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Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki, Greece

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Size isn't everything, as any Thessalonian will tell you. Greece's second city certainly doesn't have an inferiority complex. In fact, they reckon you can tell a Thessalonian in any part of the rest of Greece: walking tall, with an extra spring in the step that you certainly don't encounter in hassled Athenians, he'll seem above everyone else. Perhaps the confidence comes from knowing that Thessaloniki is the best dressed city in Greece.

As your ship approaches the harbor you'll see the typical Mediterranean facade of white-painted apartment blocks. Close your eyes and imagine yourself on a ship sailing into port a century earlier - you'd be looking at minarets rising above red tiled roofs and sprawling ramparts of medieval defences and vast cemeteries. A lot of Thessaloniki was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1917, but if you look more closely at the seafront you'll see that some glorious Art Deco buildings survived to spice up the new look boulevards.

History's going to be a major feature of most people's stopover in Thessaloniki, but there's no need to be intimidated. You won't go far wrong if you split it into four categories: Ancient and Roman Greece - plenty of impressive ruins; Byzantine Greece - unusual churches; Ottoman Greece - the Turkish influence; and modern Greece - meaning anything after about 1800! Takes things easy and start in Modern Greece with a stroll along the seafront when you disembark. The Nikis - the harbor front road - is crammed with fashionable cafés and you could easily pass a pleasant few hours here, watching the smart Thessalonians, admiring the view of Mount Olympus or just chilling out with a fruit juice or ouzo and a plate of mezedes - little snacks, a little like Spanish tapas.

When you're ready to leave the 21st century behind, the fine Archaeological Museum at the far end of the Nikis has artifacts from every age and the whole of the region, if you think Greece is all about stone ruins check out the some of the Ancients’ home wares and their equally opulent jewelry. The museum also houses the Vergina Treasure of the Macedonian royals who founded the city. Byzantine Greece gets its own museum just next door, with beautifully displayed floor mosaics and wall painting.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Roman Thessaloniki seems to have been buried and built over, so you'll have to go underground for some of the best sites. The palace of Emperor Galerius Caesar, who made a martyr of the city's patron saint, has been excavated at Dimitriou Gounari and Platia Navarinou. Galerius built a huge himself a grand complex of buildings, but not much survives above ground. He celebrated a victory over the Persians with a triumphal Arch, decorated with self-portraits – back in those days a Roman emperor wasn’t doing his job properly unless he cultivated a really big ego. Close by is the Roman Rotunda - the best guess is that Galerius intended this for his own mausoleum. Since Roman times it's been a church and a mosque, some 4th century wall mosaics remain and the decapitated minaret is the city's last surviving one. They're still working on the site of the Roman agora, but you can peer through the fencing at what they've uncovered of the Roman marketplace.

Thessaloniki has a number of fine Byzantine churches, adaptations of the colonnaded design of Roman basilicas. Often the real glories are mosaics and frescoes that were whitewashed over by the Ottoman invaders and have only recently been uncovered. Agios Dimitrios is the largest church in Greece, rebuilt after the Great Fire. The crypt is thought to be based on the Roman baths where the martyr saint Dimitrios hid out, you can also see some mosaics and the remains of a fountain and fishpond. The other stars are the Panaga Halkeon and what's left of the 5th or 6th century Latomos Monastery.

When the Ottomans captured the city they didn't bother building their own mosques - they just tacked minarets onto the churches and whitewashed over the mosaics and frescoes, so most of the Ottoman remains are civic buildings. There are some good two-for-one packages for the cruiser here. The Yeni Hamam bathhouse has been restored as a bistro, outdoor cinema and concert venue: ancient culture and food in one package has to be worth a visit! The domed marketplace, the Bezesteni has been updated - it now hosts luxury shops and fashionable boutiques - retail therapy twinned with culture this time!

Even less remains of Thessaloniki's Jewish heritage, but the centerpiece of the city's vast market is the Modiano, a fresh produce hall named after the Jewish founders and the Flower Market Bath or Jewish Bath still has flowers outside and a fish tavern inside. A meal here, or in the atmospheric ouzeri of the Modiano brings you up-to-date, at least by Greek historical standards - and provides a fine finish to your city tour.

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