Athens is well known for its antiquities but it also offers an awful lot more with its contemporary attractions, making for a very fulfilling Greece vacation.
The city of Athens gave the world the first modern Olympic Games, which took place in 1896 and for which, as an enormous fan of the Olympics, I am forever grateful that the tradition continued. But Athens also gave the world Democracy which translates from the ancient Greek as, “Rule of the Commoners.” So that is something else to thank Athens for. Today’s Athens, in many respects, could be deemed in part an open-air museum, offering ancient sites and buildings galore. But there are other aspects to Athens including some spectacular scenery, lively and colourful neighbourhoods, and some excellent beaches. Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of Athens and what you can explore on your Greece vacation.
The city of Athens is built around a series of hills, with the Acropolis being the best known. However, the highest hill is actually Mount Lycabettus, which can be seen from all over the city and from the top of which you can have stunning views of not only Athens but way beyond. You can reach the summit by funicular, or, if you feel energetic, can walk up. At the top are an observation deck and a café/restaurant. If you want a romantic evening, consider having dinner here while enjoying the twinkling lights of the city below.
Then we come to the Acropolis, the most important ancient site in Athens and visible from almost anywhere in the city. The hill is crowned by the Parthenon located on its summit. This ancient temple was dedicated to the goddess, Athena Parthenos. Actually the word Parthenon translates as the “House of the Virgin.” Built entirely of marble, it gleams in the sunshine. It is the largest Doric temple in Greece and 22,000 tons of marble were used to make it. The statue of Athena was the most important sculpture in the Parthenon, being over 12 metres/40 feet in height, but it disappeared centuries ago and all we are left with now is a small replica of the same.
Many of the artifacts which existed in the temple have been removed to the Acropolis Museum which is situated at the bottom of the hill. It is in this excellent museum that you can learn about the history of both the Acropolis and the Parthenon, plus, of course, many other aspects about ancient Greek civilization. Check out, especially, the Parthenon Gallery. You may have heard of the Elgin Marbles, which were also known as the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of ancient Greek sculptures originally part of the Parthenon Temple. In the early part of the 1800s, they were taken, or perhaps I should say, “stolen” by a certain Lord Elgin and shipped to England. They now reside controversially in the British Museum in London.
Below the Acropolis is the Agora, a wide expanse of ancient Greek remains. Agora literally means “the Marketplace,” which it was – where people used to congregate to buy and sell all kinds of commodities. It was the heart of Athens at the time. There have been many excavations which have been undertaken here. When I first visited it, I was reminded of a similarity with the Forum in Rome.
At one time, it was the thing to experience a Sound and Light show about the Acropolis from the base of the hill, but at the time of writing this, unfortunately, this no longer takes place – something to do with the effect of the lights on the marble temples.
My last ancient site, although there are countless others in Athens to be found on your Greece vacation, is the Panathenaic Stadium, which was built in the 4th Century B.C. as a venue for the athletic contests. It is oval shaped and has what would have been a running track plus stone seating all around it. It is not hard to imagine the activities which must have taken place here. The stadium was restored in 1895 in order to host the 1896 Olympics, with seats for 70,000 spectators, a running track, and a central area for field events. As a marathon runner, allow me to indulge myself and tell the story of the origins of this race. In 490 B.C., there was a battle which took place in nearby Marathon between the citizens of Athens and the Persians. A messenger was sent to run to Athens and advise that the Greeks had won the battle. He arrived in the city, exclaimed “We were victorious,” and immediately dropped dead from exhaustion. In honour of this messenger who was called Pheidippides, a long distance race was introduced into the Olympic Games in 1896. The original distance between Athens and Marathon was only 25 miles. It was extended in 1908 to allow the London Olympic Marathon to start at Windsor Castle and finish at the Royal Box at the White City Stadium. Today’s marathon distance is now 26.2 miles. Go figure.
Moving on to modern Athens, on your Greece vacation, there are two places of significance. The first one is Syntagma Square, also known as Constitution Square and Athens’ largest. Here you will find the imposing Greek Parliament Building, which used to be the former Royal Palace, and the deluxe, elegant Hotel Grande Bretagne. In the middle of the square is a marble fountain and on one side, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. The square is also the venue for many demonstrations, common in Athens.
The second place of significance is Monastiraki, which is an old neighbourhood in central Athens. It is well worth a visit as it is one of the main upscale shopping districts in the city. As a contrast, there is a flea market which operates close by. Nearby is Adrianou Street, one of the best places to relax and enjoy the scenery at one of the numerous cafes and restaurants to be found here. Also nearby is Hephaestus Street where you can find clothing shops and music stores. In the same street within the arcades are some good second-hand bookstores.
One of the most famous locations in Athens is The Plaka. This is the oldest district in the city, and immediately after you enter it, you feel as if you are stepping back in time. It is something of a colourful atmospheric maze as you wander through mostly pedestrian-only narrow laneways and streets. Do check out the attractive old houses and gardens. It also contains many boutique stores and cafes. As for restaurants, this is a great place to have lunch or dinner as the choice of venues is large. I must admit that The Plaka caters somewhat to tourists, but don’t be put off by this. Enjoy the street musicians, flower sellers, and much more. There are even ancient Greek and Roman ruins to be found in The Plaka, as well as some beautiful 19th Century and older buildings, plus some Byzantine churches.
One other neighbourhood worth visiting is upscale prestigious Kolonaki. This is a very fashionably chic district located at the foot of Mount Lycabettus and home to many expensive boutiques, expensive restaurants, and private art galleries. However, you don’t have to spend money here. You can simply explore and stop at an outdoor café for a drink and just watch the world go by.
Now on to a couple of museums. Along with the Acropolis Museum, an important one is the National Archaeological Museum which has one of the world’s best collections of Greek antiquities, dating from as far back as the Neolithic Age to the Classical periods. The artifacts include sculptures, pottery, frescoes, and jewellery. There are over 10,000 items housed in the building.
The other museum is the Benaki Museum, which has a collection of Greek works of art dating back to prehistoric times to the modern era. It has an amazing number of items – over 40,000 including some satellite branch museums. It is Greece’s best private museum and the collection belonged to Antonis Benakis, who collected everything over a 35-year period emanating from both Europe and Asia.
Actually, I should throw in one more museum. If you have young children in tow, why not visit the Hellenic Children’s Museum. It is a paradise for kids as it was created totally with the idea of amusing children of roughly between the ages of 4 to 12 years of age. I quote the museum, “The Children’s Museum’s central philosophy is based on the belief that real objects, actual experiences and recreation support and reinforce the learning procedure.” There is a gallery of children’s paintings, old toys, a playground, and many interactive displays.
Not Far From Athens
It may surprise you that the suburbs of Athens offer excellent beach resorts, so if your feet tell you it is time for a break from all this wonderful sightseeing, on your Greece vacation, head to either Glyfada or Vouliagmeni which are both about half an hour by local bus or taxi from the centre of Athens. Glyfada is home to many of Greece’s richest population including celebrities. It is also known for its upscale cafes, restaurants, boutiques, and clubs and has been called the “Beverly Hills of Greece.” Then there is the sandy beach at your disposal. Vouliagmeni’s beaches have received awards for their excellence. This is a place with palm trees, floral gardens and fountains, some of the best beaches, as well as cafes and restaurants.
Close to Athens is the important port of Piraeus from which cruise ships depart for the numerous Greek Islands. However, it is more than just a port. It is a suburb with a vibrant nightlife and numerous bars and nightclubs. It is also well-known for its tavernas and restaurants which are renowned for their seafood cuisine. A different experience is to dine at one of the very good outdoor seafood restaurants lined along the seafront. They provide wonderful views of the harbour while you watch the boats bobbing up and down in the water. It is quite a sight to watch the waiters who dash over a busy road to bring the food from the kitchen to the tables set out along the waterfront.
My final offering outside of Athens is a trip to Cape Sounion. On your Greece vacation you really should take the time to travel here if only for the sunset. It is a promontory located 70 kilometres/45 miles outside Athens at the southernmost tip of the Attica Peninsula. There are regular daily tours operating both during the daytime and in the late afternoon. Cape Sounion is noted as the site of the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon – the God of the Sea. The spectacle of seeing the sun set over the temple and the sea is quite stunning.
Offering ancient, contemporary, and cultural sites, Athens is a must-see for a varied and enjoyable Greece vacation.