A visit to Greece’s Thessaloniki uncovers a city with layers of history, each as sweet as the indulgent honey-drizzled baklava piled up in the city’s many buzzing cafes. Ker & Downey’s Marketing and Content Assistant, Rina Chandarana, traveled to this Macedonian city, the second largest in Greece, to dig into its delectable cuisine and unearth some spectacular stories of the past.
“Yamas, welcome to Salonica” chirped Efi as we clinked our wine glasses, toasting our health.
Plates full of falafel, salads with slabs of feta, and decadent deserts kept appearing on our table at the Excelsior Hotel. I can’t possibly eat anymore, but then I dare to indulge in just one more bite of the orange slice draped in chocolate, willing my stomach to make just a little more room.
According to the grandmas of Thessaloniki, you must eat. “Food is connected with emotions, memories, love,” says long-time resident Sofia.
Food is a delicious reminder of all of those who have called Thessaloniki (known by locals as Salonica) home and brought their culinary traditions with them. Honey, iced coffee (strong and bold and made popular during the Ottoman times), and spices are all featured on menus. One of my first impression of the people of Thessaloniki is that they love to eat, drink, and be merry. Their hospitality is infectious and warm.
Thessaloniki is not what most of us think of when it comes to Greece, but it certainly should be on the list. It’s a treasure trove of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is a melting pot of Byzantine, Sephardi Jewish, and Ottoman history. All have thankfully left their mark.
Thessaloniki is immensely rich in an ancient past, evident at every turn. The Turkish 15th-century Hamza Bey mosque is being transformed into a shining new metro station. Young locals hang out at the highest point of the city, the acropolis, where an old Ottoman wall and tower offers up the best seat in the house to watch the sunset.
The city is also barreling into the future. Visit the Skyline Cafe, rotating to give you 360 degree views of the city below, the shimmering Thermaic Gulf, and the snow-capped mountains beyond. Thessaloniki, as one taxi driver described to me, is like a slice of paradise.
The ancient Greeks certainly thought so. Just outside of town, marble statues of Zeus and Aphrodite were uncovered at archaeological sites. See exquisite artifacts displayed at the museum in Dion that sits at the foot of the forest-covered Mount Olympus. Ancient Greeks believed this to be the home of the god Zeus.
Back in the city, I descended underground to see a former Roman home, uncovered during the excavations for the city’s metro system. As we carefully wandered along the narrow, muddy path, a team of blue-hatted archaeologists buzzed around, gently sifting through the wet dirt in search of their next treasure. A gold ring and a large floor mosaic were found not long before my visit, making me feel like a modern-day Indiana Jones. A cracked jug lay half uncovered at my feet. Small zip lock bags with carefully labeled remnants of the past lay in a pile near the stairs.
Above ground, the fourth century Roman Rotunda was transformed into a church, and then a mosque, and today has the city’s only surviving minaret. Step into the calming Agia Sofia, a smaller and simpler twin of Istanbul’s grander version. Churches are adorned with golden icons and shimmering chandeliers glittering in the dust-speckled light. Orthodox priests sing while tucked away in the altars, eyes closed and arms raised. See surviving seventh century mosaics at Hagios Demetrios, a place of worship where the sick go for the miracle of healing.
The stories of the past are everywhere, if you look. A climb to Ano Poli, an old Ottoman neighborhood, reveals a warren of narrow lanes. A shimmering mosaic of a young Jesus, sans-beard, standing near the river Jordan, gleams down upon me in the Osios David Monastery. Feel embraced by the serenity of the Vlatadon monastery, built on the site where Saint Paul once preached to the early Christians.
Macedonia was the land of Alexander the Great whose empire stretched far and wide. A lethargic stray dog lounges in the shadow of his looming statue set along the waterside promenade and the Turkish White Tower, the city’s landmark sits nearby.
In the evenings, Thessaloniki takes on a pulsating energy that goes into overdrive. The bars and restaurants of the Ladadika district are brimming full. An impromptu traditional dance performed by men and women, old and young, swirls around near the domed hammam. A seemingly sad song is strummed on an oud, its sound emerging from the depths of an old lane that smells of seafood.
Just outside the Electra Palace Hotel, the buzz in the Art Deco Aristotelous Square is contagious. Laughter and the clink of forks sound like music. All the cafes are packed in this popular meeting space. The hazy water beyond takes on a pinky glow in the fading sunlight as Thessaloniki gets ready to welcome the night.
Rina shares her top suggestions for a journey to Thessaloniki:
The Highlight: Seeing the massive floor mosaic and beautiful marble statues in Dion.
What to See: The Jewish Museum, Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, views from the Acropolis, and all of the many UNESCO-listed Churches
Try the: Bougatsa, a cream filled sweet pie dusted with powered sugar, and the Rox, a chocolate filled pastry.