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Athens, the birthplace of democracy – what you need to know to plan your visit

2400 years ago,  Athens set up the foundation for western civilization.

Cleistenes is considered the father of democracy, but it was a few decades later, during Pericle’s rule, when Athens shaped human history. It was a time that saw the birth of science, architecture, philosophy, literature and drama. The Parthenon, Athens Nike and the Erectheion temples were built on the heights of the Acropolis.

Aristotel, Platon, Socrate, Herodot and Fidias were the common figures to hold speeches in the Agoras of Athens. 

But the glory faded away fast, only lasting a rough 200 years.

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Temple of Athens Nike, on Acropolis

Attica was conquered by Romans, then by the Byzantine Empire, and finally under the Ottomans ruling, everything crumbled to dust, literally. Many temples and libraries were used as prisons or brothels (like the Erechteion on Acropolis), or simply destroyed and used for building defense walls. At the highest point of development, Athens had 200.000-300.000 inhabitants, but in 1832, after liberating from Ottomans, when Greece became an independent state, it was only left with around 4000 people.

The first king and queen of independent Greece, Otto and Amalia, set up a plan of rebuilding Athens, bringing German and Dutch architects to change the face of the city, setting up the first University and all the other major institutions. The historic vestiges started to be brought to life, under a massive program of restoration, that continues to the present day.

Who named the city?

It was Athens Pallas of course, the Goddess of Wisdom.

The ancient legend says that both Athens and Poseidon competed to become the patron God of the city. Poseidon, the God of the Ocean, offered to the people the water, but the ocean water was too salty. Athens offered the Olive Tree that would provide food, oil and wood. She was chosen and ever since has been watching over the Athenians.

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The Olive Tree of Goddess Athens, near Erectheion Temple

Your Plan to visit Athens

Athens is one of the easiest capital cities to visit, because all the major points of interest are concentrated around their most iconic landmark, the Acropolis.

You can think of the Acropolis as the center of a circle with the radius of 2.5 km. The area of this circle is your tourist playground. Here you will experience the best of Athens. So remember well these 4 names: Acropolis, Plaka, Monastiraki and Syntagma. They are the quintessence of Athens.

Acropolis

If you decide to explore Athens by foot (which I do advise you to do), Acropolis is the best place to start your visit. Not only because it is the most famous place, but since it’s located on what they call “a mountain”, it will be easier to walk down around it to visit the other places, rather than go up. If you visit Athens in summer time, start your tour first time in the morning, because it gets crowded and really hot up there.

Entrance ticket is 20EUR/person (reduced to 10EUR for students and 65+ years old). I advise you to get a guide for the Acropolis, because there’s such a rich and interesting history connected to this place, and it’s better to have someone explain it to you properly. The guides are easily to spot right at the entrance to the site, or just ask about them at the ticket kiosk. They were charging an extra 10EUR/person, on top of  what we paid for the ticket.

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The Acropolis, view from the Lycabetus Hill

The most important sites here are:

  • Dionysos’s Theatre – The birth place of European theater and the first stone theater ever built, to celebrate the festival of the God Dionysos (God of wine, parties and also of the Theater). The first show was staged in 534 BC and there were 17000 seats arranged on 64 floors. At present time, there are only 20 floors left.
  • The Odeon of Herodes Atticus – it was built between 160 AD and 174 AD by a wealthy Athenian, Herodes Atticus, in memory of his deceased wife. Badly damaged by wars over time, it was finally restaured 60 years ago, and ever since has been the stage of many Opera shows and Concerts of world famous artists. You have a very good perspective of the place from Acropolis, but you can only enter if you have a ticket to a show.
  • The Propylaya – the massive, huge, enormous, extra-large (you got my point:D ) entrance gate to the Acropolis
  • The Temple of Athens Nike – this is the smallest temple, located at the edge of a high cliff, dedicated to the Goddess Athens and symbolizing the Victory (Nike means Victory).
  • The Parthenon – is the most emblematic temple in the entire Greece, and is also dedicated to the Goddess Athens. It was built during the city’s highest development stage, from the orders of Pericles. Then for 250 years it was used as a Christian Church and then as a mosque until it was badly damaged during a Venetian invasion.
  • The Erectheion Temple – dedicated to both Athens and Poseidon, this temple is perhaps just as important for the Athenians as the Parthenon. The legend says that you can still see where Poseidon smashed a rock with his Trident, furious for losing the battle with Athens for the city. Here you will also see the Olive Tree of the Goddess of Athens, her gift for the Athenians. Don’t miss the famous portico of The Virgins (also called the Caryate), the 5 feminine statues, each carved in a different manner to the other. Initially there were 6 of them, but one was stolen by a British aristocrat and then sold to the British Museum.
  • Aeropagus Hill – is actually located outside the fence of Acropolis, so you don’t pay anything to see it. In fact, it’s just a big rock, but of great historical importance. Before the Constitution was born, Athens was handled by a Council of Elders, called Aeropagii, who were responsible with managing wars, religion and laws. But even more important is that you can take great pictures of Acropolis from this place:).
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Odeon of Herodes Atticus
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The Caryate Statues on Erectheion Temple and the Parthenon

Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis museum has a separate ticket, and is the newest and best rated museum in Athens, housing many of the artifacts found on the site.

Dionisos Aeropagitou Street

It’s one of the most calm and clean pedestrian streets that you’ll probably find in Athens, lined by beautiful buildings on one side and the Acropolis on the other side. You’ll walk on this street once you get out from Acropolis Metro Station, heading towards the Acropolis Museum or the Acropolis itself.

Plaka

I have to give credit to Plaka, as being the most beautiful area in Athens. The biggest street, Adrianou (named after Emperor Hadrian who also built Hadrian’s Library from The Roman Agora of Athens) splits this neighborhood in half. The half that extends uphill, towards Acropolis is the most picturesque, with taverns lined on stairs as you see in the famous postcards, between old but colored buildings. The lower half is lined with many souvenir boutiques, and more fancy and expensive restaurants.

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There are also a few places and monuments in Plaka, that hold a great importance for the city:

  • Anafiotika – this small neighborhood is known as the “island inside Athens” and it was a surprise to find such a place in the heart of Athens. Find out why in my other article:

The Story of Anafiotika, the hidden island of Athens.

  • The Cathedral of Athens – it’s a beautiful Church, among the first to be raised since Athens became capital of Greece.
  • The Small Cathedral – is a tiny and very old church (over 1000 years by some) located to the right of the Cathedral of Athens. A unique feature are the building stones on the exterior walls, carved with mythical scenes.
  • Choragic Monument of Lysicrates – built around 300 BC thanks to the artistic competitions that took place at Dionysos Theater. Back then, the artists were sponsored by someone wealthy, called a Chorego (nowadays known as a choreographer). When his team was winning a competition,  the chorego was receiving a trophy for them, and was proudly displaying it on top of these tall monuments. It’s probably the only one of this kind to have survived.
  • Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus – these two monuments are not in Plaka, but if you continue for only 50 meters from Lysicrates monument, on Lisikratous street, you have arrived. There is not too much left form the Temple of the mighty Zeus today, but it was probably the biggest temple in Ancient Greece. The columns are immense. If you have arrived near Hadrian’s Arch, it’s impossible to miss it.
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From top to bottom, the Cathedral of Athens and the Small Cathedral, Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus

Monastiraki

This is one of Athens’ main shopping districts and translates by “Little Monastery” and you’ll soon find out the origins of this name. There’s a flea market here, every Sunday since 1910, meaning that the neighborhood transforms into a fair where you’ll find anything under the sun…

But what can you actually visit here?

  • The Byzantine Church Panagia Pantanassa – This is one of the oldest churches of Athens. Today it’s positioned below the ground level due to the more recent formation of the market around it. In its original form, however, it dominated this central area of ​​the city. The foundation stone dates back to the 7th century AD, but has undergone many changes over time. It was known popularly as Mega Monastery (The Great Monastery) because of it’s importance, but later on, entering into decline it was “re branded” as Monastiraki (“The Little Monastery”). This name prevailed and it was also borrowed by the neighborhood around it.
  • Tzistarakis Mosque – this is one of the few mosques that have survived and today is housing The Greek Popular Art museum. They say the sultan used one of the columns from Hadrian’s Library to build it. You’ll find the library right next to it.
  • Antique Agora – was the largest Agora from Athens, and the most important monuments here are Atlo’s Stoa and Hephaistos Temple, one of the best preserved temples to date.
  • Roman Agora –  smaller in size than the Antique Agora, it houses the biggest library from Ancient AthensThe Library of Hadrian’s, build 150 years BC, as a part of his plan of modernizing the town.
  • Pitaki Street – only 5 years ago people avoided it with all costs. No public lights, and tons of garbage it’s what you would have expected to find. But locals’ efforts to make it walk-able paid off: they decorated it with colorful laps from all over Athens and soon after restaurants started to open the doors. However, in my opinion, there’s still a long way to make it beautiful and clean.
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From top left: Tzistarakis Mosque, Panagia Pantanassa, Wind Tower and Hadrian’s Library (Roman Agora) and Hephaistos Temple (Antique Agora)

Syntagma Square

This square is the most important in Athens, and probably in Greece as well, for the social, political and cultural life. Syntagma Square translates by Constitution Square. Built after the Independence war, over 150 years ago, it was first known as the Place Square, because today’s Parliament Building was the first Palace of free Greece. But a popular revolt determined the king to set up a new Constitution. Ever since, the place is called the Constitution Square.

But today, the moment that every tourist awaits is the changing guards – called Evzonez– in front of the Parliament. This “show” is probably only topped by the Changing Guards from Buckingham Palace in London. It happens every hour, but the most fastuous and long lasting one is on Sundays, at 11:00 AM.

Near the Square, you can hide from the heat under the shades of the National Gardens, a green oasis in the heart o Athens. It’s beautiful, but not spectacular in my opinion. If you cross it to the other side, you’ll arrive at Zappeion Building, today a conference and meetings hall, that housed the Olympic Village.

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Changing Guards in from of the Parliament
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The National Gardens

Panepistimiou Boulevard

This busy boulevard connects Syntagma Square with Omonia Square, the 1st and the 2nd squares that was built in Athens since becoming capital of free Greece. The boulevard is lined by important institutions and the buildings are beautiful and sumptuous. Among them it’s worth mentioning Iliou Melathorn – the Numismatic Museum, and what’s today considered The 3 Temples of Knowledge from Athens: The University, The Academy and the National Library. As for Omonia Square, it’s not that interesting and I wouldn’t say you have to visit it. We had some pretty bad experiences in Athens and it was related to Omonia. Here’s what happened and what you should prepare for:

Athens Survival Guide – How they steal from you

Panathinaikos Stadium

An entire stadium made out of marble, the only one of this kind in the world! I can only imagine how much it costed! but hey, it’s a famous place, because the Ceremony of passing the Olympic Flame to the next country takes place here.

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Mount Lycabetus

If you want to have the best view of Athens, from the highest point, you have to climb “Mount” Lycabetus. It’s not a proper mountain of course, but from the top of this rocky hill you can even spot the sea and the big cruise ships, and even other islands in clear sky days. There are stairs to get to the top, but keep in mind that the road will take you at least 20 minutes. From a certain point, there’s a funicular that costs “only” 7.5 EUR/person, so I hope you’re in a good shape:). 

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Transport from the Airport and around the city

The airport in Athens is located 35 km out of the city. To travel back and forth, you have the following options:

  • taxi: should be in the range of 35-50 EUR one way
  • metro: 10 EUR/person one way (*)
  • express bus: 6 EUR/person one way (*)
  • tourist ticket: 24 EUR/person, valid for 3 days, and has a round trip to airport.

* For certain categories of people (students, 65+ years old), you get half price from the cost. Check well the Athens Transport Site, it explains everything you need to know about the transport inside and around Athens.

Otherwise, the best option is the 9 EUR -for 5 days ticket, for all transport means.

For tourist attractions there’s a Tourist Ticket, costing 30 EUR and you have access to the Acropolis (alone this one costs 20 EUR) and all the other major sites. I think it’s a good deal.

Food and where to eat

Everybody knows that food is delicious in Greece. Don’t miss the Souvlaki, the Lamb Chops and Lamb Kleftiko. The vegetarian balls made from zucchini were so tasty in combination with the famous Tzatziki. Options to eat are everywhere in Plaka and Monastiraki area.

Huh, what a journey! Not only visiting Athens, but also writing this article:)). It’s probably the longest I have composed so far, but I hope you enjoyed it and found useful tips

Let me know about your experience in Athens and what “hidden” gems did we miss:)

Visited 27-31 August 2018

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5 thoughts on “Athens, the birthplace of democracy – what you need to know to plan your visit

  1. Super util articolul! Si noi ne dorim sa vizitam Atena, dar nu prea mai avem cand anul acesta. O punem pe lista pentru anul urmator! Sfaturile tale sunt atat de binevenite! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Multumesc :*. Ma bucur de inspiratie. Da, sunt multe de facut in Atena. Mereu am auzit ca nu ai ce face in 3 zile, dar noua 4 zile ne-au fost insuficiente. E drept, am avut si generatia 60+ dupa noi, si in una din zile am facut si o scurta excursie pe niste insule din apropiere. Dar mai ales daca iti plac si muzeele si vrei sa te bucuri de vacanta, de o masa tihnita la restaurant (ca au Grecii mancare delicioasa doar) 3 zile sunt limita. Te pup, abia astept sa vad si ce descoperiri Ateniene veti face voi. Aveti insa grija si la hotii de buzunare; mai ales in metrou 😦

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    1. 🙂 Yeees, another history lover here too. And one of the first extended books that I read as a child was about the Olympian Gods. So being here was in someway like a journey back to those days, making new connections about the things I knew and read back then and learning many new things about the events past those days. Athens, for me, had a bitter-sweet taste, because of those stealing experiences, but it’s an interesting and beautiful city, and I actually plan to go back…perhaps even for the New Year’s Eve:)))

      Liked by 1 person

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