Capital of Greek Macedonia, Thessaloniki is a melting pot like no other in Greece. Influenced along the centuries by the Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, visiting this modern and unknown Mediterranean city will be like travelling back in time through some of the most influential cultures of history.
Here is the first part of my 2-day itinerary of Thessaloniki, a walk from the port to the White Tower visiting all the highlights that the lower town has to offer!
how to Visit Thessaloniki
I spent a total of 4 days in Thessaloniki, although I used two of those days to take a day trip to explore Macedonia. The first one was a tour to Pella & Vergina, a day back in history to the Macedonian Kingdom of Alexander the Great. I also took a second tour to Meteora to contemplate the beautiful monasteries.
I had two full days in the city itself, which I think were enough to visit all the highlights at a relaxed pace. All monuments are located in a radius of 2km, so you can easily walk from one place to another.
Thessaloniki has two differentiated areas: the lower town, located along the seafront; and the upper town, where you can find the fortress as well as some incredible views of the city. I used this same morphology to organise my trip, visiting the lower town first and the upper town the next day. See here my post for my second day in Thessaloniki, when I visited the Roman ruins and the Ano Poli or upper town.
In terms of transportation, I reached Thessaloniki through Makedonia Airport. Located only 20km south from the city centre, you can easily catch buses number 45, X1 or N1 (night service), with stops all over town. Buses depart every 30 minutes and have a fare of only €2. It takes 40 to 50 minutes to reach Thessaloniki by bus.
If you decide to take a taxi, you’ll be in Thessaloniki in only 20 minutes. You should expect to pay €20 to €25 for a taxi ride depending on where in town you’re getting off.
If you’re arriving in Thessaloniki by train or bus, either from other cities in Greek or a neighbouring country, both stations are located together approximately 2km west from the city centre. You may be able to reach your hotel on foot from the train/bus, but if you decide to get a taxi, a ride shouldn’t cost more than €5 to €8.
History of Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedonia. The city obtained its name from Thessaloniki, Cassander’s wife and Alexander the Great half'-sister. It means “victory of the Thessalians” in commemoration of the victory of Phillip II, Alexander’s father, over the Phocians with the help of the Thessalian army.
Thessaloniki soon became an important city thanks to its privileged location. After the Roman conquest of Greece in the 2nd century BC, it became one of the four Roman districts of Macedonia.
The city became the second largest of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople became the capital. In spite of an earthquake that damaged the Roman market and buildings in 620 AD, as well as multiple attacks by the Crusaders during the 13th century, Thessaloniki always maintained a large population and booming economy.
During the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire was no longer able to protect the city from the attacks of the Ottoman Empire and decided to sell it to the Venetians. However, the Ottomans still managed to occupy Thessaloniki in 1430. The occupation would last for over 500 years, during which multiple of the mosques and baths that still survive today were built. The population continued to increase during this time, with Muslims, Orthodox Greeks and Jews living together.
It wasn’t after the First Balkan War in 1912 that Thessaloniki was set free from the Ottoman Empire. However, the following years wouldn’t be easy for Thessaloniki, as two thirds of the city were destroyed by the Great Fire of 1917.
When the Nazi troops invaded the city in 1941, they not only destroyed most the city, but they also killed a big part of the Jewish population, destroying a community that had been an essential part of Thessaloniki for centuries. The occupation lasted until 1944.
After the war, the city was rebuilt, becoming a modern Mediterranean city with a thriving economy. In 1988, the early Christian and Byzantine monuments of the city were declared a UNESCO Heritage site and Thessaloniki was named European City of Culture in 1997.
Thessaloniki: Day 1
I landed early in the morning in an extremely busy Thessaloniki Makedonia airport. The queues for immigration were extremely long and with only two officers working, it took me almost one hour before I could get a taxi to drop my stuff at the hotel.
As soon as I left my luggage and freshened-up, I headed down towards the port and walked for about 15 minutes until I reached Aristotelous Square, the main square of Thessaloniki.
Built in 1918 by the French architect Ernest Hébrand, most of the buildings that we see today were built only in the 50s. The square was planned after the Great Fire that destroyed two-thirds of Thessaloniki in 1917. Contrary to most European cities, Thessaloniki didn't have a square, as these constructions weren’t that common in most Ottoman cities.
Today, Aristotelous Square is one of the symbols of Thessaloniki due to its relevance in many sociopolitical events, from political speeches and demonstrations to Christmas and New Year events.
On one of the sides of Aristotelous Square, you will find Kapani Market.
Running since the Ottoman times, this is one of the most traditional markets of the city, where you will be able to find all types of local food. There are also stalls selling utensils, clothes or souvenirs at very economical prices.
As you reach the upper part of Aristotelous Square, on the left-hand side you will spot the Church of Panagia Chalkeon.
As the church was built exclusively with bricks, it is also known as the “Red Church”. An arcosolium is formed in the northern wall of the church and is believed to be the founder’s tomb. Several remnants of the vivid wall frescoes have survived, dating back to the 11th and 14th century.
During the Ottoman period, the church was converted into a mosque named Kazancilar (Mosque of the Cauldron Merchants). Coppersmith and merchant shops continue to dominate the region to this day.
On the other side of the street stands Bey Hamam. This public bath was constructed by Sultan Murad II in 1436 or 1444 at the location where there may have been a complex of imperial baths during the Roman era.
The uneven rectangular shape of the double Ottoman bath measuring 1,232 square meters is covered by a roof composed of small domes, some of which were removed at a later time. The men and women’s bath sections are lined up towards the dressing room where the men’s large octagonal section stands out.
If you continue walking east Egnatia street, you’ll come into view with Agia Sophia Church on the right-hand side. It was built on the ruins of an early Christian five-aisle basilica between the 7th and the middle of the 8th century. Entrance is free of charge.
The “Great Church” was the cathedral church of Thessaloniki until 1524, when it was converted into a mosque of the same name. The church was restored to Christian worship after 1912. It is a domed Greek cross basilica with an ambulatory, a monument reflecting the architectural tradition of Constantinople. The mosaics of the church attest to the masterful level of art in Thessaloniki.
The mosaics in the arch of the sanctuary date between 780-788 AD, the enthroned Virgin Mary bearing the Holy Child feature in the apse dates in the middle of the 9th century and the brilliant composition of the Ascension of Christ in the dome dates circa 885 AD. The frescoes depicting saints on the western wall of the narthex date back to the 11th century.
The building was severely restored after the devastating fire of 1890 and the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917.
Walking down towards the seafront, on the left-hand side, you’ll find the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Gregory Palamas. This metropolitan cathedral of Thessaloniki was built between 1891 and 1914 on the premises of the church of Saint Dimitrios, which was the metropolis of the city from the 16th century until it was destroyed by a fire in 1890.
It is the first post-Byzantine church with a dome in Thessaloniki and its architectural style combines Byzantine, Neoclassical and Neo-Romanesque elements.
Crowning the long promenade along the sea stands the White Tower, the best-known monument of the city. It came to be the symbol of Thessaloniki by coincidence, was built in the late 15th century on the site of an older Byzantine tower, where the eastern wall and the sea wall met.
The White Tower is 33.9 meters high and comprises a ground floor and six storeys with a turret at the top. Up until the early 20th century, the tower was surrounded by a low octagonal wall, which was probably built in 15235/36; three of the corners were reinforced with smaller towers.
The tower has had many names: “Lion’s Tower” in the 16th century, “The Fortress of Kalamaria” tin the 18th century, the “Janissary Tower” and the “Blood Tower” in the 19th century, since it served as a prison and a place of execution for long-term convicts. Its current name came to be in 1890 when the tower was whitewashed by a convict in exchange for his freedom.
After the liberation of Thessaloniki in 1912 and its unification with the Greek state, the White Tower has hosted the city’s air defence, the meteorological laboratory of Aristotle University and various Sea Scout groups.
If you decide to access the tower and climb to the top, there is an entrance fee of €8 (from April to November) or €4 (from November to April). Inside, you can visit an exhibition presenting the history of Thessaloniki from its founding to the modern era.
Just behind the tower, a few meters further down the promenade, you can see an equestrian statue of the most emblematic Greek character: Alexander the Great.
Born in Pella in 356, he became the king of the ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedonia after the assassination of his father Phillip II. He expanded his kingdom and the Hellenistic culture from his native Greece all the way to India, ruling one of the greatest empires that ever existed.
If you want to learn more about Alexander the Great, I highly recommend the day tour to Pella and Vergina from Thessaloniki with Ammon Express.
Visiting the lower town will keep you busy for pretty much the entire day, but if you still have some free time, I’d recommend you to pop in by the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. Tickets have a cost of €8. European students can access for free, so I didn’t have to pay anything during my visit.
Housed in a modern building designed in 1962 by Patroklos Karantinos, it houses a huge collection of the Prehistoric, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman period, covering the history of not only Thessaloniki but the entire region of Macedonia.
Although I didn’t find the exhibition as interesting as those in Pella and Vergina, it is still worth a visit to gain a bigger insight into the history of Thessaloniki.
The lower town and surrounding areas, expanding from the port all the way to the White Tower, contain some of the main monuments and highlights that Thessaloniki had to offer, making it the best start point for a 2-day visit.
Next day, I would visit some of the Roman remains of the city before climbing all the way up to the upper town to visit the fortress. This neighbourhood, which still preserves a very authentic character as it wasn’t affected by the Great Fire of 1917, offers some of the best panoramic views of Thessaloniki!
All opinions are my own.