There is plenty of history in Thessaloniki – it’s one of the oldest cities in Europe, being founded in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon (I wonder if Jesus had heard of it?)
Visiting feels like wandering around inside a relic – but in a freer, more bohemian way than Rome, and a less pretentious way than Paris. Students are everywhere, and they’re all artistic, musical or dramatic. They look vibrant and full of life. They eat big sandwiches in groups on street corners, and laugh with all their teeth showing. I love that about it – there’s a clash of historic and modern, all swirling together under the watchful eye of Mt Olympus, which you can see from across the water.
I arrive and know I love this city, before I’ve even had my first coffee there. But of course, our first stop is Coffee. We arrived on a Saturday morning, fresh from 3 days sun seeking in Vourvouro on Halkidiki. Lucky for us, Thessaloniki is the home of the café frappé – and so it took us less than a minute to secure a chilled caffeine fix and spend 30 mins people watching before seeking out our Air BnB. They ask “would you like your coffee sweet?” and don’t flinch when I practice my extremely broken Greek to tell them yes, please, and I know I’m home.
The city is small, so everything is in walking distance except for the fortress (and even that is if you don’t mind a hill). The smallness of the city meant our Air BnB (Constaninos Place) was perfectly located for great restaurants, bars and nightlife but also quite tranquil. As it was a penthouse apartment, it was also extremely peaceful on our private terrace – which turned out to be the perfect place to enjoy a few hours’s afternoon sun and a few glasses of Mavrodaphne (which, by the way, you absolutely should drink).
The hotels are clandestine – you don’t really notice them as you wander around the main areas – except for the Electra Palace, a flourish of a hotel off Aristotle Square. It’s impressive, and so are the views from their sun terrace – but don’t be fooled into staying there. It’s a little stuffy (we stayed on our last night) and there are much more comfortable places at much better prices. Their breakfast, however, is wonderful, and they do have free Turkish delight in the lobby, so…
The Food in the city was incredible, which is literally what we came for, and which is also a little suspicious because everywhere was good. Personal recommendations include a cafe frappe and bougatsa for breakfast (treat yourself, get it with honey and cinnamon), a byzantine beetroot salad for lunch and mussels with rice for dinner. Thessaloniki is a port city, so get the fish. Every time. The fish market is fantastic and has an amazing variety, and most restaurants have beautiful signature seafood dishes. Like Vanilla Risotto. Weird but delicious.
Towards the port authority building is a crooked nest of restaurants, plazas woven together by cobbled streets – this is the good stuff, and where you should eat all your meals. Friendly stray dogs snooze in the sunshine while Greek couples smoke lazy cigarettes and pick at leftover red snapper. The balloon lady circles past one too many times. You can smell the sea even though you can’t see it – and it feels so Greek you almost mistake yourself for a local as you sip your carafe of house red. As you leave these places, you hope you get hungry again soon, just for an excuse to go back.
If shopping is your thing, Thessaloniki has it – but nothing majorly artisan. If, for some reason, you want to fly 4 hours then shop the same stuff you can get at home in Zara, H&M or Foot Locker, then this city has what you want. It also has what you want if you’re after willy shaped pens or fridge magnets – but that’s a byproduct of tourism.
We spent 4 sweet, sweet days there in April and I can’t wait to go back – until then I remember it like I was temporarily authored into an exquisite poem where a young couple enjoy luxuries far beyond their means, and the twist is that those luxuries are simple stuff like time together, good wine and excellent food. And sunshine, because everything is nicer in the sunshine.