Thessaloniki’s most recognizable landmark, the White Tower, can be reached by a scenic stroll along the coastal road. In a small public garden at the southern end of the promenade, Lefkos Pyrgos (White Tower) was once part of the city’s ancient ramparts.
The wall circuit is no longer intact. the White Tower is the only relic of the defense towards the sea. Built by the Ottoman Turks around 1530, this imposing tower was mainly used as a prison.
Today, tourists can visit the tower and climb to the viewing platform at the top, which offers stunning views of the city and harbor. The White Tower also houses the permanent collection of the Museum of Byzantine Culture. The museum’s exhibits educate visitors about Byzantine history and art in Thessaloniki from around 300 AD. until his capture by the Turks in 1430.
The collection includes a wide range of artefacts such as early Christian coins, vases, mosaics, wall paintings and liturgical objects. The White Tower also hosts temporary exhibitions such as presentations of Byzantine religious works.
Shortly after the founding of Thessaloniki in 315 BC, the city was surrounded by defensive walls to withstand the attacks of King Pyrrhus of Epirus in 285 and the Celts in 279. Constantine the Great strengthened the fortifications and under the Byzantine Empire, enhanced. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Turkish authorities created additional defensive structures and towers, often using Venetian military engineers for construction. Until the 19th century, the old city was surrounded by a complete circuit of eight kilometers.
Unfortunately, the Ottoman government pulled down the ancient walls to modernize and “beautify” the city. However, recently the walls have been partially restored.
A good starting point for a tour of the Byzantine walls is at the Evangelistria cemetery north of the Campus. From there, walk outside the walls to the massive 15th-century round tower known as the Trigonion (or Chain Tower). Beyond this is the Tower of Anna Paleologina, with a gate leading to the Acropolis, on the site of the ancient acropolis.
At the highest point is a fortress, the Heptapyrgion (“Seven Towers”), which had been used as a prison. From the Acropolis, tourists can continue west along the walls, either inside or outside, to the Leia Gate near the Church of the Holy Apostles and then to Democracy Square (Square of Democritus). From there, the walls continue towards the harbor, ending at Fort Vardar.
Walking from Egnatia Street towards the center of Thessaloniki, visitors will come across the Arch of Galerius, an ancient Roman monument dating back to around 297 AD. This arch was the main entrance gate of the ancient city. Three piers on the west side remain from the original structure.
Two of the survivors, connected by an arch, have a marble facade decorated with elaborate reliefs. The reliefs, separated by garlands, depict battle scenes from the Persian, Mesopotamian and Armenian campaigns of Emperor Galerius of the third and fourth centuries.
These relief carved reliefs are among the best of their kind. Be sure to notice the animated scenes on the south pier. Although not well weathered, the reliefs are much better preserved than the contemporary reliefs on the Arch of Constantine in Rome, dating from 315 AD.
This renowned museum presents a magnificent collection of artworks discovered in Thessaloniki as well as throughout ancient Macedonia. The collection spans from prehistory to late antiquity. Be sure to see the sculptures from the Archaic to the Late Roman era.
Several rooms have architectural elements from an Ionic temple of the 6th century BC. Other exhibits present excavation findings from a Neolithic settlement at Makrygialos in Pieria, artifacts from the ancient palace of Emperor Galerius and the reconstruction of a Macedonian tomb at Agia Paraskevi. The archaeological museum also hosts temporary exhibitions on various topics such as Macedonian coins.
A display case in the museum lobby displays findings from the Neolithic site, accompanied by information about the progress of the excavation.
Aristotelous Square is the central and most famous square in Thessaloniki. Built according to the plans of Ernest Hébrard as he “saw” Thessaloniki after the great fire of 1917. Unfortunately for the rest of the city center, Aristotelous Square and the buildings on both sides of the homonymous street are the only ones that were built exactly as the original plans were by Ernest Hébrard.
The committee that planned the area at the time wanted the seaside square to be continued by facades that evoke Byzantine memories of Thessaloniki. The arches, the capitals, the balconies, the arcades all combined with influences from European and other Mediterranean cities.
The beginning of Aristotelous is dominated by two impressive corner buildings, the Olympion which was built at the end of the 1950s and houses, among other things, the headquarters of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. And the “Elektra” Hotel built in the 1960s by the architect Jacques Moshe.
Formerly on the west side of Aistotelous Square, on the beach, stood the “Mediterranean” hotel built in 1922, which was demolished after the 1978 earthquake because the damage it suffered was great.
On Aristotelous Street, a natural continuation of the square to the north immediately after Egnatia Street, stands the statue of Eleftherios Venizelos, a reference point and starting point for all participants in marches, rallies and demonstrations both in the past and today.
Just above the square, the remains of the Roman market were discovered, which is a place of attraction for many tourists. Their discovery took place during the start of work on the construction of the courthouse, which was aborted to be finally moved to the area of Vardari.
At the eastern end of Hermes Street (Odós Ermoú), the Church of Hagia Sophia (Agia Sofia) is one of the most important historical churches in the city. The domed church was built in the 8th century in a three-aisled cruciform design.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, after the iconoclastic conflict, the church was decorated with expressive mosaics, including the mosaic of the Mother of God in the apse and a wonderful representation of the Ascension mosaic in the dome. Also notable are the capitals of the colonnades, believed to be from a 5th century building.
From 1204 to 1430, the church of Agia Sophia was the city’s metropolitan church (cathedral). During the Turkish period, it was converted into a mosque, Aya Sofya Camii. The building was renovated after a fire in 1890 and survived the great fire of 1917 without damage.
An undignified spiritual sight in Thessaloniki, the Church of Agios Dimitrios (Agios Dimitrios) is the main church of the city. During the Turkish period, it was converted into a mosque, the Kasamiye Cami. North of the Roman Forum, this magnificent five-aisled Byzantine basilica was built in the 5th century on the site of an earlier Christian church near the ancient Roman bath. (The remains of the bath are visible on the north side of the church.) The crypt also contains remains of an ancient Roman road.
The church takes its name from the Patron Saint Demetrius, who was imprisoned and executed here in the year 306. For centuries, pilgrims from all over the Byzantine Empire came to venerate the relics of the saint, which are preserved in a sarcophagus in front of the iconostasis. Spiritual pilgrims and tourists are excited when they enter the interior of the church.
The glorious sanctuary is 43 meters long, the largest in Greece, and is richly decorated. The jewels include exquisitely carved capitals on the colorful marble columns, a dazzling chandelier in the central corridor and small mosaics on the pillars of the arch.
The Church of the Holy Apostles (Agioi Apostoloi) is located on the edge of the old city, near the Byzantine Walls. This beautiful 14th century Byzantine church was designed in a cruciform design, with five domes and elaborate masonry. A characteristic feature of Late Byzantine architecture is the main dome rising above the vaulted junction with the other domes above the corners of the portico.
During the Turkish period, the church was used as a mosque, the Soguk Su Camii (“Cold Spring Mosque”). The church has excellent frescoes and mosaics from the Palaeolithic period, which were discovered during the restoration work in 1940. On the north side of the church is a reservoir that belonged to the former monastery of the Holy Apostles.