Things to Do in Thessaloniki
The hub of civic activity in Thessaloniki is Aristotelous Square, which was designed by French architect Ernest Hébrard in 1918 after the devastating fire of 1917 that destroyed much of the city center. Sitting on the waterfront just off Nikis Avenue, the square was designed to mimic the vast and grandiose open plazas found in many European maritime cities – such as the Praca do Comercio in Lisbon – and to move away from the chaotic layout of Ottoman Thessaloniki towards an ordered town development plan. Today most of the monumental mansions that line the piazza were rebuilt in the 1950s and renovated again in the early 21st century. It is one of the biggest and most impressive squares in Greece, offering a view of Thermaikos Gulf to the southwest and up the grand boulevard of Aristotelous to the gardens of Platia Dikastirion.
Thessaloniki is northern Greece’s party town and New Year sees crowds spilling into Aristotelous Square for the countdown to midnight before they pile into late-night clubs and bars to celebrate until sunrise. The square is also a popular spot for social events and festivals throughout the year; during the recent unrest concerning Greece’s financial position within the EU, many protests and political rallies also took place here.
As befits a city that was under Byzantine rule between the fifth and 13th centuries, Thessaloniki has a rich and priceless supply of Byzantine antiquities that are chronologically displayed in the city’s award-winning contemporary museum. Opened in September 1994, the Museum of Byzantine Culture was designed by modernist architect Kyriakos Krokos and has spectacular displays of mosaic fragments, icons, stone tablets bearing ancient inscriptions and delicate wall paintings taken from tombs. Although some of the almost 43,000 artifacts in the collection were moved there from the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, most were unearthed locally.
The three permanent exhibitions walk through the centuries of Byzantine rule in Thessaloniki, while the final two rooms display icon collections and religious engravings donated to the museum by Greek philanthropists. Multi-themed temporary exhibitions alternate precious treasures from the museum’s repository, and staff also operate vital conservation and preservation work onsite.
The White Tower (Lefkós Pýrgos) is one of the best-loved buildings in Thessaloniki, a dumpy cylinder topped with turrets that sits at the southern end of the seafront promenade of Nikis Avenue. Thought to have been built on the top of Byzantine remains during the reign of Suleiman I the Magnificent in the mid 15th century, the six-story tower is 40 m (131 ft) high and 23 m (75.5 ft) in diameter, with sturdy stone walls dotted with tiny arrow slits. Originally it formed part of the city’s fortifications and was used by Thessaloniki’s Turkish invaders as a place of public execution. Since then the tower served as a communications center in World War I and later as a meteorological laboratory. Three more towers and a defense wall were knocked down after the fire of 1917, and its current use is as a visitor center with an exhibition detailing the turbulent history of the city. A viewing platform at the top of the tower looks out over the sea in one direction and the rooftops of Thessaloniki to the other.
One of the most popular evening pastimes for Thessaloniki locals is the waterside stroll up Nikis Avenue, starting at the old port and winding up in front of the White Tower.
Thessaloniki is home to one of the world’s largest caches of Byzantine architectural treasures, thanks to the city being ruled by Constantinople from the fifth century AD to the 13th. The empire’s legacy can be seen in what’s left of the city walls; in the many Byzantine churches; in Latomou Monastery and, most importantly, in the church and crypt of Ayios Dimitrios. Named after the city’s patron saint, the Christian martyr Dimitrios, the church started life as a small temple – itself built over the
remains of a Roman baths complex – in the fourth century and under Byzantine rule it took its present shape as a five-aisled basilica, built of stone with layers of arcaded windows and two stumpy towers. In the Middle Ages Thessaloniki became part of the Ottoman Empire; in 1493 Ayios Dimitrios was transformed into a mosque and its original Christian frescoes and mosaics were plastered over. It remained a mosque until the liberation of the city in 1912, but burnt down five years later. Restoration
took several decades and the church finally reopened in 1949, with only a few surviving relics of its original decoration, including the glittering seventh-century mosaics around the altar. The subterranean crypt was rediscovered after the 1917 fire and houses the silver reliquary of St Dimitrios as well as a museum showcasing early Christian and Byzantine sculptures, coins and fragments of pottery rescued from the blaze.