Acropolis of Athens
The Acropolis of Athens Starting at the top, literally, is the most visited landmark in Greece. The Acropolis is the site of the Parthenon, one of the most famous buildings in the world. The Parthenon and the other buildings were constructed between roughly 495 BC and 425 BC. Today the site is typically crawling with tourists for good reason. While the Parthenon is a shell of its former self the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion are every bit as majestic to see up-close. Arrive early in the day – as soon as they open, if possible – to avoid lines that can reach more than an hour over summer. The cost of an Acropolis-only ticket is €20 while a multi-site ticket (including several other archaeological sites in Athens) sells for €30. Visitors who are able-bodied should also consider walking up near the Acropolis at night after it’s closed for a breathtaking view over the expanse of Athens: there is a rocky outcrop across the parking lot from the entrance of the Acropolis which serves as a lookout point. Entry to the Acropolis also allows visitors to see the south slope attractions, including the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the Theatre of Dionysus. The Odeon in particular is almost impossibly well preserved and a walk around the grounds is a stunning experience. Be aware that while the Acropolis is open year-round the hours are shorter in the winter months: 8:00 – 20:00 in summer and 8:00 to 15:00 in the off-season. This is common all over the country.
Free Walking Tour of Athens
“Free” tours operate in cities all over the world – despite the name they’re not exactly free. The truth is that these are walking tours where the guide is only paid by whatever you decide to pay at the end of your tour. Athens has multiple companies which provide free tours so we can use Athens Free Walking Tour as the example: This tour takes guests around the city without entering pay-to-enter sites and gives historical information about them. Your guide – who will be a local resident – will give you tips on where to eat, what neighborhoods are best for nightlife, and how to find souvenirs that are authentic instead of mass-produced. They will also ask you for a tip at the end of your tour, but they earn it over the course of your 2-3 hour tour. When compared to other tours, these are much more relaxed and comfortable. Be sure to bring a bottle of water in case you get hot, but the walk isn’t overly strenuous as there are regular stops to hear information about a particular site.
The Agora of Athens
This is included in the above-mentioned multi-site ticket and is probably the most worthwhile ancient site in the city aside from the Acropolis. The Agora features plenty of ruins in various levels of decay: Some are simply haphazard pieces of ancient stone while others are fully intact. For example, the Temple of Hephaestus is one of the most finely preserved ancient Greek buildings in the world. It was used as a church or temple for numerous religions over the past 2,000 years and the continual usage contributed to its great condition today. On the opposite end of the “preservation” spectrum is the Stoa of Attalos. The Stoa of Attalos was completely flattened over time before a large rebuilding process. It was essentially a covered walkway and gathering area over 2,000 years ago and was faithfully reconstructed in the 1950s to offer a pleasant break from the summer heat. Various busts and other remnants and statuary are on display inside the Stoa. While many of the other ruins in the Agora are difficult to identify, tour guides or audio guides will explain most anything: There are civic offices, a water clock, drainage canals, and a torso of a statue of the emperor Hadrian from about 120 AD. The Roman occupation of Greece provided a fresh historical era to the Agora after the ancient Greek way of life was overtaken.
The Acropolis Museum
This is where almost anything that has been removed from the Acropolis for safe-keeping comes to rest. The Caryatids from one of the buildings on the Acropolis (the Erechtheion) are here as the hallmark pieces in the gallery. Also present are large portions of the frieze and metopes of the Parthenon. Perhaps most remarkable of all, this building was built overtop an existing archaeological site: Roman (and early Byzantine) era walls and foundations can be seen below the floor in numerous areas including the entirety of the main entrance to the building. It’s a fascinating blend of modern and ancient in the same place. An added treat is the numerous options of takeout souvlaka nearby. The museum isn’t as enormous as some other museums (see below, National Archaeological Musuem), but it’s very site-specific and inexpensive – a full ticket is €5 and the museum is open long hours for the entire year (opens at 8:00 and closes at either 19:30 or 20:00 depending on the season). Plus you get to very literally stand atop ruins and look down at what was once a living, breathing town.
National Archaeological Museum
While the Acropolis Museum has been getting all of the press in recent years due to it being newly built, the National museum is loaded with pieces from more than just the Acropolis. It is the largest museum in Greece and has over 11,000 exhibits that span from pre-dynastic Egypt and Greece in roughly 5,000 BC all the way up through the Roman occupation of Greece which lasted well into the Common Era. The works in this museum are primarily from Greece, with an exception for Egypt and nearby areas (Macedonia and Cyprus, for examples). Sculptures and artifacts from the Aegean Islands, Thrace, Thessaly, and virtually all the regions in Greece are displayed with information regarding what a visitor is looking at. Perhaps the most prominent piece is the Artemision Bronze, which is believed to be Poseidon, from about the 5th century BC. It depicts an athlete’s body prepared to throw something – there is some debate whether it’s a spear or a thunderbolt, the latter of which would suggest that it’s Zeus instead of Poseidon. An added point of interest is that the museum building is new but retains many of the ancient architectural characteristics: Ionic and Doric style columns, a grand entryway, and statues on the roof to remind visitors who has paved the way for such a building. This museum is still fairly inexpensive at €10 and has shortened hours in the winter.
Climb an Athenian hill for sunset
Despite how the word Acropolis comes from an ancient word loosely translated to mean “upper city” it is far from the only high point in the city – it’s actually not even close to being the highest. Looking at a map will show you that there are numerous green areas surrounded by a seemingly endless area of buildings. These green areas are the hills of Athens and at least one is worth a trip. Your best bet is (in Greek) Lofos Likavitou. This large hill is about a 2 mile walk from the Acropolis, heading northeast. There is an ancient theater at the top, and while that’s worth seeing, the real reason you’re climbing this hill is to watch sunset. Getting up the hill is not a big deal if you’re in good physical condition. It’s a short hike, but it is very much up a steep hill. On a clear summer night, your view for the sunset is nearly unparalleled. The sun goes down behind the port area of Piraeus and over the Saronic Gulf in the Mediterranean Sea. If you’re in the right spot, the sun will also set almost directly behind the Acropolis. If you work this out correctly you can actually see the sunlight peeking through the columns of the Parthenon, creating an effect that can only be described as overwhelming. This same view – the sun setting with light poking through the columns of the Parthenon – has been visible from this hill for over 2,000 years.
The Plaka District in Athens
The Plaka is an area of the city that tourists generally can’t miss and there’s a good reason for that. Even if you don’t want to spend money on souvenirs and you don’t want to eat at touristy restaurants, the area is still charming and built overtop many archaeological ruins. The charm of the area is that the streets are twisted and turned together, forming a labyrinthine street-map where there are equal parts neoclassical architecture and spots where a 2,000 year old column will share a lot with a 75 year old house. There are several museums in this neighborhood including the Museum of Greek Folk Art and the Athens University Museum. The only downside is that there’s a certain point when you’re too close to the Acropolis to see it anymore. Even so, it’s a remarkable area that’s worth stopping in for diner and seeing the various local jewelers and what they have to offer.