Greece’s second largest city is a medley of heritage from the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans – boasting a stunning five-kilometer promenade and an ideal launchpad for your Greek odyssey. It’s a city where hours slip by over cups of chilled coffee, Ladadika’s boisterous parties reverberate into the night, and cozy traditional taverns offer warm refuge. Felines lounge contentedly on every corner, mirroring the relaxed, satisfied attitudes of the locals.
However, travelers aren’t lured to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, by the prospect of sunbathing or the Aegean Sea’s turquoise allure. That’s more the surrounding region’s purview. Visitors flock here to immerse themselves in a simmering cauldron of cultures and experience the real “hilara” (χαλαρά) – the word locals use to depict their lifestyle – leisurely, relaxed, and brimming with easy-going hospitality and joviality. Let’s take you through Thessaloniki’s historical wonders, enlighten you on how to surprise Greeks with a cup of tea, tell you where to get the city’s finest coffee, and reveal the best spots for cat photography.
To comprehend the locals’ relaxed, unhurried rhythm, it’s essential to know the phrase “siga-siga” (σίγα-σίγα), translating to “step by step, gradually, without rush.” The metro hasn’t opened in 20 years? — “siga-siga.” You arrived at a tavern only to find the owner took an unplanned day off? — “siga-siga.” Been waiting for the bus for 30 minutes already? — The same response. This approach may seem borderline negligent to the uninitiated, but perhaps this easy-going embrace of life without hurry allows Greeks to maintain their affable nature and live well into their 80s and beyond. There’s a lesson in there for all of us, my friends. It’s the essence of Thessaloniki: take it slow, take it in, and take another sip of that delicious Freddo coffee.
A museum city of “ugly-pretty” aesthetic with a weighty past
Thessaloniki, the capital of the Central Macedonia region, is lapped by the waters of the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. The city is home to 315,000 souls, swelling to about a million in the wider metropolitan area.
Established in 315 BC by Emperor Cassander of Macedon, the city was christened Thessaloniki in honor of his wife, the half-sister of Alexander the Great. Its advantageous location, with access to the entirety of the Balkans and Southern Europe, blossomed into a significant trading and political hub of the Byzantine Empire, attracting both explorers and conquerors. In 1430, the Ottomans seized the city, holding it until 1912, when it became part of modern Greece. Given its layered history, Thessaloniki has been a part of the Byzantine Empire, fell under Roman influence, and succumbed to Ottoman rule. As a result, its architectural aesthetics are equivocal at first glance, raising questions about the peculiar mix of contemporary structures, Byzantine churches, and ancient Roman constructions.
The historical strata here are so intertwined – often overlaid with anarchic graffiti – that some might find it off-putting. However, locals and tourists alike generally characterize the cityscape as “ugly-pretty.” This incongruous heterogeneity morphs Thessaloniki into a sprawling open-air museum, brought to life by the clamor of bars, motorcycles, and the chit-chat of Greek elders discussing the latest news from their balconies.
Thessaloniki is a city where archaeological digs are held at practically every corner, with residential buildings standing alongside remnants of fortresses, arches, churches, forums, and former mosques. The legacies of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman eras not only shape the city’s aesthetics, but also contribute to its traffic congestion. The roads are too narrow for its near-million population, and the construction of new roads or a subway system is impeded by constant archaeological work because the old Thessaloniki literally lies beneath the modern one. Therefore, traffic jams are almost perpetual, accidents have become a daily occurrence, and motorcycles often take to the sidewalks.
Despite its millennial historical heritage, almost all buildings in the city are relatively new, with the oldest ones barely a hundred years old. This gap between ancient Roman forums and 20th century buildings can be explained by Thessaloniki’s heavy past and sheer bad luck. Much of the city was destroyed in the fire of 1917, often referred to as the “Great Fire”. The blaze consumed both the stone-made new quarters on the seafront and the medieval covered markets, as well as the densely populated, convoluted slums that occupied much of the historic center. About 70,000 people lost their homes – a considerable number, given that the total population of the city in 1913 was about 158,000.
After the fire, there were plans to give the city a European look and rebuild it in the image of Barcelona, with long straight streets and square blocks. Architects were even able to realize part of this plan and construct the central Aristotle Square and several pompous houses nearby. However, the city was hit with new misfortunes. The first was the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, which left a legacy of animosity between the two countries. They periodically remind each other of old grudges and threaten new conflicts. Greeks often say something like, “See you next week, if Turkey doesn’t attack,” as a parting word. The Greco-Turkish War was followed by the Second World War, an influx of refugees, the devastating earthquake of 1978, and in the 21st century, the debt and migration crises. All these events have hindered the realization of grand architectural plans, which is why locals often sigh wistfully, “Ah, what the city could have been…”
Almost the only historical buildings from the 20th century date back to the 1920s. These are the legacies of wealthy Jewish families who built beautiful homes, hotels, shops, and factories. However, they did not have time to live in them, as most of them were sent to concentration camps during World War II. The city was left with eclectic buildings featuring elements of neoclassicism. During the Holocaust, about 49,000 people were transported by train from Thessaloniki to camps in Germany and Poland. The railway has barely survived, but a monument to the victims has been erected at the departure point right opposite the waterfront – stone intertwined birds frozen in an attempt to break free and fly away.
Monuments from Different Eras
Thanks to the heritage of various periods, the city now looks like one big open-air museum. One can highlight Byzantine, Roman, early Christian, Ottoman, and Jewish monuments.
Ten religious and other attractions in Thessaloniki are combined and included in the UNESCO World Heritage List as “Early Christian and Byzantine Monuments in the City of Thessaloniki”.
The triumphal arch of Caesar Galerius (Roman emperor in 293-311) is one of the objects on the UNESCO list. It was built at the beginning of the fourth century in honor of Galerius’ victory over the Persians. The arch is adorned with well-preserved reliefs depicting scenes from Galerius’ Persian campaign. Now it is located in the most central area with constant traffic congestion and a crowd of students from nearby major Aristotle and Macedonia universities. Students and unions often organize rallies near the arch, anarchists clash with the police, and the monument itself is sometimes covered with posters with slogans and demands. In general, rallies and demonstrations with street blockages and mass marches – both peaceful and not – are very typical for the country. At the same time, even other Greeks look askance at Thessaloniki and all of Macedonia because of the anarchists’ activity and their clashes with the authorities.
A few minutes from the city’s main street – Egnatia – is the Roman Agora (forum), built in the 2nd-3rd centuries and serving as the city’s social, religious, and trading center. It looks like a large rectangular square several meters below the current street level with preserved columns, an odeon (a place for singing and musical competitions), and an underground museum dedicated to the city’s history and the Agora itself. A ticket to the museum costs two euros, you can buy it at the entrance, and you can visit it from 8:00 to 20:00, the schedule is on the website. You can also save two euros because the whole forum is perfectly visible from the outside, and inexpensive bars and cafes with a great view adjoin the ruins.
Funny fact: up until the 1970-1980s, townspeople did not realize the value of the place and used it as a dump, where they threw not only household waste, but also old cars and electronics.
A fairly large historical part of Thessaloniki is framed by preserved Byzantine fortress walls and the Acropolis. They helped protect the city from the raids of the Slavs in 676-678: the latter besieged Thessaloniki for two years until troops from Constantinople came to the city’s aid. From here, there is a panorama of the city with endless white houses, tiled roofs, the coast, and the outlines of mountains on the horizon – the rocky massif of Olympus.
Another Byzantine monument is the fourth-century AD Rotunda, which, according to one version, served as the Temple of Zeus. Over time, the round building was used as both a Christian church and a mosque. Now it is one of the popular museums in the city with a large collection of ancient mosaics. The entrance costs six euros, for students and pensioners the price is half. Tickets can be purchased at the box office at the entrance, as online purchases are still not developed in Greece. Official websites seem to have been frozen in the early 2000s, but there you can find information about the current operating hours and days off. You can visit the Rotunda from 8:00 to 15:00, but it is better to come early because almost all state museums close quite early.
Early Christian Legacy
In Thessaloniki, our lens would shift towards the ancient, steeped in narratives of faith and conquest. It was here that Apostle Paul left his indelible marks in the form of the two “Epistles to the Thessalonians”, seminal books in the New Testament, weaving tales of life, death, the prophesied second coming, and the end of days. Born here as well in the family of a Byzantine soldier were Cyril and Methodius – the architects of the Old Slavonic alphabet and the Church Slavonic language.
Thessaloniki, a city that wears its past on its sleeve, is home to nine early Christian landmarks recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Holy Church of Saint Demetrius (4th century) – Imagine, if you will, a church enduring the ages like a prized tattoo on a sailor’s arm. Originally erected in the 4th century over the ruins of a Roman bath believed to be Saint Demetrius’s burial site, it was later replaced by a basilica which a fire tragically claimed. The Basilica has seen the world – looted, repurposed as a mosque, rebuilt. Yet, within its aged walls, the mosaics from the 5th to 7th centuries still gleam. Step into its crypt to find a marble spring, Roman tiles, and an archaeological collection, all open for admiration, free of charge. Accessible every day from dawn till 10 pm, the crypt can be visited any day except Mondays, with timings varying by day.
- Holy Church of the Virgin Mary Acheiropoietos (5th century) – Preserving frescoes from the 13th century, marble carvings, and mosaic floors of a 2nd to 4th-century bath on whose foundation the church was built.
- Latomos Monastery – Holy Church of Hosios David (5th-6th centuries) – The sole survivor of the monastery complex, this place holds the city’s oldest original mosaics and 12th-century frescoes.
- Holy Church of Hagia Sophia (7th-8th century) – An intriguing cocktail of iconoclast period architecture, blending the cross-in-square church with a three-aisled basilica, its interiors shelter 8th-9th-century mosaics and 11th-century frescoes.
- Church of Panagia Chalkeon (11th century) – Tucked against its northern wall is the preserved grave of Christopher, one of the church’s creators.
- Church of Saint Panteleimon (13th century) – Although its exterior is more arresting, the interiors, sadly, were largely destroyed when the church was converted into a mosque during Ottoman occupation.
- Church of Prophet Elijah (14th century) – A rare spectacle, the church showcases original frescoes both inside and outside.
- Holy Church of Saint Nicholas Orphanos (14th century) – As this church wasn’t converted into a mosque, most of its frescoes were spared.
- The Church of Holy Apostles (14th century) – A Byzantine church where original frescoes and mosaic fragments persist, a silent testament to the passage of time.
A 14th-century gem, the compact Vlatadon Monastery, leans against the walls of the Acropolis. Historians speculate it was built upon the very grounds where Apostle Paul preached. Here, you can encounter deer, lovingly tended by the resident monks, or stroll around the viewing platform, exchanging coy glances with local peacocks, all while feasting your eyes on the panoramic vistas of the bay.
Pro-tip: If you’re keen on exploring the interiors and stepping into the sanctums of these places of worship, be sure to verify their operating schedules before visiting. Many of them only open their doors a couple of days a week.
The Ottoman Empire
The White Tower, the city’s emblem, presides over the central promenade, standing as one of the few monuments bearing testimony to the Ottoman reign (1430−1912). The 16th-century tower once served as a prison, its inmates crammed into narrow, stifling cells, often too cramped to stand at full height. It was also a scene of capital punishment, earning it the chilling epithet “the bloody tower.” It stood as a part of the old city walls, which were razed in the mid-19th century. Today, it houses a multimedia exposition that tells the tale of the city’s key historical milestones. You can ascend to the tower’s summit, a 35-meter climb via a winding staircase.
The exhibition and viewpoint are open daily from 8:00 to 15:00. Winter tickets (from November to March) are priced at three Euros, while in other months they cost six Euros. It’s best to purchase them at the ticket office, as the website, true to Greek tradition, can be a bit fickle.
Another imposing Ottoman-era structure is the Alaca Imaret Mosque, located not far from the Church of Saint Demetrius. This 15th-century construction functioned as a mosque, school, and refuge, where the poor could find sustenance. Here, remnants of ornate moldings and bas-reliefs persist, but regrettably, the historic building hasn’t received due care: its external walls are partly marred by graffiti, and in places, the cladding has begun to peel off. While you can’t enter the derelict monument, you can still observe the surviving frescoes and see how ordinary residential houses exist alongside the ancient Ottoman mosque.
In Thessaloniki, you can also find Ataturk’s house, the birthplace of Turkey’s most famous political figure. Today, it operates as a museum with free admission, showcasing the Turkish leader’s personal belongings, photographs, and clothing. The Turkish Consulate General is located on the same premises.
The city also preserves 15th-century hammams — Pasha and Bey. Sometimes, while wandering the streets, you can stumble upon small Ottoman-era objects — a water column or parts of building walls.
Almost all the buildings downtown, now filled with bars and upscale shops, relate to Jewish heritage.
The Monasteriotes Synagogue, built in the 1920s, is the only one in the city to have survived the Nazi occupation, as it was used as a Red Cross warehouse. Located on a quiet street near the Roman Agora, it continues to serve the city’s Jewish community. Although it’s temporarily closed to visitors, the Jewish Museum is situated nearby. It’s housed in one of the few buildings that survived the fire of 1917. Previously, it was home to the Jewish newspaper L’Independent. Now, visitors can see archival documents and photos narrating the history of the city’s Jewish population, as well as monumental stones and inscriptions once found in the large Jewish necropolis near the city walls. There’s a separate exhibition dedicated to the Holocaust.
Museum admission is six euros, but students and seniors can enter for three. It’s better to buy tickets at the box office and use the website to find information about current exhibitions. The museum is open daily, except Saturdays, from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm.
Thessaloniki’s largest covered market, Modiano, was built on the ruins of the Jewish district of Kadi and started operating as the central food market in 1925. In December 2022, the market reopened after six years of restoration. There are about 75 stores here, divided into groups, with the restorers’ idea being to offer Greek products to visitors that reflect Thessaloniki’s gastronomic character. This is a place worth visiting to try farm products, homemade tzatziki sauce, olives, and cheeses.
If you want to grasp the entire history of the city all at once, you should head to the Archaeological Museum. The museum’s halls are divided by theme. Here you’ll find everyday objects from prehistoric Macedonia, Iron Age artifacts discovered on Mount Olympus – a period that dates back to the 9th-7th centuries BC – as well as burial items, reliefs, jewelry, ancient musical instruments, sarcophagi, and statues from a later period. The ticket price is eight euros, and the exhibition is open daily from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm.
Because much of the city was rebuilt in the 20th century, the primary architectural style in Thessaloniki is modernism. Often, this involves entire streets of five- and six-story buildings with open balconies that might seem quite nondescript at first glance. But a lot of original interior details have been preserved in these structures, allowing one to appreciate the design of the 1940s-1970s. Another advantage of this uniform construction style is that it accentuates genuinely expressive buildings from other periods, often creating a contrasting effect, which is also a plus.
- Aristotle University was founded in 1925, and most of its campuses are located in one place – not far from the city center. It’s great to walk around here, observing the architecture (mostly modernist), soaking up the rebellious student spirit (just step into the main building of the philosophy faculty), lounging on the grass in the park, or working in the library.
- The railway station is where historical interiors have been well preserved, and the architects’ original concept has not been distorted by modern benches, windows, or signs.
- Several other striking examples of modernist architecture include the courthouse, the Olympos car park, another car park with a brutal cylindrical entrance for cars, an office building with an eight-story glass block wall inside, and the Cosmonote internet provider’s building.
The Waterfront – Five Kilometers of Bike Paths Overlooking Mount Olympus
Despite Thessaloniki being located on the coast, there are no beaches in the city. Therefore, in the summer, locals travel outside the city to swim. To reach the nearest good beach, you’ll have to drive about 30 minutes. One of the most accessible and beautiful is located near the village of Epanomi. In addition to long semi-wild sandy beaches, the local highlight is a ship that sunk in the winter of 1970, not far from the shore, on which the azure-turquoise waves crash.
Thessaloniki has a well-equipped waterfront for walks and relaxation, almost five kilometers long. The promenade was laid on the site of ancient walls demolished in 1866 and starts at a huge cargo port. Its history spans about 2,300 years.
In addition to trade, shipping, and passenger transport, the port has also become part of the city’s public and cultural life. You can’t access the main port area, but from the part adjoining the sea, you have views of the towers, lighthouse, rows of cargo containers, and vessels. After a recent renovation, the small brick port buildings have opened for cultural events and festivals. In summer, open-air movie screenings are held here, and one of the brick houses is home to the Momus Museum of Photography Art with a collection of rare magazines and books from the first half of the last century. Admission to the museum is three euros, two – for visitors under 25 or over 65 years old. The museum is open every day except Monday from 11:00 to 19:00.
In the former port building, restaurants are also operating, including one of the local favorites, Kitchen Bar, from the terrace of which the mountains, White Tower, and city panorama are visible. The prices here are above average, but you can try the traditional beef cooked on the islands, fried with garlic and vinegar sauce.
Many people come to this part of the waterfront to simply sit, enjoy the view, and meet the sunset, so it’s always noisy and fun here. The promenade continues along well-groomed houses with bars and restaurants, Aristotle’s square, and bends like a boomerang around the White Tower. A bike path stretches along its entire length. The part of the promenade by the water has a special covering so you can sit with your legs dangling over the waves, giant jellyfish, and even sea urchins – despite being next to the cargo port.
On the promenade, there is a statue of Alexander the Great on horseback. The monument is very important for the Greeks, as under the commander (356-323 BC), the city was at the peak of its prosperity. A little further is another composition, which has become a matter of local pride. The “Umbrellas” installation is the most photographed on the promenade. The author, George Zongolopoulos, presented the composition at the Venice Biennale in 1995 and received many rave reviews. Partly because of this, two years later, Thessaloniki was chosen as the European Capital of Culture.