it’s impossible to get through a day in Salonika without stopping in somewhere for a drink hot or cold. Just make sure to specify, when ordering your Helliniko (Greek coffee), whether it will be sketo, metrio or glyko (without sugar, semi-sweet or sweet).

Shopping and Sweets

After Athens, Thessaloniki has perhaps the best and widest range of shopping in Greece. In the open market near Plateia Aristotelous and Eleftherios Venezelos Street, garrulous salesmen hawk fruits and vegetables and fish on ice, wielding convincing knives over blocks of meat and watery pans of feta cheese. Numerous little stores along the main east-west thoroughfare, Egnatia, sell inexpensive and sometimes quite respectable shoes, clothing and myriad household goods.

High-end shopping can be found a few streets down towards the port, on Tsimiski (named after a Byzantine emperor), which runs parallel to Egnatia and which hosts leading Greek and international name-brand shops such as Zara, Swarovski, Migato and Benetton. And many of the residential neighborhoods, like the upscale eastern suburb of Kalamaria, are havens of commerce as well.

All throughout the city one finds numerous excellent zaharoplasteia (sweet shops, patisseries), which can be either tiny family-run establishments or larger operations. All are kept clean and are cheerily outfitted with shiny glass counters from which peek out innumerable opulent cakes, tasty tarts and foil-wrapped chocolates. Offerings range from French-style gateaux to Eastern specialties like baklava and gourabi. Thessaloniki’s zaharoplasteia are synonymous with sheer indulgence, Greek style, and available on almost every block, though the best are found in the center.

Dining and Nightlife

As with its cafés and patisseries, Thessaloniki offers a wealth of options for eating out, from fast food places serving the ubiquitous skewered souvlaki to posh halls of fine dining. A traditional ethos pervades two restored old areas, Ladadika near the port, a survivor of the 1917 fire and a former center of the olive oil trade, and the former Turkish market of Bit Pazar. Both host open-air restaurants and bars where excellent Greek mezedes (mixed plates of appetizers) and main courses are served. The old town, Ano Poli, also has its share of fine eateries. For seafood, the waterfront tavernas of the Nea Krini neighborhood are a favorite with the locals. But no matter where you are in the city, the chances are good that you’ll stumble upon something tasty.

Greeks don’t tend to get started with eating until late, which helps the whole nightlife ambience to blend into one agreeable commotion of music, food and impassioned gesticulation. Thessaloniki’s notable student population has added significantly to the city’s reputation for nightlife. Pulsating nightclubs and trendy bars play everything from techno to Greek pop to Western rock & roll; refreshingly, there are no imported chain pubs. Smaller theme-oriented places include Oriental-fashioned watering holes and a sweaty little bar reserved for aficionados of Latin dance.

Of course, in keeping with the locals’ gregarious, outgoing nature, sense for fashion and love of showing off said fashion, Thessaloniki bars can be expensive, loud and gaudy affairs, something that isn’t particularly bad for lively, expressive sorts. But the city does have a variety of places ranging from hectic student pubs to cool night cafés and more relaxed rembetika (old-style Greek ‘blues’) bars with their bouzouki-fed meditations. There are also plenty of discos, the biggest among them being found on the eastern outskirts towards the airport.

Getting There, Getting Around

Thessaloniki is well connected nationally and internationally by all means of transport. Regular buses and trains go to Athens (6-8 hours to the south) and its major ferry hub of Piraeus which provides access to the islands. From Thessaloniki itself one can also take ferries directly to several northern Aegean islands, as well as more distant points. As mentioned, the city is connected by car, rail and bus to Istanbul, Turkey, and trains regularly make the trip to Sofia, Bulgaria, and thereafter to Bucharest, Romania. One hour straight north of Thessaloniki is the border with the Republic of Macedonia and while there is no bus, a train operates twice a day to Skopje, continuing on to Belgrade and Zagreb and terminating in Ljublana, Slovenia.

Thessaloniki’s small airport connects the city with all points in Greece and several European destinations. It is a favorite with German budget airlines and bigger operators like British Airways also fly to Thessaloniki.

Getting around the city involves buses and taxis, both of which are plentiful. The former have seen some improvement this year with two-euro tickets good for unlimited trips within a 24-hour period, though most routes stop around midnight. The taxis can be confusing for visitors because of the local habit of picking up random passengers along the way with everyone chipping in a portion of the fare. But the rate does change to become more expensive at night.

On the other hand, the most popular places for visitors are within a reasonable walking distance and there are enough diversions along the way to keep it interesting. So there is no real need for a metro, though the subject of building one comes up from time to time. Considering that the city runs parallel with the water and is bisected by long, straight streets, it is also very hard to get lost here.

With the sophisticated offerings of a large city but the ambience of a small one, Thessaloniki thus remains sufficiently walkable, and visitors will enjoy getting a feeling for the city with leisurely strolls through quarters both historic and modern. Indeed, there is no better way for attuning oneself to the spirit of this ancient city than by setting out on foot, preferably bringing along a camera but no map and definitely no plan.