Created | Updated Nov 2, 2013
Updated April 2006
The rock of the Acropolis stands in the middle of the plain of Attica, a flat area surrounded by a ring of high mountains. The Ancient Greeks built the city of Athens over 3,000 years ago on top of the rock and at its base. At the time, the plain was prime agricultural land. Today the new city of Athens entirely fills the plain, all the way to the mountains, and is the home to more than 4 million people. It is not only the capital but by far the biggest city in Greece.
Athens is a city of contrasts: a bustling modern city with the ruins of the ancient city poking though. Parts of it are like a village, and it has been called the 'biggest village in Greece'. It's generally a friendly place where you'll be made feel welcome. But if you are up against government employees, forget the 'friendly'. The Athenian bureaucracy has all the inflexibility of a third world country.
There is a general myth that Athens is highly polluted. Athens is a town that has suffered a lot from poor town planning and air pollution, but now the smog has been removed. The official measurements show Athens to be less polluted than many other European cities. Athens is not an industrial city - most of the people work in the commerce or service industries.
According to legend, the name Athens is derived from the ancient goddess Athena (the Romans knew her as Minerva). Athena fought Poseidon, God of the Sea, for the honour of being patron of the city by producing an article that would most benefit Athens. She produced an olive branch (symbolising peace and wealth) and Poseidon produced a horse (then a symbol of war). The gods decided that Athena, goddess of wisdom, was the winner.
Athens was founded over 3,000 years ago as a 'City State'. This was a self-governing city, supporting itself on the countryside around it. The rock of the Acropolis was initially a stronghold where the citizens could defend themselves from invaders, and later a sacred place, where temples to the Gods and Goddesses were built. The Goddess Athena was the particular favourite of the Athenians - they named their city after her. The city moved to the bottom of the hill, leaving the top for the temples.
The Athenians came up with the idea of democracy, where the citizens of the city decided its future by voting. Any citizen could speak at the parliament, although there was nothing to stop others from heckling him off the stage. Any citizen could be kicked out of the city, even the ruler, if enough people voted against him in a secret ballot. Athens also became a centre of learning, and philosophers took time off from the day to day toil to consider the concepts of good and evil, how the world worked and the meaning of beauty. Playwrights laid down the principles of modern theatre, while sculptors produced beautiful statues. Because of this enlightenment, Athens is considered to be the birthplace of the Western World. It wasn't quite as fair and above board as it sounds, however. Only men could be citizens, and slavery was common, so only a privileged few got to vote.
The Golden Age
By 500 BC, Athens had become the top city-state in the Greek-speaking world, with control over most of the Aegean Sea. This position was consolidated in 490-480 BC when the city successfully repelled a take-over by the Persian Empire, defeating the Persians in the battles of Marathon and Salamis. This was the Golden Age of Athens, when the Ancient City was at its biggest and most impressive.
The Port of Athens, Piraeus, was an essential part of the city's control on its empire. Piraeus is about 6 miles from the centre of the city and has three safe harbours. The Athenians built two long walls from the city of Athens to the Port of Athens. The land between these walls was protected, and there was thus always a safe route from the city to the port.
Athens went on to fight against the most important other city state, Sparta, in the Peloponnesian War, in 431 - 404 BC. Unfortunately, they lost this one, and the city went into decline. Athens fell under the rule of the Macedonians and then the Romans.
The future of the city again looked bright when Roman Emperor Hadrian decided he liked the city and rebuilt much of it. The walls were repaired and a new section added. This new-found prosperity didn't last long.
After Hadrian's death, the city reverted to its former status as a forgotten has-been. The city went into a steady decline as it became less and less important. Greece was conquered by a whole string of different peoples, the last being the Turks. By 1700 AD, all that was left of the city was the ruins of some old temples on the rock and a small Greek village clustered around the base of the rock.
The New City
In the 1820s Greece gained independence from Turkey and needed a new capital. For a few years, the sophisticated town of Nafplio served that role, but then it was decided that the honour should fall upon Athens, reflecting its important historical position as the birthplace of democracy. The city grew rapidly over the next 150 years, to its present size.
The biggest influx of people was in the 1920s when the new republic of Turkey decided to expel all residents who were not Muslim, whether they considered themselves to be Turkish or not. A million Greek-speaking Christians suddenly arrived in the port of Piraeus, swelling it from a small village to a giant slum. Gradually over the following 80 years, the slums have been replaced with good housing, and present-day Athens is a rich city.
Getting Around in Athens
Athens was famous in the past for having a dreadful airport - small, crowded and stuck on a narrow strip of land between mountains and sea. At the end of the 20th Century, the Athenians finally bit the bullet and built a completely new airport on the other side of the mountains, closing the old one. To confuse things, it's not usually referred to as Athens Airport; it is Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, named after the great Greek patriot. Opened in March, 2001, it is a good modern airport, capable of handling the huge amount of international traffic that passes through this hub of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Athens has a metro but there are only three lines. This is ideal if you happen to be staying near one of the three lines, but not much use for getting around the centre of the city. Most importantly, one of the metro lines goes all the way to the airport, so it is a good way of getting from the airport into Athens when you arrive. Another line goes from the centre to Piraeus, the port of Athens.
Tickets for the metro are cheap. Buy them in a ticket booth in the station. You have to validate your ticket just before getting on the train. There are rows of machines which stamp the date and time on your ticket. Occasional inspectors on the trains will fine you if you haven't got a correctly validated ticket.
The tram system was opened in 2004 to cope with the huge number of visitors for the 2004 Athens Olympics. As a result, the lines concentrate on the Olympic venues. The line to Piraeus, for example, stops at the SEF Stadium, rather than going the extra distance to the port itself. There are plans to extend the tramline all the way to the port by 2008.
The tram lines are laid out like a letter Y, with the left side of the Y running along the coast from Glyfadha in the south to Piraeus in the Northwest. The third line leaves the sea about half way between these two, and heads inland as far as the centre of Athens, at Syndaghma Square. There are three main routes:
- Syndaghma (Athens) to SEF Stadium (Piraeus)
- Syndaghma (Athens) to Glyfadha
- SEF Stadium (Piraeus) to Glyfadha
Although the routes have numbers, the official website, the printed routemaps and the actual practice on the street all seem to differ on what the numbers are, so you are better off just checking that the destination written on the front of the tram is where you want to go.
The trams are cheap - just over a euro for an adult and children are half price. When you are on a tram and want to get off, you have to press a button to request the tram to stop. Automatic announcements in Greek and English will warn you of your stop approaching.
Buses and Taxis
Greek taxis are numerous and cheap. Buses are also pretty common. You must buy your ticket before you get on the bus. These are available from a Periptero, the newsagent kiosk that can be seen on just about every Athenian street. Detailed timetables and route maps for buses from the airport are available at Athens Airport By Bus. There is also a lot of general information about buses at the Athens Info Guide.
Driving in the City
There is a very good new ring motorway around the city (the Attiki Odhos), so if you hire a car, you can drive around Athens and off to distant parts. But actually driving into Athens itself is a different matter and is not generally recommended. Greek drivers are aggressive.
The city is a combination of ancient, old and new. The ancient city is well represented by the rock of the Acropolis looking down on the city, with its temples on top and its theatres around the base. There are also other patches of ancient city scattered throughout the area around the base of the rock. The old city is the region of Plaka to the north of the rock. This is built on the Greek village that Athens had become by the time of independence, so it retains the narrow streets and the village feel. Here you will find the tavernas and the bazaars. The modern city surrounds all the older stuff and has its centre slightly further north at Syndaghma Square - there are modern boutiques, banks, coffee shops and so on.
The top 14 sights in Athens are covered in a separate Entry.
Visiting the Ancient City
The Acropolis is the giant rock at the centre of the city. On top of the rock, you'll find:
The Parthenon - Greece's most famous temple, dedicated to the Goddess Athena Parthenos. You can read more about the Parthenon at the Greek Temples entry.
The Erechtheion - a small irregular temple which has columns (pillars) carved into the shapes of women (Karyatides).
The Temple of Athena Nike - this tiny beautifully-proportioned temple has been covered up for restoration for many years.
The Acropolis Museum - a small museum featuring many of the archaeological finds made on the rock.
At the base of the rock you will find two ancient amphitheatres: the Odeon of Herodus Atticus and the Theatre of Dionysos.
This was the centre of the ancient city. The Agora was an open place where people could meet and talk, and where the markets took place. Looking down on the Agora from a small hill is the Temple of Hephaistos, considered the best preserved Greek Temple in the country. There are also the remains of many other buildings, and a reconstruction of one of them, the Stoa of Attalos. This long building with columns all down one side now houses a small museum.
Roman Agora and the Tower of the Winds
The Romans occupied Athens about 500 years after the heyday of the city. They built their Agora, which served a similar function to the Greek one, in a slightly different place. The most important feature of the Roman Agora is the Tower of the Winds. This octagonal building was an experimental weather station. It has sundials for telling the time, and originally featured a water clock and a weather vane. Each side represents one of the eight compass points, and the relief carvings on the side represent the wind from that direction.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus
In the flat area to the southeast of the Acropolis stands the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, one of the biggest Greek Temples ever built. You can learn more at the Greek Temples entry.
Near the Temple stands the Stadium. This was built in ancient times and then renovated for the first modern Olympics, which were in 1896. They were quite a small affair by modern standards, with everything fitting into one stadium.
The Pnyx and the Areopagus
The Pnyx is a hill to the southwest of the Acropolis. Set into the hill is a flat space with a rock ledge at one side. It's not very impressive, but much revered as the birthplace of Western democracy. This was where the citizens of Ancient Athens met to govern their city, and any free citizen could stand on the rock and air his views.
A different form of government met on the Areopagus (the hill of Mars) - the court which tried people for murder and other crimes. This red marble outcrop has a wonderful view out over the whole of the plain to the North. Now it is a great place to climb up and sit, particularly in Spring when the air is clear and the whole city is laid out below you.
Visiting the Greek Village
The area just to the north of the Acropolis is called Plaka. It has the winding streets of any Greek village and has many restaurants.
The Flea Market
Around Monastiraki Square is the Athens Flea Market where you can buy anything you want. This is a working market for the locals, not a tourist market, but it's well worth visiting as a tourist.
The Museum of Folk Instruments
For lovers of any sort of traditional music, this museum is a fascinating place, although it won't take more than about 30 minutes to see all the exhibits. There are headphones beside the display cabinets which play genuine scratchy recordings of folk musicians playing the instruments, some of them recorded back in the 1930s. Greek traditional music has much more to offer than just the bouzouki!
There are three floors: the basement features percussion instruments and instruments used in a religious context, including bells, drums and musical oars. The ground floor has wind instruments, including clarinets, flutes, bagpipes and shawms. The first floor has string instruments, including lutes, lyras, baglamas (a forerunner of the bouzouki) and mandolins.
The museum is situated at 1-3 Diogenous St, near the Roman Agora. There is a small shop selling CDs and books, a coffee shop and a performance area where concerts are occasionally held. The museum closes at 2pm on Sundays.
Visiting the Modern City
Syndaghma Square is the centre of modern city, a large open space surrounded by shops and offices. At one end of the square is the National Parliament building, formerly the palace of King Otto, the first king of Modern Greece. In front of this is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with a relief carving of a dying Ancient Greek warrior. This is guarded by two ceremonial evzones guards in full regalia, complete with skirts, tights and giant pompoms on their shoes.
Just to the right of the Parliament building are the National Gardens. Unlike parks in other parts of Europe, there are almost no open spaces at all - the entire park is laid out in cool walkways under the trees; shade from the sun is very important in Greece.
National Archaeological Museum
Although located in the New City, this is a must for those interested in Ancient Greece. Ancient artefacts from all over Greece are assembled here. Of particular note are the bronze statues of Poseidon and of the boy on a horse. Other things to see in the museum are the Minoan frescoes from Santorini, the golden 'Mask of Agamemnon' from Mycenae and the stylish Cycladic sculptures.
One particularly interesting object in the museum is the Antikythera Device, an ancient machine which was found in a sunken ship off the island of Antikythera. It dates from the 2nd Century BC and is a geared mechanism for predicting the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets. It also calculated the dates of the Olympic Games and other major festivals.
Also of note is the fact that the museum shuts early: at 3pm.
Things to Do
If you come to Athens, you'll want to see the ancient ruins and museums. But there are other things you can do in this bustling city.
The best place to eat out in Athens is the area around Plaka and in particular around Monastiraki square. Athenians like to eat late at night, so there is no problem finding food at 9 or 10pm. Totally vegetarian restaurants are few and far between, but most restaurants serve some vegetarian food. It's always possible to make up a decent vegetarian meal from a combination of dishes, much more so than in other European cuisines.
For details of Greek food, have a look at the entry on Eating Out in Greece.
Nightclubbing is very different from that on the islands and other towns because the clubs are spread all over the city. However, that's not the only reason. In about 60% of clubs you'll need to be escorted if you are a man and you must be presentable. Many clubs will not allow sports gear and trainers, for example. Clubbing is also fairly expensive. Find a Greek who seems young and they will tell you where all the action is.
If you want to have a dive into the big blue sea, the easiest way is to get the tram to Glyfadha. There are also many beaches near Athens for which you will need a car - you can also get to them by bus but it will take you much more time and effort. Saronikos, as the sea around Athens is called, is very clean and has very nice sea-life if you want to dive deeper and there are many places that rent SCUBA equipment. Around Athens, you'll mostly find tourist beaches; the real gems are more awkward to get to and cost you more in petrol, but they are well worth it.