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So thoroughly does Athens dominate our perceptions of urban life in Greece that the country’s second city is left very much underappreciated. True, Thessaloniki (thessaloniki.travel and visitgreece.gr) does not offer anything quite as magnificent as the Parthenon – but this is a destination awash with food, culture and history.

[Stalking lions aboard the Madaraka Express]

The capital of the region of Central Macedonia, it is part swarthy port on the edge of the Aegean, part gateway to the beaches of Halkidiki (32km to the south-east; visit-halkidiki.gr), part hive of southern European life where people spill from shops and eateries. 

Stay here

A striking boutique hotel slotted into a restored Twenties town house, The Modernist (themodernist.gr) lives up to its name in its stylish black-and-white decor, compact but comfy rooms, and splendid roof terrace where breakfast is served. Doubles from about Dh300.

Older and wiser, but just as well located, the Electra Palace has been a noble fixture (all but) on the waterfront since 1972. It also boasts a lovely top-floor space for morning feasts. Double rooms for about Dh500 a night.

Walk here

History jumps out on the visitor at almost every turn. Stroll along the harbourside drag of Nikis Avenue and you cannot miss the White Tower (lpth.gr; about Dh15), the former Ottoman prison which, despite being built in an era of occupation (in 1430), has become one of the symbols of the city. The statue 400m to the south-east is of a rather more Greek icon – empire-builder Alexander the Great (of Ancient Macedonia), rearing on horseback.

Nearby, a gentle amble up the pedestrianised slant of Dimitriou Gounari Street will take you back to Ancient Rome. The impressive ruins of the Palace of Galerius provide a greater tribute than this fourth-century emperor probably deserves – while the grandeur of the triumphal arch in his name, further up the hill, belies the fact that he reigned for just six years.

However, no such caveats afflict the Rotunda (odysseus.culture.gr; Dh8), a temple that became a church – and then a mosque – in later life. It was added to the Unesco World Heritage list in 1988.

Shop here

Edging up the gradient away from the water, Aristotelous Street – a (largely) car-free promenade – is the city’s shopping heartland. Stereodisc (facebook.com/stereodisc) is a music emporium of the increasingly rare kind, stacked with vinyl and CDs – while Gofas (gofas.gr) is a jewellers of sparkling allure. Two blocks to the east, Agias Sofias revels in fashion via outlets such as Julia & More (juliabergovich.com).

See this

If you are in the mood for further history, the Archaeological Museum (amth.gr; about Dh32) has exhibits dating to the fourth century BC – including Macedonian armour in fine condition.

The Museum of Photography (thmphoto.gr; Dh8) is rather more modern in emphasis, staging rotating exhibitions of camera-caught magic in a renovated warehouse.

Try this

You can shop for Greek produce (cheeses, olive oil) in the halls of the Modiano Market – which has graced the map since 1922 – and in its fish-focused colleague the Kapani Market (kapani.gr). The latter is intriguing for the informal cafes that fringe it – such as the busy Stou Mitsou.

Eat here

Picanha (facebook.com/picanhameatandmore) is one of Ladadika’s food highlights, spearing huge chunks of steak (dishes from Dh45) amid a general devotion to all things Brazilian. If you would prefer something local, Ergon Agora (ergonfoods.com) is a joy, serving spaghetti with feta and pesto for about Dh30.