A port, a place of higher learning and a cultural giant, Thessaloniki in Central Macedonia is Greece’s second largest city. For centuries Thessaloniki was also the second city of the Byzantine Empire, deferring only to Constantinople. From that time, the Christian and Byzantine monuments like the Hagios Demetrios and Hagia Sophia churches are part of one large UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Earlier, in the days of the Roman Tetrarchy at the turn of the 4th century, Emperor Galerius splashed out on a triumphal arch and a rotund, both of which have made it to modern times. And given that Thessaloniki was founded in the 4th century BC and has lived through the rise and fall of four great empires you can bet that the city’s museums are world beaters.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Thessaloniki:
1. White Tower of Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki’s signature monument, the cylindrical, six-storey White Tower shows up on postcards and souvenirs and is the image many people in Greece call to mind when they think of the city.
Put up to reinforce the eastern end of the harbour, the tower is right on the water and went up in the 15th century after Thessaloniki was taken by the Ottoman Empire.
With a diameter of 23 metres the tower is 34 metres tall and hosts a museum about the history of Thessaloniki, laid out by the Museum of Byzantine Culture.
There’s a multilingual audio guide to explain the exhibits, and you can scale the spiral staircase to look over Thessaloniki and its harbour from the battlements.
2. Archaeological Museum
A priority for anyone coming to Thessaloniki, the Archaeological Museum has Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman-era artefacts brought to light in the city and across Macedonia.
There are finds from a 6th-century Ionic temple in the city, as well as a palace complex constructed by the early 4th-century emperor, Galerius.
There’s also a reconstruction of a Macedonian tomb uncovered not far away in Agia Paraskevi.
The “Gold of Macedon” exhibition has finds from cemeteries at Derveni, Sindos, Agia Paraskevi, Serres and Leti to name a few, while there’s also a recent exhibition covering prehistory to the end of the Bronze Age.
Notable exhibits are singled out for special attention, like the Derveni Krater, which dates to the 4th century BC, weighs 40kg and is ornamented with figures of Ariadne, Dionysus, satyrs maenads and a warrior who could be Jason (of the Argonauts), Lycurgus of Thrace or Pentheus.
3. Hagios Demetrios
After Thessaloniki’s Patron Saint Demetrius was martyred in the 4th century a church was built on the same site.
The early buildings here were repeatedly destroyed by fire until the current structure was constructed as a five-aisled basilica in the early 630s.
The church is famed for its mosaic panels dating to sometime between the 630s to the 730s, showing Demetrius with children and with the church founders are rare examples of art from the time following Emperor Justinian’s death.
Sadly a few other invaluable mosaics were lost in a fire in 1917. The crypt holds the Roman bathhouse in which Demetrius was imprisoned and killed, and was forgotten about during Ottoman rule until excavations after the fire in 1917. Since 1988 it has been an exhibition space, replete with sculptures, capitals, vessels and closure slabs from the early, middle and late-Byzantine period discovered during digs.
4. Aristotelous Square
As good a place as any to begin a walking tour in Thessaloniki, Aristotelous Square is on the city’s waterfront at Nikis Avenue.
This splendid plaza was conceived by the French architect Ernest Hébrard in 1918 although it would be a few decades before the square was edged by its current mansion blocks, which are now all listed buildings.
Almost all of Thessaloniki’s public celebrations (Christmas and New Year), as well as cultural and political events and rallies are held on Aristotelous Square.
Several former Prime Ministers of Greece have given speeches here, including Andreas Papandreou and later his son George Papandreou.
On the northeast side, the Olympion Theatre Cinema hosts the Thessaloniki International Film Festival every March.
When the skies are clear you can stand on the square and see all the way to the Olympus Massif, some 100 kilometres to the southwest.
Behind the ferry port, a brief walk from Aristotelous Square is the historic district of Ladadika, with colourfully painted houses, workshops and warehouses on cobblestone streets with restaurant tables.
One of the best places to go out in Thessaloniki, Ladadika used to be a chaotic merchant district, settled by many of the city’s Sephardic Jews: The name “Ladadika” comes from the shops that used to sell olive oil and olive oil products in the quarter.
During the wars in the 20th century the quarter became a cosmopolitan red light district, crawling with spies, and with businesses and clientele from all over the world.
After a few decades of decline the quarter’s interwar architecture was restored in the 90s and 2000s.
Ladadika has come to the fore as a nightlife area once more, with “ouzeri” (taverns), Greek restaurants, diverse international eateries and a surplus of bars.
6. Museum of Byzantine Culture
In 11 galleries this extraordinary museum maps the history of the Byzantine Empire with pieces collected from around Macedonia . These come from all periods, from the empire’s foundation by Constantine in the 4th century and the introduction of Christianity as the state religion, to its demise at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.
In the museum’s collection are manuscripts, wooden icons, jewellery, fabrics going back to the 4th century, seals, mosaics, wall paintings, statues, early printed books and modern paintings inspired by Byzantine art.
There are also some staggering examples of stonemasonry, like inscribed stones and arches and piers from churches.
At the turn of the 4th century Roman Emperor Galerius ordered a rotunda and connecting arch, an ensemble that joined his palace to an imperial precinct at the crossing point of the city’s main axes.
This new imperial precinct was constructed as a new administrative base after the foundation of the Tetrarchy, when the Roman empire was split into four separate kingdoms, making Thessaloniki a new capital.
The UNESCO-listed Rotunda is a mesmerising space, with a dome 30 metres above the floor that was once pierced with an oculus like the Pantheon in Rome.
The building has been used as a pagan temple, Christian church and was a mosque throughout the Ottoman period (a minaret is still standing outside). On the walls are newly restored palaeo-Christian mosaics from the 5th century AD.
8. Arch of Galerius
On Egnatia & Dimitrios Gounari Street, the Arch of Galerius was raised to celebrate Galerius’ victory over the Sassanid Persians and conquest of the city of Ctesiphon.
The monument was an eight-pillared gateway with a triple arch that was coated in brick and then sculpted marble panels.
More than 1,700 years later you’ll be awed by the size of the main portal, 12.5 metres in height and more than 10 metres wide.
Although most of the marble panels have been lost, the remaining reliefs give you more than enough detail.
In one image you can see Emperor Galerius on horseback, dwarfing his Persian enemies, and in another he is shown offering mercy to his defeated opponents.
Come around to the north pillar of the arch where you can see representations of camels and elephants, adding some geographical context.
9. Hagia Sophia
Today’s Hagia Shophia took on its present architecture as long ago as the 8th century.
It was modelled on its namesake church in Constantinople, and from the capture of Thessaloniki in 1430 right through to its liberation in 1912 Hagia Sophia was a mosque.
The building is a shining piece of Byzantine middle period architecture, despite some of the mishaps to have befallen it, like fires in 1890 and 1917. After the second fire the dome wouldn’t be restored until 1980. This has a mosaic dating from the 9th century depicting the Ascension, with Jesus lifted by two angels and ringed by the 12 Apostles and Mary.
Above the iconostasis is another captivating image, from the 11th century and showing the Madonna with Child.
10. Atatürk Museum
In 1881, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the man who would become the founder and leader of the modern secular Turkish state was born at this three storey house on Apostolou Pavlou Street, now incorporated into the Turkish consulate.
In 1935 Thessaloniki gave the building to the Turkish state to turn into a museum about his life and career.
The house dates to 1870 and is decorated with mostly original furniture and personal belongings like clothing, eating utensils, smoking paraphernalia, crockery as well as photographs from different stages of Atatürk’s life.
You can see the room in which Atatürk was born, and find a pomegranate tree in the courtyard that was planted by his father.
11. Thessaloniki Science Centre Technology Museum
Not far southeast of the city centre is Greece’s foremost science and technology museum.
In the main exhibition halls on the ground floor are 40 interactive stations helping kids get to grips with topics like optics, magnetism, telecommunications, electricity and mechanics , all in fun, unexpected ways.
These are combined with exhibitions about the technological advances made in Ancient Greece and the history of motor transport from 1918 to today, with cars from all eras.
There’s also a digital planetarium, with 150 seats and a 25-metre dome, a three-platform motion simulator theatre and a 200-seat amphitheatre for live demonstrations.
But real secret weapon is the “Cosmotheatre”, projecting high-definition 3D movies about space and celestial bodies on the largest flat screen in Greece.
12. Alexander the Great Monument
Next to a fountain at Nea Parelia is an equestrian statue of Macedonia’s most famous son, part of a development that has regenerated the waterfront.
Thessaloniki was named in the 4th century BC after Thessalonike of Macedon, a half-sister of Alexander, and wife of King Cassander of Macedon.
The monument is six metres high and shows him on Bucephalus, one of antiquity’s most distinguished horses.
Along the promenade beside Alexander are rows of sarissas, the long pikes introduced by Philip II of Macedon and used to great success by Alexander at the Battles of Issus, the Granicus and Gaugamela.
13. Roman Forum
Also known as the Ancient Agora, the centre of public and political life in Roman Thessaloniki was excavated in 1966. The site, developed in two phases in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD is delineated by the streets, Makedonikis Amynis, Olympou, Filippou, Agnostou Stratiotou.
In Roman times the forum was at the intersection of the city’s two main streets, from north to south and east to west, and was just shy of 150 metres long and 100 metres across.
A real thrill is the Cryptoporticus, partially subterranean corridors, most likely used for storage and built into the natural slope.
These will lead you to an underground museum about the Forum, with artefacts and details about the excavation.
There are also remnants of a mint, a set of baths and the Odeon, a restored Roman-era theatre on the east side.
14. Jewish Museum
On Agiou Mina street is a small museum recounting Thessaloniki’s Sephardic heritage, where a Spanish-speaking community flourished for 450 years until the Holocaust.
Jews first settled the city at the end of the 15th century following their expulsion by Spain’s Catholic Monarchs.
Arriving from Western Europe, they brought valuable modern skills like cartography, weapon-making, printing and medical science, thriving in the Ottoman climate of religious tolerance.
In 2020 the museum will move into a brand new, six-storey building, plans for which were unveiled by Benjamin Netanyahyu and Thessoloniki Mayor Yannis Boutaris in 2017. The current modest but interesting gallery has Jewish gravestones, vintage photographs and information boards about key events like the 1943 deportation of 49,000 Jews, of whom fewer than 2,000 would survive.
On high ground at the northeastern side of Thessaloniki’s acropolis is a Byzantine-era fortress that was the city’s main redoubt.
Despite the name “Heptagyrion” the fortress actually has ten towers instead of seven, five to the north and five to the south, all joined together by a wall.
The northern towers are from the 900s, while the southern towers were erected in the 12th century.
From the 15th century the Ottomans simply maintained the existing building, giving it a military purpose until the 1890s when it became a prison, a role it kept until 1989. Restorations are ongoing, but one reason to be here is for the scenery, as Thessaloniki and the Thermaic Gulf look amazing from this spot around sunset.