To a certain extent, the whole city of Thessaloniki flies slightly under the radar of most travellers, who tend to either dart on and out on business trips or cruises, or head straight to the beach mecca of Chalkidiki. A sprawling, congested city with most street signs exclusively in Greek script, it can be hard to get to know and love without a few pointers.
The cognoscenti and well-heeled visitors head towards the Met Hotel
, which is in a portside area going through a process of much-needed urban regeneration. The Met is at the forefront of converting this area of old warehouses and slightly seedy port bars into a hipster hang out. Pool parties are held at its incredible rooftop pool terrace and dance floor on some Friday nights. What most people wouldn’t be aware of is the hotel’s incredible contemporary art collection. It’s a real pleasure to drop in and savour a latte in front of the Bill Viola installation, and just across the road is Jumbo, a shopping emporium and of anything and everything that’s a firm favourite with locals.
The tomb of Alexander II, about a 45 minute drive out of Thessaloniki, is very much on the tourist map. What gets much less exposure, however, is the array of cheap and cheerful cafes a stones’ throw away from the exit to the museum gift shop. When planning a trip to Vergina, which can seem remote and lacking in facilities, it’s worth knowing that there are numerous options for tasty stuffed vine leaves, aubergine salad, grilled meat and retsina, and it means you can make a pleasant and civilised afternoon of the trip, rather than dashing there and back to tick Vergina off your list. It’s also worth mentioning that the museum gift shop houses an array of well-chosen and inspiring items which provide much better souvenirs that most of the tired options downtown.
Unsurprisingly, maritime culture has influenced the cuisine of Thessaloniki and Chalkidiki profoundly. More unexpectedly, especially to an English visitor like me, they have developed their own delicious version of Brit pub staple fish and chips. Thessaloniki-style, it’s served up piping hot and crispy with plenty of garlic sauce. Frutti di Mare
on the centrally located Komninon Street does some of the best. It’s best enjoyed in their outside seating area if you can fight off the locals for a table. The charming owners have a habit of bringing out a circular array of dangerously delicious complimentary local digestifs to round off your meal with a fiery shot or two.
Another appealing dining option in an unexpected place back in central Thessaloniki is the very smart and aspirational restaurant inside the Museum of Byzantine Culture. The food is good, the service is slick, and there’s a spectacular collection of Byzantine mosaics, pottery and paintings to admire while you walk off your meal. If you walk down to the harbour from the Museum, you can walk all along the seafront until you hit a jutting area with a few bars and restaurants with panoramic views out to sea. At sunset local youths come here to promenade and pose: alternate people-watching with admiring the tiny, luminous jellyfish which call the harbour home. Take it all in with a glass of one of the many excellent local white wines, or a coffee in the charming Hotel Bristol, an oasis of old school charm and gentility dating back to the Ottoman era five minutes’ walk from the sea front.
Phileas French for Today's Growth Consultant