A visit to Thessaloniki, Greece uncovers a treasure with layers of history each as sweet as the indulgent honey-drizzled baklava piled up in its many buzzing cafes.
What To See
Thessaloniki is the Greece that not everyone thinks of when this country comes to mind, even though it is the second largest city. It’s a treasure trove of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that celebrate its Byzantine, Sephardic Jewish and Ottoman history. Thankfully, they felt welcome enough to stay and left their beautiful marks.
Thessaloniki’s architecture ranges from dingy apartments, decked out with sprays of graffiti interrupted by the tiled domes of Turkish hammams and mosques that gently touch the clear skies. Thessaloniki is blessed with many a sunny day, a deep blue gulf that reaches out to the Aegean Sea, and inspiring mountains. A gift from the ancient Greek Gods. As one taxi driver described, “Thessaloniki is a slice of heaven.”
Just a short hop outside the city is Dion, a fascinating archaeological site filled with ancient Greek treasures. Marble statues of Zeus and Aphrodite were unearthed throughout the region. See exquisite artifacts displayed at the museum in Dion that sits at the foot of the forest-covered Mount Olympus. Long ago ancient Greeks believed this to be the home of the god Zeus.
The city’s diverse cultural landscape of mosques, churches and synagogues was destroyed by the fire in 1917. The 4th century Roman Rotunda was spared. It was once a mosque and today has the city’s only surviving minaret.
The calming Agia Sofia is smaller and simpler twin compared to Istanbul’s version. I sat on a plush, red velvet chair and craned my neck up above the altar where a mosaic of Mary and son hovered above. I wondered how many hours it took to painstakingly attach each tiny fragment of glass and stones to create such a glorious piece of art.
Churches are adorned with golden icons, shimmering chandeliers glittering in the dust speckled light. Orthodox priests, sing loving songs of devotion tucked away in the alter, eyes closed and arms raised in euphoric blessings. It’s hard not to get caught up in the rapture.
The 7th century Agios Dimitrios’ was once a mosque and returned to a Christian house of worship in 1912. Surviving 7th century mosaics of Saint Demetrius glitter in the darkened light. The exquisite nook off to the side is a beacon for the ill and weak who make the pilgrimage in hopes of a healing miracle, leaving small silver charms as token of their devotion.
A climb to the Ano Poli Ottoman neighborhood, reveals a warren of narrow lanes. The scent of bursting white flowers perfumes the salty air and nudge up against pastel colored Balkan-style homes. I’m told that the Ottomans built the homes close to one another so that their wives could peek out the windows to gossip with their neighbors.
A shimmering mosaic of a young Jesus, sans beard, standing near the river Jordan, gleams down upon me at the Osios David Monastery hidden away along a quiet lane. A glorious gift to the almighty from early believers.
As the sun snuck higher into the sky, I tucked into the Vlatadon Monastery, suddenly embraced by its cool interior and mysterious aura. Dark grey walls, seemingly covered in a layer of soot from years of spindly candles’ smoke, created a blackened mask over the beautiful frescoes rising to the ceiling. Saint Paul is believed to have preached here.
The Ottoman era wall used to embrace the city. Now there are a few areas where the defensive structure remains. Take a seat to watch the cargo ships crawl their way through the Thermaic Gulf down below. The view is spectacular.
Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki
Dive into the history of this ancient land and see gold trinkets, beautiful mosaics, and statues all uncovered in and around Thessaloniki.
In the early morning hours, the area right by the Gulf is calm. Take a quiet stroll and stop by the statue of Alexander the Great, the Macedonia ruler whose empire stretched all the way to India.
The buzz in Art Deco-style Aristotelous Square’s cafes is electric. Laughter and the clink of forks sound like Salonica’s version of a symphony. The hazy water at the foot of the square takes on a pinky glow in the fading sunlight as Thessaloniki gets ready to welcome the night.
What To Eat
Plates full of falafel, salads with slabs of feta, and loads of decadent deserts will keep your stomach full. According to the grandmas of Thessaloniki, you must eat for your strength.
Food is a delicious reminder of all of those who have called Thessaloniki (known by locals as Salonica) home and brought along their culinary traditions. Honey, iced coffee (strong and bold and made popular during the Ottoman times) and spices are all on the menu. Cafes are on every corner, buzzing with chatty students. Make sure you try the Rox-chocolate-filled pastries- at Terkenlis, a Thessaloniki based sweet shop established in 1948.
Where to Stay
Electra Palace Hotel
Zip up to the top floor for a yummy breakfast of local treats while you admire the stunning view of the shimmering water and the mountains beyond.