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.

Agios Dimitrios

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.

Culture & Art

Thessaloniki has an astonishing number of museums for a city of its size. These span every aspect and era of culture, from the city’s ancient past to the avant-garde art of the contemporary world.

The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki

An astonishing collection – with many of the exquisite findings coming from the immediate area – narrate the engaging story of ancient Thessaloniki with style. With the complete and well-written explanations, it’s easy to imagine the fascinating world of the past. A section on spirituality introduces us to the gods who shaped the lives of the ancient Thessalonians. The brutality and enthralling pageantry of the Pythian games unfolded before crowds of thousands at the Hippodrome – once just steps from the museum where there is now a street of the same name. Mosaics and precious objects describe the splendor of daily life of the city for the well off. You will leave with a vivid understanding of the city that will enhance your stay.

The Cinema Museum of Thessaloniki

The elegant former warehouses of the harbor have been repurposed into spaces for culture. Thessaloniki is a city of Cinephiles, as the annual international Film Festival attests. Many visitors to Greece do not know that the nation has an impressive history in cinema. At this marvelous museum, the entire history of Greek Cinema unfolds from the earliest moving pictures of the pioneering Manakis brothers through the golden age of Greek cinema in the 1950s and ‘60s to the avant-garde works of the world famous Theo Angelopoulos and the contemporary directors of today. The engaging exhibits, including many clips, are English-friendly, intended for an international audience.

The Costakis Collection at the MOMus Museum of Modern Art

Did you know that Thessaloniki is home to one of the finest collections of Russian Avant-Garde art in the world? Thanks to the vision and dedication of George Costakis – a self-taught man of refined tastes and a lover of art – hundreds of great works were saved from destruction. A consular employee living in Moscow in the mid-20th century, he was transformed by his first viewing of avant-garde works, and became not just a serious collector, but a champion of the avant garde – “bringing the avant-garde to life as Schliemann unearthed Troy.”  In Moscow of the 1960s, there were two places foreign visitors wanted to see – Red Square, and George Costakis’ living room. Come see what all the excitement was about – the Costakis collection is mesmerizing.