Athens’ most iconic historical site was built in the 5th century BC. The ‘Sacred Rock’ of the Athenians is known worldwide for its architectural masterpieces, including the Parthenon, a monument of startling simplicity and beauty.
The Acropolis has been inhabited since Neolithic times, while its peculiar geology makes it a natural fortress as the craggy plateau sits atop a sheer drop. At about 150 metres above sea level, it is half the height of Lycabettus but a much harder climb.
Interesting fact: Discovered by Greek archaeologists in 1821, the Klepsydra spring powered Andronicos’ water clock in the Tower of Winds. During the Greek war of independence, it provided refreshment for the Greek fighters under siege in 1827.
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The Ancient Agora & Stoa of Attalos
The political, commercial, social, religious, and cultural life of Ancient Athens unfolded in the Agora. The Agora was established under Solon in the sixth century BC and grew over a period of several centuries. The Stoa of Attalos—a covered promenade of shop stalls, a precursor to the modern-day mall—was built by the King of Pergamon in the second century. The site has been occupied since Neolithic times, with evidence of a settlement and cemetery dated to 3000 BC.The Agora was the bustling heart of ancient Athens. It housed shops, temples, the Tholos, where the senate held banquets and offered sacrifices, and the Boulefterion, where the 500-member city council sat. The must-see Hephaisteion is a Doric temple built in the fifth century BC and dedicated to the gods Hephaistos and Athena. Most Greeks refer to the Hephaisteion as the ‘Thisseion’ because of the scenes depicting the feats of Theseus on its frieze. During Ottoman rule, it was used as a cemetery for foreign travellers.
Did you know? The Altar of the Twelve Gods marked the heart of the ancient city and was the point from which all distances from Athens were measured.
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The Panathenaic Stadium (Kallimarmaro)
This stadium was the site of the first Olympic Games in 1896, and it’s no less impressive today. The arena was first laid in 330 BC by Lycurgus. Originally an ancient limestone stadium and racecourse, it was used to host some competitions of the Panathenaic Games. The site reached its glory around 140 AD, when Herodes Atticus had the entire stadium reseated in marble to host sports like gladiators clashes and the baiting of wild animals. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the stadium fell into disuse and much of its marble was looted. In 1895, a wealthy merchant funded its full restoration—hence its nickname Kallimarmaro, or ‘beautiful marble’. But the renovation was not completed until 1900, so many of the spectator stands were wooden benches painted white to resemble marble. The stadium hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Today, it’s the finishing line of the Athens Marathon. Watch for the diodos, the underground passage used by athletes in antiquity to enter the stadium.
Interesting fact: Entry in the first modern Olympics was open to all. Some of the roughly 300 participants were travellers who happened to be in Athens at the time.
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One of the best-known historical sites in Athens, the Parthenon is a site you can’t miss.
Dedicated to the city’s patron, the goddess Athena, the temple was completed in 438 BC, just in time for the Panathenaia—a festival held every four years on the Acropolis.The Parthenon was built to replace two earlier temples dedicated to Athena, including an unfinished one on the same spot.
Constructed entirely of Pendeli marble, the Parthenon represents architectural perfection—a pinnacle of human achievement. The lintel on the western face is a must-see: it’s the largest single piece of stone used in the temple’s construction.
Did you know? The Parthenon is dazzling white today, but traces of paint found on its sculptures and descriptions in ancient texts suggest the temple and its mouldings were vividly decorated in colours such as blue, red, and gold.
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Three architectural periods have been noted for the “hill of the debates”, spanning from the late sixth century BC to the late fourth century BC. Pnyx means ‘place where people are closely packed together’ as this open-air chamber could hold around 10,000 people—a little more than half of the 18,000 members of the all-male Assembly of Athenians, or Ekklisia. Organized as a semi-circular auditorium, with a speaker’s platform and a terrace used for seating, this is where politics of all sorts were discussed. Aristides, Pericles, Demosthenes, and Themistocles delivered the brilliant orations associated with Athenian democracy here.
A large niche in the rock wall just east of the speakers’ platform where there was a statue of Zeus Hypsistos and smaller cuts in the rock to hold votives and should not be missed.
Fun fact: Citizens were called to the assembly by archers, who stretched a braided rope to guide them to the Pnyx. The rope was marked with red paint, which rubbed against stragglers and marked them so they were not paid the nominal stipend for attending.
Acropolis / Koukaki
Temple of Olympian Zeus
The temple was begun in the 6th century BC, but construction spanned over seven centuries as successive rulers became obsessed with ensuring its scale reflected the god’s stature.
The remains of the massive ancient temple right in the centre of Athens proved that size did matter when it came to paying tribute to Zeus, with a 100-by-50 metre temple with 17-metre columns. The Olympeion was the largest ancient temple on the Greek mainland—a rectangular structure almost 100 metres long and nearly 50 metres wide. It was laid around 515 BC by Peisistratis the Younger on the foundations of a smaller temple. Most of its original 104 columns were dismantled or destroyed as the site was used as a quarry in medieval times. By the 15th century, only 20 columns were still standing. Today, 15 standing columns and one fallen one remain. Not to be missed: The carvings on the columns that are part of the ‘Stone Chronicle’ kept on monuments during Ottoman rule to keep track of noteworthy events such as epidemics and natural disasters.
Did you know? The temple was completed under Hadrian, who filled the sanctuary with statues of himself he’d been given by cities under his rule.
The Roman Agora
This ancient marketplace that was built between 19 and 11 BC is situated near Monastiraki, the city’s modern marketplace. The Roman Agora was the city’s civic centre under Roman rule. The far end was marked by the Tower of the Winds. Entry was through a huge Doric arch built by Augustus Caesar. During the Byzantine Empire, a church was built among the homes and workshops, which later served as the foundations for the Fetiye Cami, a mosque built by the Ottomans. The remains of the public toilets, or vespasianae, dating from the first century is an absolute must-see. Note the benches with holes around the walls and sewage pipe beneath.
Interesting fact: In the 1920s, temporary shelters were constructed on the site to house refugees from Asia Minor. These were dismantled when excavations began in 1931.
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The Tower of the Winds
This marble clocktower is also known as the world’s first meteorological station, built c. 100-50 BC; and reconstructed in the 16th century. Subsequently buried under soil and debris, it was excavated in the 1830s and 1840s. This is where meteorology got its start and even today we describe the winds according to the same characteristics shown on the Tower’s panels. It’s considered the world’s first weather station. The tower was akin to a modern-day laboratory, with an elaborate water-clock inside and sundials on the outside walls. The eight-panelled frieze with depictions of the eight wind gods facing the direction in which each blew is worth-mentioning.
Did you know? Under Ottoman rule, Sufis (or whirling dervishes) used the tower of the winds as a place of worship—a use that is believed to have deterred Lord Elgin from removing it to England.
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Theatre of Dionysus
The theatre, where ancient playwrights staged their shows, dates from the fifth century BC. It was discovered in the mid-18th century and excavated in the 1800s by Wilhelm Dorpfeld and it’s the world’s oldest theatre. In the fifth century BC, it was the home of the annual spring drama festival where the ancient playwrights—among them Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes—presented their works in competition.
Originally laid in the sixth century BC, the Theatre of Dionysus was subject to several additions and renovations, including the installation sometime during the fourth century BC of tiered stone seats believed to accommodate 17,000 spectators. Front row seats were elaborate thrones, with carved legs and armrests; the name of the spectator for which they were reserved was inscribed on each seat.
Did you know? Front row seats were elaborate thrones, with carved legs and armrests and the name of the spectator for which they were reserved inscribed on each seat.
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Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The restored ancient theatre that hosts Greek and international performances under the Athenian sky was built as a typical Roman theatre, completed in 161 AD. Built by the wealthy public benefactor Herodes Atticus as a memorial to his wife, Regilla. In its original form, it had a cedar roof and a three-storey facade of arches. Hollowed out of the rocky southern face of the Acropolis hill, it’s one of the world’s oldest and finest open-air theatres. The 4,500-seat theatre was fully restored in 1950 and is the primary venue of the annual Athens Festival.
Interesting fact: Performers such as the ballerina Margot Fonteyn, the diva Maria Callas, and the singer Liza Minnelli—artists from whom modern myths are made of—have appeared on this stage.
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Keramikos Ancient Cemetery
The ancient necropolis of Keramikos is an extraordinary sight. The 11-acre archaeological site is filled with tombstones and statues of astonishing design and quality, built in 4th to 5th century BC. The way ancient Greeks regarded death is as telling about their society as their way of life. Larger tombs mark the graves of wealthy Athenians, while the simpler kipi mark the graves of slaves. Tombs of unwed men are designated by pitchers, or loutrophores, to carry water used in the burial ceremonies from nearby wells. As well as monumental graves, look for the statues of a rather terrifying bull, sirens, a horseman and various human figures. You’ll also find ancient jugs, perfume bottles, plates and urns excavated from the tombs housed in the Oberlander Museum. A section of the defensive walls built by Themistocles in the fifth century BC runs through the site and the not-to-be-missed Pompeion served as the staging ground for the opening procession of the Panathenian Games.
Did you know? The name ‘Keramikos’ derives from the Greek word for potters, or kerameis, whose workshops lined the banks of the Eridanos River, which once flowed through the site.
Gazi / Keramikos
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Aristotle's Peripatetic School was founded around 330 BC. One of three famed gymnasia, or philosophy schools, of ancient Athens was discovered during preliminary construction of the Goulandris Contemporary Art Museum, which later moved to its new site in Pangrati, and it’s one of the three oldest gymnasia in Athens, the other two being Plato’s Academy and Kynosarges by the river Ilissos. Aristotle’s habit of combining learning with strolling inspired the modern-day practice of ‘peripatetic meditation’. One reason why lessons were held outdoors was because students often engaged in research of the plants and animals collected during his conquests by Alexander the Great and given to the lyceum.
As you stroll the perimeter of Aristotle’s ancient school of philosophy, you can picture the ancient philosopher, hands clasped behind his back, walking among the pomegranate trees and wild herbs engaged in discussion with his students.
Temple of Poseidon at Sounion
The 2500-year-old temple overlooking the Aegean Sea was built during 444–400 BC, probably by Iktinos, one of the two architects that built the Parthenon. This Doric temple was erected during the Golden Age of Pericles. It was devoted to Poseidon, the Olympian God of the Sea, and is located at the edge of Cape Sounion at the southern coast of Attica, with a spectacular view of the Aegean Sea. Along with the Parthenon and the temple of Aphaia, on nearby Aegina island, Poseidon’s mighty monument completes the Sacred Triangle of antiquity. It has been welcoming visitors to Piraeus for 2,500 years, since it’s the first ancient Athenian landmark one sees when approaching by sea. Prior to the temple’s construction, the location was cited as holy grounds by Homer and Herodotus and signs of habitation stretch back to 2,800 BC. Due to its strategic point, it also served as a watchtower, guarding the passage to Piraeus and the rich surrounding silver mines. If you can only afford a single visit, make sure to be there during the sunset. It’s a spectacle you won’t soon forget.
Interesting fact: Lord Byron, the famous British poet and Grecophile, was so fascinated with Sounion that he graffitied his name on the temple’s stones sometime in the early 19th century.
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In its heyday, this was the largest library in Athens. It also served as the official state archive and a philosophy school. Built in AD 132, as part of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s grand plans to rebuild Athens, the building was used to store literary works and legal archives as well as offer a place to hear lectures and host various philosophical schools. The ruins reflect Hadrian’s ambition to establish Athens as the cultural centre of his empire. With its facade of 100 columns, painted ceilings and high surrounding walls, it was designed to make a big impression. Do not forget to look for the niches in the interior wall of the east wing, which were used to store documents.
Did you know? The complex has since been used as a customs building, a small prison, and King Othon’s barracks. Under Ottoman rule, the site served as the seat of the Turkish governor.
Monastiraki / Psirri
+30 210 324 9350
A monumental, marble arch built by the emperor Hadrian as the formal gateway to Athens and in specific the gateway to two eras: step back, or east, into Greek antiquity and forward, or west, towards Roman Athens. The arch is 18 metres tall while the arch is made of solid marble from the Pendeli quarry, that was also used to build the Parthenon. Must-see? The inscriptions: on the Acropolis side: ‘This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus’; and on the other: ‘This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus’. Some scholars believe the inscriptions marked the boundaries between the ancient city of Theseus and the ‘new’ city of Hadrian, while others interpret them as markers of the city’s expansion.
Are you ready to walk in the footsteps of the great ancient philosopher in the spot of his famous school? In 338 BC, Plato founded his famed philosophical school here. Formerly, the sacred woods with one of the ancient city’s three gymnasia—training grounds for athletes—founded in the 6th century BC. This small open-air archaeological site may not be as impressive as others but you’ll definitely feel a thrill knowing you stroll the same paths as the man who inspired Western philosophy. Moreover, this is the first ‘university’ of the Western world where the foundations of Western science and philosophy were laid two-and-a-half millennia ago.
Did you know that thanks to Plato, we associate the word ‘academy’ with education? The word actually originates from the owner of the land on which his school was located—the mythical hero Academus.
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