Greece’s second city is barely known as a weekend destination, yet it has a trove of ancient sites, fabulous local cuisine, a superb cafe scene and brilliant nightlife.
Stroll anywhere in the grid-patterned art-deco streets of the lower town and you’ll happen on wonderful churches and ancient ruins. The Pantheon-like Rotunda, built by the Romans in AD306, has walls 18ft thick and a glistening interior of gold-leafed mosaics. I wandered in twice (entry is free) and had the place to myself both times — try that in Athens or Rome. Other attractions include the Arch of Galerius, with its heroic stone-carved figures, the magnificent gloom of the Agia Sofia (a church, then a mosque, now a church again — built as a copy of the Istanbul original), a Roman amphitheatre and baths. There’s a clever hourly Cultural Route bus, No 50: hop on and off all day for £1.80. Even if you’re not tempted, download its route map from oasth.gr — it shows all the main historic sites.
This is very much a real city: no tourist menus, tat or touts here. You’ll be among Thessalonians in the multitude of open-air cafes, in Tsimiski Street’s designer boutiques, bartering in the covered Modiano market or sipping sundowners in the open-fronted bars on Nikis Street. My favourite spot is on a pretty pedestrianised alley behind Athonos Square, where I sat under the shade of a giant vine outside Cafe Bazaar (34 Papamarkou Street), watching locals browsing furniture in the cute row of carpentry shops. And do indulge in the city’s famous pastries: Athenians don’t go home without them. Chatzis (119 Egnatia Street) was founded in 1908 and re-creates the exquisite tastes of Constantinople.
To save the climb to the upper town, take the 23 bus from the seafront (80p); a taxi costs £4. The twists and turns of the Ottoman-era roads are a hoot, and at one point the driver has to make a scheduled three-point-turn through a Byzantine archway in order to proceed. You arrive in a sleepy place of pigeon fanciers, front-step scrubbers and impossibly cluttered balconies. The views from beside the Chain Tower are stupendous — down onto the city, out over Thessaloniki bay and across to distant Mount Olympus.
It’s a lovely walk from there, along the eastern walls, back to the lower town, with several cafe terraces along the way. When you reach the flat, you are close to the Turkish Consulate and the revered birthplace/house/museum of Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey (Apostolou Pavlou 17; free; take your passport) — another reminder of the city’s tug-of-war past.
Turkish crisis, what crisis? The Thessalonians (including 150,000 students) don’t seem to give an IMF about the debt crisis. They cram the seafront cafes at sunset — the trendy Ernest Hébrard and sophisticated Garçon Brasserie are especially good. They fill the forecourts of the Ladadika restaurants — Zithos (5 Katouni; zithos.gr) is excellent, with starters such as saganaki (fried cheese) for £4 and mains such as granny’s meatballs from £6. Then they party late in the 40 bars around Valaoritou Street: Airport Bar is minimalist, Almodobar modish, and at La Doze you’ll find a free-spirit vibe and the barman, Akis, will conjure a cocktail to suit your mood for £7.