The second city of Greece is virtually unknown to the outside world and tourism is largely restricted to people transiting through the airport to the resorts of the Halkidiki peninsular. It does however have a fascinating history (being second only to Istanbul as a Byzantine city) and is a pleasant place to spend some time with excellent restaurants and bars and a lovely setting on its wide open bay with mountains to its rear.
The city started in 315 BC when King Kassandros, the brother in law of Alexander the Great, decided the location would be an ideal spot to develop a new city. He named it after his wife who in turn was named after the victory over the area of Thessaly (the niki part of the subsequent cities name being greek for victory). And indeed its setting has created its place as the major port of Northern Greece which has long been the foundation of its wealth. In 168 BC the Romans made the city capital of Macedonia and the southern Balkans and with the coming of the Byzantine empire Thessaloniki became its second city after Constantinople itself. This legacy of Byzantine rule can be seen today and the buildings and relics of the time abound. The upper town (Ano Poli) is a world heritage site with its winding streets and overhanging houses and the famous White Tower, which was a part of the fortifications, now houses the Museum of Byzantine Culture.
After the Byzantine Empire fell there was a brief period of Venetian rule before the Ottoman Turks took over the city and changed its cultural and economic makeup. Thessaloniki had been in economic decline but the Turks under Murad the second turned this around largely by encouraging a mass migration of Sephardic jews fleeing the persecution in Spain. By the beginning of the 16th century they had become one of the largest groups in the city and this continued until the the 20th century. In 1890 from a total population of 118,000 there were 55,000 Jews, 26,000 Turks and 16,000 Greeks. It became the largest Jewish city in the world but this odd combination of cultures actually worked and created a vibrant and flourishing economy which made the city a major centre. Even into the 20th century it flourished and the neo-classical city which emerged with its wide boulevards and elegant houses was a little Paris by the Aegean. The ravages of wars, both worldwide and civil, a terrible fire, and the stultifying rule of the fascist junta in the 60s and 70s left Salonika in a bad state and the beautiful town was finally largely wrecked by developers. As in all of Greece, the 70’s and 80’s saw many of the neo-classical buildings being bought up by these companies which ripped them down and replaced them with concrete nightmares. A disaster for the country but enough of the layout and the buildings remain to have an atmospheric and interesting city.
The excavations at Derveni and Vergina in the 1970’s have provided the cities Archaeological Museum with some of the most significant finds of recent years and have made the museum one of the most significant in the world.
Thessaloniki is a relatively easy city to transit through, the airport is small and about 20 minutes outside the centre (in rush hours allow 40), the port is in the middle of town and the bus station is about 10-20 minutes in a cab. As always taxis are cheap but remember taxi sharing is the norm here, if two fat ladies (or men) jump into your cab it’s just a part of Greek life.
It’s worth staying in Thessaloniki though, if you have time, and probably the best hotel is the Electra Palace www.electrahotels.gr which has a magnificent setting but is quite pricey (the owners also have Skopelos Village Hotel). The Hotel Luxembourg www.hotelluxembourg.gr is a cheaper price and seems quite popular and there are many budget hotels at a good price and a reasonable standard.
There are many great restaurants. The area of Ladadika is quite touristy but you could try Omilos on the Paralia (waterfront), Krikelas on Saliminos 6, Ouzeri Aristotelous on Aristotelous 6 or Diagonos near Lefkos Pirgos. It’s a small town (in the centre) so you can find them easily. Or just go to the charming area near the fish market and take your pick!
For cafe/bars try Flo on Nik.Foka 9 or Domatia Me Thea at Pl.Aristotelous 10.
Clubs (i am told) are vibrant, they start late and finish very late, Decadence -seems apt- is at And.Georgiou 21 and Hotel is at 26th Oktovriou 25. and Back to Base is at L.Nikis 63.