First time in Athens and you need to know where to start your city exploration from? Syntagma Square is the obvious answer to your question!
Syntagma Square lies in the very heart of the city of Athens stretching before the symbol of the Greek State, the Hellenic Parliament. It is the second larger square of Greece (after Spianada Sq. in Corfu island) and slightly larger than St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. It is named Syntagma Square which can be translated in English as 'Constitution Square' and it is surrounded by monuments reflecting the vast and turbulent history of Greece in general and Athens in particular. Follow us on this trip and get to know how much history can be found on one spot at the most central point in the bustling city of Athens! If you are visiting Athens soon, please do not forget to read our Athens travel guide.
Despite today’s location, during antiquity, this area was at the fringes of the city of Athens. If we could time-travel back in time, we would probably see the ancient river Eridanus flowing towards the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos and the walls of the city standing in front of us. The ruins of the latest walls can be found right next to the Parliament’s building, dating back probably during the reign of Emperor Valerian. Most of the things we know about the ancient history of Syntagma Square come from the excavations that happened for the construction of the Athenian Metro system. The whole area was excavated and a plethora of artifacts, such as funerary goods, shrines, silos, pottery workshops, graves, roads, part of the ancient Athenian aqueduct and public buildings were carefully documented and enriched our perception of ancient Athens. A small ancient inscription at one corner of the square, dedicated to the Muses, stands as a reminder of the ancient past.
Syntagma square - credits: PitK/Shutterstock.com
During the late Ottoman times, Syntagma Sq. was still outside of the city. The area though was quite popular due to the presence of a spring that supplied the city with fresh water, known as Boubounistra, and was constructed of marble blocks collected probably from a public building of Roman times. After the War of Independence and the establishment of the new Greek State, the newly appointed King of Greece Otto decided to declare Athens as the new capital of the Kingdom of Greece. Then, the area of Syntagma, then known as Perivolakia (roughly meaning 'gardens'), was chosen as the construction site of the Royal Palace (today’s Parliament).
Originally, the square belonged to the premises of the palace along with the Royal Gardens - are National Gardens as they are referred to today. For its decoration, the Lord of Bute offered to King Otto and Queen Amalia, five bronze statues depicting gods, athletes, and animals. The original ones were found during the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum and the copies were cast in Vienna. Only one statue on Syntagma Sq. belongs to a Greek sculptor, the young man eating grapes, a work of Demetrius Philippotes.
The reign of King Otto was not as progressive as the Greeks wanted it to be. The young King, following the advice of his counselors, chose to follow a strict rule accumulating the political power of the country on him. Eventually, the people of Athens supported by heroic figures of the Greek War of Independence questioned the authority of the royal couple and with the help of the civil guard. It was September the 3rd of 1843 when the people of Athens occupied the Square and demanded from the King to form a Constitution for the country. After those events, Otto was forced to give in to the people’s demands and from then on the Square of the Palaces became Constitution (Syntagma) Square.
The center of the square is dominated by a marble fountain blocking the way to the monumental staircase leading to the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. There, a cenotaph is being guarded constantly by the elite force of the Greek army, the Evzones. The most important buildings surrounding Syntagma Sq. are Grande Bretagne - the first international hotel of the city - and the former Ministry of Transport where Georgios Papandreou made his speech announcing the liberation of Greece from the Nazi forces in 1944. For those that want to probe a bit deeper though to the history of the area, a walk in the metro station of Syntagma will definitely surprise you!
Evzones - credits: Dmytro Shapova/Shutterstock.com
Starting your walk to explore Athens from this point, there are some things that you should definitely do:
- Buy a koulouri (circular bread encrusted with sesame seeds) from the vendors selling them, in front of the Metro entrance. If you would like to find out more about local delicacies and favorite bites why not join us on our Athens for Foodies Tour? We get off the tourist trail and take you to where we locals love to eat.
- Begin a long walk towards Ermou Street. It is one of the most famous Athenian streets, full of shops, cafeterias, and restaurants. Your walk will end in Monastiraki Square a lively crossroads of new and old. If you want to discover the history beneath your feet and all around you as you explore Athens then let one of our talented, erudite guides show you the way on our Athens Orientation Tour.
- Buy a coffee (Athenians really love to do that - walking while holding a cup of coffee) and have a walk in the National Garden flanking the Greek Parliament.
- Watch the changing of the guard (in classical Evzones costumes) which takes place once every hour in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then, feed the pigeons that gather in front of the monument with your remaining koulouri sesame seeds!
From ancient rivers, sculptures and forgotten walls to Royal palaces, underground treasures and hidden gems of the past, Syntagma Square is definitely a place of history the visitor should absolutely explore! Waste no more time, plan your own Athens exploration or check out one of our tours around Greece.