About Athens, Greece
Athens has been the center of Greek civilization for some 4,000 years. The capital of modern Greece, it’s still dominated by 5th-century-B.C.E. landmarks, including the Acropolis, a hilltop citadel topped with ancient buildings such as the colonnaded Parthenon temple. But it’s also a contemporary city, and it’s not uncommon for the nightlife hubs of Kolonaki, Psiri and Gazi to stay busy until dawn.
Travellers have been visiting Athens since antiquity. When most of Europe or Asia was suffering, Athens often remained a prosperous city due to its location for trade. The city has gotten quite a facelift in the last decades by cleaning up the air pollution, modernizing the city's infrastructure and improving social amenities. This revamp was essential when Athens put in a successful bid to host the 2004 Olympic Games. If you go outside the tourist areas you’ll find that Athens today is a mix of modern and technology, and the old grim city hiding little gems tucked in amongst the urban decay.
The Acropolis - the eternal symbol of democracy, education and inspiration - dominates the Athenian sky. The areas at the foot of the Acropolis, Anafiotika, Plaka, Monastiraki and Thissio are home to many wonderful Neo classical buildings, ancient temples, little Greek Orthodox churches, plus many trendy and traditional cafes and shops.
Although the city is not directly on the beach, there are plenty of beaches nearby along the Athenian Coast. To get there, go by car or ideally take the Tram line from dowtown Syntagma. Some beaches are free while others are organized with an entrance fee. The organized beaches offer aquatic sports and rentals.
The most popular and crowded beaches are in the southern suburbs of Athens. There are beaches in the towns of Glyfada, Alimos, Phaliron, Kavouri , Voula, Vari, Varkiza and Vouliagmeni.
A bit further away but worth the trip, the northeast of the city near is home to a few quiet beaches in the Marathon district like the Schinias beaches.
Climate Athens has a subtropical Mediterranean climate and very little rain. Summers are dry and hot, where as winters are mild. Rain usually occurs between the months of October and April. Snowfall is very rare but can happen during the winter. July and August are the driest months. Heat waves are common during these months too. Athens holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe, at 48 °C on 10 July 1977.
Athens can be hit by smog and air pollution because the city is enclosed by mountains in a basin which does not let the smog lift. Measures have been taken since the 1990s to the air quality.
Athens is situated on a broad peninsula that bathes in the waters of the Agean Sea and the Saronic Gulf, and is surrounded on land by the following mountains. Mount Aegaleo to the west, Mount Parnitha to the north, Mount Penteli to the northeast and Mount Hymettus to the east. The city is in a basin that includes twelve hills.
Athens is the capital and largest city of Greece. The entire urban zone has about 4,000,000 inhabitants but the municipality of Athens has a population of around 700,000. The municipality is divided into seven municipal districts.
History Athens is one of the oldest named cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years. By 1400 BC the settlement had become an important center of the Mycenaean civilization. Artefact finds confirm that around 900 BC onwards Athens was one of the leading centers of trade and prosperity in the region.
By the 6th century BC, social unrest had become widespread, and the Areopagus appointed Draco to draft a strict new law code. When this failed, they appointed Solon, with a mandate to create a new constitution in 594. This was the great beginning of a new social revolution, which was the result of the democracy under Clisthenes in 508 BC. The decades that followed became known as the Golden Age of Athenian democracy, during which time Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece, with its cultural achievements laying the foundations of Western civilization. Playwrights, historians, physicians and philosophers all lived and worked in Athens during this time. The monuments on the Acropolis were constructed.
The Greek peninsula came under Roman rule in 146 BC but Athens operated as a free city. Greece came under the influence of Early Christianity and Athens was prosperous during the Crusades. During the early Middle Ages the city experienced a decline but then recovered under the later Byzantine Empire. In 1458 Athens was conquered by the Ottoman Empire and entered a long period of decline. The Greek revolution began in 1821 and lasted until 1833 when the Ottomans finally withdrew. Greece won its independence and Athens was chosen as the capital in 1834. Once the capital was established, a modern city plan was laid out and public buildings were erected. In 1896 Athens hosted the first modern Olympic Games. Athens was occupied by the Germans during World War II and experienced terrible privations during the later years of the war.
By the early 1980s Athens had some of the worst traffic congestion and air pollution in the world at that time. A series of anti-pollution measures taken in the 1990s, combined with an improvement of the city's infrastructure won Athens right to host the 2004 Summer Olympics.
Nature The National Garden of Athens is a beautiful park in the centre of Athens with luxuriant vegetation, plenty of flowers, two duck ponds and a small zoo. The garden also encloses some ancient ruins, tambourines and Corinthian capitals of columns, and mosaics. It's located between the Parliament and Zappeion buildings.
The hills of Athens provide also green space. Lycabettus, Philopappos hill and the area around it including Pnyx and Ardettos hill more like small forests than typical urban parks.
The Attica Zoological Park is a 20-hectare private zoo located in the suburb of Spata. The zoo is home to about 2000 animals representing 400 species.
Explore the forest, gorges, springs, and caves of the Parnitha National Park on the well-marked paths. Hiking, climbing and mountain-biking are the most outdoor activities here.
In Glyfada, there is the Sea Turtle Rescue Society, Archelon, which provide free educational tours of the facilities and treatments for visitors.
Unique to Here Athens certainly likes to pay homage in style to their patron goddess Athena. After all, the city is named in her honour and three of the monuments on the Acropolis are dedicated to her: the Temple of Athena Nike, the Parthenon and the Erectheion.
The myth explaining how Athena became the patron is fascinating. Both Athena and Poseidon requested to be patrons of the city. A contest was organized where each deity had to offer one gift truly valuable for Athens. The preferred gift by the people would determine the new patron. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a spring sprang up; this gave them a means of trade and water but the water was salty and not very good for drinking. Athena created the first domesticated olive tree, for the olive tree brought wood, oil, and food, symbolizing peace and prosperity. The olive tree was accepted and the city was after Athena.
Elefthérios Venizélos International Airport Airport Tax : A departure tax of 12 Euro, per person, is to be paid when leaving the country Distance from Airport : 27 km Tourist Office : Tsoha 24, 11521 Athens Tel : +30 210 8707000 Tourist Season : April to June, and September to October Festivals & Events February Apokries, the Athens Carnival
April-May Athens Holy Week Kifissia Flower Show
May Art Athina Athens Book Festival Athens in Bloom
June Acropolis Rally European Music Day International Jazz & Blues Festival Rockwave Festival Synch Festival
June to September Epidaurus Festival Hellenic Festival offers a large range of performances Traditional Greek Dance Festival
November Athens Marathon
Transportation The new Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport is 27 km east of the city center, near the suburb of Spata. The airport has excellent public transit connections to the city. From the airport you can reach the city by metro, suburban train, bus and taxi.
The national rail service, TrainOSE, connects Athens to other cities in Greece, however the national rail system is slow and the network is limited. It is currently under major renovation. There are no longer any international trains to and from Greece. KTEL, the effective long-distance bus network of Greece, connects Athens to other cities in Greece and adjacent countries.
The port of Piraeus has been around since the 5th century BC and is still going strong. The commercial harbour is one of the most important in the Mediterranean. In the summer time many cruise ships dock here as well. But it is particularly well know as the departure points for a large number of ferry services to the Greek Islands and other destinations in the eastern Mediterranean, including ports in Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and Cyprus. The ports of Lavrion and Rafina, both in Attica, are increasingly being exploited for ferry services as well.
Public transport in Athens has improved greatly in the last ten years. A ticket lets you travel on any means of transport: metro, suburban trains, trams, trolleybuses and buses. Transfers are good for 90 minutes. There are daily and weekly passes. The brand new Athens Metro, since 2001, is very modern. You must validate your ticket at the validation machines upon entering the station. The Suburban Railway, the Proastiakos, is new as well and it connects Athens to some to some western suburbs and the airport to the east. The new Athens Tram connects the city centre with the southern suburbs and has connections with the metro lines. Athens is served by a network of buses and trolleys.
Yellow taxis are all over Athens and are a reasonably priced. In daytime and inside the city limits make sure the meter has the 1 lit, not 2 which is night and out of the city fares. Taxi fare fraud is not as widespread as it used to be but if you have a problem threaten to call the tourist police, he will probably cave in.
Athens is not a bicycle friendly city, with few bicycle lanes and aggressive car drivers. But small rides are safe in the network of pedestrian streets around the Historical Centre of the city. Several major streets have been recently pedestrianized and there is an archaeological walk that passes in front of several famous sites. Be very careful when you walk on regular streets with cars and at street crossings. Again, drivers can be unpredictable.
Activities & Sports
Athens has a long tradition in sports and sporting events, being home of the most important clubs in Greek sports and having a large number of sports facilities. The city has also served as a host of several sports events of international notability. Athens has hosted the Summer Olympic Games twice, in 1896 and 2004. Marathon enthusiasts should not miss the Athens Classic Marathon which takes place on the first Sunday in November.
Athens offers activities that all cities have such as tennis, jogging, gyms, bike rentals and etc. Hikers can find wonderful trails at Mt. Parnitha, Mt. Ymittos and Mt. Penteli. The only nearby golf course is the Glyfada Golf Course, located in the seaside suburb of Glyfada. The course is an 18 hole, Par 72 course and was designed by Donald Harradine.
The nearby coasts have a number of beaches most of which offer rentals for many aquatic sports. If you just want to take a refreshing dip, you may prefer to go to one of the public pools.
From December to April you can even go ski the slopes of Mount Parnassus at one of the two ski centers: Kellaria and Fterolakka.
Archaeology The Unification of Archaeological Sites is a plan to create a large open museum which connects the classical ruins and monuments to each other through a network of pleasant pedestrianized streets.
The Acropolis is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. It was the ancient fortified town of Athens, dating back to the Late Bronze Age. Here you will find the majority of the buildings dating back to the Greek Classical age. These include the Parthenon, the Erectheion, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Roman Agora and the Propylea. Nearby you can also visit:
- Theatre of Dionysus is one of the oldest open-air theater in the city. The theatre was dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and the patron of drama, and it hosted theatrical performances during the City Dionysia festival.
- The Ancient Agora is a green space, home of the Temple of Hephaestus (the best preserved ancient Greek temple), the Attalos Stoa and the museum of the agora.
- The Kerameikos was the site of the ancient cemetery of Athens. Today is also home to a museum showcasing many of the grave stele and other archaeological items found on the grounds, as well as the Dipylon Gate.
- The ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus with its fallen column.
Attractions & Sights Athens is truly one of the most significant cities in the world to influence western civilizations. It is brimming with old ruins and antiquity. But there is more to see of course, the city is full of museums and places of interest to be discovered. Below is a list of the biggest attractions by district.
- The Acropolis is home to the monuments of Greek Antiquity, most of which are dedicated to the city's goddess Athena. Please see the Archaeology section of the guide for a list of the sites that can be visited. Not to be missed is the New Acropolis Museum.
- The Plaka, Monastiraki and Thissio districts are the most frequented by tourists. It is the historic center of the city at the foot of the Acropolis. Stroll around on the pedestrian streets and admire the 19th century homes and the occasional ruins amidst the many shops and restaurants. The Benaki Museum has an excellent collection of Islamic art. The Kanellopoulos Museum is a small but excellent museum displaying artefacts from Mycenean times. The Museum of Greek Popular Musical Instruments has exhibits on traditional Greek musical instruments. The Museum of Greek Folk Art is houses artefacts, tools, primitive painting, folk pottery, interior décor, costumes and embroideries.
- The Kolonaki district is an upscale residential area with many cafes, boutiques and galleries. The Museum of Cycladic Art has the world’s best collection of Cycladic art and holds the second largest collection of Cypriot antiquities in the world outside Cyprus, like figurines, idols, pottery and beautiful Ancient Greek artefacts. The Greek National Gallery exhibits Greek art from the 18th to 20th Centuries as well as some El Greco and Post-Byzantine art.
- Omonia is the oldest square in Athens and Exarheia is a bohemian neighbourhood filled with students, bars and clubs. It is also home to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens which has a vast collection including: treasures unearthed from Mycenae; numerous sculptures, some of which date back to 2,000 BC; frescoes from the volcanic island of Santorini; and so much more.
- Syntagma Square is the business district of Athens and is home to the Hellenic Parliament Building, guarded by the Evzones Unit dressed in their unique traditional uniform. The National Historical Museum contains a large collection of historic documents such as the first constitution of Greece, furniture and other items from the revolution. The Numismatic Museum displays thousands of ancient coins and ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval figurines.
Also worth exploring: the Panathinaiko Stadium housed the first modern day Olympic Games of 1896; and the City of Athens Technopolis, an industrial museum and multi-purpose cultural center; walk or take the funicular to the top of Lycabettus Hill which offers astonishing views of the city and the Parthenon; and the ancient port of Piraeus, now modernized, is the departure point for almost all ferry connections to the Greek Islands.
Nightlife Athens is home to 148 theatrical stages, including the famous ancient Herodes Atticus Theatre, home to the Athens Festival. The city also supports a vast number of music venues.
Traditional Greek evenings can be spent in Plaka but are mostly aimed at tourists. For a unique local experience, go to a Bouzoukia nightclub. These places feature laïkó music, the local urban folk music. These are more like shows with a stage and the customers sitting around closely spaced tables.
Athens is famous for its vibrant nightlife as the Athenians love to party. The choices are plenty and they appeal to all tastes and lifestyles: cafes, clubs, bars, lounges, discos, etc. Hip areas include Gazi, Psirri, Metaxourgio, Exarcheia, Monastiraki, Theseion and Kolonaki. The coastal suburbs have their fair share of large and luxurious waterfront clubs. Some right one the beach.
Side Trips If you can spare a 2 or 3 day side trip consider visiting the islands of Paros, Naxos, Ios and Santorini. But if you have only one day to spare, the following Greek Islands are close enough by ferry to make a day trip out of them. Flying is also an option to many of the islands. Here are a few:
- Hydra has a few rocky and pebbled beaches. See the Cathedral of Hydra and the maritime themed Hydra Museum.
- Aegina is a wonderful island for swimming, shopping, and recreation. There are a few Temple ruins, a monastery and many churches. For a great view follow the footpath up the Oros Mountain.
- Spetses has two museums: the civic Hadjiyannis Mexis Museum and the Bouboulina Museum more focused 17th century. Both museums are old mansions and there are quite a few more that can be admired, like the Mansion of Sotirios Anargyros. Other fascinating buildings are the former monastery of Aghios Nikolaos, Aghioi Pantes nunnery and the church Prophet Elia. Spetses has many beautiful beaches to choose from.
- Salamina is home to many lovely resorts located on gorgeous sandy beaches. It is the famous location of the victorious sea battle against the invading Persians in 480 BC. There are many little villages to visit and a few old religious building going back to the 10th century.
But don’t overlook day trips on the mainland. There are a few great places to visit nearby, such as: Corinth (the old one) with several the archaeological sites; the town of Olympia which is home to the original Olympic Games from 776 BC; Delphi, home of the sanctuary to Apollo and the great Delphic oracle, as well as Omphalos stone which marked supposedly the centre of the universe; the famous and ancient acropolis of Mycenae dating back to 2,000 BC; the 4th century BCF theatre at Epidaurus with astonishing acoustic properties; and Nafplion with its many neoclassical historical houses turned museum, squares and churches.
Athens offers a wide range of accommodation options, from 1 star to 5 star luxury hotels, pensions, apartment rentals, hostels and camping sites in Kifissia.
Most visitors prefer to stay near the attractions in the centre of the city. Favoured areas are near the Acropolis, in Plaka and Kolonaki, by Lycabettus hill and around Omonia square or Parliament square. Accommodations outside the historic center are more and more common.
Many low or mid range hotels were quite shady prior to the 2004 Olympics. This world event shook up the hotel industry. The majority of hotels got a major facelift and new hotels were built, even luxury boutique hotels.
Eating Out Greeks love to go out to restaurants so it a great chance to mingle with the locals. But don’t plan on rubbing shoulders if you go out early, Athenians head out around 9 or 10 pm for dinner. One will find fine restaurants, hip spots, family chain restaurants and fast-food joints. But for a very local experience seek out the traditional tavernas (some are old and some have a modern twist), mezodopoleia or ouzeries. These places specialize in small dishes, kind of like the Spanish tapas, called meze.
The Plaka and Kolonaki districts are mostly aimed at tourists and you can find the occasional hidden charming old taverna. If an employee is hounding you on the street to come in, it’s a tourist trap. For nice bistros, cafes and expensive restaurants check out the districts of Kifissia, Kefalari, Pangrati and Mets, and Psiri. Omonia Square and Syntagma Square are ideal for snacking or fast food only.
For a meal on the run, in other words Greek fast food, go for a souvlaki pita sandwich which consists of grilled pork or chicken, sliced tomatoes and onions, and tzatziki, a yogurt sauce with garlic and cucumbers.
Shopping The Plaka is lined with souvenir shops though there are a few higher-quality shops here and there. Nearby Monastiraki has the famous Flea Market, but it actually has two meanings. The second hand shops of Ifaistou Street like to think they part of the Flea Market. But the real Flea Market is held on Sunday mornings in Plateia Avissinia at the western end of Ifaistou Street. Both of these districts have their fair share of Street vendors hawking cheap knock-offs.
Kolonaki is an upscale neighbourhood with the shops to match. There are a lot of art galleries, hip clothing boutiques, and antique stores. The district of Kifissia is similar. A more affordable area for shopping is around Syntagma Square.
There are not many big malls in Athens. Noteworthy ones are the Mall at the Metro Station Neratziotissa, the Golden Hall in Maroussi and the Athens Heart in the suburb if Tavros.