Athens…a Must See in Your Lifetime!

My first visit to this historical city in February 2007 was for work, and while I wouldn’t have ‘tourist’ time, I had to go up to the Acropolis. It was late afternoon and by the time I got there it was closed. But as I sat there on Mars Hill, where Apostle Paul first preached the gospel to Athenians, and watched the moon rise over Lycabettus Hill, I knew I’d make many more trips to this amazing city!

Mention Athens to most people and they think financial crisis, local unrest and dirty city. While the financial crisis is a reality (maybe our tourist $ can help) and currently there is protesting, dirty is not like it used to be (it’s just like any other big city but REALLY old). Athens made massive improvements for the 2004 Olympics and have continued to build on those.

Athens is a MUST see in your lifetime! There aren’t many place you can visit that are 7,000 years old! With its long and complex history leaving remains everywhere, it’s truly an outdoor museum.

As the capital of Greece, one out of every three Greeks lives here. It’s an easy city to get around and within a small area there is SO much to do and see. I highly recommend at least 2 full days here then you can head to the islands or the Athens Riviera. Stay downtown and you can walk everywhere.

My MUST GO’s list is long but doable on the two day visit…

  • The Acropolis: High on the hill in the middle of the city stands the glorious heart of Athens, The Acropolis, dating back to 5th century BC. Acropolis literally means ‘high city.’ People lived here until 510 BC when it was ruled that it should be dedicated to the gods. Then in 480 BC everything on the Acropolis was destroyed by the Persians. The years following saw Athens’ at its most powerful and great ancient architect Pericles was given a blank check to transform the Acropolis. He created four monuments including the iconic Parthenon and Temple of Athena Nike, the city’s protector. Crowing the Acropolis and visible all over town, The Parthenon is 2,500 years old! It is the largest Doric temple in Greece (100 feet x 228 feet) and took just nine years to build. Seeing it all in person is breathtaking. And its amazing to see the modern Athens sprawling around it. Be sure to wander the entire Acropolis area including the Theater of Dionysos on the side. Your €12 ticket for the Acropolis also includes the Agora.

Before or after don’t miss the new Acropolis Museum opened in June 2009. While I haven’t been yet, it looks amazing on line. It tells the complete story of life on the Athenian Acropolis and it’s surroundings and includes the display of an archeological excavation on the site of the museum itself with ruins from 4th through 7th centuries AD.

  • Filopappos Hill: Take the easy stroll to the top of Filopappos Hill for amazing views of the Parthenon, 306-degree views across Athens including all of southern Athens down to the sea. Named after Roman senator Gaius Julius Antiochus Filopappos who retired in Athens and died here in about 114 AD, there’s a marble tomb and monument too him at the top. You can also see the cave believed to be where Socrates was imprisoned and condemned to death.
  • Ancient Agora: At the base of the Acropolis sits the Ancient Agora. This was the center of public life for ancient Athenians…political, social and commercial. Agora means ‘bring together’ or ‘gather around’. Socrates preached here! It was all destroyed in 267 AD by the Herulians but much remains like the Temple of Hephaestus. Built in 449 BC, it’s the only temple in the ancient Greek world with a completely intact roof. We bought a great book in Athens, Archeological Guides: Athens, and used it as our guide. You can just imagine the activity that used to take place here as you walk among the stones looking up at the Parthenon.
  • Plaka: Outside the Agora, and partially built into the Acropolis rocks, is Plaka, the old quarter of Athens and once considered the neighborhood of the Olympic gods. I LOVE strolling through this area. You can feel the history. There are tons of restaurants, cafes for a Greek coffee or drink, and shops including the Monastiraki Square/Flea Market.  My two favorite shops are Lapis Jewelry (Paudrossou 8), where I bought many pieces of Greek designer Iosif Iosifidis’ jewelry, and Naxos House (88 Andrianou St) for awesome sundresses! A few doors down from Naxos House is The Loom (94 Andrianou St) where I picked up a great oriental rug on one of my trips.
  • Syntagma Square: Known as Constitution Square, you have to visit this center of the city to see the changing of the Evzones, a special infantry of the Greek Army, taking place every hour. They guard the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The Evzones are famous for their skirts (400 pleats symbolizing each year of the Turkish/Ottoman occupation), pom pom shoes and elaborate changing of the guard. 11am Sunday is a full changing of the guard with band.

    While here pop into the lower level of the Monastiraki metro station to see part of the ancient city.

  • Temple of Zeus: At one time the largest temple in all of Greece, only 15 of the original 104 columns remain. Just the size of the 15 columns you see is overwhelming…its hard to imagine 104 of them! Started in the 6th century BC, it took 700 years to finally finish in 132 AD.
  • Hadrian’s Arch: This giant arch you’re likely to pass coming into downtown was built in 131 AD by the Athenians in honor of Roman Emporer Hadrian, who was a friend of the city. The Corinthian style gate marked the border between the old city and new city of Athens in the Roman period.
  • Panathenaic Stadium: Built in 329BC for the athletic competitions of Panathenaia (the major festival honoring patron goddess Athena), it was home to The Opening Ceremony for the first modern Olympic Gams in 1896.
  • Athens Walking Tours: A walking tour is a great introduction to the city. I recommend it the first thing on your first day so you get a great overview of the city. Our tour with Athens Walking Tours even took us into the Acropolis and gave us a good introduction there.

In the next post we’ll complete Athens with a look at the neighborhoods, restaurants, hotels and things to do outside the city.