Athens is a great city to visit and revisit again because it has it all: modern hotels, incredible food, iconic historical landmarks – and you get new sites discovered or reopened occasionally because Athens is just so full of historical gems!
For instance, since my last visit in 2007, the large new Acropolis museum and a few architectural landmarks of mind-blowing importance have been opened to the public. In this blog, I’m talking about must-see heritage from Ancient Greece and Roman Empire times, and stay tuned to the Athens guide later on!
Tip: if you’re planning to visit a few sites from my list, I’d suggest you buy the combo ticket to skip the lines and also to get cheaper access to the landmarks: we bought our ticket at the ticket box, and it included the entrance to Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Lykeion, Olympieion, Hadrian’s Library, and Kerameikos Ancient Cemetery (we visited all the sites apart from the last one).
On the top of the Acropolis, the highest point of Athens 156m up, there are a couple of treasured landmarks of all of Greece. There were some fortifications dating to the 13th century BC; however, under the rule of Pericles in the 5th century BC, after the victorious war with the Persians, this space acquired its most significant landmarks: the Parthenon, the Erechtheion dedicated to Athena and Poseidon with famous Caryatid Porch, the Propylaea (the entrance part designed by Mnesicles) and the small temple dedicated to Athena and Nike by Callicrates.
You can see surviving magnificent decorative works from the Acropolis landmarks in the New Acropolis museum, opened in 2009 (when I visited Acropolis for the first time, the only museum there was a small one near the Parthenon), as well as in the museums around the world such as in the British Museum, Louvre, Caire Museum etc. Let’s talk about the Parthenon in detail.
Important: obviously, Acropolis is a hill, so dress appropriately when visiting it: comfy shoes, a head cover and probably some water if you’re visiting in hot weather, etc. There is not a long distance going up from the main entrance; however, the steps may be slippery, and many stones are loose.
Also, suppose you’re travelling with a stroller. In that case, you can enter only from the main entrance near the Areopagus (we were redirected from the side entrance, for instance). You have to leave the stroller in the cloakroom (you can ask for a baby carrier if you need). As far as I understood, there is a lift on the side of the Acropolis, but it’s reserved solely for wheelchairs.
The Parthenon is a temple built by Ictinus and dedicated to Athena, the city’s protector. It is located on the site of the older temple of Athena. It used to be all painted in bright colours and had the 13-metre-high statue of Athena in gold and ivory, a masterpiece of Phidias now lost.It served as a church and as a mosque later on. For centuries, it’s been viewed as one of the most iconic symbols of Ancient Greek heritage and of all Western civilization.
Tragically, it was blown up in 1687: Ottomans conquered Athens at that point and ‘wisely’ decided to store their munitions inside (although they already had seen what it could result in after the Propylaea destruction, which had also been used as a powder magazine). Venetians, who sieged Athens, fired weapons on the city in the hope of freeing it from Turks, and one of the bombs ended up on Parthenon on 26 September 1687. It led to the massive explosion and the destruction of the site.
Now, the columns are still seen from far away everywhere around Athens, although they are partly covered in scaffolding, and it’s an absolute must-visit landmark of the city.
3. Theatre of Dionysus
The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus (the Liberator), which was in its full glory in the century BC, is another theatre you must visit: it’s located at the foot of the Acropolis. It is rightfully called the birthplace of Greek tragedy: this was the first stone theatre ever built and accommodated thousands of visitors of the Dionysia, the famous annual crazy festival dedicated to Dionysus.
Tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and later on, comedies of Aristophanes were all performed here. The theatre was in use during the Roman era; however, it later fell into decline. It was discovered in 1765 and restored in the 19th century.
4. Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is located on the slopes of the Acropolis, and you can easily observe it from above on your way to the Parthenon. This magnificent theatre was completed in 161 AD: Herodes Atticus, a prominent figure in politics and philosophy of that time, dedicated it to his late wife, Annia Regilla.
It was destroyed by the Heruli German tribe in 267; however, luckily for us, it was magnificently renovated in 1950 and still holds musical festivals.
The Areopagus, meaning the Hill of Ares, is the large rock formation near the top of the Acropolis – however, we usually mean under the ‘Areopagus’ the aristocratic council, one of the most important governing structures of Athens of the classical period, and the hill was their meeting place. Homicide and religious trials were the most important ones to be discussed on this spot.
Now, it’s a perfect spot for enjoying the sunsets over the panorama of Agora below and to have a break before coming up to the Acropolis.
St. Paul also made his sermon to Athenians from Areopagus.
The Lykeion, or Lyceum, initially was a sanctuary of Lycean Apollo (if you see a relaxed Apollo with his hand touching his hair, that’s him!) and later became a gymnasium. However, for us, the main importance of this place is that many Greek philosophers attended it for teachings and discussions!
No one could escape knowing those names: Prodicus, Protagoras, Isocrates, Plato, Socrates, and of course, Aristotle and his – as we know it now – Peripatetic school of philosophy (from peripatus, or stroll, because Aristotle and his students had a habit of walking while talking).
Although I can’t say that this is the most impressive archaeological site I’ve visited, its influence on the whole of humanity is unmeasurable. If you have time, I’d suggest coming here to pay homage to it. The Lyceum was destroyed in 86 BC, and this site was rediscovered only in 1996 and opened to the public in 2014. The War Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art and the Byzantine and Christian Museum are also located very close to this site.
7. Ancient Agora
The Ancient Agora of Athens, just at the foot of the Acropolis, is an absolute must-see when in Athens! It’s the best example of what a Greek agora in Ancient Greece looked like – the main public space, the centre of social life, and the marketplace of every Greek polis since the 13th century BC. The Agora also was viewed as a sacred space.
When visiting the Ancient Agora of Athens, don’t hesitate to visit the Stoa of Attalos, a large covered walkway commissioned by Attalus II Philadelphus (220–138 BC). The building looks fantastic after being renovated in the 1950s and is home to the small but very interesting Museum of the Ancient Agora.
You’ll see the remains of the round-shaped Tholos where the official weights and measures were kept, bouleuterion, or the council house and many temples dedicated to the main gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon (including the Temple of Hephaestus – see below).
The Holy Church of the Holy Apostles of Solakis, dating to the 10th century, is another site you should not miss.
8. Temple of Hephaestus
The Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora is probably the best preserved (and beautifully restored – the roof was readjusted only in 1978) and the most impressive temple you can see in Athens! It dates to the 5th century BC. Climb a small hill to observe this gem from all sides, walk along the Doric peristyle and have a glimpse inside.
On the friezes, there are depictions of Hercules and Theseus. Because of that, it was believed previously that the temple was dedicated to those mythological heroes, not to the god of fire and craftsmanship.
From the 7th to the 19th century, it was used as the Greek Orthodox church of Agios Georgios of Saint George.
9. Temple of Olympian Zeus
As its name suggests, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, or Olympieion, was dedicated to the main Olympian God. It is a colossal temple with incredibly large columns whose construction took many years, from 174 BC to 131 AD, with Roman Emperor Hadrian completing it and adding some extra facilities such as Roman baths (of course, his back thought was to link his name with this divine architecture site).
Upon completion, the incredible temple with 104 columns appeared to be one of the largest temples in the world! Sadly, the temple was destroyed by the Heruli tribe during their attack on Athens, then by earthquake and by Ottomans, with the marble being used for other building projects.
Now you can visit the site with some columns standing high and others lying on the ground and feel how grande Olympieion must’ve been back in time. The famous Panathenaic Stadium is located not very far away as well.
And moving into Roman relics…
10. Arch of Hadrian
The Arch of Hadrian, or the Hadrian’s Gate, is an impressive triumphal arch near the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It stands 18 metres high with two stories and holds a more symbolic meaning, praising Hadrian and his contribution to Athens.
11. Roman Agora of Athens
The Roman Agora of Athens, a large once collonaded space in the centre of Athens, is still not excavated fully; however, there are quite a few important huge sites to see! It dates to the 1st century BC and was probably commissioned by infamous Roman Emperors Julius Caesar and Augustus.
From the 3rd century on, it became the centre of commerce and social life. You’ll see the Gate of Athena Archegetis marking the entrance to the Agora, the remains of a colonnade and a large, impressive marble octagonal tower.
It’s the Tower of the Winds, or the Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes, with depictions of different Greek gods of winds on the top. It served as a clock tower and for weather observation.
Fethiye Mosque, located very close to the Agora, was closed during our visit.
12. Hadrian’s Library
The Library of Hadrian was built around 132-134 AD when Emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild Athens. Back in time, it was the largest and most impressive library, with papyrus scrolls, music, lecture rooms, and space for intellectual discussions. Official archives also were kept here. Later on, a few churches were built on the site as well.
Now you can spot numerous friendly cats residing there on the ruins – I bet they still carry some intense philosophical polemic!
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