The jumble of houses in Thessaloniki stretches gently from the sea up to the Acropolis hill. The port city on the Thermaic Gulf is the country’s second largest metropolis after Athens, with 325,000 inhabitants, and yet it stands in complete contrast to its famous capital.
Locals like to refer to their Greek “village of Saloniki”, the capital of Macedonia, one of the largest regions of Greece. Here beats the heart of the very proud and traditional region of northern Greece.
During a tour of the compact city center, Thessaloniki surprises with its diversity. Relics from Byzantine times hide between modern concrete buildings. In the cobblestone streets of the upper city, you will discover Ottoman town houses that recall the bygone days of former occupation.
The wide boulevards by the sea, on the other hand, give you the feeling of being in noble Paris. Here you can stroll as you please.
Thessaloniki also knows how to convince in terms of cuisine. You’ll find cafés, quaint taverns and restaurants on every corner. No wonder, because the almost 100,000 students of the city also want to be supplied.
Tip 1: White Tower of Thessaloniki
The landmark of the city of Thessaloniki is the White Tower. Located directly on the sea, you can see it from any point on the sea. Even from the air, the White Tower is well visible when approaching from the northwest.
The exact epoch when the White Tower was built is not exactly certain. The most probable scenario is that it was built in the Byzantine period during the occupation of Thessaloniki by the Venetians. Thus, the White Tower would have been built between 1423 and 1430.
Throughout its history, the White Tower has been used as a garrison, fortification and prison. The original name of the White Tower has been “Bloody Tower” among the people of Thessaloniki, because prisoners have been tortured and murdered in the tower.
Large parts of the southern and eastern city walls were demolished in 1866. The White Tower is the last remnant of the harbor fortification and up to the “Hagios Dimitrios” street the last remnant of the eastern city wall.
After the annexation of Thessaloniki to Greece in 1912, the “Bloody Tower” was painted white. The new color was supposed to be a sign that the Ottoman rule was now over. Until 1917 the White Tower was surrounded by a lower wall with four smaller towers, these have been removed. The foundations of these walls were excavated between 2007 and 2008 and the visitor has the opportunity to imagine the course of the wall. Today the White Tower is natural stone colored.
The landmark of the city of Thessaloniki has a height of 33 meters and a circumference of 22 meters at the bottom and a diameter of 11 meters in the second part. Today, the White Tower houses a museum that is part of the Byzantine Museum, which deals with the urban history of Thessaloniki.
Tip 2: Vlatades Monastery
The Vlatades Monastery is the only one of the Byzantine monasteries located in the city of Thessaloniki that is still preserved. It is a stauropegic monastery, i.e. directly subordinated to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, located in the upper city just below the Acropolis, and since 1988 it has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage. On the monastery grounds there are several cisterns of the water pipeline coming from the Chortiatis. The monastery has several churches inside and outside the city.
The monastery, probably founded in the middle of the 14th century, was first dedicated to the ruler of the world (Pantokrátor), now it is a transfiguration monastery. After the conquest of the city by the Turks, it may have passed into Islamic hands for a short time. In the Turkish period it was called Cavus Manastir.
The main church of the monastery, the Katholikon, is surrounded by new buildings of the Patriarchal Research Institute, founded in 1968. It is a variant of the cross-domed church, in which the dome resting on an eight-sided tambour rests not on four columns but on the walls of the altar apse and two pilasters in the west, which is already attributed to the previous building. The core building is surrounded on three sides by a gallery, largely built as late as 1801 and 1907, with two chapels in the east. The masonry consists of quarry stone and brick layers in alternation. In 1980/1981 frescoes were discovered in the main room and in the gallery, which are attributed to the time around 1370. The iconostasis dates from the 17th century.
Tip 3: Heptapyrgion
Both Yedi Koule (Turkish) and Heptapyrgion (Eptapyrgion) (Greek) mean “Seven Towers”. The Yedi Koule is located at the northeast end of the Acropolis of Thessaloniki.
Five of the seven towers of the citadel can be traced back to Theodosius I. He is said to have commissioned them when he reinforced the city walls of Thessaloniki around 380 AD.
In the Byzantine period of the Palaiologian dynasty (1262 to 1453), the five towers are rebuilt after they were destroyed by the Crusaders during the capture of Thessaloniki. From the year 1591, the Yedi Koule is used as the seat of the military governor of Thessaloniki. A unit of about 300 men is stationed in the Yedi Koule. In 1646, the complex is rebuilt again. It is probably at this time that the other two towers are built.
The seven towers each have their own names: Water Tower, Grain Tower, Hidden Tower, Pristine Tower, Prison Tower, Ammunition Tower and Lantern Tower.
At the end of the 19th century the citadel is no longer needed and around 1895 it is converted into a prison. During this period, many construction activities were made in and around the Yedi Koule. Even after the annexation of Thessaloniki to Greece, the prison has continued to be used. The prison was used by the prisoners of Thessaloniki, regardless of the crime and their gender. Even the political prisoners of the Metaxa government, of the civil war and also of the military junta from 1967 to 1974 have been incarcerated in Yedi Koule.
The prison has been closed since 1989 and the entire site is under archaeological survey. The Yedi Koule is now open to the public. All that remains of the prison are countless Rempetiko songs that sing of the imprisonment in Yedi Koule.
Tip 4: Arch of Galerius
The largest Roman excavation site in Thessaloniki is closely connected with the name of Galerius. Galerius (about 250 A.D. to 311) was appointed Caesar in the Roman tetrarchy in 293, which virtually made him co-emperor over the eastern part of the empire. From 305 until his death in 311, Galerius is Augustus of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The split into Eastern and Western Roman Empire will follow only under Constantine I years later.
Galerius makes Thessaloniki his residence city. In his honor a triumphal arch is built in Thessaloniki, which is supposed to show his victory against the Persians under their king Narses. The triumphal arch of Galerius is also called Kamara by the Thessalonians. Three columns of the triumphal arch are still preserved today. Originally it was a double parallel arch that supported a dome. Today’s triumphal arch is 12m high and 30m wide.
In the east-west direction the ancient Via Egnatia ran. The Via Egnatia connected the eastern part of the Empire with the Roman homeland in Italy. Even today, the road, which now runs next to the Triumphal Arch, is called Egnatia at this section of the road.
In Roman times, if you followed the inside of the triumphal arch, you would reach the palace of Galerius to the south and his mausoleum to the north.
The palace of Galerius has not yet been completely excavated. In the meantime, large sections have been opened to the public. The palace was built between 297 and 307 AD by Galerius. Today in the palace can be seen an octagon, an atrium with surrounding columns, the throne room, an assembly hall (King’s Hall), the room of the palace guard, fountains, sleeping chambers and sacral rooms. The total area of the palace is about 300 m wide and 200 m long. Finds from the palace are in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and in the Louvre in Paris.
Tip 5: Basilica Hagia Sophia
The wonderful basilica Hagia Sophia is probably the most famous building of Thessaloniki and rightly so: the magnificent Church of Holy Wisdom, as it is also called, was built in its present form already in the 7th century AD. However, it is based on even older foundations of a church from the early 4th century.
While the exterior of the Hagia Sophia is not at all impressive, its interior makes up for it several times over: the entire interior is covered with detailed paintings that perfectly accentuate the magnificent structures and make the basilica one of the most beautiful in the world.