A visit to Athens is incomplete without also spending time at the Acropolis of Athens, generally known as simply “the Acropolis”. Set on a fairly high plateau on an aged mountain (more like a hill, hence the name which roughly translates as “highest point”), the site is a collection of ancient buildings like temples, theatres and sanctuaries used by the Greeks in their cultural heyday in the mid-400s BC. Here they worshipped and communed, and at the foot of the Acropolis they shopped in the Agora (market place).
The Acropolis of Athens was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Since 1975 it has undergone extensive renovations and restorations in order to preserve its buildings and their enduring heritage. But the Acropolis has suffered invasion, fire, cannonballs, pirates, pollution and general decay, so the revival is long-term, hopefully to be completed in 2020. The cost is beyond calculation at this point, but the value of the Acropolis is priceless.
Greek Statesman, Pericles, is to thank for the majority of the Acropolis. In the 400s BC he undertook to rebuild many of the original structures; these include the Parthenon, Erechtheum, Temple of Athena Nike, Propylaea, and Theatre of Dionysus. Although the Acropolis can be seen from a distance, the impact of being there, among the ancient, magnificent structures, is unparalleled.
It is agreed upon by historians and classicists the world over that the Parthenon, the original temple of tribute to the goddess Athena on the Acropolis, is the singularly most important building left standing (at least partially) from the time of Classical Greece. The Acropolis itself is a must-see for visitors to Athens, Greece, but time spent in the majestic shadow of the Parthenon is a step back into human civilization.
The Parthenon has suffered a long and often destructive history since it was first erected beginning in 447 BC, and completed in 432. Designed in the Doric style, the most simple and elegant of the three columnar varieties, the building was dedicated to Athens’ patron goddess and also used as the city treasury. From there, things went downhill.
As factions fought for possession of nations and riches, the city of Athens and its Parthenon changed hands a few times, and the Parthenon got in the middle of many a skirmish, resulting in significant damage. In 276 AD a band of Heruli pirates sacked parts of Athens, the Parthenon included. From its Pagan inception, it was for a time in roughly 500 AD a Christian Church. There were fires, including a substantial one that did extensive damage. By the mid-1400s the Ottomans had conquered Athens and usurped the Parthenon; it was now an Islamic temple. And in 1687, in its newest role as a munitions storehouse for the Ottomans, it was bombarded under siege by Venetians and the south end was wrecked. Then in the early 1800s, an English earl (Elgin) brought the Parthenon marbles (a vast collection of sculptures and friezes, then renamed the Elgin Marbles) to England, where they remain, currently housed in the British Museum; Greece wants them back.
Not only is the Parthenon an important building, it is controversial, and as of 2020, will be fully restored back to its original glory, albeit minus its original marbles. Visitors still view the building, despite it having been clad in repair scaffolds for many decades.
Given Athens’ long and colourful history, it is no surprise that there are dozens of museums within the city. One of, if not the, most important to the city’s past is the Acropolis Museum. Founded in 2003 and opened to the public in 2009, the museum, situated in the Plaka neighbourhood in the slope of the hillside, literally houses every artefact found on and around the Acropolis site.
There was an older version of the museum, erected in 1874, directly on the plateau of the Acropolis hill, but within a few decades, it ran out of exhibit space; each time an excavation commenced, a treasure trove of antiquities was unearthed, no doubt the direct result of simply the extreme age of the location. And when aspects of the Acropolis buildings become dangerously fragile, they are sometimes deemed better to be removed and preserved off the structure; such is the case with the frieze from the front of the Temple of Athena.
The current 14,000-square-metre Acropolis Museum is again bursting at the seams, crowded with more than 4,250 objects, and an expansion is planned. The museum hosts events and offers visitors guided gallery tours, a very worthwhile experience.
There are few places outside of Rome and Athens in our modern world that can so easily transport us to our classical past; the National Archaeological Museum of Athens hosts a collection of our western civilization history in the form of art and sculpture, vessels, coins, jewellery, weapons, toys and other artefacts. The museum is home to a lecture hall and library.
Established in 1829, the National Archaeological Museum is the largest museum in Greece, and hosts the largest collection of Greek antiquities to be found across the globe. It is centrally located in the Exarcheia section of Athens. The collections of the museum date from pre-history to late antiquity. It is rated 4.5 out of 7,683 reviews on TripAdvisor and is a much-anticipated destination for visitors to Greece.
The building itself is designed, appropriately, in the neo-classical style, resplendent with front-face columns and a sculpture garden in front of the building. It has been expanded and renovated over its many years, especially after it suffered damage in a 1999 earthquake. It was closed completely during WWII and its treasures were carefully boxed and buried to protect them; it re-opened in 1945. Plans for further expansion are underway.
In a bustling ancient city like Athens was 3,000-odd years ago, people shopped at the open air market, the Agora, for food, fabrics, jewellery; the things they needed and desired. Busy, but less crowded with buildings, the Agora was a place for Athenian citizens to shop and mingle, catch up with friends, and get chores done. Today, it is more of an open area, and it serves as no surprise that the fear of open spaces, in modern times, is known as “agoraphobia”. We obtained a great deal of our language and culture from ancient Greece and Athens.
Agora, as it was in classical times, meant “open place of assembly”, and was structured very much like a modern town square, with an open section in the middle, surrounded by various permanent structures; the open space was originally utilized for public meetings and gatherings requested for civic declarations, as well as a location for muster, especially military. But its configuration was clearly suitable for what we might call pop-up stores, or temporary shops, which, combined, formed a market. This was both a place to purchase goods and foodstuffs as well as a social meeting spot.
Situated northwest of the Acropolis, the site began being excavated in 1931, and continues to this day, with artefacts and buildings slowly being unearthed. Unlike the mighty Acropolis above, the Agora has lost many of its structures (at one time it contained a mint, several temples, statuary and monuments, and a library, among other buildings, and a speakers’ platform). No one can be sure if all of it will ever be restored. But the sense of citizenry and cohesion remains; it is a significant place to experience when visiting Athens.
The word “monastiraki” translates exactly as “little Monastery”, but there is no longer (if there ever was) a monastery in this location. However, visitors to this area next to the Acropolis, and in the location of the Ancient Agora of Athens (some things perpetuate!), have something to worship: shopping! Monastiraki is a famous shopping distract in Athens, a square surrounded by shops and a flea market, a sure fire spot for bargains.
Frequented by tourists and locals, this district offers a plethora of shopping options, but if visitors care to pray for financial assistance, the beautiful Church of the Pantanassa is situated directly in the central square. This is also the location of ancient paces of note, including the ruins of Hadrian’s library, but folks aren’t here to borrow books. Instead, the choice items are clothing, souvenirs, soaps and lotions, shoes and sandals, jewellery and an array of T-shirts. It’s a fun, lively place, great for finding good deals, with traditional Greek tavernas, and easy access from a metro station.
Woman or wolf? Mount Lycabettus in central Athens has two possible claims to fame, neither of which may be true. Myth tells us that when Athena was busy helping to carry stones to the Acropolis for the construction of her temple, she dropped a big one (make that huge) and it became Mount Lycabettus. Athena must have been one strong goddess. The other is that the name, which translated from the Greek means “the one hill that is walked by wolves” (lycos is Greek for wolf) suggests the mountain, more like a sizeable hill, was once inhabited by wolves. While that makes more sense, it remains that Mount Lycabettus is, at 300 metres (900 feet) above sea level, the highest point in Athens.
It’s a popular spot with locals and tourists alike. Visitors can walk up the cretaceous limestone hill, a trip that takes 30 to 90 minutes depending upon one’s level of fitness, or use the funicular to ride up the side in comfort. At the top, which comprises two peaks, is situated a restaurant and open-air theatre. Concerts staged here feature local and international artists, the likes of B.B. King, Bjork and Black Sabbath, to name a few, proving the diversity of music presented.
The best part of Mount Lycabettus is the view. From atop the hill, one can get a real sense of the layout of the city of Athens, and plan a walking tour from there.
While parts of the ancient Agora of Athens are being resurrected, the Temple of Hephaestus stands tall and in good order in the Agora’s northwest sector atop the Agoraios Hill. Named for the ancient god of fire, metal-working and crafts, the building has been used for a variety of purposes since it was completed in 415 BC after 34 years under construction. The builders did a good job, as this is one of the best preserved ancient buildings in Athens.
Because of the nature of the god Hephaestus, pottery and metal workshops were established in the immediate area of the temple, so beyond being a place of worship, the enclave was also a productive one.
Changing hands over time, it became a Greek Orthodox Christian church (the church of Saint George Akamates) in approximately the 7th century AD, which it remained until 1834. During that time, again, and to its favour, it was well taken care of. Its ground were used for burials.
Built of marble mined from nearby Mount Penteli, at one point, the former Temple of Hephaestus served as a museum. It is a fine example of Doric peripertal architecture, now back to a coveted designated archaeological building in Athens.
When you conjure an image of Zeus, head of the Olympian Gods, king of Greek Gods, the extent of his great namesake temple is appropriate. It was huge, an ambitious vision of the tyrannical rulers of the time, comprising a periphery of 104 Corinthian style columns reaching 17 metres (more than 50 feet) high. A genuine tribute to the “big guy”, indeed!
It took 638 years to complete, despite early dreams, and was eventually finished by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. But it barely got off the ground. Not long after it was declared open for business, a barbarian invasion (roughly 267 AD) resulted in widespread destruction in Athens, and most notably to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The statue of Zeus in the temple was destroyed by fire in the 5th century AD. Then parts of it were mined for the building of other structures; bit by bit, it was virtually ruined. Rotten luck plagued the temple until the present day when only 16 columns of the massive temple remain, and even now, one of those is prone on the ground, the result of a storm in 1852. Maybe Zeus was not as powerful as we are brought to believe!
What remains is a lesson in objects of worship; the sheer size of the base is clear from the positioning of the leftover columns. Once the largest temple in all of Greece, it is currently a place of awe and some sadness, save for the Greek Pagans who are now permitted to honour their gods in what is left of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
It is said that the heart of every great city is best tempered and refined by a large centrally located park. Such is the case with the National Gardens in Athens. Like most city-based parks, the National Garden of Athens boasts about 500 species of plants, and wildlife the likes of peacocks, ducks and turtles, but its claim to fame is that among the flora and fauna, resting next to the pathways and ponds, are casually situated ancient relics such as Corinthian columns and capitals.
As such, this central botanical oasis is much more than a spot for fans of flowers. Spanning 15.5 hectares (38 acres) the gardens are situated close to a metro station for ease of access, just to the rear of the Greek parliament buildings. The National Gardens are open sunrise to sunset year-round and are for all members of the public to enjoy.
In addition to the plants (of course, including lofty palm trees), waterways and bridges, visitors will enjoy sculpture, colonnades, sundials, mosaics, and even a monument to Lord Byron, the English poet and politician, who joined the Greek War of Independence (dying there of disease in battle) and is regarded as a national hero in that country.
The National Garden of Athens is a delightful respite, a shift from all of the hard stone relics to a softer, living-breathing place to unwind or walk and dream. This is Athens’ answer to life balance.
Also sometimes called, La Plaka, this is the beautiful neighbourhood situated to the south and east slopes of the hillside that supports the Acropolis. But it’s not just proximity to the great historic site that has made this area a major tourist draw; it’s a picturesque walk into the past. Thanks to strict conservation rules in place by the city of Athens, all utilities, such as cables, wires, plumbing, etc., must be buried underground so as not to spoil the ancient sensibility of the glorious neo-classical architecture that lines the narrow winding streets.
The Plaka — neighbourhood of the Gods — is the place to walk in Athens. Dotted with tavernas, churches, museums and live entertainment, a stroll through the Plaka is a walk through history, but also great beauty. Residents take exceptional care of their stunning homes, located on a part of the ancient Agora, or market place.
After an 1884 fire in the Plaka, Roman ruins were discovered and excavated; archaeologists discovered a Roman market and parts of Emperor Hadrian’s library. Work continues to this day. In a city this old, restoration efforts are part of the daily grind.
While in the Plaka, be sure to visit the Acropolis Museum, Athens University Museum, the Museum of Greek Folk Art, and many others.
Unlike the neighbourhood of Plaka, also fairly upscale, Kolonaki is more commercial than residential, although there is a blend. An interesting mixture of trendy shops, galleries, bistros, fine dining and designer boutiques, Kolonaki’s character has been well upheld by municipal planners; even the newer buildings have a classical sensibility and funky upbeat air.
In the centre of Kolonaki Square there is a... Kolonaki (literally, a little column) standing solitary and forlorn, but activity hums all around it. Two metro stations are in Kolonaki, and it is home to several smaller museums. Here is where the cool and hip come to enjoy the nightlife.
Wealthy and glamorous, Kolonaki’s real claim to fame it its location at the base of Mount Lycabettus; it is here in Kolonaki that people hop on the funicular to go up the mountain. On nights where there is a concert on the mountain, Kolonaki is all the more full of life. It’s Athens’ hippest hood.