You’ve reached Greece, the destination you’ve been dreaming about for months and you’re eager to see the best of what the historical city of Athens has to show its visitors. Here, we have narrowed down our top 10 favorite sights of Athens for you to enjoy and get a representative taste of the essence of Greece.
1. The Acropolis Hill
Aerial view of the Acropolis - credits: Aerial-Motion/Shutterstock.com
Let’s get the basics out of the way. It goes without saying that the Acropolis Hill is the most important monument of ancient Greece, as well as one of the most significant testimonies of world culture and heritage. No visitor of Athens leaves the city without visiting and exploring the historical site; it’d be like visiting Rome and skipping on the Colosseum or visiting Paris and skipping on the Eiffel Tower! The Acropolis Hill is located about 6km from the sea, while findings from the numerous excavations that have taken place over the years have shown that is had been inhabited since the 7th millennium BC. On the Acropolis Hill, you can admire a number of buildings of unmatched architectural value, including the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The most famous building on the Acropolis Hill is the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to goddess Athena, the patron of Athens. The temple was designed by two Athenian architects, Iktinos and Kallikrates, while its construction was completed in 438 BC following the Doric style of architecture. To this day, the Parthenon attracts visitors from all over the world that stand in awe before its complex architecture and supreme aesthetic. The Temple of Athena Nike is a small, all-marble temple, built between 427 and 424 BC, also designed by Kallikrates. However, unlike the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike is an Ionic-style temple built on a four-step crypt. Inside, the temple used to host a statue of Athena Nike holding a helmet in her left hand and a pomegranate in her right one, the symbol of the gods of the underworld. Legend has it, that the famous confrontation between Athena and Poseidon, described in Greek mythology, took place at the top of the Acropolis Hill. Poseidon, the god of the sea, hit the rock with his trident and spilled sea water. In turn, Athena struck the rock with her spear and an olive tree rose. The Olympian gods gave the victory to Athena, however, the Athenians, in an effort to reconcile the two gods, dedicated a sanctuary to both of them, dividing it in half. That is how Erechtheion, the Acropolis building with the Ionian-style architecture and most peculiar layout, came to be between 425 and 406, while its name honors King Erechtheus, the mythological king of Athens. The most well-known part of the Erechtheion is the famous Caryatids, the beautiful female sculptures that were used perimetrically as columns that supported the temple’s balcony; a bright example of ancient Greek fine art. Last but not least, the construction of Propylaea, the impressive entrance of the Acropolis began t in 436 BC, after the erection of the Parthenon, but was never completed due to the early death of Pericles, the general of Athens during its golden age. The unfinished ruins remain on the hill, with their beauty impressing the visitors.
Tip: If you’re visiting Athens with your family, grab the opportunity to enjoy an Acropolis for families tour, where a kid-friendly guide will take you on a journey back to ancient times and mythical wanderings.
2. The Acropolis Museum
The ground floor of the Acropolis museum - credits: Paopano/Shutterstock.com
The Acropolis Museum is the archaeological museum that houses the findings of the Acropolis Hill, covering a wide period of time, from the Mycenaean to the Roman and Paleochristian times, while it lies on the archaeological site of Makrigianni, a remnant of the Roman and early Byzantine times. Most of the monuments of the Acropolis have stood the test of time, even after the disasters that occurred during both ancient and Middle-Age times, the biggest of which transpired when the Ottomans dismantled the Temple of Athena Nike to use its materials to enhance the fortification of the Acropolis, and when during the 1687 siege by the Venetians, it a cannonball hit the Parthenon, which was used as storage for gunpowder at the time, causing it to explode. At first, the museum that was built to accommodate the findings of the Acropolis was too small and didn’t have enough room to display all of the Acropolis exhibits. For that reason, a second museum was announced in 1888, however, in the years 1946-1947, the second museum was demolished and the original was significantly expanded. Today, the new Acropolis Museum is a total of 25,000 m²; ten times larger than the old one. It is one of the most impressive archaeological museums in the world and it hosts unique masterpieces, such as original pieces of archaic and classical Greek art, which are directly linked to the sacred rock of the Athenian Acropolis. On the ground floor, you can find exhibits from the sanctuaries that were founded on the slopes of the Acropolis, as well as from the settlement that developed at the foot of the hill across all historical periods. The first floor is home to the grandiose sculptures adorning the temples of the Acropolis, as well as dedications left by the believers, such as statues of the goddess Athena and other small bronze and clay tributes. On the perimeter of the third floor’s walls, embossed stones of the frieze, depicting the Panathenaic games procession are mounted on a continuous sequence, with the eastern pediment depicting the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus and the western the rivalry between Athena and Poseidon. Upon your return to the first level, you will have the opportunity to admire sections dedicated to the exhibits found at the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion. Additionally, you can find sculptures of the classical period, copies of artifacts dating back to the imperial years, votive and emphatic reliefs of the 5th and 4th century BC, as well as selected exhibits from the late antiquity and the Byzantine times.
3. Pnyka and the Philopappos Hill
Philopappos Hill - credits: dimitris_k/Shutterstock.com
Southwest of the Acropolis Hill, another emblematic hill of Athens stands proud against the stunning backdrop of the Greek capital; the Philopappos Hill. In antiquity, it used to be called the Muses hill, being allegedly the stronghold of the Athenians against the Amazons in the mythical years, and being used as a fortress of great strategic significance in major military operations because of its optimum position opposite the Acropolis. The name it holds today is contributed to a much later point in history, when Phillopappos, the high commissioner of Athens during the Roman period, set up a 12-meter monument on its top, opposite the Parthenon. The famous monument was, in fact, a type of Mausoleum, while of its four sides, only the northeastern one has survived, the outer side of depicts the burial of Philopappos. On this historic hill, located in its grove, lies the prison where Socrates was infamously sentenced to death, with the remnants of a cave guarded by an iron gate being proof of Socrates sufferings. Located close to Socrates’ cave is the Church of St. Demetrius of Lourdari, which is said to be dating back to either the Ottoman domination or the 9th century. Legend has it, that an Ottoman official wanted to bomb the temple from the Acropolis to destroy the church and kill the believers who had come to celebrate St. Demetrius. However, shortly before his plan, a bolt of lightning from a sudden storm erupted blew the gun on the Acropolis and saved the chapel. The Philopappos Hill is, in fact, not a single hill, but three hills right next to each other: the hill of Pnyx, the hill of the Nymphs -also known as the ‘Observatory’, and the hill of the Muses, the one with monument of Philopappou at its top.
The Pnyx is the location that held the ancient Greek ‘Church of the Municipality’, the assembly of the Athenians, from the 6th century until the end of the 4th century BC, that gathered in order to take important decisions in regard to the city. It is located in the middle of the north-south direction of the hillside opposite and to the west of the Acropolis. Through the years, the Pnyx has played host to a number of inspirational and significant speeches from great politicians, generals, and orators, such as Themistocles, Aristides, Pericles, Demosthenes, and, more recently, Theodoros Kolokotronis. In antiquity, the entire archaeological site of Pnyx was an important sacred site dedicated to Zeus, who was considered to be the great protector of the Athenian constitution. Furthermore, located in Pnyx, are the foundations of the Helioscope of Metone. The Helioscope was a square tower used by ancient astronomers to observe the position of the sun, the moon, and other celestial bodies. With the help of the Helioscope, astronomer Metone discovered the 19-year periodicity with which the phases of the moon are repeated at the same spot in the sky.
4. Syntagma Square and the Greek Parliament
Syntagma Square - credits: lornet/Shutterstock.com
Probably the most famous square in Greece, Syntagma Square is the central square of Athens. It is the second largest square in Greece, after Spianada square in Corfu, and is featured in the list of the 100 largest in the world. Located in the heart of Athens, the imposing building of the Old Palace that today hosts the Hellenic Parliament is an emblematic figure that stands at the square’s very center. Due to its central location, Syntagma Square is a significant point of reference for modern Athenian and Greek history. The square came to be in 1834; before then, the area was on the outskirts of the city and was called ‘Perivolakia’ and was called ‘Palace Square’. It took its present name after the revolution that took on 3 September 1843, when King Otto was forced by the military guard of Athens, who had gathered in the square under the leadership of Colonel Demetrios Kallergis, supported by a large crowd, to convene a national assembly and grant a Constitution. The square is very close to most of the attractions of central Athens. It’s within walking distance of Plaka, Monastiraki, Kolonaki and Psirri neighborhoods. the archaeological sites of the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, and the Library of Hadrian. In the southern part of the square begins Ermou Street, which is the most commercial street in Athens and one of the most expensive streets in the world based on the value of the real estate. If you happen to find yourself on Syntagma Square, don’t miss the opportunity to watch the ‘Change of Guards’ in front of the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, located right in front of the Parliament. There, the two guards of the monument, called Evzones, are being replaced by two new guards every hour with absolutely accurate synchronized movements. On national holidays and Sundays, at 11 am, the formal change of guard, consisting of 120 Evzones, takes place.
5. Roman Agora - Tower of the Winds
While the ancient Greeks were famous for their passion for symmetry, analogy, and beauty, the Romans were famous for their ability to efficiently govern the world by military force, rational thought and practical wisdom. Thankfully, the archaeological site of the Roman Agora in the center of Athens combines elements of both ancient civilizations, bringing together the Roman style, with the construction techniques and architecture of classical ancient Greek tradition. Roman Agora is located close to ancient Greek Agora, only a few hundred meters to the east. Around 100 A.D., a comfortably wide street linked the Greek Agora with the Roman Agora. During those times, the Greek Agora was mostly a place for meeting people, light-shopping and hearing philosophical lectures, while the Roman Agora was the actual marketplace of Athens. Roman Agora is a rectangular courtyard, full of shops and storerooms. Its construction began around 11 B.C under the order of Caesar and it was completed a few years later when Augustus was on the throne. For that reason, Roman Agora's full -and less-known- name is 'Roman Agora of Caesar and Augustus'. It was -as most things in Athens- dedicated to the goddess Athena, the god that gave the Athenians the gift of the olive-tree, which explains the reason why olive-oil was the most valuable commodity in the market. The Roman Agora consisted of a large, open-air courtyard surrounded by colonnades on all four sides. On the eastern side, there were a series of shops and on the southern side was a fountain. The main entrance was on the west called ‘Gate of Athena Archegetis), and there was a second entrance on the east. Just a few meters away from the east enclosure of the Roman Agora stands proudly the Tower of the Winds, which is a 12-meter high octagonal building designed by the famous astronomer Andronikos. Its nickname 'Tower of the Winds' comes from the personifications of the eight winds, which are sculptured on the eight sides of the building on impressive friezes. Inside the construction, there is a brilliantly designed water clock. On the outside, there is a sundial and a weather vane. Scholars used to think that the Tower of the Winds was built in the 1st century B.C. However, many archaeologists now estimate the construction date to be in the mid-2nd century B.C.
6. Plaka Neighborhood and Anafiotika
The district of Anafiotika - credits: eFesenko/Shutterstock.com
There is no doubt in our minds that the neighborhoods of Plaka and Anafiotika in the center of the city are the most picturesque regions of Athens, combining the modern, urban vibe of the city with an unmatched old-time charm. In the shadow of the Acropolis, lies Paka, with its scenic paved alleys and houses of neoclassical architecture making up a unique setting that enchants both locals and visitors. ‘The neighborhood of the gods’, as it often referred to, with its historic buildings and Byzantine churches is a lively neighborhood with local taverns and cafes, souvenir shops, folk art, and museums scattered around its premises; a cultural center that is both charming and awe-inspiring. Lose yourself in the narrow alleys and walk all the way to Anafiotika, the unique island-esque neighborhood created in the 19th century, that holds a special and rather funny story behind its construction. Following the liberation of Greece after the Revolution of 1821, the Dynasty of Otto was established. The proclamation of Athens as the capital of the modern Greek state involved the necessary works for the establishment of the Court and of the Administration in the city. For that reason, Otto tried to find the best craftsmen to rebuild the palace. At the time, the Cyclades were famous for their craftsmen, especially those coming from the island of Anafi due to the incredibly rocky grounds they had to build their houses on, and so Otto hired them for the job. In 1860, two of the craftsmen Otto had employed built two small houses behind the church of Agios Nikolaos, following the Cycladic architecture and aesthetic of their homeland. Soon after, other Cycladic craftsmen, along with their families, began building houses in the area, giving the whole neighborhood the name of ‘Anafiotika’, which translates to ‘from the island of Anafi’. The proclamation of Anafiotes as a preserved historic settlement saved many buildings, however, the lack of resources resulted in many of them being in bad shape. Today, there are about 45 houses left.
Tip: To experience the two iconic neighborhoods of Athens, embark on a Mythical Athenian Hills & Hidden Anafiotika tour and get to know the oasis that is hidden in the heart of the bustling city!
7. Monastiraki Square
Aerial view of Monastiraki Square and the Acropolis - credits: Anastasios71/Shutterstock.com
At the heart of the Athenian center, the emblematic Monastiraki Square is one of the most important points of reference for all Athenians, as well as a place that demonstrates the history of Athens throughout the years in only a few square meters. The name of the square comes from the little old church of Virgin Mary Pantanassa, which is built on the square and was formerly a monastery. The neighborhood of Monastiraki was initially thought to be a part of the Psirri but was officially established as a separate district after the construction of Ermou Street in 1835. Monastiraki Square is a unique mix of time periods and cultures, always a meeting point for the people of the city and a commercial center of Athens. If you stand at the center of Monastiraki Square and make a 360-degree turn, you will witness the entirety of Athens’ heritage, with the church of Virgin Mary Pantanassa, the Tzistarakis Mosque, the Monastiraki Metro station, and the Monastiraki Market being the standout attractions of the square. The Tzistarakis Mosque was built during the Ottoman occupation by the Turkish governor Tzistarakis in 1759 with materials taken from old buildings. For the marble masonry of the walls, the 17th column of Temple of Olympian Zeus was blown up, which made old Athenians infamously believe that the temple was cursed. After the Revolution of 1821, the building had several uses, and in 1924 it was converted into a folk museum. Today, the mosque houses an annex of the Folk Art Museum of Athens. Monastiraki Station is a hub station in Athens’ subway system and it was inaugurated on May 17, 1895. It is partially open-pit type and partly underground, while its current form dates back to 2003 when modernization of the oldest station was completed. Within the station, a large number of archaeological discoveries were revealed during the station’s construction, such as relics from the 8th century BC up to the 19th century AD, as well as buildings, workshops, tombs, and numerous water and sewage systems. Close to Monastiraki Square, on and around Aeschinia Square, the Monastiraki Market is located, which also houses the bazaar (Yousourum), formerly known for its antique shops. Today, one can find almost anything in the market, from the traditional antique shops to stores selling new products, mostly tourist souvenirs, clothing, and footwear.
8. National Garden of Athens
The National Garden of Athens - credits: Anastasios71/Shutterstock.com
The walk around National Garden of Athens, known until 1974 as the ‘Royal Garden’, open every day from sunrise to sunset, is one of the favorites walks of the Athenians. It is a public park in the center of Athens between the districts of Kolonaki and Pagrati, that covers an overall of 28,5 hectares and is located right next to the Hellenic Parliament and extends to the south where the Zappeion palace is located opposite the Panathenaic stadium where the first modern Olympic Games took place in 1896. During antiquity, part of the estate was the private garden of philosopher and botanist Theophrastus of one of Aristotle's successors, which was given to him as a gift from a student of his. In modern history, Queen Amalia took on the project of transforming the premises into a scientific and botanical garden as well as a private one. As a result, in 1839, 15,000 ornamental plants were transplanted from Genoa, as well as native species, transported from the regions of Sounio and Evia. It is said that the garden was so important to Queen Amalia, that she used to spend at least three hours a day personally taking care of it. As expected, during the excavation that took part in the making of the garden, a number of archaeological finds resurfaced, including a Roman mosaic and an ancient aqueduct used for the garden. Today, the National Garden hosts 7.000 trees, 40.000 bushes, and other plants, making up 519 species and varieties. 102 of them are Greek, with Judas trees, oleanders, and carob trees the undoubted stars, while others come from different countries all over the world such as Australian pines or Chinese trees-of-heaven. Centenarian Holm oaks, cypress trees, and Canary Island date palms are also amongst the plants that have been a feature of the garden since it was first created. Within the garden, a total of six lakes are also found, making feeding the ducks and the turtles living in them a favorite pastime for children.
9. Panathenaic Stadium
The Panathenaic Stadium - credits: Heracles Kritikos/Shutterstock.com
The Panathenaic Stadium is a timeless cultural figure and is one of the most important monuments of Athens and of the whole of Greece, attracting both local and foreign visitors. Its heritage is arguably linked to the modern Olympics, as their modern revival took place there in 1896 and as it is the point at which the Olympic Flame is being delivered to all Olympic games, including both winter and summer Olympics. The Panathenaic Stadium is located at the site of an ancient Greek Stadium and demonstrates the key features of one: a rectangular shape with an entrance from one narrow side and a place for spectators on the slopes of the other three sides. In antiquity, the Athenians were just proud of the Panathenaic Stadium, that held no resemblance to any other stadium in the world. However, with the predominance of the Christian religion and the banning of idolatrous events and barbarous spectacles of Roman times, the Panathenaic Stadium lost its glamor and was abandoned. Among the first attempts to revive the idea of the Olympic Games were the sports competitions organized in 1870 and 1875 at the Panathenaic Stadium in the context of the Zappeion Olympiads, which were Greek exhibitions funded by the national benefactor Evangelos Zappas. In 1896, the President of the Congress and the Attorney of the Panhellenic Gymnastics Association, Dimitrios Vikelas, convinced the Congress the first International Olympic Games to be held in Athens. The Panathenaic Stadium was chosen to host the massive event, becoming the center of the city's preparations for the grand international meeting. The excessive expense for the stadium’s refurbishment was mainly taken over by another national benefactor, George Averoff, for whom the city of Athens built a marble statue that today can be found to the right of the Stadium’s main entrance. Archaeological investigations since 1836 have revealed traces of the ancient stage, and the reconstruction of the Pentelic marble stadium is distinguished by its fidelity to a large extent to the ancient monument of Herodes. The Panathenaic Stadium throughout the past century has hosted a variety of events, Panhellenic and International Games.
10. National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum of Greece - credits: Lefteris Papaulakis/Shutterstock.com
The National Archaeological Museum of Greece, located in Athens, is one of the most important museums of the world in regard to Ancient Art. Its collections offer a journey through all the different cultures that flourished in Greece from prehistoric times to the end of the Roman period. The first archaeological museum in Greece was created by governor John Kapodistrias in Aegina in 1829, while later, the archaeological collection was displayed in various places until reaching its final home in 1858 when an international architectural competition for the site and design of the museum was launched. The site that is now the museum was donated by Eleni Tositsa and its construction was completed in 1889, using funds from the Greek government, the Hellenic Archaeological Society, the Mycenaean community, and great benefactors. During the Second World War, the museum remained closed and the valuable exhibits were boxed and hidden for protection. The neoclassical design of the museum mirrors accurately the aesthetic of the exhibits, while the building has undergone several extensions in order to accommodate the increasingly growing collection of the museum. The most recent refurbishment lasted 1.5 years, during which the museum remained completely closed. It was reopened in July 2004, ready for the 2004 Olympic Games that were hosted in Athens. The renovation included the aesthetic and technical upgrading of the building and the installation of up-to-date air conditioning, among others. Some of the highlights of the exhibits found on the National Archaeological Museum are the sculptures of Aphrodite and Panas, the mask of Agamemnon, the Antikythera mechanism, the Cup of Nestor and the Archeology Library, which holds around 20,000 titles, dating all the way back to the 17th century. Additionally, the National Archaeological Museum houses a gift shop with duplicates of exhibits and informative books, as well as two cafes, one on the museum's patio and one on the garden. The museum is easily accessible from the subway, with Victoria Station being a short a 5-minute walk away and Omonoia Station only 10-minutes away, while most buses and trolleys that pass through Patission Street have a stop outside of it. Furthermore, the building is accessible for people with wheelchairs and there are guides and infrastructure for people with hearing problems.
The fact that you can find history and culture under every rock you turn in Athens is magnificent yet overwhelming. Our top 10 favorite sights of Athens may not be all there is to the city of gods, they are however a perfect start to your exploration. Put on your most comfortable shoes and get ready for a spiritual and exciting ride through the cradle of western civilization!