For a city with 23 centuries of urban history, Thessaloniki has a very low international profile. That’s totally fine with them. The city’s not suffering from low self-esteem.
Thessaloniki’s nicely compact. Even in just a day, you can get a flavor of centuries of culture. Here are the Thessaloniki sights to take in on a walking tour:
This broad central plaza was designed by the urban planner Ernest Hebrard after much of the city was burned in 1917. It combines a truly cosmopolitan mood with Byzantine style. The curved plaza by the sea frames Mt. Olympus perfectly. But perhaps its best feature is how you can walk through a door in an elegant building and find yourself in a chaotic marketplace from another era.
The Kapani Marketplace
Like in all true cities, the marketplace in Thessaloniki is still the center of life. The Kapani Market (“kapani” means “flour” in Turkish) has been serving the community since the Ottoman era. Its covered arms have fish, meats, poultry ad eggs, dairy, and produce, along with shops selling household necessities, coffee, and old-fashioned candies. The vendors yell, advertising their goods. Whole skinned goats- heads included- hang from hooks. The fish are glorious on their beds of crushed ice. The floor is slick with all kinds of slime and scales. Towards the edges, you’ll find dry goods, pickled vegetables, and glistening mounds of olives. They can vacuum pack the olives for you. Stop for a coffee amid the friendly chaos.
Sabri Pasha/ Venizelos Street
This broad street that runs from the old Konak (Government House) down to the sea was once Thessaloniki’s main cosmopolitan stretch. Here by Egnatia street was once the caravanserai- a kind of ur-hotel with stables for animals and rooms for travelers. There are some important landmarks from the past.
Just before you reach Egnatia Street, on your left you’ll see the Ottoman marketplace Bezesteni. It was a market for luxury fabrics when it was built over 500 years ago, and today you can buy fabric here still.
Hamsa Bey Mosque/ Alkazar
Just above Egnatia is a large and beautiful mosque and courtyard. It was built in the 15th C by Hafsa Hatoun in honor of her father, military commander Hamsa Bey. After the population exchange of the 1920’s, the building became a cinema, and until recently it housed many small and inexpensive shops. Soon, it will be an elegant station for Thessaloniki’s future metro.
When the refugees from Asia Minor came in the 1920’s, they settled in Thessaloniki more than anywhere else. This enclosed outdoor flea market dates from that era, and the descendants of the refugees still sell antiques and charming old objects from stalls and shops along Tositsa Street.
Just a block east of the Bit Bazaar is a much, much older market. What makes the Roman Agora so special is that for centuries it was lost to memory. This was an empty dirt lot that the children used to play on until the 1960’s. Ernest Hebrard’s original plan included extending Aristotle square up here, to culminate in a grand palace of justice. When they started to dig for the foundations decades later, they found this instead. Enjoy the museum- hidden underground in the NW corner. If you’re short on time, view the ancient Odeon and the Criptoporticus from the outside.
This is the church of the patron saint of Thessaloniki, liberated from Ottoman rule on Octiber 26th, 1912- feast day of St. Dimitrios. The church is on the site of an old bath house, in which he was martyred. There is a crypt there now, where a fountain of myrrh once flowed. Notice the variety of columns. They’re recycled from other structures, giving the space an organic rhythm. This is the church of a significant Orthodox saint and a place of pilgrimage. So the church is livelier than many, and has longer hours.
Dome of the Rotonda
It’s not the Pantheon- but at 2/3 the size, it’s pretty close. This enormous 4th C BC structure is Thessaloniki’s oldest building. The dramatic unbroken domed space 30 meters high has beautiful mosaics on some of the arches and much of the ceiling, But the real treat is the acoustics. Go into the middle and clap- you’ll be as delighted as the fabulous ten year old girl from New York whom I just shared the experience with. Outside, you’ll see fountains for washing and the city’s only remaining minaret- remnants from the Rotonda’s many years as mosque of Hortaz Effendi.
The word “kamara” means “arch” in Greek. When you say it in Thessaloniki, you mean this one. The triumphal arch of Galerius (298 to 305 AD) marks the Galerian complex and, next to the white tower, is probably the most famous landmark in the city. The reliefs on the arch celebrate the Romans’ victory over the Persians, in 297 AD. This has been a popular meeting point for centuries, and still is today.
Going towards the water from here, you’ll see the ruins of the Apsidial Hall (an arched galleria). This extends to the palace complex- the ruins of a basilica, the octagon, and the baths.
The White Tower
It wasn’t always the white tower. Its original name of the 15th C fortification was the Kanle kule- the tower of blood. Toward the end of the 19th C, the Ottoman Empire was engaged in some re-branding. The name didn’t suit the new image they were trying to project. So in 1883 they had an inmate paint it white, in exchange for his freedom. We know it as the Bayaz Kule today still- the White Tower. It shed its gruesome association and is now a beloved landmark. Inside, you’ll find a museum of the history of the city.