This second largest city in Greece dates back to 315 BC and is the capital of Central Macedonia. Through several thousand years, Thessaloniki has attained a large collection of iconic buildings from Byzantine, Paleochristian, Roman, Ancient Greek, Ottoman, and Sephardic Jewish origins. It has been known as a vibrant center of festivals and culture, and has one of the most inventive nightlife scenes in Greece. Anyone who visits Thessaloniki with a love of history, archaeology or world religions will be astounded by the many monuments to discover here. Here is a look at some of the top tourist attractions in Thessaloniki:
Though commonly called the fortress of the seven towers, the Heptapyrgion is also known by its Ottoman name Yedi Kule. The fortress is located at the northeast corner of the city’s acropolis. The northern towers are believed to date back to the fortification of the city in the late 4th century, while the southern five are believed to have been built in the twelfth century. It served as a military installation until the late nineteenth century then spent 100 years as a prison. Today, the Heptapyrgion is a popular tourist attraction, partly because of the great views over the city and its harbor.
This large, extensive museum covers thousands of artifacts from Prechristian and Byzantine times. These include frescoes, mosaics and wall paintings, rescued arches from historic buildings, ceramics and textiles. Much of the museum’s permanent display themes focus on early Christians, their rituals, beliefs, and daily life. There are several early Christian tombs and graves that were excavated in Thessaloniki on display here. The museum offers both guided and unguided tours for adults, as well as educational programs geared toward school children.
This church of holy wisdom is one of the oldest continually standing buildings of Thessaloniki. It was built in the 8th century in the footprints of a church that was built in the 3rd century. The church was created during the Byzantine era based on the design of its more illustrious namesake in Constantinople. Today, it is one of the best remaining examples of the Greek domed churches of the time. Hagia Sophia’s dome bears a splendid mosaic of the Ascension, with Christ seated on a rainbow throne occupying the central medallion. Below is the Virgin Mary flanked by angels and the Apostles divided by trees.
This main city square was designed in 1918 by French Architect Ernest Hebrard, though much of today’s square, particularly the Electra hotel and the movie theater, was recreated in the fifties. It was a move from the narrow, crowded, unplanned streets that came from centuries of Ottoman empire build-outs to a more modern plan, under the guidance of Hebrard. The square came to fruition just after a fire in 1917, and marked a major shift in the archaeological evolution of the city. Today, the square is home to many celebrations and public gatherings.
This museum holds artifacts from four of the most archaeologically important historic periods of Thessaloniki and the surrounding sections of Macedonia. Pieces here represent the Hellenistic, Archaic, Classical and Roman periods. The building itself, ironically, is built in the modern Greek architectural style. The museum also pays special attention to the historic ways in which ancient Macedonians used gold as an adornment. Since the city dates back to prehistoric times, there is also a section that attempts to reconstruct a picture of the Thermaic gulf region that predated the city entirely.
This large pedestrian waterfront in the eastern urban district represents one of the best public projects in Greece in the past twenty years. Small in depth but very long, the promenade runs for about 3,5 km (2,2 miles) from the White Tower to Megaro Mousikis and offers a great space in between the sea and the city. It has become one of the most popular locations for a stroll in all of Thessaloniki. The promenade also offers bike and boat rentals along its flanks, as well as a number of delicious restaurants and lively bars.
The Arch of Galerius (or Kamara) is probably the most distinctive Roman structure of Thessaloniki. It is also one of the most popular attractions in Thessaloniki along with the White Tower. The arch was commissioned as a triumphal monument by emperor Galerius in order to celebrate the victorious campaign against the Sassanid Persians in 298 A.D. and the capture of their capital Ctesiphon. In its initial form the Arch had four main pillars and four secondary. Today only two of the main pillars and one secondary pillar are still standing. Visitors can still see the beautifully carved battle sequences on the remaining pillars of the archway.
The oldest monument in Thessaloniki, the Rotunda is a massive round building that was first a Roman temple, then a Christian church, then a mosque. Its walls are more than 6 meters (20 feet) thick, which is one reason why it has withstood Thessaloniki’s earthquakes. The cylindrical structure was built in 306 as part of a large palace complex on the orders of Roman emperor Galerius. It was either intended to be his mausoleum or somewhat more likely as a temple. The building was used as a church for over 1,200 years until the city fell to the Ottomans. In 1590 the Church of Agios Georgios was converted into a mosque. Fortunately, the mosaics that survived until then were not harmed further by this conversion; they were simply painted over. After serving three religions, the Rotunda is now a museum.
This large and impressive church was built on the site of an ancient Roman bath where legends say that its namesake, St Demetrius, was held prisoner, executed and dropped down a well by Roman soldiers. It is a five aisled basilica with a unique hexagonal nave known as a ciborium. Of particular interest here is a famous six-paneled mural that is one Thessaloniki’s finest mosaics, showing St Demetrius with children and the builders of the church. This is not only one of the largest churches in the city, it is considered to be one of the most historically and religiously important houses of worship in all of Thessaloniki.
This circular, whitewashed waterfront tower is the symbol of the city. Like Thessaloniki itself, the tower’s history is quite storied. Originally, it formed a corner of the city’s Byzantine and Ottoman defenses before most of the walls were demolished late in the 19th century. During the period of Ottoman rule, it was a jail and the site of multiple tortures, and nicknamed the “tower of blood.” As an attempt to atone for this, the building was symbolically whitewashed and renamed the White Tower. It keeps that name today, even though the color is more of a buff. Today the interior of the white tower serves as an extensive museum showing daily life in different eras of Thessaloniki. In addition to a number of artifacts, the third story has a replication of a Byzantine era home and its typical furnishings.