Athens may just be my favorite city yet. The people are carefree, kind and always smiling. The weather is absolutely gorgeous. And the restaurants stay open late enough for my 10 pm dinners. Below are some of the reasons why Athens is a must-see city in my book …or blog.
Athens City Center Accropolis Ancient Agora
Wherever you go within the beltway of the Athens city center, you are likely to run into something of significance from ancient times. I had a lot of fun exploring and getting lost among the city’s treasures.
A special thanks to Johnathan from
for explaining some of the aspects of modern life in Athens and to the Athens Free Tour for providing more info of some of the most iconic sites in Athens. Rick Steves Audio Europe™ Travel App As you get lost though, try to keep from venturing north outside the beltway as it is not the safest of areas.
One of the mornings in Athens, I noticed a smoothie store. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was all freshly squeezed fruit with no sugary syrups. They serve it in glass to-go jars. A great way to start the morning!
The Arch of Hadrian marked the entrance to the planned neighborhood. It was built in 131 AD to mark the border between the old city and the new city. The Emperor Hadrian was a Roman Emperor who loved Greece and who made great improvements to the city. It is believed that one of Hadrian's lovers lived in Athens, which is why Hadrian was so involved with the city's development.
This picture is taken from the Hadrianopolis side, looking toward the old city. You can even see the Acropolis through the Arch.
The Temple of Zeus lies on the other side of Hadrian's Arch. It was started in the sixth century BCE and took 700 years to complete. While the Parthenon is the most famous Greek temple, the Temple of Zeus is the largest temple in Greece. The Temple of Zeus has 104 Corinthian columns that measure 56 feet tall, compared with the Parthenon's 34 foot tall columns.
Notice the column that was pushed over by a 1852 storm. You can clearly see there how the columns used to be built with stone cylinders. When the Greeks built columns, they built them in the precise direction of the rising sun. For example, on the day of Zeus, the sun would have risen right behind the statue of Zeus that would have been in this temple.
Lord Byron is honored by a statue at the entrance to the National Garden. Lord Byron died in Greece on April 19th, 1824. He had traveled to Greece to support the Greek revolt against the Ottoman's and is now remembered as a hero of war. He is believed to have died of malaria, however, and not as a result of war.
Queen Amalia commission many of the gardens in Athens, including the National Garden, finished in 1840.
The yellow building within the National Garden was intended for the revival of the Olympic Games. Evangelis Zappas began the building in 1874 but died during its construction. His cousin Konstantinos Zappas completed the building in 1888. As a result, the building is now known as the Zappeion.
A statue of Evangelis Zappas is located to the left of the Zappeion entrance.
A statue of Konstantinos Zappas is located to the right of the Zappeion entrance.
The signing of the contract for Greece's entry to the European Community occurred in the Zappeion's massive atrium.
Evangelis Zappas' dying wish was to be buried in the Zappeion. Due to some grudge with his cousin, Konstantinos Zappas claimed that there was no space in the design of the massive Zappeion for Evangelis' body. Instead, they buried his head behind this plaque.
The Panathenaic Stadium was used for the Zappas Olympics in the 1870s. It is the only stadium in the world built entirely out of marble. While this may seem impossibly expensive, it is actually wood that is expensive in Greece because it is less accessible than marble. Eighty percent of the Greek hills are made of marble. Moreover, this stadium was built with only three sides as there was a river running on the fourth side. So the entrance to the stadium was through a bridge.
One interesting fact is that a marathon is based on the distance from this stadium to the city of Marathon. It is said that a messenger ran all the way from Marathon to announce the victory at the Battle of Marathon against the Persians.
Between the Zappeion and the Panathenaic Stadium, there's a statue of a Greek general. Because of the mustache, most people believe that this is a statue of a Turk. Ironically, though, the mustache is in protest to Ottoman rule. The longer your mustache was, the longer you had lived in protest to the Ottomans. The penalty for having a mustache was decapitation.
Moreover, equestrian statues carry a lot of meaning on the context being depicted. For example, if the horse's tail is down, it means that the battle was won. If the tail is up, it means that the battle was lost. Additionally, if both legs are up, the subject died in battle. If one leg is up, the subject died of battle wounds. If both legs are down, it means that the subject died of causes not related to battle. So, we know that this general won the battle but died fighting.
The Evzone are a group of 100 elite soldiers. They are chosen to serve every year for a year from the pool of young men who fulfill mandatory army training every year. They protect the Presidential Mansion as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in from of the Parliament.
The Evzone are very iconic with their traditional uniforms. They are meant to remind the people of the Greek battle for independence. The uniforms are very similar to the ones used in the war, including the pom-poms on the shoes, used to conceal shanks. The skirts have 400 pleats, one for every year under Ottoman occupation.
The Evzone, however, were created by King George to resemble horses, essentially. The classic uniform is altered and their movements are choreographed to be reminiscent of horses. The long tassel on their hats symbolizes the horse's tail and during the changing of the guard, the choreography strongly resembles typical horse movements.
The Evzone are not allowed to move at all unless it is part of the procedure. If someone gets too close to them, the guard is allowed to tap their gun once to call over the supervising guard on duty to create some space. Moreover, even if something happens, the Evzone are not allowed to speak. They can only blink once for yes and twice for no. The Evzone are so serious about this honor of serving as a guard that several guards have fainted from heat exhaustion at their post. While we, as tourists might find them entertaining, this is a true honor to a Greek national.
These are a couple marble pieces in the National Garden. What's really cool about this ionic capital is that it served as a bench when not in use. But, when something needed to be built, these capitals could be flipped around and placed at the top of a column.
The national zoo was initially intended to showcase the diversity of the world. The queen had requested that each incoming ship brings seeds from plants of the ship's home country. Moreover, the garden includes a public zoo with various animals.
These parakeet nests are massive and complex. They were a little damaged by the latest storm so the birds are working on fixing them now.
While this pond looks dirty, the water is actually crystal clear. This pond is used by stray dogs as a shower and the water is changed every couple of days.
Stray dogs in Athens are considered pets of the people. While Athens doesn't have shelters for dogs or cats, they are very seriously monitored. Dogs are tagged and neutered. They are gathered once a year for checkups.
The turtles in the National Garden are currently quarantined due to a disease outbreak. They are monitored here until the outbreak subsides. Otherwise, the turtles are usually free to roam around the park.
These Florida palm trees are around 180 years old. This type of tree typically lives around 200 years, which means that these trees are nearing the end of their life.
You might notice that one of the palm trees is missing a top. Well, a couple years ago, the trees caught a disease, which affected palm trees globally. Someone decided to chop off the top of one of the palm trees to see if it'll grow back. It did not. Later, officials gave the palm trees antibiotics, which left large holes on the front of the palm trees. The tour guide joked that this is typical of Greek mentality; they never think things all the way through. He related it to the fact that all Greeks go on vacation in August, which is peak season in Athens. This means that the Greeks are forgoing the most profitable month in favor of vacationing.
A stray dog joined us on our way out of the park and then waited with us at the traffic light.
The Greek Parliament sits next to the National Gardens and across the street to Syntagma Square. After the Greeks won their independence from the Ottomans, they were assigned King Otto as their ruler by the European leaders. The Greek people revolted and demanded democracy. King Otto promised them a constitutional monarchy. In Greek,
It was actually King Otto that moved Greece's capital to Athens and built many of the neoclassical buildings. He built the parliament as the presidential palace, at the time.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a relief piece on a wall right in front of Parliament. Even though the Evzone may seem to be guarding Parliament, they are actually guarding the Tomb.
Across Syntagma Square, you'll run into Ermou Street. That is the main shopping street in Athens. It also leads to Monastraki Square, which is the country's nightlife center.
Arch Bishop Damaskinos stands in a pose of blessing across the Cathedral. His left hand makes the letters I, C, X, C in sign language, which is short for Jesus Christ in Greek.
Damaskinos was one of the few leaders who supported the Jews during the Second World War. He was almost executed for his support of the Jews. For this reason, the Jews erected this statue of Damaskinos.
This is a panoramic of Cathedral Square. To the right, you will see the Cathedral in remarkably good shape. That's because the church has been damaged several times and thus rebuilt several times. While the Cathedral was first built in the 11th and 12th century, it was last rebuilt in 1999 after it was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1989.
The Church of Agios Eleftherios is located to the right of the Cathedral. It was built in the 12th and 13th century and unlike the Cathedral, it has remained unharmed since then.
On the side of the Acropolis is the oldest neighborhood in Athens: Anafiotika.
The houses in Anafiotika are small and most don't even have plumbing. Nonetheless, these houses can go upwards of a couple millions of euros. It's rather secluded and thus significantly more peaceful than the busy city streets below.
Most of the houses in the neighborhood are whitewashed with blue shuttered windows.
The Roman Forum was the marketplace of Athens under Roman rule.
To the right, at the other end of the Forum, is the Tower of the Winds. It featured a sundial and a water clock for days when there was no sun. It could also tell which direction the wind was blowing but the technology was too complex for modern day researchers to discover how it worked.
My favorite thing about this monument is the frieze, i.e. the relief painting at the top. It depicts Dionysus turning pirates into dolphins. Unfortunately, it is the only surviving monument of its type. The street used to be lined with these types of monuments. This was where the ancient "Oscars" were awarded. The "big screen" was the Theater of Dionysus, located at the base of the Acropolis on the other side.
Monastriki Square is surrounded by rooftop restaurants that offer great views of the city as well as the Acropolis. A great way to end the day!
On my way back to my airbnb, I climbed the hill adjacent to the Acropolis: Filopappou Hill or Hill of the Muses. One of the attractions there is the Monument of Philopappos. It is a mausoleum dedicated to Philopappus, a prince from the Kingdom of Commagene.
In this post, I’d like to highlight some of the history and interesting facts of the Parthenon. However, nothing can replace the experience of actually walking among the impressively large structures. As you do so, I highly suggest you listen to
Rick Steves Audio Europe™ Travel App
for even more information on the Acropolis.
The Acropolis is a reminder of the Greek Golden Age.
The Beule Gate was built by the Romans in the third century. It is named after the French archaeologist who discovered it.
The Propylaea is the grand entryway to the Acropolis. It is meant to establish the grand nature of the buildings behind it. Additionally, the Propylaea serves to guide visitors to the optimal location to view the monuments: at a roughly 45%, instead of head on.
After the Propylaea, the Greeks built the Temple of Athena Nike in 425 BCE. It was built as a sign of thank you to the goddess, who helped the Greeks defeat the Persians. Because it was built during a period of tension with the Spartans, the Greeks broke of the statues wings, inside of the temple, to force the goddess to stay with the Athenians and help them defeat the Spartans. In contrast to the Propylaea, which was built in a Doric style, the Temple of Athena Nike (aka the Temple of Wingless Athena) was built in the Ionic style. Notice the differences in the column capitals.
The Monument of Agrippa is a pedestal, which has held various statues. The first one was a bronze statue of four horse chariot champion of the 178 BCE Olympic Games. Various rulers have placed their statue atop this pedestal, including Marc Anthony with his wife Cleopatra. The monument however is named for the son-in-law of Augustus, the Roman General of Agrippa who defeated Marc Anthony and Cleopatra.
The Parthenon is mostly built in the Doric style with some elements of the Ionic style. At the time, it was colored in bright colors and featured many statues and relief paintings. The temple was built around 450 BCE and was in honor of the patron saint of the city: Athena.
As we know, the Parthenon is not the largest ancient Greek temple. So what is it that makes it so impressive? The many optical illusions used to create a sense of balance. For one, the floor slopes upwards toward the middle. One reason may be because of practicality for when it rains but the main reason is likely because if the lines were straight, the human eye would get the impression that it's actually sagging in the middle. Another optical illusion is created by the columns. The corner columns are slightly larger in diameter than the other columns to prevent them from
looking thinner if they were the same size as the others. Moreover, the columns are slightly tilted inwards to give the impression of strength. Engineers believe that it not only gave the perception of strength but that it may also be the reason why the Parthenon has withstood a number of earthquakes.
The crossbeams above the columns featured
in the squares between the vertical lines. Those metopes, like everything else were brightly colored. Now, they are the same cream color as the rest of the Parthenon and are being stored inside the Acropolis Museum.
On the east and west ends, the crossbeams supported triangular pediments featured high relief sculptures depicting the birth of Athena and the battle between Athena and Poseidon for the honor of naming the city.
The Erechtheion is the other major building on the Acropolis. It has mostly been overshadowed by the Parthenon. The Erechtheion was built around 410 BCE in the Ionic style: thinner columns and deeply fluted columns, topped with a scroll.
The figures on the Porch of the Caryatids were worn down by weather and pollution. They used to have arms holding baskets but those have since fallen off. For this reason, they are now displayed in the Acropolis museum while replicas have taken their place. These columns are called Caryatids as the women were modeled after women from Karyai who were known for their upright posture and noble character.
It is said that this is the location of the battle between Athena and Poseidon. Athena stabbed a rock with her spear which gave birth to an olive tree, which is believed to have won the battle. In any case, an olive tree has been in this location since the erection of this building. It is said that olive trees are the gift of Athena to Athens. Regardless, the Erechtheion was built on two levels and allowed the worship of both gods.
This is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on the south side of the Acropolis hill. It was named after the man who commissioned it--Herodes Atticus--who had it built in memory of wife. The amphitheater is a mixture of Greek and Roman elements. The raised stage and back wall are built in Roman style while the rest is built in Greek style. It fits Atticus who was a Greek with Roman citizenship.
Next to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, there is a more modest theater: the Theater of Dionysus. The black building behind the trees is the new Acropolis Museum.
While the Ancient Agora is now little more than ancient ruins, I highly encourage taking a walk through it and imagining how ancient people used to live. I recommend downloading the
Rick Steves Audio Europe™ Travel App
as it does a great job of painting a picture of life during ancient times.
Map of what the Ancient Agora used to look like in ancient times
The Ancient Agora was the market place and city center of ancient Athens. This is where the government, the markets and the nightlife was, back when the population was a mere 1,000 people.
The Stoa of Attalos is on the left as you walk up the main street--the Panathenaic Way. The Stoa was built in 150 BCE built by King Attalos II of Pergamon. Pergamon was a Greek city in ancient times but is now located on the Turkish west coast. The Stoa served as a shopping mall and gathering place. This is a 1950 reconstruction of the Stoa by the American School of Classical Studies. It uses the same Pentelic marble. (The name of a type of marble is given based on the name of the hill where it was found. This Pentelic marble was also used for the Parthenon.)
The Agora museum displays some of the objects that citizens of ancient times would have used. For example, this is a potty for children at the time. Hmmm, I wonder if that's where the term
potty comes from.
This is a
kleroterion. It was a device that randomly picked citizens to serve as legislators or on court juries.
Pottery shards were used to ostracize citizens. They were called
klepsydra is a water clock, used to time speakers at council meetings. Good orators would speak until the water ran out, not a second less or a second longer. It lasted six minutes.
These are little statuettes of the gods that the Athenians worshiped. The top row from left to right are: Apollo, Aphrodite and Herakles.
The hall in front of what were then shops and what is now the Agora museum was clearly intended as a gathering area for exchanging ideas. The covered hall protected the visitors from the sun and the rain while the smooth column bases encouraged visitors to lean on them as they discussed politics or entertainment.
These ruins were once the Middle Stoa. It looked similar to the Stoa of Attalos and served the same purpose. This stoa was built at around the same times as well, in 180 BCE. However, it is important to note that neither stoa existed at the creation of the Ancient Agora in the fifth century BCE. It is likely that these stoas were built after the city started growing.
This Corinthian capital decorated the columns of the Odeon of Agrippa, located in front of the Middle Stoa. It was carved in the fourth century BCE and is the earliest example of this style. The Temple of Hephaistos is peeking out above the capital.
The Great Drain was Athens' water system.
Built in 465 BCE, the Tholos housed Athens' legislative body. A third of the fifty ministers had to be on the premises at all times so, they also lived and ate here. The Tholos housed the official weights and measures system. This meant that any merchant can check their weights here while customers can check if the merchants were shortchanging them.
Built in the fifth century BCE, the Temple of Hephaistos honors the blacksmith god, Hephaisthos. The frieze that remain depict various scenes. One of those scenes is of centaurs attacking women at a wedding. The Lipith tribe men fight the centaurs and win their women back. Others scenes are likely to be of Hercules and his many battles.
The Statue of Hadrian's shield depicts Roman Emperor's love for the Greeks. Near the belly button, the scene of Romulus and Remus is depicted--the myth of the founding of Rome. Above it though is Athena--the goddess of Athens. The combination of those two figures suggests the Emperor's desire to blend the best elements of the two civilizations.
Behind the Statue of Hadrian are the remains of the Odeon of Agrippa. The theater entrance was once lined with six massive statues that served as columns. Now, only three remain. The Odeon of Agrippa was commissioned by Emperor Augustus' son, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, in 15 BCE.
This wall was erected after the barbarian Herulians devastated Athens. Unfortunately, this did not do much to preserve the Athenian culture.
In 1000 CE, the Church of Holy Apostles was built, signaling the end of barbarian invasions and the revival of Greek culture.
View of the ruins of the Ancient Agora from South to North