Although Greece’s largest city and capital, Athens, is about a thousand years older, Thessaloniki still dates back to the 3rd Century BCE. It is the nation's second largest city, boasting a population of around one million, with about a third of the residents living in the city center. Although it certainly has its share of tourist attractions – even cruise ships visiting regularly- we found a big difference in feel between Athens and Thessaloniki.

During the Byzantine era, Thessaloniki was the second only to Constantinople as a center for trade and culture. It was the site of one of the earliest and most important Christian churches during the Roman Empire, having been visited by Paul the Apostle around 50 AD. That first church should be well known to most Bible readers, as the books First and Second Thessalonians are Paul’s letters to the church.

In any waterfront town, we like to begin our exploration by walking along the coast. Thessaloniki does not disappoint, with a wide pedestrian walk that runs for miles along the Thermaic Gulf. Our AirBnB was just a few blocks from the port, so it was a pleasant walk down the street between rows of restaurants with outdoor seating and chalkboards proclaiming their specials of the day.

Just one of the streets of restaurants for locals and the cruise ships

We had barely started out when we ran into a marvelous distraction – the Aega Ice Cream Shop, proudly advertising their goat-milk ice cream. We of course had to stop and sample a few flavors. Turns out goat milk makes for some delicious and creamy treats.

Goat milk ice cream, Who knew?

Back on the walkway, we passed benches for admiring the view, periodic steps for accessing the water, and fishermen trying their luck. In the distance we could see one of our future goals, the White Tower. But since we had arrived in the late afternoon, our objective was just to look around a bit and stop to pick up a few supplies.

The Thessaloniki waterfront

We turned north and left the water at Aristotelous (Aristotle) Square. This is the gathering place of the city center; a wide, public square used for political speeches and rallies, but also for cultural events and fairs. In fact, there was a fair going on as we arrived, featuring energy saving devices and electronic vehicles. The square is framed on the north by two quarter-circled and beautiful buildings. One is the five-star Electra Palace Hotel, complemented on the other side of the arc by the Olymion Theatre cinema and bar. Going north from the square are at least five more blocks of parks and green spaces.

Aristotle Square

The Electra Palace Hotel

We found a great little restaurant just a block from our AirBnB, and enjoyed our first of many fine meals in Thessaloniki.

Welcome to our neighborhood

Shrimp risotto for me ...

... Caesar Salad with Chicken for Rita

I should mention something we noticed in Athens and again here in Thessaloniki: cats rule. In both cities, cats are everywhere, strolling around like they own the place. They are not mangy strays, either. Locals leave out food and water, and will even take them into the vet for shots and flea treatment.

Sorry, this table is taken

The next day we were up early, and set out to see the White Tower of Thessaloniki, the best-known and most visible historic site along the waterfront. Built by the Ottomans in the 15th century it has served as an observation tower, a fortification, an infamous prison, and finally now a museum and a great place to get a view of the city.

The first thing you notice about the White Tower is that it is not particularly white. It has been known by many names over the years, like the Lion’s Tower, Fortress of Kalamaria, and even the grisly Blood Tower during much of the 19th century when it was a place of executions. It was not known as the White Tower until 1890, when a convict struck a bargain; in exchange for his freedom, he would whitewash the prison.

We purchased a combo pass that allowed us to visit this site and four others. Wending your way up the stone steps inside the brick and stone edifice, you must stoop a bit to avoid making contact with the ceiling. 

Watch your head!

At each floor on the 111-foot climb to the top viewing platform, you can take a break and explore displays of the history of the city and the tower. The view from the top is worth the climb. There’s a wonderful 180-degree view of the bay and the waterfront, and you can see parts of the old City Walls at the top of the acropolis.

The Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki is just a short walk from the White Tower, and is one of the best museums of its kind in Eastern Europe. 

Outside, there is a garden area and open-air exhibits of sarcophagi, stone monuments, altars, living areas from the Imperial era, and more. Inside the museum is an impressive and comprehensive collection of artifacts from the region covering over 200,000 years for history. I think this would be the result if you asked me to make a statue of a person.

Metal work, everyday household tools, jewelry, mosaics, artwork, statues, tombs – even a skeleton on display inside its coffin. Plan to spend an enjoyable few hours in this fascinating museum.

A bad hair day

The Museum of Byzantine Culture is also included in the combo pass, with the same entrance fees and hours as the Archeological Museum. As you may guess from the name, this museum deals mostly with the Byzantine Era, displaying works of art and examples of the changing culture of the region. There is a large collection of statues and art from the early Christian church in Macedonia as well.

The Rotunda of Galerius is the last stop on the combo pass. The Rotunda is the oldest church in Macedonia, and when it was built the Arch was connected to the Rotunda by a road and walkway. They were ordered built by the 4th century Roman emperor Galerius around 306 BCE. It is thought that he wanted to use the massive cylindrical Rotunda as his mausoleum, but it began its long history as a polytheist church.

The Rotunda of Galerius

Palace of Galerius, and interior below

Over the centuries polytheism gave way to Christian worship only to be converted to a mosque by the Ottomans in the 16th century, who added a minaret which still stands. When the Greeks once again gained control of the city, it became a Greek Orthodox church. Today it is an historical monument, with digs being conducted around the grounds.

The beautiful Burial Monument to Saint Theodorus is just a block from a modern indoor marketplace and across the street from a fish market.  

Inside St. Theodorus

Just one small section of the painted ceilings at St. Theodorus

Seafood market across the street

There’s a giant brick bath house hidden behind a street of flower vendors, and an upscale bakery and pastry shop on the first floor of an old Roman-style white marble building. 

Flower vendor

Ancient bathhouse

Just desserts

There seemed to be something of interest no matter where we wandered in the City Center.

Plenty more to see in Thessaloniki. In Part 2, we'll check out the Old City, a monastery, and the Greek's own Hagia Sophia.

Follow the adventures of Jim and Rita in real time as they try out the roving retirement lifestyle on the podcast "Travels With Jim and Rita".