Thessaloniki, or lovingly called Salonika by its citizens, is second largest city of Greece, and the capital, chief port and commercial center of Macedonia—the kingdom of Alexander the Great.
Its importance is such that, Greeks often refer it as the country's ‘co-capital’. Its treasures of surviving monuments have made the city a living museum of Byzantine art.
The city stretches over 12 km in a bowl formed by low hills facing a bay. The city stands at the head of the Thermaic Gulf. It was founded in 315 BC by Kassandros, King of Macedonia, and was named after his wife, Thessaloniki, sister of Alexander the Great. Greece covers 130,000 sq km and is located in the southeastern portion of Europe. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the south, the Ionian Sea on the west, the Aegean Sea on the east, and the north by Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Macedonia (formerly Yugoslavia). The country also includes a great number of islands.
Here, the influence of the east is more pronounced, not just in the food, but also in the relaxed lifestyle. Thessaloniki is a big city with an almost college town feel. The city's strategic location on the Thermaic Gulf ensures brisk trade between Greece and the Balkans. The Roman emperor Galerius even made it the imperial capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire.
The old town was surrounded by strong walls that are among the finest surviving examples of city fortification that exist in the world today.
Thessaloniki was first established in 316 BC by Kassandros who named it after his wife, Thessaloniki, half sister of Alexander the Great. The name literally means ‘Victory over Thessaly’. The Apostle Paul first brought the message of Christianity here in 50 AD and in 303 AD, Demetrius, a Roman officer died here in martyrdom becoming the holy patron of the city.
After Constantinople, Thessaloniki was the next most important city of the Byzantine Empire, and even today abounds with magnificent examples of Byzantine art and architecture. In the 15th century, the city became a refuge for Jews exiled from Spain until they were sent to the concentration camps during the Nazi occupation.
Thessaloniki became a part of the modern Greece in 1913, but was burned in 1917 which left around 70,000 people homeless and added to this mix was the influx of refugees from Asia Minor. The city came under a lot of pressure till it was rebuilt in the 1920s.
Modern day Thessaloniki is a lively city bustling with life and movement. Old houses, ancient structures and monuments and neoclassical buildings, stand alongside modern architecture. It is the place to experience the old and the new at the same time!
The Arch and Tomb of Galerius, or more commonly known as the ‘Kamara’, is an ornate monument, made with a red colored stone, made to celebrate Galerius’ victory over the Persians in 297 AD. The archway was built in 305 AD and reliefs were sculpted depicting scenes from the battle. The Upper Town or 'Ano Poli', with its beautiful wooden houses overhanging the winding streets is a reminder of the Ottoman Thessaloniki. This area also contains some of the city's oldest and most important churches.
Other interesting sites are the Roman market and theatre, Roman baths, the Kyvernion (former residence of the King and Queen of Greece), and the Nymphaion, a monopteral building. If you have some time to spare, do not miss the opportunity to visit Vergina, just 48 km from the city. It was the first capital of Macedonia and has extensive ruins including the tomb of Phillip and the summer palace of King Antigonas Gonatas.
There are numerous churches to visit, if not for religious or spiritual purposes, then for their historical and aesthetical significance.
The Rotonda, or the Church of Aghios Georgios, is a domed building from the 4th century AD, which served as a Mausoleum for Emperor Galerius, and is now the church of Saint George. During the Turkish occupation it used to be a mosque and the minaret still stands as a reminder. The church is built upon former Roman and Greek pagan ruins.
The Church of Ossios David built in the late 5th century AD, is the chapel of the Latomos Convent, an early Christian church that still stands in the city’s Turkish quarter.
The church of Agios Dimitrios , was completely rebuilt in 1948 after it had been destroyed by fire. It is the most important church in the city, lying above the remains of the agora and the Roman Forum. It has three side-chapels, a museum, and underground catacombs that was once Saint Demetrios' (the city’s patron saint) imprisonment chamber.
Some other churches that should be on every visitor’s list are the Crypt where St Demetrios was imprisoned, tortured and buried; Agia Sofia from the 8th century is a replica of the original in Constantinople; Panagia Halkeon , a cruciform church built in 1028 AD; Agia Ekaterini is a well preserved 13th century structure with magnificent frescoes; the Agfi Apostoli of the 14th century during the time of the Byzantine Pateologos imperial dynasty retains its olden splendor externally, and in its interiors as well; the Agios Nikolaos Orfanos is a 14th century church rich with frescoes; and the Profitis Ilias, built in 1360 upon the ruins of a Byzantine palace by the monk Makarios Houmnos.
The White Tower Museum takes you through the history and art of Byzantine Thessaloniki between 300 and 1430 AD. The White Tower of Thessaloniki (Lefkos Pyrgos) has been known by many names and is now home to the Museum of Byzantine Cultures. It was constructed in the 15th century and served as a defensive bulwark, an infamous prison, and even as a place of execution because of which it was also called the Bloody Tower! It has now been put to better use as a home to a collection of sculptures, frescoes, and other interesting artifacts that portray the history and culture of the city. The view from the top is stupendous.
The city has many more museums to offer for people who want to dig deeper into the essence of the city. The Archaeology Museum near the White Tower has great displays of sculpture from the archaic, classical and Roman periods; the museum of Ethnological and Popular Art displaying costumes and objects of the last 250 years of Greek national life and culture; the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle has exhibits from the years of local national resistance; the Gallery of Fine Arts showcases important works of Greek and foreign painters; and the Museum of Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey who was born in Thessaloniki.
The waterfront promenade of Nikis Avenue that runs from the White Tower of Thessaloniki is a perfect place for a romantic stroll and also has many shops and cafes in case you want to look around.
The Aristotelous Square, extending from Nikis Avenue on the waterfront is not at all a square! It is in fact shaped like a bottle and lined with tall archondika (mansions) that have now been converted to shops and hotels, and a luxurious park lies at the end.
If you have a few days to spare you could even get out of Thessaloniki. Visit Pella, the birthplace of Alexander where you can laze on the beaches or wander around the city.
Mount Athos or Agio Oros is the monastic center of the Greek Orthodox Church. Women are not allowed within its vicinity but the men who do go there are offered exotic views of monasteries, caves that still house hermits and many simple houses or kelions that house the monks. Some churches here have enormous amounts of gold donated by pilgrims. Here you will also find some pristine virgin forests, luxuriously manicured gardens and fauna found nowhere but the Holy Mountain. The seashore here is one of the most beautiful in the Aegean but rarely used for swimming since monks are the principal residents here and are not in the habit of going to the beach for a day of relaxation!
If you travel south of Thessaloniki, you will come to the peninsula of Halidiki which boasts of some of the finest beaches in all of Greece. It was at one time, the favorite destination of Germans. The long sandy stretches, the beautiful hotels and the authentic Greek life in the villages are what attract thousands of visitors here every year. And if you are not a beach person, there are still reasons to come here. Halidiki is not only known for its amazing beaches but also for its mountains, valleys and the splendid selection of wildflowers in the spring.
Greeks love to eat and it is evident in the variety of dishes they have. In the summers, many Greeks prefer to eat at tavernas (informal restaurants) in the cool of the late evening. Go for a meal in one of the many downtown ouzo restaurants (ouzeri). An Ouzeri is an eating and drinking establishment that specializes in serving Ouzo, an aperitif distilled from grape stems flavored with anise seed, and a wide range of mezethes (little plates of foods that accompany Ouzo, wines, and other spirits). Also try out some retsina while you are here. It is a wine flavored with resin as a preservative.
Start your day with some snack like Bougatsa pies with cream or cheese filling. Go on to have the soutzoukakia, minced meat pellets either grilled or in tomato and cumin sauce—a meat lover’s delight.
The country’s cuisine has been influenced by Turkish rule, evident by the popularity of dishes such as souvlaki (skewered meat), and doner kebab (spit-roasted meat).
Boiled vegetables and politiki (a combination of shredded cabbage and pickles) are great winter salads, and baked quince is a great winter dessert.
The OTE Tower, at the center of the Thessaloniki Expo Center, is a revolving restaurant that offers great views of the city with some excellent food.
The Thessaloniki International Trade Fair dates back to 1926 and is hosted every September at the 180,000 sq m Thessaloniki International Exhibition Center, in the heart of the city, exhibiting Greek and foreign products of every description.
The Thessaloniki International Film Festival has become the Balkans' primary showcase for the work of new and emerging filmmakers, as well as the leading film festival in the region.
The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, launched in 1999, focuses on documentaries that explore the social and cultural developments in the world.
The Thessaloniki International Festival of Photography takes place from February to mid-April of every year with exhibitions and events hosted in a variety of venues around Thessaloniki.
Dimitria, the three month long festival of cultural events started in 1966, is held every September through December. Named after Aghios Dimitrios (St. Demetrius), it has become an institution for the city and includes musical, theatrical, dance events, street happenings and exhibitions.
The Video Dance Festival started a dance film festival, but now includes more experiments on movement and the moving image.
The city is served by Macedonia International Airport for both International and Domestic flights. It is just 16 km outside Thessaloniki.
Rail services link Thessaloniki with, Athens and the towns of Macedonia and Thrace. The city is a major railway hub for the Balkans
Coaches operate between Thessaloniki and some major cities.
Public transport in Thessaloniki is currently served only by buses and if you prefer taxi cabs. A subway system is under works.
Euro, formerly Drachma. 1 Euro=100 cents
The climate in Thessaloniki is Mediterranean, and between November and March, the winter season, rains can be expected. In general is warmer in the south than the north, but if you travel into more mountainous areas nearby the temperature is much cooler.
The native language is Greek although some speak English