As travellers stampede towards Athens and the Greek islands, Thessaloniki is all too often left in the dust. But Greece’s second city is a true chameleon: shady cloisters and churches balance its fast-paced nightlife and youthful verve. Ancient ruins stand feet away from just-opened cafes, while chic cocktail bars blend effortlessly into a backdrop of portside grit.

So are you hungry for history and myth, or for a literal banquet of souvlaki and wine? Do you want your heartbeat to quicken in raucous tavernas, or find inner peace in a monastery? Whatever your whim, there’s a way to explore Thessaloniki in your own style.

The White Tower is one of Thessaloniki’s most recognisable sights. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

History lovers: time travel through a modern metropolis

In Greece, traces of the ancient world are woven into even the most modern cities. In Thessaloniki, it only takes a short walk to find yourself almost stumbling over ancient foundations or standing in the shadow of centuries-old monuments.

Begin with a triple bill of Thessaloniki’s best-loved ruins, all associated with Galerius. This 4th-century Roman emperor helped bring the city to prominence, though he’s better known for helping wage a grisly campaign of persecution against Christians.

The Rotunda of Galerius, a bulky brick structure with 6m-thick walls, lies just north of the city’s main drag, Egnatia. Galerius intended it as his tomb, but in fact it became Thessaloniki’s first church. Just south of here, find the Arch of Galerius, an imposing monument that sees carvings of a 3rd-century battle encroach right onto a modern shopping street. The arch almost drips with sculptures that illustrate a sword-swinging, helmet-smashing victory over the Persians. A five-minute walk south of here leads to the Palace of Galerius ruins. It takes imagination to tease a mighty palace from the rubble, but this complex once stretched from Plateia Navarinou right up to the Rotunda, encompassing an astonishing 150,000 square metres.

For a fuller picture of ancient Thessaloniki, the motherload of treasures can be found in the Archaeological Museum. Most prized is the Derveni Crater, an enormous bronze urn spangled with hedonistic scenes and naturalist flourishes.

Cheese tasting in the lively drinking hub of Ladadika. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Gourmands: make your own banquet on a foodie itinerary

Greek Macedonia’s cuisine combines the best of land, sea and syrup-soaked pastry: that is, all the major food groups. As the region’s largest city, Thessaloniki is rich in all the local specialties. Above all, start hungry.

Breakfast in Greece is midnight-dark coffee with something sweet. Head to Kokkinos Fournos for pillowy baked goods and koulourakia vanilias, sweet biscuits to take the bitter edge off your brew. If it’s too early to fuel your system with sugar, seek out the oven-fresh savoury pies at Blé instead.

Channel your caffeinated energies into a stroll to the top of the town, Ano Poli. After a little time torturing your leg muscles on the Upper Town’s steep streets – well worth the effort for views of the city rooftops rolling all the way to the Gulf of Thessaloniki – settle in at Taverna to Igglis. This local favourite is an excellent spot for perfectly grilled meats, inventive salads laden with feta and halloumi, and mandatory tsipouro (brandy).

Slowly amble back to central Thessaloniki. While your stomach settles, eye up local produce at Modiano Market and meander into the Ladadika neighbourhood near the port. Among the relaxing tavernas that spill onto the cobbled lanes, sip cocktails and graze through small plates (mezedhes) of olives and artichokes. When the time is right, choose a full-blown feast from this neighbourhood’s jewellery box of eateries. Carnivores can quiet their stomach rumbles with roasted rabbit or goat stew at Athivoli. For something with a twist, Paparouna’s Italian-inspired cuisine and artisan cocktails promise an intriguing journey for your tastebuds.

Finding serenity in Thessaloniki’s Monastery of Vlatadon. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Spiritual seekers: nourish your soul with religious art

Thessaloniki’s history is told in part through the transformations undergone by its churches. A number of churches across Thessaloniki were turned into mosques under the Ottomans, then reconsecrated. Luckily for fans of religious art and Byzantine architecture, many are wonderfully well preserved.

In central Thessaloniki, find the 5th-century Church of Agios Dimitrios, dedicated to the city’s patron saint; his bones are enclosed within a silver reliquary. During Ottoman rule this church became a mosque, and its splendid frescoes were concealed under a layer of plaster. These masterpieces were rediscovered in 1913 and can be admired to this day. A 10-minute walk southeast of here is the Church of Agia Sofia, with an even more ancient origin: the church was built on top of a 3rd-century foundation. This domed beauty, modelled on Istanbul’s Aya Sofya, also underwent a metamorphosis from church to mosque.

North in Ano Poli are the atmospheric Churches of Osios David and Nikolaos Orfanos. Both deserve admiration, though the former stands out for its mosaics and 12th-century frescoes, in excellent condition.

Finally, amble the airy cloisters of the Monastery of Vlatadon, also in Ano Poli. The hubbub of Thessaloniki seems to melt away once you’ve passed the monastery gate. Hesychasm, a Christian mystical tradition focused on isolated spiritual reflection, flourished here in the 14th century. Walking among the coral-coloured archways of this quiet place, perhaps you’ll have an epiphany of your own.

Stopping for a drink at excellent bars and cafes along Iktinou. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Creatures of the night: explore Thessaloniki after sundown

Thessaloniki’s dusk-until-dawn nightlife is an excellent way to flex your inhibitions (and eyelids). The cool kids won’t come out until at least midnight but if you want to start early, settle in at the port area. On Friday nights, the cinema and photography museums in this trendy part of town don’t close their doors until 7pm, meaning you can slide effortlessly from arty installations to sunset beers at Kitchen Bar.

Thessaloniki’s waterfront is so crammed with bars that you could cocktail-crawl your way along Leof Nikis until the early hours. High School, at its western end, has schoolroom decor and cocktails strong enough to deserve detention; meanwhile cosy Thermaïkos has more of a retro feel.

If you can prise yourself from the sea view, find bars galore in the quaint lanes south of the Agia Sofia church; Iktinou au Trottoir is a real charmer. Either way, try to finish your night in Valaoritou, where grimy warehouses have found a new lease of life as drinking haunts (think New York dive bars with a distinctive Greek feel). Grungy Partizan Bar will quench the thirst of whisky lovers, cocktail aficionados will have stage fright at La Doze’s expansive menu, while rooftop Fragile allows a glimpse of this industrial corner of the city.

When the bouncers finally eject you bleary-eyed from the last bar of the night, the sight of sunrise dappling the Gulf of Thessaloniki is guaranteed to inspire your next day’s adventure.

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