11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Thessaloniki & Easy Day Trips
Thessaloniki (also known as Salonica) offers the cosmopolitan culture and energy of a big city with the friendly ambience and charm of a smaller town. It's a wonderful destination to experience the real Greece without the crowds and congestion of Athens. This delightful city has an impressive multiethnic heritage, influenced by the different civilizations that have left their mark, including the Romans, Venetians, and Ottoman Turks. Visitors are awed by the ancient ruins, Byzantine churches, and the world-class archaeology museum, one of the best in Greece. Another highlight is the delicious local cuisine; top-rated restaurants tantalize diners with the region's finest culinary fare. Thessaloniki is also famous for its music scene, and live band performances take place at venues throughout the city at almost any time of the year.
See also: Where to Stay in Thessaloniki
1 Roman Rotunda (Saint George's Church)
The Roman Rotunda is Thessaloniki's most magnificent ancient monument. Built in the early fourth century, it was most likely intended to be Emperor Galerius' mausoleum (although he was not buried here) and was part of the complex that included the Galerius Palace and the Arch of Galerius. Emperor Theodosius the Great, who was baptized as a Christian in Thessaloniki, converted the mausoleum into a Christian church in the late fourth century. During the 10th to 12th centuries, the Rotunda was used as the Cathedral of Thessaloniki. Under Ottoman rule, the building was converted to a mosque; the minaret is a relic of the Islamic era. After the liberation from the Turks in 1912, the Rotunda was transformed into the Church of Saint George (Áyios Yeóryios).
This grandiose sanctuary makes a breathtaking impression. More than 24 meters in diameter and 30 meters in height, the Rotunda features cylindrical domed architecture similar to the Pantheon in Rome. Inside, gorgeous mosaics decorate the dome and the vaulted recesses. The mosaic in the center of the dome is missing, but below it are charming figures of angels and architectural facades on a gold background. The Rotunda houses a Sculpture Museum and is open to the public daily for visits.
2 The White Tower: Relic of the Byzantine-Era Ramparts
The most recognizable landmark of Thessaloniki, the White Tower can be reached by taking a scenic walk along the Seafront Promenade. In a small public garden at the southern end of the promenade, the White Tower (Lefkós Pyrgos) was once part of the town's ancient ramparts. The circuit of fortification walls no longer remains completely intact; the White Tower is the only relic of the seaward defenses. Built by the Ottoman Turks around 1530, this imposing tower was used mainly as a prison.
Today, tourists can visit the tower and ascend to the viewing platform on the top, which offers sensational 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 AD 300 until its capture by the Turks in 1430. The collection includes a wide range of artifacts 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 paintings.
3 Church of Saint Demetrius
A must-see spiritual sight in Thessaloniki, the Church of Saint Demetrius (Ayios Dimítrios) is the town's main church. During the Turkish period, it was converted into a mosque, the Kasimiye Cami. North of the Roman Agora, this splendid five-aisled Byzantine basilica was built in the fifth century on the site of an earlier Christian church near the ancient Roman bathhouse. (Remains of the bathhouse are visible on the north side of the church.) The crypt also contains relics of an ancient Roman road.
The church was named after the town's Patron Saint, Demetrius, who was imprisoned and executed here in the year 306. For centuries, pilgrims have come from all over the Byzantine Empire to venerate the saint's relics, which are preserved in a sarcophagus in front of the iconostasis. Spiritual pilgrims and tourists alike are awe-inspired when entering the church's interior. The glorious sanctuary is 43 meters long, the largest in Greece, and is richly embellished. Adornments include finely carved capitals on the varicolored marble columns, a dazzling chandelier in the central aisle, and small mosaics on the pillars in the apse.
4 Arch of Galerius
Walking from Egnatia Street towards Thessaloniki's city center, visitors will come across the Arch of Galerius (Apsída Galeríou), an ancient Roman monument dating to around AD 297. This arch was the ancient town's main entrance gate. Of the original structure, three piers of the west side remain. Two of the surviving piers, linked by an arch, feature a marble facade decorated with elaborate reliefs. The reliefs, separated by garlands, depict battle scenes from Emperor Galerius' Persian, Mesopotamian, and Armenian campaigns of the third and fourth centuries. These ornately carved reliefs are among the finest of their kind. Be sure to notice the animated scenes on the south pier. Although badly weathered, the reliefs are much better preserved than contemporary reliefs on the Arch of Constantine in Rome, dating to AD 315.
5 Archaeology Museum
This renowned museum presents a superb collection of artifacts that were uncovered in Thessaloniki as well as all over ancient Macedonia. The collection spans from prehistory to late antiquity. Be sure to see the sculptures from the Archaic to Late Roman era. Several rooms display architectural elements from an Ionic temple of the sixth century BC. Other exhibits show excavation findings from a Neolithic settlement at Makriyalo in Pieria, artifacts from the ancient palace built by Emperor Galerius, and the reconstruction of a Macedonian tomb in Ayia Paraskevi. The archaeological museum also hosts temporary exhibitions on various themes such as the Coins of Macedonia. A showcase in the lobby of the museum displays finds from a Neolithic site, accompanied by information about the progress of the excavation.
Address: 6 Manolis Andronikos Street, Hanth Square, Thessaloniki
6 Ano Poli (Upper Town)
The Ano Poli is the historic old town, known as the Upper Town because of its hilltop location. The upper town can be reached from Odós Olympíados, the curving street that links the lower town on the north to the old town walls and citadel. This atmospheric quarter is characterized by its steep, winding streets and pedestrian alleyways. Numerous fountains of the Ottoman era reveal the quarter's Turkish influence.
The Ano Poli has many noteworthy historic churches, including Saint Catherine's Church, the Church of the Prophet Elijah, the Church of the Taxiarchs (Archangels), the Church of the Holy Apostles, and the must-see Church of Ósios Davíd that was built in the fifth and sixth centuries and is renowned for its splendid mosaic depicting the prophet Ezekiel's vision. Another famous site in this area is the Turkish Consulate on Odós Apóstolou Pávlou, which is the house where Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Atatürk), first President of the Turkish Republic, was born in 1881.
7 Byzantine Walls (Ancient Ramparts)
Soon after Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BC, the town was surrounded by defensive walls to withstand attacks by King Pyrrhus of Epirus in 285 and by the Celts in 279. Constantine the Great strengthened the fortifications, and under the Byzantine Empire, the walls were frequently enhanced. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Turkish authorities built additional defensive structures and towers, often using Venetian military engineers for the construction. Until the 19th century, the old town was surrounded by a complete eight-kilometer-long circuit of walls. Unfortunately, the Ottoman government pulled down the ancient walls to modernize and "beautify" the town. However, recently the walls have been restored in sections.
A good starting-point for a tour of the Byzantine Walls is at the Evangelistria Cemetery north of the University campus. From there, walk outside the walls to the massive 15th-century round tower known as the Trigonion (or Alysos Tower). Beyond this is the Tower of Anna Palaiologina, with a gateway that leads into the Citadel, on the site of the ancient acropolis. On the highest point is a fortress, the Heptapyrgion ("Seven Towers"), formerly used as a prison. From the Citadel, tourists may continue westward along the walls, either inside or outside, to the Letaia Gate near the Church of the Holy Apostles and then down to Democracy Square (Platía Dimokratías). From there, the walls continue down towards the harbor, ending at the Vardar Fort.
8 Church of the Holy Apostles
The Church of the Holy Apostles (Áyii Apóstoli) lies at the edge of the old town, close to the Byzantine Walls. This beautiful 14th-century Byzantine church was designed on a cruciform ground plan, with five domes and elaborately patterned brickwork. A characteristic feature of the Late Byzantine architecture is the main dome that rises above the barrel vaulting of the cross with the other domes over corners of the portico. During the Turkish period, the church was used as a mosque, the Soguk Su Camii ("Mosque of the Cold Spring"). The church boasts exquisite frescoes and mosaics of the Paleologue period, which were discovered during restoration work in 1940. On the northern side of the church is a cistern that belonged to the former monastery of the Holy Apostles.
9 Church of Saint Sophia
At the east end of Hermes Street (Odós Ermoú), the Church of Saint Sophia (Ayía Sofía) is one of the town's most important historic churches. The domed church was built in the eighth century on a three-aisled cruciform plan. In the ninth and 10th centuries, after the iconoclastic conflict, the church was decorated with expressive figural mosaics, including the Mother of God mosaic in the apse and a magnificent representation of the Ascension mosaic in the dome. Also notable are the capitals of the columns, believed to be from a fifth-century building. From 1204 to 1430, the Church of Saint Sophia was the town's metropolitan church (cathedral). During the Turkish period, it was converted into a mosque, the Aya Sofya Camii. The building was restored after a fire in 1890 and survived the great fire of 1917 unscathed.
10 Museum of the Macedonian Struggle
Housed in a Neoclassical building of the 19th century, this museum educates visitors about the Macedonian struggle. The collection includes artifacts and photos from 1900 to 1912. The most interesting exhibits are the weaponry, uniforms, memorabilia, and personal effects of the leaders of the Macedonian Struggle that took place from 1904 to 1908. The extensive photography collection includes 1,350 contemporary photographs. Also on display are explanatory maps, books, newspapers, and paintings of the Macedonian landscape in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Address: 23 Proxenou Koromila Street, Thessaloniki
11 Villa Allatini
In the southwestern suburb of Kalamaria, visitors will discover many lovely 19th-century villas and mansions. Many of these villas were designed by Italian architects in Neoclassical style. One house of particular historical interest is the Villa Allatini, created by the Italian architect Vitaliano Poselli in 1896. Set in picturesque grounds, this stately villa was originally owned by a wealthy Jewish family, part of Thessaloniki's thriving Jewish community. From 1926, the Villa Allatini served as a university building, and it currently houses the offices of the Thessaloniki Prefecture.
Address: 26 Vasileos Irakleiou, Thessaloniki
Where to Stay in Thessaloniki for Sightseeing
We recommend these great hotels in Thessaloniki near top attractions like the Roman Rotunda and the Arch of Galerius:
- The Excelsior: luxury boutique hotel, central location, wonderful staff, serene decor, rooftop breakfast.
- Colors Urban Hotel: mid-range pricing, themed rooms, trendy decor, massage services, garden-themed cafe.
- Anatolia Hotel: affordable rates, great value, contemporary decor, excellent free breakfast, spa with gym and sauna.
- Hotel Orestias Kastorias: budget hotel, convenient location, excellent customer service, free coffee and cookies.
Day Trips from Thessaloniki
Archeological Museum of Polygyros
About 69 kilometers from Thessaloniki, the charming city of Polygyros is nestled in the foothills of the Chalkidiki region. The town has retained a traditional Greek character with its quaint little neighborhoods, which are a delight to explore. Polygyros' top tourist attraction is the archeological museum, an extensive collection of archaeological finds from the Chalkidiki region. The collection covers the Bronze Age, the Archaic era, the Classical period, and the ancient Roman era. On display are sculptures, reliefs, pottery, weapons, and jewelry. Highlights include the exhibits of the Archaic period, jewelry of the Late Archaic and Classical period, and sculptures from the fourth century BC to the first century BC. Be sure to see the marble Bust of Dionysos and the grave statues from the Heroön at Stratoni. The assortment of objects uncovered at the nearby city and cemetery of Olynthus are particularly interesting because they give a sense of the everyday life of that time.
Address: 1 Arhaioloyikou Moussiou Sreet, Polygyros
About 80 kilometers southwest of Thessaloniki, Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece. It features in Homer's Iliad as the home of the gods, who were known as the Olympians. This mighty massif covers an area of some 20 kilometers across and climbs steeply towards the summit, reaching its highest point in Mítikas at 2,917 meters. Though the highest ridges are difficult to climb, the most northerly peak (2,787 meters) offers easier access. The best starting point for an ascent of Olympus is the town of Litóhoro in the mountain's eastern foothills. From here, hikers can drive to Prionia where trailheads lie for some of the most popular routes, including a gentle hike through the beautiful Enipeas gorge. South of Mount Olympus, the Vale of Tempe is where the river Piniós (Peneios) flows to the sea and is the principal route into central Greece from the north.
Nature lovers may also want to visit Lake Vistonida near the town of Porto Lagos, about a two-hour drive from Thessaloniki. This important wetland area attracts vast flocks of migrating birds and is excellent for bird watching with more than 300 different species recorded here.