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One of the legendary sights of the Acropolis. Crowning the Acropolis is the jewel of Ancient Greece: the Parthenon, considered the most architecturally and historically significant building in the Western World. It’s an extraordinary sight, especially considering that this intricately carved 23,000-square-foot temple is more than 2,500 years old. Built to honor the goddess Athena, the temple was made almost entirely of Pentelic marble, a flawless white stone that glowed golden in the sun. Perfectly proportioned and encased with 46 fluted Doric columns, the Parthenon displayed a magnificent gold and ivory statue of Athena, which “disappeared” some 800 years later. A Roman copy of the statue is at the National Archaeological Museum.
One of the legendary sights of the Acropolis. A wonderful example of Ionic style, the Erechteion is the most sacred of the ancient temples. Made almost exclusively from white Pentelic marble, it boasts two porches and is probably most famous for the set of six portico columns sculpted to look like female figures (called Caryatids). Five originals have been amazingly restored and are on permanent display in the Acropolis Museum. The sixth column is in the British Museum (Google “Elgin Marbles” for why). The ones you see gracing the temple now are replicas—and pretty amazing at that.
One of the legendary sights of the Acropolis. Another ancient masterpiece of the Acropolis, this more diminutive structure was distinguished by its eight Ionic columns, four at either end, making it the earliest fully Ionic temple on the summit. Though small, it was richly decorated, and after undergoing a significant restoration, completed in 2010, the Temple of Athena Nike once again features its slender columns, largely intact, and stepped platform with a reproduction of its intricately sculpted frieze. Fragments of the original are housed in the Acropolis Museum.
One of the legendary sights of the Acropolis. The Theatre of Dionysus, the site where dramatic plays were performed, was built around 530 BC on the southern slope of the Acropolis—a clue as to how important the stage was to the Ancient Greeks. A mosaic-tiled open-air theatre with some 17,000 seats, the Dionysus is considered the birthplace of European Theatre. It’s known that the site had been augmented over the millennia and that what we see today can mostly be attributed to the Ancient Romans. For the best overview, look south from the Parthenon.
Built in the 4th Century BC to host the athletic portion of the Panathenaic Games honoring the goddess Athena, this world-famous sports arena has been through several incarnations over the centuries—most notably, when it hosted the first modern Olympic Games in the summer of 1896. In preparation, the stadium was restored to its original ancient design, fully clad in white Pentelic marble, with seating for some 70,000 spectators. Operated by the Hellenic Olympic Committee, which provides tours, the all-marble stadium was on hand for the return of the Olympics to Athens in 2004. The stadium is also the starting point for the Olympic flame’s journey to the host city and the finish line for the annual Athens marathon.
The Temple of Hephaestus, a striking example of Doric style, was built a few years before the Parthenon—yet, what you see is the real thing, not a reproduction. Standing on a hill overlooking the Agora, the temple is thought to be the first fashioned almost entirely of marble. It’s had many identities over its 2,500-plus years (including that of a Greek Orthodox church), but since 1934, the temple has been a designated ancient monument, a favorite tourist attraction and just an incredibly inspiring sight.
Today, the site of the Ancient Agora is a lovely field of humble ruins, bordered by the Temple of Hephaestus and the Stoa of Attalos. In Classical Athens, it was a busy hub: serving first as a space for public assembly (Socrates, Aristotle and St. Paul all spoke here) and later as the site of a large open-air marketplace where all kinds of wares and skilled services were sold and bartered. Standing in the shadow of the Acropolis, it’s another historic attraction harboring clues of ancient city life.
This marvel of a museum engagingly presents everything you need to know about the Acropolis, its individual temples and the remarkable ancient civilization responsible for it all. Set at the base of the Acropolis and designed by acclaimed New York architect, Bernard Tschumi, the new Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009, is architecturally modern and state of the art. It uses transparent floors, skewed angles, natural light and a spacious setting to great effect—but never upstaging the thousands of antiquities on display. The exhibitions are divided among four levels, laid out in a progressive order for visitors to follow and accompanied by excellent written and audio-video commentary. You’ll want to make time to see the whole museum, but if pressed: Take the elevator to the top level to see a veritable recreation of the Parthenon in its heyday, with all the sculptures, columns, metopes and friezes (originals and plaster-cast copies) in place. And do not miss the five Caryatids from the Erechtheion temple (the Brits are harboring the sixth) one flight down on the balcony.
The “other” high spot in Athens—even higher, in fact, than Acropolis Hill—Lycabettus offers great views of the Aegean Sea and total 360s of Athens. It also features an amphitheatre that holds musical concerts in the summer. Highly recommended for watching sunsets from its summit (take the funicular up), followed by dinner under the stars (you have a choice of two tavernas), overlooking a twinkling city.
Devoted to showcasing Greek works of art from the pre-Neolithic era to present day, the Benaki Museum is considered one of most important art museums in Athens. Housed in what was once the Benaki family’s mansion, located directly across from the National Garden, the museum also has an extensive collection of Asian and Islamic art among its holdings. In addition to its main building, there are now several outposts of the museum throughout the city.
Housing one of the largest collections of art and artifacts from the prehistoric civilization of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean, the museum was founded in 1986 with the private collection of shipping magnate Nicholas Goulandris and his wife. Famous among its trove: a number of the marble geometric figurines that inspired Pablo Picasso and George Braque to start the Cubist movement. Dating from the 3rd Millennium BC, they're on display in the first-floor gallery. You can't miss them.
Situated on the grounds of the gorgeous former Villa Ilissia, the Byzantine & Christian Museum is known for its outstanding holdings of art from the 3rd Century through the Middle Ages. With more than 25,000 pieces, featuring mosaics, statuary, frescoes and rare manuscripts, the collection documents the development of art from the early-Christian era and is considered one of the most important museums for Byzantine art and culture.
Not far from what’s left of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the ruins of the Arch of Hadrian stand, commissioned by the Roman emperor in the 2nd Century as a symbol of his power. This once lofty and gated archway was meant to figuratively separate the old city of Athens, pre-Hadrian, from the new city under Roman rule. Hadrian even had it inscribed accordingly on either side, portions of which can still be seen some 1,900 years later.
When visiting this large, lively indoor food market, it’s almost as much fun to stand around and watch as it is to join the crowds and browse. There’s everything here for a local Athenian’s grocery list, but unless you’re cooking, you might want to stick to the many olive shops and cheese vendors. At most places, sampling is encouraged.