When you think about Greece as a holiday destination its fabulous islands instantly spring to mind. Mainland Greece however, is equally beautiful with breathtaking scenery, wonderful beaches and culture on an epic scale, all waiting to be discovered. Greece’s second city Thessaloniki, capital of the region of Greek Macedonia is an absolute gem of a city which has a rich history, is bursting with culture and has a wealth of attractions on offer. I was lucky enough to spend four years living in Thessaloniki and was able to discover lots of little side streets and amazing buildings which were slightly off the beaten track. It is a sprawling city with so much historical interest as well as being a vibrant university city with trendy bars and cafes, as well as fabulous shops. There are so many reasons to visit this beautiful city and far too many to explore in one article, so I will highlight a few of the best things to do and see here.
Thessaloniki is situated in the north of Greece on the Thermaikos Gulf in Central Macedonia, 504 km north of Athens. This port city, the second largest city in Greece is also known as Salonica and has a population of just over 385,000 people, although the larger Thessaloniki Metropolitan Area is in excess of one million people and until 2011 was made up of 13 municipalities, although this has now been reduced to 6 self-governing municipalities.
The history of the city is long, dating back to 315 BC when it was founded by King Cassander of Macedon, who named the city after his wife, the Greek princess Thessaloniki, half sister of Alexander The Great and the daughter of King Philip II of Macedon. Its ideal geographical location paved the way to it fast becoming a significant commercial centre and eventually becoming Byzantium’s second city after Constantinople.
In 1430 it was captured by the Ottomans, although it continued to grow in significance as a trading hub. During the 15th and 16th centuries the city became a haven for Sephardic Jews who immigrated to the city following their exile from Spain, making Thessaloniki the largest centre in Europe of Sephardic Jews. They enjoyed relative freedom and were highly influential in the commercial and industrial development of the city, creating a community which thrived and grew significantly until the Great Thessaloniki Fire in 1917 which burned a large part of the city centre and left 50,000 Jews homeless. After having lost both their homes and their livelihoods, many of the Jewish community emigrated to Palestine, America and Paris. Disaster struck hard for the Jews during the Second World war when 86% of Thessaloniki’s jews were deported and perished in the concentration camps. Out of a total of 77,377, only 10, 226 survived the Holocaust. The city of Thessaloniki lost not just a huge number of its citizens but also a community that had enriched the city with its beauty and culture, leaving a legacy that is evident to this day.
With its rich Jewish history in mind, I would suggest that one of the first places you visit during your stay is the fabulous part of the city known as ‘Ladadika’, which was the heart of the old Jewish neighbourhood. Located next to the port in this historic city, it is” the” place for entertainment and is one of the most popular areas of the city. Ladadika is always buzzing with activity. Here you can explore the narrow, cobbled streets which are lined with fantastic restaurants, cafes and bars. Whether you want a morning coffee or a fabulous evening meal, you will find it here. If you want to soak up some of the city’s rich culture you will also find two excellent museums in this district. The Museum of Ancient, Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Musical Instruments, which houses a collection of more than 200 instruments, together with figurines and other artefacts which explain their use and also The Jewish Museum. This is located in one of the few Jewish structures which survived the devastating fire of 1917 and the collection is comprised of photographic exhibitions as well as rare historical artefacts.
Visit Aristotelis Square
Very close to Ladadika and moving up to the centre of the city is Aristotelis Square, the main city square. This is a truly magnificent focal point and one of the largest squares in Greece. Its design came about following the fire of 1917 and the massive amount of destruction which it caused. It resulted in a lot of rebuilding, something which the Prime Minister would not give the go-ahead for until proper plans for the city had been drawn up. The city had grown considerably during the Ottoman rule but without preplanned architectural design, hence the streets were narrow and there were no formal squares. Ernest Hébrard was commissioned by the then Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos to develop a new town plan. He devised a modern design for the city which replaced the medieval features with a modern European style, incorporating large squares into the city and imposing facades. This square is such an integral part of the city. As well as being a popular meeting place for residents, it is also the location of choice for large-scale events such as rallies, festivals and other celebrations. Located on the waterfront, it commands stunning views of the sea as well as the city’s Byzantine walls and the upper part of the city. It is surrounded by beautiful neo-classical architecture, the two quarter circle sides of the square being the location of two of the cities most famous buildings. On one side is the fabulous 5 star Electra Palace Hotel and on the other is the Olympian Theater Cinema, which is the venue for the city’s annual International Film Festival. There are many cafes and bars in this square with lots of outdoor seating and it is the perfect place to stop for a while and enjoy the views.
Walk Along The Waterfront and Visit The White Tower
One of the most notable things about Thessaloniki is its long waterfront. The seashore stretches for 5 km and is a favourite walking spot for residents and visitors alike. If you are so inclined there is also a 5km cycle path if you prefer to cycle along the route. One of the best times of day to enjoy it is about an hour or so before sunset. This will give you enough time to get to the end to see the sunset over the Thermaikos Gulf. The waterfront is also home to the city’s most iconic image – The White Tower or (Lefkos Pyrgos) as it is known in Greece. This symbol of the city has a long history. Built as a defensive fortification in the 15th century it was used as a fort and then later as a prison. Today it is a museum and displays a permanent exhibition covering the history of the city, highlighting the key events which have shaped it over the years and right up to the modern city of today.
Take A Tour of Ano Poli
If you want to enjoy the city like a local then Thessaloniki’s Old Town (Ano Poli), otherwise known as Upper Town is a fantastic place to visit. Situated to the north of the city centre, it is easily accessible by bus or taxi or if you enjoy a walk by foot. This is a world away from the modern city and it feels as if time has quite literally stood still when you get up here. Here the city’s Byzantine history is clearly evident. This former Ottoman quarter was once home to many of the Jewish residents. It was the only part of the city to survive the fire of 1917 and is the site of the city’s main fortress. There are many incredible places to visit in this part of the city.
The Byzantine Walls or (Kastra) as they are known locally, which surrounded the city are a very imposing sight and although largely destroyed, the walls which still stand are fortunately well-preserved. They date back to 315 BC and can be seen at the Acropolis, which houses the Castle of Thessaloniki, also known as Heptapyrgion (Greek) or Yedi Kule (Turkish), meaning seven towers. This was built on the site of the ancient acropolis on top of a hill above Ano Poli. From here you can enjoy amazing views of the city below. Just near the castle is Vlatadon Monastery, which is the only surviving monastery of the Byzantine era. It is an incredible building and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I think this is the most beautiful part of the city to enjoy a walk. The streets are narrow, cobbled, very steep and lined with characterful stone houses. There are also a number of traditional Greek tavernas here which serve delicious food and it is a great place to sit and enjoy a coffee and escape the hustle and bustle of the city below. Tsinari is one of the most well-known and charming neighbourhoods here and is a great place for eating out. It is such an incredibly picturesque part of the city and a place that you really shouldn’t miss out on seeing.
When it comes to sightseeing in Thessaloniki, there are simply so many things to see. You’ll be amazed at how many ancient monuments and ruins still stand proud all over the city. Other notable sites include the Arch of Galerius (Kamara), an outstanding Roman monument built in 298 AD in honour of the Roman Emperor Galerius to commemorate his victory over the Persians. You will find this at the top of Egnatia and it is definitely worth the short walk, being one of the city’s most popular destinations. Nearby is the Rotunda, also Known as Agios Georgios. This is the oldest monument in Thessaloniki. Built as Roman mausoleum, it later became a Christian church. It is a huge, round building with Thessaloniki’s only surviving minaret standing outside of it and was also built by Emperor Galerius.
No matter where you go in the city, there is some reminder of its glorious history. It is a fascinating place to discover. A buzzing metropolis which delights both its citizens and its visitors and a place you will definitely want to visit again.