When a Greek tells you he's from Athens, he always sounds a bit apologetic, or regretful; Greeks from Thessaloniki, on the other hand, sound, if not smug, very pleased to be from Greece's «Second City.» Thessaloniki may be second to Athens in political importance and population, but in popular songs, Thessaloniki is celebrated as «the mother of Macedonia,» «the most blessed of cities,» and «the city whose praises are sung.» You, too, may be tempted to sing this city's praises when you take in its wonderful situation along the broad expanse of the Thermaic Gulf. You're never far from the sea here; when you least expect it, you'll catch a glimpse of waves and boats in the distance. Alas, especially in the summer, you'll almost certainly get less pleasant whiffs of the harbor's ripe, polluted odor. If you're very lucky, you'll see Mount Olympus while you're here: Pollution has increasingly obscured even that imposing landmark. Greeks are fond of reminding foreigners that when their ancestors were painting themselves blue, or living in rude huts, Greeks were sitting in the shade of the Parthenon, reading the plays of Sophocles. Similarly, Thessalonians like to remind Athenians that when Athens languished in the long twilight of its occupation by the Romans and Ottomans, Thessaloniki flourished. It's true: Thessaloniki's strategic location on the main land route from Europe into Asia made it a powerful city during the Roman Empire -- you'll see many monuments built here by the 4th-century A.D. emperor Galerius. During the Byzantine Empire (the 4th-15th centuries A.D.), Thessaloniki boasted that it was second only to the capital, Constantinople. That's when Thessaloniki's greatest pride, its superb and endearing churches, were built. After the Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire, Thessaloniki continued to flourish as an important commercial center and port. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the city's Jewish community was so strong and so prosperous that some called Thessaloniki the «second Jerusalem.» Then, in August 1917, a devastating fire destroyed 80% of the city. Phoenix-like, Thessaloniki rose from the ashes. Unfortunately, only part of the city was rebuilt according to the grand plan of the French architect Ernest Hébrard -- in part because of the 130,000 Greek refugees from Asia Minor who flooded into Thessaloniki between 1922 and 1923, almost doubling the city's population and leading to enormous unregulated development. Still, Thessaloniki has the broad tree-lined boulevards and parks that Athens so sadly lacks. After World War II, and again in the 1960s, two more growth spurts left much of the city's outskirts crowded and ugly -- and all too much of the city center lined with bland apartment buildings. You'll notice, however, that Thessaloniki has none of the horizon-blocking skyscrapers that have proliferated in Athens -- earthquake regulations forbid this. The last major earthquake was in 1978. Glimpses of the sea, tree-lined streets, magnificent Byzantine churches -- all these make visiting Thessaloniki delightful. And there's something else here that's quite wonderful: the food. In part, this is because of the long tradition of Macedonian cuisine; in part, because the refugees who came here from Turkey in 1922 brought with them the zesty cuisine of the Pontus (the area around the Black Sea where most of the refugees had lived). In addition, this is still a city whose establishments are supported by local customers. There are no restaurants here -- as yet -- that make their living off tourists. If you're a visitor to Thessaloniki, you'll appreciate all this. You'll also enjoy the fact that Thessaloniki's location in the virtual center of Macedonia makes it the perfect place from which to set off to the sites associated with Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. If you are a man, you can also take in the monasteries of Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain. If you are a woman, you'll have that much more time to enjoy Thessaloniki -- or to sit patiently in the little port of Ouranopolis, the jumping-off point for Mount Athos, and envy those lucky enough to travel on to the Holy Mountain. High Season -- The busiest time of the year in Thessaloniki is not summer, but fall, when the International Trade Fair and Festival of Greek Songs take place in September, followed by the Demitria celebrations of the city's patron saints in October and November. There is also a Film Festival here in November. If you come between September and November, be sure to book a hotel in advance -- and be prepared to pay top money for your room (price hikes of 25% are common). Strategies for Seeing Thessaloniki -- Our suggestions on exploring Thessaloniki are really just that: suggestions. Unlike Athens, which few visitors would be bold enough to visit without seeing the Acropolis, Thessaloniki has no one «must-see» monument. Some might argue that the splendid Archaeological Museum or the Museum of Byzantine Culture fit the bill, but others would plead the case of the Upper City (Ano Poli), the old Turkish Quarter. Still others would recommend a loop through both the Upper City and the city center to take in as many Byzantine churches and Roman monuments as possible. In short, you're here to enjoy the city itself: a city filled with Byzantine churches and chapels, a city with squares built around Roman palaces, whose markets pulse with life, and whose harborside cafes and promenade refresh the weary.