Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, is a mélange of culture and activity. Though a Turkish city until1912 (as part of the Ottoman Empire), Thessaloniki is now most definitely Greek. It is a major destination and port entry to the Balkans, specifically the former-Yugoslavia. There is a hint of South Beach in the atmosphere, and a 2007 New York Times story called it “the Seattle of the Balkans.”
|The waterfront in Thessaloniki|
Remnants of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires are everywhere. Until World War II it was home to a major Jewish community which comprised more than half of the city’s population into the early 20th Century. History is unavoidable, beaches are nearby, the city center sits directly on a major harbor and offers pervasive nightlife.
On a clear day Mount Olympus is visible across the Thermaic Gulf. One could have a good vacation without doing much of anything, strolling around, shopping, eating seafood,stopping periodically in any one of the infinite cafés. But there are plenty of options for the ambitious as well. The city is serviced by an international airport with flights from major European capitals, as well as trains and buses. Trains from Athens can take anywhere from 4-6 hours. (Or book a day trip or multi-day trip to Thessaloniki from Athens over on the Viator website.)
Thessaloniki: Getting Oriented
Aristoteleous is the main square in Thessalonik’s city center and a good way to orient yourself. It sits on the water with a pedestrian shopping street (of the same name) running in the other direction. Running perpendicular is a major shopping street, Tsimiski. Shopping in Thessaloniki is on par with many other major European cities with both well known luxury brands and small boutiques heavily represented, but bargains are hard to find.
Strolling around the city center one frequently happens upon archaeological excavation sites. Thessaloniki is in the process of constructing a subway system, but the process if regularly slowed as digging unearths remnants of the region’s ancient past and such relics are likely to remain on display within the metro system once it becomes active (the target date for completion is 2012). For now an extensive bus system is the best way to navigate the city if not by foot. Taxis are also accessible and reasonably priced (15 Euros from the city center to the airport).
Thessaloniki: Eat, Drink, Dance
Plateia Athonos is full of traditional tavernas buzzing with crowds at night and is good place to enjoy a slow dinner in the evening at outdoor tables. Order ouzo and several small dishes to share. The scene can be a bit chaotic at meal time, but that is part of the fun. Must eat or drinks on any visit to Thessaloniki include calamari and grilled octopus (any kid of seafood really), tzatziki (a yogurt and cucumber sauce) and the standard Greek favorite, gyros.
Nikis Avenue runs along the harbor and is packed with cafés and bars. Most waterfront drinking spots seem some sort of hybrid between trendy club and café. Electronic music often pulses inside, but step outside to one of the sidewalk tables for a more low-volume experience and sea air. Drinks, in general, are not cheap, but usually come with snacks and when one drinks like a local you will be sipping and sitting for awhile. A Thessalonian favorite is the frappé, a milky iced coffee slush, giving a refreshing caffeine boost. Themaikos is one the oldest bars in the area and hosts DJs at night. Elvis is another such hot spot nearby.
For something slightly more active, a popular club worth checking out is LIEBE. In the summer, floating boat bars make tours of the harbor. Omilos is a café sitting on a small pier just off the main strip with outdoor couches and water lapping practically up to the table. Enter the gate near the port area for the Kitchen Bar, an upper-crust restaurant that also has café tables outside for drinks.
Things to Do in Thessaloniki
Do not miss the party scene or café culture, but for some intellectual stimulation during your days, there are many museums in town tochoose from. The landmark of the city is the White Tower. A waterfront castle-like structure, it dates from the Ottoman times and formerly guarded the city’s sea wall as well as serving as a military station and prison amongst other things. It now houses part of a Byzantine museum and provides a stunning view of the harbor.
Byzantine churches dot the city center and are not to be missed. Most date from between the 5th and 14th centuries. The best know of these are Agia Sophia and St. Demetrios. The founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, was born in Thessaloniki (when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire). His former residence is a museum with free admission.
The Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum is also highly recommended. There are exhibits dating from the region’s prehistoric period, but prominently featured are remnants from the 7th century Kingdom of Macedonia and displays dating from Thessaloniki’s days as part of the Roman Empire.
Thessaloniki Day Trips & Excursions
The three fingers of the nearby Halkidiki peninsula (one big peninsula with three little peninsulas on it) are frequent destinations for foreign tourists and Thessalonians alike. The second finger, Sithonia, is the best known for its beaches (the first finger is called Kassandra).
During the warm months the highway from Thessaloniki to the beach is packed each Friday and Sunday evening. The village of Nikiti is a combination of beach homes, small resorts, seaside restaurants and beaches with the older village a bit off the beaten path. In recent years it has become a favorite of German vacationers. The third finger of this peninsula (the most easterly) is called Athos and is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox Monasteries. The area is only accessible by boat and with special permission from church officials. No women are admitted to the area which has a full name translating as the “Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain.”
The town of Vergina, about 50 miles southwest of Thessaloniki is home to the tombs of ancient Macedonian kings, including Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father. The Vergina Museum now exposes this area to travelers, on the site of the former ancient capital city of Aigai.
Viewable from the city, when it is not too humid (which in the summer it often is) is Mount Olympus. The mythological mountain and the nearby village and archaeological site/museum at its base, Dion, are about 60 miles from Thessaloniki. The site was a traditional venue for paying homage to Zeus.