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.
Delphi is the second-most important archeological site in Greece (after the Acropolis in Athens). In ancient times Delphi was considered the place where heaven and earth met so the gods were close-by. Established around the 7th century BC, Delphi was a sanctuary to the god Apollo. It was here that the Oracle of Delphi was situated, the most trusted oracle in the ancient world from which the spirit of Apollo gave advice on everything from domestic matters to wars.
Delphi had a theatre and temples as well as the oracle, and has a well preserved stadium which once held chariot races. These were excavated from the mid-1800s and today the ruins stand impressively in their mountain landscape. Many believe the place to have a special magic and report being moved spiritually when visiting Delphi. Ancient engravings on the stone such as 'Know Thyself' and 'Nothing in Excess' could be from today's self-help movement.
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.
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.
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.
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Meteora, in central Greece, is a place of natural beauty and man-made wonder. The huge natural rock towers are home to cliff-top monasteries built by Eastern Orthodox hermit monks in the 14th century. The monks settled in the area from the 9th century and began by living in the caves and fissures of the rocks. They built the inaccessible monasteries - 6 of 20 survive - to fend off Turkish invaders. UNESCO has identified the area as of world significance.
You'll need a bit of time to explore Meteora and you can stay overnight at Kalambaka, a modern town since the old one was burned in World War II, or smaller Kastraki closer to the rock. There are guided tours from Athens or buses and trains run to Kalambaka. From Kalambaka there are buses to Meteora.
Be warned, there can be many steps to climb and there is a dress code appropriate to religious buildings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A hugely important historical port in Greece, Piraeus is also one of the largest in the Mediterranean. A full-on city, Piraeus is a great place to go exploring, with traditional European town centers, parks, lovely churches and houses. The tree-lined streets and gorgeous harbor alone warrant strolling rights. The port is one of the chief ways to get to destinations in the Aegean Islands and earshot locations in the Mediterranean.
As a modern city, Athens has modern accommodations. To get to Piraeus, quite simply hope on the metro, which by line one gets you to pretty much right to the Saronic Gulf Ferries. One in, a number of buses will escort you around the perimeters of the harder to reach locations in the spanning area, in fact, it is recommended that you plan your trip around the area with plenty of spare time, as it can take the better part of an hour to go from one location to another. Private transfers can also be arranged for more flexibility.
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’.
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.
One of the world's great museums, Athens’ National Archaeological Museum houses the most important finds from antiquity unearthed from the many archaeological sites scattered throughout Greece. A visit to the National Archaeological Museum provides the ultimate overview of Greek history and art, underscoring their influence on Western civilization. The scores of exhibits range from prehistory through to late antiquity.
Highlights include glittering artifacts from Mycenae, spectacular Minoan frescos from Santorini, and intricate Cycladic figurines. There are objects excavated from Troy, Neolithic ceramics, marble sculptures from the Aegean islands, jewelry and weapons, and mummies and statues from ancient Egypt.
With nearly 40 acres of well-kept gardens, sky-high forests and ancient ruins the National Gardens of Athens offers travelers a natural escape unlike any other. Commissioned by Queen Amalia in 1838, this unique destination is home to more than 500 species of plants and animals and a vast landscape dotted with the busts of Greek poets, gods and political figures.
Travelers can wander the grounds, which offer a scenic escape from the chaos of Athens, and sip hot coffees at the small outdoor café after combing through the Botanical Museum or the garden’s small zoo. Close proximity to the Olympic stadium makes it a perfect stop for those on a tour of Athen’s most famous historical sites.
Vouliagmeni Lake is located approximately 15 miles outside of Athens, Greece. It is an oval-shaped lake with brackish water that is fed by both the sea and underground springs. The lake is only 20 inches above sea level, so it often overflows and is replenished by the underground springs. At the bottom of the lake is a labyrinth of underwater caves with 14 tunnels. The composition of the lake's water consists of various elements and is used as a mineral spa famous for its healing properties. Many people come here to treat various physical ailments such as skin conditions, arthritis, headaches and more.
Aside from therapy reasons, the lake is also popular for leisure and recreational activities. The water temperature is consistently between 71 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit which makes for pleasant swimming. There are beach chairs and umbrellas near the shores of the lake, and a nearby restaurant serves traditional Greek food.
Mt. Parnassus is one of the many places in Greece that occupies very real space on the landscape, and is also central to such a number of Greek myths that you might be surprised to learn that the mountain is not a myth of its own. The mountain is in central Greece, just north of Delphi. It is associated with several prominent figures in Greek mythology. Mt. Parnassus was said to be the home of the Muses, sacred to the god Dionysus, sacred also to the god Apollo, home to the winged horse Pegasus, and closely tied with poetry, learning, and music.
Today, Mt. Parnassus is a draw for visitors year-round. In the winter, there are two ski resorts on its slopes. In warmer weather, the mountain is an excellent location for hiking - views from the summit are spectacular.
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.
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