A city of diverse beauty and hospitable people. Thessaloniki has always been a crossroad of civilisations, a place where the East and West meet, where great cultures and religions have been mixed. Gastronomy, events, world-class heritage sites, and shopping are just some of the things that visitors can indulge in.
In addition, the distinctive student vibe is an integral part of its the city's charm, as it hosts the country's largest university campus, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
The compact size of the city and the walking-distance proximity of the top-attractions make Thessaloniki an ideal city-break destination.
History of the City
Thessaloniki stands at the heart of the Balkans and takes its name from the step sister of Alexander the Great and was established by Cassander, her husband, in 315BC. Very soon the city became very populous and under the Romans in 148BC became the capital of the Roman providence of Macedonia. St Paul passed and preached in Thessaloniki during his second trip (50 BC). The impregnable walls kept the city free until 904 when Saracene Pirates took the city. In 1185 and 1430 the city passed successively into the hands of the Normans and the Turks. 1492 is the crucial year in the history of Thessaloniki because of the arrival of the Sephardic Jews from Spain, followed by more Jews arriving from central Europe, giving the city the name mother of Israel or second Jerusalem. The 50 synagogues spread all over the city were divided into three sections: the Jewish by the port, the Greek by Rotunda and the Ottomans in Ano Poly (the Upper city). The majority of Jewish population perished in 1943 after the deportation to Auschwitz, Birkenau and Bergen Belsen while in the meantime in 1912-13 and the Balkan wars the city was liberated and joined the Greek state. Today the second city of Greece boasts two universities, an international fair, a film festival, the Dimitria festivities and cultural activities all year round.
This is one of the oldest buildings in the city and is sixteen centuries old. It was erected around 300 AD by Emperor Galerius as a temple either of Cabeiros or Zeus. This circular building has huge dimensions. The strong walls are 6.30 metres thick. The interior diameter is 24.5 metres and its height to the top of the dome is 29.8 metres. The interior of the monument is striking and the huge space beneath the vast dome- which in the light pouring in from the many windows appears to be suspended in space- inspires a sense of awe in the visitor. In the time of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius the Rotunda was converted into a Christian church. During that period it was decorated with marvelous mosaics. In 1590 it became a mosque and its minaret is the only one to have survived in Thessaloniki. Today it is called St George, named after a nearby chapel, while Rotunda was the name given in recent centuries by foreign visitors as a result of the circular shape of the monument.
Arch of Galerius
The Arch of Galerius, known to the people of Thessaloniki as the Kamara (meaning arch), was built in 305 AD after Galerius' victory over the Persians. It was erected at the intersection of the Via Regia, the main road artery crossing the city from east to west, and the processional route which linked the palace to the Rotunda. What we see of the triumphal arch today is not its complete original form. The fourth pier of the arch, which would have risen out of the road surface of the modern Egnatia, is missing. The piers of the arch are ornamented with sculptures depicting scenes from the wars of Galerius, sacrifices, and the four leaders of the tetrarchy.
The Galerian Palatial Complex
Only a section of the actual palatial complex survives today but the atrium, the basilica, the octagon-throne room (restored today) allow us to understand how the large palace was. The complex was in use for many centuries, as Thessaloniki was one of the Roman capitals and always the most important city of the Balkans.
The original Forum was designed in the 1st century AD, but the imposing building complex that survives today is dated to the 2nd - 3rd century AD. The Forum housed all public services and at the same time it also served inhabitants' social lives. In the double portico of the southern wing were shops, which could be reached through a narrow, marble-paved, commercial street. The square, the baths, the Odeion, the mint and the document archive are remarkable. The Forum was entered through the magnificent Colonnade of the Enchanted Idols- the Incantadas, as it was also known (those statues were transferred to Louvre museum by Emmanuel Miller in 1864).
It is the symbol of Thessaloniki. It was built in the 16th century as a part of the fortifications. It stands at the spot where the sea wall, demolished in 1867, joined the east wall. It has a total height of 30 metres and a diameter of 70 metres. It consists of 6 floors. In the Ottoman period, the White Tower was a notorious prison and place of execution, thus explaining its name. It was originally called Kanli Koule, the Tower of Blood. In 1890, the tower was whitewashed by a convict in exchange for his freedom, and was henceforth known by its current name. Inside the White Tower, there is now a museum where visitors can enjoy a digital reconstruction of the city's history.
The Church and the Crypt of Saint Demetrius
It is the church of the patron saint of Thessaloniki. It was built above the ruins of the Roman baths on the site where St Demetrius met a martyr's death. Initially, in the fourth century, a small structure stood on the site where Demetrius was first imprisoned and then interred. In the fifth century, Leontius, Eparch of Illyricum, built a spacious three-aisled basilica which was burnt during the seventh century. It was rebuilt with five aisles, but that structure, too, met its end by fire in 1917. The reconstruction of the church was completed in 1948. Wonderful mosaics have survived in the basilica from the fifth, the seventh, and the ninth century together with some wall-paintings. The relics of the saint are kept inside a silver reliquary beneath a replica of the original ciborium.
In the crypt of Saint Demetrius, beneath the altar, we can visit the Roman baths in which the saint is traditionally supposed to have martyred. The holiest part of the crypt is the semi-circular basin of holy water. The famous holy myrrh of the saint ran from there. The pilgrims used to bear away this myrrh in phials up until the time of the Ottoman Rule, when the church became a mosque.
The Church of Agia Sophia
The great church as it is mentioned of St Sophia stands in the heart of the city from the 8th century on top of the ruins of the oldest basilica. Two amazing mosaics and the story of the monument as church, then mosque and then church again, gives the opportunity to the visitor to walk in the central part of Thessaloniki visiting the old cathedral of the city and the nearby baptistery of St John.
The city was first fortified by Cassander when he first founded it in 315 BC. The walls of Thessaloniki as we see them today are the result of construction, extension, and repair work that went on from the fourth century BC to the period of the Ottoman rule. They were originally 8 kilometres long but unfortunately only 4 of them survive today. They were trapezoidal in layout with two arms running at the right angles up to the east and west sides of the triangular acropolis. The Sea Wall extended along what is now Proxenou Koromila street where the sea-shore was in Roman Times. The walls were between ten and twelve metres high consisting of stone blocks held together with sand-based mortar and also incorporating pieces of marble from ancient monuments in the city. Communications between the city and the countryside took place through a number of gates. Only the gates of the north wall have survived to the present day. The fortifications of Thessaloniki were in a relatively good condition until the end of the nineteenth century when they were demolished to allow the city expand.
Bey Hamam, also known as Paradeisos Baths, is Thessaloniki's oldest Turkish bath, dating from 1444. This large and labyrinthine structure is now used for art shows.
It is an important monument of the Turkish period of Thessaloniki. It was constructed by the Italian architect Vitaliano Poselli and it was used as a worship place by the Jewish that have been converted to Islam, who were called Donmeh. It is an eclectic building of the 20th century with two storeys. After the expulsion of Donmeh it housed the newly established Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki until it was transferred to a new building on Stratou Avenue. Today it is used as an exhibition center.
Dating back to 1484, the Alaca Imaret has recently been restored and transformed into a venue for concerts and art exhibitions. This mosque, located off Kassandrou Street, served not only as a place of worship but also as a poorhouse (imaret) and a religious school. Going through the front colonnade, visitors enter the main hall covered by two majestic cupolas. Part of the original artwork can still be seen, however the minaret decorated with multicoloured stones (alaca) has not survived the perils of time.
This central square of Thessaloniki was the brainchild of the Hebrard town planning committee, whose ideas were implemented after the terrible fire of 1917. The new sea-front square was designed with buildings whose facades, with colonnades, arvades, and arches would combine features from the Byzantine heritage of Thessaloniki with memories and motifs from the cities of Europe and the Mediterranean. On the bottom corner of Aristotelous street the buildings are the 'Olympion' which hosts the film festival every year, and the 'Electra Hotel'.To the right and left of Aristotelous street there are three old-style commercial bazzars: the Modiano and Kapani markets on the left and the Athonos square market on the right.