What should you visit in a few days in Athens? What are the sites or monuments to see absolutely? Here is a city guide with the 10 must-do things to do in the Greek capital!
Strolling around the city
Athens is a bustling city built in a very anarchic way and without an urban plan, it has nothing to do with other european cities. Here the ancient rubs shoulders with the modern: recent buildings face the ancient ruins without any real coherence.
The result is a cheerful cacophony: each district has its surprises! Take the time to walk through the streets. The historical centre (Plaka district) is quite concentrated and you will quickly discover charming alleyways.
Discover the ancient sites
After taking the pulse of the city it is of course unthinkable to visit Athens without going to discover the ancient sites.
It’s hard to miss it: it’s the highlight of the city! There you will see the Odeon and then the Propylaea a monumental gate that gives access to the rest of the site.
Then comes the most famous monument in Greece: the Parthenon a Doric temple of perfect dimensions dedicated to Athena the protective goddess of the city. Unfortunately damaged by time and by men (read the article about the history of Athens) only ruins remain today… but what ruins! Of the 80,000 stones that made up the Parthenon at the orinia, only 5,000 remain today.
Just next door the Erechteion is a smaller temple consisting of several temples dedicated to Athena, Poseidon and Zeus among others. It is famous for its sublime caryatids.
To complete your visit go to the Acropolis museum which allows you to better understand the history of the site and where you can see the original statues of the Erechteion caryatids (those present on the monument are only copies). Good plan: the museum café is accessible free of charge and offers an exceptional view of the Acropolis. All you have to do is ask for a ticket for the restaurant at the reception desk.
The Agora is the other major site in Athens located below the Acropolis. It was the political and commercial centre of the city. Here you will see the Hephaestus a smaller temple than the Parthenon which was dedicated to Hephaestus, the god of fire, metallurgy and volcanoes.
Reshaped during the Romano-Byzantine period this district has had several functions over the years so it is best to visit it with a guide to grasp all the subtleties.
The Panathenaic Stadium
This U-shaped Olympic stadium was built for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 on the site of the ancient stadium. It is 204 metres long and can welcome 70,000 spectators.
A few steps from the Acropolis the Filopappou hill is a must to discover. Following a marble path you will reach its summit where you will find the Philopappos Monument a funerary monument erected in honour of the Roman senator Caius Iulius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappus, benefactor of Athens.
Above all you will enjoy a magnificent 360° view of Athens, of the Acropolis and the Parthenon of course, but also as far as the port.
Closer still to the Acropolis the Areopagus Hill is a kind of big rock on which you can access by a staircase. From there one has a superb view of the ancient monuments, and it is even better at nightfall in the low light of the sunset.
Visit the museum of Cycladic Art
I had a real crush on this museum that gathers the traces of a civilization that lived in the Cyclades islands around 3000 BC! This art is surprising: it is about figurines representing in their great majority women.
And if these statuettes are so captivating it is because despite their very old age they appear incredibly modern thanks to their simple and pure style which inspired several artists of the 20th century like Modigliani or Picasso.
Take advantage of your visit to relax in the museum’s café, which is not lacking in charm!
See the changing of the guards in front of Parliament
The Evzones are a ceremonial unit of Greek guards. They guard the tomb of the unknown soldier in front of the parliament.
If these soldiers attract so many tourists it is because they have a rather original uniform consisting of a skirt made of 400 pleats symbolizing the 400 years of servitude under the Turkish occupation; a red felt beret; and especially shoes decorated with a black pompom. An accessory that today lends itself to smiling but which was once used to hide a sharp blade.
Every hour at minus five, the changing of the guard takes place and it’s a small spectacle each time since the soldiers’ shoes, with soles adorned with about sixty nails, resound at every step. Good to know: on Sunday at 11am a big ceremony takes place with a brass band and parade. Beware however on a rainy day the changeover is less grandiose because the soldiers’ metal soles, which are very slippery, prevent them from carrying out their usual march.
Going to see the municipal halls
In the municipal halls, in the middle of butchers and fishmongers, you are plunged into a merry brouhaha! Here you can feel the heart of the town beating: everyone shouts louder than their neighbour to try to get the barge to come.
On the stalls you can find octopus and cuttlefish that Greek cooks sublimate as well as impressive pig heads that seem to fascinate the tourists’ cameras more than the customers!
There are a multitude of Orthodox churches in Athens which it would be a shame to snub. Dare to push their doors: it’s free and it’s worth a look. In the city center, stop at the small but beautiful church of Panaghia Kapnikarea (unfortunately pictures are forbidden so you’ll have to take my word for it!) as well as the Athens Metropolitan Cathedral a magnificent basilica topped by a 24-meter high dome.
This cathedral was built between 1842 and 1862 with the marble of seventy-two other demolished churches!
Visit the National Archaeological museum
The Archaeological Museum of Athens presents one of the finest collections of ancient Greek art in the world with more than 20,000 objects from prehistory to the end of antiquity. My favourite is the “Jockey”, one of the museum’s masterpieces dating from the 3rd century BC.
Explore the cultural centre of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation
Stavros Niarchos (1909-1996) was a shipowner whose fortune was so great that he was nicknamed The Golden Greek. At his death his wealth was estimated at $5 billion. He bequeathed 20% of it to a foundation intended to finance artistic, cultural, educational and health projects.
This foundation thus financed a very large cultural centre on the outskirts of Athens, near the port. There is a large park, a restaurant, an opera house and the impressive national library whose enormous shelves are enough to make all bibliophiles salivate.
Above all take the elevator to the top floor and enjoy a panoramic view of Athens and the port.
Leave the city to go to Cape Sounio to see the Temple of Poseidon
If you have read my previous article on the history of Athens, you already know that the legend tells that Athena and Poseidon quarrelled over which of them would become the protector of Athens. To decide between the two candidates the gods organized a contest: each had to offer a gift to the Athenians who would elect their favorite god.
With his trident Poseidon struck a rock and made a salt water spring gush forth. As for Athena, she created the olive tree, a symbol of peace. The men voted for Poseidon but the women, more numerous, chose Athena who became the protector of Athens. Furious, Poseidon flooded the surrounding area. To calm his wrath, a temple was built in honor of the sea god at Cape Sounio.
This temple, although more modest in size than the Parthenon, is particularly charming because it dominates the Aegean Sea.
The way between Athens and Cape Sounio can be done by public transport but it is rather laborious, it is better to take a taxi. The path is very pleasant, it goes along the athens riviera and allows you to enjoy beautiful landscapes.
To learn all about the history of the temple of Poseidon you can make this visit in the company of a guide from Alternative Athens. It is exciting and transportation is included in the visit.
In short (and in video)…
To finish convincing you to visit Athens here is a quick overview in 2 minutes!
Useful: the map to find your way around
Find all the places mentioned in this article on this map :
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