Art, History, Culture lovers cannot complete their life journey unless they include Greece in their magical itinerary. For a short stay, Athens is a good place to start! Leave out the fanciful, cosmopolitan island destinations where you rub shoulders with the rich and famous, and start at the Basics – Greece 101 must include Athens and a few nearby mythical destinations.
A small country, 76-times smaller than Canada, 3-times smaller than California, but with a peculiar terrain of mountains and sea, 6,000 islands and islets, a vast coastline of over 13,000 km (compare to the 19,000km of the US coastline), Greece is where you can live a lifetime and still have places to visit and things to do!
Whether a first time visitor, a repeat aficionado, or even a permanent resident there are always new things to see, new cultural explorations and every path you take will lead you to a new wonder.
The City of Athens
So! you made it to Athens! From the Airport to the City Centre it would cost about 35€ by taxi or 11€ by Metro for a ride of less than an hour. Choose your accommodation to suit your budget but opt for a place close to the city center in the region of Acropolis, the Psiri area is a good option as it is within walking distance from all the sites and it is also the center of the Athenian nightlife.
The city would require a minimum stay of 4-5 days just to scratch the surface, but a surface indeed worth scratching! Landmarks, museums, food, and definitely a city for coffee-lovers!
The best time of the year to visit Athens is late spring (April/May) or early autumn (September/October) the weather is moderate and you can avoid the summer crowds. There is walking and climbing ahead so these months are pleasant and you avoid the exhausting summer heat.
When you are in Athens, you can buy a combined ticket, valid for five days from the day of purchase. The combined ticket allows you to visit all the ticketed archaeological sites in central Athens and it costs 30€. If you are visiting off-season (1/11-31/03), discounted individual prices for each site make more sense to purchase.
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On your first day’s expedition, plan to combine the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum, and then walk through Hadrian’s Arch to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Continue your walk through the city oasis of the National Gardens onto the Syntagma Square.
The Acropolis of Athens
Time required: 1:30 hours minimum, about 15’ climb, bring along water and wear non-slippery shoes.
The Acropolis of Athens is located on a hill of about 150m; it is a complex consisting of fortification walls and temples. The Temple of Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, the most sacred Temple of the Erechtheion, the Propylaea the magnificent gate and entrance into the Acropolis complex, and the temple of Athena Nike (Victory) the smallest temple.
The first wall built during the 13th century BCE, in the Mycenaean era. The complex reached its peak in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, especially at the time when Pericles was ruling Athens.
Through the centuries it has survived earthquakes, wars, bombings, alterations and it is still standing to reminds us all of its glorious existence.
What you will not be able to see is the lost statue of Athena Parthenos that decorated the Parthenon Temple. According to Pliny it was around 11.5 metres tall and was made of carved ivory for flesh parts and gold (1140 kilos) for everything else, all wrapped around a wooden core.
The Acropolis Museum
You should plan to spend a couple of hours in the museum. An abundance of displays from the excavations of the slopes and the sanctuaries of the Parthenon and the Acropolis will mesmerize the true art lover. Make sure you spend some time to watch the video explaining the history of the Acropolis, and other audio-visual tours that are seasonally available.
On the top floor exhibited are the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon’s frieze. Replicas of original sculptures found in the British Museum, better known as the Elgin marbles, are also on display.
The café of the Acropolis Museum is lovely, so allow some time to have a coffee or a snack with a view of the Acropolis.
Opening hours vary day by day and throughout the year, so check this link for more information. www.theacropolismuseum.gr (entrance fee 10€)
To whet your appetite enjoy this introductory video on the Acropolis Museum
Tip: wear pants! Some of the museum floors are transparent.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus (Olympieio)
A short walking distance, across a busy avenue will lead you to the archaeological complex that houses the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Spend an hour at least on the site to devour the temple and its surroundings.
It is one of the oldest temples in Athens, and one of the largest ever built in Greece. Its construction was initiated by the tyrant Peisistratus the Young in 515 BCE, but was stopped due to the fall of tyranny.
It resumed in 174 BCE by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and completed by Emperor Hadrian in 124/125 CE. Over the years, a new city wall, a large Late Roman cemetery, and an extensive Byzantine settlement developed in the area. Of the original 104 columns, only 15 remain standing today. A 16th column collapsed during an earthquake in 1852, and the pieces are scattered on the ground. The site is very impressive, and if you walk around you can see Acropolis in the background.
Complete your first day tour more leisurely. Walk through the Athens National Garden onto the Constitution Square. The garden houses 7,000 trees and a multitude of bushes, lovely ponds and you will come across many statues of heroes and politicians. Do not miss the Lord Byron statue. The figure is a remarkable sight, with Greece placing a wreath on his head as a token of honour and gratitude for his contribution to the struggle against the Ottomans.
Take a good night’s rest, as on your next day you should opt to visit the National Archaeological Museum, about 20 minutes’ walk away from the Athens City Centre. Note that if you want to visit the museum properly, you will need around four hours! Plan to spend your entire morning in the museum. Take your lunch break at the nearby garden, it offers a quiet break from the hustle and bustle of Athens.
National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum in Athens is the largest museum in Greece. Its vast collections include finds from all around the country. It exhibits five permanent collections, dating from the Prehistoric times to Late Antiquity.
You will have the chance to see ancient Greek sculptures, vases, ornaments, jewelry, tools and everyday objects, an impressive Egyptian collection, and Cypriot antiquities.
Spend the remainder of the afternoon walking through the city center; enjoy the exquisite coffee served in an abundance of coffee shops and rest well for the third day is going to be a walking expedition under the Acropolis ruins.
Start your third day early to get breakfast at one of the Psiri’s cafes and continue through Monastiraki to get to the Agora (Assembly Place) of Athens. You would need over two hours to walk through the ruins, do not forget your water bottle and non-slippery shoes.
The Ancient Agora of Athens and the Museum of the Ancient Agora
In ancient Athens, the Agora was the heart of the city-state.
It was the center of political, artistic, athletic, spiritual, and everyday life of Athens. Along with the Acropolis, this is where Democracy, Philosophy, Theatre and Freedom of Expression and Speech were born.
The highlights of the Agora include the Stoa of Attalos and the temple of Hephaestus.
The Stoa of Attalos is now the Museum of the Ancient Agora, it was quite possibly the first shopping center in history. Entry to the Ancient Agora museum is included with your combined ticket to the Ancient Agora.
The Ancient Agora museum is rather small, but it gives you a great overview of the social and political life in ancient Athens.
A well-preserved Byzantine church, the Church of the Holy Apostles, built in the 10th century CE indicates the continuous function of the Agora as an assembly ground through the centuries.
Kerameikos and the Archaeological Museum of Kerameikos
Visitors often overlook the archaeological site of the Kerameikos, but we strongly suggest you visit for an extra couple of hours and as part of your combined ticket. It is one of the most important areas of ancient Athens and only walking distance from the Agora.
The area expands around the banks of river Eridanus, whose banks are still visible today. Named after the Greek word for pottery, the area originally served as a settlement for potters and vase painters, and was the main production center of the famous Athenian vases. Pottery art refined its skills on those grounds.
It later became a burial ground, which eventually evolved into ancient Athens’ most important cemetery.
The site of Kerameikos contains a part of the Themistoclean Wall, built in 478 BCE to protect the ancient city of Athens from the Spartans.
The Wall divided the Kerameikos into two sections, inner and outer Kerameikos. Inner Kerameikos (inside the city walls) developed into a residential neighborhood, whereas outer Kerameikos remained a cemetery.
Parts of the Wall, together with the gate of Dipylon and the Sacred Gate are well preserved. These gates were the starting points of the Panathenaic procession and the procession of the Eleusinian mysteries respectively.
A short visit to the small museum on the grounds will be a potter’s dream come true!
From Kerameikos heading back to the city center and the Monastiraki area stop for half an hour to visit the ancient cultural center, known as the Hadrian’s Library.
The Roman emperor Hadrian built this library in 132 CE, and it contained several rolls of papyrus books and was a venue that hosted various cultural events.
In subsequent years, the site hosted different types of Christian churches. During the Ottoman occupation, it became the seat of the Governor. (Image source –stoa.org)
The Roman Agora of Athens and the Tower of the Winds
Across from the library, through easy-to-walk pedestrian-only streets spend the next half hour to visit the Roman Agora and to explore the exterior stone carvings of the Tower of the Winds.
During the Byzantine period and the Ottoman occupation, newly built houses, churches, the Fethiye mosque, and artisan workshops covered the site of the Roman Agora.
Built in the 1st century BCE by the astronomer Andronicus, entirely of white Pentelic marble, octagonal in shape. An ancient weather observatory was originally used to identify the direction of the wind with sundials on the external walls and a water clock in the interior.
Now you are in the heart of Monastiraki, still under the Acropolis, shop for souvenirs and eat souvlaki at a nearby restaurant. After a long day, walking through the ancient remains of the city, modern Athens is quite relaxing and offers many options to the tourist.
Not Far From Athens: Visit Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon
Dedicate your fourth day to take a trip to the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula, Cape Sounio. It is the last point of the Athenian Riviera, at a 69km distance from Athens. It is best to visit with an organized Tour Operator that offers transportation and guide for the route and site. It is an impressive drive with a lovely view of the sea and of the Saronic Gulf islands.
The temple of Poseidon, the ancient Greek god of the sea, dominates the southernmost tip of Attica, where the horizon meets the Aegean Sea. Perched on the steep rocks of Cape Sounio, the temple is enveloped in myth and historic facts dated from antiquity until the present times.
The unknown architect is probably the same one who built Theseion in the Ancient Agora of Athens. He decorated the temple with sculptures made of marble from Paros Island, which depicted the labors of Theseus as well as battles with Centaurs and Giants.
Notice the Doric columns, count their flutes and you will see that they are less in number than those on other temples of the same period (mid 5th c. BCE), seaside ancient temples have fewer flutes than the inland temples.
Do not get tempted to do the same! The site guards are on the lookout of modern day romantics!
Make the most of your trip to Sounio by indulging in a refreshing swim in the small beach by the foot of the temple of Poseidon or in any one of the neighboring beaches in Legrena or Lavrio. Enjoy some fresh fish and seafood in the local tavernas. Tip – enjoy your swim in the morning and visit the Temple during the afternoon hours – the sunset from the cape is a memory you want to capture for a lifetime.
Exhausted from the long day, the swim, heading back to Athens, the city you just visited for a few days and hope to come back for a more in-depth view. Too many hidden treasures, art through the centuries, from Neolithic to Post and Metamodern, always set in the frame of Nature, a struggle between two gigantic creators the universal and the human, both can claim Excellency!
Opt for an extra day to revisit the city center one more time and if your passion for the arts is still unsated schedule the street art tour, the city of Athens, known as the Mecca of street art, has many surprises! Short trailer produced by alternativeathens.com
Have a safe trip back home and please come back, Greece has been here for millennia and will still be here until you next visit!
For more information regarding your Greek holidays, refer to the Greek National Tourist Board. Their website and local offices are very informative and a valuable tool in your planning process.