04/08/2014 13:06 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Thessaloniki City Guide

It's Greece's second city, but while Athens and the islands get most of the attention and tourists, Thessaloniki is firmly off the radar for most visitors. But without the high-profile strikes and riots which have affected the capital, and with a fantastic nightlife and shopping scene, plus a large helping of history, it's the perfect place for a city break.

Book your flights to coincide with the annual International Film Festival, starting on December 3, and you could get to do some celeb spotting at the same time - the Greek version of Tribeca or Sundance has seen visits from Oscar-winner Oliver Stone and John Malkovitch in previous years.

You can hardly turn around in Greece without falling over a piece of history, so get yourself in the mood with the Capsis Bristol hotel, in the old Ottoman Post office. The 16 rooms – and four suites – are heavy on the traditional decor, although there's modern pampering with Korres toiletries.

Part of the Historic Hotels of Europe group, it's based in Ladadika, the city's buzzing former Jewish quarter, so you're only a few minutes walk from the centre. Prices start from around £200 per night, book at

If you prefer your chic to be minimalist, the Excelsior is right in the heart of the city, plus you get free use of the hammam at the Elemis Spa next door. Rooms start from around £130.

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki

Founded in the 4th century BC and named after Alexander the Great's sister, Thessaloniki has seen a series of empires rise and fall, including the Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman so even if you're a museum-phobe, you should make an exception for the Museum of Byzantine Culture which charts the city's history through a collection of beautiful artefacts.

There's frescoes, mosaics and icons, including some from the earliest Christian churches, along with gold enameled jewellery dating back to the 9th century. Entry costs around £3.50.

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki has a laid-back vibe, thanks to its big student population, so instead of jotting down a list of places to go and things to see, give in to the chilled out attitude and just while away a few hours wandering the streets of the Old Town or Ano Poli, stopping at the Byzantine churches, checking out the old Ottoman houses and the Roman Agora, as well as enjoying the view over the remains of the city walls.

The house where Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk was born is now part of the Turkish Consulate grounds but don't miss the cathedral of Aghios Dimitrios, the patron saint of the city, built on the site where he was imprisoned and martyred – it's twice burned down but has been rebuilt according to the original plans. You can still go into the crypt where he was tortured and buried, once the Roman baths, as well as marvelling at the 8th century mosaics which survived the fire.

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki

Think Greek wine and you inevitably think retsina – except you'd be wrong. Instead of paint-stripping whites, the country is producing some award-winning vintages, and one of the top wineries, Ktima Gerovassiliou, is just 15 minutes outside the city by cab – around £20 each way.

As well as having a tour of the production area and cellars and tasting, the vineyard has one of the world's most offbeat museums, a collection of 1,300 corkscrews from around the world – including a handy walking stick version, 18th century designs and even one with a pair of legs that opens slowly as you pull the cork out! Entry costs around £2.50, including a visit to the winery. Tasting costs extra, depending which wines you try.

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki

Unlike Athens with its choking fumes, Thessaloniki is compact enough to walk around without wearing your feet out in the process. Centred around the main square Aristotelous – the star of an Absolut Vodka ad, thanks to its bottle shape – you can head west to the restaurants of Ladadika, or east to the shopping streets of Tsimiski and Mitropoleos.

Then do a quick recce for the evening as you wander along the bar-filled waterfront street of Nikis Avenue, which looks out across the bay to Mount Olympus.

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki

If you walk along the seafront for around 15 minutes, you'll reach the White Tower, the symbol of the city. Originally nicknamed the Tower of Blood, the former Turkish prison got its new title, along with a coat of whitewash, after the Ottomans left Thessaloniki in 1912.

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is known as the gourmet capital of Greece, with influences from around the world blended with traditional favourites. Start with a browse and munch at the central food market, just off Venizelou Street, where you can snack on piles of glossy olives, local cheese or buy everything from spices to squid.

Or if you want something sweet, chocolate-covered brioche cake tsureki, will satisfy all your cravings – be warned, there's no way to finish it without being covered in sauce though. Terkenlis pastry shop on Aristotelous Square is one of the best.

Ladadika has some of the city's best taverna-style stops, including Zythos, on Katouni, where you can try lamb in lemon sauce and the oddly moreish masticha ice cream, made from tree gum, under a sculpture of a man on a bike hanging from the wall. But for quirky chic, Times Bar and restaurant, on Tsimiski, gets the prize. There's Burberry wallpaper in the toilets, Warhol-style cushions and gold bling walls, as well as a Gothic bar.

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki

You can bar crawl til you drop without even leaving Aristotelous square. Start on the roof terrace at the Electra Palace Hotel and watch the sun drop before hitting the comfy sofas and cocktail menus of the square's bars – most offer enough free nibbles with every drink to skip dinner, and on Friday and Saturdays many stay open until 9am if you've got the stamina!

Coralaki does a mean mojito with a backing track of Greek pop, while on Nikis Avenue, Elvis has its own DJ. Over towards the Port of Thessaloniki, looking across the water to the town, Kitchen Bar with its leather booths is chilled out for coffee during the day, but gets lively at night.

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki

Walking the length of Tsimiski makes Oxford Street look like a short stroll - but without the hordes of people – so if you're looking for European chains, including Zara's sister shops Pull & Bear and Stradivarius, this is the place to start. In between the bigger names, there's a string of small boutiques which have everything from bargain acid patent flats to funky lingerie.

And even if you're more budget than Bond St, spare some time to go window shopping on parallel street Mitropoleos, which is wall-to-wall designer.

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki

For centuries, four incredible tombs remained hidden under a grassy mound at Vergina until archaeologists unearthed them 40 years ago. Over 2,300 years old, one belongs to Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, and another to his grandson, Alexander IV. Although you can't go inside the tombs themselves, you can see the imposing entrances and all the artefacts in a museum cleverly constructed inside the mound.

Both kings' golden ceremonial and battle armour is on display – the shields are so large, it's hard to believe anyone could lift them, although the most jaw-dropping find is the three golden crowns. Shaped like wreaths, they're so detailed that one even has miniature gold insects crawling over the flowers, while another seems so delicate that the leaves practically flutter in the breeze.

Entrance costs around £7, and the site is around an hour from Thessaloniki. Buses run via Veria, costing around £4, or you can book a tour through

Starter for 10: Thessaloniki