Thessalonike, half sister of Alexander the Great
Another weekend, and another city not been before. What else can I ask. This travelling bug is now reaching unthinkable levels to the case that since November last year, I’ve spent only one weekend in London without going anywhere, and the next time that will happen might be just the second weekend in April, unless I end up finding another good destination to go. Otherwise it seems it will be June for my next weekend without travelling. 7 months non stop yet I want much more!
Greece, I must admit is one of the greatest “unknown” in my travel bag. With so many hundreds of places to go, and so many beautiful islands, I’ve only been really few places to be honest, comparing to how many more I wish to go. But flying to Greece does not come cheap as other destinations. Well, it can certainly be cheap, but not when looking for precise days such as flying out there on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, returning on Sunday in order to avoid having to book holidays from work.
Thessaloniki is the second largest city in the country after Athens, but through history, it has been capital of many civilizations and empires, to the point of being a city larger in population than London by the 14th century when it was part of the Byzantine Empire. To give you an idea and brief knowledge, since its foundation in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon who named it in honor of his wife, Princess Thessalonike, half-sister of Alexander the Great; it has changed hands from Kingdom of Macedon to Rome, Byzantine Empire, Crusader Kingdom of Thessalonica, Despotate of Epirus (known as Empire of Thessalonica), Second Bulgarian Empire, Nicaeam Empire, Republic of Venice and for almost 500 years under Ottoman rule until 1913 with the annexation to Greece.
With such a huge track of empires and rulers, and the importance of the city itself for its key strategic location meant an ever growing culture and heritage, and architecture. Unfortunately, the majority of the once beautiful old city centre was lost in the 1917 fire, and then during the WWII bombings, yet still, among the nowadays quite “vulgar” architecture of horrible apartment blocks in replacement of the beautiful ones gone, there are hidden gems, and a good example are the 15 properties listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Site: The Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments of Thessaloniki.
For more information about Thessaloniki check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Greece’s currency is the Euro. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Thessaloniki
- City Centre Entirely created after the 1917 fire that devastated the city, hence the opportunity to define a more elegant European city with clear avenues, tree-lined streets and squares. At the western side is the waterfront.
-Aristotelous Square The main square designed by Ernest Hebrard. It is the symbol and major sight of Thessaloniki. Several buildings have been listed as landmarks of the Hellenistic Republic.
-Olympion Cinema The most famous movie theatre where the Thessaloniki International Film Festival takes place yearly.
-Electra Palace One of the top 5* hotels in the city.
-Roman Remains Not much has survived, while majority is still below under the modern city.
-Forum Featuring 2 story stoas, a bath excavated, another one still under the city, and a complete odeon.
-Galerius Palace Located on Navarinou Square, built for Emperor Galerius. The large octagonal complex is believed to have been an imperial throne room.
-White Tower Built in the 15th century by the Ottomans on top of an older Byzantine structure to fortify the city’s harbour. One of the most recognisable symbols in the city. Nowadays the museum of the city.
- Ano Poli Literally meaning the Upper Town, also known as Old Town is located to the north of the city centre. It survived entirely the 1917 great fire and contains the majority of the historical Byzantine and Ottoman buildings, many of them listed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
-Acropolis Located on the highest point of the city. You will get the best views of the entire city below from anywhere around the Acropolis, the Fort or the park.
-Heptapyrgion Although the name might lead to confusion, since its translation is Fortress of Seven Towers, it has in fact, 10 towers. This Byzantine-Ottoman fortress is located in the northeastern corner of the Acropolis.
- South of the city centre Traditionally one of the richest area in the city, where from the 19th century luxurious holiday villages were built. Nowadays, many of them long gone on behalf of middle class apartment blocks. While heading more to the south is the upper-class district of Kalamaria.
-Vasilissis Olgas Avenue The most famous and elegant thoroughfare in the area with many mansions and villas along.
-Villa Bianca Once belonging to a wealthy Jewish merchant, it has art-nouveau influences. Nowadays is the Municipal Art Gallery.
-Villa Mordoch Built in 1905 in eclectic style, it also houses part of the exhibitions of the Municipal Art Gallery.
-Villa Modiano Impressive eclectic building with a double loggia overlooking the sea. It is now the Folk Art and Ethnological Museum.
-Villa Mehmet Kapanci Built between 1890 and 1895, is the Cultural Center of the National Bank of Greece.
-The Red Tower Nickname coming from the red bricks and corner tower.
- Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki There are 15 properties listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Site, all of them built between the 4th and 14th centuries when Thessaloniki was the 2nd most important city of the Byzantine Empire.
-Thessaloniki City Walls Although the city was entirely encircled by walls since its creation in the 4th century BC, the current walls date from the 4th and 5th centuries AD, reusing the Roman walls and enlarged through the centuries until the 19th century when large parts where demolished by the Ottoman authorities to create a new urban plan following the new European standards.
-Arch of Galerius and Rotunda of Saint George Both belonging to the same complex built in the early 4th century AD by Roman Emperor Galerius. The arch was built in 298 AD.
-Church of the Acheiropoietos Byzantine church built in the 5th century. It was the first to be turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1430, remaining as the main city’s mosque until the fall of the empire.
-Latomou Monastery Built in the 6th century and containing some of the finest mosaics from the era to have survived to our days even it was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman rule.
-Church of Saint Demetrios Built in the 7th century as the main sanctuary dedicated to the patron of the city, Saint Demetrius. Built over the former smaller one which in turn was built on what was the Roman bath house.
-Church of Hagia Sophia Dating from the 8th century although a church in its place has been in existence since the 3rd century AD. With an architectural plan based on the Hagia Sophia of back then, Constantinople, nowadays Istanbul, was made the cathedral of Thessaloniki with the Fourth Crusade, then a mosque with the Ottomans.
-Church of Panagia Chalkeon 11th century Byzantine church built entirely in brick, hence the nickname of red church. Once again turned into a mosque during the Ottoman occupation until 1912.
-Church of Saint Catherine Byzantine church from the 13th century, turned to a mosque during the Ottoman occupation until 1912.
-Byzantine Bath From the early 14th century is the only one to have survived from the Byzantine era in the entire of Greece, and in use until 1940.
-Church of Saint Nicholas Orphanos Byzantine church from the 14th century, originally part of a larger monastery, located within the eastern walls of the city. The frescoes discovered under plaster in 1957 cover almost the entire interior.
-Church of the Saviour Very small Byzantine church from the 14th century.
-Vlatades Monastery Small Byzantine monastery from the 14th century.
-Church of Prophet Elijah Byzantine monastery from the 14th century unique in the city and the region for having a clear Constantinopolitan architectural style with masonry alternating bricks and white marble.
-Church of Saint Panteleimon Byzantine church from the late 14th century, to the north of the Rotunda of Saint George. Turned to a mosque until the end of the Ottoman occupation in 1912.
-Church of the Holy Apostles Byzantine church from the late 14th century where you can see some of the last examples of Byzantine mosaics in its interior, the very last of its kind in the city.
Macedonia International Airport is the second largest in the country, although it cannot handle intercontinental flights due to the short runways (which are in any case, being expanded as of February 2016). Located 13 kilometres to the south of the city centre and accessible round the clock by the bus number 78 on a circle route towards the new train station passing through the city centre. By daytime the frequency is once every 15 minutes while at night it is every 30 minutes. Tickets cost 2 Euros and it’s about 40 minutes ride.
Coming to Thessaloniki from the Balkans countries and beyond is straightforward with plenty of buses covering Sofia, Skopje, Belgrade, Moscow, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest and Istanbul to name some. The city benefits from an strategical location making it one of the major transit hubs in the country. By railway is another option, but most of the international routes were suspended after 2011 crisis. Only Sofia and Belgrade have been reinstated (Feb. 2016).
While a metro system is under construction (only 1 line on the first phase, Feb 2016), the only public transportation means in the city are buses and commuter railways (2 lines). In any case, considering the size of the city centre and old town areas which are small and not far away, the best way to move and visit all the sights is on foot, unless you are staying on the outskirts of the city. In any case the bus route 50 (Cultural Line) departs from the White Tower every hour on the hour and covers all the sights making a loop route. The fare is 2 Euros.
Being the second largest city in the country and such important tourist destination, and an ever growing business and finance centre, the amount of hotels is very large. Finding a great deal at a great hotel during low season was really easy. And to be fair, the cost was surprisingly low. Expect this to rise dramatically during high season as is with any other country in the world, specially if located near the sea. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms, Ebookers or TUI.
We stayed at the Hotel Olympia, in 65 Olympou Street right in the city centre next door to the Roman Forum, main avenue Egnatia and famous Aristotelous Street and Square. The location could not be any better for being right there in the middle, walking distance to all the sights, yet the neighbour was too noisy and we had to change rooms in the middle of the night since across the road there is an occupied building (there are many in the city anyway), and there was a very loud concert inside the building!. The staff in any case was great and extremely helpful, very friendly and we received a bottle of complimentary Greek wine that was unexpected, but apparently included in the rate. That was a nice touch indeed. The breakfast was also really nice, so definitely cannot complaint on anything.