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 Pentelic marble gleam white 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.
Inspiring as these monuments are, they are but faded remnants of the city of Pericles, who spared no expense – only the best materials, architects, sculptors and artists were good enough for a city dedicated to the cult of Athena. It was a showcase of lavishly coloured colossal buildings and of gargantuan statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones.
The Acropolis was first inhabited in Neolithic times (4000–3000 BC). The first temples were built during the Mycenaean era, in homage to the goddess Athena. People lived on the Acropolis until the late 6th century BC, but in 510 BC the Delphic oracle declared that it should be the province of the gods.
After all the buildings on the Acropolis were reduced to ashes by the Persians on the eve of the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), Pericles set about his ambitious rebuilding program. He transformed the Acropolis into a city of temples, which has come to be regarded as the zenith of classical Greek achievement.
Ravages inflicted during the years of foreign occupation, pilfering by foreign archaeologists, inept renovations following Independence, visitors’ footsteps, earthquakes and, more recently, acid rain and pollution have all taken their toll on the surviving monuments. The worst blow was in 1687, when the Venetians attacked the Turks, opening fire on the Acropolis and causing an explosion in the Parthenon – where the Turks had been storing gunpowder – and damaging all the buildings.
Major restoration programs are continuing and many of the original sculptures have been moved to the Acropolis Museum and replaced with casts. The Acropolis became a World Heritage–listed site in 1987.
Free admission first Sunday of the month from November to March.
8am-8pm Apr-Oct, to 5pm Nov-Mar, last entry 30min before closing
The heart of ancient Athens was the Agora, the lively, crowded focal point of administrative, commercial, political and social activity. Socrates expounded his philosophy here, and in AD 49 St Paul came here to win converts to Christianity. The site today is a lush, refreshing respite, with beautiful monuments and temples and a fascinating museum .
First developed as a public site in the 6th century BC, the Agora was devastated by the Persians in 480 BC, but a new one was built in its place almost immediately. It was flourishing by Pericles’ time and continued to do so until AD 267, when it was destroyed by the Herulians, a Gothic tribe from Scandinavia. The Turks built a residential quarter on the site, but this was demolished by archaeologists after Independence and later excavated to classical and, in parts, Neolithic levels.
National Archaeological Museum
Address : 28 Oktovriou-Patision 44 Exarhia
Getting there : Metro: Viktoria / Tram: 2, 4, 5, 9 or 11 to Polytechnio
One of the world’s most important museums, the National Archaeological Museum houses the world's finest collection of Greek antiquities. Treasures offering a view of Greek art and history – dating from the Neolithic era to classical periods – include exquisite sculptures, pottery, jewellery, frescoes and artefacts found throughout Greece. The beautifully presented exhibits are displayed mainly thematically. Allow plenty of time to view the vast and spectacular collections (over 11,000 items) housed in this enormous (8000-sq-metre) 19th-century neoclassical building.
It could take several visits to appreciate the museum’s vast holdings, but it's possible to see the highlights in a half-day. The museum also hosts world-class temporary exhibitions.
In addition to the highlights, the museum has a superb pottery collection on its upper floor, which traces the development of pottery from the Bronze Age through Attic red-figured pottery (late 5th to early 4th centuries BC). Among the treasures are six Panathenaic amphorae presented to the winners of the Panathenaic Games. They contained oil from the sacred olive trees of Athens and victors might have received up to 140 of them.
A joint ticket with the Byzantine & Christian Museum and others costs €12. The museum is a 10-minute walk from Viktoria metro station, or catch trolleybus 2, 4, 5, 9 or 11 from outside St Denis Cathedral on Panepistimiou and get off at the Polytechnio stop.
Opening hours: 9am-5pm Wed & Fri, to midnight Thu & Sat, to 3pm Sun
Greece’s finest private museum contains the vast collection of Antonis Benakis, accumulated during 35 years of avid collecting in Europe and Asia. The collection includes Bronze Age finds from Mycenae and Thessaly; works by El Greco; ecclesiastical furniture brought from Asia Minor; pottery, copper, silver and woodwork from Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia; and a stunning collection of Greek regional costumes.
The museum has expanded into several branches, including the Pireos Annexe , to house its vast and diverse collections and is a major player in the city’s arts scene. It hosts a full schedule of rotating exhibitions.
Monastiraki Flea Market
This traditional market has a festive atmosphere, combined with an onslaught of more modern souvenir stalls. Permanent antique and collectables shops are open all week, while the streets around the station and Adrianou fill with vendors selling jewellery, handicrafts and bric-a-brac.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
You can’t miss this striking marvel smack in the centre of Athens. It is the largest temple in Greece; begun in the 6th century BC by Peisistratos, it was abandoned for lack of funds. Various other leaders had stabs at completing it, but it was left to Hadrian to complete the work in AD 131 – taking more than 700 years in total to build.
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. Hadrian put a colossal statue of Zeus in the cella – and in typically immodest fashion, placed an equally large one of himself next to it.
Opening hours: 8am-8pm Apr-Oct, 8.30am-3pm Nov-Mar
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.
Designed by US-based architect Bernard Tschumi with Greek architect Michael Photiadis, the €130-million museum includes items formerly held in other museums or in storage, as well as pieces returned from foreign museums.
As you enter the museum grounds, look through the plexiglass floor to see the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighbourhood , which were artfully incorporated into the museum design after being uncovered during excavations.
Finds from the slopes of the Acropolis are on display in the foyer gallery , which has an ascending glass floor emulating the climb up to the sacred hill, while allowing glimpses of the ruins below. Exhibits include painted vases and votive offerings from the sanctuaries where gods were worshipped, and more recent objects found in excavations of the settlement, including two clay statues of Nike at the entrance.
Bathed in natural light, the 1st-floor Archaic Gallery is a veritable forest of statues, mostly votive offerings to Athena. These include stunning examples of 6th-century kore (maidens) – statues of young women in draped clothing and elaborate braids, usually carrying a pomegranate, wreath or bird. Most were recovered from a pit on the Acropolis, where the Athenians buried them after the Battle of Salamis. The 570 BC statue of a youth bearing a calf is one of the rare male statues found. There are also bronze figurines and artefacts from temples predating the Parthenon (destroyed by the Persians), including wonderful pedimental sculptures such as Heracles slaying the Lernaian Hydra and a lioness devouring a bull. Also on this floor are five Caryatids , the maiden columns that held up the Erechtheion (the sixth is in the British Museum), and a giant floral akrotirion (a decorative element capping a gable) that once crowned the southern ridge of the Parthenon pediment.
The museum’s crowning glory is the top-floor Parthenon Gallery , a glass atrium built in alignment with the temple, and a virtual replica of the cella of the Parthenon, which can be seen from the gallery. It showcases the temple’s sculptures, metopes and 160m-long frieze, which for the first time in over 200 years is shown in sequence as one narrative about the Panathenaic Procession. The Procession starts at the southwest corner of the temple, with two groups splitting off and meeting on the east side for the delivery of the peplos to Athena. Interspersed between the golden-hued originals are stark-white plaster replicas of the missing pieces – the controversial Parthenon Marbles hacked off by Lord Elgin in 1801 and later sold to the British Museum (more than half the frieze is in London) – making a compelling case for their reunification.
Don’t miss the movie describing the history of the Acropolis.
Opening hours: 8am-4pm Mon, to 8pm Tue-Sun, to 10pm Fri Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Mon-Thu, to 10pm Fri, 9am-8pm Sat & Sun Nov-Mar
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The path continues west from the Asclepion to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built in AD 161 by wealthy Roman Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife, Regilla. It was excavated in 1857–58 and completely restored between 1950 and 1961. Performances of drama, music and dance are held here during the Athens Festival.
The grand Panathenaic Stadium lies between two pine-covered hills between the neighbourhoods of Mets and Pangrati. It was originally built in the 4th century BC as a venue for the Panathenaic athletic contests. It's said that at Hadrian’s inauguration in AD 120, 1000 wild animals were sacrificed in the arena. Later, the seats were rebuilt in Pentelic marble by Herodes Atticus. There are seats for 70,000 spectators, a running track and a central area for field events.
After hundreds of years of disuse, the stadium was completely restored in 1895 by wealthy Greek benefactor Georgios Averof to host the first modern Olympic Games the following year. It's a faithful replica of the original Panathenaic Stadium, and it made a stunning backdrop to the archery competition and the marathon finish during the 2004 Olympics. It's occasionally used for concerts and public events, and the annual Athens marathon finishes here. Multi-language audio guides are available.
Opening hours: 8am-7pm Mar-Oct, to 5pm Nov-Feb
Also called the Hill of the Muses, Filopappou Hill – along with the Hills of the Pnyx and Nymphs – was, according to Plutarch, where Theseus and the Amazons did battle. Inhabited from prehistoric times to the post-Byzantine era, today the pine-clad slopes are a relaxing place for a stroll. They offer excellent views of Attica and the Saronic Gulf, well-signed ruins and some of the very best vantage points for photographing the Acropolis.
The hill, to the southwest of the Acropolis, is identifiable by the Monument of Filopappos crowning its summit; it was built between AD 114 and 116 in honour of Julius Antiochus Filopappos, a prominent Roman consul and administrator. The paved path to the top starts near the periptero (kiosk) on Dionysiou Areopagitou. After 250m, it passes the excellent Church of Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris , which contains fine frescoes, and continues past Socrates' prison , the Shrine of the Muses and on up to the top.
In the 4th and 5th centuries BC, defensive fortifications – such as the Themistoclean wall and the Diateichisma – extended over the hill. You see their extensive remains today.
A delightful, shady refuge during summer, the National Gardens were formerly the royal gardens, designed by Queen Amalia. There’s a large children’s playground , a duck pond and a shady cafe .
Opening hours: 7am-dusk
Parliament & Changing of the Guard
In front of the parliament building on Plateia Syntagmatos , the traditionally costumed evzones (guards) of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier change every hour on the hour. On Sunday at 11am, a whole platoon marches down Vasilissis Sofias to the tomb, accompanied by a band.
The presidential guards' uniform of short kilts and pom-pom shoes is based on the attire worn by the klephts (the mountain fighters of the War of Independence).