Things to Do in Athens
An archaeological wonder, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the world's most instantly recognizable landmarks, the Acropolis is the star attraction of ancient Athens. Dramatically perched on a jagged clifftop—the so-called sacred rock of Athens—the ruins overlook the modern city and date back to as early as 510 BC.
Athenian rulers began construction of the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Naós tou Olympíou Diós) in the sixth century BC. By the time Roman Emperor Hadrian completed it 600 years later, it was the largest temple in Greece, and its statue of Zeus—king of the gods of Mt. Olympus—was one of the largest in the world. The temple began to fall into ruin shortly after it was finished; today only 15 of its original 104 columns still stand and much of its marble has been recycled or stolen for other temples. Nonetheless, what remains is a truly impressive sight to see.
The Agora was the political and social heart of the ancient city of Athens, and the ruins of this civic center and marketplace are among the most important archaeological sites in today’s capital. Explore this cradle of Greek democracy, including the Temple of Hephaestus and Stoa of Attalos.
Delphi, with its remarkably preserved ruins dotted along the southern slopes of Mount Parnassus, is one of Greece’s most famous archaeological site. Dating back to the seventh century BC, the ancient city of Delphi is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to sites such as the Sacred Way, Stoa of the Athenians, polygonal wall, monument of Platea, and Temple of Apollo.
An Athenian landmark and feat of contemporary architecture, the Acropolis Museum sits at the base of the Acropolis, with the ruins of an ancient settlement visible through its floor. The collection runs from pre-classical times to the Roman era, but fifth-century BC treasures are the focus, especially the Parthenon Frieze sculptures.
Originally built in the 1980s for the European Athletics Championships, the Olympic Stadium (officially the Olympic Athletic Center of Athens “Spiros Louis” or OAKA) was remodeled by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava for the 2004 Olympics. The largest stadium in Greece, with 70,000 seats, the Olympic Stadium hosts events and concerts by major international acts such as U2 and Lady Gaga.
Built around the ruins of the ancient agora, Plaka is among the oldest residential areas in Athens and was considered the Turkish quarter during Ottoman rule. Much of it burned down during a fire in 1884, exposing many ancient sites below the neighborhood, and archaeological research has been carried out in the area ever since.
The star of Athens postcards and arguably the most impressive of all the city’s ancient ruins, the Parthenon stands proud atop the sacred rock of Acropolis, high above the modern city.
Built between 447 and 432 BC, the temple was dedicated to Greek goddess Athena and originally housed her cult image, a giant ivory and gold-plated statue by Fidias. The restored temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a striking reminder of the glory of Ancient Greece with its grand marble façade, classic Doric columns, and elaborate sculptural friezes. The site also serves as a fascinating chronicle of Athens’ history.
The lovely Neoclassical Academy of Athens (Akadimía Athinón)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.
The Academy’s imposing marble assembly hall is decorated with murals of the Prometheus legend, painted by German artist Christian Griepenkerl. Alongside its 23 research departments, it also houses the Ioannis Sykoutris Library, where rare editions and manuscripts are preserved. Members of the Academy are elected for life and part of its work is to award intellectual works as well as publishing books and journals. It is not open to the public.
Also known as Constitution Square, Syntagma Square (Plateia Syntagmatos) is a huge public plaza stretching out in front of Athens’ parliament building. Gleaming with white marble and beautiful statues, it’s a great place for people watching. Many of the city's most important streets begin here, including Ermou Street and Vassilissis Sofias Avenue.
More Things to Do in Athens
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.
The towering vertical cliffs of Meteora have provided a protected place to pursue spiritual contemplation for centuries. The first hermit monks lived up in caves, but eventually 24 Byzantine monasteries were built (six function today) atop the imposing rock. Part natural wonder, part manmade marvel, the dramatic site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular attraction in Greece.
Athens' Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Mnēmeíon Agnōstou Stratiōtou)
commemorates all Greek soldiers who died in service of their country over its long history. The biggest draw is the weekly Changing of the Guard ceremony, which involves much pomp and live music. During major holidays, politicians and officials lay wreaths at the tomb.
Dramatically situated on the coastal cliffs of Cape Sounion, overlooking the Aegean Sea, the Temple of Poseidon is one of the most evocative sites of ancient Greece and a top visitor attraction. The magnificent monument dates back to 444 BC, but today, all that remains is a series of gleaming white marble columns, standing proudly atop the cape.
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 (also called the Port of the Maidens), supported by marble statues of six virgins draped in cloaks. These days the statues are copies, but five of the originals (one has lost her head) can be viewed in the awesome New Acropolis Museum adjacent to the ruins.
Set on the southern slope of Athens’ ancient Acropolis citadel, the Theatre of Dionysus is the open-air theater that gave the world drama as we know it. Dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine, revelry, and drama, it was established in the sixth century BC but took its current form a couple of centuries later.
As Athens’ highest point, Mt. Lycabettus (Lykavittos) looms 886 feet (270 meters) over the urban sprawl of Greece’s capital. Views from the top are unmatched and come with the added bonus of having far fewer crowds than at better-known hilltop attractions such as the Acropolis.
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 (Ethnikí Vivliothíki tis Elládos) 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.
Sitting on the southern slopes of the Acropolis, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus dates back to 161 BC and holds up to 5,000 spectators. Though it fell into ruin over the millennia, the theater was restored in the 1950s and is today a popular open-air venue thanks to its spectacular setting.
Bordering the east side of Athens’ focal Syntagma Square, the Parliament Building (Vouli) 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.
One of Greece’s most important monuments, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was inaugurated on Greek National Day (March 25 1932), the centenary of independence from Turkey, sits outside the Parliament Building. It attracts tourists in their throngs to witness the hourly spectacle of the Changing of the Guard by kilted soldiers from the Evzones (Presidential Guard); a more elaborate ceremony, with marching bands, is held every Sunday at 11am.
The Piraeus cruise terminal is an important historical port in Greece and one of the largest cruise ship docks in Europe. While known by cruisers as a gateway to the ancient city of Athens, the Aegean Islands, and other destinations in the Mediterranean, the city of Piraeus also merits a visit with its traditional town center, lovely parks and churches, and numerous cafes set along the tree-lined streets of the harbor.
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.
Erected in honor of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD, the monumental gateway of Hadrian’s Arch remains one of the most striking remnants of ancient Athens. The remarkably preserved 60-foot (18-meter) Roman-style arch on the ancient road between the Agora and the Olympieion is a must-see for ancient history buffs.
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.
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