On the nearly 190-mile train journey from Athens to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, my partner Barry and I share a compartment with a middle-aged Athenian couple. Soon, they are plying us with homemade spanakopita (spinach and feta pie). After an hour, our new friends point out the window: Mount Parnassus, “home of the muses.” Not long before we reach Thessaloniki, they gesture once more: Mount Olympus—“home of the gods”—Greece’s mightiest peak, looms as we swing past.
And then the mythological abode of Olympian deities appears again on our stroll through the city in the afternoon. Mount Olympus is now a snow-streaked vision emerging from the haze across the Thermaic Gulf as Barry and I sit at one of the cafés along the paralia, the city’s three-mile pedestrian promenade, where lovers stroll arm in arm, joggers exercise, and grandmas gossip vehemently. Behind us, Aristotelous Square unfolds in its vastness, surrounded by curving meringue-colored building facades. This is Thessaloniki’s famous piazza, designed in 1918 by French urban planner Ernest Hébrard after a fire ravaged the historic Greek-Roman Byzantine-Ottoman core of the city long known as Salonica.
Later that evening, when the capricious clouds cover Mount Olympus again—or was it just a mirage?—George Palisidis, a chef, culinary educator, and tonight’s food guide, uncorks a bottle of sparkling white assyrtiko wine at an outdoor table of the bar Blé Vin. Around us, at tables made of repurposed tree stumps, twentysomethings are smoking, laughing, and snapping photos of charcuterie boards. “Ladotyri cured in olive oil. Aged gilomeni manoura ripened in wine lees”—Palisidis annotates our cheeses before ducking inside the bar for a platter of bright red meat. “Buffalo,” he declares, “from Lake Kerkini, a Central Macedonian reservoir.” He’s interrupted by the approach of an athletic woman in a pink dress.“Voulaaaa!” A general murmur goes up. Enter Voula Patoulidou, homegrown celebrity and Greek sporting legend for her gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Patoulidou is currently Thessaloniki’s deputy regional governor. Pausing to greet us, she wastes no time promoting her city. “UNESCO named us Greece’s first City of Gastronomy! We have better sunsets than Santorini, so many cultural layers! Thessaloniki, a city of stories!” And then: “A city of extroverts—every night is a party!” With that, she rushes off to a party herself.
I needed no hard sell about this place also known as the symprotevousa, or “co-capital,” which has a population of roughly a million. I had been fascinated by Thessaloniki’s rich history since I’d read British historian Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2004). A thriving port and a crucial trade junction founded toward the end of the fourth century B.C.E., Thessaloniki became the second-largest and second wealthiest city in the Byzantine Empire, retaining this status under Ottoman rule, which lasted from 1430 for almost half a millennium. When Athens was still a dusty village, Thessaloniki, meanwhile, was a cosmopolitan center where memoirs depicted Jews, Muslims, and Christians living in a “society of almost kaleidoscopic interaction,” in Mazower’s words.
But nationalism is the great enemy of cosmopolitanism. With the Ottoman defeat in the First Balkan War, Salonica became Greek Thessaloniki; folded into the Greek nation-state and hellenized, it eventually lost much of its diversity. By the mid-1920s, a significant portion of its Muslims had been expelled. During World War II, more than 95 percent of the city’s Jewish community was deported in the Holocaust. The once-thriving metropolis was reduced to another postwar Greek city, hardly visited—until, over the past decade, it began attracting international attention.
The city’s rise in popularity was due almost entirely to its dynamic former mayor, the tattooed iconoclast Yiannis Boutaris, a scion of Greece’s oldest winemaking family. Under his guidance, from 2011 to 2019, Thessaloniki became a “model for all of Greece” (according to a 2014 article in the Guardian) amid the country’s crippling debt crisis and austerity measures, widely praised for its bustling street life and tourism initiatives. It also gained a reputation as Greece’s true food capital, with a new generation of chefs infusing the city’s rich gastronomic tradition with a locavore ethos and creative energy.
I began plotting my trip to Thessaloniki in 2019; then the pandemic happened. Years later, here I finally was, for the Roman ruins and Byzantine churches and those rich cultural layers. But also for the mosaics of modern meze and new-school wines. My other mission? To meet Boutaris himself.
“Thessaloniki might be the ultimate second city in Europe!” local art curator Christos Savvidis declares during lunch the following day, as he smears goat-milk butter on bread made from an ancient flour called zea. “We had the financial crisis, then the pandemic, but we survived—even flourished.”
The affable Savvidis develops contemporary art projects to promote social change via his agency, ArtBOX. Savvidis’s associate, Lydia Chatziiakovou, who’s joined us, adds that as a city with the largest university in Greece and the Balkans—and a student population of some 150,000—Thessaloniki has a uniquely young public face, fostering the famous carefree vibe in its bars and cafés. Do I know the Greek word chalara? Meaning something like “chill”? That’s Thessaloniki.
Savvidis, Chatziiakovou, and I are at Mourga, a very chill seafood-centric restaurant that, according to them, exemplifies the city’s food spirit. Opened several years ago by a pioneer of Greece’s gastro-taverna movement, Giannis Loukakis, it has an organic, zero-waste ethos and serves cloudy natural wines. Rembetika, the “Greek blues” music, plays from the sound system. On the walls, dramatic magical-realist photos by local artist Nikos Vavdinoudis portray Macedonian characters enacting some Dionysian rite.
I ask my lunchmates to tell me more about Thessaloniki. “It’s a lot smaller than Athens,” Chatziiakovou says, digging her spoon into manestra, a kind of orzo risotto, here loaded with sweet local crab. “But still large enough for things to be happening,” contributes Savvidis, distracted by the bowl holding smoked potatoes, flame-torched mackerel, and a pink schmear of beet cream. “If Athens has many centers,” continues Chatziiakovou, “here it’s all pretty concentrated, making it easier to create networks and connections—a sense of community.”
As we take a postlunch stroll, Savvidis talks about how much Boutaris has done for Thessaloniki. As if on cue, he spots a friend, Spiros Pengas, a former deputy mayor for tourism under Boutaris. Pengas recounts to me with great feeling how, in 2012, Boutaris organized the city’s first-ever Pride festival. “Thessaloniki was closed and parochial then,” he says. “That contributed greatly to its subsequent image of openness.”
So too did Boutaris’s efforts to publicize Thessaloniki’s multicultural heritage. He traveled to Tel Aviv to highlight the city’s Jewish history. He visited Istanbul, touting Thessaloniki as the birthplace of Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic. As tourism surged, the administration trained local guides and created cultural maps with Jewish and Ottoman routes, templates Thessaloniki still uses. “Residents were also offered free tours on weekends,” Pengas says. “Enormous crowds showed up. People were so eager to learn about their history.”
Although the city’s current administration is more conservative, it has capitalized on Boutaris’s legacy, from continuing to promote the past to successfully petitioning for Thessaloniki to be added to UNESCO’s Creative Cities of Gastronomy network in 2021. A string of ambitious urban projects under development includes a new metro system and the planned renovation of Aristotelous Square.
The more I hear, the more eager I am to talk to Boutaris himself. But he doesn’t respond to my texts. So I keep to my other mission: finding deliciousness. One evening, as the sun blazes down into the Aegean, we feast on just-caught mussels, shrimp, and crab at Hamodrakas, a seafood taverna in Kalamaria, a short drive from downtown. With our meal, local enologist Anestis Haitidis pours amber-hued skin-contact retsinas made by young vintners from the region. Another night, at the super chalara Deka Trapezia, run by chef Manolis Papoutsakis, we enjoy a lemon-glazed choux pastry filled with wasabi- spiked fish roe; dakos (Cretan bruschetta) reimagined here as a savory cheesecake with tangy mizithra cheese and pistachios; and melting shreds of boiled zigouri (young lamb) on a cream of trahana (fermented yogurt and wheat).
It’s all too easy in Thessaloniki to get swept up by the cool restaurants, the waterfront bars, the bighearted tavernas. And yet, in this “city of ghosts,” certain dishes evince years of wars and migrations.
Take bougatsa, a local breakfast of phyllo pastry cradling sweet semolina custard or a filling of cheese or minced meat. As Palisidis explains one morning at his favorite bakery, Bougatsa Bantis, the pastry resonates with memories of the forced population exchange between Greece and Türkiye in the aftermath of Greece’s defeat in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919–22. Based solely on religion, some 1.5 million Orthodox Christians were expelled from Türkiye while half a million Muslims were ordered out of Greece. Mandated by the Treaty of Lausanne, all were sent to “home” countries entirely foreign to them. In Greece, this forced resettling swelled the country’s population by more than 20 percent. But amid the great suffering, as Leon A. Nar writes in Thessaloniki: The Future of the Past (Kapon, 2011), the refugees “brought with them an urban cuisine that was a medley of ancient Greek, Byzantine, and Oriental cooking.”
“Bougatsa is really old, possibly Byzantine,” says Bougatsa Bantis owner Philippos Bantis inside his worn storefront, as he stretches and flings disks of dough in the air until they resemble paper-thin tablecloths. “The original pastry was just this phyllo—sketi, meaning plain—without filling.” In cosmopolitan Ottoman centers of what is now Türkiye, wealthy matrons started to fill it with a sweet custard for Westernized afternoon tea. Christian refugees brought their craft to Thessaloniki: They sold bougatsa on streets, then opened shops, which in the post-World War II years would sell scraps of dough to the poor. But it was later that the bougatsa business exploded. And in 1969, Philippos’s father, Dimitris, opened this shop using recipes he inherited from his father, a refugee.
Finally, Palisidis and I taste Bantis’s freshly baked masterpieces: one with minced beef procured from a small local farm, another with cheese from a different farm, and a voluptuous custard in a sweet, cinnamon-dusted iteration. Bantis also offers us the “original” unfilled sketi bougatsa, flaky squares of multilayered buttery dough. “Old people come and taste it and cry,” he says. “Because it reminds them of their past and its hardships.”
Our city has an urban history spanning almost 23 centuries, a history we shouldn’t be imitating, but one we can learn from.
The hovering over the city is that of its Jewish community, comprised primarily of descendants of the Sephardim to whom the Ottoman Empire gave refuge after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. For centuries, Jews were Thessaloniki’s largest religious group, earning it the sobriquet “The Mother of Israel.” In 1943, two years after the city fell to the Nazis, most were deported to death camps. As many as 48,000 are believed to have perished; fewer than 2,000 remained in Thessaloniki after the Holocaust.
In subsequent decades, the Holocaust remained a semi-taboo subject until the 2000s, when commemorations for the victims began. In 2013, on the 70th anniversary of the deportation, Boutaris and the remaining Jewish community organized a public march to the city’s landmark Old Railway Station, from which Jews were expelled. The city has been slowly reconnecting with its Jewish identity since, even if only around 1,000 Jews remain here today. Plans for a Holocaust Museum near the site of the Old Railway Station, in the works since 2013, are finally becoming reality. Israeli tourists were Thessaloniki’s top foreign visitors in 2022, thanks to campaigns by the city’s tourism authorities, an initiative Boutaris launched during his tenure.
One afternoon at the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, with its “Holocaust Victims Room” displaying the names of 27,000 identified victims, Barry and I fall into conversation with an elderly woman from Tel Aviv. Her parents, she shares, were Thessaloniki Jews who moved to Israel after surviving 1943. “They died without setting foot in the city again,” she says, tears in her eyes. But she herself has been returning on annual visits for more than a decade “to regain a whole past my parents lost.”
There’s new interest, too, in local Sephardic cuisine, a blend of Spanish, Ottoman, and modern Greek influences that had been hard to find outside homes. After the museum, we stop by Akadimia Art Restaurant in an old Jewish neighborhood now filled with bars and eateries. With Greeks tippling and dining at outdoor tables, it doesn’t seem to immediately inspire reflections on erasures and loss. And as its chef, Kostas Markou (who’s partly Albanian), tells us, he was ignorant of that page of Thessaloniki’s history until he opened his restaurant here.
But former residents started coming in and sharing stories and recipes. Among them was Nina Benroubi, a Holocaust survivor who passed away a few years ago at age 95. Inspired by her book, A Taste of Sephardic Thessaloniki (Fytrakis Editions, 2002), and with help from Benroubi’s family, Markou started recreating her recipes. Today he serves them as specials on his menu of Greek classics or prepares them on request for those who book in advance.
Markou brings out several dishes, pronouncing their names in Ladino, the almost extinct Judeo-Spanish language. Here are huevos haminados, eggs marbled with coffee grounds that traditionally would be slow cooked overnight to be eaten on Shabbat; and borrekitas de merendjéna, fried turnovers with a filling of eggplant, which is a vegetable ubiquitous in Sephardic kitchens. As I eat, I try to imagine a world where synagogues dotted this neighborhood, where Jewish merchants traded in olive oil and the streets resounded with Ladino.
Finally, on my last day in town, I meet Boutaris at one of his offices. Now in his eighties, he still looks like the hipster disrupter from photos: red suspenders, stud earring, lizard tattoo on his wrist. “How can a city build a future without knowing its past?” Boutaris responds when I ask him about reviving Thessaloniki’s heritage. “Our city has an urban history spanning almost 23 centuries, a history we shouldn’t be imitating, but one we can learn from.” Thessaloniki is now more inclusive of the “other,” says Boutaris, whose own ethnic background is part Albanian and part Vlach, a disappearing Balkan minority. Then he lights a cigarette to reminisce about his time in office: Israeli audiences crying as he told them how Jews had been instrumental in Thessaloniki’s commerce and culture; his feud with the Greek Orthodox bishop who tried to stop the Pride parade passing by churches; the assault on him by a far-right ultranationalist mob.
For travelers to Thessaloniki, Boutaris suggests exploring the 15 UNESCO-listed Byzantine structures, the Archaeological Museum, the music scene—and, of course, trying the seafood, meze, and soutzoukakia, meatballs that are another relic from the population exchange. “Food is about more than just eating,” Boutaris says. “It’s about atmosphere, memories, culture.” And even as Thessaloniki’s minorities left, he continues, their presence has lived on in the dishes.
Thessaloniki has the “fate of second cities all over the world,” he concludes. “Chicago is never New York, and I kept telling everyone we will never be Athens, that we don’t want to be Athens. We wanted to be the best-ever provincial capital.” I congratulate him on a mission accomplished, then rush to the paralia for one last look at Mount Olympus.