We humans have an enduring intellectual pursuit and an insatiable thirst to know about the past, as the past is our window offering explanations for the present.
All cultures have their own theories and beliefs as to how the world was created, and what has and is happening ever since. Many myths have been woven and formed the foundation of historic societies leaving behind evidence to be found in the form of written and material remains. A modern day paradise for an archaeologist where their discoveries are documented and they find their place in the history books for future generations.
A visit to Greece’s second largest city – Thessaloniki is such a place with layers upon layers of civilisations.
Thessaloniki’s “Makedonia” airport is situated approx.13 km from the city centre. There’s a local public bus services running every 30 minutes from the airport and the “Makedonia” regional bus terminal with city stops along the way. The trip takes approx. 45-50minutes. Check bus service times here.
Alternatively, there’s the option to hire a car. However, I personally found that the local bus services are a great way to get around.
Both intercity bus services from other Greek destinations are available with KTEL Bus Services, whilst there are a number of inter country bus service provides arriving and departing from the “Makedonia” regional bus terminal.
Note: having travelled to Thessaloniki on a number of occasions, I’ve learnt the Makedonia regional bus terminal closes at 11.00pm of Christmas Eve and the building doesn’t open again until 5.00am Christmas Day, with ticketing services opening at 8.00am.
See many of the city sites on foot and enjoy the local hop of hop on bus service. Or enhance the way you travel and enjoy the opportunity to connect and meet with a local guide and gain firsthand experience about the places you see.
Enjoy the feel of the city and relaxed atmosphere and take your time. Stop along the way and enjoy a coffee, beer or light refreshment and take time for a light lunch as you go. There is no rush, It’s best to take in the sights during a three, four or maybe five day stay.
Places of interest
A good choice to start for a self-guided walk around Thessaloniki is Aristotelous Square. A popular meeting place for locals. The wide opened public space is located in the heart of the city on Nikis Avenue, where I found myself sitting awhile gazing out at views of the Thermaikos Gulf.
Since 1950, the twelve buildings that form Aristotelous Square are registered as listed buildings of the Hellenic Republic. The ground floor of this buildings are home to many cafés and bars and on the left side a beautiful architectural designed mansion style hotel that is today the Electra Palace Hotel, one of Thessaloniki’s five star hotels. Adjacent on the right is the city’s well known Olympian Theatre, home to the annual International Film Festival.
This square is also the hub for festivals and cultural events held during Christmas, and a month long carnival time, held between mid January and mid February and numerous other events.
Walking along Aristotelous, a pedestrian only thoroughfare from Aristotelous Square to the busy street Egnatia you’ll soon see that the area of the city prefecture has been inhabited continuously since antiquity, when it was originally known as the Argos Kingdom as early as 808BC. A number of prominent Kings ruled the kingdom with the most prominent being Alexander III, the Great (336-323BC). From 315BC the city was then founded by King Cassandros (Kassander) of Macedon, near the site of the ancient town of Therma and 26 other local villages. King Cassandros choose the new city name after his wife Thessalonike, half-sister to Alexander the Great. Thessalonike, was given her name by her father Phillip II following the victory of Thessalians to commemorate her birth on the day of his victory over the Phocians. Nike in Greek means victory. Hence, the name Thessaloniki was born.
Navarinou Square – Palace of Galerius
The archaeological site in Navarinou Square and the palace ruins of Roman Emperor, Galerius Maziminaus from the period 250 – 311AD is found along Aristotelous.
Only a small section of the ruins have been unearthed, comprising the courtyard, baths and cisterns and halls of reception with their decorative pathways.
There are a number of other buildings that were built within the area of the palace, including The Arch of Galerius (known as Kamara), the Rotunda that can be seen and a hippodrome buried under modern constructions.
Triumphal Arch of Galerius (Kamoro)
The Arch of Galerius GR – Αψίδα του Γαλερίου, known as Kamara Gr – Καμάρα formed part of the monumental entrance that led to the courtyard of the Palace of Galerius. The arch was built in 298 – 299 AD to celebrate the triumphant victory of the Battle of Satala in 298 AD. The original arch made an eight pillared gateway forming a triple arch. Today three of the pillars remain with the two solid pillars holding the arched passageway standing 12.5 meters high and retaining the intrinsic designed and crafted marble slabs, depicting the victorious battle.
The Rotunda, also now known as Agios Georgios gives an impression of peaceful power and was built during the 3rd century pagan years, and believed to originally be a temple dedicated to Zeus. In Greek Mythology, Zeus was the King of the gods.
During the Greco/Roman era the name Zeus became known as the modern day astronomy and astrology name – Jupiter. Representing abundance, good fortune, faith and hope for the future.
During the early 4th century due to its non-use the Rotunda was converted to a Christian church and baptistery by Constantine I. Then many centuries later it became Thessaloniki’s cathedral church between the periods of 1524 – 1590, before the city fell to the Ottoman rulers when the Rotunda was converted to a mosque. During the Ottoman occupation he building becomes known as the Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji with the minaret being added to the structure. Then with the victorious defeat and Greece recapturing the city in 1912, during the Balkan War, the Rotunda was reconsecrated as a church, although the minaret remained.
Step inside to see the richness of the mosaics on a gold background in the nave and the dome adorned mosaics from the early Christian period. The Rotunda is now known as the Church of the Rotunda and operates as a museum overseen by the Byzantine Antiquities of the Greek Ministry of Cultural and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
I take a break and enjoy a cold drink at Το Ποδήλατο (To Podílato), the Bicycle a great outdoor café close to the Rotunda. A nice spot to admire the surroundings.
2nd century – Archaeological Site of the Roman Agora of Thessaloniki
A short walk from the top of Aristotelous square brings you to the large open aired archaeological site of the ancient city heart. The 1st century Roman Forum, more commonly known as the Ancient Agora – Market place that was mistakenly unearthed during in the 1960s.
This site had been the trading place and the city’s administrative centre from the 3rd century BC until the 5th century AD. Its large open area was surrounded by various elegant and noteworthy buildings of varying functions that showed the financial prosperity and growing strategic importance of the city during Hellenistic and Roman times. The area was not only the city’s Agora; as a number of other prominent finds revealed the city’s Mint, having issued its own currency in 187 BC, the Odeion (ancient theatre), a pathed colonnade (columned and covered walkway), public and private baths, a hetaera (an educated companion/courtesan in ancient Greece) – house, a taverna and other smaller finds. Along with other finds of an ancient temple and early Christian tombs from the 4 – 7th century close by the Ancient Agora site.
You’ll also find the Museum of the Roman Agora of Thessaloniki in the ancient agora area.
Church of Saint Demetrios
Whilst you’re in the area visit the Church of Saint Demetrios, an early Christian and Byzantine Church and UNESCO World Heritage site, dedicated to the city’s patron saint.
The current church was built on the grounds of the first temple founded in 313 AD. Various improvements were facilitated over time following fires and pillages during the Byzantine era. With the removal of the saint’s remains being stolen in 904 AD then found in Italy and finally returned in 1978.
During the 13th century, subsequent repairs and renovations took place including the addition of the chapel of Agios Efthimios on the southside of Agios Demetrios. With the Ottoman occupation, the church was converted into a mosque and named Casimir Mosque. The city’s great fire in 1917 caused a complete restoration in 1948 retaining much of the historical architectural features. Therefore, the once Byzantine church is presented in a more modern structure.
The interior of the church is truly beautiful and has a very calming and peaceful space. A silver laid shrine with the Saints revered relics can be seen along with exhibits, including columns, sculptures and pieces of the former archways that formed earlier forms of the building are displayed.
Bey Hamam – Byzantine Paradeisos Baths
The Bey Hamam is the oldest of the Ottoman baths in Thessaloniki and was built by Muratt II in 1444, following the 1430 Ottoman occupation. A number of similar hamam’s are located throughout the city highlighting the importance placed on the basic importance of hygiene and wellbeing, along with a symbolic spiritual meaning of ritual cleansing and purification. In addition for the women, they served as a social opportunity.
As with all Turkish hamam’s the bathing areas are separated for females and males and marking each gender entrances on either side of the building.
The Bey Hamam remained in use until the mid 1960s under the name Paradeisos (Paradise) Baths, however today the site is only open on request and is used for different cultural events, galleries and temporary exhibitions.
Nea Paralia – New Waterfront
After seeing much of the historic sites of the Old Town area of the city, I made my way back to the water front of New Paralia (New Waterfront) and maybe spend some time enjoying the views. Or if you’re feeling energetic, hire yourself a bike and ride the five kilometre length from the Concert Hall to the port.
Along the three kilometre waterfront section of the New Paralia, that took more than a decade to complete, stop and admire the many fountains and sculptures. A must see statute is none other than the city’s and Greece’s most famous heroic figure – Alexander the Great.
Monument of Alexander the Great
The statue of Alexander the Great stands proudly on the Thessaloniki waterfront. During his rule, Alexander III was the King of Macedonia and conquered a large part of the known world during the 4th century BC. His conquests spread the Greek civilization as far eastward as India. And his triumphant is still held in the hearts of many Greeks.
From the statue of Alexander the Great make a short walk along the waterfront to the White Tower and Museum that stands adjacent the start of Nikis Avenue (that runs from the White Tower to the ferry terminal).
15th century – White Tower and Museum
The White Tower – GR Greek: Λευκός is one of the city’s most notable landmarks. The original Byzantine tower was once part of the city’s fortification walls of the old city, separating the Jewish quarter of the city from the cemeteries of the Muslims and Jews. However, during the Ottoman rule, the tower was reconstructed to fortify the city’s harbour. It was also during the Ottoman rule that the tower was used as a fortress, garrison and a prison. Various riots and mass executions took place in the tower and earned the name Kanli Kasteli (Tower of Blood). Following the victory with Greece regaining control of the city in 1912, the tower was substantially remodeled and its exterior was whitewashed as a symbol of cleansing, and given the name The White Tower.
Today the White Tower hosts the new permanent exhibition on the history of Thessaloniki from its founding days through to the present.
It’s worth paying the entrance fee to see the exhibition including original gold and silver coins, along with climbing the interior stairs to enjoy and appreciate the expansive views out across the sea and the city.
A stroll down Nikis Avenue from the White Tower provides amply choice of shops, cafés and bars to enjoy the views out to the sea, have a bite to eat and in general, enjoy the local atmosphere. It’s a popular avenue amongst locals and visitors alike.
I happily tried a recommended local favourite and enjoyed lunch at Balkonaki cafe/restaurant.
I returned to Niki Avenue the next day after walking around the historic neighbourhood of Ladadika, close to Aristotelous Square. This neighbourhood was saved from the 1917 fire and many of the buildings have now been renovated and converted into restaurants and night clubs.
This time I found myself at Mado café, enjoying a healthy late lunch followed by a serving of Profiteroles and admiring the view along with a passing boat.
Thessaloniki is home to a variety of monuments bearing witness to the city’s long historical journey. In 1998 many early Byzantine and Christian monuments were included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The city is also home to more than twenty museums; however two that are most noteworthy for more historic insights and are well worth a visit are the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and the Museum of Byzantine Culture.
A combined ticket that is valid for three days is available and in addition to the two museums noted above, the 15 € price (at the time of writing) also includes the White Tower, Roman Forum of Thessaloniki and others. Check here for details.
Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki
One of the most impressive archaeological museums in all of Greece and one you won’t want to miss if you’re like me, and a lover of learning about ancient Greek history, is the Archaeological Museum. Here you’ll find a detailed account of the Paleolithic age and exhibits dated between 350,000 – 10,000 BC, through the ages to late antiquity and provides evidence of both the public and private lives of the ancient Greek state of the Macedonian kingdom and of Thessaloniki.
Along with many sculptures of all periods including, one of many that stood out for me.
A relief dated to the 4th century BC dedicated to the Healing God Asclepius and his daughter, Goddess Hygeia.
Hygieia supported her father’s healing practices and become known and honoured for the prevention of sickness and continuation of good health and wellbeing. Her name is the source of the English word – Hygiene.
Learn more about where the Goddess Hygiene and other Greco/Roman Goddess are located in your horoscope and what this means for you, here.
Museum of Byzantine Culture Thessaloniki
The museum of Byzantine Culture is home to a permanent exhibition presenting various aspects of the art and cultural of the Byzantium era. Many wonderful mosaics, wall paintings and religious icons can been seen along with impressive jewellery, rare books and scripts.
There’s also an outdoor exhibition section and a café that offers time for a visitor to rest and enjoy a light snack.
It’s only a short 10/15 minute walk from the Museum of Byzantine Culture to Yeni Comi.
Image by gichristof on Flickr under Creative Commons License.
The Yemi Camii (New Mosque) was the last mosque built during the Ottoman rule in 1902. The mosque served as a place of worship for Jews who had converted to Islam, known as Dönmeh (meaning converts).
This group were believed to discretely uphold some of their Jewish customs and beliefs and where therefore, shunned by other Jews and by Muslims. Yet they were a successful ethnic group both economically and politically as shown in the unique architecture of the building that reflects an eclectic style of influences. The Yeni Camii, however, would only have a short lived history for its intended purpose. After the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22 and the Treaty of Lausanne, the Dönmeh along with the other Muslims living in Greece were “exchanged” with Christians in Turkey. Under the terms of the treaty Greece and Turkey made an agreement to take in each other’s religious refugees.
The minaret was removed and the building became home to Christian refugees until 1924 when it became the archaeological museum of Thessaloniki. Today the building is a cultural and exhibition centre where you can see a collection of marble sculptures from the Roman and early Christian eras.
Ano Poli GR – Άνω Πόλη (Upper Town)
A visit to Thessaloniki wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the historic old town, Ano Poli GR – Άνω Πόλη (Upper Town). Located around the city’s acropolis high on the mountainside overlooking the city centre and beautiful views across the Thermaic Gulf, in the northwest of the Aegean Sea.
A local bus number 22, 23, or the city’s Hop on Hop off Bus service (only available during the summer period) will get you there.
Unlike much of the lower lying areas of Thessaloniki city that was destroyed during the great fire in 1917. Ano Poli survived without damage and retains much of its Byzantine and Ottoman history within its Byzantine fortified city walls.
Image on tor hotel group under Creative Commons License.
You’ll feel like you have stepped back in time as you roam the many narrow cobbled stone lanes that provide access to a number of historic locations. Take in the sights of the panoramic views from the Tower of Trigonio (Triangle Tower), then walk through one of two large ‘Portaras’ gates that lead you inside the Acropolis and admire the many quaint Greek and Ottoman dwellings and many notable landmarks. Like the church of Profitis Elias; the late 12th early 13th century Byzantine bath; the Heptapygrion that served as a prison during the late 1800s until 1988, now a museum and many others.
Stop by and enjoy delicious local homemade Greek food at the tavern Kastro tou Plastara.
Village of Panorama
Thessaloniki is also well known for its truly scrumptious sweet pastry treats and it’s a must to try. Whilst there are a number of local pastry stops in the city area, the village of Panorama is well known across all of Greece for the original Trigona pastry. I was recommended by a friend in Crete, to make the short journey Panorama and the original Trigona pastry. These crunchy handmade Phyllo triangle shaped pastries made with a hint of syrup and filled with delicious velvety fragrant cream has been drawing Greeks since the 1960s to the village of Panorama. Catch a local bus number 58 and enjoy an unforgettable experience.
I’ve found a local provider in Crete that makes these dangerously delicious sweet pastry treats that are a similar version to the original Trigona pastry from Thessaloniki.
If time permits you may also like to visit the following places of interest.
- Acheiropoiitos church: A 5th century church dedicate to the Virgin Mary. Following the city’s capture by the Ottoman rulers in 1430 the church like many others was converted into a mosque.
- Agia Sophia: An impressive Byzantine domed Basilica from the 7th century in the heart of the city. Many of the churches frescoes date from the 11th century and mosaics within the dome dating from the 8th – 12th century. Whilst the earliest written reference of Agia Sofia dates back to 795 AD.
- Panagia Chalkeon church: Built in 1028 A.D the church of Panagia Chalkeon has been declared a UNSESCO World Heritage site and is located close to the Roman Forum. Frescoes in the church date from the 11th and 14th centuries. Like many important churches during the Ottoman occupation, the church of Panagia Chalkeon was also converted into a mosque.
- Nea Panagia Church (Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God): is a three aisled Basilica that held reserved spaces for women. The marble inscription over the south entrance shows that the building was built in 1727. Nearby was a Byzantine monastery in honour of Panagia from the 12th century, however was destroyed by fire in 1690.
- Agios Charalambos Church: The small church of Agios Charalambos was built in 1905 in the place of a smaller church that was connected to the Mount Athis monastery Simonos Petra. Agios Charalambos houses icons from the 17th – 19th centuries demonstrating fine examples of the Mount Athos religious icon painting technique.
- Holocaust Victims Monument in Freedom Plaza: Whilst in the city centre, take note of the many art nouveau style buildings and wealthy homes along with prominent statues and monuments, including the Holocaust Victims Monument in Freedom Plaza, down near the harbour. The Holocaust Victims Monument is dedicated and in memory of the more than 46,000 Greek Jews of Thessaloniki who were transferred to the concentration camps during WWII. Only 4%, around 1950 people returned to their home in Thessaloniki after the Second World War ended.
- Modiano Market: Be sure to spend time in Thessaloniki’s oldest outdoor market in the historic neighbourhood of Kapani. Be carried away by the scents of the old city and a blend of spices, cheeses, fish, meats and delicatessen products. A favourite amongst locals and visitors.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading and I have inspired you (if needed) to visit Greece’s second largest city. Thessaloniki has a charm all of its own with a unique modern blend of an active cosmopolitan city with the easy, relaxed quaintness of an historic smaller place. In short, this city offers the best of both worlds.
This blog is one of a number in a series of blog posts sharing historic events, ancient history and the hypnotic wonders of other parts of Greece and her Islands. Read and learn more about other location within Greece and her Islands here.
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