At 2,300 years old, Greece’s second city has weathered many waves of merchants, migrants and marauders, but with more than 200,000 students it also has a youthful energy. Here you fell for the city, for the misty sunsets from the waterfront cafés, for the spice stalls and faintly seedy meze joints in the bazaars, for the traces of Byzantine and Ottoman splendour that survive among the street-art-covered modern blocks. This casual juxtaposition of historic monuments and urban culture is Thessaloniki’s trademark.
Athens might have the Acropolis, but Thessaloniki has long been Greece’s real cultural capital. Designers from Thessaloniki are constantly winning major international awards, so locals realised this could be their competitive advantage. Thessaloniki is an affordable basefor artists, but it’s also cosmopolitan and sophisticated.For a city of one million people, the number of monuments and museums is astonishing: 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 29 museums dedicated to everything from archaeology to avant-garde Russian works. The Dimitria festival, a three-month-long celebration of the arts first celebrated by the Byzantines, was revived in 1966. Then there’s the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, which runs from June to September this year, with 43 artists from 25 countries taking over unexpected venues, including a former mosque, prison and slaughterhouse.
Another district that remains stubbornly scruffy is Ano Poli (Upper Town), a jumble of wooden houses squeezed between the ancient city walls. Nudge aside the couples at the top of Trigonio Tower for dramatic views of the city and sea. Wander downhill and suddenly you’re in a village marooned inside a metropolis: scrawny cats drink from marble fountains, stout matrons sweep the courtyards of Byzantine chapels, and bouzouki players sing for their supper at old-time tavernas. However, the best hangover cure in town is breakfast at Mia Feta Bar, where organic yogurt from the Kourellas family farm is served with healthy toppings of linseed and pomegranate. For something smarter, take a taxi (and a GPS) to Duck, a farmhouse kitchen incongruously in the middle of an industrial estate on the way to the airport. It’s worth the risk of getting lost for the fluffy taramasalata, grilled grouper with wilted bitter greens, and mandarin millefeuille.
‘From seven to 10, the quayside is black with strollers and the cafés are crammed. Crisis? But where do people find the money to pack these places.’ Locals have lived through invasions and occupations, natural disasters and financial crises, but they’ve always known how to have a good time.