Athens was named for Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron goddess of Athens. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world. Walking through the ancient Acropolis, you wouldn’t doubt it. Greece is a city of ruins, but the history is so exciting and rich that once you step into these places thousands of years old, let your imagination take over and you will be transported back to the toga-wearing times when gods drove chariots and gladiators battled lions in the Olympic stadium. If you’re lucky, you might even see Hermes fly by with a message from Poseidon in Greece’s coastal villages to Zeus on Mount Olympus!
Acropolis and Parthenon
An acropolis (literally “upper city”) is a citadel built on an area of higher ground with steep sides for defense purposes. The Acropolis of Athens is no different; it was long walk up the slopes of the Acropolis to get to the plateau at the top. Before the gateway to the Acropolis, you pass the Theatre of Dionysus (who wouldn’t want to go to a celebration honoring the wine god?) and the Asclepeion (a healing temple dedicated to the god Asclepius). Just before the gateway you’ll find an even bigger theater, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built in 161 AD by Herodes Atticus and holding 5,000 people. The city has restored it in marble and hosts modern events such as the Miss Universe Pageant and benefit concerts by the likes of Elton John, Andrea Bocelli, and the Toyko Ballet to name a few.
Then, arrive at the Propylaea: the monumental gateway that serves as the entrance to the Acropolis, dating back to 437 BC. Though the ancient Acropolis was not built to keep people out, the Propylaea controlled the entrance into the sanctuary because it was important that people not ritually clean, runaway slaves, or other criminals be denied access. The state treasury was also kept on the Acropolis, making security important.
Next to the Propylaea and still outside of the walled city is the Temple of Athena Nike, an open temple dating back to 420 BC. People worshipped Athena as the goddess of victory in war and wisdom, and Nike means “victory” in Greek; the Temple of Athena Nike was a temple to honor Athena in hopes of a victory in the war against the Spartans.
Once inside the Acropolis, you really get a feel for how young we are in comparison. The first inhabitants of the Acropolis were Mycenaean Kings who built the Mycenaean rock walls around the city, which you can see on your right as you enter. To the left, you will see the giant bronze statue of the Athena Promachos. The Athenians dedicated the statue to Athena to express gratitude for her contribution in their victory in the Persian Wars.
Inevitably you’ll be drawn to the colossal columns of the ancient building to the right, known as the Parthenon. The Parthenon, a former temple dedicated to Athena, is one of the most important and famous buildings in Greece both today and in 400 BC. This impressive building replaced an older temple of Athena, call the Older Parthenon or Old Temple of Athena, destroyed during the Persian invasion in 480 BC. The Old Temple of Athena is directly across from the Parthenon but is only rocks today. The Parthenon has undergone renovations to keep it as well-preserved as it is.
To the left, behind the Old Temple of Athena, is the Erechtheion, the site where Athena battled Poseidon over who would be patron god of the city. Poseidon thrust his spear into a rock and a spring burst forth; Athena touched her spear to the ground and an olive tree grew. Athena won the battle and the people named the city Athens for her. (Imagine if we called it Poseidons, Greece all these years?) The Erechtheion is the only real religious building in the Acropolis (the Parthenon was more of a tribute commemorating victory against the Persians and thus was the treasury to store the tribute paid by other Greek city-states).
Still heading away from the Propylaea, you will next come to the Sanctuary of Zeus Polieus, a no-walled open-air sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Polieus around 500 BC. Zeus was the king of the gods, god of the sky and thunder, and city protector. No one has discovered the foundations of this sanctuary to date.
From there, look to the right to the Temple of Rome and Augustus. Unfortunately, all that’s left of this small building is the foundation. The Temple of Rome and Augustus is in honor of the Roman emperor Octavian Augustus and the Temple of Rome. It’s the sole Roman temple of the Acropolis and the only Athenian temple dedicated to the Roman emperor. This temple is one of the newer buildings in the citadel, dating back to 19-17 BC.
A few great sites you can see from the Acropolis are Mount Lycabettus and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Lycabettus Hill is free to hike for an exceptional view of Athens. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to do this, but I think we got an amazing view of Athens from the Acropolis. The birds-eye view of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus is priceless since it’s such a different view up close.
Below the Acropolis is the large rock Areopagus, from Areios Pagos which literally means “Ares Rock.” In ancient times, it functioned as a criminal and civil court. Supposedly, Ares’s trial for the murder of Poseidon’s son occurred here. This is also where St. Paul spoke to the people of Athens in 51 AD and his words are on the tablet embedded in the rock. There is a cleft at the bottom of the rock that is a shrine to the Furies. Today, the rock provides a beautiful view of the Agora, the Plaka, and Athens in general. It’s a nice place to go with a bottle of wine and your loved one to watch the sunset but be careful, the rock is slippery!
The agora was the heart of ancient Athens. It was the political, religious, commercial, administrative, and social center of the city and the seat of justice. The Stoa of Attalos, Temple of Hephaestus, Tholos, and Bouleuterion are all monuments of the Ancient Agora. The picture above shows three statues of male bodies because this was the entrance to the public gym. The agora is directly below the Acropolis.
The Kerameikos was one of the largest districts of Athens, home of the city’s potters who produced the famous Attic vases. It’s better known now as the most important cemetery of ancient Athens
The Plaka neighborhood is the oldest section of Athens and is mostly closed to traffic. It’s an area of restaurants, jewelry stores, souvenir shops, and cafes. Most of the restaurants are typical tourist restaurants, but you can find the rare gem with a beautiful view of the Acropolis lit up at night. There are plenty of gelato stores for a dessert on the walk home. The Plaka is my favorite section of Athens and I wouldn’t recommend staying anywhere else!
On the way to the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, you will first come to monumental Arch of Hadrian, which acts as a gateway between the ancient city and the Roman city of Athens. The Arch dates back to 132 AD.
Temple of the Olympian Zeus
This temple began construction in the 6th century BC but wasn’t finished until Emperor Hadrian finished it in 131 AD, seven hundred years later. The ancient Greeks left it unfinished because they believed it symbolized people’s arrogance, believing they were equal to the gods. Only 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns remain standing (one of the columns blew down in a storm in 1852).
Also in the sanctuary are the ruins of classical houses and Roman baths. Behind the sanctuary is the Temple of Kronos and Rhea, Titans and parents of Zeus. A Valerian wall surrounds the Temple of Kronos and Rhea (sound familiar, Game of Thrones fans?)
The National Gardens are a public park spanning 38 acres in the center of Athens. They’re located directly behind the Greek Parliament building and continue south to the Olympic Stadium. The Gardens also contain some ancient Greek ruins.
The Panathenaic Stadium dates back to 2000 BC and the first Olympic games were held in 1776 BC, held every 4 years. However, the stadium fell into derelict when Christianity came to Greece and the emperor banned the games in 396 AD. It wasn’t until the revival of the Olympic games in 1896 that the stadium was rebuilt in white marble. It is the only marble stadium in the world.
The King and Queen had two marble thrones in the first row, and the first two rows were VIP seating. The King and Queen’s thrones moved to the head of the track in 1908 next to the judges for a better view. There were two statues of Herms from the 2nd century AD on the track as a representation of the god Hermes to protect the games. The Herms have two faces: a young athlete faces the track ready to compete, and an old man faces the seating reflecting on his years as an athlete. Olive branches crown their heads as a sign of victory.
The Cave of the Fates is named for the muses that contained special magical powers. Athenian girls came here and danced naked around a bonfire as an offering and ask the fates to find them a good husband (of course, older women stood watch outside the cave while they did this so the girls were safe from prying eyes). Today, the area is a changing rooms for athletes, although the entryway into the changing rooms still resembles a cave.
Changing of the Guard
The changing of the guard in Athens is similar to the changing of the guard in London. The guards stand outside the Parliament Building in Syntagma Square and the Prime Minister’s house. The “big show” happens in Syntagma Square at 11:00am every morning, but the synchronized changing show goes on every hour on the hour. As in London, the guards will not move unless there is a threat. It’s definitely something to see if you’re in Athens!
Elaia Restaurant in the Plaka provides an excellent roofdeck atmosphere with traditional Greek food and an incredible view of the Acropolis. It’s a little hard to find but worth it. The food is good but prices are a little high – you’re paying for the view.
Zaita is right on Kidathineon in the Plaka and comes across as touristy, but a local recommended it to us as “not anything fancy but great home cooked food.” It’s in a basement but also has outdoor seating when it’s nice out. The recommendation was a great one and I’m passing it on – great food, good size portions, and excellent prices.
Athens is full of Greek fast food places which have cheap eats. On the corner of Kidathineon and Filellinon streets is a prime example: you can get sandwiches, wraps, a club sandwich, a gyro, breakfast, or almost anything you can imagine for less than 2€ (Update: since writing this post, Greece no longer participates in the euro system). Perfect for on-the-go or a cheap lunch so you can splurge on dinner!
Finally, Bretto’s Bar on Kidathineon in the Plaka is a great place to grab a drink! There’s no food and the wines are a little expensive, but they’re good quality wine and the owner knows everything there is to know about wine. If you’re a wine connoisseur, this is a good spot to relax!
I definitely recommend staying in the Plaka, preferably right on Kidathineon! It’s the main street on the Plaka and you walk right out your door into the heart of the city. We stayed in a hostel called the Student & Travellers Inn, right in the heart of everything. They offer shared rooms or private rooms, shared bathrooms or private bathrooms, free wi-fi, a bar, and breakfast. There’s nothing else you could ask for when staying in Athens! Just a short walk to everything.