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Thessaloniki might be Greece’s second city, but it’s certainly no underdog. Dubbed The Nymph of the Thermaic Gulf, Thessaloniki is nested in the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea and serves as a key maritime transportation hub and the unofficial but true cultural capital for Greece. Plus, how many cities are quasi-neighbours with the entire cast of Greek mythology? That’s right, Mount Olympus lies some 90 kilometres southwest of the city and it’s where the twelve Olympians Gods were once believed to spend their scheming days. Though almost 2,400 years old, Thessaloniki has never been younger. It’s home to Greece’s and the Balkans’ largest uni, Aristotle University, the annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the Biennale of Contemporary Art and the most vibrant entertainment and culinary scene in all of Greece.
Thessaloniki’s history started in the 4th century BC when King Cassander of Macedon united dozens of villages under the city that he named after his wife, Thessalonike, daughter of King Philip II and half-sister of Alexander the Great. By the 2nd century BC it had grown into a bustling, fortified metropolis of strategic importance to the Romans. It later became the second largest and wealthiest city of the Byzantine Empire, before submitting to almost five centuries of Ottoman rule. What’s astonishing is that under all these years of foreign occupation, the only thing Thessaloniki really surrendered was its independence, but none of its identity, continuous growth or immense cultural wealth. By the time Greece liberated it in 1912, Thessaloniki was a melting pot of Greek Othodox, Muslim and Jewish residents, and a living scrapbook of Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Sephardic Jewish heritage.
Visit the city’s symbol, the 15th-century White Tower. Overlooking Thessaloniki’s harbour, the robust structure served as a major line of defence for its coastline and also as a notorious prison under Ottoman rule. Of course, it’s all too easy to forget the tower’s gloomy days while enjoying the breathtaking view of the Thermaic Gulf and Saloniki from the top. Walk in the Romans’ footsteps at the Roman Forum, located at the upper side of Aristotelous Square. Follow the Roman trail in the imperial throne room of Emperor Galerius at Navarinou Square and marvel at the Arch of Galerius, aka Kamara, erected to celebrate his victory over the Sassanid Persians. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki is one of the country’s most cherished museums. Absolute highlights include the 200,000-year-old Petralona Skull, the oldest traces of human existence in Greece and the Derveni Papyrus, an ancient Macedonian papyrus roll that was entered into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2015. No guide, no matter how brief, would be complete without mentioning one of Thessaloniki’s more contemporary cultural indulgences, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Every autumn, Greece’s second city becomes the capital of international filmmaking, screening hundreds of Greek and foreign movies to some 70,000 film buffs over a ten-day event.
Start your culinary exploration with the city’s trademark pastry: Trigona Panoramatos. Most locals will tell you that nothing will ever come even close to Trigona Elenidi, the trigonas made by the baker who originally invented the genre. Or head to Panagias Faneromenis and give in to temptation at Bantis, a family-run affair where bougatsa is more of an art than pastry. As far as main dishes go, Soutzoukakia Smyrneika, aka ground pork and beef meatballs cooked in tomato-wine sauce, is a must-try, along with tigianá, locals’ favourite pan-fried pork. Also, make sure to grab a gyros at least once. Mourga is a newer addition to Thessaloniki’s booming foodie scene, but what comes out of its open kitchen is as authentic as it can get. Sempriko by the western Byzantine Walls serves up everything that’s great about local gastronomy and raises it by a grocery store where you can buy most of what you’ve just had, including local cheeses and wines. Just south of Egnatia Street is Ouzeri Lola, not just a good ol’ ouzeri but more of an institution. Run by the same family for almost three decades, the cosy tavern has an ever-growing cult following, thanks to its fresh mezze dishes, huge selection of ouzo and tsipouro and, most importantly, the owner’s much-praised shrimp pasta.
Thessaloniki’s centre is essentially one big open-air shopping complex bordered by four main streets: Egnatia Street, Ethnikis Amynis Street, Nikis Avenue and Venizelou Street. Tsimiski Avenue is the main shopping artery, flanked by international fashion brands, big and small, bookstores and chic cafés. Ermou Street and Proxenou Koromila Street offer a more modest selection of boutiques but a bigger hit to your wallet. If bargain-hunting is your cardio, Egnatia Street is the place for you. No matter your budget though, Thessaloniki’s historic markets, all fifty of them, will treat you well. Thessaloniki’s nightlife scene is just as diverse and stimulating as its cultural and retail landscape, with the hippest places dotted along the narrow streets of the Ladadika district. Neighbourhood staples and newcomers abound on Katouni Street and around Agia Sophia Square, stretching over to the Xyladika quarter. A short walk from the White Tower of Thessaloniki, Hoppy Pub is heaven on earth for craft beer aficionados, with about 20 Greek and foreign beers on tap. La Doze on Villara Street is another cult favourite. Recently crowned as the best bar outside Athens, it shakes up some hundred different cocktails, from classics to creatives, to the sound of the best electronic beats.
Thessaloniki is a great jumping-off point for exploring Northern Greece’s many charms. Make your way to Pella or Vergina, both within an hour’s drive from the city. Pella is known as the birthplace of Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great, and the one-time capital of Macedonia and later the whole of Greece. Today, the Archaeological Site of Pella harbours the remains of the city’s acropolis, a broad agora and gorgeous 4th-century BC mosaics, and is complete with an excellent on-site museum. Vergina is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of ancient Aegae, another former Macedonian capital and the royal burial place of the Macedonian kings. No trip to Thessaloniki (or to Greece for that matter) is complete without a visit to Mount Olympus (Ólymbos), the cloud-shrouded abode of the gods. Its highest peak, Mytikas, towers above the Aegean Sea at 2,918 metres, and is visible from Thessaloniki on a clear day. If you’re planning to climb right up to the top, the full trek usually takes two to three days, with several refuges along the way for overnight stays. Just a word of advice: it’s quite a strenuous hike, so plan an early start. Plus, clouds often descend on the peaks around midday and you wouldn’t want to miss the views!
Thessaloniki is served by the Macedonia International Airport, located 15 kilometres southeast of the city. Bus no. X1 and bus no. N1 (night bus) leave every 30 minutes from the airport to the central railway station of Thessaloniki and to the Macedonia InterCity Bus Terminal. Taxis and car rental options are also available.
Thessaloniki's climate, just like the city itself, is quite complex. It’s humid subtropical with Mediterranean accents, windy, frosty winters and hot, humid summers. In winter months, fog is quite common, snowfall is rather sporadic and temperatures average at 6°C even in the coldest month, January. Summer temperatures usually flirt with 30°C, with July being the hottest month with occasional heatwaves.