While tours in Greece are renowned for visiting ancient ruins, picturesque islands, and vibrant traditions, there is a lesser-known aspect of its heritage that often goes unnoticed – the profound Jewish history that weaves its way through the country.
Greece served as a gateway for Jewish communities on their journey to the rest of Europe. Among them were the Romaniote Jews, who have resided in Greece since the Hellenistic era, tracing their roots back to the 3rd century B.C. After them came waves of Sephardic Jews who found a new home in Greece, particularly in cities such as Thessaloniki, Kavala, and Rhodes.
During World War II, 87% of Greece’s Jewish population ended up in concentration camps. Communities such as Preveza and Serres were entirely wiped out, and those of Thessaloniki and Ioannina were forever transformed.
Today, around 5,000 Greek Jews reside in nine Jewish communities across the country. Whether you’re on private tours in Greece, Jewish tours in Greece, and other tours in Greece, these Jewish centers are some of the best places to visit in the country.
But how do you navigate the best places for Jewish tours in Greece? We’ve written this guide based on cities so you can decide which cities to focus on.
Is there a Jewish community in Greece?
There is a Jewish community in Greece. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews live in Greece. Most are centered in Athens, Thessalonica, and other smaller towns.
Is Greece a good location for families?
Greece is one of the best destinations to bring families. There are wonderful beaches, great food, fascinating history, and friendly people. It’s a destination sure to make an impact on kids.
Is Greece expensive for tourists?
Compared to many other destinations, Greece is a pretty affordable option for a European vacation. There are ways to make the vacation even more affordable, such as avoiding more touristy destinations and staying in budget-friendly hotels.
Athens: A Historical Hub
A city that has been flourishing for ages, with many Jewish people living in it through different times. The Jews were also involved in the commerce life of Athens when the silk road was alive. Here are a few historic amazing places for you to visit in Athens and connect with your Jewish roots:
1. Acropolis and the Ancient Agora
One of the most exciting things to do on tours in Greece is to go to Athens and head up to Acropolis Hill. There, you can see the Ancient Agora to see the ancient ruins and lush greenery. Once the bustling center of Athens in antiquity, the Agora witnessed political gatherings, jury trials, and the pulse of daily life.
Discover the remnants of private houses and the impressive structures erected by Peisistratus, the tyrant who transformed the Agora into the heart of Athenian governance. Marvel at the well-preserved temple of Hephaestus and explore the recently renovated Stoa of Attalus, now a captivating museum housing archaeological treasures.
Learn more about the Greece experience here.
2. Jewish Museum of Greece
The Jewish Museum of Greece is dedicated to preserving and showcasing over 2,300 years of Jewish life in Greece. Founded in 1977, the museum’s mission is to collect, research, and exhibit material evidence that reflects the vibrant history and traditions of the Greek Jewish communities.
The museum’s permanent exhibition areas, art gallery, research library, educational programs, and conservation laboratory provide visitors a comprehensive and immersive experience.
3. Synagogue of Athens
When exploring the best places to visit on a Jewish tour of Greece or private tours in Greece, Athens offers a rich tapestry of heritage and history. Begin your journey at the stunning main synagogue, an exquisite white marble building that has graced the city since 1935. Step inside and behold the beauty of the meticulously renovated interior, featuring two captivating stained-glass windows depicting abstract designs representing Genesis and Exodus.
Athens is home to Ets Hayim, a Romaniote synagogue located just opposite Beth Shalom. Built in 1904, this small synagogue offers a glimpse into the Romaniote Jewish community’s rich traditions and practices. Athens has many captivating sites for those on a Jewish tour of Greece, and these synagogues are must-visit destinations that showcase the cultural and historical wealth of the Jewish community in the city.
Thessaloniki: A Vibrant Jewish Community
1. Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki
Visit the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, established in 2001 within an old commercial arcade owned by the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. The museum collects and preserves documents and heirlooms that survived the Holocaust, highlighting the history of Jews in Thessaloniki for over 2,000 years.
Explore tombstones salvaged from the destroyed Jewish Cemetery, architectural fragments of synagogues demolished by German Occupation Authorities, religious artifacts, rare Hebrew books, family mementos, marriage contracts (ketubot), World War II-related documents, personal correspondence, traditional garments, fabrics, tablecloths, books, and bank account booklets from before 1940.
In recent years, the museum has expanded its exhibition space, introducing the “Holocaust Victims Room” with marble inscriptions listing the names of 27,000 identified victims.
The institution embraces a philosophy of “The Museum outside of the Museum,” utilizing digital applications to encourage city tours highlighting places of Jewish interest.
2. Monastirioton Synagogue
During the Nazi occupation, the synagogue became the heart of the ghetto established in the heart of Thessaloniki. As the Jewish population was transported to concentration camps, this sacred space took on a new role, serving as a warehouse for the Red Cross. Today, the synagogue is the meeting place for Thessaloniki’s Jewish community.
3. Villa Allatini
This awe-inspiring building, constructed in 1888, stands as one of the city’s most impressive architectural gems.
The villa served as the grandest and most opulent residence in the Countryside District, a region in Eastern Thessaloniki where affluent families built their stately manor houses.
Rhodes: A Haven of Jewish History
Mentioned as early as the 2nd century B.C. in the Book of Maccabees, evidence of the Jewish presence on Rhodes has endured through time. Historical accounts, including those of Josephus and the Spanish traveler Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, further attest to the Jewish population of Rhodes in different periods.
1. Kahal Shalom Synagogue
The Kahal Shalom Synagogue is the oldest functioning synagogue in Greece and the sole remaining one on the island. Located in the Jewish Quarter, known as “La Juderia,” the Kahal Shalom was built in 1577. The Jewish community of Rhodes has a long and fascinating history dating back to ancient times, with a significant influence from Sephardic Jews who fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. The descendants of these refugees spoke Ladino, a language similar to modern-day Spanish.
The black and white mosaic stone patterns adorning the floor reflect the distinctive design motifs found throughout the Old City of Rhodes. The Kahal Shalom sanctuary still bears numerous religious wall paintings, providing a captivating glimpse into its spiritual and artistic significance.
2. Jewish Museum of Rhodes
Established in 1997, the museum starts with a photographic exhibition showcasing prewar Jewish life on Rhodes, the museum encompasses all the rooms of the ex-women’s section in the Kahal Shalom Synagogue.
The museum’s collection includes donated artifacts from Rhodian diaspora members, such as Judaica items, historical documents, religious books, costumes, and domestic textiles.
From April to October, the museum is open for daily visits, providing tours of the synagogue, museum, and the Jewish quarter. During the rest of the year, appointments are required.
Crete: An Island of Diversity
Jews settled on Crete and formed a middle class, engaging in commerce and trade. They faced restrictions and occasional hostility from the Greek population. The Etz Hayyim synagogue in Chania is the only remnant of the pre-war Jewish community. It has been restored and serves as a connection to the island’s Jewish past. Jewish leaders from mainland Greece offer support and assist with services.
1. Etz Hayyim Synagogue
Etz Hayyim Synagogue was revived almost 50 years after the devastating deportation of the island’s Jewish community by Nazi Germany in 1944.
Today, Etz Hayyim serves as an active place of worship, catering to the needs of a diverse and multinational Havurah (fraternity). It is also a vibrant community and cultural center, hosting a wide range of events such as exhibitions, lectures, readings, films, and concerts.
2. Chania Old Town
Chania is a place where you’ll likely find yourself staying longer than planned, enjoying delicious food, the picturesque harbor, and stunning old buildings with unique architecture.
The city seamlessly blends Venetian, Turkish, traditional, and modern architectural styles, creating a harmonious and visually appealing environment.
The city’s ancient harbor has been a significant crossroad for civilizations throughout history, welcoming Minoans and witnessing the rise and fall of different empires. Chania has been conquered by various powers, including Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Turks, Hebrews, Egyptians, and Arabs, until it gained liberation in the 19th century and eventually became part of independent Greece.
Chania is also surrounded by remarkable destinations for sightseeing, exploration, and discovery. Mountain villages provide glimpses into the heart of Crete, while breathtaking gorges like Samaria offer opportunities for hiking. Archaeological sites abound, allowing visitors to delve deeper into the island’s rich history.
Greece is filled with unique places to visit. Learn more with our Jewish travel agency.