At the crossroads of East and West, where North blends into South, Thessaloniki (accent on the "ni") has seen the rise and fall of many civilizations: Macedonian, Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and that of the Jews and the modern Greeks. Each of its successive conquerors has plundered, razed, and buried much of what went before. In 1917 a great fire destroyed much of what was left, but the colorful past can still be seen and sensed. The vibrant city with close to 1.5 million inhabitants today—also known as Thessalonike, Saloniki, Salonika, or Salonica—has a spacious, orderly layout that is partly a result of French architect Ernest Hébrard, who rebuilt the city after the fire. Though Thessaloniki has suburbanized in the last two decades, sprawling to the east and west, the old part of the city is fairly centralized and easy to get used to. Whether you're in Ano Polis (Upper City) or along the bay, short walks here are well rewarded; you may come across parks, squares, old neighborhoods with narrow alleyways and gardens, courtyards draped with laundry, neoclassic mansions, and some of the more than 50 churches and 40 monasteries. Thessaloniki's early Christian and Byzantine monuments, with their distinctive architecture and magnificent mosaics, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ever-changing nature of the city continues and neighborhoods like Ladadika, a former warehouse district (which got its name from the olives and olive oil or ladi stored here), have been recycled into pedestrian zones of restaurants and clubs. The neighborhood is filled with young and old, strolling by fountains, snapping fingers to the music in the air, and savoring mezedes (appetizers) and microbrewery beers at tables spilling onto the stone squares. The appeal of Thessaloniki lies in part in its warmth, accessibility, and languid pace. The afternoon mesimeri, or siesta, is still sacrosanct (don't call people between 3 and 5 pm). Take your time exploring in-town archaeological sites and Byzantine treasures, making sure to stop for café-style people-watching. The two walks suggest routes for exploring highlights. It's best, however, to simply to wander through the streets responding to whatever you encounter. It is hard to get lost, since the entire city slopes downhill to the bay, where you can always align yourself with the White Tower and the city skyline.
Thessaloniki International Film Festival
In November the best films by new directors from around the world are screened and awarded prizes at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Southeast Europe's most noted cinematic festival, it attracts well-known regional talent and some internationally aclaimed stars. Films are usually subtitled, and tickets can be hard to come by. In March, there's also an international documentary film festival.
Apokriés, or Carnival celebrations, mark the period preceding Lent and ending the night before Clean Monday, the beginning of Lent for Eastern Orthodox and Catholics. These costume-and-parade affairs are particularly colorful (and often bawdy) in northern Greece. You are welcome to join in the fun in Thessaloniki and other towns. Sohos, 32 km (20 mi) northeast of Thessaloniki, hosts a festive event in which people cavort in animal hides with sheep bells around their waists and phallic headdresses. In Naoussa, 112 km (70 mi) to the west of Thessaloniki, some participants wear foustanellas (short, pleated white kilts), special masks, and chains of gold coins across their chests, which they shake to "awaken the Earth." The whole town dons costumes and takes to the streets behind brass marching bands, which have a tradition of playing New Orleans–style jazz.
A must-do in summer, especially for film-lovers, is to see a movie at an open-air cinema. There are usually two showtimes (around 8 and 11 pm, the later one usually at lower volume, depending on the neighborhood). Call ahead to see what's playing—some screen oldies and foreign art films, and others run the latest from Hollywood. Most films are subtitled, but note that animated movies are almost always dubbed. Alex is the most central theater.
Megaron Moussikis Thessaloniki
The Megaron Moussikis Thessaloniki is a large venue that hosts international and local orchestras (including the Municipal Orchestra of Thessaloniki) and classical, folk, and jazz nights, as well as seminars and lectures.
The Kratiko Theatro presents plays, ballets, and special performances of visiting artists year-round.
Theatro Dasous stages theatrical performances in foreign languages in summer, as well as other events, such as concerts.
St. Dimitrios's feast day is celebrated on October 26. Its secular adjunct, the Dimitria Festival, has developed into a major series of cultural events that include theater, dance, art exhibits, and musical performances. They are held from September to December at venues around Thessaloniki.
Helexpo International Trade Fair
More than 1,000 participants from Greece and some 30 countries descend on the Helexpo International Trade Fair to promote their wares—from gadgets to tourism products. An important event in Greek politics, the prime minister traditionally makes the annual state-of-the-economy speech from the fair, which is held in mid-September at the Helexpo fairgrounds. Remember that hotel accommodation is very difficult to find during this period (as well as November, when the city hosts the International Thessaloniki Film Festival).
Crowded and lots of fun, Zythos Dore café has a good buzz inside the converted 1920's Viennese-style coffeehouse, and a great view of the White Tower if you chose to sit on the terrace out front. There are plenty of choices on the menu: Greek and international dishes ranging from pastourma pie (with spicy air-cured dried beef) to homemade lamb sausages. There is also a selection of European draft beers. Zythos, in Ladadika, follows the same concept and is a fun places to hang out in the former warehouse district.
"Ouzo's Mansion" was established as Greece's first ouzeri franchise (1993). The chefs here are trained in a style that is essentially Mediterranean, with some French and Turkish influences. Pick from irreverently named items, such as "transvestite lamb" (it's chicken) or "Maria's breasts" (cones of fried phyllo filled with ground meat) on the exhaustive menu. Don't forget to order a kilo of house wine. There are also outlets in other cities, including Lamia, Larissa, Karditsa, Komotini, and Varkiza.
The food may be costly, but Ta Nissia delivers thanks to the quality of ingredients and careful preparation by owner-chef Yiannis Alexiou. You're in the city here, but the lightness and decor of this place may make you feel as if you've been transported to some Cycladic isle. Dishes here can be exquisite: taste sensations include squid stuffed with cheese and herbs, veal with smoked eggplant puree, and artichokes in saffron sauce. On the extensive wine list, check out the very pleasing house rosé.
Low-key and extremely popular, this ouzeri in the art-grungy Bezesteni neighborhood has excellent food, great service, and a friendly atmosphere typified by Thessalonians relaxing over lunch or dinner. The fish soup is highly recommended, as is the braised monkfish and any of the hearty salads. Wash it all down with the distilled spirit made from grapes called tsipouro, and top it off with the dessert or fruit that is offered on the house.
To Meteoro Vima Tis Garidas
This casual, friendly place in the midst of busy Modiano Market is known for great garides (prawns), served in many different ways, and its humor: the name translates as "the meteoric step of the prawn." The locals also come time and again for the tamaras (white caviar), butter beans with chestnut, and homemade dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves). Order your ouzo and a selection of mezedes and take in the bustle of market life.
Behind a wrought-iron gate opening to a stoa, artists, scholars, couples, old friends, and businesspeople pack marble-topped tables. This convivial atmospheric place epitomizes the quality and spirit of Thessaloniki dining, down to the traditional spoon desserts. Once you sample the cuttlefish gemista (stuffed with cheese), grilled eggplant with garlic, or sautéed fillet of skate with white sauce, you'll understand why no one is in a hurry to leave. The entrance is on the east side of Aristotelous, between Irakliou and Tsimiski. Be warned: address numbers repeat at the square of the same name down the street, but this place is well worth the effort.
Diners at this side-street Thessaloniki institution rub shoulders with lawyers, students, out-of-towners, and workers from the Bezesteni market. Complete with an outside terrace, this family-run taverna sits opposite an old Turkish bath (loutra means "baths"). Try grilled koutsomoura (baby red mullets), grilled eggplant, mussels in rice pilaf, or smelt or shrimp sautéed in a casserole with cheese and peppers (saganaki). Do sample the owner's own retsina from the barrel and check if they have the exquisite kazan dipi, a marvelous flan with a slightly burned top, sweetened with a hint of rose water. For extra atmosphere, there's the bouzouki music every Friday and Saturday night.
Go to this beloved hangout—also called Tou Thanassi, after its owner, Thanassis—on a Saturday afternoon when an eclectic mix of Thessalonians fills the Modiano Market. Roaming Gypsy musicians serenade visitors with languid accordion lullabies or swooning violin ballads. The food here is equally diverting, from grilled octopus (sliced off specimens hanging nearby) and stuffed squid to midhia saganaki (mussels with cheese-and-tomato sauce). If you do plan to come on Saturday, make a reservation; it's the only day they are accepted.
Whether you choose one of the convivial long group tables or a perch set on the leafy pedestrian street, you'll understand why this local downtown favorite is considered a perfect escape from the city hustle. The menu's grilled meats and stews (including vegetable and fish) are the essence of northern Greece: simple, tasty, and traditional. Some more-European dishes are also available. The wine list includes an extensive number of Greek options.
Some of the most delicious and innovative appetizers in Thessaloniki are served at this little ouzeri run by the Vrotos family. You can sit in the noisy interior, decorated with old movie posters, or at the tables out front, all jammed with the cognoscenti. A strong Anatolian influence is evident in the terrific mezedes and main dishes: try the Hunkiar Beyendi (beef with tomato sauce and eggplant puree) or the bougiourdi (tomatoes, peppers, and feta and other cheeses baked in a clay pot).
This New York–style bar/restaurant serves Americana flavors given a Mediterranean twist. It's housed in a neoclassical building next to the catacombs of the church of Agios Ioannis (St. John). Inside, things are quite cozy due to the work of interior designer Olivia Siskou, and on the walls hang original artwork by well-known Greek artists such as Kakanias and Pavlopoulos. All this creates a great environment for enjoying a quality burger or rib-eye steak.
To Full Tou Meze
Ordering your meal at this establishment in the heart of the bustling old Turkish Quarter is quite an experience. The waiters bring their own eccentric individuality to this often mundane ritual, and the menu is printed on a "newspaper" with photos from old Greek films and articles heralding the dishes you're about to munch on. The taverna itself is done up as a deli, which gives a rough idea of the fare served. There is a wide array of cheeses smoked meats, and fish (served either straight up or cooked in spicy sauces). It's food that goes great with a beer or an ice-filled glass of ouzo on a hot summer evening.
This may be the best seafood restaurant in Thessaloniki—it's definitely the most creative. The breezily decorated 7 Thalasses ("7 Seas") uses light blue and gray hues to good effect, playing them off the room's exposed chrome accents and cream-color wood tables and chairs. The cooking here maintains the delicate flavors of its ingredients, but it also manages to add a modern twist to its dishes. For instance, the marinated sea bass tartare, seasoned with fleur de sel, lemon, and olive oil and then covered with a sprinkling of roe, brings to mind a wave gently breaking against your tongue. The only thing better than the delightfully light scallops in saffron sauce with caviar and mushrooms may be the restaurant's signature dish, mithopilafo (mussels with rice), an old favorite. As for the desserts, try its take on halva, with loukoumi (Turkish delight) ice cream, toasted pine nuts, and marinated raisins. It's a perfect way to end one of the memorable meals here.
This eatery serves up the standard appetizers of any mezethopoleon (restaurant specializing in small dishes); grilled meats, fried fish, salads, and dips. Run by the boisterous Panayiotis and located on lovely Athonos sqaure, it's a great place to come for a musical dinner reminiscent of the Thessaloniki of times gone by. Prices are on the cheap side, so it throngs with locals and students who go to indulge their vocal chords as much as their pallets, sipping on ouzo or house wine while munching on specialties such as "grandma's meatballs," dished up in a rich tomato sauce, as they sing old Greek standards.
The Thessaloniki bar-and-club scene is eclectic, dynamic, and energized. Students, academics, and artists haunt the bars on Zefxidos street near Ayia Sofia church while music lovers crowd the stages at Mylos, a former flour mill that is now Northern Greece's most coveted arts-and-entertainment complex. In summer, most clubs close as their clients flock to the beaches of Halkidiki, which functions as an outer suburb of the city. The discos on the road to the airport go in and out of fashion and change names (and concept) from one season to the next, so ask at your hotel for the newest and best.
Regency Casino Thessaloniki
Next to the airport, the large and elaborate Regency Casino Thessaloniki is open 24 hours. You must be 23 or older and have valid identification, such as a passport, to enter.
Urban is a former art gallery–turned–glam bar for counterculture scenesters, young academics, and lifelong artists. The music is fantastic, as is the people-watching.
Pastaflora Darling! is a whimsically decorated hangout for students and artists philosophizing about the latest global trend. Drinks are excellent and inexpensive.
Odos Oneiron is a taverna with live rembetika. It moves to Halkidiki each summer.
Mylos, in a former mill on the southwest edge of the city, has become perhaps the best venue in Greece for jazz, folk, and pop acts, both Greek and foreign. This fabulous complex of clubs, bars, and ouzeri-tavernas, as well as art galleries and a concert stage, shows how a respectful architectural conversion can become a huge success. Don't miss the Xylourgeio stage, which has some of the best alternative acts around. The lively place starts to get busy as early as 11 pm.
Malliaris carries a large stock of books in English and other foreign languages.
One block west of the Roman Forum, Tositsa is the best junk, antiques, and roaming-peddler street in the city, with good finds in everything from brass beds to antique jewelry. The paliatzidiko (flea market) here has a marvelous jumble of fascinating, musty old shops, with the wares of itinerant junk collectors spread out on the sidewalks, intermingled with small, upscale antiques shops.
Terkenlis serves an unforgettable tsoureki (sweet bread flavored with mahlepi, a spice made from the ground-up pits of a Persian cherry) and then filled and dipped in chocolate. This delicacy is so delicious that it disappears within hours from this extremely popular patisserie's shelves.
Sample Thessaloniki's fabled Anatolian sweets at central Hatzis. Specialties include the buffalo milk cream-based kazan dipi, a kind of flan; trigono, a cream-filled triangle of phyllo; and kataïfi (logs of crushed and sugared walnuts wrapped in honey-drenched shredded phyllo) served with kaïmaki (mastic-flavored ice cream). Choose a beverage—like iced coffee, granita, or boza (a thick, sweet, millet-and-corn drink)—and people-watch from the pedestrian side street that faces the gardens of Panagia Chalkeon church.
Mastihashop carries products containing mastic—a tree resin produced on the Aegean island of Chios. The face cream, preserves, sweets, and other items come in extremely attractive, easy-to-pack tins.
On Wednesday the narrow streets surrounding the Rotunda are taken over by a bazaar with knickknacks and the occasional interesting heirloom, antique, or folk art piece for sale.
With eight outlets in Thessaloniki, Agapitos aptly translates as "loved one." The oldest son of a venerable Thessaloniki family owns this chain.
Molho, the city's oldest bookshop, sells a wide selection of newspapers and magazines in myriad languages and specializes in English and French books and educational and audiovisual equipment.
Ianos draws travelers because of its stock of foreign-language books.
Averof is the only patisserie in Thessaloniki that creates kosher pastries.