The Greek city of Thessaloniki is a buzzing metropolis of shopping, culture and nightlife, with all the ingredients for a great weekend break
Think Greece, and your mind conjures up images of summer holidays, of white painted villages and golden beaches, but you wouldn’t necessarily think city break. Yet Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, is ideal for a short break.
Just three hours away, Thessaloniki (also known as Salonika) has good air connections with BA and easyJet from Gatwick and Aegean Air from Stansted via Athens. A major centre of shopping and nightlife at the north of the Aegean, it's set against a landscape of woodland and rolling green hills that looks like England but with more sunshine. No surprise that it is called the “green garden of Greece.”
I chose to stay at the four-star City Hotel, which enjoys an excellent central location. It’s just off the main shopping street, a two-minute walk from the front and close to lots of great restaurants. However, there are numerous one- to five-star hotels throughout the city.
The two symbols of the city are the Byzantine White Tower, a World Heritage Site, and the imposing statue of conqueror Alexander the Great mounted on his rearing horse Beucephalus. Both stand on the sweeping waterfront and draw strollers and lovers to enjoy the water and the sunset over the bay, looking towards Mount Olympus, home of Zeus and the Greek gods of ancient mythology. People promenade along the front and overflow onto the pavement from cafes and bars. Another way to enjoy the waterfront is on one of the bar boats that cruise the bay. The ride is free; you just pay a little over café prices for your drinks.
The city prides itself on its lively bars, coffee shops and music clubs. There is a local saying: “Nightlife night and day.” Thessaloniki also has a rich cultural life of conferences, exhibitions and museums and hosts a prestigious international film festival. The 50th annual festival takes place in November 2009.
The old quarter of the city is Ladadika, a nest of historic buildings and winding lanes unlike anything else in the centre of the city. This area is packed with small tavernas, ouzeries and music bars, many of which are open into the early hours.
All over town there are traditional tavernas offering classic Greek food and the distinctive local cuisine. Be sure to try bougatsa, a filo pastry pie that can be sweet or savoury. One of the most famous places to eat out is the Krikelas restaurant, a family-run taverna that opened in 1940. The walls are covered in photographs of famous customers and it has an extensive wine cellar.
Founded around 315BC by King Cassander, one of Alexander’s generals, and named after his wife, Alexander’s sister, Thessaloniki has grown up around its history – quite literally. Ancient ruins run alongside busy main roads. Traffic squeezes past the triumphal arch of the Roman emperor Galerius. Many historic buildings survive, including Byzantine churches, the Rotunda and the Roman amphitheatre and market. Navarino Square is lined with shops and busy cafes packed with couples and families but at its centre is the well preserved palace of Galerius. Make sure you visit the archaeological museum with its wonderful display of ancient Macedonian gold artefacts.
Thessalonikans love fashion and many of the major shops and stores are to be found along the busy avenue called Tsimiski, which slices through the centre of town parallel with the seafront, as well as in Mitropoleos and the surrounding side streets.
Thessaloniki is also the gateway for longer visits to the three fingers of land that form Halkidiki. Here, on the Kassandra peninsula, is the superb Sani Beach Resort, which comprises a hotel, the five-star Beach Club, the luxury Porto Sani Village spa suites, and a marina set in 4,000 acres of greenery beside four miles of perfect golden sand. It also hosts the Sani festival of music and arts.
The furthest of Halkidiki's three fingers is the Athos Peninsula. At its tip is Mount Athos – the Holy Mountain – a cluster of 20 orthodox Christian monasteries, some a thousand years old, within an independent state. Mount Athos still uses the Julian calendar, abandoned by the rest of the world hundreds of years ago, which means the monks are 13 days behind the rest of us. Even time is different there - their midnight strikes at sunset.
Woman are banned from Athos and men need a special permit. Prince Charles is a regular visitor. However, a boat trip around its coastline to view some of the fantastic cliff-top monasteries is one of the most popular outings in the region.
At the bases of the peninsula is the Eagles Palace Hotel and Spa, which is ideally placed to explore the area. The Halkidiki region also has a wine route to explore the local vineyards. So whether you are looking for a short break for two or a longer family stay Thessaloniki has plenty to offer.