It’s no wonder that all roads lead to the fascinating and maddening metropolis of Athens. Lift your eyes 200 feet above the city to the Parthenon, its honey-colored marble columns rising from a massive limestone base, and you’ll behold architectural perfection that has not been surpassed in 2,500 years. Today, this shrine of classical form dominates a 21st-century boomtown.
Athens is home to 4.5 million souls, many of whom spend the day discussing the city’s faults: the lack of city funding, the murky pollution cloud known as the nefos, the overcrowding, the traffic jams with their hellish din, the transport strikes, and the characterless cement apartment blocks. Romantic travelers, nurtured on the truth and beauty of Keats’s Grecian urn, are dismayed to find that much of Athens has succumbed to that red tubular glare that owes only its name, neon, to the Greeks. But while Athens is a difficult city to love, its concentration of culture and lively spirit make it impossible to ignore.
To experience Athens—Athìna in Greek—fully is to understand the essence of Greece: ancient monuments surviving in a sea of cement, startling beauty amid the squalor, tradition juxtaposed with modernity—a smartly dressed lawyer chatting on her cell phone as she maneuvers around a priest in flowing robes heading for the sleek, space-age metro. Locals depend on humor and flexibility to deal with the chaos and, lately, the raging economic crisis; you should do the same. The rewards are immense. To appreciate Athens is to appreciate life with all its surprises and complexities.
POINTS OF INTEREST
NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
Many of the greatest achievements in ancient Greek sculpture and painting are housed here in the most important museum in Greece. Artistic highlights from every period of its ancient civilization, from Neolithic to Roman times, make this a treasure trove beyond compare. With a massive renovation completed, works (more than 11,000 of them) that have languished in storage for decades are now on view, reorganized displays are accompanied by enriched English-language information, and the panoply of ancient Greek art appears more spectacular than ever.
While the classic culture that was the grandeur of the Greek world no longer exists—it died, for civilizations are mortal—it left indelible markers in all domains, most particularly in art, and many of its masterpieces are on show here. The museum’s most celebrated display is the Mycenaean Antiquities. Here are the stunning gold treasures from Heinrich Schliemann’s 1876 excavations of Mycenae’s royal tombs: the funeral mask of a bearded king, once thought to be the image of Agamemnon but now believed to be much older, from about the 15th century BC; a splendid silver bull’s head libation cup; and the 15th-century BC Vapheio Goblets, masterworks in embossed gold. Mycenaeans were famed for their carving in miniature, and an exquisite example is the ivory statuette of two curvaceous mother goddesses, each with a child nestled on her lap.
Withheld from the public since they were damaged in the 1999 earthquakes, but not to be missed, are the beautifully restored frescoes from Santorini, delightful murals depicting daily life in Minoan Santorini. Along with the treasures from Mycenae, these wall paintings are part of the museum’s Prehistoric Collection.
Other stars of the museum include the works of Geometric and Archaic art (10th to 6th century BC), and kouroi and funerary stelae (8th to 5th century BC), among them the stelae of the warrior Aristion signed by Aristokles, and the unusual Running Hoplite (a hoplite was a Greek infantry soldier). The collection of classical art (5th to 3rd century BC) contains some of the most renowned surviving ancient statues: the bareback Jockey of Artemision, a 2nd-century BC Hellenistic bronze salvaged from the sea; from the same excavation, the bronze Artemision Poseidon (some say Zeus), poised and ready to fling a trident (or thunderbolt?); and the Varvakios Athena, a half-size marble version of the gigantic gold-and-ivory cult statue that Pheidias erected in the Parthenon.
Light refreshments are served in a lower ground-floor café, which opens out to a patio and sculpture garden. Don’t forget to also check the museum’s temporary exhibitions.
One of Athens’s most popular meeting places, the square is always alive with fruit sellers, bunches of youths hanging out, and street dance performances. If you are coming by metro, look for the special glassed-in view revealing the ancient Iridanos riverbed, where the water still flows. The square takes its name from the small Panayia Pantanassa Church, commonly called Monastiraki (“Little Monastery”). It once flourished as an extensive convent, perhaps dating to the 10th century, and once stretched from Athinas to Aiolou. The nuns took in poor people, who earned their keep weaving the thick textiles known as abas. The buildings were destroyed during excavations and the train (and later metro) line construction that started in 1896. The convent’s basic basilica form, now recessed a few steps below street level, was altered through a poor restoration in 1911, when the bell tower was added.
The commercial hub of ancient Athens, the Agora was once lined with statues and expensive shops, the favorite strolling ground of fashionable Athenians as well as a mecca for merchants and students. The long colonnades offered shade in summer and protection from rain in winter to the throng of people who transacted the day-to-day business of the city, and, under their arches, Socrates discussed matters with Plato, and Zeno expounded the philosophy of the Stoics (whose name comes from the six stoes, or colonnades of the Agora). Besides administrative buildings, it was surrounded by the schools, theaters, workshops, houses, stores, and market stalls of a thriving town. The foundations of some of the main buildings that may be most easily distinguished include the circular Tholos, the principal seat of executive power in the city; the Mitroon, shrine to Rhea, the mother of gods, which included the vast state archives and registry office (mitroon is still used today to mean registry); the Vouleuterion, where the council met; the Monument of Eponymous Heroes, the Agora’s information center, where announcements such as the list of military recruits were hung; and the Sanctuary of the Twelve Gods, a shelter for refugees and the point from which all distances were measured.
The Agora’s showpiece was the Stoa of Attalos II, where Socrates once lectured and incited the youth of Athens to adopt his progressive ideas on mortality and morality. Today the Museum of Agora Excavations, this two-story building was first designed as a retail complex and erected in the 2nd century BC by Attalos, a king of Pergamum. The reconstruction in 1953–56 used Pendelic marble and creamy limestone from the original structure. The colonnade, designed for promenades, is protected from the blistering sun and cooled by breezes. The most notable sculptures, of historical and mythological figures from the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, are at ground level outside the museum.
Take a walk around the site and speculate on the location of Simon the Cobbler’s house and shop, which was a meeting place for Socrates and his pupils. The carefully landscaped grounds display a number of plants known in antiquity, such as almond, myrtle, and pomegranate. By standing in the center, you have a glorious view up to the Acropolis. Ayii Apostoloi is the only one of the Agora’s nine churches to survive, saved because of its location and beauty.
On the low hill called Kolonos Agoraios in the Agora’s northwest corner stands the best-preserved Doric temple in all Greece, the Hephaistion, sometimes called the Thission because of its friezes showing the exploits of Theseus. Like the other monuments, it is roped off, but you can walk around it to admire its preservation. A little older than the Parthenon, it is surrounded by 34 columns and is 104 feet in length, and was once filled with sculptures (the only remnant of which is the mutilated frieze, once brightly colored). It never quite makes the impact of the Parthenon, in large part due to the fact that it lacks a noble site and can never be seen from below, its sun-matured columns towering heavenward. The Hephaistion was originally dedicated to Hephaistos, god of metalworkers, and it is interesting to note that metal workshops still exist in this area near Ifestou street. Behind the temple, paths cross the northwest slope past archaeological ruins half-hidden in deep undergrowth. Here you can sit on a bench and contemplate the same scene that Englishman Edward Dodwell saw in the early 19th century when he came to sketch antiquities.
You don’t have to look far in Athens to encounter perfection. Towering above all—both physically and spiritually—stands the Acropolis, a millennia-old survivor. The Greek term Akropolis means High City, and today’s traveler who climbs this table-like hill is paying tribute to the prime source of Western civilization.
Most of the notable structures on this flat-top limestone outcrop, 512 feet high, were built from 461 to 429 BC, when the intellectual and artistic life of Athens flowered under the influence of the Athenian statesman Pericles. Since then, the buildings of the Acropolis have undergone transformations into, at various times, a Florentine palace, an Islamic mosque, and a Turkish harem. They have also weathered the hazards of wars, right up to 1944, when British paratroopers positioned their bazookas between the Parthenon’s columns. Today, the Erechtheion temple has been completely restored, and conservation work on the Parthenon is ongoing, focusing now on the western side. With most of the major restoration work now completed, a visit to the Acropolis evokes the spirit of the ancient heroes and gods who were once worshiped here. The sight of the Parthenon—the Panathenaic temple at the crest of this ieros vrachos (sacred rock) —has the power to stir the heart as few other ancient relics do.
The walk through the Acropolis takes about four hours, depending on the crowds, including an hour spent in the New Acropolis Museum. In general, the earlier you start out the better—in summer the heat is blistering by noon and the light’s reflection off the rock and marble ruins is almost blinding. Remember to bring water, sunscreen, nonslip footwear, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. An alternative, in summer, is to visit after 5 pm, when the light is best for taking photographs. The two hours before sunset, when the fabled violet light occasionally spreads from the crest of Mt. Hymettus and embraces the Acropolis, is an ideal time to visit in any season. After dark the hill is spectacularly floodlighted, creating a scene visible from many parts of the capital.
You enter the Acropolis complex through the Beulé Gate, a late-Roman structure named for the French archaeologist who discovered the gate in 1852. Before Roman times, the entrance to the Acropolis was a steep ramp below the Temple of Athena Nike that was used every fourth year for the Panathenaic procession, a spectacle that honored Athena’s remarkable birth (she sprang from the head of her father, Zeus). When you enter the gate, ask for the free, information-packed bilingual (in English and Greek) pamphlet guide.
At the loftiest point of the Acropolis stands the Parthenon, the architectural masterpiece conceived by Pericles and executed between 447 and 438 BC. It not only raised the bar in terms of sheer size but also in the perfection of its proportions. Dedicated to the goddess Athena (the name comes from the Athena Parthenos, the virgin Athena), the Parthenon served primarily as the treasury of the Delian League, an ancient alliance of cities formed to defeat the Persian incursion. In fact, the Parthenon was built as much to honor the city’s power as to venerate the goddess. After the Persian army sacked Athens in 480-479 BC, the city-state banded with Sparta, and together they routed the Persians by 449 BC. To proclaim its hegemony over all Greece, Athens then set about constructing its Acropolis, ending a 30-year building moratorium.
Once you pass through the Beulé Gate you will find the Temple of Athena Nike. Designed by Kallikrates, the mini-temple was built in 427–424 BC to celebrate peace with Persia. The bas-reliefs on the surrounding parapet depict the Victories leading heifers to be sacrificed.
Past the temple, the imposing Propylaea structure was designed to instill the proper reverence in worshipers as they crossed from the temporal world into the spiritual world of the sanctuary, for this was the main function of the Acropolis. The Propylaea was intended to have been the same size as the Parthenon, and thus the grandest secular building in Greece, but construction was suspended during the Peloponnesian War, and it was never finished. The structure shows the first use of the Attic style, which combines both Doric and Ionic columns. The building’s slender Ionic columns had elegant capitals, some of which have been restored along with a section of the famed paneled ceiling, originally decorated with gold, eight-pointed stars on a blue background. Adjacent to the Pinakotheke, or art gallery (which has paintings of scenes from Homer’s epics and mythological tableaux), the south wing is a decorative portico (row of columns). The view from the inner porch of the Propylaea is stunning: the Parthenon is suddenly revealed in its full glory, framed by the columns.
If the Parthenon is the masterpiece of Doric architecture, the Erechtheion is undoubtedly the prime exemplar of the more graceful Ionic order. A considerably smaller structure than the Parthenon, it outmatches, for sheer elegance and refinement of design, all other buildings of the Greco-Roman world. For the populace, the Erechtheion, completed in 406 BC, remained Athena’s holiest shrine, for legend has it that Poseidon plunged his trident into the rock on this spot, dramatically producing a spring of water, while Athena created a simple olive tree, whose produce remains a main staple of Greek society. A panel of judges declared the goddess the winner, and the city was named Athena. The most delightful feature is the south portico, known as the Caryatid Porch. It is supported on the heads of six maidens (caryatids) wearing delicately draped Ionian garments. What you see at the site today are copies; the originals are in the New Acropolis Museum.
Most people take the metro to the Acropolis station, where the Acropolis Museum is just across the main exit. They then follow the Dionyssiou Aeropagitou, the pedestrianized street which traces the foothill of the Acropolis to its entrance at the Beulé Gate. Another entrance is along the rock’s northern face via the pretty Peripatos, a paved path from the Plaka district. The summit of the Acropolis can also now be reached by people with disabilities via an elevator.
Don’t throw away your Acropolis ticket after your tour. It will get you into all the other sites in the Unification of Archaeological Sites for five days— at no extra cost. Guides to the Acropolis are quite informative and will also help kids understand the site better.
Fanning north from the slopes of the Acropolis, picturesque Plaka is the last corner of 19th-century Athens. Set with Byzantine accents provided by churches, the Old Town district extends north to Ermou street and eastward to the Leofóros Amalias. During the 1950s and ’60s, the area became garish with neon as nightclubs moved in and residents moved out, but locals, architects, and academicians joined forces in the early 1980s to transform a decaying neighborhood. Noisy discos and tacky pensions were closed, streets were changed into pedestrian zones, and old buildings were restored. At night merrymakers crowd the old tavernas, which feature traditional music and dancing; many have rooftops facing the Acropolis.
TEMPLE OF OLYMPIAN ZEUS
Begun in the 6th century BC, this gigantic temple was completed in AD 132 by Hadrian, who also commissioned a huge gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus for the inner chamber and another, only slightly smaller, of himself. Only 15 of the original Corinthian columns remain, but standing next to them may inspire a sense of awe at their bulk, which is softened by the graceful carving on the acanthus-leaf capitals. The clearly defined segments of a column blown down in 1852 give you an idea of the method used in its construction. The site is floodlighted on summer evenings, creating a majestic scene when you turn round the bend from Syngrou Ave. On the outskirts of the site to the north are remains of Roman houses, the city walls, and a Roman bath. Hellenic “neopagans” also use the site for ceremonies. Hadrian’s Arch lies just outside the enclosed archaeological site.
Greece’s oldest private museum received a spectacular addition in 2004, just before the Athens Olympics, with a hyper-modern new branch that looks like it was airlifted in from New York City. Located on the gentrifying Pireos Street, the new annex is all the more striking when compared to the main museum, set in an imposing neoclassical mansion in the posh Kolonaki neighborhood. Established in 1926 by an illustrious Athenian family, the Benaki was one of the first to place emphasis on Greece’s later heritage at a time when many archaeologists were destroying Byzantine artifacts to access ancient objects. The permanent collection (more than 20,000 items are on display in 36 rooms, and that’s only a sample of the holdings) moves chronologically from the ground floor upward, from prehistory to the formation of the modern Greek state. You might see anything from a 5,000-year-old hammered gold bowl to an austere Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary to Lord Byron’s pistols to the Nobel medals awarded to poets George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. Some exhibits are just plain fun—the re-creation of a Kozani (Macedonian town) living room; a tableau of costumed mannequins; a Karaghiozi shadow puppet piloting a toy plane—all contrasted against the marble and crystal-chandelier grandeur of the Benaki home. The mansion that serves as the main building of the museum was designed by Anastassios Metaxas, the architect who helped restore the Panathenaic Stadium. The Benaki’s gift shop, a destination in itself, tempts with exquisitely reproduced ceramics and jewelry. The second-floor café serves coffee and snacks, with a few daily specials, on a generous veranda overlooking the National Garden. The annex at 138 Pireos Street in the Rouf neighborhood displays avant-garde temporary exhibitions. Topping the complex off is a state-of-the-art amphitheater. The latest addition to the Benaki Museum is the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, which is housed in a beautifully restored neoclassical mansion behind the Kerameikos cemetery.
MUSEUM OF CYCLADIC ART
Also known as the Nicholas P. and Dolly Goulandris Foundation, and funded by one of Greece’s richest families, this museum has an outstanding collection of 350 Cycladic artifacts dating from the Bronze Age, including many of the enigmatic marble figurines whose slender shapes fascinated such artists as Picasso, Modigliani, and Brancusi. The main building is an imposing glass-and-steel design dating from 1985 and built to convey “the sense of austerity and the diffusion of refracted light that predominate in the Cycladic landscape,” as the museum puts it. Along with Cycladic masterpieces, a wide array from other eras is also on view, ranging from the Bronze Age through the 6th century AD. The third floor is devoted to Cypriot art, while the fourth floor showcases a fascinating exhibition on “scenes from daily life in antiquity.” To handle the overflow, a new wing opened in 2005. A glass corridor connects the main building to the gorgeous 19th-century neoclassic Stathatos Mansion, where temporary exhibits are mounted. There is also a lovely skylit café in a courtyard centered around a Cycladic-inspired fountain, a charming art shop, and many children-oriented activities all year round.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART
The permanent collections of Greek painting and sculpture of the 19th and 20th centuries (including the work of folk artist Theophilos) are always on display, but popular traveling exhibitions enliven the National Gallery of Art-Alexandros Soutsos museum. The exhibitions are usually major loan shows from around the world, such as an El Greco retrospective, Dutch 17th-century art, modern Spanish architecture, and an exhibit tracing the movements of Art Nouveau and Modernism in early 20th-century Paris.
NATIONAL HISTORICAL MUSEUM
After making the rounds of the ancient sites, you might think that Greek history ground to a halt when the Byzantine empire collapsed. A visit to this gem of a museum, housed in the spectacularly majestic Old Parliament mansion (used by parliamentarians from 1875 to 1932), will fill in the gaps, often vividly, as with Lazaros Koyevina’s copy of Eugene Delacroix’s Massacre of Chios, to name but one example. Paintings, costumes, and assorted artifacts from small arms to flags and ships’ figureheads are arranged in a chronological display tracing Greek history from the mid-16th century and the Battle of Lepanto through World War II and the Battle of Crete. A small gift shop near the main entrance—framed by a very grand Neoclassical portico of columns—has unusual souvenirs, like a deck of cards featuring Greece’s revolutionary heroes.
THEATER OF DIONYSUS
It was on this spot in the 6th century BC that the Dionyssia festivals took place; a century later, dramas such as Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Euripides’s Medea were performed for the entire population of the city. Visible are foundations of a stage dating from about 330 BC, when it was built for 15,000 spectators as well as the assemblies formerly held on Pnyx. In the middle of the orchestra stood the altar to Dionysus. Most of the upper rows of seats have been destroyed, but the lower levels, with labeled chairs for priests and dignitaries, remain. The fantastic throne in the center was reserved for the priest of Dionysus: regal lions’ paws adorn it, and the back is carved with reliefs of satyrs and griffins. On the hillside above the theater stand two columns, vestiges of the little temple erected in the 4th century BC by Thrasyllus the Choragus (the ancient counterpart of a modern impresario).