With equal measures of grunge and grace, Athens is a heady mix of ancient history and contemporary cool.
The magnificent Acropolis, visible from almost every part of the city, is the hub around which Athens still revolves. This temple city, built in the 5th century BC, serves as a daily reminder to Greeks of their heritage and the city's many transformations. All over the urban basin, rooftops and balconies angle toward the landmark, a block of milky marble atop a steep-sided hill. Pull up your own chair, settle in and allow time to appreciate the Acropolis' many moods, as the light shifts and the clouds cast their shifting shadows.
Layers of History
The cultural and social life of Athens plays out amid, around and in landmarks that are centuries old, if not millennia. The remnants of Ancient Greece get the most attention, of course, thanks to a little thing called democracy. Oh, and mythology, and drama, and philosophy. But don't overlook the 'later' years: thousand-year-old Byzantine churches, for instance, which squat, unruffled in the middle of streets and attached to hillsides. Ottoman traces can be seen in architecture and in food. And the neoclassical style of the 19th century adds elegance all over the centre.
Although Athenians have endured difficult circumstances since the start of the economic crisis in 2009, the city as a whole crackles with energy in art shows, political debates and even on the walls of derelict buildings, as Athens has become one of Europe's most noted spots for street art. Creative surprises lie around nearly every corner, so be sure to leave room in your schedule for spontaneous discovery: buy a ticket to that dance show that's just starting as you walk by, or sit down at the restaurant where the musicians are setting up. You'll be rewarded.
Beaches and Ruins
Beyond Athens, down the Attica peninsula, are more spectacular antiquities, such as the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion and the site of Ancient Eleusis, as well as very good beaches, such as those near historical Marathon. Sure, you could zip across, west to east, in less than an hour, but it's far more fun to take a leisurely road trip to a thermally heated lake, say, or a monastery with dazzling Byzantine mosaics. If you'd rather not drive, most of these surprise sights (including great beaches) can be reached on public transport.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Athens.
This dazzling museum at the foot of the Acropolis ' southern slope showcases its surviving treasures. The collection covers the Archaic period to the Roman one, but the emphasis is on the Acropolis of the 5th century BC, considered the apotheosis of Greece's artistic achievement. The museum reveals layers of history – from ancient ruins beneath the building, to the Acropolis itself, always visible above through floor-to-ceiling windows. The good-value restaurant has superb views.
Designed to be the pre-eminent monument of the Acropolis, the Parthenon epitomises the glory of Ancient Greece. Meaning 'virgin's apartment', it's dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess embodying the power and prestige of the city. The largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, the Parthenon took 15 years to build.
The Acropolis is the most important ancient site in the Western world. Crowned by the Parthenon, it stands sentinel over Athens, visible from almost everywhere within the city. Its monuments and sanctuaries of white Pentelic marble gleam in the midday sun and gradually take on a honey hue as the sun sinks, while at night they stand brilliantly illuminated above the city. A glimpse of this magnificent sight cannot fail to exalt your spirit.
This lush, tranquil site is named for the potters who settled it around 3000 BC. It was used as a cemetery through the 6th century AD. The grave markers give a sense of ancient life; numerous marble stelae (grave markers) are carved with vivid portraits and familiar scenes.
The Agora was ancient Athens' heart, the lively hub of administrative, commercial, political and social activity. Socrates expounded his philosophy here; in AD 49 St Paul came here to win converts to Christianity. The site today is a lush respite, home to the grand Temple of Hephaistos, a good museum and the 11th-century Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles, trimmed in brick patterns that mimic Arabic calligraphy. The greenery harbours birds and lizards. Allow about two hours to see everything.
This outstanding museum, based in the 1848 Villa Ilissia, offers exhibition halls, most of them underground, crammed with religious art. The exhibits go chronologically, charting the gradual and fascinating shift from ancient traditions to Christian ones, and the flourishing of a distinctive Byzantine style. Of course there are icons, but also delicate frescoes (some salvaged from a church and installed on floating panels) and more personal remnants of daily life.
In 1930 Antonis Benakis – a politician's son born in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 19th century – endowed what is perhaps the finest museum in Greece. Its three floors showcase impeccable treasures from the Bronze Age up to WWII. Especially gorgeous are the Byzantine icons and the extensive collection of Greek regional costumes, as well as complete sitting rooms from Macedonian mansions, intricately carved and painted. Benakis had such a good eye that even the agricultural tools are beautiful.
Housing the world's finest collection of Greek antiquities in an enormous neoclassical building, this museum is one of Athens' top attractions. Treasures offering a view of Greek art and history – dating from the Neolithic era to Classical periods, including the Ptolemaic era in Egypt – include exquisite sculptures, pottery, jewellery, frescoes and artefacts found throughout Greece. The beautifully presented exhibits are displayed mainly thematically.
Athens is short on green spaces, so this vast seaside park is a blessing. Covering a man-made slope that incorporates the roof of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, this 21-hectare park has been sustainably designed with paths cutting through plantings of lavender, olive trees and other Mediterranean flora.