Athens the capital city of Greece is one of the great cities of the world, it is known as the cradle of western civilization, the birthplace of democracy and no city on earth can match Athens when it comes to history and archaeological sites. The Greek capital has a population of over 4 million people, which is over a third of the population of Greece and the third largest city in the EU.
Amazingly Athens has never been as popular for tourists as cities such as Rome and Paris and yet has so much to see and do. It is often that Athens is used as a stop off point before visiting the many Greek islands, a quick visit to the Acropolis and jump on a boat to Santorini. The city has a history stretching back 4000 years and is named after the ancient Greek Goddess of wisdom 'Athena', the most important event in the city in recent years was the 2004 Olympic Games when much of the centre of the city and transport system were all improved or modernised.
Athens has so much to do you could quite easily spend a week visiting the many attractions which is a lot more than just the Acropolis which is most people's idea of Athens. The city has a very good and cheap transport system, the modern metro system goes all the way to the airport and connects all the major sites in Athens, although most are in the centre and can be walked easily enough. Athens also has a huge coastline and beaches within the city and just outside, they can all be reached easily with trams and buses, the closest beaches (Glyfada) are within 20 minutes of the city centre which is good as temperatures in the summer can reach 40 degrees.
Most of the attractions in Athens are all in the centre and are mostly in walking distance as are all the hotels in the area as well. From Athens, whether it be by plane, bus or boat you can travel anywhere in Greece, usually at a reasonable price, and is the perfect place to start any travelling in Greece.
Athens has something for everyone from scuba diving to visiting museums, the city has been over looked as a major holiday destination with people preferring to visit the Greek islands instead and Athens as a quick stop over, but all this is changing.
When it comes to ancient sites, monuments and history in general no city in the world can compete with Athens, even Rome comes a close second to the Greek capital. All the archaeological sites are near or around the Acropolis, which also happens to be where most of the hotels are also. The most famous and a must for any visitor to Athens is of course the Acropolis which contains such famous monuments as the Parthenon, Temple of Nike and Erectheum.
Other archaeological sites near the Acropolis include theAncient Agora which was the hub of ancient Athens and now is a very large peaceful green archaeological site in the centre of the city. Further down from the Agora in Thisseo is the Kerameikos which is an archaeological site of ancient Athens' cemetery. Just up from the Ancient Agora is Hadrian's library which begins just outside Monastiraki metro station. This once huge complex carries on up into Plaka where there is the The Roman Agora and Tower of the winds which was built by the Romans to replace the Greek ancient Agora, the mysterious Tower of the winds is in the Agora and still baffles historians as to its purpose.
On the opposite slope of the Acropolis are the Theatre of Dionysus which was the birthplace of drama and the huge Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus built in honour of his dead wife. Just in front of the Acropolis is Areopagus Hill, just a marble outcrop but has so much history attached to it including a Sermon by St Paul. Further down from the Acropolis is Pynx hill where the ancient Ecclesia was, the government of ancient Athens met here to discuss and vote about the running of the city, such famous people as Pericles, Alcibiades and Demosthenes once spoke here.
On the far side of the Acropolis are Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus, the temple at the time was the largest in Greece and took over 600 years to complete, Hadrian's Arch was dedicated to the Roman Emperor Hadrian who spent a fortune on buildings in the city including the Temple of Zeus. Not far from the Temple of Zeus is the ancient Kalimarmaro stadium which was rebuilt in the 19th century to be used in the first modern Olympics in 1895, it is an exact replica of the original from the Roman period.
Athens isn't just a city of archaeological it has many other things to do and see and all in easy walking distance. In the centre of the city is Syntagma Square, which is the most famous square in Greece, its name literally means constitution square and is opposite the Vouli building where the Greek government is, the building was originally the palace of King Otto. Tourist flock outside the Vouli at certain times of the day to watch the changing of the Evzones who guard the Vouli, these soldiers are handpicked and dressed in traditional uniforms.
Syntagma square is a good place to get to know as it is the focus of the city, it is the centre of all the transport systems of Athens, the metro station is the largest and is where all the lines cross. Most of the major streets in the city centre go to or through Syntagma.
Lykavittos hill is the highest point in Athens, and it is famous for the amazing views over the Greek capital. You can see the Acropolis clearly; the Temple of Zeus, Kalimarmaro stadium and you can even see the sea at the Port of Piraeus. To get to the top of Lykavittos hill you can either drive, walk or take the Funicular. As well as amazing views of Athens, Lykavittos hill has a cafe/restaurant and a small church.
The Plaka district of Athens sits on the slopes of the Acropolis and is easily the prettiest and most popular area of Athens with tourists, it is known as a village in the middle of a city. Most of Plaka is pedestranized and has small narrow streets, it is more like walking around a town on one of the Greek islands than in the centre of the huge city of Athens.
Plaka is full of restaurants, tourist shops, cafes and is very busy especially in the summer but is still popular with the local Athenians at the weekends, Anyone visiting Athens has to visit Plaka as it is the beating heart of the city, Plaka was the original town of Athens long before the modern concrete city was built around it.
Monastiraki is one of Athens' busiest areas, it was once the commercial centre of Athens but now a days it is more famous for its huge bazaar like Flea market and ancient sites like the Ancient Agora and Hadrians Arch. Parts of Monastiraki are very pretty like Plaka (which it joins), but most of it geared for shopping where you can buy pretty much anything and is used regularly by the locals of Athens.
The area takes the name Monastiraki from the small sunken Byzantine church in the centre of Monastiraki square which is just outside the metro station. Monastiraki is touristy and has plenty of bars, restaurants and cafes to cater the many visitors but is still popular with every day Greeks.
Thisseo is an area next Monastiraki and Plaka and is named after a temple dedicated to the Greek hero Theseus in the far corner of the Ancient Agora (where the district begins). Thisseo has wide paved streets mostly pedesranized and has beautiful views of the Acropolis and the surrounding greenery of the archaeological site. There are plenty of bars and cafes in Thisseo along the districts main road leading to the Acropolis' entrance. The Kerameikos cemetery is one of the areas main sites along with the Pynx Hill.
Just up from Thisseo, opposite the Acropolis, is Philopappou hill which is all park land of olive and cypress trees, it is higher than the Acropolis rock and so has great views of the Parthenon.
The Central market is on Athinas street between Monastiraki and Omonia square and is a huge indoor meat and fish market where many Athenians by their weekly meat and fish. Although it isn't on your normal tourist itinerary, the market is interesting especially if you have any love for food or like to immerse yourself into other cultures.
As you can imagine a city like Athens has lots of museums, some of these are the most important in the world having unique collections, the two most famous museums in Athens are the National Archaeological museum and the Acropolis museum.
National Archaeological Museum is in the area of Exarcheia and the entrance is on Patission Street, it has artefacts from all around Greece - Mycenae, Delphi, Akrotiri, Knossos etc.
It is made up of 5 collections which are the Collection of Prehistoric Antiquities - which is artefacts from the Aegean civilizations of Cyclades, Mycenae and the Minoans; The Sculptures Collection - which is sculptures from ancient Greece; The Vase and Minor Objects Collection - pottery from the ancient Greek to Roman period; Stathatos Collection - things from various periods throughout Greek history; The Bronze Collection - a collection of small bronze figurines; Egyptian and Near Eastern Antiquities Collection - is the only collection of this type in Greece and has items from 5000 BC up until the Roman period.
The Acropolis museum was opened in 2007 to display finds from the Acropolis and her slopes, this ultra modern museum was built specifically for this task and the designers took everything into consideration when building even how natural light would fall on the artefacts as it is mainly glass. The Museum is on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street which is just below the Acropolis (which is in full view from the museum) and only 300 metres from the Acropolis metro station. The Acropolis museum holds some of the amazing sculptures from the Acropolis and has confirmed Greece's right for the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum.
The National Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis Museum are the two most famous museums in Athens, but there are lots of other smaller less know museums. The Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora displays finds from the Agora. The War museum near Lykavittos hill show artefacts to do with warfare from ancient times to modern, the Benaki museum, the museum of Cycladic art and many more are all worth a visit
The transport system in Athens is excellent and is on par with any in Europe, a large part to the modernization for the 2004 Olympic Games.
The metro system in Athens has 3 lines that services the whole city and its suburbs, line 3 goes to the airport and passes all the major stations such as Syntagma and Monastiraki and finishes at the Agia Marina station which is between the two areas of Egaleo and Haidari. For tourists the most important and useful stations will be the airport, Syntagma, Monastiraki and Acropolis station.
Not only is the metro cheap it also has free museums at most stations showing artefacts found during the building of the metro lines. The best stations for museums are Syntagma, Acropolis and Monastiraki. Even smaller stations in the suburbs have interesting sites, Egaleo in West Athens have a part of the sacred way dug up above the entrance of the station and is on show to anyone walking past.
Buses in Athens are usually very reliable and busy they service the whole city and airport and are the main way around Athens for the locals, and very useful for tourists, especially if they are heading away from the main metro routes like the beach suburbs to the south of the city.
The Tram system in Athens is based around the centre of the city in Syntagma and the routes take you south to the suburbs on the coast like Glyfada and Voulgameni. If your planning on visiting the beaches in Athens then use the Trams.
The beaches and coast in Athens are often overlooked by visitors, maybe many don't even realise that Athens has beaches. The main beach suburb of Athens is Glyfada which is near the old Eleniko Airport (now closed). Glyfada has hundreds of hotels and lots of excellent organised and public beaches with beach bars, water sports and everything you would expect for a beach holiday. The area is popular with Greeks and foreign visitors and has done for a very long time.
Further down the coast are Voula and Voulgameni which are similar to Glyfada just quieter, Voulgameni also has a huge lake which is popular with swimmers. Just after Voulgameni there are a number of rocky coves just off the main road which are excellent for swimming and are often used for scuba diving.
You don't have to go to the islands to Scuba dive in Greece, the city of Athens has plenty of clubs and places to dive. South from Athens towards the ancient temple of Sounio along Posseidon avenue you will find lots of rocky coves and beaches that are perfect for scuba diving, usually clear, safe and deep. You can find dive shops and clubs all along the south coast of Athens.
Like any capital city, Athens is great for shopping, places like Plaka have hundreds of tourist shops selling museum copies, t-shirts, keyrings etc. The main areas for shopping are all around the 3 main squares Omonia, Syntagma and Monastiraki square. You will find all the famous known shops and boutiques but also particular Greek ones less known to non-Greeks. All the major shops are along the main streets but you will find lots of arcades that via off these main streets with all kinds of different shops from 1 euro lands to high end Jewellery shops.
The most famous street for shopping is Ermou street which the Athens' equivalent of Oxford street in London. The street starts in Monastiraki and Plaka and goes all the way up to Syntagma Square, this is where you will find most of the top shops. If you want a bit more up market then shop in Kolanaki which is close to Lykavittos hill, this is an affluent area of the city have lots of chic boutiques etc.
Athens is an amazing city with more history than any other city in the world. All of Athens' main sites and attractions are all in walking distance or a quick bus or metro ride from the centre.
Tips: Athens is probably Europes hottest city and during the high summer temperatures reach up to 40 degrees, so it is best to visit the city in early or late summer.