With 50 years of experience, it’s safe to say that Sunvil are experts on holidays to Greece – here are their top 10 places to visit in the country’s oft-overlooked northern region.Read more...
Northern Greece - Thessaloníki
Greece’s buzzing second city, with UNESCO World Heritage-listed Byzantine churches and Roman ruins.
Sheltered at the top of the Thermaic Gulf, Thessaloníki (or Salonica), with a population of over a million in the metropolitan area, is the second city of Greece. But you’ll rarely hear Greeks indulge in the banter that often characterises the relations of first and second cities, like Barcelona and Madrid, or Rome and Milan; in fact, many Athenians readily admit that Thessaloníki is a much nicer place to live, where life unwinds at a less hectic pace (its motto is χαλαρά (chalará) or taking it easy).
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Many of the 150,000 university students who come here to study never leave, adding to its vibrant cultural life, its great bar and restaurant and festival scene, and sizzling nightlife. Thessaloníki boomed in the Middle Ages while Athens snoozed, and its most compelling monuments are Byzantine: 22 churches still stand, several of which – the Rotonda, Ósios David, Ag Dimítrios, the Panagía Acheiropoiétos, Ag Apostóli and Ag Sofía – are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The best things to see and do
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In the shadow of the mighty ramparts begun by Emperor Theodosius, the Áno Pólis, or Upper City, is the former Ottoman district that survived the Great Fire. How letters ever get delivered here, where narrow streets turn into stairs with names invisible to the naked eye, is a credit to Thessaloníki’s postal workers. Occasional signs point towards the Byzantine churches that are its glory (although their opening hours tend to change without notice; ask at the tourist office if there’s something you really want to see). The best way to visit: catch a bus to the Acropolis (literally ‘the top of the city’) and stroll down.
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Thessaloníki’s landmark tower with its massive 360° views began as part of the seafront walls of Theodosius, but at the end of the 15th century it was rebuilt as a stout 32m cylinder, probably by the Venetians. Under the janissaries, the Sultan’s praetorian guard who were a law unto themselves, it earned the name Bloody Tower for the frequent executions within its walls. When Sultan Mahmoud II purged the janissaries in 1825, the tower was whitewashed (the story goes that a prisoner offered to do the work himself in exchange for freedom) and has been the White Tower ever since. It has served numerous purposes over the decades: as part of the city’s air defences and a communications tower for the Allies in World War I, as a meteorological station for the University and, today, as an exhibition space, over six floors, on Thessaloníki’s history.
Arch of Galerius
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From the Palace of Galerius, a covered portico once extended to the sacred precinct of the Rotonda by way of the decumanus maximus – Thessaloníki’s main street since its foundation (now the Egnatía). The crossing point of the decumanus and the portico was marked by the Arch of Galerius (or Kamara, as the locals call it). Only a quarter of the original domed double gateway survives, with reliefs all busy in the Late Imperial style celebrating Galerius’ triumphs against the Sassanid Persians (here portrayed as little men in pointy hats) in AD298. Although the faces have been carefully hacked off, you can pick out the emperor fighting on horseback, addressing his troops, riding his chariot and reigning and sacrificing with his father-in-law Diocletian, who fancied that he was the incarnation of Jupiter and Galerius was his Hercules. The two were rabid persecutors of Christians – Galerius alone martyred some 3,000, to please Diocletian – but on his deathbed Galerius felt which way the wind was blowing and signed an edict of tolerance.
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If the Arch of Galerius looked to late Roman triumphal arches as its model, this remarkable round building, constructed at the same time, echoes the Pantheon. Yet no one is sure what it was meant to be – Galerius’ mausoleum (although his body was never brought here), or possibly a temple to the Kabeiri. The walls of brick and rubble masonry, 6m thick, enclosed a space 24m in diameter, originally covered with coloured marble and relieved by barrelvaulted niches for statues. The tremendous dome, 30m high, was made of brick, and like the Pantheon there was once a central hole to let in light and air – and rain; the floor was equipped with drains.
Thessaloníki’s archaeology museum is one of the best in Greece, highlighting the extraordinary wealth and craftsmanship of Ancient Macedonia. Inside, the exhibits are arranged thematically: the lower level is dedicated to Prehistoric Macedonia, while on the ground floor, the section Towards the Birth of Cities (1100–700BC) has finds from the colonies from southern Greece set up in the north, which influenced the then-coalescing kingdom of Macedonia. Next, Macedonia from the 7th century BC to Late Antiquity has intriguing everyday items, including some fine vases and sculptures. The section on Thessaloníki has a superb 4th-century BC marble door of a Macedonian tomb with all its bronze fittings: wheels once allowed it to open effortlessly. The last section is dedicated to the Gold of Macedonia, the metal that funded Philip II’s meteoric rise to power. There are dazzling displays of gold from 121 6th-century BC tombs in Síndos, in the suburbs of Thessaloníki.
Museum of Byzantine Culture
Where the archaeological collection ends, this museum, directly behind, picks up the story. Early Christian art shows the continuity of pagan styles, even in the tombs, although instead of ‘Farewell’ the epitaphs read ‘Sleeping’ or ‘At Rest’. The earliest art here emphasises hope – the young, beardless Good Shepherd amid sweet visions of a heaven filled with birds, fruit and wine: crucifixions wouldn’t become popular until the 6th century AD. And judging by the mosaic floor and paintings from a 5th-century AD dining room, life on earth, at least for some, was good, too. There are bittersweet photos of the mosaics in the Basilica of Ag Dimítrios, lost in the fire of 1917, and a fresco showing Susannah and the Elders, unique in Greece.
Eating and drinking
Thessaloníki is the gastronomic capital of Greece. If you need just a snack, pick up a kouloúri (a crunchy, sesame-covered bread ring introduced by the refugees from Constantinople in the 13th century and popular ever since) from one of the street vendors. Or try one of Thessaloníki’s many bars or mezedopoleíos where
lighter dishes or Greek-style tapas are served alongside coffee, local wines, cocktails, etc until late. The city claims to have more cafés and bars per person than any other in Greece, and it’s hard to argue. In 1957 during the International Fair it even saw the invention of that Greek summer essential, the frappé, when an employee of Nestlé, Dimítri Vakondíos, couldn’t find any hot water for his usual instant coffee break, so put his coffee in the chocolate milk shaker the company had on exhibit, and hey presto!
Thessaloníki is proud to be a town that never sleeps, thanks in part to Greece’s largest student population. Nightlife hubs include Ladádika and Valaorítou, the medieval district inhabited by Venetian and Genoese merchants, and more recently by tailors and seamstresses, the student-filled Plateía Navarínou by the Rotonda and the two central pedestrian streets, Iktínou and Zéfxidos. This city loves films, and many cinemas play English-language films with subtitles; open-air cinemas are good fun in the summer, and many show subtitled films. Check events listings in English at greece-is.com/whats-on-in-thessaloniki.