Walking Tour: Central Athens

  • Start Plateia Syntagmatos
  • End Monastiraki Flea Market
  • Length 3.5km; two hours

Start in Plateia Syntagmatos. The square has been a favourite place for protests ever since the rally that led to the granting of a constitution on 3 September 1843. In 1944 the first round of the civil war began here after police, under British direction, opened fire on a communist rally.

The historic Hotel Grande Bretagne, the most illustrious of Athens' hotels, was built in 1862. During WWII, the Nazis made it their headquarters, and the British moved in after. Resistance fighters laid dynamite to blow up the entire building. But the operation was halted when Winston Churchill arrived unexpectedly; the fighters weren't willing to assassinate him.

On the north side of the square is a section of the Peisistratos aqueduct, which was unearthed during metro excavations.

Across the road, in front of Parliament, the much-photographed evzones (presidential guards) stand sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The changing of the guard takes place every hour on the hour.

Walk through the lush National Gardens and exit to the Zappeio Palace, opened in 1888 in preparation for the first modern Olympic games in 1896, for which part was used as a fencing hall.

Walk back along the south edge of the gardens to the striking Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple ever built. Teetering on the edge of the traffic alongside the temple is Hadrian's Arch, the ornate gateway erected to mark the boundary of Hadrian's Athens.

Cross Leoforos Vasilissis Amalias and head right towards Lysikratous, where you turn left into Plaka. Ahead on your right, below street level, is the Church of Agia Ekaterini, with the ruins of a Roman monument in the forecourt.

Ahead on the left is the Lysikrates Monument, built in 334 BC, the only remaining example of monuments that lined this street to the Theatre of Dionysos, site of dramatic contests. The monument commemorates one chorus' victory, with reliefs showing Dionysos battling the Tyrrhenian pirates, transformed into dolphins. It's the earliest known monument using Corinthian capitals externally, a style imitated in many modern monuments. Later, the monument was made into a Capuchin convent library, where Lord Byron stayed in 1810–11 and wrote Childe Harold.

Facing the monument, turn left and then right into Epimenidou. At the top of the steps, turn right into Stratonos, which skirts the Acropolis. Just ahead you'll see the Church of St George of the Rock, which marks the entry to the Anafiotika quarter. The picturesque maze of little whitewashed houses is the legacy of stonemasons from the Cycladic island of Anafi, who were brought in to build the king’s palace after Independence in the mid-19th century. It's a peaceful spot, with brightly painted olive-oil cans brimming with flowers in the tiny gardens in summer.

Continue past the tiny Church of Agios Simeon. The street looks like a dead end but persevere and you'll emerge at the Acropolis road. Turn right, then left into Prytaniou, veering right after 50m into Tholou. The yellow-ochre building at Tholou 5 is the old Athens University (1837–41). Built by the Venetians, it was used by the Turks as public offices; it's now a history museum.

Continue down to the ruins of the Roman Agora. Jog right on Kyrristou to see the Bath House of the Winds, a historic (but nonfunctional) Turkish hammam. On the next corner, Diogenous, the Museum of Greek Popular Instruments is a three-storey mansion filled with more than a thousand ways to make music. Turning on to Pelopida, skirting the edge of the Roman Agora, you'll see on the right the gate of a 1721 madrasa, a short walk across the road to the Tower of the Winds, a classical weather station which was repurposed as a Sufi meeting house in the Ottoman period. Ahead on the left, the 17th-century Fetiye Mosque is inside the fence of the Roman Agora.

Follow the road around the Agora to the ruins of Hadrian's Library. Next to them is the 1759 Mosque of Tzistarakis, only very occasionally open as a ceramics museum; after Independence it lost its minaret and was used as a prison.

You’re now in Monastiraki, the colourful, chaotic square teeming with street vendors. To the left down Ifestou is Monastiraki Flea Market.