This Mediterranean city has sat, in one form or another, along the Aegean Sea for much longer than recorded history. As cave paintings in the Cave of Schist has shown, Athens has been inhabited for somewhere between seven thousand and thirteen thousand years.
Named for Athena, the goddess of wisdom, residents of Athens used the wisdom gathered by many cultures surrounding them to create a city that was far more advanced than many other parts of Europe, and was a shining star of ancient Greece.
It was the center of the first known democracy and birthplace of both philosophy and the modern conception of science. Athens was also one of the first cities with public running water facilities, shopping plazas, and in many ways it is a template for city planning even today. It was the home of organized sport with large audiences, and the birthplace of the Olympic games.
As it is perched so near the Arabian Peninsula, the African coast, and the rest of mainland Europe, Athens is a meeting place for the best ideas from many different cultures. The advances from the Persians, the Celts, Vikings, Normans, and the Egyptians were all encompassed in Athenian technologies and cultural advances.
Today, Athens continues to be a vibrant city. The recent return of the Olympics to Athens gave the world a chance to rediscover a city that has learned how to celebrate both the ancient and the modern in one unforgettable location.
Part shopping market, part city hall and theater house, the function of the agora in ancient Greek life was that of an all-purpose gathering place. It was the lively, crowded focal point of administrative, commercial, political and social activity. Socrates expounded his philosophy at the Agora of Athens, and in AD 49 St Paul came to the Ancient Agora to win converts to Christianity.
Today, this agora, which dates back to the 7th century BC, is the best remaining example of this staple of Greek community. Remaining ruins include several stoa, or covered walkways lined with pillars, the mint that created Greek currency, the strategion, or meeting place, and the altar of the twelve gods.
Only one building at the Agora is still intact: The Temple of Hephaestus. Built in the 5th century BC, the temple was dedicated to Athena and Hephaestus, the god of metal work. Similar in style but smaller than the Parthenon, the temple consists of 34 Doric columns that support a still partially intact roof. A large frieze decorated with reliefs depicts the exploits of Theseus and Heracles. It is the best preserved temple in all of Greece thanks to its conversion into a church in the seventh century.
Few neighborhoods in Athens are able to compete with the splendor of Plaka. Nestled beneath the shadow of the Acropolis, quiet, narrow winding streets full of ancient homes both large and small beckon. Neoclassical mansions with red tiled roofs sit amongst lovely landscaping. Marble balconies full of potted flowers welcome spectators with their fragrant blooms.
Plaka, once a working class district, has become a haven for the arts. It has been the backdrop of many Greek movies, and in the sixties was the birthplace of Greek new wave music. Today, it is a visiting place for hundreds of thousands of tourists, and has a number of museums, shops, and cafes to discover. For families, the popular children’s museum is a fun and active attraction.
Ancient relics remain for viewing, like the monument to Lysicrates, the bath of the winds, and Hadrian’s library are wonderful places to visit. If you love museums, some of the highlights include the Jewish Museum of Greece, where you can see the traditional cultural items prized by the ancient Jewish Greek culture, including a number of returned Nazi spoils.
Adrianou Street is the oldest continually used street in Athens, and has the same layout as in ancient times. Kapodistrian University is located here, the first university in modern Greece. It was created in 1837, right after Greece declared its independence as a nation from the Ottoman Empire.
Directly above the streets of Plaka looms a hillside crowned in white marble. Day and night, the marble columns of the Acropolis majestically reign over the Athenian neighborhoods below. This hillside, one of the most spectacular examples of the ancient world, is full of the most famous ruins from Ancient Greece.
Acropolis, or the “high city” was inhabited beginning around 4000BC until the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed that it should be reserved for the Gods alone, in 510 BC. The Persians reduced the original buildings to rubble during the battle of Salamis. Under the rule of Pericles, the beautiful marble temples that we know today were built in their place.
Though no part of the Acropolis is unremarkable, the most famous is the Parthenon. It was built in honor of Athena, the goddess of wisdom for whom the city is named. Pericles commissioned this temple to have a double duty, as the home of a large statue of the goddess, and to serve as the treasury for the city. In a small chamber called a cella sat the statue of Athena considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Ottomans took the statue during their reign, and it has been missing ever since. Today, the Doric marble columns of this long building are the most iconic example of ancient Greece still in existence.
Propylaia, the entrance to the Acropolis is, along with the Parthenon, considered to be the most important example of architecture on the hill. The central hall had bifurcated wings, at the end of each sat a gate. The five total gates were the only ways in or out of the Arcopolis.
Another famous temple is the Erechtheion. This building is the last existing temple created at the Acropolis. It is also the most unique, with its six giant columns depicting maidens. The temple is dedicated on two levels to Athena and Poseidon, with the fissures in the floor believed to be the result of Zeus’ thunderbolt when Erechtheus was killed.