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A view of Thessaloniki and the Thermaic Gulf. SUR
Thessaloniki: Greece's most underrated destination
Travel

Thessaloniki: Greece's most underrated destination

This Mediterranean port city boasts sublime cuisine and architecture that reflects its rich cultural heritage spanning 2,300 years

Myrto Kaltsidou

Malaga

Friday, 31 May 2024, 12:41

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What springs to mind when you think of Greece? Sun, sand and good food? The over thirty-two million tourists who visited the country in 2023 would probably agree with you. Holidaying on the islands of Santorini or Mykonos; exploring the classical history of Athens, with its long-standing reputation as the birthplace of democracy and the modern Olympics; and tucking into a delicious tzatziki-filled gyros - all these images come to mind.

But have you ever heard of Thessaloniki? Greece's second largest city, located in the northern region of Central Macedonia, should not be overlooked: it was declared the country's first Unesco city of gastronomy in 2021 and 15 of its buildings comprise the Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Moreover, surrounded by both mountain and sea, its ideal location allows easy access to exquisite sites such as Mount Olympus, Greece's highest peak, as well as the three-legged peninsula of Halkidiki, famous all over the country for its golden sands, sparkling waters and pine tree forests.

A melting pot of cultures

Both the city's tangible (architectural) and intangible (gastronomic) heritage reflects its multicultural past: founded in 315 BC by Cassander of Macedon, Thessaloniki was named after his wife, and half sister of Alexander the Great, Princess Thessalonike. Originally an important metropolis in the Roman period, Thessaloniki became the second largest and wealthiest city of the Byzantine Empire. Conquered by the Ottomans in 1430, it remained under their rule until it was surrendered to the Greek state in 1912.

Fifteen buildings comprise the Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki, a Unesco World Heritage Site

Another important aspect of Thessaloniki's history follows the Sephardic expulsion from Spain in 1492, when the city acquired a large Jewish population - once the largest in Greece. They had an enduring presence until the tragic events of the Holocaust annihilated over 96 per cent of Jewish community that had lived in the city for over four centuries.

Today, the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki serves to preserve the memory of Jewish life prior to, during and after the Holocaust. In this regard, another site worth visiting is the Monastirioton Synagogue, built in 1925. This is the only synagogue in Thessaloniki to have survived the Second World War, due to its requisition by the Red Cross during those years and it is still a place of worship today.

Ano Poli, the old town

The neighbourhood of Ano Poli, Thessaloniki's historic old town, offers an enchanting journey through time. Still fortified with its impressive Byzantine walls that date back to the 4th century AD, this is an extremely well preserved area, having survived the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 which destroyed two thirds of the city. Located near the top of the old town is the Vlatadon monastery (Moni Vlatadon), the city's only Byzantine monastery still in operation. As well as admiring the frescoes and religious art, from this height you can take in spectacular panoramic views.

Church of Agios Antonios.
Church of Agios Antonios. SUR

Situated on the acropolis nearby, the Heptapyrgion monument towers over the unfolding landscape. This imposing "fortress of seven towers" - although in reality it features ten - invites visitors to take a tour of its eerie grounds while admiring the breathtaking views from the city's highest point.

While descending from the old town, take the opportunity to discover the church of Agios Dimitrios, an enormous 4th-century basilica that honours Thessaloniki's patron saint, as well as that of Agia Sophia ('church of holy wisdom'), with its remarkable mosaics and Byzantine art, both of which are key to understanding the spiritual and cultural backdrop of the city.

The White Tower of Thessaloniki, built in the 15th century by the Ottomans, was previously used as a prison and fortress.
The White Tower of Thessaloniki, built in the 15th century by the Ottomans, was previously used as a prison and fortress. SUR

By the waterfront, the White Tower of Thessaloniki stands tall as the main symbol of the city. It is both a monument and a museum that houses a permanent exhibition, with each of its six levels displaying a different aspect of its rich history. On climbing to the top, visitors can soak in the astounding views of the city below.

The culinary capital

As well as culture enthusiasts and art lovers, Thessaloniki is known to attract foodies, thanks to its gastronomy legacy that is really a patchwork of its diverse history. Visitors can wake up to a freshly baked bougatsa, the ultimate Thessaloniki breakfast, the origins of which can be traced back to Byzantium, though the delicacy was brought to the city in 1922 during the population exchange after the Greco-Turkish war in 1919. This layered filo pastry pie has several varieties, the most popular of which are stuffed with semolina custard or feta, catering to cheese lovers and those with a sweet tooth alike. Another classic bite is the koulouri, a popular street food snack for which we also have to thank the Byzantines. These traditional sesame-crusted bread rings are best consumed with a side of crumbly feta.

Thessaloniki was declared Unesco's first city of gastronomy in 2021

Take a stroll around the Ladadika district, whose cobbled alleys and colourful façades render it one of the most picturesque areas of the city. Home to traditional restaurants and tavernas, here you can try iconic Thessalonian dishes like soutzoukakia Smyrneika - braised meatballs in a spiced tomato sauce - originally brought from Smyrna (now Izmir, in Turkey) by Greek refugees in 1922.

Make sure to walk through the grandiose Aristotelous Square, one of the most famous places in the city. Located on the waterfront, this central hub offers divine pastry shops, cafés and stylish bars to suit all tastes.

Mount Olympus

As well as exploring the beautiful sites on their doorstep, visitors can use the city's convenient location to discover its stunning surroundings, not least the legendary Mount Olympus. Known by many around the world as the celestial dwelling of the Olympian gods, the country's highest peak, 2,917 metres above sea level, stands as a bold symbol of Greece's natural beauty.

View of snow-capped Mount Olympus.
View of snow-capped Mount Olympus. Stamatia Papoutsopoulou

There are several ways to reach Mount Olympus, all of which involve passing through the village of Litochoro, which is found at the foothill of the mountain. From Thessaloniki, you can reach Litochoro by car (around 90km), bus or train, and there are also companies that organise transfers to facilitate the journey.

The mountain itself is carved with exciting hiking trails that lead the explorer along a mythical landscape as they cross ancient paths and dense forests, until they reach the summit, becoming captivated by the glory of the natural realm.

Halkidiki

Despite Thessaloniki's location on the Thermaic Gulf, in the northeastern corner of the Aegean Sea, the city is not known for its beaches. Instead, visitors can take a day trip (or several) to the three-legged peninsula of Halkidiki, which can be easily reached by car (70km) or by KTEL, the national coach company.

The first 'leg' of the peninsula is called Kassandra and is the busiest of the three, attracting people from all over the world who come to bathe in its pristine waters and visit its quaint towns.

Its location allows easy access to exquisite sites like Mount Olympus and the gorgeous peninsula of Halkidiki

The second 'leg', Sithonia, is perfect if you are looking for something more off the beaten path, as it is known for its natural beauty and tranquility. For example, the village of Toroni, located at the far end of Sithonia, offers secluded beaches and lush green landscapes of pine trees and olive groves that provide the perfect background for exploring the peninsula.

The third 'leg', however, is a little different: the Unesco-listed Mount Athos cannot be frequented by most travellers. The area has been home to a religious monastic community since the Byzantine era and visitors (women are prohibited from entering) must obtain a special permit to go in.

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