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Thessaloniki- a travel tale of disappointment and redemption

by Roberto
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Let me start by saying Thessaloniki was not my favourite city. It possessed an angry undertone that got under my skin. It was loud, chaotic, and a nightmare to drive in. The main attraction left me wanting more. It had everything for me that those who don’t like Athens, cited as their reasons for not liking it (mind you, how can people not like Athens). Perhaps the visit was marred by my visit to the forum in the rain, where I found myself on the broad of my back and in considerable pain. But while there I cast my mind back to what I really liked about Athens. In the end the Thessaloniki churches and colourful street art redeemed the city for me.

Perhaps it was a lot to ask of Thessaloniki to follow up Meteora and the Vikos Aoos National Park. I’d had an astounding three days exploring those areas in Northern Greece. Meteora is one of the most exceptional places in Europe, and the little-known national park is well up there too. After my initial disappointment at the city and a little internal to-and-fro, I made an old-fashioned church and street art hunt my purpose while in Thessaloniki. Of course, the title says disappointment and redemption. So before we get to the good, I have to tell the story of why the city got me down.

Driving was a headache

As I rolled into the city, I took an instant dislike. It seemed dirty, loud, and rundown. I was immediately delighted I’d only decided to spend one day there. What a blessing that was. I had at random picked a car park near the white tower to use, but when I tried to enter it I was chastised by a woman. An SUV came up the ramp towards me. Clearly, it was the exit, and I was another one of those tourists who had no idea where I was going. The bane of locals going about their everyday lives.

I circled the block searching for the actual entrance. Only to come to the conclusion that I actually had been right in the first place. So why then did I face the wrath of a local? Why also was an SUV on the entrance ramp? Confused and a little scared, I set off and found another car park, where valet parking and daylight robbery were practiced.

Worse was to follow. While it would have been easier to leave the car in the car park (or better still abandon it), I had to get it back to my hotel, the Mandrino Hotel, and the promise of free parking. It was only a matter of minutes away according to Google Maps. How hard could it be? Well…

First of all, let’s throw some road works into the mix. Even google maps couldn’t get its head around them and try as I might I couldn’t find a way to get towards the hotel. Then there were the one-way streets! Of course, I ended driving the wrong way up some of them, to the chagrin of other drivers. Should I mention the roundabouts? I’ve driven through roundabouts all over Europe and they all follow the same rules. Get on the roundabout, circle around, take your exit, easy as pie. Not here! I faced wrath for not moving around the roundabout quick enough. Then I was abused for not letting someone on in front of me. Head scratching!!

Eventually, I managed to reach my hotel, a full 40 minutes later than expected, and let out a sigh of relief as I left the car behind for the day.

So now that we have established that public transport is a good idea in Thessaloniki, lets move on.

The Roman Agora was a backache

While I can’t really point the finger of blame at Thessaloniki for this one, the Roman Agora left me with a huge backache. But it did leave a bitter taste in my mouth. On my second day in the city grey clouds replaced the sunny skies I had seen for my holiday so far, and the weather was a little more of what I am familiar with. Of course, rain means one thing, doesn’t it. Things are usually a little more slippy.

I had wandered around in the morning, waiting for the Agora to open, and left it as my last thing to do. It’s a huge site, built in the 2nd century, and its excavation has seen the amphitheater and corridors restored. Underground there’s a decent museum with a good deal of artifacts excavated from the site.

Mostly in ruins, the different levels are connected by metal ramps, which don’t take kindly to inclement weather. The staff though are vigilant and try to cordon them off. So only a person holding an umbrella and using their phone while walking could be stupid enough to walk down them.

Step up me!

After a few minutes of writhing in agony, I realised no one was coming to help me, and pulled myself to my feet. Perhaps unwisely, I continued touring the Agora. The walk back to the hotel was rough. Getting to the airport with my luggage was even worse. The flight home was complete torture. That little “stunt” earned me a week off work. If only I had held onto my stick from Meteora…

Pottery from the Roman Agora Museum

When attractions aren’t so attractive

My first port of call was the White Tower. It’s Thessaloniki’s big attraction overlooking the bay. Impressive architecture on the exterior, its winding stairs led to five floors of archaeological museum exhibits. But ultimately all it is is a tower. I’m a big fan of a good museum, but a bad museum, I’d rather give a wide pass to. It didn’t take many floors of that big windy circular staired tower to realise, that the stairs held more interest than the exhibits. The roof had excellent views but I left with a certain sense of disappointment. Maybe they could try a lean; it worked for Pisa.

The White Tower by night

As I walked the centre an anticlimactic feeling overcame me. If the city’s big attraction wasn’t all it was copped to be the what hope was there? It was at this point I took a step back and focused on the churches and street art. Turns out they are an even better attractions than the Agora or the Tower. Here’s the best of them.

Thessaloniki Churches

The Rotunda

Let’s start with the best, and the oldest. Built by Roman emperor Galerius in the 4th century as a temple, the church has survived 1700 years. It reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome, with a huge dome that its 30 metres high at its central point. The walls are 6 metres thick, which has made the Rotunda earthquake proof. After the fall of the Roman empire it was converted to a church, and that is when its extraordinary mosaics were added. It’s incredible how long they have adorned the ceiling of this structure.

During the Ottoman occupation of the 14th century it served as a mosque also, and a minaret attests to this. To this day, it still functions as a church on certain occasions. Incredible. The Rotunda is the recipient of a UNESCO World Heritage Site award. Thessaloniki was looking up.

The Rotunda - The finest of Thessaloniki churches

Agios Georgiou Church

This little church is right beside the Rotunda. It’s an Eastern Orthodox church, and has a pretty entrance and little bell tower. In fact its so small that’s all I could learn about it. Moving on…

One of the cutest churches in Thessaloniki

Holy Church of Panagia Dexia

Visitors to this 20th century Byzantine church on Dikastirion Square will be treated to a remarkable interior. It’s what you expect of a Byzantine church in this part of the world, with murals in excellent condition. It’s well lit too, so suits photographers, as this can often be a issue in the more darkly lit older churches.

Church of the Transfiguration of the saviour

 This tiny little church is one of 15 Paleo-christian and Byzantine churches in the city of Thessaloniki that are considered UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You’ll find the Church of the Savior on Egnatia Street, unusually surrounded by modern buildings. But it doesn’t take away from it. The church and its interior wall paintings are dated to the 14th century, but an earthquake in 1988, brought to light some new discoveries to suggest it might be older. It is suspected that it was part of a larger monastery structure, and may have been a funerary monument. It survived the Ottoman invasion without any changes, as it was considered too small to change.

Church of St Demetrius

The Church of St Demetrios is dedicated to the patron saint of Thessaloniki. It is also part of the Palaeochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki. The church marks the place where Saint Demetrius was martyred in the 4th century, in the crypts below. This was once a Roman bath, and it is still accessible to this day. While the church was famous for mosaics, these were significantly destroyed in a fire of 1917. A few have survived as has the iconostasis. Still intact though is the unusual ciborium (new word for the day), a hexagonal domed structure that is found to the side of the nave. It symbolically commemorates the saint. Inside is a bed. I’ll be honest I thought it was a tomb. Need to work on my Greek.

Church of Panagia Chalkeon

Falling into the bracket of the 11th century Thessaloniki Churches is the Church of Panagia Chalkeon. This one is famed too for the frescos that got away. Most have fallen down, with only a few still standing the test of time. It’s history follows the same timeline of others too Church-Mosque-Earthquake-Rebuilt.

Hagia Sophia Cathedral

A church has stood on the site of the Hagia Sophia (otherwise known as Agia Sophia) since the third century, but the one seen today dates to the 8th. It was modeled on the Hagia Sophia church in Instanbul. Naturally it went through the same transformations as the other Thessalonki churches in the city, as it bounced from church, to mosque, and back again.

The interior decoration is more muted than in others locally, with many of its gold mosaics plastered over following the fire, and then earthquake. Doesn’t mean its not worth a visit though, and its dome mosaic is one of the few surviving from earlier times. It depicts the ascension, surrounded by the holy apostles, the virgin Mary and Angels.

Agia Sofia Cathedral _Thessaloniki churches

This is by no means an exhaustive list of Thessaloniki churches, and as the Palaeochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki comprises 15 different sites, doing it all in a 24 hour visit would be exhausting. Regrettably I didn’t get to see the Vlatadon Monastery in the Ano Poli in upper town, a large complex known for its brilliant mosaics. I was too busy “falling” for Thessaloniki. While I did get to Agios Nikolaos Orphanos (pictured below), I didn’t get there within its limited opening hours. With time it’s worth seeking out the 5th century Church of the Acheiropoietos, the Saint Gregory Palamas church, and the Church of Agioi Apostoloi.

Thessaloniki churches

While it’s not a church, this boat that offers tours is worth a mention. A thing of beauty. It’s one of a number of excellent tours and excusions from Thessaloniki, which can be booked through Get Your Guide below. They are one of our corporate partners, and using the link will earn me a small commission, at no extra cost to you.

Thessaloniki boat tours

The Best Ancient street art

The Roman emperor Galerius commissioned an arch to be built in his honour, and his victory in a battle in the late 3rd century. Not vain at all. It linked directly to the Rotunda at this time. The Arch of Galerius is a magnificent structure, 12.5 metres high and featured 8 pillars. Marble was used for the relief on the pillars, and the scenes depict the victory of the Romans over the Persians. It’s quite something.

Thessaloniki Street art City

A quick on the ground Google search brought up a map of the local street art. If that map still exists I can’t find it. Whether the art below still exists is another question, street art is a constantly evolving feature of modern cities. What isn’t in doubt is that the street art of Thessaloniki is excellent. Huge murals cover the sides of many buildings, while some streets seem to be the hub for local artists. I’m not going to profess to being an expert on the local art scene, I personally didn’t understand much, but appreciated it nonetheless. For those interested in walking in my footsteps I have included the street location in the description on each of the murals. For those who prefer to be led to their street art there is a local company providing street art tours. I can’t vouch for them, but I’m happy to recommend. This is the best of the street art I myself uncovered on my 24 hours in Thessaloniki.

Thessaloniki street art
Thessaloniki street art
Olimpou 110

Where to stay in Thessaloniki

After hunting Thessaloniki churches and street art all day, you need a good bed to rest that head. I stayed at the Mandrino Hotel, a solid budget option perfect for an overnighter. The city isn’t short on options, and is relatively cheap compared to the more touristic parts of Greece.


In the end, Thessaloniki may have won me over. It isn’t a city I’ll be charging back to, but I still consider myself richer for having visited. Would you consider visiting Greece’s other metropolis?

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