Athens is a sprawling city established among seven historic hills and surrounded by remarkable mountains. Inhabited for more than 3,000 years, Athens is widely known as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy. Consisting of a large city center, an urban district and metropolitan area, Athens presents a confusing blend of historical and modern features.
The city is famous for its archaeological ruins and monuments. However, Athens is not just about ancient ruins. This bustling city is also an important center for culture, nightlife and sports. An overview of the top tourist attractions in Athens.
Best Time to Visit Athens
Travelers who are mad about theatre won’t want to miss the Theatre of Dionysus, the oldest theatre in Greece. Many of the most famous ancient Greek comedies and tragedies debuted on the stage here. The theatre, originally a temple built in the sixth century BC, is dedicated to Dionysus, the god of merriment and wine. Cut into a cliff on the Acropolis, the theatre could seat 17,000 people. It has been continuously remodeled over the centuries. The best views of the Theatre of Dionysus, usually credited as the birthplace of European theatre, can be seen from higher up on the Acropolis.
The glories of Greek Orthodox Christianity await visitors to the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. The museum is chock full of more than 25,000 artifacts relating to Grecian artifacts from approximately the third to the 20th centuries. The exhibits include artifacts from regions where Hellenism took root, and covers the Byzantium, post-Byzantium, medieval and early Christian periods. Some of its holdings are rare, including collections of pottery, manuscripts, fabrics and frescoes. It has one of the largest collections of Byzantine art in the world. The museum has a collection of marble and limestone slabs and icons.
Centuries ago, shoppers may have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Julius Caesar and Augustus since they helped fund the Roman Agora. In contrary to the Ancient Agora which it replaced, it had a purely commercial character. The Roman Agora was built during the waning years of the first century BC when Greece was part of the Roman Empire. The new agora featured a large open space surrounded by colonnades and columns; shops were inside these borders. The 12-meter (40-foot) Tower of Wind, just east of the Roman market, features reliefs of the eight winds with a sundial underneath each.
What started out in the 1960s as two people acquiring artifacts associated with Greece’s Cyclades Islands resulted in a world-class collection of Cycladic art. The Museum of Cycladic Art opened in 1986 featuring more than 3,000 artifacts and figures created between 3300 and 1100 BC on the Aegean Sea archipelago. Some of the marble figurines are lifelike in size. The statues feature nude people in an abstract or simple style and are said to have influenced 20th century artists such as Modigliani and Brancusi. Some artifacts are in groups such a heroes and gods to better give a picture of ancient Greek civilization.
The Acropolis may be the most famous hill in Athens, but Philopappos Hill isn’t far behind. It also has an ancient history. Ancient Greeks believed the nine muses lived there and eventually named the hill after a monument to Philopappos, a Roman senator who is considered a benefactor of Athens. At 147 meters (482 feet) high, it offers great views of the Acropolis and the rest of Athens. To the south, the Aegean Sea can be seen on a clear day. Philopappos is buried in a marble tomb in 115 AD at the highest point on the hill.
There’s something indescribably graceful about the Temple of Athena Nike that has been standing in a prominent spot on the Acropolis since 420 BC. Athena was the goddess of war and wisdom. Nike is the Greek word for victory. It was at this temple the ancient Greeks prayed for victory in a war against Sparta. The temple was destroyed in the 17th century during a war between the Venetians and the Turks, but was rebuilt. It’s famous for a “wet drapery” (a type of sculpture in which “fabric” drapes over a nude body) of Nike adjusting her sandal.
Ruins aren’t the only things worth visiting in Athens. In-between the ancient and the sparkling new lies Anafiotika, an old neighborhood that is worth a wander. This picturesque slice of Athens can be found below the Acropolis and just north of the historic neighborhood of Plaka. Anafiotika was built by workers from the Cyclade island of Anafi in the 1860s on the order of King Otto I. Many of the houses were destroyed in the 1950s for archeological digs, but 45 of the original houses remain. The houses feature Cycladic style architecture, reminiscent of that found on the Greek Islands. The modest houses are still inhabited and many are decorated with colorful bougainvillea.
The Benaki Museum, housed in the Benaki family’s former mansion, is home to an outstanding collection of art representing various stages of Greek culture. Its holdings include 120,000 works of art starting in prehistoric times and ending today. With 181,000 books, it is Greece’s largest Muslim library, though they are housed in one of the museum’s four satellite facilities. The museum also has an extensive collection of Asian art. The museum started in 1934 when the Benakis donated 37,000 Islamic and Byzantine objects. Other donations over the years have made the Benaki Museum one of Greece’s top museums.
In the heart of Athens, the National Garden provides a green oasis for sunny afternoon trips. The Royal Garden has a private garden for the Royal Palace, which is now the Parliament Building. The Public Garden was established in 1923. This is a quiet and peaceful place away from the bustling city with a gorgeous green canopy of trees and vibrant plant life. Statues decorate the gardens as well as flowerbeds and small ruins of antiquity. The gardens of Zappeion can also be found here, which surround the ancient congress hall that was built in the 19th century.
Though built by the ancients, Panathenaic Stadium holds a special place in sports history. This original stadium, which dates to around 300 BC and was rebuilt in 144, has hosted several Olympics. More importantly, the stadium is where the Olympic flame starts on its journey to the nation hosting that year’s athletic contests. In ancient times, the stadium hosted a religious festival dedicated to the goddess Athena every four years. The current structure was restored in the 19th century for the first modern version of the Olympics Games after centuries of disuse. Panathenaic Stadium seats 50,000 spectators and is the largest stadium in the world made entirely of marble. The stadium is a major attraction in Athens.
Travelers who like to shop ‘til they drop may enjoy a visit to Monastiraki, a huge market and neighborhood in the historic district in Athens. On weekdays, there is a normal marketplace with shops selling souvenirs. On the weekends, it transforms into a huge flea market, with vendors carting in tables and carpets from which they sell junk, antiques and everything in-between. One of Athens’ top shopping areas, Monastiraki is a good place to buy clothing, icons and souvenirs, and people watch from a sidewalk café. Haggling over prices is expected here, but be wary about paying antique prices for a fake made in another country.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus was – and is – a top music venue in Athens. Built in 161 by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife, the amphitheatre could seat more than 6,000 in steeply sloped tiers at the base of the Acropolis. Alas, it was destroyed by invaders a hundred years later, only to be resurrected in the 1950s. It hosts the annual Athens Festival, an annual celebration featuring performances by international entertainers. The odeon also is a good place to take in classical Greek performances. Although a roof covered the theatre in ancient times, everything takes place under the stars today.
A main stop on any Athens tour is the New Acropolis Museum, which resides near the base of the hill overlooking the city. It has the largest collection of Greek architecture and ancient sculptures including statues of the goddess Athena and “Kritios Boy.” The museum was originally scheduled to be built in time for the 2004 Olympics, but its completion was delayed due to legal battles. The museum has five floors that showcase 4,000 artifacts. Permanent exhibitions here include the Parthenon Frieze, Athena statue, Color the Peplos Kore, Parthenon Gallery and Athena Nike.
For romantic evenings, gorgeous sunsets and an amazing panoramic view of Athens, Mount Lycabettus is an incredible adventure. As the highest point in Athens, it allows visitors to see all across the Attica basin and the Aegean Sea. Climbers can also see as the chapel of St. George from its peak. A little cafe here will serve up a fantastic dinner for two. To start the hike, visitors go up the path that begins at the end of Aristippou Street in Kolonaki. The path continues to wind upwards around the mountain. Visitors can also take the funicular, which departs from Ploutarchou and Aristippou Street.
For visitors who love art exhibitions, there is no better place to visit in Greece than the National Archaeological Museum. Multiple collections can be found here from contemporary artists all the way back to antiquity. The museum also has a large collection of artwork dating back to the Neolithic Age. The collections include small vases, working tools, clay vases and other small artifacts that are some of the oldest archaeological finds dating back to the 7th millennium. Over thirty rooms, sculptures from every century can be viewed including ancient Kouroi Egyptian sculptures.
A major point of interest for any traveler to Athens is the Syntagma Square. The most famous aspect of Syntagma is the changing of the guards by the Evzones in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Hellenic Parliament Building is located here as well as various buses, trolleys and tram stops. A fountain, ancient statues and two large grassy areas offer the picture perfect place for photos and picnics. Most major events that occur in Greece have been celebrated at the Syntagma Square. It’s also the site of various political functions, and it was also at this square that the Military Junta government was overthrown in 1974. Besides the Hellenic Parliament building, other interests include the historic hotels Grande Bretagne and George II.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is known as the largest temple in Greece. The massive ancient complex took nearly seven centuries to complete. Building originally began in 515 BC by order of Peisistratos, but work stopped on the temple as it was seen as oppressive as Peisistratos and his son were seen as tyrants by the Athenians. Work resumed in 175 BC but was halted 10 years later when the Roman architect Cossutius died. Under emperor Hardian in 132 BC, the temple was finally completed and dedicated to Zeus Olympios. The temple stands today mostly as a reminder of Greek history, but only 15 of 104 huge columns remain. The columns each rise 17 meters (57 feet) into the air and once surrounded a cella where two large statues were once placed.
The Erechtheus or Erechtheion is a temple made from Pentelic marble. It’s located on the Acropolis, and it’s one of the legendary pieces of Greek architecture. Its construction dates back to c. 421 and 405 when the earlier temple to Athena was destroyed by the Persian invasion. The Erechtheum was once a sanctuary dedicated to Athena Polias, Erechtheus and Poseidon. Visitors can access the shrine to Athena by going through the eastern portico. The northern portico leads to the western cella. The Porch of the Caryatids can be found through the southern portico. The six draped female figures can be found here that support the entablature, which is the Erechtheum’s most defining feature.
Located to the northwest of the Acropolis, the ancient Agora of Athens was once a marketplace and civic center. The people gathered here to browse all kinds of commodities. It was also a place to meet others and talk about politics, business, current events and the nature of the universe and divine. The ancient Greek democracy can actually be traced to this ancient spot. It’s a wonderful area to look at the cultural beginnings of Athens. Overlooking the Ancient Agora from its elevated position on the hill of Agoraios Kolonos, the Temple of Hephaistos was built in the 5th century BC. Similar in style but smaller than the Parthenon, the temple consists of 34 Doric columns that support a still partially intact roof. It is the best preserved temple in all of Greece thanks to its conversion into a church in the 7th century.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Athens is the Plaka District, which resides under the Acropolis and spreads out to Syntagma. This village is almost like an island within the city, and it’s the perfect way to experience authentic Greek culture. The area is quite private and boasts truly unique scenery with several cafes, ancient trees, green leaf canopies and stone walkways. The area is well-known for its food, boutique shops and cafes. Along Kydathineon Street, visitors find the Jewish Museum, Folk-Art Museum and Saita Taverna, which serves delicious bakalairo and other grilled meats.
The Parthenon is the most famous building in Athens and all of Greece. It stands majestically at the top of the Acropolis and is considered the epitome of Doric architecture, the simplest of Greek architectural styles. The temple was built to honor the goddess Athena Parthenos, the patron of Athens, to thank her for protecting the city during the Persian Wars. Situated on the site of a former temple to Athena, the Parthenon was considered completed in 438 BC, when Athens was at its peak. The symbol of ancient Greece, the Parthenon is decorated with sculptures that are considered outstanding examples of Greek art.
No visit to Athens is complete without a visit to the Acropolis, the most famous hill in the Greek capital. It’s impossible not to visit this landmark since so many important Greek ruins are located here, including an old citadel for which it is named. Though only 156 meters (511 feet) high, the Acropolis is considered the highest point in the spirit of ancient Greek culture. From the Parthenon at the summit, travelers can look down on monuments built on its sides as well as over a more modem Athens. The buildings on this hill are considered a great blending of architecture with natural surroundings.