Culture is without a doubt the strongest selling point of Athens, and rightly so. The ancient city has known art, science, philosophy, mythology, theatre and democracy for millennia, and this mind-boggling heritage is now safely housed in its countless museums. They vary in size and theme but they all have their own charm and allure. Here are the museums that you shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting the Greek capital.
The crown jewel of the Greek capital’s cultural scene and one of the most important museums in the world, the Acropolis Museum welcomes more than 1.5 million visitors each year. All surviving artefacts from the Acropolis – in Greek possession – are exhibited under its roof, divided into five key historical periods. The building’s "orchestrated simplicity", according to its architects Bernard Tschumi and Michalis Photiadis, serves the purpose of focusing the visitors’ emotions and intellect on the works of art. On the balcony cafe, directly facing the sacred rock, you can enjoy what may well be the most uplifting coffee or snack in Athens.
National Archaeological Museum
Without a doubt Greece’s largest and most significant collection of findings from the Neolithic period, Bronze Age, Cycladic, Mycenaean and Roman eras, the National Archaeological Museum is housed inside a stunning neoclassical building. The museum’s five permanent collections comprise thousands of spectacular objects that you’ll need hours to savour in order to delve into the beauty of the ancient Greek world. Before leaving, stop for a coffee at the museum’s lovely garden cafe, surrounded by sculptures and lemon and olive trees.
Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation
Picasso, Monet, El Greco, Kandinsky, Degas, Chagall, Matisse, Bacon, Pollock, Miro, Warhol and the crème de la crème of the Greek masters, all under the same roof! It sounds like a dream museum for every capital in the world and it certainly was for Athens, until October 2019 when the vast and magnificent collection of Basil and Elise Goulandris, who devoted their lives in collecting contemporary masterpieces, opened its doors to the public. This museum offers 11 floors of sheer visual pleasure right in the heart of the hip Pangrati neighbourhood.
Byzantine & Christian Museum
One of Kolonaki neighbourhood’s top sights, the Byzantine & Christian Museum is housed in a charming mansion with a scenic courtyard, which once belonged to the Duchess of Plaisance, a French-American supporter of Greek independence. A visit here is an absorbing glimpse into the life, traditions and above all religion during the Greek Byzantine and medieval times, with plenty of icons and frescoes on display.
Museum of Cycladic Art
If you’ve spent some time on any island in the Cyclades, you’re most likely familiar with the distinctively Cycladic flat-featured marble figurines. The two interconnected buildings of the Museum of Cycladic Art are an opportunity to study the significant Greek civilisation of the 3rd millennium BC. Its shop has a large collection of replica sculptures that make great souvenirs and gifts, while its recently renovated cafe has a contemporary yet typically Cycladic feel, just like the snacks it serves.
This is actually a complex of five fine museums. The central neoclassical building in Kolonaki – the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture – with its vast and well-organised collection, will take you down the path of Greek history, from ancient times through Byzantium to the mid-20th century. The industrial Pireos Annexe hosts contemporary and international art exhibits and boasts one of the best museum shops in the city.
Museum of Islamic Art
Part of the Benaki network, the Museum of Islamic Art is an excellent effort to highlight fine Islamic art in one of the most predominantly Christian countries of the western world – a slightly unexpected experience for a visitor to the city. Ceramics, textiles, carpets from the 12th to the 19th centuries and other treasures are carefully selected and displayed in a most engaging way. Pop into the lovely rooftop cafe, decorated with an impressive palm-tree mural, for panoramic views of the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos.
National Historical Museum
Located in the building that was Greece’s first House of Parliament, the National Historical Museum collection covers the period since the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, with an emphasis on the 1821 Greek War of Independence from Ottoman rule. It’s pretty hard to miss due to the spectacular equestrian statue of one of the most prominent leaders of the revolution, Theodoros Kolokotronis, just outside the museum entrance.
As an interesting contrast to Athens’ splendid art institutions, the War Museum is dedicated to Greece’s earlier troubled times. From the Mycenaean era to the present, it exhibits war memorabilia of every kind, including a few vintage fighter jets that are parked permanently in its courtyard. The displays provide excellent food for thought, not only for military buffs but for pacifists, too.
Museum of the City of Athens
Housed in the former residence of Greece’s first royals, King Otto and Queen Amalia, the Museum of the City of Athens tells the story of the city since it became the Greek capital in 1834. Among its highlights are the reconstructions of residential spaces of typical Athenian families from the past two centuries. The cafe in its quiet and cool garden is more of a gourmet restaurant, really – excellent for dinner and drinks even after the museum has called it a day.
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Article first published June 2018, and last updated October 2019