Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Athens
The Acropolis (Akropolis) means 'city on a hill' and dates from the 5th century BC. Dominated by its main temple, the Parthenon, the Acropolis can be seen from all around the city of Athens. In 510 BC, the Delphic Oracle told Pericles that this hill should be a place to worship the gods so he set about an ambitious building project which took half a century and employed both Athenians and foreigners. It reflects the wealth and power of Greece at the height of its cultural and influence.
Even now, the Classical architecture of the temples influences the building styles of our modern cities. But the thick pollution of Athens has taken its toll on the gleaming white marble of which the temples are made, as have souvenir-hunters, including the British Government who still have the famous Elgin Marbles (a frieze from the Parthenon) in the British Museum. These days the area is heavily protected, undergoing restoration, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus (or Olympieio) has been a ruin almost since it was built. The Athenian rulers who began its construction in the 6th century BC set out to build the greatest temple in the world, but it was not actually finished until about the 2nd century AD (over 600 years late!) by the Roman emperor Hadrian. By then it was the largest temple in Greece, bigger than the Parthenon. In the 3rd century AD it was looted by barbarians and its glory days were over. Since then it has slowly fallen into ruin.
The temple was dedicated to the worship of Zeus, king of the gods of Mount Olympus, and once contained a massive statue of the god. Of this, there is no trace and only fifteen of its original 104 columns still stand. Over the centuries much of its marble has been recycled or stolen for other temples, or perhaps, over the centuries, a bit of garden paving.
Until the 17th century, the Acropolis stayed largely intact until being hit by gunpowder, a Venetian bombing and tourists. After the creation of the Greek State, it was decided that a museum was needed to protect the heritage of Ancient Greece. The first museum was built in 1865 but it was replaced in 2007 with the new 25,000 square meter (6.2 acre) museum near the base of the Acropolis.
Today the Acropolis Museum (Museo Akropoleos) houses original pieces from the temples of the Acropolis. In the Parthenon Gallery, the famous marble frieze is recreated with both original marbles and casts.
The Archaic Gallery has statues which pre-date even the Acropolis itself, and the Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis shows items used by earlier settlers.
Greece is where the Olympic Games began in the 11th century BC, as a festival dedicated to the god Zeus. The first modern Olympics was held in Athens in 1896 in the Panathinaiko Stadium, a 4th century BC stadium which was restored for the games. When Athens won the right to hold the 2004 games, people wondered if the chaotic and polluted city could make it work; they did. The result was a rebuilding program which re-invigorated the city and its transport system.
The Olympic Stadium of 2004 was originally built in the early 1980s for the European Olympic Championships and was remodeled by famous architect Santiago Calatrava for 2004. It seats around 70,000 and is now home to the major Athens football clubs and concerts. The stadium is called Spiros Louis Stadium after the winner of the 1896 marathon.
Plaka is the oldest residential district of Athens. Its historic narrow lanes and stepped alleys wind up the lower slope of the Acropolis. Once the heart of working class Athens, then the centre of music and nightclubbing, nowadays it's full of cafes and restaurants, also shops which tend to be aimed at tourists with prices to match. But it's definitely the nicest part of Athens to wander around between visits to the nearby archaeological sites and museums.
Head up the steps to the small area of Anafiotica. This is like a little Greek island village transplanted to Athens. It was built by the migrant workers who came to build the Presidential Palace in the 19th century when it was King Otto's palace.
The Parthenon (Parthenonas), one of the world's most famous buildings, represents a high point in ancient Greek architecture. Built around 440 BC, the Parthenon's classical architecture has influenced buildings ever since - and still does today.
Built for worship of the goddess Athena, it was to give thanks for the salvation of Athens and Greece in the Persian Wars. Officially it is called the Temple of Athena the Virgin; the name Parthenon comes from the Greek word for virgin.
In the 2,500 years of its existence, the building has been a temple, a treasury, a fortress, and a mosque; in the 6th century AD the Parthenon became a Christian church, with the addition of an apse at the east end. Today it is one of the world's leading tourist attractions.
The neighborhood of Monastiraki in central Athens is known for its bargain shopping, vibrant nightlife, and an array of historic ruins and monuments. The word “Monastiraki” means “little monastery,” and refers to the small monastery in Monastiraki Square. It’s all that remains of a once-great monastery in this area. A more modern house of worship, the Tsisdarakis Mosque, was built in 1759 during the Turkish occupation.
Surrounding Monastiraki Square, there are narrow streets lined with shops of every variety. On Sundays, there is also a flea market off the main pedestrian avenue, where you’ll find antiques, furniture, jewelry, books and nearly everything else you can imagine. The remains of Hadrian’s Library are directly across the street from the Monastiraki Metro station, and both the Roman Agora and the Ancient Agora are also nearby.
Perched on its craggy escarpment overlooking the heart of Athens, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Acropolis (its name means ‘high city’ in ancient Greek) is the most famous classical site in the world. The colonnaded Parthenon may be first stop for most visitors, but the marble remains of the Erechtheion stood at the very soul of the Acropolis, marking the spot where the mythical ancient Greek gods Poseidon and Athena fought for ownership of the fledgling city. Named after the legendary King Erechtheus, the temple was built on the north side of the Acropolis hill between 420 and 406 BC, to a design by Athens’ great statesman, Pericles. It was a relatively late addition to the complex of temples and theaters, replacing an older temple as the center of religious ritual at the Acropolis.Built on a slope and fronted by six Ionic columns – still almost complete after 2,500 years – the Erechtheion is best known for its ornate Porch of the Caryatids.
Herodes Atticus was an aristocratic and wealthy Greek who funded several great building projects in ancient Athens, including the Odeum (also Odeon or Herodeion), which he commissioned in 161 BC in memory of his wife. Found at the bottom of the southern slopes of the Acropolis, it was a concert hall with 32 rows of seating around a semi-circular, tiled stage and covered with a wooden ceiling to aid acoustics. Able to accommodate an audience of 5,000, the Odeum’s three-story exterior was adorned with four vast arches and decorated with statues of the muses.
Destroyed in 267 AD by Germanic invaders, the Odeum was neglected until the 1950s, when refurbishment saw the seating and stage restored. It is today a popular open-air venue thanks to its spectacular setting underneath the Acropolis and the venue for many magical summertime open-air concerts and staging of classical plays as well as the Athens & Epidarus Festival from June through August.
More Things to Do in Athens
The Theatre of Dionysus is an impressive ruin on the southern slope of the Acropolis in Athens. You can climb up and sit in the semi-circle of marble seats ringed around the stage area. In its heyday, around the 4th century BC, the theatre could seat 17,000 people. You can still see names of the important people inscribed on the throne like seats in the front row (although this area is roped-off to conserve it). It was in this theatre that the plays of Sophocles, Euripedes, Aeschylus and Aristofanes were performed.
Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, agriculture and theatre, known to the Romans as Bacchus, hence the word Bacchanalia. The theatre is in the area of the Sanctuary of Dionysus, which also housed temples to the god. Excavations in the late 1800s rediscovered this important site and the Greek Government has recently announced its intention to restore the theatre.
Psiri sits underneath the Acropolis and along with its neighbors Plaka and Monastiraki, is one of the buzziest districts in Athens. It’s not so long ago that it was a down-at-heel artisan area best known for its abandoned buildings and leather shops, but Psiri is undergoing a facelift and is currently one of the hottest addresses in the city. Yes, its narrow, meandering streets are still covered with graffiti and there are local grocery shops unchanged for decades but today Psiri is a magnet to locals and – increasingly – visitors alike. For starters, it’s slowly becoming home to small independent boutiques selling organic soaps, unusual handmade jewelry, old posters and glittering icons; and often market stalls selling homemade produce line the streets. And by night Psiri undergoes a radical transformation as cool cafés, bars, restaurants and local ouzeries open on to the alleyways and the laidback crowds come strolling in.
The lovely Neoclassical Academy of Athens was built in the mid 19th century during the post-independence re-flowering of Greek culture and is home to the national institutes for sciences, philosophy, fine arts and humanities, following in a tradition first established by Plato in around 387 BC. It is part of a triumvirate of neighboring buildings known as the ‘Neoclassical Trilogy’ designed by Danish architects Theophil and Christian Hansen and encompassing the National Library and the University of Athens. With a marble façade, the main entrance is through an ornamental colonnaded portico topped with sculptures on the carved pediment representing the birth of Athena and flanked by statues of Athena and Apollo standing on slender columns – all are the work of sculptor Leonidas Drossis in the 1870s and are guarded by two philosophical-looking sculptures of Plato and Socrates.
Syntagma Square is the heart of modern Athens. Also known as Constitution Square, it is a huge public plaza stretching out in front of the Greek Parliament Building. The scene for many celebrations and demonstrations, the square has recently been refurbished as part of the development of the Athens metro system.
Gleaming with white marble and suitably formal with its symmetry and statues, it is a place for meeting friends, sheltering from the sun under trees, or just sitting and people watching. Many of the city's most important streets begin here: Ermou Street for expensive shopping, and Vassilissis Sophias Avenue, also known as Museum Mile.
The neoclassical Parliament Building at one end of Syntagma Square was built around 1843 as a palace for the unwelcome King Otto of Bavaria. It had 365 rooms and one bathroom. Hopefully when it was remodeled in 1910 to house Parliament this ratio was changed. The square was once Queen Amalia's private gardens.
Athens' Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Mnēmeíon Agnōstou Stratiōtou) commemorates all those Greek soldiers who died in service of their country over its long history. Among its inscriptions are quotes from Pericles Funeral Oration as written by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War : 'and one bed is carried empty / made for the unknown ones.' During major holidays, politicians and officials lay wreaths at the tomb.
The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day by the Presidential Guard (the Evzones). These are the hand-picked strongest men of the army - also the most handsome! Their traditional uniform features a skirt, stockings and pom-poms on their shoes, all of which makes the hourly Changing of the Guard ceremony even more worth seeing. On Sundays at 11am they stage an impressive full ceremony with formal uniform and an army band.
The Propylaea is an ancient gateway in Athens, Greece that leads to the famous Acropolis. It surrounds the natural entrance to the plateau where the Acropolis is located. This entryway is actually a collection of impressive buildings that were built from 438 to 432 BC. Today you'll see two large structures with a smaller one in the center, but this is because most of the center structure is missing. When it was complete, it looked like the front of a temple with Doric columns. Inside the structure are several Ionic columns.
The stairway visitors walk up while approaching the Propylaea is built into the natural rock of the plateau. The Propylaea itself is made of the same marble that was used in constructing the Parthenon. Though it is in a ruined state today, it is still an impressive structure, and visitors can imagine how much more striking it must have been in ancient times.
With a history dating back to 1832 and home to over 2 million books, microfilms, newspapers, ancient manuscripts and historic documents, the National Library of Greece is the heart of Greek literary history.
The library moved to its current location in the center of Athens in 1903, a striking Neoclassical building designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, whose other creations include the National University of Athens and the Academy of Athens constitute. Inspired by a Doric Temple, the grand library is sculpted from Pentelic marble and fronted by a pair of dramatic winding staircases. Plans are currently underway to relocate part of the library’s extensive collection, with construction beginning at a new complex in Phaleron Bay back in 2012.
The Temple of Hephaestus was built just two years before the Parthenon. It is located in the ancient agora, not too far from the Acropolis. Sometimes it is referred to as the Temple of Thission based on some opinions that the temple may have been dedicated to Theseus. It was built in 450 B.C., most likely by the same architect who built the Parthenon. The temple was designed in a Doric style with six columns on each end and 13 columns on each side.
Hephaestus is the Greek god of volcanoes and metalworking, and he was the only one of the Olympic gods who was not physically perfect and had to perform manual labor. He was the god responsible for crafting the armor with the fatal weakness that was worn by Achilles in The Iliad. Statues of Hephaestus can be found in the temple, as well as statues of Athena and several friezes depicting scenes with other gods.
Erected in honor of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century A.D, the monumental gateway of Hadrian’s Arch remains one of the most striking remnants of ancient Athens. Located on the ancient road between the Athenian Agora and the Olympieion, the elaborate structure was supposedly built to honor the arrival of Hadrian in 131 AD.
The Arch, standing in front of the once magnificent Temple of Olympian Zeus (the Olympieion), formed a symbolic gateway between the old city district and the new Roman-built city, erected by Hadrian. Notably, two inscriptions feature on the sides of the arch: the western side, looking onto the old city reads ‘ This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus’ and the eastern side, facing the Olympieion, reads ‘This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus’.
Bordering the east side of Athens’ focal Syntagma Square, the Parliament Building was completed in 1842 as the royal residence of Otto, the first king of the newly independent Greece. The vast and rather severe Neoclassical palace was designed by German architect Friedrich von Gärtner but was badly damaged by a fire in 1909, when the Royal Family decamped to the Crown Prince’s Palace nearby. It was not until 1932, eight years after the abolition of the Greek monarchy in 1924, that Parliament moved into Von Gärtner’s splendid building, from where its 300 representatives, elected for four years, have directed the country ever since. The Main Library is open to the public and other areas of the Parliament Building can be viewed by pre-booked guided tour.
Sprawling up the northern slopes of the Acropolis and peeking above the rooftops of Plaka, Anafiotika is a tiny enclave of steep, cobbled alleyways lined with squat, whitewashed stone houses reminiscent of villages in the Greek Islands. The area was developed by skilled craftsmen from the Cycladean island of Anafi, who arrived in Athens in 1843 to work in the building boom that followed independence from the Hellenic Republic. Taking advantage of an ancient decree that allowed people to keep their property if they could build it between sunset and sunrise, the islanders worked on grand neo-classical palaces by day and their own cramped quarters by night. Part of Anafiotika was torn down in the 1950s and now only around 50 of the artisan dwellings remain, tucked between the miniscule churches of Agios Georgios tou Vrachou and Agios Simeon, both also the work of the Anafi islanders. Their descendants still live in their mini-homes, amid splashes of color from scented gardens.
Looming 886-foot (270-meter) over the city, Mount Lycabettus is Athens’ highest peak and with the crowds flocking to the nearby Acropolis, it’s the best bet for those seeking out a viewpoint away from the crowds. While adventurous travelers can hike to the top in less than an hour, the easiest way to scale Mt Lycabettus is by riding the funicular railway, which runs from Kolonaki.
At the top of Mt Lycabettus is the striking Orthodox chapel of Saint George, built in the 19th century over the ruins of a Byzantine church, but the real highlight is the stunning panoramic view over Athens. For the full experience, head there to dine at one of the two hill-top restaurants, attend one of the summer shows at the hill-top concert venue or time your visit to witness the mesmerizing sunset.
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