Sightseeing in Thessaloniki
There are few cities that so effortlessly unite the centuries. In Thessaloniki’s compact, cosmopolitan center, you’ll see Byzantine glories – including 15 UNESCO World Heritage monuments – a Roman Agora, Ottoman mosques and hammams, and Belle Epoque glamour. Among the many sites, here are some of the unmissable highlights.
The Galerian Complex
Emperor Galerius built Thessaloniki’s oldest standing building, the Rotonda. You can’t miss it – its unbroken, soaring space 30 meters in height is roughly two thirds the size of Rome’s Pantheon, and is adorned with magnificent mosaics, recently restored. As you descend from here towards the sea, you’ll pass the Kamara – an ornate triumphal arch commemorating victory over the Persians. Across Egnatia street the complex continues, ending in the excavation of a palace and octagon. The past and the present mingle harmoniously in Thessaloniki: these ancient monuments are now the backdrop for the lively student quarter.
The White Tower
This 15th century tower located on the seafront is landmark, meeting point, and museum. Now it is a beloved symbol of the city, but this was not always the case; the tower has a complex history. The White Tower was once the Tower of the Janissaries – the Ottoman elite infantry. Then it became a prison, taking the name the Tower of Blood. Wanting to revamp and modernize their image, the Ottomans then had it painted white, by a prisoner in exchange for his freedom. Over the years it has shed the vestiges of dark memory. This fascinating space now holds an atmospheric museum telling the story of the whole of Thessaloniki, spread out over several floors – a free audio guide in English narrates the tale. On top, revel in the views and take some photos while you orient yourself – the Music Hall and the coast of the elegant Kalamaria suburbs is to the east, and the harbor and historic center are to the west.
The church of Thessaloniki’s Patron Saint is one of the UNESCO World Heritage monuments of the city. Thessaloniki was liberated from Ottoman rule on the feast day of Agios Dimitrios – October 26th – in 1912. This large five-aisled basilica is a site of pilgrimage for many Orthodox Christians, and is crucial to the spiritual and cultural identity of many of Thessaloniki’s citizens. The original church dated to the 5th century, and after a fire a larger church was built on the same site in the 7th century. After burning again in the great fire of 1917, it remained in ruins for decades until being restored after WWII. Many original frescoes are visible, and the columns – which come in a great variety – are in part taken from previous structures, to wonderful effect. The church is built on what, according to oral tradition, was the site of Agios Dimitrios’ martyrdom. The former Roman Bathhouse is now the Crypt, and very much worth visiting.