How I fell in love with overlooked Thessaloniki

I first fell in love with Thessaloniki through the pages of a novel. The Thread by Victoria Hislop tells the story of several generations of a Greek family of fabric merchants but the real focus of the book is the city it is set in. The writer’s strong connection to Thessaloniki shines through her vivid descriptions of the city; the steep hills and narrow alleys of its old town, its sweeping waterfront overlooking the Aegean Sea, its vibrant nightlife which buzzes with energy seven nights a week.  I read the book a long time before I’d even begun travelling but Hislop’s affinity for Greece’s second biggest city was so convincing it always stuck in my mind as a place I might one day want to visit.

Thessaloniki

So when Paul and I were planning a trip to Greece last year I told him I wanted Thessaloniki to be on our itinerary. He was doubtful; he had never heard of it and wasn’t sure if it was a place that would interest him (we love huge, frantic cities). I held firm though, with my reasoned argument of “I’d read a book about it once.” But as our trip approached, I started to have creeping doubts. Paul was still convinced he wouldn’t like it and his strong feeling began to rub off on me. I began to wonder if I’d make a mistake and dragged us off route to spend days of our precious holiday time in a place we were indifferent to. I read and reread the Lonely Planet guide description. There’didn’t seem an enormous amount to do. I looked at day trips to nearby beaches we could do if we were bored and didn’t like the city.

We were wrong (well I was right to begin with then wrong, Paul was just mostly wrong). We both completely fell in love with Thessaloniki. Our initial estimations were right; there is not an enormous amount of tourist attractions. But what there is to do is what we enjoy doing on our travels anyway; walking around and figuring out the identity of the city.

Thessaloniki has a unique setting. The entire city points towards the Aegean Sea. The waterfront is lined with bars and restaurants and a five kilometre esplanade right at the edge of the sea which locals use to stroll or cycle along from one end of the city to the other. On the hills at the back furthest away from the water is Ano Poli which translates as “upper town”. It is the oldest part of Thessaloniki and the only area which survived the great fire of 1917. Between Ano Poli is smart modern streets, plazas, shopping drags, food markets and cocktail bars, with Roman ruins and Byzantine churches sprouting up in between.

Thessaloniki is beguiling. Its stunning coastal setting, gorgeous old town, ancient ruins, and vibrant nightlife make it an excellent choice for a European city break. It is far less touristy and expensive than similar coastal European cities. The food is to die for; Thessaloniki is known as Greece’s gastronomic capital. And it has a fascinating history to read up on, playing a crucial part in the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, World War One and World War Two.

And to think we didn’t want to go.

As I said before, there’s not an enormous amount of touristy things to do in Thessaloniki; there’s a few museums and lots of ancient ruins and churches to explore but not tons that will keep you busy. We simply wandered around, soaked up the vibrant atmosphere, surveyed the stunning views, and ate and drank. Here’s what exactly what we did in Thessaloniki.

Strolled along the waterfront

Thessaloniki waterfront

The Aegean Sea runs right up to the edge of the esplanade which stretches along the waterfront of Thessaloniki (it’s a bit disconcerting to have the water splashing at your feet as you walk past). The five kilometre  esplanade makes for a very scenic walk with the rows of cocktail bars on one side and vast stretch of the sea on the other. It ends (or begins) with the White Tower, Thessaloniki’s most famous landmark. 

Explored Ano Poli

Thessaloniki Ano Poli

Ano Poli is the oldest part of Thessaloniki; the only area that surveyed the 1917 fire which destroyed the rest of the city. It is such a pretty area to wander around in, with traditional old houses set on steep hills, narrow alleyways and courtyard tavernas. Surrounding Ano Poli are the Byzantine fortress walls which date back to 209 AD. The fortress itself, Heptapyrgion, is situated right at the top and has a spectacular view of the entire city and the sea beyond.

Visited historical sights

Thessaloniki ruins

Thessaloniki is filled with Roman and Byzantine churches, buildings and ruins. My favourite was the ruins of a Roman forum right in the centre of the city surrounded by a shopping drag and modern flats.

Ate delicious food

Thessaloniki food

The food in Greece in general is to die for and the food in Thessaloniki is to die for a second time over. On the recommendation of our airbnb host we dined in Igglis, a gorgeous taverna in Ano Poli which has an outside area with tables under a canopy of leaves. We also dined in Rouga in the City Centre. Both meals were incredible. Other culinary highlights were Trigona which is a famous dessert shop which specialises in Trigona Panoramatos, a triangle shaped pastry filled with cream, and Koulouri Thessalonikis, a ring shaped bread sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Enjoyed the nightlife

Thessaloniki Valaoritou nightlife

Thessaloniki’s nightlife is thriving; there are lots of bars catering to all different tastes including stylish cocktail bars, hip music bars, sports bars, Irish pubs, and lots more. Even though we were in Thessaloniki during the week the bars were always busy. What amused me was that as we walked home late at night the streets were still packed with groups of people sitting around on the streets themselves, chatting and drinking. Even on a Monday night at midnight! We quickly found our favourite bar, Four Seasons, which is down a tiny alleyway in the Valaoritou area east of the city.

Visited the city’s murals

Thessaloniki Parthenon Coins Mural

Thessaloniki had some really interesting street art and murals, the most interesting of which was this amazing mural showing the collapse of a Parthenon made of Euro coins. It was created by an a politically motivated street art organisation called BLU and of course referred to Greek’s recent financial crisis.

Visited the food market

Thessaloniki food market

Kapani and Modiano are the two main markets which are situated in the city centre very close to each other. Modiano market was designed between 1922 and 1930 by the architect Eli Modiano who was from an important Jewish family from Thessaloniki, and Kapani is so old no one is quite sure how long it’s been there (estimate is 1498). Both markets are fun place to wander around and check out the stalls selling spices, vegetables, cheese and olives.

Watched the sunset

Thessaloniki sunset

The boardwalk at the waterfront near the White Tower offered a fantastic view of the sun setting over the Aegean Sea. The whole sky lit up pink and orange and the sun looked as if it was dipping directly into the water. It was clearly a well known spot as a crowd had gathered to watch this beautiful nightly event.

How much our trip to Thessaloniki cost

For both me and Paul:

Return flights from Athens to Thessaloniki (Ryanair): £71

Three nights in this Airbnb in Thessaloniki: £125

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