A break in Thessaloniki: what to see, do, eat and ponder

Destinations

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Be inspired by Andrew Fraser’s two-day break in Thessaloniki — from the sights and history to the nightlife and culinary delights

Thessaloniki, perched on the Aegean coast, is Greece’s relaxed northern star. Join me as I immerse myself in all it has to offer, and you might just fall in love with the place too.

As I stepped out onto the tarmac outside Thessaloniki Airport, I felt the warmth wrap around my bones. Just knowing I’m in Greece makes me happy. I’ve only been a handful of times, but this place always leaves me with a relaxed, fuzzy feeling. If you respect the local way of life, you’ll be accepted into this country not just as a tourist, but as a mutually-respected guest.

A city steeped in historical conflict

View of the White Tower across the sea at dusk — Shutterstock The White Tower is a relic of the Byzantine Empire — Shutterstock

Thessaloniki doesn’t feel like a Greek city and (say it very quietly around here) just over 100 years ago, it very much wasn’t. In 1890, only 13.5% of the population here were Greek. Jews made up 46.5% and 22% were Muslim, mostly of Turkish origin. By the eve of World War I, the Greek population of Salonika, as it was then known, was still only a quarter.

With its grand boulevards and open squares, it has an air more like a southern, nautical Budapest than that of noisy, squawking Athens. It only struck me later that this surely must be the legacy of the Jewish population. The Nazis wiped out the city’s Jews; they may be gone, but their presence is still very much felt.

As is evident at this point, Thessaloniki was once a very multicultural city. The footprints of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires can still be traced. But Balkan wars, followed by two world wars, devastated the place. The vicious Balkan conflagration — a rehearsal for World War I — saw the departure of the Bulgarian population and thousands of Muslims, when this city was won, unexpectedly, by Greece.

The wars of the early twentieth century saw the city overwhelmed when tens of thousands of Greek refugees arrived from Asia Minor. In 1917, a great fire devastated a city already on its knees. Next came the disaster of the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22 when Greece, encouraged by Britain, undertook the conquering of great swathes of Asia Minor. The Turks came roaring back, reinvigorated by Ataturk. Smyrna was wiped off the map and concreted over as İzmir, while polyglot Salonika was reinvented as Greek Thessaloniki.

Today’s allure of Thessaloniki

View over Aristotelous Square — ShutterstockView over Aristotelous Square in the city center — Shutterstock

Despite its ancient past, Thessaloniki feels like a very young city. This is a university town, and the past perhaps taught its people to seize the day. The Greeks are sentimental, party-loving and welcoming, and Thessaloniki offers a rich Greek experience, full of cool bars and sexy food. It has that bracing optimism and never-say-die spirit that all great port cities seem to have. All roads lead down to the sea where you can find a nice sundowner shack, drink ouzo, eat fresh calamari and feel that sense of completeness which comes only with a sea view. All this, and with a thriving arts and party circuit, I can’t think of a better low-cost flight destination in Europe.

A quick midday indulgence

Gyros wrapped in pita bread on a wooden slate — ShutterstockGyros, succulently-grilled meat with assorted garnishes, is the quintessential Greek fast food — Shutterstock

My first meal is at Thessaloniki’s legendary Devido restaurant, where the counters heave with grilled meats, salads, tzatziki and paprika “sos”. This is fast food the way it ought to be done, and the portion sizes are generous. There are actually three Devidos in the city — on Nik. Plastira and on 25is Martiou in the south of the city, and on Karaoli ke Dimitriou in the north.

The concepts of gyros and souvlaki are often tainted by association with the cheap and greasy fast-food rendition of the doner kebab that’s widely available in countries further west. What gyros and souvlaki are, in fact, are masterpieces of marinated, grilled and charcoaled pork, chicken and lamb, heavenly salads adorned with crumbled feta, smoky aubergine dips, and of course, a handful of fries. They’re as much a part of national identity as the Acropolis, brandy, and shoes with bobbles on the toes.

Municipal Art Gallery

Exterior of Villa Bianca, the building that houses the Municipal Art Gallery in Thessaloniki — Pappasadrian, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons Villa Bianca has housed the Municipal Art Gallery since 2013 — Pappasadrian, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After lunch, I visit the Municipal Art Gallery, a beautiful piece of eclecticist architecture in the south of the city, with a tragic history. It was built in the early twentieth century by Dino Fernandez Diaz, an Italian-Jewish industrialist. The villa was passed down to his daughter, Alina, who married her lower-class Christian lover against the wishes of her family. It was an example of how love could transcend convention before madness and savagery took over in Europe once again.

When the Nazis took Salonika in 1941, they confiscated the property. Alina’s family fled to Italy, where they were murdered by the SS, but Alina and her husband survived the war. The mansion itself is not a sad place; it is strangely optimistic.

The windows are big and generous with light flooding in from all around. Now it is festooned with the very art that her family’s Nazi tormentors set out to destroy. You sense that Alina would be proud of her home’s new mission, and on the day of my visit, the gallery was showcasing works by Greek Australians. The place is modern, upbeat and happy.

Deluxe lodging

Dark and modern interior of the Chan restaurant — The Met HotelThe cozy and ultra-slick Chan restaurant at The Met Hotel is a great place for dinner before going out to party — The Met Hotel

I booked a room at The Met Hotel down by the docks — a vision in dark wood and brown velvet. It’s a shamelessly hip hotel, which seems a little incongruous amid Thessaloniki’s timelessness. But it’s a cozy, chilled, relaxing space and a nice place for an early evening drink before you head off to party.

The best thing about the hotel is its restaurant, Chan, which does a nifty riff on Asian/Greek fusion cuisine – it’s a much more harmonious blend of cooking styles and ingredients than you might imagine. The restaurant is fashionably dark, which is especially good if you’re looking a bit rough. But it’s maybe not so great if, like me, you suffer from poor night vision and run the risk of blundering face-first into your partner’s gold-dusted chocolate bombe.

It’s all so sensuously black – the kind of place you’d expect to see Batman sat playing footsie with Catwoman. With a rooftop pool and bar – from which you get some amazing views over the city and out to sea as far as Mount Olympus – this is definitely a place where money is no object and hedonism still rules. It’s not for everyone, sure, but if you’re able to skimp on other things, it’s worth spending a bit more money to stay at a hotel that exudes comfort and general excellence in the way that this one does.

Out on the town

People dancing by a bar — ShutterstockThe clubbing scene in Thessaloniki is vibrant, friendly and safe — Shutterstock

That evening, I found myself at Thessaloniki’s pre-eminent gay bar, cleverly (or darkly) named Enola. It’s a lovely, welcoming place at which you’re guaranteed a good time, and to let all your problems go for another day. 

As well-dressed people of different identities dance and drink in the happiest, most attitude-free environment you could hope to encounter, I notice an incredible thing, something I can’t imagine seeing in any other major European city. Along the bar next to me, there are about seven wallets and five phones. Their owners had just put them down and wandered off to dance or socialize. Had I been in a less fortunate position, I could have run off with the lot in an instant. Remember this is a country where nobody steals from their neighbor.

A tour of tales

Byzantine ruin walls in Thessaloniki's Old Town — ShutterstockThe Byzantine walls of Salonika Old Town have seen some turbulent times — Shutterstock

The next day, I’m taken on a tour of Salonika Old Town, up in the hills above the city. We walk along the city walls that have seen invasion after invasion, but that now gaze dreamily and peacefully over the bay shimmering in the Sunday morning sunshine. This was where the first refugees, forced out of Asia Minor, arrived and were squeezed into the homes of departed Turks and Bulgarians.

It’s the most architecturally complete section of this often disjointed city. In Thessaloniki, there has perhaps been a reluctance to preserve elements of the past that recast it as a one-time international city belonging to no nation. There’s a lot of graffiti in Thessaloniki, some of it witty or just plain amusing, such as the proclamation to “Blow up your granny” in the party district. But a lot of it is just destructive, on historic buildings which don’t deserve to be defaced.

Arch of Galerius — iStockThe Arch of Galerius, built in 299 CE — iStock

I wonder, to my tour guide, Elina, whether there’s a disconnection between young people and Thessaloniki’s former life as Salonika. “I don’t think there has been much honesty in the teaching of the past either here, or in Turkey. But it is time,” she says.

Elina has been involved in cultural exchange programs with İzmir, Thessaloniki’s sister in suffering. Just as Thessaloniki was Salonika, İzmir was Smyrna, the greatest Greek city in the world – far bigger and more successful than Athens on the eve of its utter destruction. Now, much of what we think of as Thessaloniki, the food, the culture, the traditions, is actually Smyrniot. And much of Izmir is old Salonika. The two cities exchanged their unwanted residents and erased their collective memories. It seems terribly sad to me, and I wish I could somehow visit these lost cities.

Agia Sophia church — ShutterstockThe Agia Sophia church is part of a Unesco World Heritage Site — Shutterstock

Down at the beautiful Agia Sofia church, based on the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, we see Russian and Bulgarian tourists arriving to pray. Despite the destruction, this place is still redolent with some of the atmosphere of the old Balkans of Byzantines and Ottomans.

Agia Sofia has changed from church to mosque and back as many times as Thessaloniki has changed identities throughout its history. Each owner likes to think it is solely their property, but ancient Salonika belongs to itself and is of itself.

Departing thoughts

Aerial view of Thessaloniki seafront — iStockAll roads lead to the seafront — iStock

My last afternoon is spent mooching along the gorgeous broad bay picking at seafood and pickles and looking out across the Aegean towards Turkey, over moody seas where countless refugees have drowned escaping Syria. This is just the latest brutal population expulsion in this part of the world; Thessaloniki has seen it too many times.

I have dinner outdoors in a lovely restaurant I stumble upon called The Rouga, where I stuff my face with flattened chicken, cooked with wild mushrooms, sage and cognac. As everywhere in Thessaloniki, the service is delightful. Kindness, sincerity and honesty are my enduring memories of Thessaloniki; a city I barely know but absolutely love, a city I must return to.

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