Athens Travel Guide


The Acropolis stands sentinel over Athens. The city was once a showcase of colossal buildings, lavishly coloured and gilded, and of gargantuan statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones. Now in ruins, the cool grandeur of the bare marble is still breathtaking.

Pericles set about transforming the Acropolis into a city of temples after being informed by the Delphic oracle in 510 BC that it should become a province of the gods. Crowning the Acropolis, unsurpassed in grace and harmony, the Parthenon is the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, the only one built completely (apart from its wooden roof) of Pentelic marble.

The Parthenon had a dual purpose - to house the giant statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles and to serve as the treasury for the tribute money that had been moved from Delos. It was built on the site of four earlier temples, all dedicated to the worship of Athena.

Beside the Parthenon is the Erechtheion, immediately recognisable for its much-photographed Caryatids, the six maidens who take the place of columns. The Acropolis Museum houses a collection of sculptures and reliefs from the site.

Ancient Agora
The Agora (market) was the focal point of administrative, commercial, political and social activity back in the old days. All roads led to this bustling and crowded place, where Socrates could be heard expounding his philosophy and, later, where St Paul disputed daily in an attempt to win converts to Christianity.

A good place to begin an exploration of the site is in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, originally built between 159 and 138BC; its expensive shops were a popular stamping ground for moneyed Athenians.

In the vicinity is the Agora Museum, where there's a model of the Agora upstairs along with a collection of finds from the site. The Temple of Hephaestus, on the western edge of the Agora, dates from 449BC and is the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece.

To the northeast of the temple are the foundations of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, one of the places where Socrates spoke to the masses.

Near the southern entrance of the market is the Church of the Holy Apostles which was built in the early 11th century to commemorate St Paul and his teachings. Have a look at the Byzantine frescoes inside.

Benaki Museum
This establishment was born in 1931, when Antoine Benaki turned his family house into a museum and presented it to Greece. It houses a sumptuous and eclectic collection from Europe and Asia, including Bronze Age finds from Mycenae and Thessaly, and ecclesiastical furniture brought from Asia Minor by refugees.

It's the oldest museum in Greece and ranks among its best. More than 20,000 items are on display chronologically over four levels, beginning with prehistory to the formation of the modern Greek state. It has an excellent Byzantine collection and a gallery focusing on the development of Hellenism during foreign domination. The spectrum of Greek cultural history is covered, including Karaghiozi shadow puppets, a stunning array of costumes, jewellery, textiles, and paintings, including early works by El Greco.

The antiquities collection includes Bronze-age finds from Mycenae and Thessaly and Cycladic pottery, while the Egyptian collection includes fayum Greco-Roman funerary portraits. Benaki's heart is immured inside the Museum's entrance, but the soul of Greece is well-enshrined in his gift to the country.

National Archaeological Museum
Despite all the pilfering by foreign archaeologists in the 19th century, this museum still has the world's best collection of Greek antiquities. The dated premises, complete with faded handwritten labels and guidebooks that have remained unchanged for years, has been comprehensively upgraded for the 2004 Olympics.

Straight ahead from the entrance foyer is the museum's tour de force, the Hall of Mycenaean Antiquities, which is filled with gleaming gold. The star attraction is the Mask of Agamemnon.

The Neolithic Collection includes finds from Thessaly, as well as pottery, figurines and jewellery from Troy. The Cycladic Collection includes a lifesize Cycladic figurine from Amorgos (the largest ever found), while other rooms hold archaic, classical, late classical, Hellenistic and Roman period sculpture, bronze and pottery.

Other exquisite objects of antiquity include elaborately decorated mummy cases. Of particular note is the Thira Exhibition, consisting of spectacular Minoan frescoes unearthed at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini.

Other masterpieces include a marble statue from Delos of Aphrodite with Pan and Eros circa 100BC, and a bronze statue believed to be Poseidon or Zeus dated to 460BC. There is also an amusing sculpture of Aphrodite raising her sandal to ward off the frisky Pan.

National Gardens
The delightfully shady National Gardens, featuring subtropical trees, winding paths and ornamental ponds with waterfowl, are a nice refuge from the heat of the summer months. Besides the exhibits of the Botanical Museum, there's also a cafe which makes a pleasant spot for a break.

They were formerly of royal status and were designed by Queen Amalia. The Botanical Museum houses interesting drawings, paintings and photographs. A day spent here will refresh your eyes and lungs for another bout with the Athens streets.

Roman Agora & Tower of the Winds
Under Roman rule, Athens' civic centre was moved to the Roman Agora, the partly excavated site of which features a 1st-century, 68-seat public latrine. Though little more than a heap of rubble to the average eye, the site does hold an interesting nugget or two.

The entrance is through the well-preserved Gate of Athena Archegetis, flanked by four Doric columns. To the right of the entrance are foundations of a 1st-century public latrine, and in the southeast area are the foundations of a propylon and a row of shops.

The octagonal marble Tower of Winds, built in the 1st century BC by Syrian astronomer Andronicus, was several monuments in one: it served as a sundial, weather vane, water clock and compass. Each side of the monument represents a compass point and has a relief of a figure floating through the air, depicting the wind associated with that point. The weather vane, which disappeared long ago, was a bronze Triton that revolved upon the top of the tower.

The Keramikos
The Keramikos was the city's cemetery from the 12th century BC to Roman times. It was discovered in 1861 during the construction of Pireos (the street that leads to Piraeus). Remains still stand of the city wall, which was built by Themistocles in 479 BC and rebuilt by Konon in 394 BC. The wall is broken by the foundations of the Sacred Gate, through which pilgrims from Eleusis entered the city during the annual Eleusian procession, and the Dipylon Gate, which was the city's main entrance. It was also the top spot for prostitutes, who touted their services to jaded travellers. Heading away from the city, the Street of Tombs consists of an astonishing array of funerary monuments, and their bas-reliefs call for a close look. This avenue was reserved for the city's prominent citizens, while the ordinary folk were buried in the bordering areas. To the left of the Keramikos, the Oberlaender Museum displays stelae and sculpture from the site, as well as an impressive collection of vases and terracotta figurines.

Theatre of Dionysos
The enormous dimensions of the Theatre of Dionysos give testament to the importance of theatre in the life of the Athenian city-state. The first theatre on this site was a timber affair erected in the 6th century BC, where goatskin-clad performers sang and danced during the annual festival in Dionysus' honour.

During the golden age of the 5th century BC, dramas by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes were commissioned for the Festival of Great Dionysia.

The theatre, on the Acropolis' southeastern slope, was reconstructed in stone and marble by Lycurgus between 342 and 326BC. The auditorium could seat 17,000; of an original 64 tiers of seats, about 20 tiers still survive. The 2nd-century reliefs at the rear of the stage depict the exploits of Dionysos. The two hefty, hunched-up selini were worshippers of the mythical Selinos - he of the oversized phallus - who charged up mountains in lecherous pursuit of nymphs. He mentored Dionysos with whatever energy he had left over.

Off the Beaten Track

This is one of the most picturesque districts in the city - a labyrinth of quiet, narrow, windy streets where bougainvillea cascade over the houses and bright pots of colour decorate the balconies and rooftops. The whitewashed Cycladic-style cube houses were built by tradesmen from the small island of Anafi.

The builders of Anafi were brought in to build the king's palace during the renovation of Athens after Independence, and the island is still home to the descendants of these original Anafi stonemasons, although the population has also been supplemented by artists and intellectuals.

There are many meticulously restored neoclassical houses, along with their opposite - derelict old homes that are crumbling. Apart from the forever-reclining cats, washing hanging in the breeze is often the only evidence of habitation.

The 17th-century church of Agios Georgios (St George of the Rock) marks the southern border of Anafiotika, with the 1847 church of Agios Simeon situated to the north. The neoclassical building on the corner of Theorias and Klepsidra is the old university of Athens, now a museum.

First Cemetery
In a city where parks are not exactly plentiful, any patch of greenery is welcome - and that includes Athens' First Cemetery (Proto Nekrotafeion Athinon), which is not strictly a park but bears more than a passing resemblance to one. Local families who come to visit graves of the dearly departed certainly seem to take this attitude, turning duty into an outing by bringing along a picnic. The cemetery is well kept and most of the tombstones and mausoleums are extremely lavish. Some are kitsch and sentimental, while others are works of art created by foremost Greek sculptors of the 19th century, such as Halepas' Sleeping Maiden, a young girl's tomb upon which someone places a red rose every day.

Flea Market
Stretching both east and west of Plateia Monastirakiou, the flea market is Athens at its noisiest, most colourful and chaotic. It teems with shops, restaurants and cafes, and street vendors selling nuts, coconut sticks, fruit, treasure, trash and more. Visit on Sunday morning, when the market is especially lively with all manner of things up for grabs. There's everything from clocks to condoms, trombones to gramophones, tyres to telephones, giant evil eyes to jelly-baby clones.

Lykavittos Hill
In ancient times this hill was surrounded by countryside and its pine-covered slopes were inhabited by wolves (Lykavittos means 'hill of wolves'). These days, surrounding countryside and wolves are no longer, but it does rise out of a sea of concrete to offer the finest views in Athens.

If you are not game to walk, a funicular railway behind Kolonaki takes you through a tunnel to the peak of Lykavittos, a rocky crag that rises 273m (82ft). Floodlit at night and rising starkly from the sea of apartments below, Lykavittos is the other hill that dominates central Athens.

At night the view is spectacular and the air is cool, but even during the day this is a great place to get some perspective on the Athens panorama (pollution and summer haze permitting).

On a clear day you can see the island of Aegina and the Peloponnese and wonder why it takes so long to get to the beach when it is not that far at all. There are walking paths through the cypress and pine-covered hill. On the peak the white Chapel of Agios Georgios, which is floodlit at night, stands on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Zeus.

There's an overpriced restaurant on the top monopolising the superb sit-down views, with a cafe facing the other side. Further down, the shady Prasini Tenta cafe is a worthy alternative for lunch or a sunset drink.

Panagia Hrysospiliotissa
Not far from the Theatre of Dionysos is an indistinct rock-strewn path leading to a grotto in the cliff face. In 320 BC, Thrasyllos turned the grotto into a temple dedicated to Dionysos. Now it is the tiny Panagia Hrysospiliotissa (Chapel of our Lady of the Cavern). It is a poignant little place with old pictures and icons on the walls. Above the chapel are two Ionic columns, the remains of Thrasyllos' temple.

Other Greece Attractions

Steeped in Homeric history and culture, scented by wild fennel and basil, Crete welcomes and overwhelms visitors with its wealth of myths, legends and history, a blessed and dramatic landscape, an extraordinary fusion of past and present, and an abundance of choices and experiences.

Crete was the birthplace of one of Europe's oldest and most fascinating civilisations, the Minoan. Iraklio, the capital, has some fine musuems in which you can learn more about the island's history, or you can visit the ancient Minoan site of Knossos. Hania has a beautiful old Venetian quarter.

Dodecanese Islands
Whitewashed walls, deep blue sky, olive groves, fig trees, azure Aegean waters...the heavenly Dodecanese Islands have all this and more. In this diverse group of islands you can experience the traditional life without the tourist trappings.

This Dionysian group of islands is perched on the easternmost edge of the Aegean, where ancient history jumps out at you at every turn. Island-hop your way to heaven, or just indulge in a spot of people-watching in the bar and beach scene of the big resorts.

Ionian Islands
Give into temptation and succumb to the lure of the idyllic Ionian group of islands - Corfu, Paxi, Lefkada, Kefallonia, Ithaki, Zakynthos and Kythira - far more lush than those barren Aegean islands, and tinged with a distinctly Venetian flavour.

Each island has its idiosyncrasies of culture and cuisine, and differing dollops of European and British influences. Their surfeit of charms include mountainside monasteries, Venetian campaniles, unspoilt villages, ancient olive groves, famous wines, white beaches and ludicrously blue-heaven waters.

The monasteries of Meteora are one of the most extraordinary sights in mainland Greece. Built into and on top of huge pinnacles of smooth rock, the earliest monasteries were reached by climbing articulated removable ladders. Later, windlasses were used so monks could be hauled up in nets, a method used until the 1920s.

The monasteries provided monks with peaceful havens from increasing bloodshed as the Byzantine Empire waned at the end of the 14th century.

Apprehensive visitors enquiring how often the ropes were replaced were told 'When the Lord lets them break'. These days access to the monasteries is by steps hewn into the rocks and the windlasses are used only for hauling up provisions.

Northeastern Aegean Islands
There are seven major islands in the northeastern group: Samos, Chios, Ikaria, Lesvos, Limnos, Samothraki and Thasos. Huge distances separate them, so island hopping is not as easy as it is within the Cyclades and Dodecanese. Most of these islands are large and have very distinctive characters. Samos, the birthplace of philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, is lush and humid with mountains skirted by pine, sycamore and oak-forested hills. Egg-shaped Samothraki has dramatic natural attributes, culminating in the mighty peak of Mt Fengari, which looms over valleys of massive gnarled oak and plane trees, thick forests of olive trees and damp dark glades where waterfalls plunge into deep icy pools.

Greece's southern peninsula is rich in history and scenically diverse. Packed into its northeastern corner are the ancient sites of Epidaurus, Corinth and Mycenae. The ghostly Byzantine city of Mystras clambers up the slopes of Mt Taygetos, its winding paths and stairways leading to deserted palaces and fresco-adorned churches.

Saronic Gulf Islands
The five Saronic Gulf islands are the closest of all to Athens, and Salamis is virtually a suburb of the capital. Aegina, Hydra, Spetses and Poros are all surprisingly varied in architecture and terrain, but they all receive an inordinate number of tourists and are expensive. Hydra, once the rendezvous of artists, writers and beautiful people, is now overrun with holiday-makers but manages to retain an air of superiority and grandeur. Motor vehicles, including mopeds, are banned from the island: donkeys rule.

There are four inhabited islands in this mountainous and pine-forested northern archipelago: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros. They are all heavily touristed and expensive. People go to Skiathos for the exquisite beaches and the nightlife; if you're there for anything else, you'll probably leave quickly. Skopelos is less commercialised than Skiathos, but is following hot on its trail. There are some lovely sheltered beaches, but they are often pebbled rather than sandy. Alonnisos is still a serene island, partly because the rocky terrain makes building an airport runway impossible. The water around Alonnisos has been declared a marine park and consequently is the cleanest in the Aegean. Every house has a cesspit, so no waste goes into the sea. Skyros is less developed than the other three, designed to attract posers rather than package tourists.

Stuck out in the Libyan Sea south of Crete, Gavdos Island is the most southerly place in Europe. Rumour has it that this was the island where Calypso the sea nymph held Odysseus captive on his way home from the Trojan War. The island has three small villages and pleasant beaches, and it is perfect for those craving isolation.

Little Cyclades
The Little Cyclades islands were densely populated in antiquity, as evident from the large number of graves that have been found, but these days they are inhabited only by a few goatherds and an increasing, though still relatively small, number of visitors attracted to the pristine beaches.

Santorini (Thira)
Santorini is regarded by many as the most spectacular of the Greek islands. Thousands come to marvel at its sea-filled caldera, a vestige of what was probably the world's largest volcanic eruption. Its landscapes of blue-domed roofs, dazzling white walls and black-sand beaches contrast the charming with the unearthly.

The eruption that caused the caldera is believed by some myth-makers to have caused the disappearance of Atlantis. The island's violent volcanic history is visible everywhere you look - in its black beaches, earthquake-damaged dwellings and raw cliffs of lava plunging into the sea. Volcanic activity has been low-key for the past few decades, but minor tremors occur pretty frequently and experts reckon the caldera could bubble up once again at any moment. For lovers of impermanence and drama, no other place even comes close.

To get some background into this island's extraordinary history, head to the Megaron Gyzi museum of local memorabilia in Fira, with fascinating photos of the town before and after the disastrous 1956 quake. The Museum of Prehistoric Thira houses impressive finds from the ancient site of Akrotiri, destroyed in the 1650 BC eruption. Look out for the gold ibex figurine, found in mint condition in 1999 and dating from the 17th century BC.

The Mani
Grey rocky mountains, mottled with defiant clumps of green scrub, characterise the inner Mani region of the Peloponnese. The people of the Mani claim to be direct descendants of the Spartans, the fierce warriors who chose to withdraw to the mountains rather than serve under foreign masters. Until independence, the Maniots lived in clans led by chieftans. With fertile land scarce, blood-feuds were a way of life, so families constructed towers to use as refuges. To this day Maniots are regarded by Greeks as fiercely independent, royalist and right-wing. Areopoli, the capital of the Mani, is aptly named after Ares, the god of war. In the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town, grim tower houses stand proud and vigilant. The Diros caves, 11km (6.8mi) south of Areopoli, were inhabited by Neolithic people and may extend as far north as Sparta. Visitors are taken on a boat trip along the subterranean river through narrow tunnels and immense caverns filled with myriad clusters of stalactites and stalagmites. Further south, there are stark, barren mountains, broken only by deserted settlements of mighty towers. Vathia, the most dramatic of the traditional villages in this region, is a barnacle-like cluster of tower houses perched on a lofty rock.

As with many inaccessible mountainous areas in Greece, the Zagoria villages maintained a high degree of autonomy in Turkish times, so their culture flourished. The houses are built of slate and the villages, with their winding cobbled and stepped streets, look as if they've leapt straight out of Grimm's fairy tales.

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