What do I love about Thessaloniki? A leisurely stroll along the Nea Paralia seafront promenade is sure to get me in the right mood and revitalize mind and body. Whenever I return to the city, there’s always something new to discover: a cozy ouzeri, a little-known rooftop bar where friends will take me, a photography exhibition at some gallery, a gourmet street food shack or truck. Another reason I love Thessaloniki is because it’s an “easy” city; in just two hours, I’m back in its swing. And I love the people. Warm and hospitable, they know how to have fun and spread their positive vibes. I’ve never been made to feel like an outsider here.
That said, summer in the city founded by King Cassander is much easier when you know where to find a cool spot. The concrete creates a stifling atmosphere and greenery is sparse. The breeze from the Thermaic Gulf brings some relief, but it’s not enough. So, until the sun goes down, I prefer to either hide away in courtyards that are like leafy oases sandwiched between the apartment buildings, or relax with a glass of ouzo and some seafood meze next to the sea. After sunset, when the evening sky turns red over Mt Olympus looming majestically in the distance, the atmosphere changes. The streets and the waterfront fill with people; recreational anglers set up their rods; open-air cinemas begin their screenings; foodie hangouts reveal their goodies, and the bars – many of which now also offer take-away service – prepare cool drinks for thirsty customers. It’s as if one big nighttime party has descended on the city. And this is the magic of summer in Thessaloniki: getting caught up in a festival of fun that feels at once impromptu and very well planned.
Located on pedestrianized Iktinou Street, Valenio is one of the best choices for quality coffee. At this gourmet coffee shop, you’ll find specialty coffees only, from countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia and Costa Rica. The owner, Valantis, a certified judge of the organization World Coffee Events and who has been training baristas for the past 12 years, will guide you through the different varieties and their characteristics. One of the most recent menu additions is the Romano Soda, a sort of soft drink/coffee hybrid made from the extracts of citrus fruits (pink grapefruit, lemon and orange) which, together with an exceptional variety of coffee and a slice of orange, are mixed with soda and ice.
He makes his ice cream exclusively from natural ingredients: no colorings and no ready mixes. He collaborates with a producer on Aegina who supplies him with pistachio nuts, which he roasts and crushes. He uses the finest vanilla beans from Madagascar, while any added fruit is always as seasonal as possible. With years of experience making ice cream, and a background of studies at the Gelato University in Bologna, Louizos Symeonidis, the proprietor of Vanilla, undoubtedly makes the finest ice cream in the city. But if you’re looking for a more rustic – or back-to-basics approach, make your way up Kassandrou Street and enter the sweet world of “I Dorkada” (in operation since 1961). Here you’ll find ice cream made with fresh sheep’s milk for a firmer and denser product, imbued with the passion of this family’s third generation of patissiers.
IN THE COURTYARD
In the vibrant neighborhood of Ladadika, there is an inviting courtyard with coconut and kentia palms, bamboo and banana plants, ideal for those seeking a more exotic environment in the city center. Decorated in earth tones and with wood in abundance, Whope transports you – albeit in mind only – to some tropical island, far from the city bustle. This outdoor bar is open May to October, some days offering yoga classes in collaboration with the Warehouse 7 gym. Serving breakfast in the morning, it continues into the wee hours with a menu of finger food for all tastes, as well as cocktails in tiki glasses. My favorite time is around noon, when I can relax on a comfortable chaise longue, shaded from the sun, sipping a refreshing fresh fruit juice in the company of a good book.
Kafenes tou Mitsou in the Kapani Market is the place to go when it’s time for tsipouro, a grappa-like spirit, in the city center. A popular haunt among local foodies, nestled between fruit stalls and other small stands, this tiny eatery with metal tables and an amazing glass counter full of PDO cheeses serves grilled squid with sun-dried tomatoes and anchovies fried up like potato chips.
Another great place for lunch near the White Tower is Marea Sea Spirit, which isn’t actually beside the sea; it’s down a narrow street just off the waterfront. The owners, true seafood connoisseurs, offer dishes notable for the quality of their ingredients and for how they successfully combine modern cooking techniques with traditional flavors. Try the shi drum baked in parchment with nettle pesto, but reserve your applause for the end, when you taste the delicious custard pie with mastic ice cream. You’ll also find, courtesy of chef-owner Giannis Loukakis, excellent food at Mourga, which has become something of a gastronomic institution in the city, known for using strictly seasonal ingredients, all organic apart from the fish, which are, however, caught in the open sea. The culinary combinations are impressive – such as the vine leaves stuffed with cod – and the menu changes daily according to what is available in the market. The wine list features select Greek labels at very reasonable prices. A little further out, in the neighborhood of Nea Krini, Gialos offers tables beside the sea and a seafood menu with dishes that include salted gray mullet and scampi. The restaurant is a 15-minute drive from the center.
Twenty-five kilometers to the southeast, on the slopes of Epanomi, lies the Ktima Gerovassiliou wine estate. Enjoying an incredible view of Mt Olympus and the Thermaic Gulf, surrounded by a vineyard stretching over 72 hectares, the shaded balcony of the elegantly designed winery provides an oasis of cool tranquility. Choose and taste PGI wines from their celebrated selection of labels or organize a special tasting that features some of the estate’s vintage offerings. I would recommend trying the Malagousia, a variety that was brought to prominence by Vangelis Gerovassiliou and is now the estate’s flagship white, but whatever you choose – Assyrtiko, Viognier or Chardonnay – it will leave you with a pleasant aftertaste and a pleasant memory. Put simply, a visit here is a wonderful summer experience.
Alternatively, head for Florian, the family-run boutique winery at Trilofos. In addition to producing award-winning wines, the German winemaker Florian Schneider frequently hosts special events in the winery’s roof garden.
FINE STREET FOOD
Walking around the city center can be hunger-inducing, so you’ll need something to eat if you want to continue your wanderings into the evening. On pedestrianized Kalapothaki, the enticing smell of fresh bread wafting from a small street food outlet will likely draw your attention. In actual fact, ThessBao is redefining the concept of street food in a city that traditionally loves souvlaki and pizza. Tucked inside their steamed buns you’ll find some very imaginative fillings, mostly of Greek origin: Smyrna meatballs with pickled onion and tomato purée with Aridaia paprika; vegetarian mushroom souvlaki with avocado and ketchup; and even fried bao buns filled with cream for dessert.
The Nea Paralia (meaning New Waterfront) promenade of Thessaloniki, which extends uninterrupted for approximately five kilometers by the sea from the port warehouses to the Concert Hall, is ideal for getting out and about, whether you’re on foot, on a bicycle, using an electric scooter or in one of the four-seater pedal cars that can be rented at various points along the stretch. There are many places to stop for a breather and over a dozen themed gardens offering fun activities for all ages, from tennis to a traffic safety education park for kids; simply put, a visit to the waterfront is one of the city’s “must-do” experiences. The new waterfront is one of the city’s “must” experiences. Since it can get quite hot and muggy in the summer, the best time to visit is towards the end of the day. My favorite time is at sunset, when the sky above the harbor turns crimson.
At Aretsou Beach, surrounded by trees and with the sea in the background, Cine Avra is a delightful open-air summer cinema with an enchanting atmosphere. Often while you’re watching a film, you can hear the sea, and when the sky is clear, the stars provide an otherworldly backdrop.
Back in the city center, dwarfed by apartment buildings, the Apollon shows a clear preference for less commercial films and is the venue for screenings of the Cinema Study & Research Center.
For the sixth consecutive year, the Thessaloniki Concert Hall and Thessaloniki Film Festival are presenting the screening program “Cinema with a View”. On the roof of the M2 building, you can watch movies for just €5 and take in the wonderful view across the Thermaic Gulf, too.
the AEGEAN ON A PLATE
For that special meal to celebrate an anniversary, birthday, or just the company of the people you love, the Salonica Restaurant & Bar in the hotel Makedonia Palace is always a good choice. The amazing Aegean version of bouillabaisse, courtesy of executive chef Sotiris Evangelou, is reason enough to book a table. The celebrated champion of Greek cuisine offers lessons in authenticity by preparing an outstanding seafood stew with rockfish, served with prawns and the catch of the day. Equally delicious is the chef’s take on pastitsada, a traditional pasta dish, which he makes with fresh lobster, tomato and the Corfiot spetseriko spice mix. But it’s not just the menu, it’s also the attentive service, the ambience and the view of the Thermaic Gulf which will make this an evening to remember.
For the past six years, Yannis Kedes has been making (and shaking) cocktail magic at his bar, Vogatsikou 3. With a laid-back atmosphere, good music, a friendly clientele and a well-curated list of spirits, this modern watering hole has done much to change the drinking culture in Thessaloniki. This summer, be sure to try the Double Punch, which has a pleasant bittersweet taste due to the interesting combination of mastic liqueur and Campari. Also available for takeaway – make your way down to Nikis Avenue and enjoy it by the sea.
THE ROOF IS… NOT ON FIRE
Because Thessaloniki is a densely built-up city, the streets can become baking hot even at night. The solution? Make your way to a higher spot to cool off.
The bar Fragile, which began the roof-top bar trend in Thessaloniki, continues to play eclectic music and serve drinks at tables made from wooden crates. A few meters further along, at Matute, you will find a more cosmopolitan atmosphere in the company of revelers with signature cocktails in hand. Another cool escape is provided by the bar Urania, which in summer moves from ground level up to the roof, where lush vegetation hides the gray urban landscape.
Kokonat Bay is the city’s newest arrival in the Sfageia district. Here, you would be forgiven for thinking you had been magically teleported to California: surfboards for decor, wooden chaises longues and two small retro vans painted blue and white give it an unmistakable West Coast vibe. One van is the bar, where the expert team from Gorilla serve signature and classic cocktails. The other is the food truck which, at midnight, serves treats to accompany the drinks, including hot dogs and burgers. If you go earlier to eat, chef Savvas Smalis will take you on a journey from his open kitchen to different parts of the world via a comfort food menu that pairs perfectly with the ice-cold beverages on the drinks list.