Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
Thessaloniki to locals, Saloon to nearby Bulgarians, Greece’s second city is also capital of Greek Macedonia. Spread round a sweeping bay with glimpses of Mount Olympus off in the background, Thessaloniki has a setting as dramatic as its Balkan heritage.
Across to the east, you’re little more than three hours’ drive from the Turkish border. In the early 1900s, when the city first witnessed organised football, Thessaloniki was still under five centuries of Ottoman rule.
Its three main clubs, Iraklis, Aris and PAOK, were all formed during these tumultuous years, when the city passed into Greek hands and filled with refugees fleeing what is now Turkey. These events still linger in the long-established dynamic between the three.
Iraklis is Γηραιός, the grand old man, Aris the proud locals, PAOK the interlopers set up by Greek expats from Constantinople. Iraklis, formed when Thessaloniki was still Ottoman, defiantly wear the blue-and-white of the Greek flag. Aris, the stirring yellow of Greek Macedonia. PAOK first ran out in stark black, a symbol of mourning for the loss of Asia Minor. Though the city’s most successful club soon introduced white into the design, black remains the predominant colour around the club’s foreboding Toumba Stadium.
Like that of AEK Athens, founded by refugees with the same ideal of creating a communal refuge for Hellenics chased out of modern-day Turkey, PAOK’s badge harks back to a Byzantine past. When PAOK meet AEK, it is known as the Derby of the Double-Headed Eagle. For a while there was also an AEK Thessaloniki, before being merged with PAOK in 1929 when the symbol was adopted.
Iraklis have links to the first match played in Thessaloniki, between a foreign residents’ XI, the Union Sportive, and the football team of a Greek cultural society, in 1905. These players, who beat the French-speaking diplomats and entrepreneurs 3-0, merged with an athletics club in 1908, later given as the foundation date for the city’s most venerable club.
Originally naming it Macedonia – a reference to this area of Greece, long before any current national borders were in place – its members toned down the somewhat patriotic name of their new venture to appease their Ottoman rulers as ethnic tension rose. Iraklis – ‘Heracles’, or Hercules to many Western Europeans – echoed Greek heritage without giving offence.
Such, in many ways, is the club today. While PAOK fans embrace the fearsome black-and-white brigades of Partizan Belgrade as brothers, and gold-wearing Aris pair with raucous Borussia Dortmund, Iraklis supporters are chummy with Hércules of Alicante.
Iraklis won the first Thessaloniki Championship in 1914 when Aris were formed, and the two monopolised the Macedonian Association championship (EPSM) from its introduction in 1923 until the late 1940s. The association had three founding members: Aris, Iraklis and Megas Alexandros (‘Alexander the Great’), who still play in the regional league, at Marias Kallas behind the main concert hall.
Until 1959, the EPSM League decided the champions of northern Greece, who then played off for the national title against the winners of the Athens and Piraeus leagues.
Aris were declared first all-Greek champions in 1927-28 but it wasn’t until a full national league was instigated in 1959 that the Thessaloniki-Athens polarisation really took hold.
Aris and PAOK had not long moved into modern-day football grounds, engendering a partisan fan culture. Games in which either Thessaloniki giant opposed anyone from Athens gained ever more venom. PAOK-Olympiakos is as vicious a clash as you’ll find in Europe.
Only three times has a club from Thessaloniki, PAOK, won the national league title in more than 60 years. Each of the big three, however, has played 50-plus seasons in the top flight, PAOK never relegated.
PAOK-Aris is, of course, the key local fixture. Before the 1950s, the teams were based more centrally, Aris just behind Alexander’s Garden on prominent boulevard Leoforos Stratou, PAOK at Syntrivani near today’s Expo grounds. As the city expanded, Aris bought a plot in Harilaou, tucked inland from the southern end of the bay. PAOK moved to a new-build in hillier Toumba at the city’s eastern outskirts, close to today’s A25 motorway that runs to the Bulgarian border.
The opening of the Stadio Kaftanzoglio in 1960 offered the national side an excuse to play away from the spotlight of Athens. As the biggest sports arena in the country, it shared showcase duties with hosting Iraklis until the Olympic Stadium was built in Athens in 1982. Its only European final was a controversial one, AC Milan’s notorious Cup Winners Cup win over Leeds in 1973, atrociously refereed by Christos Michas, later investigated for his conduct.
Still a high-profile athletics arena, the Kaftanzoglio was a major venue for the 2004 Olympic football tournament – here an Italian side captained by Andrea Pirlo won bronze against Iraq. Near the stadium, the Olympic Museum (Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 10am-4pm, Sun 10am-2pm) has a modest display of artefacts.
Regular tenants Iraklis are now back at the Kaftanzoglio after the historic club was folded as a legal entity due to bureaucratic shenanigans, and a new one created in 2012.
One other club is worthy of mention. In Kalamaria, once a separate community now subsumed into Thessaloniki, Apollon play at the junction of Papagou and Chilis, about 4km along the seafront from the landmark White Tower in town.
Their promotion in 2017 to the second tier coincided with a takeover of the club by Alex Kalas, who changed its name to Apollon Pontus, to link back to its roots. Again, this is a story of exile, Pontus being a region in modern-day north-east Turkey. Apollon’s ground has its own bus stop (No.45089), Apollona Kalamarias, on the 05, 05A and 06 routes. It’s about 25mins from Thessaloniki’s main square of Plateia Aristotelous.
Arriving in town, local transport and timings
Thessaloniki Airport is 13km (eight miles) south of the city centre. Bus 78 runs into town every 30mins (€2 on board, exact change into machine, journey time 40-50mins), calling at the main square of Plateia Aristotelous, then the main train station, Neos Sidirodromikos Stathmos, before terminating at the intercity bus station, KTEL. The train station, just past the north-west end of main avenue Egnatia, is a 10min walk into town, KTEL further out. Egnatia runs parallel to Nikis, the seafront promenade.
A taxi from the airport into town should cost around €25.
All three stadiums are at the opposite end of the city from the train/bus stations and way too far to walk from there. From the waterfront White Tower, the Kaftanzoglio is a stretch but walkable – Toumba and Harilaou are a bus/taxi ride away.
City buses, including the airport service, are run by OASTH. A single ticket is €1 from any number of kiosks, exact change €1.10 on board. Two trips within 70min is €1.20/exact change €1.30 on board.
Taxi Thess (+30 69721 54399) has reasonable prices and online booking.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
Thessaloniki is party town. Terrace cafés line seafront Nikis and lively bars dot the former olive-oil stores and warehouses of nearby Ladadika.
In terms of pubs, there’s nothing to match the wonderful Green Bottle, sadly long closed. In Ladadika, The Pub and The Dubliner both broadcast football. Note that Piccadilly, in the same vicinity, is more schmoozy club than rowdy pub.
Along Nikis, On The Road at No.61 has a real lived-in, homely feel – no football but a friendly pint all the same. One block behind, at Proxenou Koromila 47, To Nero Pou Kalei has been a fabulous cult café for years, always worth a visit.
Right across town toward Kalamaria, the lively Bristol Pub concentrates more on sought-after beers and quality sounds – a fine place, but you’ll probably need a taxi for the hop back to the city centre afterwards.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the stadiums and city centre
Thessaloniki has scores of hotels, old-school cheapies along Egnatia, showcase high-end jobs around Aristotle Square. There are no hotels near any of the three stadiums – plus you’d be way out of the centre.
The city’s most famous lodging, the Electra Palace Hotel, exudes elegance, its summer-only rooftop pool gazing out over the Thermaic Gulf. There’s a heated pool, sauna and gym inside, roof-garden restaurant and even the most modest guest rooms come with marbled-tiled bathrooms.
Nearby on Tsimiski, mid-range Le Palace goes big on comfort, with a pillow menu, mattress menu and Coco-mat beds. Quality Greek breakfast too.
Lining Egnatia are hotels of varying standards, many of them age-old, the Kinissi Palace a contemporary and convivial exception. Opposite, the Minerva Premier is typical of the Egnatia genre, faded elegance and rooms that could do with a revamp. If you’re on a budget, then you can’t go wrong with the location at least. At No.25, the Olympic (+30 231 056 6871) is even cheaper and dowdier. The El Greco has at least tried to spruce itself up but it’s still pretty much the same experience.
Contemporary, comfortable and in Salonika’s historic centre, the Orestias Kastorias is a great find.
If you need to stay near the train station, the Rotonda is handy if noisy, and some rooms a little cramped.