Thessaloniki: Part 1 – a buzzing, lively city worth a visit
Find out why the second city of Greece is a joy to explore and the gateway to historical north eastern Greece.
Despite a cool evening breeze, though still very warm to us, the bars and cafes along the promenade are packed with locals enjoying the balmy evening, chatting and drinking with friends. There is a lively buzz and friendly, vibrant atmosphere and definitely a feeling of being relaxed and safe in the city.
It is the same every evening of the week as the newly-finished 7 km- long promenade is focal point for people to walk, jog, cycle or simply stroll along by the sea, a live band playing as a stage is set up for a concert next to the White Tower. This is the emblem of the city, its name referring to a prisoner there painting it white in exchange for his freedom, covering up the walls blood-stained from executions. On a brighter note, there are some impressive public sculptures and gardens along this seafront, especially the metal umbrellas in the late sunshine. There are boat trips around the port and across the bay to Agia Triada (more of that later), and a little boat regularly goes along the edges clearing any debris.
Thessaloniki in northern Greece is a city not always associated with art, food and wine, or as a cultural centre yet it is steeped in history as a geographically strategic point for this region. While most tourists visit Greece around the Athens area and to see the ancient remains of superb monuments, few come to this area. Yet it is an ideal base to explore the area, particularly for those interested in the history and culture of Ancient Greece, as well as the superb food and wines.
We visited in the first week of September, temperatures around 25°, bright sunshine except for one unusual day with thunder, lightning and heavy rainfall – still feeling very warm though. Flight time is just over 3 hours from Manchester airport and it takes around half an hour to get to the city from Makedonia Airport. First impressions as you drive into the city – old buildings, not architecturally beautiful as many are 20th century rather than older styles, and everywhere covered in graffiti. This is a university town with thousands of students each year, but this graffiti relates to social comment on the severe financial troubles Greece suffered from a few years ago. Since then, a new Mayor has allocated large surfaces at the sides of specific buildings for graffiti artists to work so eventually much of this will be removed.
However, this first impression should be ignored! Walk around narrow, cobbled streets down to the sea, the old port having been revived with new museums, photography gallery, cinema and various cultural centres for different exhibitions, events and celebrations throughout the year. This is also the favourite spot for dreamy-eyed young (and old?) lovers to stretch out and talk into the night. Sounds good to me. A bit further around from the port is the spectacular ultra-modern new Met Hotel, a superb 5*+ art lover’s delight. It is a member of Design Hotels and incorporates so many fine, large-scale works of art you are spoiled for choice. From hi-tec installations to three-dimensional art works, it is a joy to wander around even if you only visit for a coffee. More of the art can be seen here.
We stayed at modern City Hotel in the heart of this area, close to the shops, bars and restaurants, the promenade and Aristotle Square. A very pleasant reception area and welcoming staff – as with other hotels we visited, there are artworks from local artists on show. In this hotel there were lots of clay models of birds and figures, naïve style roughly-finished grey clay but fascinating. This is 4* so a very nice room, balcony and brilliant air conditioning with three settings that I could actually sleep through – this is unusual, believe me. Unlike many other hotels in Europe, there are tea and coffee making facilities with two complimentary bottles of water each day, plus we were met with fresh fruit and a bottle of wine.
We had the privilege of being shown a room at the sister hotel across the road, the 5* Excelsior – what a beautiful, stylish hotel. It is a splendid old building where original, ornate architectural features have been retained during it s recent renovation. If you have an opportunity to stay there you must.
Take a half-day city tour and you will really get a feel for the history of Thessaloniki and Greece from ancient times. Clearly a strategic position in the Aegian sea, there were three distinct ages of occupation from Romans, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Given this history, looking more closely at the city, there are fantastic churches, synagogues and mosques that contain preserved sections of frescoes and finely-detailed mosaics. A lot has changed over the centuries due to fires and earthquakes, exposing many new archaeological sites.
The last major fire was 1917 – curtains set fire in the kitchen of an old wooden-construction house, the fire spreading rapidly and destroying huge areas of the whole city. Best to avoid working in the kitchen I think.
But, a must is the history related to the Jewish communities in this city, particularly the devastating impact of their treatment by the Nazi troops during WWII. It really is worth having a guided tour – our guide Konstantinos was so knowledgeable – although you can explore on your own using the hop on- hop off bus number 50 that is 2 Euros for the day. Their leaflet also suggests short walks you can do from the bus stops. See www.expertguides.gr.
Remember to visit the daily market selling every kind of fresh fruit and vegetables plus an array of olives, of course. There is also fresh meat and fish, though I declined the invitation to take a sheep’s head home with me. There are also three famous pastry/sweet shops – divine! We tried a small sample shot of luscious, rich chocolate and a silver-wrapped chocolate cigar. For lunch, also try the fish and chips at Bakaliarakia (a small restaurant in the Ladadika area) , large flat slices of fried potato and crispy batter around tasty white cod, served with thick creamy garlic sauce. An afternoon nap is recommended.
This is a big, bustling city full of life and plenty to see. Traffic is a bit hectic so you have to have your wits about you, but it is fine if you keep to the proper crossing places. It is not ideal for anyone with mobility issues or wheelchair-users, although across the Bay it is quieter and easier to get around. However, if you love to explore during city breaks, this is a great place to visit.
- Read Thessaloniki: Part 2 – for lovers of the arts, history and culture
- Read Thessaloniki: Part 3 – a gastronomic delight