Almost all the Byzantine churches in Thessaloníki are located in the central districts or on the slopes heading up towards the Upper Town. Under the Turks most of the buildings were converted for use as mosques, a process that obscured many of their original features and destroyed the majority of their frescoes and mosaics. Further damage came with the 1917 fire and, more recently, with the 1978 earthquake. Restoration seems a glacially slow process, meaning that many sanctuaries remain locked. Nevertheless, those below are all worth a visit and free to enter.
One of the most central is the eleventh-century Panayía Halkéon church (daily 7.30am–noon), a classic though rather unimaginative example of the “cross-in-square” form, nestling at the lush southwestern corner of Platía Dhikastiríon. Its interior contains fragmentary frescoes in the cupola and some fine icons.
Several blocks east, and tucked away just out of sight north of Egnatía, the restored, fifth-century, three-aisled basilica of Panayía Ahiropíitos (daily 7am–noon & 4.30–6.30pm) is the oldest in the city. It features arcades, monolithic columns and highly elaborate capitals – a popular development begun under Theodosius. Only the mosaics inside the arches survive, depicting birds, fruits and vegetation in a rich Alexandrian style.
Around Áyios Dhimítrios are several more churches, utterly different in feel. To the west along Ayíou Dhimitríou is the church of Dhódheka Apóstoli (daily 8.30am–noon & 4–6pm), built in the twelfth century with the bold Renaissance influence of Mystra. Its five domes rise in perfect symmetry above walls of fine brickwork, while inside are glorious fourteenth-century mosaics, among the last executed in the Byzantine empire. High up in the arches to the south, west and north of the dome respectively are a Nativity, an Entry into Jerusalem, a Resurrection and a Transfiguration.
A short climb up Ayías Sofías is Ósios Dhavíd (Mon–Sat 9am–noon & 4–6pm), a tiny fifth-century church on Odhós Timothéou. It doesn’t really fit into any architectural progression, since the Ottomans demolished much of the building when converting it to a mosque. However, it has arguably the finest mosaic in the city, depicting a clean-shaven Christ Emmanuel appearing in a vision, with the four Rivers of Paradise, replete with fish, flowing beneath and lapping the feet of the prophets Ezekiel and Habakkuk.
Farther east in Kástra, on Irodhótou, fourteenth-century Áyios Nikólaos Orfanós (Tues–Sun 8.30am–2.45pm) is a diminutive, much-altered basilica; the imaginative and well-preserved frescoes inside are the most accessible and expressive in the city. It also houses the unusual Áyion Mandílion, an image of Christ’s head superimposed on a legendary Turin-style veil sent to an ancient king of Anatolian Edessa. Around the apse is a wonderful Niptir (Christ Washing the Disciple’s Feet), in which the image top right of a man riding a horse is thought to be the painter himself.