The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Skip Athens – head for the most exciting city in Greece
Thessaloniki may be less visited than the capital, but for gastronomy and a cool cultural scene it is hard to beat, says Elise Morton
Variously referred to as a culinary haven and the “Shoreditch of Greece”, Thessaloniki bears the marks of a tempestuous history. Born of this are myriad cultural influences – all of which have left their mark on the city’s gastronomy, architecture and cultural scene.
Remarkably, however, Thessaloniki manages to maintain something of a contradiction: it is at once dubbed the home of “halara” – meaning “take it easy” – denoting a more chilled-out pace of life than hectic Athens, while boasting a youthful energy, largely thanks to the city’s large present-day student population. If you have never been, now is the time to go.
Ruins to rival Athens
OK, we’ll hand it to Athens – looking up from a plate of tzatziki to see the Parthenon towering over you is impressive. Nonetheless, while Thessaloniki’s ancient offering is perhaps a little less “in your face” than the Acropolis, it is no less rich.
Journeying back to antiquity means passing beneath the triumphal Arch of Galerius (known as Kamara), whose marble pillars are adorned with intricate carvings; imagining the hustle and bustle of the Roman Forum (Ancient Agora), the social and administrative centre of ancient Thessaloniki; and admiring the elaborate frescoes of the Rotonda, which since 306 AD has functioned variously as a temple, mosque and church. Speaking of which, it would be remiss not to check out the Byzantine-era churches of Hagia Sophia (modelled on its namesake in Istanbul) and Hagios Demetrios. Such is the ancient world’s prominence in the contemporary city, that over 300,000 artefacts have been dug up since construction on the city’s metro system began in 2006.
Dive into history
Thessaloniki remained part of the Ottoman Empire far beyond the 1820s Greek War of Independence that freed much of Greece from Ottoman rule. It wasn’t until 1912, after close to 500 years under the Ottomans, that Thessaloniki joined the rest of Greece. As a result, the Ottoman architectural legacy is more visible in this city than in Athens; indeed, the waterfront White Tower has become the beloved emblem of the city. Other Ottoman architectural gems to look out for include the Alaca Imaret Mosque and the city’s first Ottoman bathhouse, the Bey Hamam. If you would rather take in history while sipping a cocktail, Aigli Geni Hamam has been converted from a bathhouse to an in-demand party venue.
Stroll the city
Like your historical exploring with a side portion of panoramic views? Make the steep climb up through the stone-paved streets and quaint squares of Ano Poli (literally the “upper city”) to discover one of the only neighbourhoods to survive the Great Fire of 1917.
For a stroll that is easier on the calf muscles, the promenade – or Nea Paralia – stretches three miles from the city’s port to the imposing Megaro Mousikis Concert Hall. Here, you will find George Zongolopoulos’s muchInstagrammed “Umbrellas” installation, and a triumphal monument to Alexander the Great. Walk as night falls to admire the sunset across the Thermaic Gulf; if you are lucky, you may see Mount Olympus across the bay.
Sample unique cuisine
We’re not saying the food here is better than in Athens … but Unesco did designate Thessaloniki Greece’s first city of gastronomy in November 2021, further solidifying its reputation as Greece’s de facto foodie city. Just saying.
Thessaloniki’s culinary offering reflects its history and the diverse communities that have called the city home: think spiced soutzoukakia meatballs at Diavasi; sesame-topped koulouria bread rings from street sellers or speciality shop Mon Kulur; and syrupy trigona pastries from Trigona Elenidi. Whether you have a sweet tooth or constant cheese cravings, bougatsa – layered filo pastry stuffed with feta or sweet semolina custard (doused in icing sugar and cinnamon) – has become the ultimate Thessaloniki breakfast (despite having its origins in Byzantine Constantinople).
Discover contemporary creativity
Beyond the Museum of Byzantine Culture and the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, which showcase ancient craftsmanship, the city’s contemporary cultural spaces and events have earnt it comparisons with San Francisco and Shoreditch.
The city is also home to the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which attracts film buffs each November, while documentary fans flock to the Documentary Festival in March. Year round, art enthusiasts can take in the State Museum of Contemporary Art, which houses the
Costakis Collection (costakiscollection. com), one of the world’s most extensive collections of Russian avant-garde art, or visit the city’s photography museum. The MOMus-Thessaloniki Museum of Photography (momus.gr) is the only public museum in the country exclusively dedicated to the medium of photography. “Its collection, both historical and contemporary, exceeds 100,000 photographic artefacts,” explains the museum’s director, Iro Katsaridou.
Other favourite galleries include Villa Bianca, the Teloglion Fine Arts Foundation, Myro Gallery and creative space-cum-bar Ypsilon. What’s more, when you visit the latter, you can tick off that other key Greek experience: enjoying an ice-cold freddo cappuccino.