ATHENS SIGHTSEEING STUFF

The Acropolis: The great symbol of Athens and the number one attraction by far is the temple known as the Parthenon, dominating the city from the top of the granite outcrop known as the Acropolis. As you reach the top of the Acropolis through the ancient gates called the Propylaea, you look straight to the Parthenon. This was the new temple to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. It is recognized as one of the world's greatest buildings. It has survived over 2,500 years; it has been pillaged, bombed and ravaged by pollution. It has served in its day as a temple, a church and a mosque. But it still stands, the defining moment in the birth of western civilization. Along with the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the charming Temple of Athena Nike and the shrine of the Erectheion are the highlights of this ensemble passed down from antiquity.

Plaka is Athens' oldest but most picturesque quarter surrounding Acropolis, where winding, narrow alleys are flanked by single-storey houses. Taverns, small nightclubs and popular art & craft shops cater to its many visitors. Monastiraki and the flea market is an extension of Plaka, has a number of antique shops and a constant bazaar. There are some interesting monuments around but the flea market is unique, especially on Sunday mornings.

A view from the top: One of your top priorities during your time in Athens should be a trip to the summit of Lykavitos (or Lycabettus) from where you'll have a magnificent view of the city below. It is the highest point of Athens. The city is situated in a valley between the Acropolis Hill and this limestone mound which, at more than 300 m, is crowned with a tiny white chapel dedicated to Saint George, the patron Saint of Greece. The hill of Lykavitos is adjacent to the elegant neighborhood of Kolonaki and quite near Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. In fact, take Ploutarchou Street from this major thoroughfare straight up to the base of the hill where you can then pick up the funicular which runs to the top. The cost is cheap and departures are very frequent. At the top, aside from the best orientation lesson you could have, there is a nice bar/restaurant.

The Metropolis: A precious jewel of Byzantium. Although the Greek Orthodox church is presided over by the Patriach of Antioch who has his seat at Istanbul, since l864 Athens has been the seat of the Metropolitan Archbishop of Greece and the Cathedral is a fascinating sign of Byzantine religious architecture: materials taken from seventy-two different churches destroyed by the Muslims were used in its construction. Once the royal church of the Greek monarchs, the Cathedral, houses the tomb of Patriarch Gregorios, a martyr to the cause of Greek Independence who was garroted in Istanbul in l82l when news arrived there of uprisings in Greece. The Cathedral is located along Metropoleos street midway between Monastiraki and Syntagma. Nearby is another magnificent example of Byzantine style which has been incorporated into the facade of a modern office building. Because of the thievery of icons and the holiness of these places, entrance is not made easy for the casual sightseer. These churches are usually locked but can be visited until sunset.

The tradition of the modern Olympic Games began in l896 when the very first competitions were held in the Olympic Stadium. This massive structure in marble can hold 70,000 spectators and dates originally from 330 BC when it was the home of the Panathenaic Games. It was rebuilt once by the Roman benefactor Herod Atticus in 140 AD and again, according to the original plans, in l894. It's an impressive structure in any case, but if you are a dedicated Olympics fan, you'll definitely want to have a look around. The Stadium is easily accessible from Syntagma through the National Gardens.

Far from the madding crowd: You will still hear the honking of horns and the constant traffic all around you but inside the National Gardens and the Zappeion building, you might at least pretend that you are on a tropical island. Oleanders, azaleas and hibiscus sweeten the air and shady paths crisscross dainty flower-beds in this oasis of tranquility. The main entrance is along Leoforos Amalias near Syntagma and while inside have a look at the Zappeion building, built in classical style. This exhibition hall might seem a bit garish to modern tastes but is true to ancient models, similarly painted.

The ancient Agora: As the Forum was to Ancient Rome, the Agora was to Ancient Greece. Enormous slabs of black stone pave the road upon which the Pan-Athenaic procession once passed as it moved toward the Acropolis. In fact, if the Acropolis held the spirit of the antique city, here in the Agora was its heart. This is where the Athenians came to shop and to do business. Here at one time stood libraries, temples and arcades of shops. The impressive Stoa of Attalus which stands has been restored, from the American School of Classical Studies and the Rockefellers. The original structure had been built in the second century BC by Attalus, the king of Pergamon, and the Athenians strolled beneath the two colonnades of l34 Doric and Ionic columns, stopping occasionally to admire the expensive goods from every corner of the Mediterranean which crammed the luxury shops. The passage of time, however, brought death and decay to the Stoa until a few decades ago when 360 houses were razed, 5000 people relocated and a full-scale reconstruction begun. Now (l.5 million dollars later) the marble of the Stoa might seem a little too bright and shiny but scholars have a magnificent slice of Athenian life recreated and visitors to Athens can see all the artworks and artifacts found in the Agora in the museum housed within. The Agora is a short walk from the Acropolis, the entrance is included in the same entrance ticket and a day of antiquity might be rounded out with a visit here.

A temple which so majestically stands on the other side of the Agora is the Thesseion, a masterpiece from the 5th century BC, used as a church and thus saved. The last service to take place here was a celebratory Mass marking the arrival of the country's first king, Otto, in l834. From then until the opening of the National Archaeological Museum in l889, it was a museum; now, it is considered the best-preserved ancient building in the country.

Psirri is an area between Monastiraki and Thesseion giving a taste of the past, with old taverns, cafes, clubs, restaurants and bars with all sort of music, small shops, shoppers and strollers. Ask for the bakery with the fresh "koulouria".

Kerameikos (Keramikos) Cemetery: Beginning not far from the Acropolis, this ancient cemetery holds hundreds of monuments, many of them very beautiful, with some of the best images being plaster copies of originals safely stowed in museums, including the on-site Kerameikos Museum. Seeing them in their proper places on the Street of the Tombs is moving. The earliest burials date back to 1200 bce.

The Parliament is an impressive neo-classical structure which once served as the residence of the sovereigns of Greece. Since l933 it has housed the Parliament and in the center is a memorial Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at which two guards keep a constant vigil. These young men, called Evzones(meaning "nicely dressed soldiers"), are members of the Honour Corps and wear a traditional uniform, dating from the days of war with the Turks, which includes a pleated white kilt (the foustanella), heavy clogs with red pom-poms and a floppy, tassled hat. The Foustanella is made of 30 meters of white cotton material and 400 pleats( as many years the Greeks were under the Turkish occupation). Young men doing their service as Presidential Guards are picked according to height (over 1.90m), character, moral outlook, general appearance and stamina. They are supposed to stay still, not even blink. Every so often they do a little march to break the monotony. They are not allowed to stop for no reason and they are allowed to march-kick the obstacles with their pompom shoes. These pointed shoes, called tsarouhia, weighs 3 kgrs each and have 60 hobnails under the sole and heel. If you happen to be in Athens on a Sunday, you can witness the ceremonial Changing of the Guard which takes place at 11:00am.

Even the greatest lover of Classical Civilization can be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the sights of Athens but, having seen the Acropolis and the Agora, there is one more archaeological site you should not miss. About five minutes walk from Syntagma, along Leoforos Amalias you will encounter one row of fifteen Corinthian columns and one graceful archway amid a heap of toppled masonry. These are, respectively, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple of Ancient Greece. The entrance is included in the Acropolis' entrance ticket. Construction begun in the sixth century BC and completed under Hadrian during the Roman domination, and the Hadrian's Arch was erected by the Athenians to demonstrate their homage to this benevolent emperor.

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