Thessaloniki is a city of character, full of charm and color. It is the second largest urban center of Greece and the industrial, commercial, cultural and administrative center of northern Greece. It took its name from the sister of Alexander the Great, whose name was Thessaloniki. Today it is a city with many faces: the contemporary and modern down town center, with big hotels, high-end shops, fine restaurants, coffee bars and vivid nightlife. Another face can be seen in the Vardaris area, with its old buildings, shops and popular nightclubs and the areas of Toumba and Kalamaria, once refugee settlements, preserved landmarks from the interwar years as well as some famous taverns.
Start your walking tour from the ‘trademark’ of the city - the White Tower. Originally built as a Byzantine fortification, it was replaced with the current tower built by Suleiman the Magnificent around the middle of the 16th century; it was used by the Ottomans to fortify the city’s harbor and it also became a notorious prison and place of mass executions during Ottoman rule.
Continue your walk to the impressive Roman Palace Complex of Galerius, which includes the Octagon (once the throne hall) with its famous mosaics, the Nymphaeum, the Arch of Galerius built in 305 AD, known as ”Kamara”, and the impressive Rotunda, the circular domed building with its impressive early Christian mosaics (late 4th century). Among the down town streets you will find the 3rd century B.C. ancient Agora and a Byzantine bath from the late 13th century. Other interesting places to explore in Thessaloniki are the many Ottoman buildings like Isak Pasha Mosque (1484), Chamtza Bey Mosque (1467), the Bey Hamam (1444), the Pasha Hamam (1520), the Yeni Pazar and the colorful Bezesteni, a central market (Venizelos and Solomos streets), which sold luxury fabrics. This building is rectangular with four entrances and was built in the late 15th century.
After exploring Bezesteni head to the neighboring popular food markets of Kapani and Modiano, full of the scents, aromas and colors of the city and with a dozen of small inexpensive local eateries to grab a yummy bite. Alternatively you can stop for lunch in the historic district of Ladadika (close to Aristotle's Square); this famous district survived the great fire of 1917. Another important place to visit would be the Victims of the Holocaust Memorial, dedicated to the memory of Jews in Thessaloniki who were lost during WWII. Finally, do be sure to visit some of the many magnificent Byzantine churches of central Thessaloniki, especially that of Agios Dimitrios (also patron saint of the city), built in 313 AD over the ruins of Roman baths; the church of the Virgin Mary (called ‘Aheiropoietos’), built in the 5th century – the only Hellenistic basilica that has survived intact in Greece and Thessaloniki’s central cathedral of Agia Sophia, built in the 7th century.
If you’re a lover of museums then Thessaloniki has many great ones to explore. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki offers significant findings from the late 6th century. B.C.; the Museum of Byzantine Culture is one of the most important in the Greece – with precious exhibits of Byzantine culture from the early Christian years until the Ottoman occupation of the Byzantine Empire; the Jewish Museum, which offers excellent insight into the history of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki; the Museums of Cinema and Photography are host to some distinctive exhibits and offer a look into cotemporary life in the city.
Complete your walking tour by enjoying a coffee at one of the posh coffee bars in Aristotle's Square; this is Thessaloniki’s central square with monumental palaces designed after the devastating fire of 1917.
Thessaloniki Through the Centuries
Although Thessaloniki, often referred to as Salonika, cannot compete with Athens when it comes to ancient history and remains, its history more than matches that of Athens. Although there was an ancient town on the same site, Thessaloniki was officially founded in 316 BC by Kassander, King of Macedon, who named it after his wife, the half-sister of Alexander the Great. It remained an independent city within Macedonia until 168 BC when the Romans moved in and by 146 BC they had made it the capital of their province of Macedonia. Under the Romans, the city became a major commercial port-city; its natural location on the Aegean Sea plus its proximity to the Balkans and Asia Minor was further enhanced when Rome included it as a major way station on the Via Egnatia – the great highway that linked the Adriatic Sea and Constantinople. Although there is no denying that Rome held Athens in highest esteem, many Romans turned to Thessaloniki in times of trouble. For example, the great statesman-orator Cicero spent some time here while in exile and Pompey, the rival of Julius Caesar, fled here in flight from Caesar. Additionally, Thessaloniki also prospered under the empire of Augustus Caesar.
Thessaloniki also played a major role in the history of Christianity. Apostle Paul went to the city in AD 50 on his first mission to Greece. In his zeal to convert Jews to the new faith, he so antagonized some of them that they attacked the house he was staying in (see Acts 17: 1-9), but the authorities intervened and Paul was allowed to leave. Paul would revisit Thessaloniki in the year 56, by which time there was an emerging community of Christians; it was to these people that Paul addressed two of his most famous Epistles, known as First and Second Thessalonians.
During the next few centuries, Thessaloniki lived through a succession of challenges. When the Roman Empire was divided into western and eastern realms in 293, Thessaloniki went with the latter and Galerius chose it as the capital. By now the Christians were powerful enough to be seen as a threat. Among the victims of Galerius’ persecutions in 303 was Demetrius, a Roman officer who would become St. Demetrius, the patron saint of Thessaloniki to this day. It was here in that the Emperor Theodosius the Great was converted to Christianity and in 380 issued the Edict of Thessaloniki. This prohibited the traditional pagan religion of Rome and returned the Empire to the Christian faith. Meanwhile, the various Gothic and Slavic tribes from the north had taken over much of the Roman Empire, but Thessaloniki held out and by the end of the 8th century it was firmly under the control of the Eastern Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople. It was actually two brothers from Thessaloniki, Cyril and Methodius, who in 862 began their missionary and translation activities that brought many Slavic peoples into the Christian church. Among other accomplishments, they introduced an alphabet based on the Greek that became modified into what is known as Cyrillac script, used by Slavic languages. In 1980, these two Thessalonians were named patron saints of Europe.
Between the years 900 and 1430, Thessaloniki was subjected to an endless series of attacks and atrocities by various rulers, would-be usurpers of thrones, and warlords: Saracens, Franks, Italians, Bulgarians, fellow Greeks, all desirous of possessing the prosperous and strategically located ‘second capital’ of the Byzantine Empire (in this case, the capital being Constantinople). To read of the comings and goings of these self-serving and often brutal men is both dizzying and depressing. Finally in 1430, the Ottoman Turks captured the city and they would hold it as part of their great Ottoman Empire until formally ceding it to Greece in 1913.
Although the Turks did turn some Christian churches into mosques and deliberately encouraged Muslims to settle in the city, their practice throughout their empire was to allow for toleration of the Greeks’ culture and Christian religion. But the Turks did something else for Thessaloniki that would totally change the complexion of the city. There had long been a small Jewish community in Thessaloniki, but in the 1470s, many Jews fleeing persecution in Bavaria were allowed to settle in the city. Then in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Jews from Spain, some 20,000 of these were given refuge in Thessaloniki. The Sephardic Jews from Spain, the largest group now in Thessaloniki, continued speaking Ladino, a form of Castilian Spanish but with many words taken over from Hebrew, French, Portuguese, and eventually Turkish. By 1550 Jews comprised over half the city’s population and for some centuries would make Thessaloniki the largest Jewish city in the world, but aside from their numbers, the Jews of Thessaloniki contributed to the city’s prosperous economy and lively society.
When the Greeks on the mainland and islands rose up against their Turkish overlords in 1821, Thessalonians tried to join, but the Turks quickly and brutally squelched this. Thessaloniki was then left to the Ottoman Empire after much of Greece gained its independence, and ironically it became the center of the so-called ‘Young Turks’ movement that would lead the revolt against the rule of the Ottoman Emperor Abdul-Hamid II. In 1906 these young men formed the Turkish Committee of Union and Progress, which would soon count among its members a young Turkish army officer born in Thessaloniki, Mustafa Kemal. By 1909 they had overthrown the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid, but when Greeks rose up against the Turks in 1912 in the First Balkan War, the Greek army took over Thessaloniki and in 1913 Turkey was forced to cede the city and all of Macedonia to Greece. Mustafa Kemal would go on to become known as Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish nation.
Thessaloniki still had many trials to endure. King George I of Greece was assassinated here in 1913, and in 1915 Thessaloniki was occupied by the Allied forces to serve as the base for a major campaign against Bulgaria, which was supporting Germany in the First World War. The king of Greece had also lent Greece’s support to Germany, but led by Eleftherios Venizelos, the Cretan-Greek revolutionary, those who opposed Greece’s support of Germany in the war, set up a provisional government here in 1916 and, effectively revolting against the government in Athens, led northern Greece and some other regions to support the Allies. In a most unfortunate side-effect of that support of the Allies, French soldiers camping in the city accidentally started a fire that burned down a large part of the old city and destroyed the homes of a quarter of the people. As a result of Greece’s failed attempt to invade Turkey in 1922, Greece was agreed to the Treaty of Lausanne, which among other terms called for the 1,250,000 Greeks living in Turkey to be repatriated to Greece (and the 400,000 Turks in Greece to go to Turkey). Thessaloniki was especially impacted by this population exchange, with far more Greeks seeking refuge there than the numbers of Turks who left.
Thessaloniki, like the rest of Greece, was racked by the internal political turmoil that marked Greece in the 1920s and 1930s, but all this pales when set against what happened when the German army invaded northern Greece in April 1941. It took only three days before the Germans occupied the city and it would be three and a half years before they left, which meant years of great hardship for the citizens of Thessaloniki. The worst fate of all those under the Germans was what happened to the centuries-old and distinguished Jewish community of Thessaloniki: some 50,000 of them were deported to the slave factories and concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied lands; only about 1,000 of them survived.
When World War II ended, Thessaloniki was finally free to catch up with the 20th century. In the effort to drive out the Germans, Allied bombing had inflicted a fair amount of damage, so the city’s first task was to clear out the rubble and start rebuilding. It did so with surprising rapidity and despite a powerful and destructive earthquake in 1978, Thessaloniki today presents the image of a prosperous modern city, yet one that has managed to respect and reserve its countless historical treasures.
General Interest in Thessaloniki:
Thessaloniki has Roman remains of some interest - an agora, the Roman Palace, the Hippodrome - and its fine Archaeological Museum has many important finds from ancient sites in this part of Greece. What also rewards visitors interested in history are the several really old Christian churches. For example, the church of Panagia Aheiropoietos is regarded as one of the oldest Christian churches anywhere still in use –
parts of it perhaps dating to the 5th century; Agios Dimitrios dates to the 7th century; Agia Sophia probably to the 8th century; Panagia Halkeon dates to the 11th century and Dodeka Apostoli of the 14th century. Each of these hold many architectural elements and historical stories that could fill hours of study.
One of the prime remains of Thessaloniki is the Arch of Galerius, a triumphal arch raised by the (self-proclaimed) Emperor Galerius after he defeated the Persians in AD 297. This Galerius (c. AD 250-311) was a rather rough character, notorious for among other things his harsh persecutions of Christians. His arch is hardly the equivalent of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum but it is certainly worth a look. Nearby is Agios Georgios, a domed rotunda thought to have been built as a mausoleum for Galerius; yet since he was not buried here, it instead was converted into a Christian church; at the end of the 16th century the Turks converted it into a mosque and its minaret is the only one that still survives in Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki had long been a walled city, but at the end of the 4th century AD the Byzantine-Roman Emperor Theodosius began constructing the far more ambitious ramparts, segments of which survive to this day. Although not part of the original ramparts, the most impressive – and best known – element still standing is the White Tower, located on the seashore promenade. It is disputed whether the Venetians or Turks built this as it dates to about the time the latter were taking over the city (1430). It was not originally painted white – this came centuries later – although not all that white these days, but is certainly worth a visit.
These are only a few of the more outstanding sites to visit in Thessaloniki – there is much more to see and do in this great city. One needs only to walk about the city, taking in its attractive squares, fine shops, lively cafes, bustling waterfront. Those with enough energy left in the evening will find no end of bars and locales with music. Thessaloniki may be Greece’s ‘second capital’, but it yields to no city in its lively nightlife.
Ano Poli (Upper Town)
Ano Poli is the ‘old city’ of Thessaloniki. It is a district that survived the great fire of 1917 and it offers a unique look into the neighborhoods of Thessaloniki past. In Ano Poli you will see traditional Macedonian, Ottoman, Jewish, and neoclassical homes.
During your exploration of this district, be sure to see the great City Walls which were part of the original Byzantine fortifications, the Tower of Trigonio in the northern corner of the eastern wall and famous Eptapyrgio (Yedi - Kule) with its tall square towers which functioned as a prison. Discover the interesting Latomou Monastery (or St. David); built over a Roman fort, the monastery dates back to the late 5th century. Finally, be sure to take a peek at the interiors of the beautiful church of Agios Nikolaos Orfanos of the early 14th century, adorned with impressive murals (1310-1320).
Exploring Alexander’s Homeland
Those with an interest in ancient history, and more particularly the Macedonian roots of Alexander the Great, will want to take an excursion to at least one of the major sites outside Thessaloniki associated with him and his family.
Visiting the Tomb of an Ancient King
The legendary capital of ancient Macedonia, named Aigai (today’s Vergina area) is the place that the historian Herodotus described as, ‘the gardens of Midas’. Vergina is perhaps the most famous archaeological site in Macedonia and it is here that the first glorious palaces of the Macedonian kings were built, and where the foundations of the ancient Macedonian state were established. The ancient city of Aigai remained the Macedonian capital until the end of the 5th century BC, when King Archelaus moved his capital to Pella.
Reaching Vergina is quite easy from Thessaloniki via the national road and Egnatia Highway. Among the plethora of archaeological sites in this ancient capital, the most important are the royal tombs of the Great Tumulus. Discovered by the archaeologist Manolis Andronikos, here you will enter inside an earthen hill and see the magnificent tomb of King Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, as well as other royal burials under the same Tumulus. The tombs and the general area inside the Tumulus form an excellent museum where you can admire the findings from the royal tombs, including jewelry, golden wreaths, weapons, bronze helmets, golden utensils etc. Some other parts of the ancient city that offer excellent options for a small tour are the citadel with its five towers, the palace built in the second half of the 4th century BC, the ancient theater (one of the oldest stone theaters in Greece), and the Temple of Cybele.
If you do visit Vergina and its magnificent monuments, it’s worth the 12 km drive to the city of Veria – the second largest city of ancient Macedonia which continued to be a prosperous and powerful city during the Byzantine era. Today Veria is a modern city that offers historic neighborhoods and many great monuments. While in Veria, definitely explore the old Jewish neighborhood of Barbouta (one of the most important Jewish sites in the world), with its nice houses, beautifully preserved old Synagogue and the picturesque narrow streets beside the river of Tripotamos. Stroll around the old Orthodox district of Kiriotissa, full of Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches with wonderful ceramic decoration and fine art paintings. At a restored old mill, which is a typical example of 20th century industrial architecture, you will find the highly regarded Byzantine Museum of Veria.
The Capital City of Alexander the Great
Magnificent Pella! Some 35 miles west of Thessaloniki, was long the capital of the Macedonian kingdom and as such was the birthplace of both Philip II, Alexander’s father, and Alexander himself. It was in the palace here, too, that Aristotle tutored the young Alexander.
Follow the old main road from Thessaloniki to Edessa city and you will reach what the historian Xenophon called the ‘maximum city of Macedonia’. By the 4th century BC, Pella became the brilliant capital of the state of Macedonians. Its prosperity ended with the arrival of Roman conquerors who after leveling it, made it a Roman colony. Around the 1st century AD a disastrous earthquake wiped out this Macedonian capital, yet Pella continued to exist as a Byzantine settlement, completely forgotten for centuries until it was discovered in the 20th century.
Start your visit from the impressive ruins of temples and private homes in the archaeological site. The house of the god Dionysus is quite interesting and warrants a visit to see the restored colonnade and mosaic floors. In other homes, some beautiful mosaics have been found like the house with the mosaic of the abduction of Helen, with a deer hunting scene of incomparable vitality. Next walk across the main ancient road that once connected the ancient port and the city market, actually the largest in the ancient world, with an area of 70,000 square meters! At the northern end of the market there is a shrine from the 3rd century BC in which Venus and Cybele were worshiped. Finish your visit in Pella with a tour of the Archaeological Museum.
Excursions Outside of Thessaloniki
Halkidiki has three peninsulas and is the most cosmopolitan coastal area of northern Greece and home to the most popular beaches of the region. To the Greeks the three peninsulas are known as the ‘legs’ of Halkidiki, as they look like gigantic feet emerging out of the mountains deep into the northern Aegean Sea. Each ‘leg’ (or peninsula) also has a name and they are: Cassandra, Sithonia, and Athos. These three peninsulas are considered among the most beautiful natural environments in northern Greece. Halkidiki is charming, lively and cosmopolitan. It’s one of these unique places and landscapes that just shouldn’t be missed.
Cassandra is the first ‘leg of Halkidiki and during antiquity it was known as Pallini. Covered in a lush pine forest, Cassandra is home to many large hotel resorts located on the beaches of the northeastern coast in the areas of Kriopigi, Polychrono, Haniotis and Pefkohori.
In order to reach Cassandra, you will travel through the city of Nea Moudania and cross the canal of Cassandra. It is here that the ancient Corinthian settlers built Potidea, the destruction of which, by the Athenians, was one of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. On the historical peninsula, there were many ancient cities and colonies such as Skioni, Mendi (home of the famous sculptor Paionios) and Theramvos; remnants of which can be seen at the Temple of Poseidon at Possidi, the Temple of Amun Zeus in Kallithea and the few remains of the ancient Neapolis in Polychrono.
Apart from the circular coastal road, through seaside villages and resorts, Cassandra has a dense forest which is the home of some quiet and picturesque villages like Agia Paraskevi, Fourka and Kassandrino. Some great spots of interest are the Byzantine Tower of Stavronikita in Sani, the Tower of St. Paul in New Phocaea, the old metochi of the Monastery of Xenophon (once the old prison of Cassandra), as well as many small Byzantine churches hidden in the silence of the green forest. But a trip to the Cassandra peninsula isn’t the same if you haven’t visited the village of Afitos. This village offers beautiful architectural and artistic designs of the 19th century. Wandering its narrow streets, you will be surrounded by charming balconies and verandas, verdant yards, stone benches made of limestone (material abundant in the region) – all made with taste and by talented craftsmen.
Sithonia is today one of the most popular tourist destinations in Greece and its coasts have the most exotic beaches in the northern Aegean. Beaches of white granite sand, turquoise and aquamarine shallow warm waters, dense pine trees and shiny gray rocks are what give Sithonia an unparalleled tropical image. The village of New Marmaras (founded by refugees from the city of Marmaras in Asia Minor – today’s Turkey) become well known during the tourism boom of the 1970's when the ship magnate John Carras created the largest complex for packaged holidays in Greece, the famous Porto Carras Resort. The areas of Sarti, Toroni, Porto Koufo, Scala Sykias, Elia and Vourvourou are prime destinations for quiet holidays. Sithonia, Although widely known for its sandy beaches, Sithonia also has a mountain of great beauty, full of pine trees and beekeepers (Sithonia honey is quite famous in Greece!) and two beautiful villages Parthenon and Sykia (be sure visit the church of St. Athanasius of 1856 in Sykia). Finally, on the rocky coast close to the beach is the village of Toroni. Here you will find ruins of the famous ancient town of Toroni built by colonists from the city of Halkida in central Greece in the 8th century BC.
Mount Athos Peninsula
Mount Athos is the third Halkidiki peninsula and is really well known among Christians around the world. For more than one thousand years, Mount Athos has been home to the largest community of Orthodox monasticism. According to the legend, Mount Athos was a gift from the Virgin Mary to the Christian Orthodox monks; thus the peninsula is called the ‘Garden of the Virgin Mary.’
The secular part of the Athos peninsula includes cosmopolitan Ouranoupoli, Nea Roda and the unique island of Ammouliani, home to many excellent beaches. In order to reach the monasteries of Mount Athos, first you must be male (women have not been allowed to visit the grounds for centuries). Next you must call the Athos pilgrim’s office in Thessaloniki and request an application for permission to visit the peninsula. Only 120 people with a ‘permission license’ (diamonitirion) are allowed to enter Mount Athos daily and allowed to stay for up to three nights at the monasteries. ::/introtext::