Athens is Europe’s oldest capital. It has been inhabited since at least 1,300 BC, and its fortunes have varied hugely until the present day. It grew into the greatest centre of classical Greece, sank into the status of a Roman backwater, declined into a mere muddy village through centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, only reviving after 1834, when it became the capital of the modern Greek state. Now, in the early 21st century, even the great Pericles would be amazed at the size and sheer bustling life of modern Athens.
A key recent date was 2004, when Athens hosted the XXVIII Olympic Games. For months beforehand, the city had been spruced up with new roads, a glittering new airport, one of the cleanest and fastest Metro services in Europe, and new coats of pains on whatever charming neoclassical mansions had survived the concrete onslaught of the late 20th century.
In June 2009 the New Acropolis Museum was opened, adding immeasurably to Athens’ attraction as a serious cultural destination (see separate story). Perhaps the most spectacular sight from the museum is the ageless Acropolis, now in the midst of a massive restoration project designed to keep its venerable marble columns upright for as long as possible.
For a panoramic view of the city, though, take the short cable car up Mount Lykavittos, the conical height that thrusts above the Kolonaki district – or, if you’re young and healthy, walk up the steep winding path. On top, in the small courtyard of Saint George’s church, lean over the parapet and see the panorama of Athens stretch out at your feet, from the hills to the east, north and west, and the shimmering Saronic Gulf spreading out to the south.
Emerging from the station escalator, turn left a few yards and then left again, and you’re on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, with the great bulk of the Acropolis rising on your right. Walk straight up the gently rising street, passing the new Acropolis Museum and neoclassical mansions on the left. Across the street, under the Acropolis walls, are the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus, where the great plays of classical antiquity were staged. A few minutes later the restored 2nd century BC Herod Atticus Theatre appears on the right. This theatre is heavily used in summer, thanks to its excellent acoustics.
This street was pedestrianzed as part of a move to unify central Athens’ main archaeological sites to render them traffic-free and more accessible to tourists on foot. The result is Europe’s largest archaeological park. The route up to the Acropolis is well-marked.
At the start of the stone-flagged main path, the road comes to the top of the rise, with a view of Philopappus Hill to the left and the tiny restored church of Aghios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris hidden away amongst the pine trees.
The Acropolis path winds up to the Propylaea, the great marble gateway to the Acropolis precinct, and past the Erechtheion and up to the great Parthenon itself, the Temple to Athene. A huge restoration and repair project has been underway for about twenty years, so the temple itself has been roped off. On the way back down, turn right and pass the flat rock where the ancient Athenians held their assemblies and Saint Paul later preached. Walk through the remains of the Agora, or ancient Athenian civic centre and main place of business. Outside this precinct is the old and picturesque district of Plaka, Athens’ old town, under the northern wall of the Acropolis and rich in Byzantine churches and Ottoman-era crumbling houses.
On the second day, visit the National Archaeological Museum, the largest such museum in Greece. Here are housed the cream of archaeological findings, such as the frescoes of Thera, numberless statues from the archaic and classical ages, the treasure of the Mycenaean kings and a great many other treasures of Greek civilization. The museum is just ten minutes’ walk from central Omonia Square, or one stop on Metro Line 1 (green) from Omonia to Victoria Square. You need at least two hours to get the best out of this remarkable museum.
Greek Children’s Museum
Address: Kydathinaion 14, Entrance: Free
Hours: Tuesday to Friday 1000 to 1400, Saturday and Sunday 1000 to 1500. Closed on Mondays and public holidays.
Tel-fax: 0030 210 3312995, 0030 210 3312996
National Art Gallery
Address: Vasileos Konstantinou 50, Athens 11528, Ticket entrance, free for children under 12
Hours: Daily 0900-1500, Tuesdays closed
Tel: 0030 210 7235937-8, 0030 210 7235857
Fax: 0030 210 7224889, 0030 210 7224689
The National Art Gallery was established in 1900 as a basic repository for major works of modern Greek pictorial art as it has evolved through the 180 or so years of Greek independence as a European state. The National Gallery collection numbers about 10,000, including not only paintings but also sculptures, etchings, miniatures and period furniture. The Gallery regularly hosts major thematic exhibitions with material borrowed from leading museums around the world.
“Greek World” Cultural Centre
Address: Pireos 254, Tavros, Ticket entrance (prices vary according to the exhibition)
Summer hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 0900-1600, Wednesday
0900-2100, Sunday 1000-1500. Closed Saturdays.
Winter hours: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 0900-1400, Wednesday and Friday
0900-2100, Saturday 1100-1600, Sunday 1000-1600.
Summer hours apply from mid-June to mid-October
Tel: 0030 210 4835300
New Acropolis Museum
15 Dionysiou Areopagitou, Tel: +30 210 9000901. www.theacropolismuseum.gr
National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Add: 1 Tositsa St., (entry from 44 Patision St.), Tel: +30 210 8217724
Museum of the Ancient Agora (Stoa of Attalos)
Tel: +30 210 3210185
National Historical Museum
Add: 13 Stadiou St. (Old Parliament Building), Tel: +30 210 3237617, +30 210 3237315
Museum of Cycladic Art
Add: 4 Neophytou Douka St., Tel +30 210 7228321-3. Web: www.cycladic-m.gr
Add: 12 El. Venizelou Ave., Tel: +30 210 3643774, +30 210 3612190, +30 210 3612519
National Museum of Contemporary Art
Add: Kallirrois Ave. & Am. Frantzi St. (Former FIX Factory), Tel: +30 210 9242111-2
Add: 50 Akadimias St., Tel: +30 210 3629430, 210 3637453. Web: www.theatremuseum.gr
Add: 3-7 Monis Asteriou St, Plaka (at the junction of Kydathineon St.), Τel: +30 210 3234678,
+30 210 3316027. Web: www.frissirasmuseum.com
Byzantine and Christian Museum
Add: 22 Vasilissis Sophias Ave., Tel: +30 210 7211027, +30 210 7232178
Hellenic War Museum
Add: 2 Rizari St. & Vassilissis Sophias Ave., Tel: +30 210 7290543-4, +30 210 7215035, +30 210 7244464
Add: 1 Koumbari St. & Vasssilissis Sophias Ave. (Main Building), Tel: +30 210 3671000
Archaeological Museum of Kerameikos
Address: 148 Ermou St., Tel: +30 210 3463552
Museum of Greek Folk Art
Add: 17 Kydathinaion St., Plaka, Tel.: +30 210 3229031
Goulandris Natural History Museum
Add: 13 Levidou St., Kifissia, Tel.: +30 210 8015870. Web: www.gnhm.gr
Add: 100 Othonos St., Kifissia, Tel: +30 210 8015870. Web: www.gnhm.gr
Add: Syngrou 387, Old Faliron, Τel.: +30 210 9469641, 210 9469600. Web: www.eugenfound.edu.gr
The Parthenon, dedicated by the Athenians to Athena Parthenos, the patron of their city, is the most magnificent creation of Athenian democracy at the height of its power. It is also the finest monument on the Acropolis in terms of both conception and execution.
The elegant building known as the Erechtheion, on the north side of the sacred rock of the Acropolis, was erected in 421-406 BC as a replacement of an earlier temple dedicated to Athena Polias, the so-called ”Old temple”.
The Propylaia of the Athenian Acropolis were built on the west side of the hill, where the gate of the Mycenaean fortification once stood. The first propylon, or gate, was constructed in the age of Peisistratos (mid-sixth century BC), after the Acropolis had become a sanctuary dedicated to Athena.
Temple of Athena Nike
The temple of Athena Nike stands at the southeast edge of the sacred rock atop a bastion, which in Mycenaean times protected the entrance to the Acropolis. The Classical temple, designed by architect Kallikrates and built in 426-421 BC, succeeded earlier temples also dedicated to Athena Nike.
Intercity buses are frequent for trips to all the towns of mainland Greece and the Peloponnese, from the two main bus stations at Kifissos Avenue and Liosion Avenue. From Piraeus port there are daily sailings to the major islands, also served by daily flights from the airport. An intercity train service departs from Larissis Station in Athens for major towns such as Thessaloniki, Larissa and Patra.
Some of the main beaches in the greater Athens area are: Alepochori, Alimos, Avlaki, Anavissos, Halkoutsi, Glyfada, Kavouri, Kinetta, Lagonisi, Legraina, Loutsa, Mati, Megara, Nea Makri, Oropos, Porto Rafti, Rafina, Schinia, Sounion, Varkiza, Voula and Vouliagmeni. The beneficial waters of Vouliagmeni Lake are ideal for a relaxing swim. The lake is believed to have therapeutic value from the minerals in the water.
If you are interested in taking scuba diving or sailing lessons, you can ask for information at one of the schools dotted along the coastal areas. Sailing and motor yacht charter agencies can be easily found in Piraeus and in the southern seaside districts of Attica.
Mount Parnitha, Mount Ymittos and Mount Penteli are bursting with infinite types of flora and fauna as well as footpaths and caves for exploration, making them ideal spots for hikers and trekkers. For winter sports, skiers and snowboarders can head to Mount Parnassos overlooking Delphi, just a three-hour drive from Athens. The first-rate ski slopes are perfect for either beginners or professionals, while equipment can be rented from the many shops on the way to the ski resort. In the Glyfada area, golfers can enjoy the wonderful 18-hole, par-72 Glyfada Golf Course, surrounded by pine trees and offering a view of the Saronic Gulf islands.
Athens has a large number of nightclubs, too. Some feature live Greek music, others air the latest international hits and attract the city’s clubbers. The areas where one can find these bars and clubs near the center of the city are: Syntagma Square, Thissio, Psiri, Monastiraki, Plaka, Gazi, Kolonaki and Exarchia.
Originally an ornithological park, the Attica Zoological Park opened in 2000. In 2001 the World of Serpents was added, featuring animals such as boa constrictors and alligators, and in summer 2002 the Greek Wild Life section was added, featuring rare species in Greece, such as the brown bear, the wolf, the lynx, the wild cat and the otter. In February 2003 came the next expansion, that of the African Savannah. Giraffes, zebras, antelopes, jaguars and snow leopards were added. In June of that year a primates section was added, with chimpanzees and gorillas. In December 2004 came a consignment of tigers and ocelots. The African section was expanded with hippopotami, African dingoes and alligators. Finally, in early 2005 the Monkeys’ Forest was opened, offering the opportunity of close contact with the apes.
Address: Thesi Yalou Spata
Tel: +30 210 6634724
Hours: Daily from 09.00 to sunset
Bus 319 from the National Defence Ministry
Driving from Attica Highway
Exit 18 for Spata (from airport)
Exit 16Ρ for Rafina (towards airport)
End of Attica Highway, towards Rafina, from Ymittos Ring Road.
Recommended website: Breathtaking Athens
Greek National Tourism Organization: Tel: +30 210 8707000. www.visitgreece.gr
Hellenic Association of Tourism and Travel Agencies: Tel: +30 210 9223522. www.hatta.gr
Greek Tourism Businesses’ Association: Tel: +30 210 3217165, +30 210 3217167. www.sete.gr
Hotel Chamber of Greece: Tel: +30 210 3310022-26. www.grhotels.gr
Athens-Attica Hotel Association: Tel: +30 210 3235485. www.all-athens-hotels.com