Greece was the last country on the European leg of my RTW trip, but what a way to finish! Greece is one of my favorite countries in Europe due to so many reasons: the delicious food, the fascinating history, the incredible ruins, the beautiful mountains, and of course the gorgeous Greek isles. I had already visited Greece on a couple of previous occasions, but this was my first visit to the northern part of the country, which is sadly overlooked by most visitors.
My first stop in Greece was the city of Thessaloniki, which is the 2nd largest city in the country. However, compared to the capital Athens, Thessaloniki is much prettier and has a more laid back feel. It’s also easily walkable (although be prepared to sweat like I did if you visit during the summer), even though the city is quite hilly. One thing that you should be prepared for is the erratic opening time for many of the attractions. For example, some sights are only open between 10 AM – 3 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I think the odd and reduced opening hours is primarily due to the poor state of the current Greek economy. Also, even during the listed hours, some attractions will still not be open. Because of this, there were a few things on my list that I didn’t get to see when I visited Thessaloniki, so be prepared that the same might happen during your visit.
Thessaloniki just oozes history wherever you walk, from Roman ruins to medieval towers to old churches. There are also new discoveries being made all the time, which usually happens whenever any kind of construction work is undertaken. One of the most interesting places, located in the heart of the city, is the Galerius Palace complex. Built by the Roman emperor Galerius in the 4th century, the complex consists of the ruins of his palace, the Galerius Arch, and the Rotunda, all connected with one another via a straight line (which was formerly a major Roman street). Similar in appearance to the Pantheon in Rome, the Rotunda was initially built as a Roman temple of worship, but was later converted into a Christian church by the emperor Constantine. The Rotunda is not only the oldest church in Thessaloniki, but also one of the oldest in the world! The ceiling of the Rotunda is decorated with huge and beautiful mosaics that are nearly 1700 years old. Just a couple of minutes walk from the Rotunda is the Arch of Galerius, which was built to celebrate the emperors’ victory over the Persians. Although the arch has been partially destroyed, the remaining portion contains some beautiful and elaborately detailed relief carvings portraying battle scenes and the victory of the Romans. Finally, a few minutes walk further on will take you to the ruined palace of Galerius, which is actually situated a few meters below the level of present day Thessaloniki. If you’re lucky enough to visit when it’s open, you can descend a staircase for a close-up look of some of the remaining mosaics and columns. Otherwise, you’ll have to do like I did and admire it from afar by peering over the handrail.
A few blocks uphill from the Galerius Palace complex is the Greek Agora and Roman forum. Originally built as a central meeting place by the Macedonians, it was converted by the Romans a few centuries later into an area containing shops, baths, and a theatre. Excavations are still ongoing, but during opening hours you can still wander around freely, even checking out some of the areas that are now underground. It’s interesting to see the contrast between old and new, as the Roman forum is located in the heart of the city and is now surrounded by high-rise buildings.
Scattered throughout the city are several Byzantine (now Greek Orthodox) churches that were built in the early centuries AD. It’s well worth stopping inside for a few minutes to check out the ancient frescoes that adorn their walls. Some of the more interesting ones (aside from the Rotunda) are the Church of Agios Dimitrios and the Agia Sofia. The Agios Dimitrios also has a crypt that you can visit, if you come at the right time of course (I didn’t).
One of the most recognizable symbols of Thessaloniki is the White Tower. Built as a defense fortification during the 16th century when the city was under Ottoman rule, the White Tower is usually crowded with tourists but offers great views of the city and harbor from the top. Also, inside the tower, spread across multiple floors, is a fairly interesting museum that documents the history of Thessaloniki from ancient times until the present day.
Probably the most interesting neighborhood of Thessaloniki is Ano Poli, or the Upper Town. This is the only part of the city that survived a huge fire that occurred around 100 years ago, and because of that, the streets and architecture look completely different from the rest of the city. With its narrow, winding streets and small squares, Ano Poli preserves the Ottoman feel that dominated most of the city for several hundred years. This is also where you can see the surviving part of the Byzantine walls that once surrounded most of the city. Because the Upper Town is located on a hill overlooking the harbor, it’s a fantastic place to visit during the evening to watch the sunset. Also, while it seems easy to get lost because of the winding, Ottoman-style streets, all you have to do is start walking downhill and eventually you’ll find yourself back in the Lower Town. Another way to avoid getting lost is to take one of the fantastic free walking tours.
Thessaloniki is located in the region of Macedonia (not to be confused with the country), which is where Alexander the Great hailed from. Therefore, there are a number of major historic sites not far from Thessaloniki that are well worth visiting while you’re in the area. Two of these include Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and Vergina, which is where Alexander’s father King Phillip II is buried. Pella was the former capital of Macedonia during the era of Alexander the Great, and was one of richest and most powerful cities in the world during that time. Visiting the remains of this sprawling city, you can see the ruins of huge houses that are elaborately decorated with 2000-year-old mosaics, some of which are very well preserved. There is also an interesting museum on site, which contains artifacts and skeletons that were discovered during excavations (which are still ongoing). At Vergina, you can see the actual tomb of King Phillip II, who was the first person to establish a united Greek state. Incredibly, while the site contains other royal tombs which had long since been looted, Phillip II’s tomb was discovered completely intact! The in situ museum contains extensive relics, including armor, jewelry, and gold regalia that were buried along with Phillip II and the other kings. Unfortunately photographs are not allowed on the site.
One final tip: If you don’t have a chance to venture out of Thessaloniki to visit some of the historic sites in northern Greece (or even if you do), be sure to check out the fantastic archaeological museum in Thessaloniki. The museum is huge and well organized, containing fascinating exhibits that span thousands of years of history. Be sure not to miss the Derveni papyrus, a philosophical manuscript that was written in the 5th century BC. It is considered to be the oldest surviving book that was written in Europe!
Following my visit to Macedonian Greece, I headed towards the region of Meteora in the center of the country to witness towering cliffs and the ancient monasteries that were built upon them.