Touring The Ancient World In Thessaloniki15 August, 2017
Tourism in Greece tends to call two main options to mind. Those are the ancient (and current) capital of Athens, and the hundreds of dazzling islands sprawled out across the sea. The former is a fascinating place to visit, albeit surprisingly crowded and a little bit difficult to navigate. The latter is a terrific option if you’re primarily hoping to relax and soak up some natural beauty.
But if you’re interested in Greece as one of the most vital nations in the history of mankind, Thessaloniki is also worth considering for a visit. It’s north of Athens on the Thermaic Gulf, not too far from the Macedonian border. It was founded in 315 B.C. and has been one of the biggest and most influential Greek cities for most of the time since. Even today it’s the second biggest city in the country, and one that does a wonderful job of blending ancient attractions with modern convenience.
There are plenty of standard vacation activities you can get up to should you choose to visit Thessaloniki like trying authentic Greek restaurants or spending time on the Aegean Sea. But the real joy of staying a few days in this particular Greek city is how much history you can soak up. Here’s our look at the sights you should make it your business to visit.
The Roman Rotunda
This is a very interesting building largely because of its blended religious histories. It’s considered to be a sacred destination, but oddly enough that’s not just because of one religious group or culture. Indeed, it has connections to both the Roman afterlife and the Christian and Muslim faiths. The Rotunda was first built by Emperor Galerius in the 300s and used as a mausoleum—possibly intended as the emperor’s own resting place, though he wound up being buried in present day Serbia. Soon after the death of Galerius the Rotunda was turned into a Christian church, and some time after the Ottomans conquered Thessaloniki in the 15th century, it was converted once more —this time into a mosque. Today, the building shows signs of all three stages. The construction is that of a mausoleum, the art inside is distinctly Christian, and outside the building is Thessaloniki’s only minaret.
The Arch Of Galerius
While we’re on Galerius, his arch is probably the most distinctly ancient-looking structure in Thessaloniki. It’s basically a towering gateway to what would have been the ancient city, and it dates back to the late-3rd century. Remarkably, you can still see carved reliefs in its columns, depicting the stories of some of Galerius’s military campaigns abroad.
Mt. Olympus is the stuff of fairy tales to a lot of us. We see it illustrated in children’s books about mythology, and we see it depicted spectacularly in fantasy films. It even serves as the backdrop to an online video game about the “gods of Olympus.” That a modern digital slot reel uses the home of the Greek and Roman gods as a thematic core isn’t particularly surprising. What may be more surprising to some who are less familiar with Greece outside mythology and ancient history is that it’s also a very real mountain. It’s located just a short distance to the south of Thessaloniki, and you can easily work in a sightseeing trip, or even a hike through the Olympus range.
For much of its history Thessaloniki was a walled town. Some of the ancient city walls were actually used to fend off King Pyrrhus, the namesake of the term “Pyrrhic Victory.” But it was Constantine the Great of Byzantium who built the sturdiest version of the Thessalonian walls, and you can still see some of the ramparts today.
These aren’t just littered around the city, though you have to wonder what you might find underground in such an ancient city. Rather, they’re at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, which is absolutely worth your time. There’s a lot to see, but the museum’s permanent exhibitions are stunning, including ancient Macedonian artifacts like bits of armor, stone reliefs, and pottery.
The White Tower
This isn’t quite as ancient as most of the items on our list, but it may be the most pleasant attraction to visit. It’s essentially a giant cylindrical rampart, built by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century and situated right by the water. You don’t really have to arrange any kind of tour or special trip to see it. You can simply enjoy its impressive presence on an afternoon walk by the sea.