Thessaloniki isn’t the New Shoreditch. It’s Better. Here’s Why

Thessaloniki isn’t the New Shoreditch. It’s Better. Here’s Why

A cultural hub and haven for creatives, Thessaloniki is often likened to San Francisco or Shoreditch. These comparisons only tell part of the story. In Greece’s second city, traces of the past and a cosmopolitan atmosphere born of diverse cultural influences form a dynamic metropolis with a rhythm of its own.

a view of ethereal Mount Olympus from across the Thermaikos
Gulf, Thessaloniki has historically drawn travellers in search of
the picturesque. Arriving by sea, 19th-century visitors were
enthralled by an Ottoman city whose ancient ruins and elegant
minarets were at once seductive and sublime – opium for Western
imaginations desperate for a glimpse of “the East”. Visitors to
Thessaloniki today, arriving with hopefully broader horizons, can
still encounter the elements of the city that so enchanted earlier
travellers, while discovering an urban landscape enlivened by
contemporary culture and creativity, yet characterised by a pace of
life affectionately summed up in the word “halara” – relaxed,

Part of the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires,
Thessaloniki has been shaped by its history as an important trading
port and home to diverse communities. This is nowhere more evident
than in its foodie scene: Thessaloniki is Greece’s second city, but
it is the country’s culinary capital, the meeting-place of Greek,
Jewish, French, Balkan and Turkish flavours.

A stroll through the central Modiano Market – built by prominent
Italian-Jewish architect Eli Modiano – sets the scene: piles of
vibrant fruits and vegetables, pungent herbs and spices, sweet
honey and fragrant “mountain tea” from the foothills of Mount
Olympus all hint at the bounty offered up by the surrounding
countryside. Inspired by this natural wealth, innovative chefs riff
off of traditional favourite recipes to arrive at fresh creations.

Chef Labros Lalaridis of Maitr
kai Margarita
(Master and Margarita), an unassuming restaurant
set in a formerly industrial neighbourhood, delights with twists on
Greek classics. Traditional striftadia pasta is served with sweet
mandarin from the island of Chios, shrimp and crayfish tails, while
the popular Cretan dakos salad here features sweet roasted cherry
tomatoes and a base of carob rusk and walnuts. At Nea Folia, northern Greek fare takes on a
gourmet twist: think lemon-y pork with an additional touch of anise
and ginger, and soutzoukakia meatballs prepared with buffalo.
Thessaloniki’s fame as a hub of culinary creativity extends to its
pastry repertoire; the invention of Thessaloniki’s long-standing
brunch favourite, Estrella, the “bougatsan” pastry hybrid combines a
classic croissant with the custard-cream of a traditional Greek

As in its cuisine, the ancient sits alongside contemporary
creativity in the city’s architecture and public space. When
walking the streets of Thessaloniki – founded around 315 BCE by
King Cassander of Macedon – it’s near impossible not to stumble
upon riches from Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times.

A stroll along the promenade – stretching more than five
kilometres – takes in the White Tower. Built in the 15th century,
during the Ottoman era, this waterfront tower was once known as the
“Tower of Blood”, by virtue of its use as a holding place for
prisoners facing execution. Since its whitewashing following
Thessaloniki’s liberation, the tower gained its new name and became
the emblem of the city. Just past the tower, and an imposing statue
of Alexander the Great, stands George Zongolopoulos’s Umbrellas
installation – undoubtedly one of the most Instagrammed spots in
Thessaloniki. The artist’s stainless-steel umbrellas – seeming to
float delicately in the air – crown the Nea Paralia (New
Waterfront) and its 13 themed gardens, which stretch southward
along the water to the imposing Megaro Mousikis concert hall.
Prodromos Nikiforidis, one of Nea Paralia’s chief architects,
envisioned these gardens as a new expression of Greek public space:
designed to be at once functional and enchanting, collective and

Back in the city centre, the intricate carvings of the triumphal
Arch of Galerius, and the cylindrical Rotonda (which has served as
a temple, church and mosque since its construction in 306 CE),
stand at the head of one of this university city’s prime student
hangouts. The pedestrianised Dimitriou Gounari Street and attached
Navarinou Square are abuzz as night falls, with abundant fast-food
options providing the perfect pairing to an al fresco, post-study
beer beside the ruins of a Roman palatial complex. Further west,
enjoy a Greek coffee at kafeneio (traditional coffee shop) Loux
or the stylish Blues Bar overlooking the Roman Forum (Ancient
Agora), the social and administrative centre of ancient

When the famed Vardaris wind blows in from the high mountains to
the north, it brings with it chilly conditions and a spirit of
renewal and ingenuity. This wind has been a familiar character in
the life of the city since the Byzantine era, and has served as
romantic inspiration for countless artists and poets.

Beyond the Archaeological Museum and Museum of Byzantine
Culture, which house examples of fine ancient craftsmanship,
Thessaloniki’s contemporary cultural spaces carry the creative
torch forward. The State Museum of Contemporary Art houses the
Costakis Collection, one of the world’s most extensive collections
of Russian avant-garde art, while the Museum of Photography, set in
a renovated harbour warehouse, is the sole state-run museum in
Greece dedicated to photography. The city hosts the Thessaloniki
Biennale of Contemporary Art and the Thessaloniki Queer Arts
Festival, along with some of the biggest film festivals in southern
Europe, including the Thessaloniki International Film Festival each
November and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in March.

Thessaloniki’s nightlife too takes cues from both this artistic
energy and the city’s architectural heritage. Set in one of the few
neoclassical buildings still standing from before the Great
Thessaloniki Fire of 1917, Ypsilon is a multipurpose space hosting art
exhibitions, musical performances and groups of friends simply
meeting for cocktails or a bite. Nestled inside a stoa (arcade) off
busy Egnatia Street, Bord de l’eau brings together a bar space with
a number of independent creative initiatives, including the
handmade jewellery of BDL Design Factory and design studio
Monoscopic, while the Aigli Geni Hamam has been converted from a
bathhouse to one of the city’s most happening party venues,
offering the chance to combine a night out with a glimpse of the
Ottoman era.

In its status as a cultural hub and haven for creatives,
Thessaloniki is sometimes likened to
San Francisco
or London’s
. These comparisons, though warranted, only tell part
of the story. Attempting to understand the city’s unique essence
requires journeying back, over the course of the turbulent,
cosmopolitan history which has provided fertile ground for the
dynamic yet laidback metropolis we know today.

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