Thessaloniki: Insights to the gem of northern Greece

Thessaloniki is a beautiful city in North Greece. Built between the mountains and the sea, and hiding a very rich history behind it, it offers a variety of landscapes and places to visit and a very wide range of activities for all tastes. Follow us for a small tour around it, with the most reliable, cheap and ecological means of transport one can find around: your own feet.

White Tower

The White Tower, a symbol of the city

Part 1: A walk through the city’s history

Every time I have to show a friend around my hometown, I have no idea where to start from. I tried several times to find a good starting point that wouldn’t raise millions of questions about the history of this place.  After many years, I finally managed to find the perfect place to start a small walk through the city.

It’s called Kapani. Nobody knows when this traditional market was first established since the first written reference about it dates back to 1498 but the area suffered several damages due to huge fires and destructive earthquakes. It’s a wonderful combination of sounds, colors and smells. Here you will find all kinds of products and all kinds of people. By the time you step onto the tiled pavement you will feel the oriental atmosphere of the market. The shop owners will do their best to convince you to buy their products and prices go up and down in minutes, as competition between them works like a crazy game. Try the local products, especially the olives, different kinds of cheese and dried fruit. Also, try to find the spice shops, as they are absolutely incredible. Don’t be afraid to use your nose at the fish section and definitely don’t hesitate to bargain.

Grab a Greek coffee at one of the small traditional cafes but before sitting, have a check around. If you see a bunch of old men chilling, you are in the right place; they know very well what they are doing. When the coffee gets served, don’t rush, and definitely don’t stir it. Bring it slowly to your lips, let the warm steam fill up your nose and try a tiny little sip. This taste encloses all the history of Thessaloniki, a bitter and sweet city, intense and vibrant, with a past that burns, like this coffee just burnt the tip of your tongue.

The city was founded in 315 BC by King Kassander. He named it after his wife Thessaloniki who was Alexander the Great’s sister. Not long after its establishment the city became a trade center, attracting people from different places. In 168 BC it became a part of the Roman Empire, a period which is quite noticeable if you take a walk around.

It’s time to leave the beautiful Kapani area, preferably through the eastern exit. You will immediately enter Aristotelous Square. Before you head North to see the Roman Market, take a quick look at the horizon on your right. If the atmosphere is clear, which happens every now and then, you will get a spectacular view over Olympus Mountain, the mountain of the ancient Greek gods.

Leaving the gorgeous view behind, pass the busy traffic lights of Egnatia Street and continue uphill until you reach the Roman Market. This market was constructed during the first century A.C and has served as the administrative, political, social, cultural and financial center of the city. Thessaloniki became a significant center of geostrategic importance after the construction of a big road that connected the big centers of the Roman Empire, Istanbul and Rome, passing right through the heart of the city: the famous “Via Egnatia” which became the main military and trading path of the Empire. Here, the male citizens would gather to socialize, philosophize, discuss political issues, participate in political decisions and exchange trading goods. If you manage to be around the Roman Market during the open hours (Tuesday-Friday, 8 am-3 pm), you will be lucky enough to take a walk around what remains of the most famous market of the Roman era.

After Julius Caesar’s death, the city obtained special administrative and financial privileges and was given the name “Civitas Libera” (en: Free City). In the meantime, Thessaloniki already started receiving many Christians who settled in the area, and in 50 A.C. the Apostle Paul founded the first Christian Church in the area. Later on, in 305 A.C. the Emperor Caesar Galerius settled down in Thessaloniki and established it as the capital of his empire. In order to see one of his most famous monuments, you just need to leave the Roman Market behind and descend to Egnatia Street. Follow it to the East and after a 10-15 minute walk you will reach the most famous meeting point for the youth of the city: Galerius Arch or “Kamara” as it is mostly known among locals. It was built during the 4th century A.C. in order to celebrate the victory of the Roman Empire against the Persians. It was initially triple arched, with Via Egnatia passing from the main arch, and a road on its long axis connecting it with another great building, Rotunda, which you can still see almost next to it. Galerius Arch is decorated with a range of sculptured scenes, mainly describing the fights and victory against the Persians.

Rotunda looks like a simple building but no one would suspect its significance: it silently conceals elements from almost all the most important periods of the city. The building itself was initially constructed as a temple during the Roman Empire. After Galerius’ death the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire Constantine I converted it into a Christian church devoted to “Agios Georgios” (En: St. George), hence the beautiful mosaics dating back to the Paleochristian era, remnants of which are still kept in its interior. On the western side of the building, one can easily notice a big minaret, remnant of the Ottoman Empire, when the building was converted to a mosque. Rotunda was finally reconverted to a Christian Church after the Balkan Wars in 1912 and today it is a historical building nominated as a Unesco Heritage Site and a fully operational church.

But this is not the only church which survived the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and the years that followed. If you want to find out more about them, it’s time to ascend a little bit further into the old town and its secrets. Leave Rotunda’s entrance behind and follow the pedestrian street uphill. After crossing Armenopoulou Street, you can take a small break to enjoy some pies from one of the most famous bakeries among university students, which is just in front of you on the corner and it’s named “Kokkinos fournos” (En: The Red Bakery). I would suggest taking away a snack and continuing walking uphill, since there are beautiful places where you can enjoy these delicacies. Pass Olympus Street and you are right into the heart of the old town. Here you can follow the brown signs to find historical buildings, or just wander around the gorgeous little streets. Highlights would include Agios Nicolas Orfanos which is a small humble church dating back to the 14th Century and Latomou Monastery which was built during the 5th Century and hides a unique treasure in its interior: the only mosaic in the world that depicts Christ beardless, in his adolescence.

If your feet aren’t too tired to maybe try a little climb, you will encounter the city walls and be rewarded with magnificent views over the city. Parts of the walls were built when the city was founded but have been enhanced, extended and repaired several times through its history.  Follow the walls to the East to reach a small tower, known as “Pyrgos Trigoniou” (En: Trigoniou Tower), which is part of “Eptapyrgio” (En: The Sever Towers); the latest part that was added to the wall network during the 15th century. Did you manage to save the pies from the “Red Bakery” until now? Here is the place to relax and enjoy them, with the whole city right in front of your eyes.

Part 2: Bike at the seafront

Thessaloniki has a unique characteristic that people who struggle with orientation will love. Almost all of the streets that are downhill lead to the sea. So this walk does not have a beginning point, wherever you are, just grab your bike and go downhill! The city has only a few bike routes but you can cycle your bike safely on the right side of the road provided that you keep an eye for stupid drivers and ignore any horn that will ask you to move or go faster. This is what you will have faced by the time you reach the sea:

The seaside

You have several options, but my favorite is to head east. I usually follow the sea and make several stops on the way to enjoy the different views. I always liked riding my bike and observing all the different kinds of people one can meet at the seafront: fitness lovers who are jogging rhythmically and pass you several times, dedicated old women who surprise you by walking faster than you ride, dog owners who try to train their intractable dogs or throw a stick to their happy puppy one more time, melancholic faces who stare at the water or walk with a pair of headphones on, each one carrying their own story.

At the end of the seafront you will notice an ugly (sorry dear architect), red building. This is the Music Hall which sometimes holds really nice concerts and art performances. You can pass behind it, where you will find recreational fishermen, well equipped with small tables and plenty of food and drinks. Sometimes you even hear loud music coming from their cars as they celebrate another good catch. However, the best place to observe a fishermen’s life is further east. You need to enter the main Avenue, which is just to your left and follows the sea and turn right at the traffic lights to Sofouli Street. Follow this street, take your time on the big uphill while staying on the right of the road and enjoy the downhill that follows. You are now at Krini’s seaside, which is full of cafes and restaurants. Keep going until you see a big white building on your right. This is a hospital called “Panagia”. Behind it, lies a beautiful park with a small church and a gorgeous tiny marina full of small fishing boats. You might see fishermen cleaning their nets, discussing or preparing their small vessels.

There’s also a small wooden house where you can meet Mr Kostas, a lovely local fisherman who sells great fresh fish and seafood. If you have the luxury of a kitchen, buy some small fish and fry them in a pan with olive oil and accompany them with a fresh tomato and oregano, for a simple but delicious meal. If a kitchen is not on your list, you can pick one of the small restaurants around who serve quite good meals. Watch out for the prices, as many expensive gourmet restaurants exist around this area, amongst the small budget restaurants. Also, be careful-if it’s Sunday, or if there’s a full moon, the fish won’t be fresh so try to avoid it and choose seafood like octopus and squid. Alternatively, grab a coffee or any drink and chill behind the small church.

Cormorants drying their wings and the view of mountain Olympus

Cormorants drying their wings. On the back the view of Mountain Olympus

If you have an eye for birds, here you will find a lot of different species, from seagulls and ducks to cormorants, egrets and herons thanks to a wetland that exists just a few kilometers away from this marina. If on the other hand you have no eye for bird watching, just wait for the sunset. No matter the season, you will be rewarded with an amazing colorful sky which in combination with the view of the sailing and fishing boats that are around, will be one of the most peaceful sunset landscapes you have ever seen.

Need to get more into the history of the Old Town?

Check this post about the Unesco World Heritage Sites of the City: Thessaloniki, Greece: Five hidden treasures in the Old Town

Looking for a bike? Check these links out!                                                                                                              

Municipal bike network          Velib bike rental company                                                                                                                                                           Can’t find a bike? Contact us and we’ll do our best to help you!

Many thanks to Liz for  proofreading the post!

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