Athens' primary attractions are its Ancient Greek and Roman ruins, all clustered around the Acropolis, an area that's easy to explore on foot over a couple of days. This area overlaps with the oldest parts of the modern city, the attractive old homes of the Plaka especially. The outlying attractions for visitors are the city's best museums, which are a longer walk or a bus/metro ride just out of the centre. Make these excursions into an occasion to explore more residential neighbourhoods. And don't forget to make a trip to the fabulous Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center and seaside park.
The biggest event in ancient Athens was the Panathenaic Procession, the climax of the Panathenaic Festival held to venerate the goddess Athena. Scenes of the Procession are vividly depicted in the 160m-long Parthenon frieze in the Acropolis Museum.
There were actually two festivals: a lesser one to mark Athena's birthdate every year, and the Great Panathenaic Festival every fourth year. This began with dancing, followed by athletic, dramatic and musical contests. On the final day, the Panathenaic Procession began at Kerameikos, led by men carrying animals sacrificed to Athena, followed by maidens carrying rhytons (horn-shaped drinking vessels) and musicians playing a fanfare for the girls of noble birth who held aloft the sacred peplos (a glorious saffron-coloured shawl). The parade followed the Panathenaic Way, which cuts across the middle of the Acropolis. In the festival's grande finale, the peplos was placed on the statue of Athena Polias in the Erechtheion.
One major lasting benefit of the 2004 Olympics was the transformation of the traffic-choked streets around Athens' historical centre into a spectacular 3km-long pedestrian promenade, one of Europe's longest. Locals and tourists come out in force for an evening volta (stroll) along the interesting heritage trail, which passes many of the best historical sites.
The grand promenade starts at Dionysiou Areopagitou, opposite the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and continues along the southern foothills of the Acropolis, all the way to the Ancient Agora, branching off from Thisio to Keramikos and Gazi, and north along Adrianou to Monastiraki and Plaka.
Kypseli, a 15-minute walk north of Exarhia, was once one of the most desirable residential areas of Athens, on a par with Kolonaki. It's not so ritzy today, even though if you keep an eye out there's still the odd pretty neoclassical mansion or art deco block to be found among the dense streets of identikit five-storey Athens apartment blocks.
The neighbourhood's social centre is the Fokionos Negri pedestrian strip of park, lined with cafes. Here you'll find an interesting new development at the Kypseli Municipal Market. The 1935 modernist building now houses a range of social projects including the first physical store for the non-profit business Wise Greece (www.en.wisegreece.com) which sells some 2500 good quality food products from across the country. For every product sold, a percentage of the profit goes into a fund to buy food for people in need.
The NGO, We Need Books has also set up nearby. This free library, play space and social integration centre has been set up to help marginalized and vulnerable people, including refugees in Athens. They welcome donations of books and they sometimes host discussions and events in English.
The Jewish community of Athens numbers nearly 3000 today but its roots go back thousands of years, perhaps even to before the 5th century BC: some archaeologists believe there was a synagogue in the Agora. You can find out about the community's history at the Jewish Museum beginning with the Romaniotes of the 3rd century BC, through to the arrival of Sephardic Jews in the 15th century and beyond the Holocaust.
There are two synagogues in Athens – the small Ets Hayim, a Romaniote synagogue built in 1904, and the larger Beth Shalom, dating from 1935; they stand opposite each other. A fascinating tour of the synagogues is by appointment only: send an email with a photocopy of your passport to email@example.com.
Outside Beth Shalom look for the metal book memorial to the the Righteous Gentiles – Greeks who helped save Jews during the Nazi German occupation of WWII. Nearby, shaded by trees next to Keramikos, is the city's Holocaust Memorial, a Star of David made of large sculpted fragments of marble. Finish your tour of Jewish Athens with a hearty meal at the good kosher restaurant Gostijo, part of the city's Chabbad centre
Greece’s National Gallery has a collection of more than 20,000 artworks. However, its main building has been closed for rebuilding since 2013, a project which is unlikely to see completion until around 2022.
In the meantime, around 140 works from the collection are on view in the former royal stables in Goudi, a location that already houses the gallery's sculptural works. Although a bit far from the centre, the gallery is a nice break from the classics. The modern sculpture exhibit, in one of the converted buildings, begins in the early 19th century, when figurative marble carving was taken up again and comes bang up to date with abstract and contemporary works both inside and scattered around the grounds.
In the other building are a couple of works by El Greco, including Concert of Angels, plus some compelling portraiture and other canvases by 20th-century artists including Konstantinos Parthenis, Yiannis Moralis, Konstantinos Maleas, and father and son Nikolaos and Nikos Lytras.
Practical Tip: Combined Tickets & Entry Hours
- A €30 combo ticket covers entry to the Acropolis and Athens' other main ancient sites: the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora, Hadrian's Library, Kerameikos, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Aristotle's Lyceum. It pays off if you're planning to see the Acropolis (€20 alone) and at least two other sites. The ticket is valid for five consecutive days and can be purchased at any of the included sites.
- For museums, a €15 ticket covers the National Archaeological Museum, the Byzantine & Christian Museum, the Epigraphic Museum and the Numismatic Museum. It's valid for three days.
- A €25 pass covers entry to all branches of the Benaki Museum and is valid for three months.
- Hours for many sites and museums cut back in winter, closing sometimes as early as 1pm. Additionally, budget cuts occasionally curtail opening times. Double-check hours before making a special trip. Ticket offices close 15 to 30 minutes before the sites close.
- Check www.culture.gr for free-admission holidays.
Practical Tip: Art Galleries
Get the Athens Contemporary Art Map, a list of art spaces and events, at http://athensartmap.net. Alternatively, pick up a paper copy at galleries and cafes around town. A new edition comes out every two months (but not in summer).