Greece's relaxed and profoundly historic second city is both the gateway to some fascinating parts of northern Greece and a worthwhile destination in its own right.
Thessaloniki sprawls around an arc of coastline at the top of the Thermaic Gulf. The main area of interest to visitors is along the shore between the ferry port and the city's emblem, the White Tower and in the area that rises inland from here to the ancient city walls. The city is walkable, with cheap buses and efficient taxis offering respite from the heat.
Start early at the 34m-high White Tower, where no more than 75 visitors are allowed at any one time (8.30am-3pm daily except Monday, free). Its present name arose in the 19th century when a convict whitewashed the tubby 15th-century fortification in return for freedom. It has now reverted to its original honey-coloured stone.
Nearby, the splendid archaeological museum at 6 Manoli Andronikou Street (amth.gr; 8am-3pm daily; €6) is also best seen early before the crowds. The grounds are strewn with classical fragments and elegant sarcophagi, while inside are finds from the Royal Tombs at Vergina, 80km south-west of Thessaloniki. The pottery and jewellery are particularly fine.
For a couple of euros more, you can buy a combination ticket that includes the adjacent Museum of Byzantine Culture (same hours), which has some notable icons.
The main shopping street is Tsimiski, with the Plateia Mall at the centre. For specialist and independent stores, browse Smyrnis Street, where original crafts and charms are on sale in 7wishes at No 7, and cutting-edge design in the 2nd FLooR architectural showroom (2ndFLooR.gr), confusingly displayed in its ground-floor shop. The main city market is Modiano, which sprawls across a couple of city blocks and is full of life until around noon from Monday to Saturday.
Take a view
Even if you are not staying at the Electra Palace Hotel, you can go to the top floor for a coffee in the open-air roof terrace – with views across the gulf as far as Mount Olympus on a clear day. Not all of Thessaloniki's many fine views are from high altitude: for a sea-level prospect, walk east to the port and look inland to the urban embroidery draped across the hills.
Take a hike
From the ferry port head inland – pausing to see if the waterside Olympic Museum is open. Head away from the sea along the café-strewn street of Katouni and through the narrow lanes of the old Turkish quarter around Vilara. Head south-east along Ermou, with some mid-20th-century structures, to Agia Sofia – an always-busy church with 8th-century roots and a fabulous dome.
Dining with the locals
Thessaloniki has lots of great-value restaurants. One of the best locations is Mangio, on the corner of Nikis and Smyrnis. The upstairs terrace faces south-west, so you can take in the last of the sun while enjoying good taverna fare.
Go to church
Start the day at the viewing platform at the Kastra, the ancient citadel, which you can reach on bus 22 to Tsitsania or bus 23 to Platanos. From here, the city unravels beneath you towards the sea. Walk west beside the wall to the first theological location of the day: the Vlatadon Monastery, with a tiny chapel amid modern structures. Then head downhill, following the sporadic signs to the Temple of Osios David, open 9am-noon and 6pm-8pm daily (except Sundays). Peek inside to see the vivid 12th-century frescos.
A walk in the park
Keep heading downhill towards through the straggle of lanes. The father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, was born in Thessaloniki. His birthplace is the well-guarded Turkish Consulate at Agiou Dimitriou 151. It is closed for renovations, but you can visit the gardens.
Walking straight towards the sea, you encounter a couple more open spaces: the vast Rotunda, shaded by trees, and the tiny Church of St Panteleimon that stands in a pretty garden in the city.