Thessaloniki, the capital of Greek Macedonia and the country’s second largest metropolis after Athens, 500 km to the south, is a youth-loving, vibrant city that never sleeps – and always eats. Most locals here are friendly, laid-back, natural-born foodies who love going out and enjoying good wine and tsipouro. It’s a city with a very long history of culinary hospitality.
Founded by King Cassandros in 315 BC and named after Thessalonike, his wife – half-sister of Alexander The Great – it’s referred to by Greeks as symprotevousa, “co-capital,” because of its historical status as a co-reigning city of the Byzantine Empire, along with Constantinople.
In 1492 the city welcomed a large number of Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. It was also under Ottoman occupation for almost five centuries and only gained its independence in 1912.
In the 1920s during the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, around 100,000 Greeks were sent there from western Asia Minor, Pontus (the shores of the Black Sea and the Pontic mountains of northeast Anatolia) and the Caucasus (Eastern Anatolia and South Caucasus). As writer Leon A. Nar nicely puts it in his book, Thessaloniki: The Future of The Past, “The Asia Minor refuges who settled in Thessaloniki, innovators in their every activity and heirs of a long tradition, brought with them an urban cuisine that was a medley of ancient Greek, Byzantine and Oriental cooking. The Pontic, the Thracian and the Asia Minor Greeks had their own dietary tradition, which they blended creatively with the rich gastronomy of the Sephardic Jews […] who had already set their own hallmark with a mixture of western and eastern influences.” All this melded with a culinary tradition already marked by the legacy of the Ottomans.
Today, Thessaloniki is particularly known for its mezedopolia (simple eateries specializing in meze served alongside drinks like ouzo, wine, retsina and tsipouro), tavernas and simple eateries. Many famous wineries are close by, and in fact, the city’s beloved mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, is a winemaker himself and descends from a family with a long history in winemaking.
Right in the heart of the city center lies Platia Aristotelous (Aristotle’s Square), designed in 1918 by French architect Ernest Hébrard, but mostly built in the 1950s. The twelve dominant buildings that make up the square have elements of Byzantine and Western architecture. In the square is Olympion, the city’s oldest cinema, which houses the annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival, and where you can enjoy some coffee or a glass of wine. For sweet tooths, there’s Paradosiako for a bougatsa pie with custard or fresh buffalo milk ice cream. We highly recommend the almond flavor and the traditional kaimaki made with mastiha from Chios.
From the square, heading towards the city’s central food market, there’s Aristotelion for a coffee to go and a freshly baked koulouri Thessalonikis, the traditional doughnut-shaped bread covered in sesame seeds. They offer several variations in addition to the classic version, and they also use them to make delicious sandwiches. We especially liked the one with cranberries and almonds.
The city’s central market district is composed of four main historical markets: Kapani, Stoa Modiano, Platia Athonos and Bezesteni. Kapani, or Agora Vlali (Vlali market), used to be the flour market during the years of the Ottoman occupation, and then it became known as the poor people’s market. Today, it’s a vibrant, mostly open-air market with a wide variety of fresh produce and spices. Stoa Modiano (Modiano Arcade), designed by Eli Modiano and inaugurated in 1925, is an indoor food market with rows of butchers and fishmongers and several other small food shops, with colorful mezedopolia and seafood restaurants among them and vegetable and fruit sellers outside. Traditional ingredients like pulses and grains, handmade pasta, herbs, spices, cured meats, salted and smoked fish, pickles, nuts and cheese are available in and around the market.
Agoroyianni cheese shop, specializing in dairy products made by the Agoroyannis family at their dairy factory in Larisa, is among the most famous in the city. It is particularly known for batzos (μπάτζος), a tangy and salty local cheese that, along with feta, is one of the most ancient Greek cheeses. They also sell a carefully curated selection of cold cuts and sausages made by small local producers.
Only a five-minute walk away is Rayan, a shop specializing in traditional recipes from Pontos. Theofilos Georgiades learned the art of cheesemaking and the culinary secrets of Pontos from his mother, Aphrodite. In 1986 he and his wife started their farm and dairy factory in Kilkis, north of Thessaloniki. There, they produce exceptional cheeses like parcharotyri, paskitan, gais (made of buffalo milk and very similar to mozzarella) and their “cave cheese,” an intensely flavored smoked cheese. They make yogurt and kefir, pasta, traditional pastry for pies and other popular Pontic recipes like Otia (Ωτία, or “ears”), a fried-dough dessert shaped, as the name implies, like an ear. Their products are also available at delis in Athens.
Right across the market on Vasileos Herakliou Street is Ta Aderfia, one of the city’s best-known stops for gyros. Spitiko, on the same street, is a small shop specializing in traditional pies from around Greece. The pies are prepared in front of you all day long with hand-rolled phyllo and several different fillings. Try the meat and leek pie and don’t miss out on their traditional ariani (buttermilk) from Komotini. Many of those who work or shop at the market take their lunch break at Mikraki (literally “the small one”). This good-value-for-money, family-owned magirio (or taverna with traditional hearty dishes) serves meatballs, moussaka, veal with eggplant and a wide variety of vegetable dishes depending on the season, such as gemista (stuffed vegetables), okra, artichokes and their legendary dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves).
The area of Ladadika near the port and just a five-minute walk from Aristotele’s Square was for centuries among the city’s most significant markets. It was so named because many wholesale olive oil shops were located in the area (ladi means oil). Because of its proximity to the port, during World War I, many brothels popped up in the area, gradually turning it into the red light district. That lasted until the big earthquake of 1978, when they started evacuating the area. In 1985, the Ministry of Culture proclaimed it a landmark due to its architecture and history. Today, the pedestrian alleys of Ladadika are full of restaurants and mezedopolia, bars and nightclubs, housed in beautiful early-19th-century buildings.
Thessaloniki is famous for its desserts and legendary old-school pastry shops – many of which were founded by Greeks from Asia Minor. In fact, some – such as Hatzis, Terkenlis, Hatzifotiou, Konstantinidis and Agapitos – were so successful that they later opened branches in Athens. G. Elenidis is a family pastry shop operating since 1960. They are particularly famous for a popular local dessert called trigona Panoramatos (trigona means “triangles,” Panorama is a suburb of Thessaloniki), which are cone-shaped layers of thin, crispy phyllo stuffed with a vanilla custard. Their rice pudding served with cinnamon is another standout.
A number of impressive modern shops like Blé bakery and the Ergon Agora deli (which has also opened in London, Brussels and Miami) have really inspired the city. Small delis like Oreini Gi and Ta Paradosiaka have popped up, offering high-quality products made by small local producers – many of which are certified organic. Honey and herbs from Mount Olympus, olives and olive oil from Chalkidiki, creative jams and preserves, superb bread and fresh pasta, dairy products, truffle oil, wine and vinegar, natural sea salt and shelled nuts are just a few of the many products available. Most delis have a small section in shop that offers local meze or daily specials.