Travel

Thessaloniki’s food, art, and beauty improve with age

Greece’s second-largest city faces the Aegean Sea.
Alexa Mills for The Boston Globe
Greece’s second-largest city faces the Aegean Sea.

THESSALONIKI, Greece — The long economic crisis has not diminished Greece’s age-old cuisine. Nor has it made hotels shabby, or obscured the view of Mount Olympus.

Here in Thessaloniki, certain things have proven unshakable. The people are unfailingly friendly. Art, ancient to modern, is viewable. The city’s three-mile waterfront is glorious. The food is infallibly good.

Thessaloniki, also called Salonika, is Greece’s second-largest city. The 2,300-year-old metropolis stretches east and west along the northern tip of the Aegean Sea – a crossroads of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Its ancient ruins are not, for the most part, locked behind fences and ticket booths, and a student population exceeding 100,000 keeps the city modern.

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I went to Thessaloniki for a work assignment this past spring. Imagine my delight at learning I would live in Greece for more than a month. Originally, I had every intention of planning weekend trips to the islands. After a few days in the city, though, I didn’t want to travel anywhere. Two activities — eating and walking — were enough to entertain me for a month.

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When I arrived, my first question was: What crisis? The economic crisis is there, but not on the surface. Downtown Thessaloniki is bustling; most of the shops are occupied, open, and beautifully decorated inside.

Some things, however, are not what they appear. The coffee shops are full, but only because thousands of unemployed young people make a day out of buying one coffee and then sipping it for hours, talking with friends. The crisis is palpable on the outskirts of the city, in neighborhoods where the balance of shops are closed and dusty inside. And when bad economic news breaks, the people of the city tense, almost in unison.

The food stays delicious, no matter the neighborhood or news.

Finding a good restaurant in Thessaloniki is mostly a matter of walking the streets until something strikes you. Don’t worry if a restaurant is empty, if there is no Internet review of the place, or if the menu is written entirely in Greek. The waiter invariably speaks English and can explain what the establishment is serving that evening.

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On waiters’ recommendations, I ate a steaming bowl of tender inch-wide octopus tentacles tossed with vegetables; fava beans grown in an island volcano, warmed and topped with oil and scallions; a grilled salmon steak that was slightly raw right in the middle.

Nea Folia, which is on any short list of the best new restaurants in Greece, served me the octopus. In an old family-owned taverna, the owners are reinventing their nation’s classic cuisine using local Greek farm products.

Xontro Alati, at Ermou #26, served me the volcano-grown fava bean dish. Like many restaurants, Xontro Alati is set up to serve family-style, even if you’re a family of only two. The waiter was not too shy to tell us if we’d ordered too little or too much. One night he planned a fish menu for us. Another night, he suggested a meat menu. His recommendations were impeccable both times.

Omikron, in the Ladadika neighborhood, served me the perfect salmon steak, as well as the best salad (spinach leaves, tangerine slices or pomegranate seeds, sesame seeds, and oil) I’ve ever had.

Dessert often comes free. The waiter clears the table, then offers whatever sweet thing he has that night — more often than not, a perfect Greek pastry.

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More than twice, I startled a waiter by asking for the check right after dinner. The idea, I learned, is to sit and digest for an hour or two, maybe have a cigarette, and then take a walk.

Local consensus is that the coast is the best place to walk. The city completed a major waterfront reconstruction project two years ago, including a three-mile boardwalk along the sea. It’s as useful for morning commutes on foot as it is for weekend strolls with friends.

The waterfront’s architect, Prodromos Nikiforidis, has lived in Thessaloniki for 24 years. He walked the length of the coast himself, over and over again, until he felt he understood it and could start preparing designs.

There is no railing along the edge of the boardwalk, even though the water is deep and toddlers run loose. Somehow, almost no one ever falls in.

On a pier at the end of the boardwalk, former warehouses have been converted into movie theaters, a photography museum, and a cafe. Thessaloniki hosts two international film festivals, a contemporary art biennale, and a photography biennale . By luck, I was in town for the 17th annual documentary film festival. Tickets were about $4 , and the theaters were packed or sold out, but I managed to see nine amazing movies in one weekend.

Thessaloniki is a place that offers visitors all that it has, without hassle, restriction, or anxiety. The good of the city is abundant and available for enjoyment.

Alexa Mills can be reached at mills.alexa@gmail.com.