You'll be stunned by the city of Thessaloniki and nearby attractions as the region begins to unveil its secrets to its visitors immediately. To begin with, Greece's second largest city and proud capital of Central Macedonia is a hotbed of culture, nightlife and attractions all within walking distance. Built on 3000 years of continuous history, Thessaloniki – affectionately known as Salonica – has a proud mix Byzantine, Ottoman and Jewish heritage which can still be felt in its architecture and nonchalant lifestyle.
The city, a definite must see
Cassander, King of Macedonia didn't pick this spot to built Thessaloniki in 315 BC here by chance. A natural gulf, forested hills and many gullies formed the backdrop of this formidable city, which became one of the most important in the Balkans. The Roman Egnatia Road passed through the city which later became one Byzantium's second most important metropolis after Constantinople.
The city's troubled recent history in both world wars saw the allies land in the First World War and Thessaloniki's Jewish population decimated by the Nazi war machine in the Second. The Great Fire of Thessaloniki in 1919 all but burned the city to the ground, although some historical buildings and the charming Ladadika neighbourhood were spared.
Yet Thessaloniki survived and grew into a complex, dynamic and interesting urban gem with an immense treasure of impressive historical sites and culturally important buildings, many of which are not easily found on your first stroll here. The emblem of Thessaloniki is the Lefkos Pyrgos (White Tower) built in the 16th century, once a notorious Ottoman prison that has now been turned into a fascinating multi-storey museum, unveiling the different civilizations and cultures that have lived here.
Another must-see attraction is the Rotonda of St. George built by Galerius Caesar in 300 AD when he designated the city as his headquarters. From being a Temple of Zeus to becoming a church and then a mosque, the Rotonda is breathtaking. Also noteworthy is the Kamara or Arch of Galerius nearby which was built in the fourth century AD, part of which still stands majestically over one of the city's main thoroughfares.
The most important and intriguing church with an impressive crypt is Saint Demetrius (Aghios Dimitrios), but also the Chruch of Aghia Sophia which bears resemblance to the famed Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. These are just a few of the historical buildings in the Downtown area, keeping in mind that there are so many others to explore.
Fascinating city attractions also include the castles area (Eptapyrgo) on the upper part of the city, with many charming local restaurants lying near these great castle walls. Adventurous walkers will also want to explore the fresh-food Modiano Market, the Bezesteni Market, and the Bit Bazaar for its boutiques and hidden underground antique shops. Do wander around the old oil market called Ladadika which is full of local eateries and nightspots.
During the day museum lovers will enjoy the Archaeological Museum, the Byzantine Museum, the Jewish Museum and the Folk Museum of Macedonia-Thrace. Also noteworthy is the Macedonian Struggle Museum which puts an intriguing twist on the region's turbulent history, as well as customs and traditions. There are several art galleries in the city as well.
At this point special mention must be made of Thessaloniki's mouthwatering cuisine. This is definitely Greece's culinary capital and you will eat well here, thanks to the legacy of cultures and flavours that have dug their heels in this fertile land. Suffice to say that dishes in Thessaloniki, thanks to strong a Anatolian and multicultural influence, are slightly more piquant, flavorful and intriguing than in many other parts of the country.
Nature beyond the city walls
The once verdant hills overlooking Thessaloniki all but disappeared during Ottoman times, but have since been replanted and represent a robust ecosystem of fauna and flora. Called by its Turkish name, Sheikh Su (Water of the Sheikh), the hilly area is actually connected to mount Chortiatis which has helped attract a lot of wildlife, from hares and foxes to turtles and hedgehogs. Over 80 species of birds have also been recorded on these hills and surrounding areas during winter.
Just west of Thessaloniki on the Thermaic Gulf lies one of Greece's most important wetlands, including the Kalochorio lagoon, the Galiko River estuary, the Axios River Delta, the Loudia River estuary and the Aliakmona River Delta. This complex of water bodies, along with the nearby Kitrous saltpans, has attracted over 250 kinds of birds including endangered species such as the pygmy cormorant, Dalmatian pelican, glossy ibis and the spoonbill. The whole wetland is designated as one of Europe's most important and is listed under the Natura 2000 network.
Discovering Volvi and Koronia Lakes
Beyond the hills of Thessaloniki lies the Mygdonia basin, with traces of human presence since historic times. In the area around Lake Koronia and Lake Volvi, a longstanding connection between earth and water has developed, creating one of Greece's most important wetland habitats which remains virtually unknown by travelers.
Worth visiting is the Koronia and Volvi Wetland Information Centre which offers guided tours on this complex natural region and serves as a meeting point for excursions. You can tour by car around both lakes, take a dip in the thermal springs of Lagada, visit the Volvi Baths, spot some water Buffalo or embark on a lakeshore bicycle ride (e.g. Apollonia, Nea Madytos, Redina). For a two hour hike, walk through Byzantine Redina, from the town to the Redina Castle area all the way to the Strymonic Gulf.
Take a mountain trip to the northern villages above the lakes, such as Lefkochori, Vertiskos, Ossa, Socho and Mavrouda to admire the Macedonian architecture, goat-fur rugs, virgin forests, vineyards, old churches and more. A tour of the southern villages, such as Apollonia, Melissourgo, Kalamoto, Zagliveri, Adam, Petrokerasa and Ardameri is also highly recommended. Stop by the Kalamoto Women's Association for some preserves and pastries. You'll love the village of Melissourgo with its narrow streets, spirit distillery (rakokazano), and farm guesthouse.
Secrets in every corner of the region
The small village of Vertiskos that has only 400 inhabitants in summer and 80 in winter magically attracts 10,000 visitors, mostly students, to the cultural events and surrounding campsites that flourish there every year. The village has an environmental center and a guesthouse which also rents mountain bikes.
North of Thessaloniki lies the village of Dorkada which is known for its superior milk products, complete with seven true Greek yogurt workshops that also offer a variety of delicious cheeses. Ask for the famous Dorkados yogurt and learn how this original delicacy is prepared.
Visit the village of Ossa for its rare examples of traditional architecture, local tavernas with outstanding appetizers and the cherry festival held at the beginning of June. More to the east the village of Socho is known for its rich cultural and folk traditions, including a great celebration on Sunday and Monday before Ash Wednesday every year (i.e. Carnival Period). If you're there in October you might be lucky to attend the walnut festival. Otherwise just enjoy some good horseback riding at the Roida farm resort or explore the area by foot or by bike.
To discover the important Byzantine past of the region head north to the Mavroudas area where a 13th century monastery, water mills and old industrial buildings will fascinate you. There are both Byzantine baths and Ottoman buildings in Apollonia, as well as the Rock of the Apostle Paul where he supposedly preached from.
The artificial dam of Thermi presents a great lake for birds and for birdwatching where you might spot night herons, buntings, ducks and many other feathered friends. Overall this area is a great place to hike with many natural beauties and places to rest, as well as some good local eateries on the way. The region also boasts a grape and grape pressing festival usually at the beginning of September, which is an ideal time to visit.
If you're into learning about Ancient Greece's glorious past, the greater Macedonian region boasts some amazing archaeological sites such as Aigai, Amphipolis, Edessa and Pella. Indeed, Pella was the capital of the Macedonian state and birthplace of Alexander the Great, while Ancient Edessa was one of Macedonia's most important cities. An hour east of Thessaloniki lies Amphipolis, considered once a Macedonian stronghold, Roman emporium and Early Christian centre that was once home to five magnificent churches. Remains of the royal tombs at Aigai and the Palace of Philip II dating from 336 BC will definitely impress you.
These are just some of the secrets of the greater Thessaloniki area which will impress you with its variety. From outstanding nature and amazing architecture to fascinating folklore and fabulous food, this Balkan, Macedonian and Mediterranean mosaic of a destination will leave you spellbound.