516km (320 miles) N of Athens
When a Greek tells you he's from Athens, he might sound a bit apologetic, and quickly tells you what village he or his parents came from to live in Athens. Greeks from Thessaloniki, on the other hand, sound very pleased to be from Greece's "Second City." Thessaloniki may be second to Athens in political importance and population, but in popular songs, Thessaloniki is celebrated as "the mother of Macedonia," "the most blessed of cities," "beautiful Thessaloniki," and "the city whose praises are sung."
You, too, may be tempted to sing this city's praises when you take in its wonderful location along the broad expanse of the Thermaic Gulf. You're never far from the sea here; when you least expect it, you can catch a glimpse of waves and boats in the distance. Alas, especially in the summer, you may also notice signs of the harbor's pollution, including a ripe odor. If you're lucky, you'll see Mount Olympus while you're here: Pollution has increasingly obscured even that imposing landmark.
Greeks are fond of reminding foreigners that when their ancestors were painting themselves blue or living in rude huts, Greeks were sitting in the shade of the Parthenon, reading the plays of Sophocles. Similarly, Thessalonians like to remind Athenians that when Athens languished in the long twilight of its occupation by the Romans and Ottomans, Thessaloniki flourished. It's true: Thessaloniki's strategic location on the main land route from Europe into Asia made it a powerful city during the Roman Empire. Many monuments built here date from the 4th century A.D., from the Emperor Galerius's rule.
During the Byzantine Empire (the 4th-15th c. A.D.), Thessaloniki boasted that it was second only to the capital, Constantinople. Thessaloniki's greatest pride -- its superb and endearing churches -- were built then. After the Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire, Thessaloniki continued to flourish as an important commercial center and port. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the city's Jewish community was so strong and so prosperous that some called Thessaloniki the "second Jerusalem."
Then, in August 1917, a devastating fire destroyed 80% of the city. Phoenix-like, Thessaloniki rose from the ashes. Unfortunately, only part of the city was rebuilt according to the grand plan of the French architect Ernest Hébrard. More than 130,000 Greek refugees from Asia Minor flooded into Thessaloniki between 1922 and 1923, almost doubling the city's population and leading to enormous unregulated development. Despite this, Thessaloniki has enough tree-lined boulevards and parks to make it feel much greener than Athens.
After World War II, and again in the 1960s, two more growth spurts left much of the city's outskirts crowded and ugly -- and all too much of the city center lined with bland apartment buildings. Still, Thessaloniki has none of the horizon-blocking skyscrapers that have proliferated in Athens; earthquake regulations forbid this. The last major earthquake was in 1978. In recent years, the narrow lanes and old-fashioned houses of the Upper City (Ano Poli) became sought after for restoration, first into bohemian pads and now into chic urban homes, art galleries, and restaurants.
Glimpses of the sea, tree-lined streets, magnificent Byzantine churches -- all these make visiting Thessaloniki special. The food is also more varied and inventive than in most other parts of Greece. The long traditions of Macedonian cuisine are infused with zesty flavors of the Pontus (the area around the Black Sea where most of the city's refugees had lived). And, there's another reason that the food here is so good: The restaurants cater to local customers; none of them make their living off tourists.