Athens, the capital of the country, was already the beating heart of ancient Greece. The two emblematic monuments of the destination remain: the citadel of the Acropolis on its hill and the temple of the Parthenon which overlooks it. On this site are concentrated many points of interest: the temple of Athena Nikê, the Agora, the Erechtheion, the temple of Hephaestus, the Propylaeas, the theatre of Dionysus, the Olympieion… The visit of the recent and splendid Acropolis Museum adds to the evocation of ancient Athens. On the way down from the Acropolis, enjoy the flowery alleys of Anafiotika and another highly touristic district: Plaka, with taverns, shops, souvenirs and museums (Jewish, Greek folk art, Frissiras). Popular and lively, discover Monastiraki, its flea market and its terraces where you can laze. For the lively evenings, head for the Psiri district and its many cafés. You will still have to visit the halls of the municipal market, attend the changing of the guard in front of the Parliament, visit other major museums (Benaki, Cycladic Art Museum, Byzantine Museum…), then climb to the top of the Lycabettus for its view of Athens! The modern city also deserves to be discovered. On Sundays, go for a walk in the bazaar of Avissynias Square to browse between fleas and antiques, before sitting on the terrace to drink and snack. And every day of the week it’s shopping in Ermou. For souvenirs, join the huge Vassilopoulos store in Plaka. And take the time to breathe and read your favourite tourist guide.
Here are the best things to do in Athens:
1. ACROPOLIS MUSEUM
A first architecture competition was launched in 1976. Ten years later, Mélina Mercouri relaunched the project, as part of her campaign and to provide a worthy setting for the friezes of the Parthenon in Greece. While serving as British ambassador to Constantinople, Lord Elgin (1766-1841) had indeed landed some of the most beautiful treasures of the Parthenon, which are still on display today at the British Museum, which has “custody” of them and is still opposed to their return. In 2000, the Agency for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum organised a new call for tenders within the European Union. It should have been completed for the 2004 Olympic Games, but it was worth the wait. Designed by the Franco-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, the new Acropolis Museum finally opened its doors in June 2009 after several years of work.
The present Parthenon is located on the site of an older temple, called the “Older Parthenon”, built in 490 BC and destroyed by the Persians in 480-479 BC. It was only under Pericles, in 447 BC, that work for the construction of a new temple dedicated to the goddess was undertaken. The building follows the plans of the famous Greek architects Ictinus and Callicrates.
3. NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF ATHENS
It takes 3 hours to visit this impressive national museum. Completed in 1888 and renovated in 2004, it houses an extraordinary collection that traces the richness of Greek civilization from the Neolithic period to the end of the Roman period. There are also two Egyptian rooms attached to the Greek collection.
The Acropolis is a naturally fortified site on three of its slopes, forcing visitors to access it from the west. This privileged position encouraged man to settle there as early as the Neolithic period: traces of dwellings have been found on the north-western slope.
5. ANCIENT AGORA
The agora is certainly the centre of any large Greek city: it is where political decisions are made, prisoners are tried and shops are also set up. Initially a simple esplanade, the Agora of Athens was gradually enriched with colonnaded porticoes where citizens could cool off. It took the form we know it today in the 6th century BC. The buildings then bordered the site on its western side, but were destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. During the rest of the 5th century, the Athenians rebuilt their Agora and decorated it with other buildings in the north and south. Shortly after 450 BC, construction began on the temple of Hephaestus, better known as Theseion, the one you can still see standing overlooking the entire site.
6. AREOPAGUS AND PNYX
A high place of Athenian democracy, the Areopagus is a large block of marble that constituted the high legal authority that judged the gods, heroes and men accused of murder. At the top of the hill that took the judges’ names, there was the stone of contempt, the seat of the accused, and the stone of resentment, the seat of the accuser. Saint Paul addressed the Athenians for the first time in 54 AD from this hill.
7. BENAKI MUSEUM
Anthoni Benaki spent 35 years collecting all these objects, dating from prehistoric times to the present day, which are now housed in this beautiful museum of neoclassical architecture. The collector donated his house and rare pieces to the State in 1931. A gigantic, very modern annex has also opened its doors on Peiraios Street, housing high-quality temporary exhibitions.
8. MUSEUM OF CYCLADIC ART
An impressive collection of artworks dating from the 3rd millennium BC, originating from the Aegean as well as objects from the 6th century BC and the Roman period. In the hall, small statuettes typical of the so-called Cycladic art.
9. ODEON OF HERODE ATTICUS
Going up from the theatre to the entrance to the Acropolis site, you are at the top of Herod Atticus’ odeon. This monument, probably completed around 161 AD, has all the characteristics of a Roman odeon, with columns at the back of the stage framing niches housing statues. Its exceptional state of conservation makes it one of the most interesting monuments of the site, and cultural events always take place within its walls. Herode Atticus, a native of Marathon and heir to a large fortune, spent a lot of money to build several public buildings throughout Greece. It was intended for musical and dramatic art competitions. 5,000 people could stay there, its walls were covered with marble slabs, as was the floor, which also included mosaics. The roof was probably made of cedar wood.
10. NATIONAL GALLERY OF ATHENS
It is the most important collection of paintings in Greece. Among many high quality works, we will see The Kiss of Lytras, Children Engagement of Ghyzis and some works by El Greco. Temporary exhibitions are always of excellent quality.
The Propylaeas are the huge colonnades you cross just before entering the sanctuary. They were built in 437 and 432 BC under Pericles to replace an older and narrower propylaea, to indicate that the site of the Acropolis now belonged to the people of Athens. The building was revolutionary for the time: it was the first propylaea to present a façade in the form of a temple. The central part of the Propylaeas consists of two porticoes with six columns, one opening onto the inside of the sanctuary and the other onto the outside of the site. The spaces between the columns served as a place of access for the devotees, while the central passage, wider, allowed the animals to pass through during sacrifices. The exterior columns are ionic, but the interior columns are Doric in order to respect the rules of harmonious mixing of styles. The Peloponnesian Wars interrupted the construction, which was never completed.
12. TEMPLE OF OLYMPIAN ZEUS
This site allows you to discover the remains of the colossal Temple of Zeus Olympian: 15 erected columns that are still very impressive. It must be said that this was the largest temple ever built in Greece! Begun by Pisistratus in the 6th century BC, it was completed 600 years later by Emperor Hadrian before being destroyed by the Barbarians. The setting sun bathed the surviving columns in a magnificent golden hue, and we can understand this stylite hermit who, in the 17th century, chose the top of one of them to install his cabin! The temple stands on a 360 x 140 feet base and had three rows of 8 columns on the facade and two rows of 20 columns on the sides! It is now difficult to walk between the columns because the place is frequently converted into a performance space.
13. THE ERECHTHEION
North of the Acropolis, the very elegant Erechtheion was erected in the 5th century BC at the very place where, according to the legend, Athena and Poseidon fought for the possession of Athens. It is next to this temple that the sacred olive tree of Athena would have grown and that the salt water well was located, a gift from Poseidon, whose trident would have left a mark on the northern wall of the building. The architect of the Erechtheion remained unknown, but he was able to exploit the irregularities of the ground to build a complex of several buildings on different levels. In this temple were worshipped several deities: Athena Polias, but also Poseidon and others still linked to the legendary history of Athens, such as Erechtheus to whom the temple owes its name. The temple is decorated with four porticoes on each side: the one on the southeast side, certainly the most famous, is the Caryatids. The Doric columns are replaced by female figures of perfect grace when you know the amount of weight they carry on their heads. In fact, it is their thick hair and the many folds in their clothing that reinforce the structure and allow the whole thing to remain standing.
14. BYZANTINE AND CHRISTIAN MUSEUM
Installed since 1930 in the very beautiful villa of the Duchess of Piacenza, this splendid museum houses objects dating back to the Byzantine period.
15. KERAMEIKOS CEMETERY
Small museum and open-air archaeological site. This very old cemetery, dating from the 13th century BC, offers a beautiful demonstration of the evolution of Greek architectural styles. The very rich Greeks were buried there, with their families and slaves.
16. THEATRE OF DIONYSUS
As you cross the entrance to the site of the Theatre of Dionysus, you enter the cradle of the ancient theatre. The greatest tragedians and comedians began there. At the origin of dramatic art, festivals were organized in the theatre in honour of the god Dionysus (god of wine and drunkenness) and gave rise to scenes mimed, sung and spoken.
17. PROTO NEKROTAFIO
Created in 1837 by King Otto, this cemetery is the oldest in Athens. Here lie many Greek celebrities such as the actress Melina Mercouri and more recently the singer Demis Roussos, as well as historical figures such as Theodoros Kolokotronis, the hero of the War of Independence, or Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who discovered Mycenae. Lose yourself in the cemetery to discover the magnificent marble stelae and sculptures, including that of the great Greek sculptor Yannoulis Chalepas
18. TEMPLE OF ATHENA NIKÈ
It is on your right as you climb the steps of the grand staircase. It was built under Pericles on the ruins of the Mycenaean bastion. The works were started in 437 BC, but interrupted by the Peloponnesian War and completed in 427-424 BC. The temple consists of a secos (residence of the god) and two ionic colonnades on the east and west facades. The Ionic friezes represented to the west the assembly of the twelve gods (still in place on the temple) and to the east, the Athenians fighting against the Persians and Greeks (it is in the British Museum). A legend tells us that it was from the top of this temple that Aegean watched for the arrival of his son who had gone to kill the Minotaur in Crete. Distinguishing in the distance the boat surmounted by the black sail signifying the death of his son, the king would have thrown himself into the sea that now bears his name.
19. WAR MUSEUM
Objects, weapons and reconstructions retracing the military history of Greece from antiquity to the Second World War. You can’t miss it, with its fighter planes displayed in the courtyard, overlooking the avenue.
20. MUSEUM OF GREEK FOLK MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
Phivos Anoyiannakis’ collection of musical instruments will delight all music lovers. Each exposed instrument can also be heard through headphones. Very informative, even for non-musicians.
- Featured image: “View from the Accropolis”by -Jeffrey- is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
- 1. ACROPOLIS MUSEUM: George E. Koronaios [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 2. PARTHENON: Steve Swayne [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 3. NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF ATHENS: Dimboukas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- 4. ACROPOLIS: Jebulon [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 5. ANCIENT AGORA: Jebulon [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 6. AREOPAGUS AND PNYX: George E. Koronaios [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 7. BENAKI MUSEUM: Palickap [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 8. MUSEUM OF CYCLADIC ART: Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 9. ODEON OF HERODE ATTICUS: Wikimedia user Nikthestunned [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 10. NATIONAL GALLERY OF ATHENS: Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- 11. PROPYLAEAS: Peulle [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 12. TEMPLE OF OLYMPIAN ZEUS: George E. Koronaios [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 13. THE ERECHTHEION: Wolfgang Moroder, [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 14. BYZANTINE AND CHRISTIAN MUSEUM: Tilemahos Efthimiadis from Athens, Greece [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 15. KERAMEIKOS CEMETERY: George E. Koronaios [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons