48 Hours In: Thessaloniki

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Friendly, beautiful and with a wealth of cultural attractions, Greece's second city is better connected to the UK than ever before, says Simon Calder

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

Greece's relaxed and profoundly historic second city is both the gateway to some fascinating parts of northern Greece and a worthwhile destination in its own right. Thessaloniki is more accessible from Britain this summer – with easyJet's new route from Manchester offering excellent weekend connections to add to the existing services from London.

Touch down

The main airline is easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), with five weekly flights from Gatwick and two from Manchester. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) competes from Gatwick four times a week, while Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies thrice weekly from Stansted. The airport is 15km south-east of the city.

Bus 78, an express service, departs from the airport every half-hour or so, covering the 30-minute journey to town for a reasonable €0.80. If you don't want to wait for a direct bus, then take the next one to Ikea (Greek for Ikea, the homeware store) and change to any northbound bus; €0.90 including transfer.Buses run to the main railway station (1), calling at several stops in the city centre. Returning to the airport, the city's complicated one-way system and building works for the new Metro mean it is difficult to find the right stops – locate the most convenient one before you need to head home.

Get your bearings

Thessaloniki sprawls around an arc of coastline at the top of the Thermaic Gulf. The main area of interest to visitors is along the shore between the ferry port (2) and the city's emblem, the White Tower (3), and in the area that rises inland from here to the ancient city walls.

The city is walkable, with cheap buses and efficient taxis offering respite from the heat.

Official tourist information is a problem, especially at weekends; the main tourist office (4) on Tsimiski opens only 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, while the kiosk (5) in Aristotle Square looks permanently abandoned. Only the airport tourist office opens on Saturdays (9am-2pm).

Check in

The best address in town is the five-star Electra Palace Hotel (6), with a commanding presence over Aristotle Square (00 30 2310 294 000; electrahotels.gr). Summer rates online are outstanding value, with opulent doubles for €110 including an ample buffet breakfast.

A seafront alternative with boutique style and superb views across the gulf can be found at the Daios (7) at 59 Nikis Avenue (00 30 2310 250 200; daioshotels.com). Chic doubles are available for €115 to €135, with breakfast and complimentary mini-bar.

For three-star, old-school hospitality in a good location, opt for the Hotel Luxembourg (8) at 6 Komninon Street (00 30 2310 252 600; hotelluxembourg.gr); €80 doubles with breakfast.

 

Day One

Cultural morning

Start early at the 34m-high White Tower (3), where no more than 75 visitors are allowed at any one time (8.30am-3pm daily except Monday, free). Its present name arose in the 19th century when a convict whitewashed the tubby 15th-century fortification in return for freedom. It has now reverted to its original honey-coloured stone. Nearby, the splendid archaeological museum (9) at 6 Manoli Andronikou Street (00 30 2310 830 538; amth.gr; 8am-3pm daily; €6) is also best seen early before the crowds. The grounds are strewn with classical fragments and elegant sarcophagi, while inside are finds from the Royal Tombs at Vergina, 80km south-west of Thessaloniki. The pottery and jewellery are particularly fine.

For a couple of euros more, you can buy a combination ticket that includes the adjacent Museum of Byzantine Culture (10) (same hours), which has some notable icons.

Window shopping

The main shopping street is Tsimiski, with the Plateia Mall (11) at the centre. For specialist and independent stores, browse Smyrnis Street (12), where original crafts and charms are on sale in 7wishes at No 7 (00 30 2310 227 117), and cutting-edge design in the 2nd FLooR architectural showroom (00 30 2310 266 931; 2ndFLooR.gr), confusingly displayed in its ground-floor shop.

The main city market is Modiano (13), which sprawls across a couple of city blocks and is full of life until around noon from Monday to Saturday.

Lunch on the run

You can put together a picnic at the market (13), or opt to join the queue at a Thessaloniki institution: Papadosiako (14), on the corner of Tsimiski and Aristotle. It serves wraps, sandwiches and sweet cakes – plus excellent ice-cream.

Take a view

Even if you are not staying at the Electra Palace Hotel (6), you can go to the top floor for a coffee in the open-air roof terrace – with views across the gulf as far as Mount Olympus on a clear day. Not all of

Thessaloniki's many fine views are from high altitude: for a sea-level prospect, walk east to the port (2) and look inland to the urban embroidery draped across the hills.

Take a hike

From the ferry port (2) head inland – pausing to see if the waterside Olympic Museum is open (hours are erratic). Head away from the sea along the café-strewn street of Katouni (15) and through the narrow lanes of the old Turkish quarter around Vilara (16). Head south-east along Ermou, with some handsome mid-20th-century structures, to Agia Sofia (17) – an always-busy church with 8th-century roots and a fabulous dome.

An aperitif

Proto Patoma (18) occupies the first floor of an Art Nouveau building at Tsimiski 19 (00 30 2310 223 331; protopatoma.gr). For a swift ouzo in the company of locals playing dominoes, try Café Diogenis (19) just off Agiou Dimitriou.

Dining with the locals

Thessaloniki has lots of great-value restaurants. One of the best locations is Mangio (20), on the corner of Nikis and Smyrnis (00 30 2310 263 730). The upstairs terrace faces south-west, so you can take in the last of the sun while enjoying good taverna fare.

 

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

Start the day at the viewing platform at the Kastra (21), the ancient citadel, which you can reach on bus 22 to Tsitsania or bus 23 to Platanos. From here, the city unravels beneath you towards the sea.

Walk west beside the wall to the first theological location of the day: the Vlatadon Monastery (22), with a tiny chapel (7.30 -11am and 5.30-8pm) amid modern structures.

Then head downhill, following the sporadic signs to the Temple of Osios David (23), open 9am-noon and 6pm-8pm daily (but not Sunday evenings). Peek inside to see the vivid 12th-century frescos.

A walk in the park

Keep heading downhill towards through the straggle of lanes. The father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, was born in Thessaloniki before the wholesale population transfers that saw many Turks and Greeks change places. His birthplace is the well-guarded Turkish Consulate (24) at Agiou Dimitriou 151. It is closed for renovations, but you can visit the gardens.

Walking straight towards the sea, you encounter a couple more open spaces: the vast Rotunda (25), shaded by trees, and the tiny Church of St Panteleimon (26) that stands in a pretty garden in the city.

Out to brunch

Over at the port (2), the exuberant Kitchen Bar (00 30 2310 502 241) serves salads, grilled meat and elaborate desserts all day, every day, at outdoor tables that line the quayside.

Take a ride

One of Greece's more unusual transportational phenomena is Thessaloniki's free harbour cruise. Frequently through the day and evening, motor boats dolled up in the manner of ancient triremes, depart from the waterside adjacent to the White Tower (3) for one-hour tours of the harbour. The understanding is that you will buy a drink or two during the voyage; coffee is €3, a glass of wine €6.

Icing on the cake

Where other cities have ordinary squares, Thessaloniki has two astonishing sets of ancient ruins planted in the middle of the city. To the north, the foundations of the Roman Agora (27) fill Dikastirion Square; 1km to the south in Navarinou Square (28), the Arch of Galerius, celebrates victory over the Persians in 279AD –a nd is planted amid the ruins of a palace. Opening hours are short (8am to 3pm, Monday and Thursday only), but you need not get close up for the sense of antiquity enduring so spectacularly amid modernity.

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