Athens is the historical capital of Europe, with a long history, dating from the first settlement in the Neolithic age. In the 5th Century BC (the “Golden Age of Pericles”) – the culmination of Athens’ long, fascinating history – the city’s values and civilization acquired a universal significance. Over the years, a multitude of conquerors occupied Athens, and erected unique, splendid monuments – a rare historical palimpsest. In 1834, it became the capital of the modern Greek state and in two centuries since it has become an attractive modern metropolis with unrivalled charm.
A large part of the town’s historical centre has been converted into a 3-kilometre pedestrian zone (the largest in Europe), leading to the major archaeological sites (“archaeological park”), reconstructing – to a large degree – the ancient landscape.
The tour starts at the temple of Olympian Zeus (6th c. B.C.), one of the largest in antiquity and close by Hadrian’s Arch (131 A.D.), which forms the symbolic entrance to the city. From there, walking along Dionysou Areopaghitou Street (on the south side of the Acropolis) you pass the ancient Theatre of Dionysos (5th c. B.C.) where most of the works by Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylos and Aristophanes were performed. Continuing, you will reach the ruins of the Asklepieion (5th c. B.C.) and the Stoa of Eumenes (2th c. B.C.) and from there the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, which was built in 161 A.D. and is nowadays the venue of the performances of the Athens Festival.
Climbing up to the rock of the Acropolis, visitors are overwhelmed with awe and admiration for the architectural masterpieces built on this eminent archaeological site. The visionary building program of a charismatic politician, Pericles, was superbly carried out thanks to the incomparable skills of a great artist, Phidias. The whole project led to the creation of an invaluable art treasure, making Athens a universal benefactor of mankind.South of the entrance to the Acropolis stands the charming temple of Athena Nike in the Ionic order; it was built in commemoration of the victory of the Greeks against the Persians. There is a superb view as you pass through the exquisite but unfinished Propylaea of Mnesicles: the Parthenon, the most splendid architectural achievement of classical Greece. The architects of this unique temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, patron of the city of Athens, were Ictinus and Callicrates, while Phidias acted as supervisor for all the architectural and artistic works for the Acropolis in Athens.
Opposite the Parthenon is the Erechtheion, with the renowned Caryatid Porch at its south end. Descend the south slope of the Acropolis to continue your visit. To your right is the most ancient theatre in the world, the Theatre of Dionysus. Above the theatre is the Stoa of Eumenes, which provided shelter to theatregoers in the event of bad weather. Next to the Stoa lies the once roofed Odeion, built by the wealthy Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife Rigilla. Nowadays it is a venue for Athens Festival events.
There is access to the Acropolis for the disabled on the North Slope: platforms, gently inclined ramps and a special lift provide access to the archaeological site. At the top of the Acropolis, specially surfaced paths have been laid to assist those touring the monuments. Just 800 feet from the Acropolis, the new Acropolis Museum brings together all of the surviving artefacts ever found on the site.
Replicating the natural light and atmospheric conditions found on the Acropolis, the Museum’s architecture allows you to view simultaneously the exhibits and the place from where they originated.
Coming down from the Acropolis you arrive at the Areios Pagos, the most ancient law court of the world. Opposite it is Philopappou Hill, with its beautiful cobbled little roads and the Roman monument by the same name on its top, while close by is the Pnyx, where the citizens of ancient Athens used to assemble and exert their democratic rights.
Walking farther along the pedestrian road you arrive at the Ancient Agora, which was the commercial, political and religious centre of ancient Athens. A visit to the archaeological site will give you the opportunity to become acquainted with the workings of Classical Athenian democracy.
From there, via Ermou Street, you arrive at the Kerameikos, the largest cemetery of the ancient city, with impressive tomb sculptures and stelae. The Iridanos River, sacred in antiquity, runs through the archaeological site.
However, our tour of enchanting Athens does not restrict itself only to these unique archaeological sites.
The New Acropolis Museum
It is one of the most important contemporary works of architecture in Athens. Its construction, designed by architects B. Tschumi and Mih. Fotiadi was completed in 2007. Standing only 300m away from the Acropolis Rock, its total area covers 21,000sq.m, while it offers a display area of 14,000sq.m.
It is made of steel, glass and concrete; it uses natural light efficiently so that its 4,000 exhibits would show off. The last level (The Parthenon room) has the dimensions and the direction of the Parthenon and it has been rotated by 23 degrees in relation to the rest of the building so that the visitor would have an immediate view of the monument.
Around neighborhoods of the historical centre
The “core” of the historical centre is the Plaka neighborhood (at the eastern side of the Acropolis), which has been inhabited without interruption since antiquity. When you walk through the narrow labyrinthine streets lined with houses and mansions from the time of the Turkish occupation and the Neoclassical period (19th c.), you will have the impression of travelling with a “time machine”.
You will encounter ancient monuments, such as the Lysikrates Monument, erected by a wealthy donor of theatrical performances, the Roman Agora with the famed “Tower of the Winds” (1st c. B.C.) and Hadrian’s Library (132 A.D.), scores of bigger and smaller churches, true masterpieces of Byzantine art and architecture, as well as remnants of the Ottoman period (Fetihie Mosque, Tzistaraki Mosque, the Turkish Bath near the Tower of the Winds, the Muslim Seminary, et al.). There are also some interesting museums (Folk Art, Greek Children’s Art, Popular Musical Instruments, Frysira Art Gallery, etc.), lots of picturesque tavernas, cafés, bars, as well as shops selling souvenirs and traditional Greek products.
Continuing from Plaka you arrive at Monastiraki, a characteristic area of “old” Athens, with narrow streets and small buildings where the city’s traditional bazaar (Yousouroum) is held. Close to it is the Psyrri area, a traditional neighborhood which during the past few years has evolved into one of the most important “centres” of the town’s nightlife, with scores of bars, tavernas, ouzeris, clubs, etc.
However, the “heart” of the historical centre is the traditional commercial neighborhood, with more than 2,500 shops of all kinds, which spreads out over the streets surrounding Ermou Street (the city’s best-known commercial street). The western “border” of the area is Athinas Street, where the foodstuff commerce is concentrated, reminding one strongly of the Middle East. Here are situated, among others, the neoclassical mansions of the Town Hall, the Municipal Market (where meat, fish and vegetables are sold) and spacious Kotzias Square.
Within the boundary of Athens’ historical centre also are the picturesque neighborhoods of Makriyianni (close to the Acropolis, where the new Acropolis Museum stands), Ano Petralona, Theseion (where you will find small interesting museums and scores of cafés, bars and restaurants), Kerameikos and Metaxourgeio, as well as the Gazi area, with the former Gas works, which now have been turned into a cultural centre of the Athens municipality (“Technopolis”).
Syntagma and Omonia are the main central squares of the town; they are linked by Stadiou Street and Panepistimiou Avenue, along which some of the town’s most beautiful Neoclassical buildings have been erected. Dominating Syntagma Squares the Greek Parliament building and in front of it the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, guarded by the Evzones in traditional costume.
From this square starts the beautiful National Garden (40 acres), south of which stands the impressive Zappeion Mansion (1874-1888). From there you can continue towards the Presidential Mansion (1897) and thence to the Panathenaikon (Kallimarmaro) Stadium, where the first Olympic Games in modern history were held (1896). From there, crossing the Mets neighborhood, the road leads you to the First Cemetery, the oldest one in Athens, basically an outdoor sculpture display with a wealth of wonderful monumental tombstones by some of the most important sculptors of the 19th and 20th centuries.
From Omonia Square starts Patission street, a busy street with interesting buildings, amongst which are the Neoclassical mansions of the Polytechnic School and the National Archaeological Museum, which ranks among the leading museums in the world and hosts rare art treasures from the Neolithic era up to the Roman period. Close to the museum is the Exarheia area, a charming and very lively neighborhood, traditional a meeting point and home to many students and artists. From Exarcheia, crossing the Neapoli neighborhood, you can climb the verdant Lycavittos Hill. From its top you have a view of the entire city, all the way to the sea. On the other side of the hill is the Kolonaki neighborhood, whose boundary is Vassilissis Sophias Avenue, one of the most grandiose streets of Athens with beautiful buildings, many museums (Cycladic Art, Benaki, Byzantine and Christian Museum, War Museum, National Gallery) and green areas. In Kolonaki, which is considered to be the most “aristocratic” area of the centre of Athens, you will find many shops selling expensive brands and high couture, modern restaurants, bars and cafés, while it is worthwhile to take a stroll through the central streets with their art déco, art nouveau and interbellum buildings.
Breathtaking views over Athens
Thanks to its rich morphology Athens has plenty of places where you can admire stunning panoramic views of the city. Romantic or not, let yourself be captivated by the Athenian cityscape as seen from above.
In Athens and the wider Attica area, you will find hotel accommodation of high standard, modern means of transportation, a wide choice of opportunities for shopping, dining and nightlife, good service but above all the hospitality and warmth of its inhabitants. In a nutshell, Athens is a city that fascinates every visitor, during all seasons.