Most people know Greece from some holiday islands, the archaeological sites in and around Athens, or nowadays from the news which is, sadly enough, not always positive. The last two years I happened to travel several times to the north of Greece and in a series of several articles, I share with you some insights about the region which is absolutely worth a visit! Part I: Thessaloniki.
The biggest city of the north is Thessaloniki. It’s the second largest city of Greece with over 1 million inhabitants. Thessaloniki, called Salonica by the locals, has played an important role in the Byzantine period [330-1453] and this is why we find back many traces of Byzantine architecture and culture. Besides that, the city also houses some archaeological sites from the ancient times. Combined with its cosmopolitan character, Thessaloniki offers a great ambience where old and new really live side by side.
Most part of the city is spread alongside the seashore and relatively flat. The Old City (Ano Polis), however, is an area which lays on the side of a hill. The latter breaths a special ambience with its Mediterranean, coloured houses, the small and amazingly steep cobblestone streets, the hidden stairs here and there to avoid the climbing, and the plants giving it all a fresh touch. Cars are around, but since the streets are so small and steep the traffic doesn’t disturb the tranquillity. From the remains of the castle, on top of the Old City, you have a perfect view over the city, all the way down to the seaside. You can easily see where the Old City stops and the “new” part starts: the houses on top of the hill have gabled roofs, the newer buildings have flat rooftops. Stepping into the Ano Polis is like stepping into another world. I especially felt this when at 5 in the morning, we walked down to the shore to catch the bus to the airport – it was almost mystical to be there all alone and share the small streets with the cats.
Leaving this area behind, down in the centre you will find most historical sites. One of them is the Agios Georgios, also called Rotonda, one of the oldest religious sites to be found in Thessaloniki. The Rotonda was built in the 3th Century and served several purposes, such as a Christian temple but also a mosque during the Ottoman occupation. Walking down towards the seaside, you will find Kamara (the Arch of Galerius), the meeting point for all locals. Passing through Dimitriou Gounari street, the Navarinou square offers a glimpse of the Ancient Greek era with the remainders of the Roman Forum. Other than ancient stuff, Navarinou area has a lot of bars where students and the alternative scene gather together.
Close to Navarinou, visit Agia Sofia, one of the city’s main Byzantine churches and listed as a World Heritage Site with UNESCO. Passing through Ermou street – the city’s most exclusive shopping street – on your right hand you will find Athonos Square with Greek tavernas and the Kapani market, where the aromas of spices are a real threat for your nose! Crossing Egnatia street, you enter Dikastrion square with the statue of Eleftherios Venizelos, the leader of the Greek national liberation movement. Apart from the statue, the square has not so much to offer, but close to it you can find two other highlights: the remainders of the ancient Roman Market, plus Agios Dimitrios, the city’s most important church, Dimitrios being the patron of Thessaloniki. I haven’t visited the Church’s crypt yet, but many people say it’s definitely worth a visit.
When from Agios Dimitrios you walk down again towards the seaside, you cross Aristotelous Square and end up at Leoforos Nikis, a boulevard with fancy bars and restaurants with sea view. If you’re up for a more original place to enjoy your coffee, try one of the Cruise Bars which depart nearby the White Tower. I think those have become my favourite hangout in the city so far! The cruise bars are old wooden ships where you have a drink while you make a half an hour tour around the bay. Just chill with your drinks and your company, enjoying the view of the city and the open sea and, maybe most importantly a light breeze which is very welcome during hot summers!
The White Tower is without any doubt Thessaloniki’s trademark. It has been built in the 15th Century by the Ottoman occupier, and served as a watching tower and a prison. Today, it houses (a department of) the Museum of Byzantine Culture. Every floor offers a good insight in several historical periods by pictures and videos. The tower is made out of stone and has broad, steep corridors which bring you to the top, where you enjoy a nice panorama over the surroundings.
Next to the tower you will find the statue of Alexander the Great, the emperor who spread the Greek civilization in ancient times. He still lives in the Greek hearts, and the city has been actually named after his sister, Thessaloniki. Continuing your walk along the seafront, you will find Nea Paralia, a boulevard with some theme parks, exclusively for pedestrians and some occasional cyclists. At Nea Paralia, locals enjoy the sunset in the cool of the evening, strolling up and down next to the water and snacking roasted corn or black sunflower seeds. The sunflower seeds made me almost feel to be back in Spain, my second country! 😉
I liked Thessaloniki a lot because of its relaxed vibe. Despite the crisis which is a heavily burden on the daily life of people, the city feels open and welcoming. I remember how by night, we walked across the former school of my travel companion and entered the yard. I was somehow expecting the guard would send us away immediately, but instead he started a whole conversation. To be honest, I feel that these kind of encounters in my city are rare – or am I too negative right now?
It’s a perfect city to walk around. It can be bit hard to go up and down to the Old City, though. To go, you could take the public bus services or even the Hop On – Hop Off bus. Having said this, I would recommend you to just take your time and go by feet (if possible), so you can really enjoy the area. Who said you cannot enjoy a coffee or lunch in one of the cosy tavernas the area offers, and take a rest in between?
To visit all the highlights (Thessaloniki has more spots than I mentioned here!), I recommend to stay 3 days to go around in a relaxed manner. Enjoy a frappe, have a tasty gyros, eat a bougazza with feta or – my guilty pleasure – cream, and let the city slowly enchant you.