While Alexis Tspiras, Greece’s new prime minister, is busy renegotiating his country’s debt to the European Union, almost every other Greek resident is spending the hot summer days doing what they have always done best, welcoming travelers to the Greek Islands, Athens and Thessaloniki.
Yes, Thessaloniki. Located about 300 miles north of Athens not far from the borders of Bulgaria, the Republic of Macedonia and Albania, Thessaloniki is Greece’s second-largest city and capital of the country’s northern Macedonia region. With a city population of 363,000 and an additional 170,000 living in the hilly suburban districts north of the city and the sun-drenched towns along the Aegean Sea to the south, Thessaloniki offers a slice of Greek life quite distinct from Athens or the islands.
A five- to six-hour trip by car, 4.5 hours by express train or 50 minutes by air from Athens, Thessaloniki offers a great add-on destination for leisure or business travelers who want to trade the summer heat and mass tourism scene at the Acropolis and Parthenon for the cooler hills, less crowded ruins and more intriguing nightlife.
Around 315 B.C., King Cassander of Macedon founded the city and named it after his wife, Thessalonike, a half-sister of Alexander the Great. Today, so many early Christian and Byzantine structures still stand in Thessaloniki that UNESCO named 15 of them World Heritage sites; and the city’s historic architecture, fine art and archaeology museums, stunning seafront promenade and lively theater and music scene led to its designation as European City of Culture in 1997.
Since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, Thessaloniki has become one of the most important trade and business centers in the Balkans, and its hotels and convention venues book dozens of major trade fairs and international meetings annually. The city sustains several large educational institutions, including Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the largest university in Greece, founded in 1926; the University of Macedonia; and the Technological Education Institute of Thessaloniki. More university students live in Thessaloniki than in Athens, contributing to the city’s thriving bar and café scene.
This year, National Geographic ranked Thessaloniki ninth among world cities for best nightlife, claiming the city “has more cafés per capita than any other European city.” Every evening after the workday ends, in cozy bars and outdoor cafés in the former industrial zones of Syngrou/Valaoritou, or in the converted warehouses of Ladadika near the port, office workers gather for drinks, snacks and music before making their way home as university students end a day of classes with a few beers and inexpensive dinners. On the quiet streets of upscale Ano Poli, high above the city, and in town squares outside the city center, families enjoy dinner at outdoor tavernas where white lights are strung between trees and a million stars fill the indigo sky. Much later, along the city’s beaches and in loud bars like Cabana or Yolo, young Thessalonians and European tourists dance to global music until the sun rises over the sea.
In addition to the busy nightlife, walks along the Aegean and dining on fresh red snapper, sardines and mussels from any number of seaside restaurants, visitors enjoy the quiet, cultured pleasures of the city. These include about two dozen museums with such diverse collections as ancient and contemporary art, Greek cinema, local railway history, science and photography.
From 1941 to1945, during the Nazi occupation of Thessaloniki, about 49,000 of the city’s 52,000 Jewish residents were deported to the death camps in Poland. The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, located in a historic building in the center of the city, provides a history of this once-large Jewish community through artifacts, photos and archival materials.
The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki was established in 1925, and the present, expanded museum opened in 2006 with modern, redesigned exhibition areas displaying a magnificent collection of ancient pottery, mosaics, paintings and sculpture. The Thessaloniki Olympic Museum focuses on the modern Olympic Games, with a nod to the ancient Olympics which began in Greece in 776 B.C.
Take time to savor a stroll down Thessaloniki’s busy seaside promenade from Aristotelous Square to the statue of Alexander the Great, passing the iconic 100-foot White Tower on the way. A city landmark, the White Tower is a stone cylinder built in the 1500s and used as part of the city’s fortification. It is a lovely walk, about 2.5 miles, or one hour without stopping for a tempting cold drink or delicious ice cream. When the temperatures heat up, consider taking the air-conditioned local bus which gets there in half the time for €1 (about $1.14). With the euro at an 11-year low against the U.S. dollar, visitors to Thessaloniki will find taxis and public transportation, restaurant meals and luxurious accommodations extremely affordable.
The travel booking site KAYAK claims the city offers some of the least expensive luxury hotels in Europe, with an average 5-star hotel room rate of $139 (as of May). Although deliberations among Eurozone nations regarding Greek debt are ongoing, it is expected the uncertainly about the country’s economic future will continue to have a positive impact on the Greek tourism industry, with visitors eager to experience the best of Greece at favorable currency exchange rates.
From Athens, travelers can easily access the small mountain villages in northern Greece, the intoxicating views of the Aegean and Thessaloniki’s lively nightlife by air, train or by rental car using the National Road. Beautiful beaches beckon one to stop along the way, as do numerous archaeological sites. In Thessaloniki, The Met Hotel represents one of the city’s more modern 5-star properties, with 212 guestrooms in the city center, underground parking and complimentary WiFi. The Sky Bar and rooftop pool overlook the sea, and the M’SPA offers massages and other treatments. Avenue 48, an indoor/outdoor restaurant, becomes the trendy Chan Bar when dinner ends and late-night fun begins. The 5-star boutique Excelsior hotel proves a gem in downtown Thessaloniki, with 34 luxurious guestrooms, most with private balconies, and the popular be* bar and restaurant.
An hour south of Thessaloniki lies the beautifully situated resort of Ikos Olivia (opened in May) with 136 guestrooms and 159 bungalow suites overlooking the Gulf of Toroneos. Its sister property, the larger Ikos Oceania, opened in March. Both properties are located in Halkidiki, a favorite getaway spot for Thessalonians in a region composed of three peninsulas jutting into the Aegean. Here olive groves, vineyards, small villages and stunning sea views compose an entrancing landscape.
Cultural sites outside of Thessaloniki include Vergina (45 miles west), a village where the ancient city of Aigai was discovered, now home to the fascinating Museum of the Royal Tombs, opened to the public in 1997. Also explore Pella, the former capital of ancient Macedonia, birthplace of Alexander the Great and site of a new archaeological museum with spectacular mosaic floors. Both cities can be toured in one day from Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki Info to Go
According to an Airports Council International Europe report, passenger traffic at Thessaloniki International Airport (nine miles outside the city) increased by 40 percent in early 2015 as carriers expanded service from numerous European cities. There is also fast ICE train service from Athens (4 hours, 30 minutes; first-class fare, about $56, includes meals on board). Year-round ferries sail to Thessaloniki from the Greek islands of Lemnos, Lesvos, Chios and the Piraeus port near Athens, with summer connections added to the Sporades, Dodecanese and Cyclades island groups. Many Greek island ferry schedules are not written in stone, and middle-of-the-night departures or arrivals are not uncommon.
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