What to See in Athens in 3 Days
While Athens was once considered just a "rough around the edges" city with a bunch of ruins, the revitalization that took place for the 2004 Olympics helped the city become known for its vitality and seamless blend of ancient heritage and modern culture. With a human history of about 7000 years and 3400 of those being recorded, it's hard for any traveler not be in awe of what Athens has to offer.
While the recent economic downturn has been hard on the Athenians, tourism is the one industry that has not suffered and Greece was named one of the best value destinations of 2014 by many travel magazines. So if you haven't already decided to pack your bags for a trip to Athens, then this list of things to see and do in Athens should convince you!
Before you plan your itinerary, you should know that unlike many other major European cities, Athens does not have a city pass that gives you entrance to most of its attractions. However, there is an Acropolis pass that is a bargain and good for four consecutive days. It includes all monuments on and close to the Acropolis, which are entries 1 to 6 on the list below. The pass can be bought at any of the individual monuments and is not available online. Tickets to museums and other sights in the city have to be purchased separately. Don't worry about standing in line. Unlike other major European tourist destinations, attractions in Athens don't have long queues.
1. The Top of The Acropolis
The Parthenon, Erechtheion, Temple of Athena Nike, Propylaia, Beulé Gate
Many mistakenly interchange the name Acropolis with the Parthenon. The Acropolis is the sight of several monuments grouped on top of a hill in the center of the city, while the Parthenon is its crowning glory, gleaming in the sun and watching over the city. The more than 2500 year old Parthenon sits on the highest point of the Acropolis hill and is the most important ancient monument in the western world. The other monuments are the Erechtheion, Temple of Athena Nike, Propylaia and Beulé Gate.
Except for the Erechtheion, Pericles rebuilt all the Acropolis structures in Pentelic marble, brought over from the surrounding marble quarries of Athens. The Persians had destroyed the originals erected in the Mycenaean era as homage to goddess Athena. People even lived here until the 6th century BC, when the Oracle of Delphi declared that only gods could live here. Natural disasters, attacks by the Turks and theft by foreign archaeologists damaged all the Acropolis structures and it is only in recent years that the government, aided by the European Union, UNESCO and expert archaeologists, have been painstakingly restoring the site. The program continues to this day.
In order to get to the top of the Acropolis, you can climb one of several pathways but the easiest is via the southern route along the pedestrian walk called Dionysiou Areopagitou. You'll see other sights along the way but it's the top that beckons for now.
The Parthenon is the largest and only Doric temple built entirely of Pentelic marble and was erected in honor of Athena to symbolize the prestige of the city. Pericles built it over several other older temples to house a statue of the goddess and to serve as the treasury. The ingenious design of concave foundations and convex columns created the optical illusion of both being straight. Among the numerous friezes and reliefs on display were the Parthenon Marbles depicting the Panathenaic Procession. These, along with other treasures, were taken by the infamous Lord Elgin and are housed in the British museum. The inner room of the Parthenon used to house a large gold-plated wooden statue of Athena. It was taken to Constantinople where it disappeared but you can see a Roman copy of it in the National Archaeological Museum.
The Temple of Athena Nike is small but perfectly built and almost square, supported by Ionic columns. You can see fragments of a frieze depicting scenes from mythology. The remaining fragments and relief sculptures are now in the Acropolis museum. The Propylaia is the massive entrance to the Acropolis. It features a central hall and two wings. These sections housed five gates which formed the only entrances to the top. The Beulé Gate is a pedestal halfway up the ramp to the Propylaia. The Monument of Agrippa, a bronze statue of a general on a horse once topped it to symbolize victory at the Panathenaic Games.
The Erechtheion was built on the spot where mythology states that Poseidon and Athena competed for the honor of having the city named after them. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident to create a spring of water while Athena produced an olive tree and Athena won. You can now see plaster reproductions of five Caryatids (maidens from Karyai) that support the roof of the Erechtheion. The five originals are housed in the Acropolis Museum while the sixth original was taken away by Lord Elgin. This Ionic structure was the only one that Pericles could not complete due to the Peloponnesian Wars. It was completed in 406 BC, eight years after his death.
Find Out How and Why The Parthenon Was Built
2. Theatre of Dionysos and Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Theater plays were invented in Athens and the Festival of the Great Dionysia was held in the world's first theater, Dionysos, built on the south slope of the Acropolis. The word "thespian" comes from Thespis, who gave the first solo dramatic performance in the middle of all the contests. At that time it was made of timber but was later reconstructed in marble and limestone.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is an amphitheater on the south west slope of the Acropolis. Built in 161 AD by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife, it was and still is used as a musical concert venue and is also the home of the annual Athens festival.
3. Ancient Agora and the Temple of Hephaestus
In the north-west edge of the Ancient Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus, the best preserved Doric monument in all of Greece. It was dedicated to Hephaestus, god of the
forge, and used to be surrounded by metalwork shops. From 1300 AD to 1834 it served as the Church of Agios Georgios.
4. Roman Agora, Tower of the Winds and Hadrian's Library
While the Roman Agora from the 1st century BC is a small area of ruins, these monuments built by the Romans and funded by Caesar and Augustus are quite well preserved. This marketplace took over from the older Greek one and is completely surrounded by colonnades. You enter through the Gate of Athena Archegetis.
An octagonal marble tower to the east of the Agora is the Tower of the Winds, built by an astronomer and named for 8 winds carved on each side. The tower functioned as a water clock, weather vane, sundial and compass, with each side marking a point on the compass through a figure depicting each wind and faint sundial markings below them. There used to be a bronze Triton on top to act as a weather vane but that disappeared during TUrk rule. The rest of the site comprises ruins of shops, public latrines and a propylon.
To the north of the agora is Hadrian's Library, built by Hadrian. It is a large four-walled enclosure, one of them in marble and the rest in limestone. The marble wall also had a row of Corinthian columns in front and on either side to serve as the entrance of the complex. Inside were a pool, garden, library and lecture halls and it became a new multipurpose public square for Athenians.
5. Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Olympian Zeus that sits right in the heart of the city impresses for its sheer size. It is the largest temple in Greece and took 700 years to complete - started by the Greeks but abandoned when it was thought at the time of Greek democracy that it was foolish to use funds and energy to build something of that scale. Various rulers tried to complete it but failed until it was finally done by the Roman emperor Hadrian who was an admirer of Greek culture.
Of its original 104 Corinthian columns, only 15 remain standing and a sixth still lies where it fell in 1852. During one of the periods of construction, two of the columns were taken to Rome where they influence the Corinthian style of development. The interior of the temple used to house an enormous statue of Zeus and an equally large one of Hadrian himself right next to it.
Hadrian's Arch was built to commemorate the Temple of Zeus and also to divide the ancient part of the city from the Roman part.
Kerameikos was originally a potter's settlement before being converted to a cemetary for Athens' prominent citizens from the 12th century BC to the Roman era. You can see sections of the ancient city walls and the foundations of gates from where the Panathenaic processions started. A platform near one of the gates is where Pericles once gave a famous speech about the glory of Athens and those who died in the Peloponnesian Wars. Also present are the remains of funerary monuments and you can visit the site's small museum to see an excellent collection of artifacts from this area.
7. Panathenaic Stadium
This is the site of the first modern Olympics in 1896 but its history goes back long before then. Built in the natural hollow between two hills over Ilissos river, the original wooden Panathenaic Stadium was from the 4th century B.C. and used for the Panathenaic Games. It was then used as an animal sacrifice arena during Hadrian's reign before being rebuilt by Herodes Atticus in marble in 140 AD. This was the horse shoe form that was excavated in 1870. Besides being made entirely of marble, the design included rows of seats for spectators numbering around 50,000. A passageway under a retaining wall allowed athletes to enter and exit the arena.
During the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the stadium provided a great backdrop for archery and as the finish line for the marathon. Visitors can now climb to the top row of seats, sit on the royal thrones, run on the track, and make their way via the vaulted tunnel to the rooms under the stadium where all the torches and official posters of all the Olympic games are kept. This is also where the Olympic flame starts its journey every four years.
8. Acropolis Museum
The new Acropolis Museum is an impressive showcase of recovered treasures from the slopes of the Acropolis and offers nice views of the site from its rooftop restaurant. Co-designed by American architect Bernard Tschumi and Greek architect Michael Photiadis, this modernist building cleverly floats above ruins with glass floors strategically placed to allow visitors to see through. While mainly concentrating on the most impressive antiquities era of the 5th century BC, the museum also houses those from the Archaic to Roman eras.
One of the highlights here are the five original Caryatids from the Erectheion. The sixth one remains in the British museum along with the Parthenon Marbles. One of the arguments that the British government made in order to keep the treasures was that Greece didn't have an adequate place to house and preserve them. The Greek government therefore built the Acropolis museum as a counter argument but the British government has ignored all campaigns even though many other governments have returned some Greek artefacts.
9. National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum is where you go to see the best of Greek antiquities from the Neolithic to classical periods. The mind boggling array of intricate jewelry, pottery, sculptures, frescoes and other artifacts never fails to impress visitors. The gold funereal Mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae is one such treasure here, as are the Artemision Bronze statue of either Zeus or Poseidon and the Panathenaic amphorae that the winners of the Games received.
Even though this collection is huge it is presented thematically, making it easy to enjoy your visit while learning all about Greek art and history through every era.
10. Benaki Museum
If you have time for only three museums in Athens, this should be the third. The private Benaki Museum houses fine pieces of Greek art and regional costumes spanning the country's history and culture from prehistorical to modern times with a focus on its Islam and Byzantine past. In addition, it has many pieces from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. This museum does a great job in showing you how Greek culture was influenced by foreign settlers.
11. Changing of the Guard at Syntagma Square and the National Gardens
After an uprising in 1843, the first King of Greece, Otto, had to establish a constitution or Syntagma. This is where the name for this large central square came from. It sits right in front of the 19th century Old Royal Palace which is now the seat of parliament.
The Presidential Guard performs a Changing of the Guard here every hour in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The grandest performance with an army band takes place on Sundays at 11 am and includes 120 evzones or guards. They're dressed in a traditional costume of pom-pom shoes and short kilts, making it a treat for kids to watch.
Syntagma Square is flanked on three sides by the National Gardens. It was designed by Queen Amalia as the royal gardens but now it is open to the public for free and is a beautiful oasis for those looking for a bit of peace in Athens. It even houses a small zoo and duck pond, a children's playground and a cafe.
12. Monastiraki Flea Market, Plaka and Anafiotika
The Plaka is the oldest neighborhood in Athens and is mostly pedestrianized. It lies just below the Acropolis and stretches almost out to Syntagma Square. It used to be the hangout for poets and musicians and was the place to go for nightlife before it started to attract too many undesirables. It was eventually cleaned up and now it is a nice area to just roam around among the shops and have a meal to get a more relaxed feel of an otherwise hectic city. It has become quite touristy but there are few genuinely good restaurants to be found. Some of the gold jewelry shops are worth visiting too.
If your trip to Greece does not include a visit to an island, then you can get a peak of what it's like in an area called Anafiotika. It lies behind the north eastern slope of the Acropolis and once housed construction workers from Anafi who came to build the city. This scenic little section above the Plaka showcases typical Cycladic island architecture. Wander the narrow streets between whitewashed cuboid houses framed with bright pink bourgainvillae and take in a beautiful view of the city from its highest point.
13. Mount Lycabettus
The 18th century Chapel of St. George, a large open air theater, and a restaurant lie on top of Athens' highest peak, Mount Lycabettus. While the Acropolis was the sacred hill of the classical Hellenic era, Lycabettus symbolizes the Byzantine heritage and Orthodox Church. The views of the city and the sea from here are better than from anywhere else and you can catch an open air summer concert here if you're lucky. The top can be reached on foot or via a funicular tram which is accessible once you walk through some nice neighborhoods.
All these photos are copyrighted to the author, Claudine Lewis. They may not be reproduced or copied in any form.