The city of Athens is the capital of Greece and is a busy place with millions of people living and working there. But it is also a great place for the tourist, because Athens was an important centre of civilisation as long ago as 500 BC, and a lot of that ancient stuff is still there, poking through the modern city. This Entry is a highly subjective list of the 141 best things in Athens for a sightseer.
There are a couple of other famous sights which are listed in many guide books as worth seeing, but we will offer no recommendations here for the simple reason that this Researcher hasn't yet seen them. These include the Museum of the Acropolis (which is not on the hill but near it) and the Benaki Museum.
A Quick Run through 3,000 Years of History
Athens has been a city since about 1000 BC, when the Bronze-Age Greeks fortified the top of the hill which became known as the Acropolis. The city saw its Golden Age in the period around 500 BC, when it was the most important city in the Greek world, and was famous for its architecture, philosophy, drama and democratic system of government. Athens became less important during the rule of Alexander the Great and the subsequent Hellenistic Empire (c350 BC onwards), then became part of the Roman Empire. The city was revived somewhat when Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild it in the 2nd Century AD, but this was only a temporary respite. The city went into a steady decline.
In the 4th Century AD, the Roman Empire moved its capital to Constantinople (modern Istanbul). It survived in Southeastern Europe as what is now known as the Byzantine Empire until the 15th Century. In 1453, the Empire finally fell and its lands including Greece came under the control of the Turks, becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. By the 19th Century, Athens was little more than a village with most of the ancient architecture buried. There were still some visible ancient ruins on the top of the Acropolis, although most of them had been modified over the years by additions - the Parthenon, for example, had been converted first into a Christian Church, then a Turkish Mosque and finally a gunpowder store.
In 1830, Greece became independent from the Ottoman Empire. A few years later, Athens was chosen as the capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Greece. The city started to expand rapidly, with new streets being laid out in grid patterns and impressive squares. At the same time, the archaeologists got to work, digging down under the older part of the city and exposing the ancient buildings, a process which is still continuing.
The 20th Century was a bad time for Greece, with two World Wars, a war against Turkey, a civil war, and a period as a fascist dictatorship. Much of 19th-Century Athens was demolished and replaced by bland, modern apartment blocks and characterless office buildings. The city became choked with car traffic and very polluted. The congestion and pollution problems were solved at the end of the 20th Century, by a system of traffic restrictions. At the beginning of the 21st Century, huge improvements were made to the city in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games, with new train and tram public transport systems, a motorway around the city and a new airport. Much of the centre of the city, around the old ruins and monuments, was made pedestrian and Athens became a beautiful place to live and to visit.
Some Practical Details
Before starting on the sights, there are a few practical details worth noting.
The National Museum and most of the ancient sites are run by the Government's Ministry of Culture. Admission is fairly inexpensive - typically €2 and children are admitted free of charge. Students are allowed in for free if they carry an International Student Card. There's also free entry for everyone on Sundays and on National Holidays, of which there appear to be quite a few. On free days, you still have to get a ticket at the entrance; you just don't pay. The Acropolis is more expensive (about €12), but there's a combined ticket which will get you into the Acropolis and all the other government-run sites for only slightly more than the Acropolis alone.
Government-run sites can close very early - the National Museum closes at 3pm, for example. While the Acropolis may stay open later, don't believe the times in Guides and on the website - it can close unpredictably early. So plan to visit museums and archaeological sites in the morning if possible.
Much of the centre of Athens is pedestrian - you can visit most of the sights listed here without ever having to cross a road. If you are crossing roads, however, be very careful, because Athenian drivers don't pay much attention to pedestrians.
1. The Acropolis
Athens is dominated by a large hill called the Acropolis. This has cliffs on three sides and a very steep ascent on the fourth side. 'Acropolis' means literally 'high city', and originally, part of the city would have been up on top of the hill, with defensive walls around it. When the city was under attack, the people would have retreated into the Acropolis and waited until the attackers got bored and went away. As Athens became richer and bigger, defensive walls were built around the town at the bottom of the hill, and there was no longer any need to use the top of the hill for defence, so it was converted into a religious shrine - the hilltop was flattened and three beautiful temples were built. The most famous of these, the Parthenon, is generally considered the most beautiful Greek Temple in the world, and it ranks among the most beautiful buildings too.
The Parthenon is a pillared building made from white marble from nearby Mount Pendeli. Originally it would have been painted in red, white and blue, with gold highlights in places. Inside the temple was a huge statue of the patron goddess of the city, Athena. Because only priests were allowed inside the temple, this statue would only be visible to the general populace through the doorway, making it impressive and mysterious. There was also a huge statue of Athena standing at the highest point of the Acropolis at the cliff-top, looking down on the city. This statue was very visible, and was covered in gold leaf so that it caught the sunlight. Unfortunately, neither of these statues has survived. At the point where the gold statue once stood, there is now a viewing point with a flagpole and a very good vista over the city.
Also on the Acropolis are the Erechtheion, a temple to both Athena and Poseidon, and the Temple of Athena Nike, a tiny temple that looks barely big enough to swing an Athenian cat.
On the north side of the hill, at the bottom of the cliffs, stand two huge open-air theatres - the Odeion of Herodus Atticus, dating from Roman times, and the Theatre of Dionysos, from the Golden Age of Athens. It was here that the whole concept of 'drama' was invented, with Sophocles, Aristophanes and Euripides writing plays to be performed in this theatre. You can reach the theatres by taking the northern path as you come down from the heights towards the exit.
The Acropolis is extremely exposed and has no shade - since it is usually sunny in Athens, make sure to bring a hat and some water. Also make sure to hide the bottle in your bag, as site officials can sometimes get narky about people bringing drinks into the site.
2. The National Museum of Archaeology
Situated north of Ommonia Square, in a somewhat seedy area of the city, this is a rather old-fashioned museum. Most of the exhibits are just out on display, with no great attempt to place them in their historical context. Nevertheless, this museum is still one of the best sights in the city because the stuff in it is just so good.
Highlights include the golden face-mask known as the 'Mask of Agamemnon', the archaic (pre-classical) statues of naked young men known as 'kouroi', the bronze Zeus, the bronze small boy on a horse and the wall paintings from Santorini.
One fascinating artefact is the 'Antikythera Device'. Found in a sunken ship off the island of Antikythera, it is badly corroded by the sea water, but appears to have been a complicated geared machine which could show the positions of the planets and stars at any time. Dating from the 1st Century BC, this will dispel any impression you had that people were primitive in olden times.
3. Monastiraki Square
Monastiraki Square lies north of the Acropolis and is the real heart of the city. It's where everything is happening at night, is the centre of the underground railway system and is within a short walk of most of the sights of Athens.
The square is at the junction of Ermou Street and Athinias Street and is entirely pedestrian. At the north end of the square are some wooden sculptural forms that you can sit on and watch the people going by. There's also a tiny Byzantine Church (that is, Greek Orthodox from before the 15th Century). This was part of the Monastery that gives the square its name. If the church is open, go and in look around. You're welcome as long as you're suitably dressed with no bare shoulders, feet or other exposed bits.
Across the road from the square are a coffee shop selling really good takeaway coffee for about a euro, and a frozen yoghurt shop - these are the latest fad in Athens and are everywhere. The yoghurt is really good. At the south end of the square is one of the three main metro stations of Athens, the others being Ommonia and Syntagma.
There are four main pedestrian roads leading from the square. To the west is Ifestou with the Flea Market2. To the east is Mitropoleos with lots of restaurants and, a little further up, both Starbucks (with free wifi) and a very good, cheap QuickPitta - a pretty good meal for less than two euros. Also to the east is Pandrossou with the Tourist Market. To the south is a road which first passes the Ceramic Museum in an old Mosque, then the impressive façade of the Library of Hadrian dating from Roman times. If you turn right (west) here, you'll be on Adrianou, a street with lots of good restaurants, which leads to the Ancient Agora. On the other hand, continuing south you'll climb up to the Acropolis.
4. The Ancient Agora
The Agora was the marketplace of Athens. (That's where the word 'agoraphobia', fear of crowds of people, comes from.) In very ancient times (about 1000 BC), the Agora would have been up on top of the Acropolis but by about 500 BC it had moved to the bottom of the hill.
Admission is €4. Here you will find many excavations, a perfectly formed temple known both as the Theseion (Temple of Theseus) and the Hephaistion (Temple of Hephaestus), and a huge pillared arcade known as the Stoa of Attalos. This is a reconstruction of an ancient building that stood on this site, using mainly modern materials but with some of the original stone. It houses a museum of artefacts found in excavating the Agora. At the northern edge of the Agora, the Number 1 Metro Line runs in a trench, so you will frequently see (and hear) the graffiti-covered trains passing the ancient ruins.
5. Museum of Cycladic Art
Thousands of years before Socrates, Plato and Aristophanes, there was a civilisation in the islands to the south of Athens, the Cyclades. Not much is known about this Cycladic Culture - we don't know whether they were Greek-speaking or some other race or ethnicity. They are most famous for the sculptures they left behind in graves. These are almost all human figures, usually quite small (6 inches to a foot high) and almost completely featureless - the head might have a nose but no mouth, ears or eyes. The sculptures are extremely plain and very beautiful - they've been the inspiration for many modern sculptors, including Henry Moore.
The Museum of Cycladic Art is a small one, but it is a gem. There are four floors of exhibits and really only one room on each floor. You should start on the 4th floor and work your way down. This is because only the 1st Floor features Cycladic Art - the other floors have more general exhibitions of Greek history. You're best leaving the best till the end.
6. Museum of Greek Popular Musical Instruments
This won't be everybody's cup of tea, or even shot-glass of ouzo, but it is a fascinating look into one aspect of recent Greek culture. When we think of the heritage of Greece, we think of the ancient people, the ruins, the theatres, the philosophers. But for centuries, the Greeks have been an eastern Mediterranean people with music and culture closely linked with those of the other nearby countries. This museum attempts to capture the music, with displays of traditional instruments, live demonstrations, lessons in playing (which are expensive and must be booked well in advance) and concerts.
The museum is on Diogenous Street very close to Monastiraki Square, although many tourist maps have it located in the wrong place.
7. The View from the Monument of Philopappus
We need not concern ourselves with who Philopappus was. It's enough to know that a monument was built to him in Roman times, on the third highest hill in Athens, and the view from the top is just stupendous. While you'll pay a hefty entrance fee to see the Acropolis, the Philopappus Hill is free to all. There's nothing to do at the top except look at the view, but that is well worth the gentle climb up. The whole of Athens is laid out below you, and you can even see the Sea, and the island of Salamis. There's a breathtaking panorama of the Acropolis from here and if you wait until sunset, you'll see the floodlighting coming on on the ancient ruins.
8. Flea Market and Tourist Market
The Flea Market and Tourist market lie around Monastiraki Square.
The Tourist Market is mainly to the east, along Pandrossou Street. Here you will find all sorts of cheap, tacky souvenirs as well as some really expensive, tacky souvenirs.
The Flea Market is to the west of the square along Ifestou Street. While it has its share of tacky souvenir shops, it also sells cheap clothes and as you get further towards the centre of the market at Avissinia Square, lots of bric-a-brac, antiques and second hand stuff. This is a working market where Athenians go to buy things, so it is not just for the tourists. Although the shops of the Flea Market are open all week, the market really takes off on a Sunday morning when lots of extra stalls are set up along the streets.
Kerameikos was the pottery district of Athens in ancient times - the name is related to the English word 'ceramic'.
Kerameikos is probably the third most important archaeological site in Athens after the Acropolis and the Ancient Agora, and is the biggest, having a total area bigger than the flat top of the Acropolis. You'll find it just north of the west end of Ermou Street. Admission is €2, including entry into the little museum building just inside the gate.
There are two main things to see in Kerameikos - the old wall of Athens, and the Cemetery. The museum building holds statues which were discovered in the Cemetery.
The wall of Athens is quite impressive. There are a few gaps in it where there would have been gateways. This wall would have once gone the whole way around the city, and there was also a pair of walls near here (the 'Long Walls') that went the whole six miles down to the sea at Piraeus.
The Cemetery is around the area known as the Street of Tombs. There are some fairly elaborate tombs here with impressive statuary. The statues you see are all replicas and the originals are held in the museum by the gate. Rich Athenians would put a sculpture on a tomb showing the dead person sitting down and saying goodbye to their living relatives who are standing. The dead person is normally shown shaking the hand of one of the relatives. Less well off people would have a plain gravestone in the form of a vertical cylinder with their name inscribed around it. Their relatives would bring offerings of olive oil to the grave and would rub it onto the gravestones. There are hundreds of these cylindrical gravestones stored beside the museum.
Just outside Kerameikos, look out for the Holocaust Memorial in the trees just south of Ermou Street. Seven large carved pieces of marble form a Star of David inscribed with the names of Greek towns and islands.
10. The Panathenaic Stadium
This is one ancient building which is not controlled by the Ministry of Culture. Instead it is owned and managed by the Hellenic Olympic Committee. Admission is €3 and includes an electronic guided tour, which is worth taking.
The Stadium is an ancient one, but was completely rebuilt in the 1890s, in order to host the first Modern Olympic Games in 1896. As a result it is in very good repair and very new looking, but much of what you see is in fact ancient.
It is in the shape of a tall letter U, with two long straight sides and a curved end. The straight sides are in fact slightly curved as well to give the people at the ends a better view, although this is not obvious. The Stadium is quite small - big enough for the first Games, but no longer big enough for a modern Games. When the Olympics returned to Athens in 2004, only some of the competitions were held here - most were in the much bigger stadium in the suburbs of Athens.
The Stadium is entirely made of marble from Mount Pendeli ('Pentelic marble') which has a slightly pinkish colour, so it is absolutely stunning to look at. In fact, its other name is the Kalimarmara Stadium, which means 'beautiful marble'.
Anafiotika is a tiny, bizarre area of Athens situated between the northwest end of Stratonos Street and the northeast corner of the Acropolis. It is a residential area with tiny streets, whitewashed houses and flowers everywhere. The name Anafiotika means 'like the island of Anafi'. The legend is that Olaf, the first king of Modern Greece, hired builders from the island of Anafi to construct his palace (which is now the Parliament building in Syntagma Square). The builders built Anafiotika overnight and moved in their families before morning, without any permission. But because the houses were occupied by families, they couldn't by existing laws be evicted and the houses demolished. They built the houses in Greek island style, rather than in the style of normal Athens architecture. Anafiotika is a pleasant stroll, although you have to climb quite high up the side of the Acropolis to reach it.
12. The Arch of Hadrian and Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Roman Emperor Hadrian was very fond of Athens, and organised a major expansion of the city, building walls around a new section to the east of the Acropolis. The only things left of this now are the Arch of Hadrian and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
The Arch of Hadrian is visible from the main road; you don't have to enter the site to see it. It is a strange mish-mash of Greek and Roman styles: a Roman arch with Greek pillars and a triangular pediment on top.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus, also known as the Olympieion, was the biggest Greek temple ever built. Construction commenced in the 6th Century BC, but it took Hadrian's rule to finish it in the 2nd Century AD. Because it was one of the last temples to be completed, it used Corinthian columns, with elaborate flowery tops on them. Over the centuries, the temple collapsed and anything on the ground was generally taken away to be used as building material elsewhere. Today, all that is left is 15 of the original 104 pillars, and one collapsed pillar which fell down during a storm in 1852. These are the biggest Greek pillars you'll see anywhere.
13. Syntagma Square
Syntagma or Syndagma Square is the official centre of the city. It's a big, open square surrounded by busy roads. Most of the square is paved, although there are some trees and plants. Under the square is Syntagma Metro Station, one of the three main stations of the city. From the east end of the square, the Athens Tram system heads towards the sea, where it splits into two, heading southeast to the seaside town of Glyfadha and northwest to the port of Piraeus.
The square slopes slightly so that the east end is highest, and at that end of the square stands the Greek Parliament building. In front of the parliament is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with a relief carving of a dying ancient Greek soldier (a hoplite). Armed guards called 'Evzones' keep guard here wearing traditional costumes with short white skirts and giant pompoms on their shoes. It's worth watching the changing of the guard on Sunday morning.
Because Syntagma Square is big and open and features the parliament building, it is the place where Athenians congregate to complain to the government and to riot. There's a demonstration there about once a week and all the city is disrupted.
14. The Roman Forum and Tower of the Winds
When the Romans made Athens an important city again, the old Athenian Agora had collapsed, so they built a new marketplace in a slightly different place, which is known as the Roman Forum, or sometimes the Roman Agora. There's not much to see except a few pillars, but there is one unusual building at the east end: the Tower of the Winds. This tall, narrow, octagonal building was originally a sort of scientific research centre. It had sundials for keeping track of the time, a clock driven by water flowing downwards from a tank, and a weather vane to indicate the direction of the wind. The eight sides of the building represent the eight directions of the wind, and there are carvings representing the eight winds around the top of the building - you can see one wind blowing cold weather while another brings fruit and crops. Although the inside of the tower is not accessible to the public, you can get up close to it by paying the small admittance fee to the Forum. Even without entering the site, you can still get good views of the tower and its carvings of the winds through the railings.