Things to see and do in and around Athens, Greece

Full of history and mythology, Greece's' capital, Athens, is the perfect destination for those interested in mixing archaeology with sun, sea and sand.

By Saga team

Published 17 May 2024

In existence as early as Neolithic times, Athens is the largest city in Greece and its capital. It is often referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy.

As you move around its historical places you will see how apt is the gravitas of this statement. Everywhere in Athens there are reminders of its awesome past and you simply cannot fail to be moved by the sights you will encounter.

It's mind-boggling to think that more than 5,000 years ago its inhabitants began to develop their city in ways that could never have been imagined by many other parts of the world at that time.

During its classical period, 500-336 BC, Greeks reached new heights in architecture, art, theatre, and philosophy and it was during this time that Athens became an important urban centre.

With such a mix of antiquity and modernity, there is little wonder it is such a popular destination for tourists and one problem you might face is where to actually start your sightseeing trip.

Maybe you will opt for the new modernistic, state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum, which finally opened in 2009 after decades of legal problems.

As you might imagine, the Acropolis Museum is an archaeological museum dedicated to significant artefacts found on the ancient Acropolis complex.

As you walk into the museum, you will be surprised to find yourself standing on a glass floor, elevated above an archaeological dig of the Makryianni settlement below.

From there, go straight up to the top floor Parthenon Gallery of this enormous building, where a video will give you an insight into the history of the archaeological treasures you are about to see and a guide to the construction of the Acropolis.

Through the windows of this floor you will be able to see a 360-degree panorama of the Acropolis and modern Athens.

With its light, spacious rooms, clearly labelled exhibits and stunning reconstructions to show how statues would have looked before they fell to ruin, the museum succeeds in bringing the ancient Athenian Acropolis to life.

Designed and planned by Pericles, construction of this sacred site began in the 5th century BC, high on a rocky outcrop from where the city could easily overlook the plains of Attica.

In case you were wondering, the word acropolis means high citadel from the Greek, akron ‘high point’ and polis ‘city’.

From the top of the Acropolis, your panoramic sweep of the plains will be every bit as exciting for you as it was for the first Greeks, the only difference is yours comes with the addition of the impressive sprawl of the modern city below.

Leave early for your visit to the Acropolis: there is no easy way up and it is probably not a good thing to climb in the midday sun. To access the archaeological site you can choose from two different main approaches.

As the Acropolis stands in the centre of the city, you can reach it from Monastiraki by foot, which is a steep ascent, or if you prefer a slightly easier trek, albeit quite a bit longer, take the path from Thisio.

But the best route to take is from the main entrance on the south side, close to the new Acropolis Museum. You need to buy your ticket at the entrance, so to avoid queues it is best to arrive early.

All paths are steep, but this one is easier to take because it is paved and is also on the coolest side of the hill in the morning.

Paths are stony and uneven and you will encounter steps from time to time so take sturdy shoes. It is easier for ladies to wear trousers and suitable clothes are advisable for all, in order to protect you from the heat.

Be prepared: make sure you slap on sun cream and take your sunhat, sunglasses, and a couple of water bottles too. It can get very hot up there and you will need to rehydrate after walking uphill.

But when you do arrive it will have been well worth the trek. On the way up there are many features to see, such as the ancient theatre, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, to give you a chance to stop and catch your breath.

Almost at the top of the hill, having passed the little Ionic Temple of Athena Nike as you go, you will arrive at the steps of the Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the Acropolis on its west side, designed by Mnesikles to be as glorious as the Parthenon itself.

In ancient times, this gate would have guarded the holy temple. From here the terrain flattens as you reach the top of the Acropolis and see the reason for its being: the Parthenon, Temple to Athena, built in the 5th century BC from Doric limestone.

By its side are the remains of the Old Temple of Athena and close to this you will find the Erechtheion, dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon.

On the south porch of the Erechtheion are the Caryatides, beautiful sculpted female figures taking the place of its columns and pillars.

Spend an hour or so soaking up the history - there are many more archaeological structures for you to see up there – but don’t forget to also take advantage of the incredible views of the city from your high vantage point.

Find out how a love of history and archaeology can lead to a life changing holiday

On the northern slope of the Acropolis stands another of the most important parts of the ancient city of Athens: the remains of the Agora, the ancient Greek marketplace and civic centre.

In use since late Neolithic times, this place was dedicated to the twelve gods of Greece. It was the place where the people of Athens assembled to discuss all kinds of topics: from politics, business and current events, to the gods and the universe.

People gathered to voice their opinions, to meet up with friends, to buy and sell all kinds of goods. It was in the Agora of Athens where ancient Greek democracy first began.

If you are interested in Ancient Greece, why not take some time to wander around the ruins here?

Many monuments are still in evidence: the Stoa of Attalos, the Temple of Hephaestos, the Tholos, to name but a few representatives of the ancient way of life.

But by the first century BC, Athens had become part of the Roman Empire and since the Romans wanted to put their own stamp on things, Julius Caesar and the Emperor Augustus commissioned an extension of the Greek Agora – the Roman Forum - in the area now known as Plaka.

Clustered around the north-eastern slope of the Acropolis you will find Plaka, one of the most attractive and effervescent districts of Athens.

Not only is it one of the oldest parts of Athens, but one of the oldest in the world, since it grew up around the ancient Roman Agora, or Forum.

You can see one of the relics of the Roman Agora still standing in Plaka - a clock tower of pentellic marble - the Tower of the Winds or Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes.

The atmosphere of Plaka today is vibrant, its squares buzzing with visitors, for whom it amply caters with its restaurants, tavernas, wine bars, hotels and shops.

If you need to buy gifts or souvenirs of the Acropolis to take home, Plaka is as good a place as any to buy them.

Take time to appreciate its neo-classical architecture amongst its ancient sculptures, as well as its labyrinth of streets dripping with bougainvillea and punctuated with street cafes.

If you have started your tour of Athens in Plaka, you might also like to visit its tiny, hidden neighbourhood of Anafiotika, with its intricate alleyways, attractive white houses and rooftop gardens.

Just a short walk from Plaka and you will find yourself smack-bang in the centre of modernity. It will not be possible for you to visit Athens without visiting Syntagma Square at least once during your stay.

Syntagma Square, otherwise known as Constitution Square, was named after the new city constitution written in 1843 by the first king of Greece, King Otto, after a popular uprising.

It is the central square of Athens and the most famous.

You know you are alive in Syntagma Square: it pulsates with energy as locals and tourists rub shoulders in the square and its shopping street.

Why not join them for some serious shopping in the now pedestrianised Ermou Street, just off Syntagma Square, where you will find several familiar international high-street chain stores.

Every hour in Syntagma square, you can witness the changing of the Evzones, the Presidential Guard, who stand stock still for an hour at a time, dressed in their distinctive colourful costumes, guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Hellenic Parliament, which overlook Syntagma Square.

At 11.00 every Sunday morning, however, crowds of people gather to see a special, extended version of the changing of the guard ceremony.

After standing patiently in the bright sunshine to wait for this traditional custom, why not take refuge from the heat under the trees for a while, cool down by the fountains in the centre of the square or sip an ouzo in one of its cafes and simply watch the Athenian world go by?

You are sure to be drawn back here before long, not only to Greece, but also to Athens and to its lovely Syntagma Square.

Just south of Athens, about a one and a half hour drive down to the southern coast of Attica, is the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion. As you'd probably expect from a temple dedicated to the sea god the Temple of Poseidon is surrounded by sea on three sides, making it a popular spot to watch the sunset over the sea or take in a full moon. This coastal location would have also provided a military benefit, with good views of ships coming and going.

Together with the Parthenon in Athens and the temple of Aphaia on Aegina island, it forms an isosceles triangle, considered by some people to be the Sacred Triangle of Greece, although no written record exists to support this theory.

Did you know?

When two columns of the temple collapsed in 1825 they ended up in Venice and England. Four drums can be seen in the garden at Chatsworth House as the base on a bust of the sixth Duke of Devonshire, while another is at the British Museum.

Tempted by a holiday to Greece and her islands? Find out more about Greek holidays here, including our Archaeology in Greece special interest holiday with an excursion to Athens and the Temple of Poseidon

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