Sight Tour: Ancient Agora

As you enter the Agora, make your way first to the magnificent Stoa of Attalos, a two-storeyed portico, replete with columns, built by the king of Pergamum in the 2nd century BC. Originally its facade was painted red and blue. People gathered here to watch the Panathenaic Procession. It was also a prototypical shopping arcade, for which Greeks still use the word stoa today.

The Agora Museum, inside the stoa, holds some of the site's best finds, and illustrates how the area was used. It is surrounded by ancient statues of the gods.

Continue to the southern side of the site to the charming Church of the Holy Apostles, built in the early 10th century to commemorate St Paul’s teaching in the Agora. From 1954 to 1957 it was stripped of 19th-century additions and restored to its original form. The exterior brick patterns are an imitation of Islamic Kufic-style decoration, showing the cross-pollination of style in this period. Inside, it's decorated with 17th-century frescoes.

Walking northwest across the site, you'll pass the circular Tholos, where the heads of government met, and what was the New Bouleuterion (Council House), where the Senate met.

On the Agora's western edge is the striking Temple of Hephaistos, god of the forge, which was surrounded by foundries and metalwork shops. It was one of the first buildings of Pericles' rebuilding program and is the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece. Built in 449 BC by Iktinos, one of the Parthenon architects, it has 34 columns and a frieze on the eastern side depicting nine of the Twelve Labours of Hercules. In AD 1300 it was converted into the Church of Agios Georgios. The last service held there was in 1834, to honour King Otto’s arrival in Athens.

In 1922–23, the temple sheltered refugees from Asia Minor. Iconic photos from that period show families hanging laundry among the pillars, and white tents erected along the temple's base.

Northeast of the temple, you'll pass the foundation of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, one of the places where Socrates expounded his philosophy.

Sight Tour: National Archaeological Museum

Straight ahead as you enter the museum is the Prehistoric collection, the museum’s tour de force, showcasing the fabulous collection of Mycenaean antiquities (gallery 4). The first cabinet holds the celebrated (if disputed) gold Mask of Agamemnon, unearthed at Mycenae, and bronze daggers with intricate representations of the hunt. The exquisite Vaphio gold cups, with scenes of men taming wild bulls, are regarded as among the finest surviving examples of Mycenaean art.

The Cycladic collection (gallery 6) includes superb figurines of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, which inspired modern artists such as Picasso.

The galleries to the left of the entrance house the oldest, most significant pieces of the sculpture collection. The colossal, Naxian marble Sounion Kouros (room 8), carved in 600 BC, stood before Poseidon’s temple in Sounion. In artistic terms, it's a link between Ancient Egypt's rigid monumental statues and the Greeks' later life-size, naturalistic sculpture. Gallery 15 is dominated by the incredible 460 BC bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon, found in the sea off Evia. It depicts one of the gods (no one really knows which) with his arms outstretched.

The 200 BC Varvakeion Athena statue (gallery 20) is the most famous copy – much reduced in size – of the colossal statue of Athena Polias by Pheidias that once stood in the Parthenon.

In gallery 21, the striking statue of horse and young rider (2nd century BC), recovered from a shipwreck off Cape Artemision in Evia, stands opposite exquisite works such as the statue of Aphrodite.

On the upper level, straight ahead from the stairs, are the spectacular Minoan frescoes from Santorini (Thira). They were uncovered in the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri, which was buried by a volcanic eruption in the late 16th century BC.

Also upstairs is a superb pottery collection, from the Bronze Age through Attic red-figured pottery (late 5th to early 4th centuries BC). Among the treasures are six amphorae presented to the winners of the Panathenaic Games. They contained oil from the sacred olive trees of Athens; victors might have received up to 140 of them.

Feature: Panatheniac Procession

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.

Feature: Ancient Promenade

One major lasting benefit of the 2004 Olympics was the transformation of the traffic-choked streets around Athens' historic centre into a spectacular 3km-long pedestrian promenade, one of Europe's longest. Locals and tourists alike come out in force for an evening volta (stroll) along the interesting heritage trail, which passes many of the best historic 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.

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.
  • 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: Acropolis Logistics

  • The main entrance is at the southwest side of the hill. Tour groups enter here and if you have a large bag (or camera bag), you must check it at the cloakroom. You can also hire a tour guide here.
  • The east entrance is by the Theatre of Dionysos and the Akropoli metro station. It's recommended for individuals as it's less crowded.
  • Tour groups start massing around 9am; arrive earlier to get a head start. Or go in the last two hours, when crowds thin out.
  • Sight clearance starts 15 minutes before closing. At this time, you must go out via the main (west) entrance.
  • The site closes before sunset, but Aeropagus Hill, outside the main gate, is a nice (if sometimes busy) place to watch the light show.
  • Wear shoes with grippy rubber soles, as the paths around the site are uneven and slippery.
  • People with mobility issues can access the site via a cage-lift rising vertically up the rock face on the north side. It's best to call ahead (210 321 4172) to arrange. When you arrive, first go to the main entrance for guidance.
  • There are restrooms near the main entrance (outside the ticket gate) and at the top of the hill, east of the Parthenon. Several water fountains are around the site.
  • Phones get poor reception at the top. Download information before going up, or take a book.

Practical Tip: Art Galleries

Get the Athens Contemporary Art Map, a list of art spaces and events, at www.athensartmap.net. Alternatively, pick up a paper copy at galleries and cafes around town. A new edition comes every two months (but not in summer).

Byzantine Athens

The city is dotted with churches that just happen to be a thousand years old, dating from the high point of the Byzantine Empire. Churches have irregular opening hours; duck into any you see open, for a gold-bedecked portal to the past. For context, don't miss the outstanding Byzantine & Christian Museum, as well as the great icons at the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture.

Moni Dafniou

The area's most important Byzantine building is the World Heritage–listed 11th-century Moni Dafniou, 10km northwest of Athens. Many of the church's elaborate mosaics, wrought by artisans from Constantinople, have been beautifully restored and more work is underway. The octagonal structure incorporates part of a wall from a 6th-century church (itself built atop an ancient temple).

Church of the Holy Apostles

One of the oldest churches in Athens is the late-10th-century Church of the Holy Apostles in the Ancient Agora, a tribute to the place where St Paul once taught. Like so much Byzantine architecture, it bears decorative details that are now seen as Islamic but were a product of artisans who worked across the eastern Mediterranean.

Church of Agios Eleftherios (Little Metropolis)

Look closely at this 12th-century cruciform-style church: its facade is a collage of medieval stonework and ancient Pentelic marble, medieval lions alongside classical athletes. It was even built on the ruins of an ancient temple. Its dome, though, is the classic 12th-century Athenian style: tall and ringed with arches separated by slim columns.

Moni Kaisarianis

At the 11th-century Moni Kaisarianis, in the wooded foothills of Mt Hymettos, it's easy to see how Byzantine monasteries could have been peaceful walled sanctuaries. The domed katholikon (main church), supported by four columns from an ancient temple, has well-preserved frescoes from the 17th and 18th centuries.