Athens (Greek: Αθήνα, Athína), is the capital city of Greece with a metropolitan population of 3.7 million inhabitants. It is in many ways the birthplace of Classical Greece, and therefore of Western civilization. The design of the city is marked by Ottoman, Byzantine, and Roman civilizations.
Is the historical capital of Europe, with a long history, dating from the first settlement in the Neolithic age. In the 5th Century BC (the “Golden Age of Pericles”) – the culmination of Athens’ long, fascinating history – the city’s values and civilization acquired a universal significance. Over the years, a multitude of conquerors occupied Athens and erected unique, splendid monuments – a rare historical palimpsest. In 1834, it became the capital of the modern Greek state and in two centuries since it has become an attractive modern metropolis with unrivaled charm.
A large part of the town’s historic center has been converted into a 3-kilometer pedestrian zone (the largest in Europe), leading to the major archaeological sites (“archaeological park”), reconstructing – to a large degree – the ancient landscape.
The sprawling city is bounded on three sides by Mt Ymettos, Mt Parnitha, and Mt Pendeli; whilst inside Athens are twelve hills [the seven historical ones are: Acropolis, Areopagus, Hill of Philopappus, Observatory Hill (Muses Hill), Pnyx, Lykavittos (Lycabettus), Tourkovounia (Anchesmus)], the Acropolis and Lykavittos being the most prominent. These hills provide a refuge from the noise and commotion of the crowded city streets, offering amazing views down to Saronic Gulf, Athens’ boundary with the Aegean Sea on its southern side. The streets of Athens (clearly signposted in Greek and English) now meld imperceptibly into Piraeus, the city’s ancient (and still bustling) port.
Parthenon – Acropolis
The Acropolis is the most important ancient site in the Western world. Crowned by the Parthenon, it stands sentinel over Athens, visible from almost everywhere within the city. Its monuments and sanctuaries of white Pentelic marble gleam in the midday sun and gradually take on a honey hue as the sun sinks, while at night they stand brilliantly illuminated above the city. A glimpse of this magnificent sight cannot fail to exalt your spirit.
This dazzling modernist museum at the foot of the Acropolis’ southern slope showcases its surviving treasures still in Greek possession. While the collection covers the Archaic and Roman periods, the emphasis is on the Acropolis of the 5th century BC, considered the apotheosis of Greece’s artistic achievement. The museum cleverly reveals layers of history, floating over ruins with the Acropolis visible above, showing the masterpieces in context. The surprisingly good-value restaurant has superb views; there’s also a fine museum shop.
Τemple of Olympian Zeus
The temple is impressive for the sheer size of its 104 Corinthian columns (17m high with a base diameter of 1.7m), of which 15 remain – the fallen column was blown down in a gale in 1852. Begun in the 6th century BC by Peisistratos, the temple was abandoned for lack of funds. Various other leaders took a stab at completing it, but it was left to Hadrian to finish the job in AD 131, thus taking more than 700 years in total to build. In typically immodest fashion, Hadrian built not just a colossal statue of Zeus in the cella, but also an equally large one of himself.
A green protrusion that towers above the Athenian cityscape, Mount Lycabettus is one of the city’s most stunning natural features. On this adventurous, 3-hour walking tour, strap on your most comfortable shoes and set out to conquer its heights. As you climb, your guide will school you in the mountain’s unique mythological lore; after you’ve summited the peak, you’ll also have the chance to stroll around some of Athens’ most traditional districts.
A walk through the oldest neighborhood in Athens is a must and one of the most pleasurable activities especially in the early evening. There are hundreds of shops from kitschy tourist to the workshops of some really great artisans. There are several good restaurants where you can sit outside almost year round. There are also some nice little ouzeries that are cozy when it is too cold to sit outside. The famous Brettos distillery on Kydatheneon could be in this top 10 list on its own. The out-door Cine Paris where you can watch a move on the roof of a building below the lit walls of the Acropolis could too. There are ancient Greek and Roman ruins scattered around as well as some beautiful 19th century and older buildings and several Byzantine churches. Lets not forget Anafiotika, the neighborhood closest to the stone slope of the Acropolis where you can wander around and feel like you are on an island in the middle of the Aegean instead of an island in the middle of a modern city. Best time to be here? Apokreas, which is carnival season. See my Plaka Guide and also Shopping in Athens
Parliament & Changing of the Guard
In front of the parliament building, the traditionally costumed evzones (guards) of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier change every hour on the hour. On Sunday at 11 am, a whole platoon marches down Vasilissis Sofias to the tomb, accompanied by a band. The presidential guards’ uniform of the fustanella (white skirt) and pom-pom shoes is based on the attire worn by the klephts (the mountain fighters of the War of Independence). The guards are also posted on the road on the east side of the National Gardens, and it’s interesting to see them here, alone and away from tourist cameras, going through their ritual pomp even in the dead of night.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
This large amphitheater was built in AD 161 by wealthy Roman Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife Regilla. It was excavated in 1857–58 and completely restored from 1950–61. The Athens & Epidaurus Festival holds drama, music and dance performances here in summer. When you’re visiting the Acropolis site, the path leads west from the top of the Stoa of Eumenes, and you can peer down into the Odeon from above. From this vantage, it looks positively intimate, though it seats 5000 people.