An exciting city-break in lively Thessaloniki – World Meanderings (n°115)
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Thessaloniki is the second most populated city in Greece after Athens and is an awesome mix and match of modernity and ancient history. Considered as Greece cultural capital it has a rich heritage, a bustling nightlife and a palpable joie de vivre. Mind you, Thessaloniki could easily steal your heart.
It all began with a love story
Thessalonike was a princess daughter of King Phillip II of Macedonia and half-sister of Alexander the Great. The town was founded in 315 BC by her husband who named it Thessaloniki to honour his beloved wife. From the beginning the town was ideally located at the bottom of the Thermaikos Gulf in Northern Greece at the crossroads of major trade routes. It was a very prosperous town able to compete with Rome or Constantinople. After being part of the Roman Empire and after having been the wealthiest city of the Byzantine Empire it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1430 and became a cosmopolite city where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived and traded together in harmony. It finally joined the newly freed Greece in 1912.
In August 1917 an accidental fire consumed the whole city centre. 9,500 buildings were destroyed leaving 70,000 people homeless. The town hall, many churches, mosques, synagogues as well as banks and schools went up in flames. New districts were built between the wars creating a modern city while respecting most of the ancient picturesque parts spared by the fire. Many renowned architects from the whole world worked to rebuild the city mixing Eclecticism, Art Nouveau and Neo-baroque styles.
During WW II Thessaloniki was heavily bombarded by Italian armies and once again largely destroyed. Germans seized the town in April 1941 putting an end to decades of peaceful coexistence. By the end of the war 98% of the Jewish population had vanished. Three decades of reconstruction followed the war turning Thessaloniki into a new 20th century city but smartly incorporating its ancient monuments that had miraculously been spared by the bombing. This is the town we can see today where business, student life and tourism nicely live side by side creating a unique atmosphere full of energy and zest for life.
Thessaloniki, a place for culture, shopping and fun
Through the centuries several civilisations have left their mark in Thessaloniki. Most of the interesting monuments are right in the city centre and you will be able to discover them just wandering through the city by foot. Although there is no beach in Thessaloniki walking along the long crescent sea front lined with countless bars and restaurants is a very pleasant stroll. It will take you to one of the city’s landmark, the White Tower. This tower was built in the 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent and was originally part of the town’s fortifications. The Ottomans used it as a prison where many prisoners were tortured and killed. At that time people called it the “bloody tower”. When Greece gained its independence the tower was repainted in white as a way to erase these sad times and it is called the “White Tower” ever since. Today the tower is a museum and you can climb up the stair to the rooftop from where you’ll get a panoramic view over the town and the Aegean Sea. Close by, an equestrian statue of Alexander the Great was erected in 1973 next to a huge park where it feels good to take some rest.
Most of the Greco-Roman monuments date from the 4th century AD when Emperor Galerius ruled the region. He had a palace, a hippodrome, a triumphal arch and a mausoleum built in his capital. Today you can visit the Rotunda that through the centuries has been turned into a church, then a mosque and later into a church once again. The inner Byzantine frescoes are remarkable. Galerius Arch stands next to the Rotonda and a little further away you will get to the ancient Agora.
Ano Poli is the old district of Thessaloniki spared by the 1917 great fire. It is surrounded by ramparts that hide a maze of picturesque little streets. Here are the last Ottoman style houses of the city as well as the largest Greek church in town Agios Demetrios and Vlatadon Monastery. If you have some time left you can climb up a hill to the Heptapyrgion, the ancient Greek Acropolis and Byzantine and Ottoman fortress that overlooks the whole city.
Since being the second most important city of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople, Thessaloniki has many Byzantine monuments that outlived the great fire or were rebuilt after WW I. Most of them now are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Thessaloniki is heaven for shopping lovers. Designers’ boutiques, leading international brands, chic local shoes and clothes makers… make your choice! Tsimiki Street, Mitropoleos and Proxenou Koromila avenues are the three high streets where you can go on a serious shopping spree! But if you want to meet the real people of Thessaloniki go to the central market. This big market hall is the beating heart of the city where local people go to buy fresh produce as well as spices, freshly baked cakes and bread, olive oil… Small restaurants propose simple local cuisine on outside terraces where you can enjoy a tasty authentic snack.
Iconic Electra Palace Hotel
The Electra Palace Thessaloniki is ideally located on beautiful and impressive Aristotelous Square at walking distance from all the sites of interest in town. The hotel has recently undergone a complete renovation program and offers a chic and comfortable setting for your city break in Thessaloniki. Contemporary designers and artists have been hired to create a decoration that makes the hotel quite unique.
A swimming pool and its sun deck as well as a restaurant and bar have been located on the rooftop. They offer a magnificent view over the Aegean Sea enjoyable any time of the day, especially at sunset.
If rooms are not huge they nevertheless have all the comfort and amenities you can expect in a 5-star hotel. Natural colours, plenty of light coming through the French windows, sea view, marble bathroom with walk-in shower, bespoke furniture, premium bedding, coffee facilities, soundproof windows… the rooms have been designed to comfort you after your busy day in town.
Thee “Orizontes Roof Garden” restaurant set on the roof terrace of the hotel boast a stunning view of the Thermaikos Gulfe and beautiful Aristotelous Square. The restaurant is open all day long for your hearty morning “breakfast with a view”, for a quick lunch, an inventive snack with a drink or a gastronomic dinner. The cuisine is largely inspired by Greek gastronomy offering all the healthy food from the Mediterranean diet.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic the spa and fitness centre are presently closed. The Electra Palace has created a “fully flexible cancellation policy” allowing you to cancel your booking for free until 09:00 of the day of arrival.
More info and booking at https://www.electrahotels.gr/en/thessaloniki/electra-palace-thessaloniki/
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny