Founded in 315 BC and named after Alexander the Great’s half-sister, Thessaloniki has a long and storied past. It was an important city under the Macedonians and later the Romans, but it was under during the Middle Ages that Thessaloniki became the second city of the Byzantine Empire. After 1204 a family of Italian crusaders, then the Despotate of Epiros, briefly held it before it returned to the Byzantine Empire. In the following century the city briefly ruled itself under a group known as the Zealots, then returned to Byzantine rule before being conquered by the emergent Ottoman Empire. After the Ottoman defeat at the hands of Tamerlane in 1402, the city reverted to Byzantine control for another 20 years before being handed over to Venice and finally returning to Ottoman rule in 1430, under which it would remain for the next five centuries.
Due to this varied history, the city of Thessaloniki, already an important trade center, became a cosmopolitan hub. In addition to the Greeks and Slavs that already resided in the region, under the Ottomans large numbers of Muslims and Jews settled in the city. Many of the Jews were Sephardic Jews that had been expelled from Spain, but were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Bayezid II.
The city was taken by Greece during the First Balkan War in 1912. But during the next 30 years it witnessed terrible damage. In 1917 a fire broke loose, destroying most of the old town and leaving a significant portion of Thessaloniki residents homeless. During World War II the city was damaged by Axis bombing and almost the entire Jewish population was killed during the Holocaust. The city has since recovered and has reasserted its position as a second city, albeit this time of Greece, not the Byzantine Empire.
Traveling to the city today, one can see monuments and memories from practically all of Thessaloniki’s previous eras. One of the best spots to start in Thessaloniki is in the Beach Promenade along the port. This waterfront area has been greatly enhanced in recent years, featuring a lamp-bordered boardwalk and walking and bicycle paths up and down the harbor. In addition to the great views of the water and enjoying the open air, there are two key monuments to see. The first, fittingly located in Ο Κήπος του Αλέξανδρου (Alexander’s Garden) is a statue of Alexander the Great on horseback. With the waves of the ocean behind him, it harks back thousands of years to when Alexander left this area of historic Macedonia to cross the seas and conquer most of the known world. A little to the northwest along the water lies Ο Λευκός Πύργος (the White Tower), Thessaloniki’s most famous monument,
which was built under the Ottomans on the site of a former Byzantine fortification. The Greeks whitewashed it after retaking the city, partially to remedy its former notoriety as a prison and execution ground under the Ottomans. Today it is the symbol of Thessaloniki.
As you continue to walk northwest along the water, you will soon come upon Aristotle Square. This is the center of the city, and as you look around, it might seem similar to Paris, with it’s Neoclassical buildings, open-air cafes, and wide boulevards. It is a great spot to get coffee or food and watch the sea or the people. Nearby, on the corner of Agias Sofias and Proxenou Koromila, there is also the Μουσείο Μακεδονικού Αγώνα (Museum of the Macedonian Struggle), which documents the local fight against the Ottomans in Macedonia during the early 20th century. In an interesting twist, the museum is housed in the former Greek consulate, which served that role from 1893 to 1912.
Back to the east of the city lie some of the city’s most prominent museums. The Μουσείο Βυζαντινού Πολιτισμού (The Museum of Byzantine Culture) is expertly curated and features the most comprehensive exhibit on Byzantine political history in all of Greece.
The Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο (Archaeological Museum) includes exhibits with excavated finds from throughout Macedonia’s ancient period, from prehistory through Roman times. Note that you can get a cheaper joint ticket to both the Byzantine Museum and Archaeological Museum instead of buying them separately.
The Πολεμικό Μουσείο (War Museum) features exhibits on Greek wars during the 20th century, including the Balkan Wars and World War II. All three museums are within five minutes of each other, all off of 3is Septemvriou. Also off this street are the Radio Museum, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, City Hall, and several convention centers.
If you walk along Egnatia, one of the main streets in downtown Thessaloniki, you will get to see most of the Roman ruins in the city. Right along the street you will see the Arch of Galerius, more commonly known as Kamara. It was built to commemorate a victory of Galerius over the Persian army and even today you can still seen the finely carved scenes on the pillars of the arch. Behind the arch is the Rotunda, which was built by the same Galerius, but quickly became a church.It was converted to a mosque under the Ottomans, but today it has become a sculpture museum and they are
excavating the mosaics on the interior. Also along the route you will see many churches off Egnatia; go explore them! Some, such as Panagia Acheiropoietos, Hagia Sophia, and Panagia Chalkeon, are larger and more impressive than others, but they all add to the culture of the city. Also be sure to grab galaktoboureko, a Greek phyllo dough custard dessert for which Thessaloniki is famous. One of the best spots for it is Blé, a bakery located three blocks to the south of Egnatia on Agias Sophias. Further to the west lie the Ancient Agora and Roman Forum, with an accompanying park. When you see the statue of Eleftherios Venizelos, one of Greece’s most famous modern leaders, head behind him and you will arrive at the Agora. Also right next to the statue of Venizelos is the Bey Hamam, one of the old Ottoman bathhouses in the city. It is no longer operational, but the building is used for events. Two blocks to the south on Vasileos Irakleiou is another Ottoman bathhouse, the Yahudi Hamam, or Jewish bath, which takes its name from the fact that that area of town used to be mostly Jewish.
If you keep walking north past the Agora you will reach Agiou Dimitriou, another large street like Egnatia. Right across this street is Agios Dimitrios, the main church in Thessaloniki, dedicated to Saint Dimitrios, the patron saint of the city. The church is from Byzantine times and is built on the spot where Saint Dimitrios was
martyred – his body is even still in the church! Walk about 10 minutes to the east and you will be in a small Turkish neighborhood, all centered around the Atatürk Museum, where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, was born. The Turkish government, who had been given the building by the Greeks decades ago after they took Thessaloniki, created the Museum. However, you can only visit the museum by appointment. You will see lots of tour groups of Turks going to tour the house. In a block radius around the house are Turkish stores and cafes. It is a perfect spot to get Turkish tea or kebab.
After leaving the Turkish neighborhood, head north on Elenis Zografou past the hospital. Off of Korinis is the Church of Saint Nicholas Orphanos, a nice Greek church. Keep going north and you will eventually start climbing up stairs to reach the old city walls, including the Trigono Tower. Along this street there are also several cafes with spectacular views of Thessaloniki as well as the Vlatadon Monastery. Ten minutes to the north past the walls is a former castle known as Yedi Kule or the Heptapyrgion, both meaning seven towers in Turkish and Greek respectively, originally built by the Byzantines on the city’s acropolis.
Thessaloniki is also easy to reach from Athens, with flights usually under $100 for a round trip ticket. It is a great option for an extra one or two day excursion outside of Athens, with plenty to do and thousands of years of civilization to see.