Peer behind the contemporary façades of Thessaloníki, in northern Greece, and you’ll find extraordinary cultural treasures hiding in plain sight. On a whirlwind summer trip, Claire Messud retraces her family’s links with the city—and finds a region ripe for discovery.
An Art Deco apartment building overlooking Thessaloníki’s Aristotelous Square.
A bust thought to represent the goddess Demeter, on display at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloníki.

THE CITY OF THESSALONÍKI, a busy Aegean seaport in the northeast of Greece, might not be high on most travelers’ must-visit list, but I wanted very much to see it. Though the nation’s second-largest city has a rich and underrated cultural history, and the beaches of nearby Halkidiki are known to be spectacular, I was drawn by my family’s history.

My grandfather, a French naval officer, was posted in Salonica (the Judeo-Spanish name for the city) at the beginning of World War II, after spending several years in Beirut, Lebanon. In Messud family lore, Salonica was a haven from the gathering storm—a place where Western Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East overlapped in apparent harmony. There, for the first time, my grandparents lived in a pretty, comfortably furnished villa instead of a small apartment. Their children—my father and my aunt—had a leafy garden in which to play. They recalled it as a place of calm and prosperity.

Ocean breezes at Daios Luxury Living, a boutique hotel in Thessaloníki

In the spring of 1940, when Germany invaded France and it was clear that Italy would soon enter the conflict, the family fled in haste. My grandmother and the children went back to Algiers, and my grandfather to Beirut, both cities then governed by France. By the war’s end, the city that had so enchanted them had been forever transformed. My relatives never returned, but almost 80 years later, I wanted to see Thessaloníki for myself, and search for the traces of that lost cosmopolitan enclave.

What I discovered was a remarkable palimpsest of histories, more complex and fascinating than I had imagined, and a lively modern city, exuberantly Greek in its culture, buzzing with students rather than tourists. Nestled in a lovely natural harbor between the Aegean and rising hills, the city has a typically Mediterranean aspect—seafront cafés, white stone plazas and façades, brilliant sunshine, azure water lapping at the seawall—and a workaday, slightly old-fashioned atmosphere. I described it to a friend as “Nice meets Sofia,” a combination that, as it happens, is utterly exhilarating.

a monument to Alexander the Great on the city’s waterfront.
The central dome of Thessaloníki’s Rotunda.

Today, Thessaloníki is known for a few iconic landmarks: views of Mount Olympus across the bay; the 15th-century White Tower on the seafront; the nearby modern sculpture of Alexander the Great astride his horse, Bucephalus; and a handful of Byzantine churches adorned with spectacular frescoes and mosaics. To my surprise, most of the architecture appears, superficially, to be new. A devastating fire in 1917 destroyed much of the center, which now largely comprises undistinguished interwar apartment buildings.

Exploring the city in the beautiful May sunshine, I took a taxi to the neighborhood that had once been my relatives’ home. Where my father had lived with his parents—a sweet semi-suburban villa with a leafy garden on Queen Olga Avenue—there now stretch rows of balconied residential blocks with unglamorous shops on the ground floor.

When my family lived there in 1939 and 1940, my father and aunt attended the local French school. Along with a few other children of European immigrants, there were Greek Orthodox kids, of course, but also the children of the city’s important and long-established Jewish population. Salonica, for centuries more than 50 percent Jewish, was once known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Then, in 1943, the Nazis deported almost all of the Jews from Macedonia to Auschwitz, where they perished. Today, there are just 1,500 Jewish residents in a city of more than a million.

My family’s landlords were a Jewish couple who even then were so concerned about the impending rise of Nazism that they had sent their son to boarding school in England. My grandfather remembered them with great emotion, thinking of their likely fate. He wanted passionately to believe that their son in Britain had survived and flourished.

TRAVELERS TO THE MEDITERRANEAN are familiar with its cities layered with history: Alexandria, Beirut, Carthage, Valletta, Naples, Nice. Each carries the complexities of its past within its vibrant present, and Thessaloníki is no different. The tragic narrative of the Jewish citizens is only one of many remarkable episodes. Founded in 315 B.C., soon after the death of Alexander the Great, who was born nearby, the city holds a wealth of unforgettable stories in, beneath, and behind its structures.

Dotted among the unremarkable 20th-century buildings are intriguing, sometimes astonishing traces of what once was. Thessaloníki was governed by the Ottomans from 1430 to 1912. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, was born there in 1881, and his birthplace is a much-visited house museum, next door to the Turkish consulate. The atmosphere of early-20th-century Ottoman Salonica is beautifully captured in Leon Sciaky’s 1948 memoir, Farewell to Salonica: City at the Crossroads. After spending a year in the United States in 1908, Sciaky returned by ship, still a boy, and recalled his arrival: “Salonica, stately and beautiful, appeared suddenly like a splash of white on the face of the hill…There were the slender minarets and the glistening domes of the ancient churches, the ramparts surrounding the city like a bejeweled diadem on its brow.”

All but one of the minarets have vanished, but the churches still stand, and they attract busloads of religious pilgrims. The reconstructed Church of St. Demetrios, patron saint of the city, contains medieval mosaics as well as relics of Demetrios himself, who remains a major figure in Orthodox Christianity. I was fortunate to be shown the city by an illuminating young guide named Rania Pechlivanidou, who first took me to the city fortifications high on the hill behind the downtown, so I might see the layout of Thessaloníki around the beautiful bay, and then led me to its treasures, one by one.

An evening stroll along the waterfront, as seen from the restaurant at Daios Luxury Living hotel

I was particularly entranced by the fabulous St. Sophia church, one of the oldest and finest in eastern Christianity. The structure dates from the eighth century. Its dome contains an extraordinary ninth-century mosaic of the Ascension depicting Christ seated on a rainbow, surrounded by the apostles wearing expressions of wonder, along with Mary and two angels. The floral wall decorations hark back to the church’s use as a mosque during the five centuries of Ottoman occupation. From the ceiling hang vast chandeliers made up of golden phoenixes, which, like the mosaics and frescoes, glimmer magically in the gloom.

quality time with a book at Halkidiki’s Sani Resort.

Still more ancient traces remain. Thessaloníki’s Roman-era forum, or agora, was dug up inadvertently in the 1950s on the site of the proposed new city hall. I was rather disappointed by what is essentially a scrubby field demarcated by columns and a ruined amphitheater. But a short walk away, I found its contemporary equivalent: Aristotelous Square, a large pedestrian center designed in 1918 by the French architect Ernest Hébrard that extends for several blocks, stretching down to the water. The square is surrounded by elegant, colonnaded Art Deco buildings, many built after World War II. Today it’s home to luxury hotels, shops, and a Neoclassical cinema complex. It’s also a site of political demonstrations and cultural events—one evening I stood and watched as a spandexed, miked-up personal trainer danced around on a makeshift stage leading a gathering crowd in a choreographed exercise routine, with only moderate success.

Just around the corner is the old-fashioned Bezesteni covered market, a fine example of 15th-century Ottoman architecture. Here you can find shiny sea bream, anchovies, red snapper, and glistening octopuses laid out on huge beds of ice; bug-eyed sheep’s carcasses or bloody sides of beef in cloudy butchers’ cases; bunches of dangling sea sponges; vats of marinating olives; odorous spices and herbal medicaments; and stacked tins of oil and coffee.

One of the coves at Sani Resort, home to some of the finest beaches in all of Greece.

MACEDONIA, THE REGION in which Thessaloníki is located, was claimed by Greece from the Ottomans during the First Balkan War, in 1912. The “exchange of populations” after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–22 required that Muslims from the region decamp for Turkey. Orthodox Christians from Turkey were resettled in Greece, which then eradicated most traces of the Ottoman occupation. But the Yeni Mosque still stands, now an exhibition center. The structure was built in 1902 for the Dönmeh community, Jewish followers of a 17th-century cabalist rabbi from Smyrna who converted to Islam under threat of death. On its roof is something you’d hardly expect to see on a mosque—a row of Stars of David.

The Dönmeh are just one small aspect of Thessaloníki’s rich Jewish legacy. The small but illuminating Jewish Museum on a side street near Aristotelous Square is well worth a visit, and provides, in addition to a wrenching wall of the names of those lost to the Holocaust, a strong sense of the life of the community. Though the earliest Jewish residents arrived from Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century B.C.—Saint Paul the Apostle tried to convert them, along with the pagans, to Christianity—the population grew substantially with the arrival of the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, who were welcomed by the Ottoman sultan.

As with Thessaloníki’s other histories, you need to search a little to find the traces of this past. I circled the block twice before identifying the museum, which is notably discreet. The city’s Jewish cemetery, once the largest in the world (the size of 80 football fields and home to more than 300,000 dead), was destroyed by the Nazis, who used the gravestones in building projects (including swimming pools, my guide informed me). After the war, the campus of Aristotle University, Greece’s largest and a centerpiece of the contemporary city, was built on the land.

Lively and casual, modern-day Thessaloníki lives in and around its history. I spent an afternoon in the excellent museums and felt I’d only scratched the surface of their extensive collections. I started at the architecturally impressive Museum of Byzantine Culture, where I had lunch in the shady courtyard of the elegant restaurant. Afterward, I lingered over the expansive exhibitions—which each offer accessible historical context. There’s enough text to help you understand what you’re seeing, but not so much as to overwhelm.

The 15th-century White Tower is the city’s most iconic monument.

I then crossed the road to the unforgettable Archaeological Museum, stuffed with Hellenistic treasures, and stayed there till closing time. I was awestruck by the rooms of gold jewelry and ornaments (and couldn’t help but wonder why no savvy entrepreneur has yet created replicas for sale) and by the remarkable statuary that overflows outside. From there, it’s a pleasurable stroll along the waterfront from the town center, a walk enjoyed as much by visitors like me as by workers at the end of the day, families with small children, and posses of students.

Stylish residents on Aristotelous Square—the place to be in Thessaloníki, especially once the sun goes down.

Like most Mediterranean cities, Thessaloníki comes alive at dusk, when the boulevards and open-air cafés fill and become a people-watching feast. Each afternoon, I chose a different café along Nikis Avenue from which to watch the sun set beside Mount Olympus and irradiate the sky with color.

Accompanied by Pechlivanidou’s close friend Evi Patsia, another passionate and knowledgeable guide, as well as our driver, the wonderfully named and utterly silent Mr. Demos, I took an easy day trip from Thessaloníki to visit one of Greece’s most impressive archaeological sites: the burial ground of King Philip of Macedon at Aigai. Philip was the father of Alexander the Great and the first ruler to unite Greece; his tomb, dating from 336 B.C., was discovered only in 1977. An artfully designed museum housed within the reconstructed burial mound—you actually walk into a hillside to enter it—displays the king’s extraordinary treasures, and re-creates for each visitor the archaeologists’ experience of unearthing the long-sought graves.

I felt a child’s wonder standing in front of the excavated tombs, marveling at the elaborate hunting frieze that adorns Philip’s pediment, and the magnificent artifacts discovered inside. There were Philip’s drinking vessels, his shield and armor (it’s impossible not to think, Philip himself wore this helmet, wore these greaves). There were the massive gold funerary boxes that contained his remains and those of one of his wives, underneath golden crowns of fairy-tale delicacy, with tiny bees resting on the flower at the gilded tendril’s tip. There were beautiful daybeds, their minute ivory and gold ornamentation so exquisitely carved that, with a magnifying glass, you can discern the beads of a woman’s bracelet, or the indentation of her navel beneath the folds of her dress.

In the time since my visit to Thessaloníki, I’ve more than once burst into rapturous description of this unforgettable experience. When at last I stumbled on someone who’d made the same visit the previous year, we sputtered in our excitement. It’s hard to believe so few people know about the city. I may have gone to Thessaloníki in search of an 80-year-old history that has essentially vanished, but there, returned to vivid and astonishing life, I found a world over two millennia old.

Vergina, the modern town where the Aigai complex is located, is just 45 miles west of Thessaloníki. In a single day trip, you can comfortably visit Vergina and nearby Pella, Macedonia’s second capital after Aigai (where Euripides wrote his late plays) and the birthplace of Alexander the Great. Pella, too, is home to spectacular artworks, housed in a fine new museum, and to extravagant mosaics among the ruins of antique mansions. Between these two visits, I stopped in Véroia, the county seat. There I strolled through the beautifully restored 19th-century Jewish quarter, Barbouta, and along a picturesque riverbank. At lunch, I sat on a café terrace overlooking the fertile plain below, my view to the sea punctuated by verdant fields and orchards.

At Pella, I shared the museum with a few busloads of schoolchildren. At lunch, some Christian pilgrims sat at neighboring tables with a cassocked priest. Whether perusing Pella’s outdoor mosaics surrounded by cicada song, vermilion poppies, and waving grasses, or bent over the golden treasures of Aigai in their carefully lit cases inside the reconstructed tumulus, I could often indulge the illusion that I was by myself.

BUT THE PLEASURES of Macedonia aren’t just historical: the glorious three-fingered promontory of Halkidiki is a scant hour’s drive south of Thessaloníki. When you’ve had your fill of churches and museums, you can retreat to the hedonistic pleasures of the Aegean shore. I stayed at the superlative Sani Resort in Kassandra, which comprises five hotels, each with a different vibe, although guests have access to the restaurants and amenities in all of them. My hotel, the glamorous Sani Dunes, opened just three years ago.

At the Dunes, I lounged by the hotel’s lakelike pool, the largest of its kind in Greece. The golden sand and turquoise water of Sani’s seafront have to be among Europe’s finest, and the impeccably professional staff ensures that your every desire is fulfilled. (A smiling young woman even stopped by my chaise longue to clean my sunglasses.) I ate a memorable supper at chef Ettore Botrini’s Michelin-starred Fresca restaurant: sea bream topped with lemon-leaf cream, accompanied by an eggplant mousse, and garnished with cucumber cream and sun-dried-tomato confit. The local rosé, from Kavála, was equally delicious.

Sani is also involved in important ecological preservation in the region, and the property offers regular walking tours of the adjacent Bousoulas Bird Sanctuary, an important wetlands area that it manages and maintains. Of the 447 bird species found in Greece, 220 have been spotted here, and of the 14 known purple heron couples in Greece, seven nest in Bousoulas. The wetlands are a leisurely mile or so walk from the resort, through a peaceful, sandy pine forest crisscrossed by endearing and surprisingly busy tortoises (the Testudo graeca was an ancient Greek symbol of fertility). I encountered five in the space of an hour.

ON MY LAST morning in Thessaloníki, just after breakfast, I visited the Rotunda. Built by the Roman emperor Galerius in A.D. 306, the circular building’s reddish brick exterior appears stolid and impervious: its walls are, indeed, over 20 feet thick. But inside it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Modeled upon Rome’s Pantheon, and only slightly smaller, it became a church in the late fourth century and remained a place of Christian worship for 12 centuries, until the Ottomans claimed it as a mosque in 1590. In 1912, when the city became part of Greece, the Rotunda was once again made into a Christian church; five years later it was designated as a state monument.

The glittering mosaics in its dome, painstakingly restored over 40 years, are now on full display. Beautifully preserved representations of birds and fruit gleam in small recesses. At 9 a.m. on a Friday in late May, I was the only visitor in this enormous, unfurnished, sacred space. I can still exactly recall the tawny stone, the intricate ornamentation, the play of sunlight, the pristine silence, the pressing awareness that for almost two thousand years people have prayed in this place. And I can still feel the cool air around me, alive with all the city’s histories.