Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world, often referred to as the Cradle of Western Civilization. It is also a modern fun city with many things to do for solo travelers as well as families. This is the home to democracy and great philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (of course that was in the 5th century BCE),as well as foods like spanakopita and feta cheese. Folks have inhabited this area for over 5,000 years and it also has some of the most preserved ancient monuments. But there is so much more in Athens to enjoy! I visited not just the Ancient Greece, but the modern Greece to really explore what it would be like to not only travel there, but also what it would be like to live there as a digital nomad.
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Historic and Modern Day Athens – The Interwoven City
Modern day Athens was formed in 1834 and now has a population of over 4 million. About 35% of the Greeks live in Athens. The draws of the ancient city, monuments and museums give way to their beaches, yes the Greek Riviera and the Port of Piraeus. Here you can take cruises to the various Greek Islands, truly amazing. This is the largest passenger port in Europe and the 3rd largest in the world.
One reason we visited Athens was to see this great city, as well as take a tour of the Greek Islands via a cruise (with Celestyal Cruise discussed later). Many of the world’s ancient monuments and artwork can be seen in Athens (or come from Athens). This guide will give you some of my top picks on museums and monuments to visit like the world famous Parthenon. These monuments date back to the Roman, Byzantine and to a lesser extent, the Ottoman time periods.
Athens Home To 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Athens is home to not just one, but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including The Acropolis of Athens and the medieval Daphne Monastery.
As many know, this is also the home of the Olympics. The first modern-day Olympics was held here in 1896 and in 2014 they hosted the Summer Olympics.
Last but not least, the food scene is phenomenal. Athens not only exhibits local foods, but food from all over the region. We explored the food scene via cooking / food tours, as well as eating in so many fantastic restaurants. The prices in Athens accommodate all food budgets. There are so many cafes throughout the city that are discussed below. The city of Athens is great and easy to explore with many places centrally located to make it so much easier to explore. But before describing more, let’s discuss getting around.
The hot summer Mediterranean – One last thing about Athens is the hot summer Mediterranean climate. While it does have some cool weather in the winter, it can be quite hot in the summer/shoulder season, since it’s the hottest city on mainland Europe.
Transportation – Getting Around Town
The city of Athens is fairly easy to get around by foot, bus, Athens Metro (subway), tram and taxis. The most central areas to stay were near the major squares. This was convenient because that is also where the subways also had stops. The main squares are Syntagma Square, Monastiraki Square, and Omonia Square. The Metro, tram, and buses use passes that you could buy by the day or over several days. This was very budget friendly to travel around the capital of Greece.
There is no Uber, only taxis although you can order the taxi via your Uber app. We used Uber several times and it was reasonable, though it costs more than say the Metro, etc For a longer ride like to the airport, we used a private driver.
Some Centrally Located Squares
As noted above, the main squares are great places to stay since many of the historic neighborhoods are located here
- Syntagma Square – Syntagma is the largest, most central square and Metro station. Besides the fountain in the square, the Greek Parliament sits, which is the former Royal Palace. In front of the Parliament building you will see where there is the changing of the guard each day on the hour. The more complex changing of the guard takes place on a Sunday at 11am. This square is well located, but given its the capital of the country, I was told that they can have demonstrations at times. From here walk to the Arch of Hadrian (Hadrian’s Gate). Here you cross the street to go towards the Plaka and will see the Acropolis in the distance. The Plaka Neighborhood is one of the most popular.
- Monastiraki Square – Monastiraki is such a lively square both day and night. The square was named after a nun monastery that was located near the square and is in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. While it’s magical, as you step outside of it with a great view of The Acropolis, you see an amazing historic Byzantine church and a mosque. This square is where the Flea Market is located, small shops and markets, and many taverns with their popular souvlaki, or “Greek fast food”. It is extremely busy and like any large city, you must watch for pickpockets, etc.
- Theseum Square – Theseum is located west, next to Monastiraki and there are many stylish cafes that often have students sipping on the coffee. The Temple of Hephaestus on top of a small hill is located here. There is also an 11th-century Byzantine church and an a 14th-century Ottoman mosque as well.
- Omonia Square – Omonia Square is the northern part of central Athens and is a transportation hub in the area, it also has a Metro station. In the center of the square is a beautiful fountain that is a landmark and highlighted in movies in the past. The square has some great bakeries where I stopped often and there are many hotels, including The Moxy, various Brown hotel group properties, and the Polis Grand Hotel. Many have great views of the Acropolis in the distance from their roofs. The Hondos Center is a large department store on the square that sells all types of merchandise as well as items you’d find in pharmacies. On the roof of the store, there is a great cafeteria with both indoor and outdoor seating with more great views of the fountain and the Acropolis/city.
Must Visit Neighborhoods in Athens
- Plaka District / Neighborhood: The Plaka is located on the northern and eastern slopes, below the Acropolis. It is said to be “the neighborhood of the Gods”. The picturesque neighborhood is adorned with neoclassical architecture. This is one of the primary tourist areas with many restaurants, tavernas, and stores. It is a great place to roam around and see great sights. We ate in the area, shopped and enjoyed a few great cups of Greek coffee here. Walk along the labyrinth of road and cobblestone pathways and enjoy the pretty scenery.
- Anafiotika, The Hidden Neighborhood – Anafiotika is located on the northeast side of the Acropolis, between the Plaka and the Acropolis. It is known as Little Anafi, modeled after the island of Anafi, one of the Cycladic Islands. This tiny neighborhood is modeled after the island vibe with tiny white houses, terraces, and small narrow pathways. It’s almost like a maze of winding paths and the small entrances to it made it hard to find at first. During the mid 1800’s carpenters, marble workers, carpenters, etc. relocated here and started this neighborhood to remind them of their home. They came to build King Otto’s Palace and helped with the Acropolis. There are only 40 plus homes in this area and small narrow places. Given that the neighborhood is so photographed, there are many signs there to try to remain quiet and respect the narrowed-street, tiny enclave.
- The Greek Riviera – While there are so many things to see and do in central Athens, if you want beaches, you don’t have to go to the Greek Islands, but you can go to southern neighborhoods in Athens that have beaches, marinas, restaurants and long walkways along the shore. This was a good respite from the more hectic city, if you have time to explore.
- Kolonaki – High End Shoppers – This neighborhood and Voukourestiou Street is where you can find high-end shopping. While this is the case, you also will find some beautiful boutiques in the Plaka and surrounding areas too.
Don’t Miss These These Churches
As you roam through Athens you will see many churches and religious buildings throughout the area, especially Byzantine churches. You will notice some of the older ones are low or below street level. This was partly due to the age when it was built and various earthquakes/disasters/wars that caused much rubble. Given the difficulty to remove ruble, they ended up building up the area around it. Some of these buildings were also made from older temples or some were abandoned but then later reconsecrated. One of the major draws to the buildings are the artisan work and frescoes. I will note two below that are very central in Mitropoleos Square in Monastiraki, and one noted for its frescoes.
- Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation (also known as Metropolis) – This church was built in 1862 with King Otto laying the cornerstone with Queen Amelia. It is the archdiocese of the Greek Orthodox Church and home of the Archbishop of Athens and Greece. Gregory V is buried here, as well as St. Philothei. Both died tragically related to the Ottoman empire. Gregory headed the church but was hung for 3 days, dragged through the streets and thrown in the sea by the Ottomans. St. Philothei was martyred by the Ottomans in 1589 after trying to ransom Greek women that were held captive by the Ottoman harem. The large square in front of the church has various restaurants and is a nice area.
- Church of St. Eleftherios – A tinier Byzantine Church is to the right of the Cathedral and is also known as the Panagea Gorgoepikoos and the Little Metropolis built in the 13th century. This church was at one time used as a library in the 1800s, fell into disrepair but then later saved and reconsecrated. However, given the uses only one fresco remains. THe outside of the building is very nice though.
- Kapnikarea – This Byzantine church built much earlier around 1050 over an old Greek Temple. It’s located not far from this square, but it is well known for its frescoes.
Monuments in Metropolis Square-2 stunning statues in the square
- Archbishop Damaskinos – He was archbishop of 1941 until death in 1949, but he was also Regent (Prime Minister) of Greece in 1945 during the pull out of the German occupation in 1944 until the return of King George II returned to Greece in 1946.
- Constantine XI – The last reigning Byzantine emperor. He was killed during the fall of Constantinople in 1453. His death marked the end of the Roman Empire.
Places to Go / Things to See
- The Acropolis of Athens: The Acropolis has more than just one building on top, it was both a citadel and worship place for the ancient city of Athens. This historical site also has great significance, including the fantastic architecture. This flat top, limerstone hill overlooks the city of Athens and was well positioned given its height for military and worship reasons. Images of the ancient area are known throughout the world, most notably the great Parthenon. Despite being impacted by wars through the centuries, like with the Persians, Venetians, etc, many great relics and structures remain or have been preserved, here and in the Acropolis Museum, as well as other museums around the world.
A great way to see the Acropolis is to take a tour that will march up the walkway and explain more about the various buildings and sites along the way. I took Athens Walking Tours to learn all about the Acropolis. It can take 20 minutes or more to walk to the top, and in the summer it can be very hot with limited shade so bring water (there are no stores once you enter, although there is a restroom at the top). It can be rather slippery to walk on some marble too, or give the uneven walkways, so bring sneakers or walking shoes. There is now an elevator on one of the entrances for those that are handicap, but it is strictly enforced to take this elevator and it is only on one side of the large hill, so plan accordingly.
The Acropolis of Athens is so impressive. You will notice as you are there, over the years acid rain has started to erode the carvings, etc. so many parts have been replaced with replicas, you can tell by the colors. The Acropolis Museum and others around the world maintain some of the original pieces. The Acropolis is still so impressive with great views of the city.
Notably, there is an admission fee, but if you take a guided tour, the tour company may provide the ticket for the entrance, so check first. www.acropolis-greece.com
While the Acropolis has been inhabited for centuries, Pericles lived from 495 BC to 429 BC and began the construction of the primary structures, like the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike, during the 5th century BC.
- Propylaia – The Propylaia is the monumental at the top of the Acropolis. Once you enter this gateway you will see the amazing Parthenon.
- Parthenon – The Parthenon is one of the most sacred sites in the ancient world. While you can’t enter it, you can go around the exterior of the building and see its massive Doric columns. There were 136 classical columns to hold up the roof at the time. This was the ancient shrine of Athens. It is impressive to stand near their structure and wonder how in those days, they were able to construct this temple. Notably, it has been used as a christian church before the Ottomans rule. The Parthenon became a mosque while the Ottomans were in Greece.
- Temple of Athena Nike – On the southern side of the Propylaia is The Temple of Athena Nike. This much smaller temple is dedicated to Goddess Athena and is much better preserved, partly due to the restoration of it in the 19th and 20th centuries.
- Erechtheion – Erechtheion is another temple, but what I particularly like is The Porch of Caryatids with its columns made in sculptures of women. This is considered to be the holiest of the temples, built in medieval times. Most of the original columns are held at Athens Acropolis Museum, while one remains at the British Museum in London (brought there since the 19th century by Lord Elgin). The replica columns are still awesome and reportedly made minds stir about harems, etc. especially since the Ottomans ruled for some time, but that is a story for another day.
- Theatre of Dionysus – This is an ancient Greek theater located on the southern slope of the Acropolis. It had a seating capacity of 17,000 reaching its 4th extent in the 4th century BC..
- Odeon of Herodes Atticus – This is a Roman rock theater constructed in 161 AD and located on the Southwest slope of the Acropolis. It had a seating capacity of 5,000.
- Acropolis Guided Tour – Given the long history of the Acropolis, it is great to take a guided tour and maybe avoid the long lines for tickets. We loved the guided tour we had with Athens Walking Tours. I highly recommend it, our guide was so knowledgeable and thoughtful.
- Temple of Olympian Zeus – This is sometimes referred to as the Columns of Olympian Zeus. This is a short walk from the Acropolis and Syntagma Square. I didn’t pay to enter since I observed the columns that remained. I saw this on my way to Hadrian’s Gate, which you can walk up to with no admission. I visited this on my way to the Plaka. Construction on this temple started and stopped over many years. You may notice that the top of the columns used changed from Doric to Corinthian, etc. The temple was finally completed by Roman Emperor Hadrian. It was a grand temple with 104 columns, but various wars over the years caused it to be ruined. The barbarian invasions in 267 AD were the final invasion that destroyed most of the temple. THere are still several columns that remain.
- The Arch of Hadrian (Hadrian’s Gate) – It is believed that construction of the Arch started in 131 BC and reportedly it had a different style than other Roman arches of its time. It’s a great monument to visit on your walk to or from the Plaka. It too is an often identified image of Athens. It was in between the roadway, between the Temple of Olympia Zeus and the Acropolis. (No charge for the Gate, it is on the side of the road.) Also, you can see Hadrian’s Library not far from Plaka and Acropolis.
- Ancient Agora of Athens – The ancient Agora is the central area of ancient Athens and means “gathering place” / “marketplace”. It is located on the northwestern slope close to the Acropolis. If you go to other Greek cities like Thessoloniki, they also have ancient agoras. This is the original center of the ancient city that dates back 5,000 years. There are many ruins here, but it’s more the history about it when you visit. However, two most interesting parts are the Temple of Hephaestus and the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos. While the Stoa is rebuilt in its original likeness, the Temple is one of the most preserved ancient temples of the Classical Period. It was so interesting to see it and if you looked across from it you can see the Parthenon and view of the Acropolis.
Roman Agora – THere is also an ancient Roman Agora in Athens. It is north of the Acropolis and east of the Ancient Agora. Many functions of the Ancient Agora were transferred to this Agora as the city encroached on the old Agora. Notably, the agora has not been fully excavated yet. Want to explore 6 archeological sites most of them are covered with this GetYourGuide Ticket that I mentioned. Check it out six impressive archeological sites with Getyourguide and skip the line.
Presidential Palace and Changing of the Guards – The Presidential Palace is located at Syntagma Square. Each day they have the changing of the guards that are called Evzones. They wear their original uniforms with caps, socks, and shoes with pompoms. These guards may have an interesting unit, but they are part of an elite light infantry that protects the palace. Each day the guards in front of the palace change. The ceremony is much grander on Sunday at 11am. They march here and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guards stand and are not permitted to talk. Similar to the Guards at Buckingham Palace they must stay still.Pictures are not permitted with the guards. You have to stand behind a certain line.
Museums – The most notably museums that have many of the greatest statues and artifacts are noted below. The Acropolis Museum is amazing. A life size outline of the Parthenon shows reliefs that are held at the Museum. It gives a great picture of what it looked like; so you can picture it better. The columns of the woman from the Porch of Caryatids.
The National Archeological Museum had one of the best Athena statutes and The Jockey of Artemision. the gold Mask of Agamemnon, and the bronze of Zeus (or Poseidon) were also highlights you cannot miss. Locals feel the bronze with outstretched arms is Zeus, ready to throw a thunderbolt or is this Poseidon that usually had a trident? This highlights just a few things to see in these museums in this city. It all depends on the amount of time you have in Athens.
- Acropolis Museum www.theacropolismuseum.gr
The Acropolis museum is one of the most stunning museums situated at the base and archeological site of the Acropolis. This is the best place to learn all about the art created over 2400 years ago. It is the 11th best museum in the world and 8th best in Europe!
- National Archeological Museum www.namuseum.gr is a museum offering some of the best of Greece’s artifacts and also has a section on mummies and Egyptian artifacts found in Greece. I found this a very worthwhile museum and the cafe here was also very nice.
- National Historical Museum www.nhmuseum.gr the oldest museum in Greece of its kind.
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