General Information on Athens
Athens is the capital and largest city of Greece. This bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis with a population of nearly 3.3 million is the centre of economic, financial, industrial, political and cultural activity in Greece. The main port of Athens, Piraeus, is one of the biggest and most important in the Mediterranean.
At first glance, Athens might discourage visitors due to its seemingly unorganised appearance. However, its charm lies beyond that. The historic centre, major sites and dining and entertainment venues are all clustered together, making Athens a great place to walk in. After the Olympic games of 2004, great efforts have also been made to reorganise the city.
The best time to visit Athens is during spring and autumn, as in the summer, high temperatures and increased traffic may prove to be very harsh. If you are resistant to heat, though, a visit in mid-August may be better, when a large percentage of Athenians have left the city for their vacations. On the other hand, winters in Athens may provide a much different experience. One is certain, though: Athens is truly a lively city that will not disappoint you.
History of Athens
Athens, one of the world’s oldest cities, has a history of over 3000 years. Details of its founding, though, are not known; the rich mythology of ancient Greeks, though, fills in the blanks. According to the legend, Cecrops was the founder and first King of Athens. Half man and half serpent, he emerged from the earth and during his reign, he instituted monogamy and the burial of the dead. He also participated in the Council of the Twelve Olympian Gods, in which Athena, goddess of wisdom and knowledge, quarreled with Poseidon, god of sea, over who should be protector of Athens; the council decided that patron of the city would become the god that would offer the best gift to the city. Poseidon struck the rock of Acropolis with his trident, and water rushed out, along with a horse. Athena also struck the rock with her spear and an olive tree emerged. The Council said Athena was the winner, so she became the patron of the city, which was also named after her.
Athens developed into a considerable industrial and naval force during the 8th and 7th century B.C. Pisistratus' tyrannical reign is considered a milestone in the city history. Athens eventually exported goods all the way to Sicily, Egypt and the Black Sea. New monuments were built and the city experienced its first cultural and artistic renaissance.
Athens was also the main adversary of Persia in a number of conflicts. This, on one hand, and the creation of democracy, on the other, were the key factors that placed Athens in a leading position, leaving the rest behind.
The rise of Athens reached its peak during the Golden Age of Pericles, when the city flourished scientifically, culturally and militarily. This period of greatness was abruptly halted by the destructive Peloponnesian War, which decimated the Athenian naval force and reduced the allied state to Athens and Salamina.
Considerably weakened, Attica soon became a Macedonian state under the rule of King Philippos II (338 B.C.). In 146 B.C., Athens and the rest of Greece fell in Roman hands; the conquerors, however, showed respect to the city.
In the first centuries A.D., invading Gothic tribes brought destruction to Athens. Later, the city was gradually integrated to the Byzantine Empire, with such moves as the shutdown of philosophical schools and the conversion of pagan shrines to Christian temples.
After 1214 A.D. and the occupation of Constantinople by the Franks, Athens was gifted to French dukes. Catalans and Napolitans succeeded them, and in 1456, the city fell in Turkish hands, Acropolis became a mosque, and Erechthion was converted to a harem.
Before 1834 and the declaration of Athens as the Greek capital, it was a puny village with few people and numerous ruins. However, it was still accepted as an important city of the past. After becoming the capital, it slowly emerged from its ashes; new buildings were inaugurated that were associated architecturally with the ancient Greek style, and the monuments, including Acropolis, were restored.
People visiting Greece will surely notice all periods of Greek history in the capital city. From ancient times and Roman occupation, to the Turks and Modern Greece, Athens is the place where the past meets the present and creates the future.
Top Things to Do in Athens
1. National Archaeological Museum of Athens: Among the biggest and most important museums of Greece, this is also among the richest museums of ancient Greek art in the world. Its exhibits date from prehistory to late antiquity and were found in various archaeological locations around Greece. It is in the Exarheia area of central Athens, its entrance on Patission Avenue.
The construction of the museum started in 1866 and was completed in 1889, with the gradual addition of the west wing. The building was erected on a large plot donated by Helen Tositsa, with financial support from Demetrios and Nicolaos Vernardakis, the Archaeological Society and the Greek state. The National Archaeological Museum becomes a vessel through which the visitor can journey through the development of Greek art, from prehistoric to Roman times. Among the exhibits, you will find an extensive Mycenaean art collection, sculptures from the archaic, classical and Hellenistic period; and a Cycladic art collection. The museum has a gift shop and a beautiful café in the Garden of Sculptures.
2. The Benaki Museum: This private museum was founded in 1930 by Antonis Benakis (1873-1954), member of a distinguished Greek family of Alexandria, which contributed significantly to the political, social and cultural life of Greece. Housed in his family house, it is one of the most beautiful neoclassical buildings of Athens, in Kolonaki area. Exhibits date from the Neolithic Age to the twentieth century, and many of them mark important periods of Greek history: from ancient and Roman times to Byzantium; from the fall of Constantinople (1453), the Frankish rule and the Ottoman occupation, to the Greek War of Independence (1821); and from the formation of Modern Greece to the Asia Minor Catastrophe (1922). The museum shop offers high quality replicas, while the cafeteria on the terrace is quite a popular venue.
3. Museum of Cycladic Art: This museum is devoted to the study and promotion of ancient Greek art. It was founded in 1986 and houses the collection of Cycladic and ancient Greek art of Nicholas and Dolly Goulandris. The Cycladic collection has a total of over 350 objects from central Aegean, including marble sculptures, figurines and pottery, dating between 3200 and 2000 BC. The ancient Greek art collection includes finds from the Bronze Age to Roman times, such as pottery, terracotta, figurines, sculptures, metal and glassware, jewelry and more. The Nicholas P. Goulandris Foundation, established in 1986, ensures the protection, display, and expansion of the collection; organises temporary exhibitions on important topics; undertakes the publication of scholarly monographs and catalogues; and participates in research projects worldwide. Hours of operation are 10.00-15.00, weekdays except Tuesday.
4. The Byzantine and Christian Museum: Founded in 1914, the museum has been housed in the “Ilisia” mansion, once belonging to the Duchess of Placentia, since 1930. It has an important collection of Greek ecclesiastical art from the 4th century to the 19th century, including byzantine and post-byzantine icons, sculptures, manuscripts, wall paintings, mosaics, wood carvings, etc. The exhibits represent the artistic creation of Hellenism from Byzantine times onward. The museum is in Kolonaki, on Vassilis Sofias Avenue and its hours of operation are 08.00-15.00, Tuesday to Sunday.
5. Museum of Ancient Agora (Stoa of Attalos): The Stoa of Attalos is considered one of the most impressive arcades of the Athenian Agora. Named after its creator, King Attalos II of Pergamos ruled from 159 BC to 138 BC. Today, the famous Stoa hosts the museum of Ancient Agora. The collection is very interesting and diverse, as it includes finds from wells, deposits, burials, workshops and sanctuaries; clay, bronze, ivory, and glass objects; amphorae, sculptures, coins, pottery, inscriptions, clay lamps, pottery of the Byzantine period and the Turkish occupation; and architectural parts of the Upper Stoa.
6. Acropolis Museum: One of the most important museums in the world, the museum houses findings from the Athenian Sanctuary of “Temenos” of Athena Parthenos, that were found in the Acropolis area. The New Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi, is based around three concepts: light, movement, and a tectonic and programmatic element, which, combined together, “turn the constraints of the site into an architectural opportunity, offering a simple and precise museum” with the mathematical and conceptual clarity of ancient Greek buildings. The new Museum is situated at the southern foot of Acropolis, on the ancient road leading to the “sacred rock” in classical times. 244m away from legendary Parthenon, the museum is the most important building ever erected so close to the ancient temple. Although the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum is not guaranteed, the design includes a rectangular glass gallery that, in the future, may display the Parthenon Marbles preserving the exact geometry and harmonious dimensions of the columned Parthenon.
1. Acropolis: One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, Acropolis is the trademark of Greece and the symbol of democracy around the globe. It is also the most important ancient monument in Europe and thus one of the most visited places. In ancient times, it was the greatest and finest sanctuary of Athens, dedicated primarily to the patron goddess Athena. The most celebrated myths of ancient Athens, its greatest religious festivals, earliest cults and several decisive events in the city history are all connected to this area. The monuments of Acropolis tower above the city for more than 24 centuries. These unique masterpieces of ancient architecture combine different movements and styles for many centuries and reflect the glorious and cultural past of Athens.
2. Ancient Agora: The Ancient Agora of Athens is the most well-known example of its kind. This marketplace was the hub of ancient Athenian life. Besides administrative buildings, it was surrounded by the schools, theatres, workshops, houses, stores, and market stalls of a thriving town. During the classical age, many admirable men, such as Socrates, Sophocles and Aristotle, expressed their thoughts and ideas here. Moreover, in the period of the radical democracy, after 509 BC, the Boule, or city council, the Prytaneis, or presidents of the council, and the Archons, or magistrates, all met in the Agora. The law courts were here, and any citizen in the agora when a case was being heard, could be forced to serve as a juror. The Scythian archers, a mercenary police force, often wandered in the area, specifically looking for jurors. Today, the area is in ruins, but can still be visited.
3. Ancient Roman Agora: This lies on the north side of the Acropolis, and a short distance to the east from the Greek Agora, with which it was connected with a paved street. It was built between 19 and 11 BC, with a donation of Julius Caesar and Augustus. The most well-known monument of the Roman Agora is the Tower of the Wind, an octagonal building made of Pendelic white marble. It was used as a sundial, a weather vane, a water clock and a compass. This agora eventually became the main market of the city, taking over many of the commercial functions of the Greek Agora, which had already become more of a museum by that time.
4. Kerameikos: The area was named after the community of potters (kerameis) in the area along the banks of Eridanos River. The walls of Athens, constructed by Themistocles in the 5th century BC, divided the area in two sections, “inner” and “outer” Kerameikos. Two gates, Dipylon and the Sacred Gate, were placed at the outset of the two most important processional roads of Athens, the Panathenaic Way leading to Acropolis, and the Sacred Way leading to Eleusis. Outside the city walls, in “outer Kerameikos”, along the sides of both roads lay the official cemetery of the city, which was used from the 9th century BC until the late Roman period. A plague pit and approximately 1000 tombs from the 4th and 5th century BC were discovered during excavations for a subway station just outside the cemetery. Thucydides describes the panic caused by a plague, possibly an epidemic of typhoid which hit the besieged city of Athens in 430 BC; lasting two years, it killed one third of the population. Today, the most important monuments here include parts of the Themistocleian wall, Dipylon, the Pompeion (used for the preparation of festival processions), the Sacred Gate and many more. The finds from the excavations in Kerameikos are exhibited in the Museum of Kerameikos and the National Archaeological Museum.
5. The Temple of Olympian Zeus (Olympieion): This temple is located about 500m southeast of the Acropolis, and 700m south of the city centre and Syntagma Square. The erection of the sanctuary goes back to the time of mythical Deucalion. The site was inhabited in the prehistoric period and the cult of Zeus was present in early history. In 515 BC, Peisistratos the Younger started constructing a monumental temple which was never finished due to the fall of the tyranny in Athens. Much later, in 147 BC, the king of Syria, Antiochos IV, attempted to resume the construction of the temple, which was finally completed by Roman Emperor Hadrian in 124-125 AD. Today, many parts of the circuit wall of the sanctuary have been reconstructed, imitating the ancient masonry. Sections of the ancient wall have been preserved only at the southeast corner and the north side. The most important monuments include the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Temple of Apollo Delphionion, the Court at the Delphinion, Roman baths, the Temple of Kronos and Rhea, and the Temple of Panhellenic Zeus.
6. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus: It is an impressive monument in Athens, on the hill southwest of Acropolis. It dates back to 161 AD, and was built by Herodes Atticus in honour of his wife Regilla, who had passed away a year earlier. The structure was used as a theatre in ancient Athens for various plays and music concerts, and it could seat up to 5,000 people. Today, after restorations, the theatre is in use again. The Annual Athens Festival stages a number of performances here. The festival runs from June to September and it is worth getting tickets for a show; you don't usually get the chance to attend at a concert or play in a 2,000 year old theatre on the slopes of Acropolis.
7. Sanctuary of Poseidon and Athena at Sounion: Sounion is a cape located 69km southeast of Athens at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula. It is renowned because of the ruins of the ancient Greek temple of Poseidon, god of sea. The sanctuary at Sounion is one of the most important religious monuments in Attica. Scarce finds point that the site was inhabited in the prehistoric period, but there is no evidence of religious practice so early. Most finds date to 7th century BC and suggest the existence of organised cults at the temple of Poseidon at the southern edge, as well as at the sanctuary of Athena, about 500m northeast of it. Herodotus reports that in the 6th century BC, Athenians celebrated a quadrennial festival at Sounion, which involved Athenian leaders sailing towards the cape in a sacred boat. The original temple of Poseidon, dating to the Archaic era and made of tufa (a type of limestone), was probably destroyed in 480 BC by Persian troops during their second war against the Greek cities. In the following decades, Sounion, like the rest of Attica, flourished, and an important building project was undertaken in both sanctuaries. At the end of the 5th century and during the Peloponnesian War, Athenians made fortifications here. After the 1st century BC, the area gradually declined. Today, the surviving monuments are the Sanctuary and Temple of Poseidon, the Fortress, the Sanctuary and Temple of Athena.
Areas 1. Syntagma: Plateia Syntagmatos (Constitution Square) is the central square of the city, near the Parliament and many upscale hotels. The square got its name when the Constitution was proclaimed in 1975. The Parliament, which can be seen from the square, was King Otto’s palace, a magnificent neoclassical building. In front of it, the National Guards, called Euzones, wear the traditional Greek uniform. Ermou Street, an approximately 1km-long pedestrian road connecting Syntagma to Monastiraki, has traditionally been a shopper's paradise, and fashion stores and shopping centres line down the street. It is now placed in the top 5 most expensive shopping streets in Europe, and is the ninth most expensive retail street in the world. Just behind the Parliament stands the National Garden, originally the King's Garden. Today, it is a delightful park, with subtropical trees, winding paths and ornamental ponds. Hosting the Botanic Museum, there are also a playground, a duck pond and a café.
2. Monastiraki: This is an intriguing area west of Syntagma Square. It is basically known for its bustling flea market every Sunday. If you want to take a walk, come early as it gets extremely crowded after 11 am. You may also catch your breath at the many cafes and restaurants of the area.
3. Plaka & Anafiotika: Walking down Ermou Street towards the south, you will reach Plaka, the most beautiful place in Athens, under the shadow of Acropolis. Famous for its neoclassical buildings, it is a prime pole of attraction for tourists, offering a number of taverns, Byzantine churches, tourist shops, cafes and bars. Plaka is very close to many sights, like the Ancient Roman Agora, the Tower of Wind, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Acropolis and the Theatre of Herodus Atticus. Next to Plaka, the Anafiotika quarter offers picturesque labyrinthine streets, bougainvilleas covering Cycladic-style whitewashed houses and colourful balconies. This area was settled by tradesmen from the small island of Anafi, who were brought in to build the king’s palace during the restoration of Athens, after its liberation from the Ottomans. Today, many locals are artists and intellectuals.
4. Thissio: Thissio is situated west of Monastiraki. It is famous for its many cafes and bars, and its amazing view of the Acropolis. Most Athenians take a stroll in the area. The main streets of Thissio, Apostolou Pavlou and Dionissiou Aeropagitou, have been pedestrianised.
5. Kolonaki: Kolonaki is situated between Lycabetus Hill and Syntagma Square. It is one of the most famous and enjoyable places to get a coffee at one of the numerous cafes, emanating a Parisian atmosphere.
6. Exarheia: This area, north of Kolonaki, is the main student area of central Athens and offers lots of clubs, bars, restaurants and cafes. Live bands can be seen playing at the small square of Exarheia. Home to the Polytechnic School of Athens and the National Archaeological Museum, its architectural style is a mix of Neoclassicism, Art Deco and Early Modernism.
7. Gazi: Gazi has recently turned into one of the most fashionable areas of Athens. It was named after a gas factory that was established here in 1862. The factory is unique in that it is the last factory in Europe that was operated in a conventional way. Nowadays, the entire Gazi area has undergone beautification changes, and the factory houses exhibitions, concerts and numerous other cultural events. Numerous nightclubs, cafes and remarkably elegant restaurants are also found here.
8. Omonoia: Walking down Athinas Street from Monastiraki, you will reach Omonoia Square, the oldest of the city. It was once beautiful and the centrepiece of the city. At the metro station of the square, a picture display shows its old glory. After cars invaded everyday life, Omonoia was transformed from a people-friendly to a car-friendly square. Many efforts have unsuccessfully tried to change it again. The square offers several restaurants, hotels and shops.
9. Psiri: In the past, this area northwest of Monastiraki was home to low-class residents, and it was where immigrants first came during the 1970s in their search for work. Recently, though, it has changed into a fashionable place, with bars and shops, while many old buildings have been restored. It has an interesting nightlife, and many taverns have live bands playing traditional music. Not a mainly touristic place, here you can experience the modern Greek way of nightlife.
10. Piraeus: Piraeus, 10km southwest of Athens, is the third largest city of Greece, and its main port. It was first settled in the age of Themistocles, around 478 BC, when the Long Walls were built and the town was being laid out according to the plans of architect Hippodamus. In the past, Piraeus was considered more important than Athens, but this has changed now. The city is divided in three parts: the Big Harbour, the Zea marina and Microlimano (small harbour). The Big Harbour is the main port and the start of many ferry routes to the Greek islands and Italy. Zea Marina, on the other side of the peninsula, is the starting point of hydrofoils leaving for the Saronic Gulf. It is also one of the largest marinas in the Mediterranean. Mikrolimano, northeast of Zea Marina, is a pretty little harbour with yachts and fishing boats. The area is wonderful, yet pricey and full of trendy bars, cafes and restaurants.
How to Reach Athens
Air: Athens is served by El. Benizelos International airport at Spata, 21km east of Athens. In addition to standard facilities like cafes, restaurants, shops and banks, the airport also has a hotel for transit passengers. www.aia.gr
Bus: Athens has two main intercity bus stations. Terminal A is about 7km northwest of Omonoia Square at 100, Kifissou street and offers routes to the Peloponnese, the Ionian Islands and western Greece. Terminal B is about 5km away from Omonoia Square and offers routes to central and northern Greece, as well as to Evia. Visitors can take the intercity bus schedule from EOT (National Tourist Organisation).
Train: Athens also has two train stations located a few hundred metres away, 1km northeast of Omonoia Square. Larisis station, on Deligianni street, accepts trains on the standard-gauge lines to central and northern Greece. It also handles all international services via Thessaloniki. The Peloponnese train station, on Sidirodromon street, handles services on the narrow-gauge line to the Peloponnese, including the port of Patras. www.ose.gr
Getting Around in Athens
Airport of Athens: The airport is located near the towns of Markopoulo, Koropi, Spata and Loutsa, about 21km east of the city centre of Athens. The airport is easily accessible via Attiki Odos, a six-lane motorway. Public transport to Athens and the port of Piraeus is provided by metro, railway and express buses, ensuring efficient transport for air travelers and facilitating linkage to key tourist attractions.
Buses – trolleybuses: The use of the bus or the trolley is not a real necessity in the centre of Athens. All highlights and interesting sights of the city are within walking distance. However, in case you need to use them, they usually operated from 6am until midnight, with the exception of some buses that operate around the clock between Athens and Piraeus. The trolley operates from 5am until midnight. Tickets must be bought before you enter the bus in one of the many “periptera” (kiosks). www.oasa.gr
Metro: The metro is the best way of getting around the city centre. It is fast and efficient. Tickets can be bought in the metro stations. www.ametro.gr
Streetcar: The streetcar network in Athens connects the centre of the city (Syntagma Square) to the southern (coastal) suburbs. www.tramsa.gr
The Suburban Railway (Proastiakos): It accommodates travel between Athens and the El. Venizelos Athens International Airport, with stops to Corinth as well. www.proastiakos.gr
Taxis: All taxis are yellow and are equipped with a taximetre. You should bear in mind that many taxi drivers may pick up additional passengers, even if they already have a fare.
Weather in Athens
The climate of Athens is a typical Mediterranean climate with mild winters and dry summers. July and August are the hottest months with an average temperature of 28ºC. Nevertheless, temperature often rises above 40ºC. These summer months are famous in Greece for their strong wind blowing from the North, the Meltemi. September is the month when heat starts to subside, and there is occasional precipitation.
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