Today, I would like to invite you to the capital of Greece – the famous Athens. It is one of the larger cities I have managed to see so far. It is full of contrasts and a spot in which the modern world intertwines with that of the ancient gods.
I think I discovered Athens anew every day and saw it from another perspective. This tourist magnet has so much to offer and ancient buildings and statues are only a tiny part of it. Unusual people, incredible cuisine, pleasantly warm sea, gorgeous weather, serene parks and so much more that describing it is pretty impossible. In order to help myself, I have divided this post into smaller bits. Let’s start with the ancient part of Athens and pay a visit to the gods, emperors and so many more in between!
One of the first places I visited in Athens was the Panathenaic Stadium. I remember clearly it was a warm and sunny day when I made my first step on the birthplace of the original Olympic Games.
The Stadium is gigantic and truly fit for the gods. The marble makes it look simple, clean and absolutely luxurious. It may sound odd but it still has the atmosphere of the old days. It is now so quiet and empty but once you are there it is not difficult to imagine what it used to be like, roaring with cheering crowds that came to watch the athletes, or – the Chosen ones as they were also called – break the limits of endurance and set new records of human capacity.
The history of the Stadium is also not quite as straightforward as we may think. It was built by the Athenian statesman Lykourgos in 330 B.C. The Stadium performed its funktion in an unchanged form until the regin senator Herodes Atticus, who in 140 B.C. started the extension and enlargement of the Stadium- it could seat 50,000 people at that time already. The place with time took the shape of a horseshoe and also was rebuilt in marble for the first time. Over the many years, wars and revolutions damaged it considerably, the place lost its former glory and was eventually abandoned. It was rediscovered during archaeological excavations in 1870 and as quickly as 1896 hosted its first Summer Olympics. This ancient gem regained its original importance and it is exactly here where the Olympic flame that is carried across the world comes from.
Ticket to see: €5*
If you walk a bit farther, right between the Stadium and the Temple of Zeus, you will find a large, covered in gold building with bright columns. Zappeion that I am referring to was the first building created for the revival of the modern Olympic Games. It was first used during Olympic Games in 1896 as a fencing arena and later as part of Olympic village. Currently, it is a concert and exhibition hall.
It is situated in the National Gardens of Athens and is simply stunning. Particularly, with the beautiful gardens that are open to the public. A truly lovely place to take a walk and find your inner peace.
Temple of Olympian Zeus and Arch of Hadrian
The Temple of Zeus made an incredible impression on me, when I first saw it. Until then I had only seen it in history books and on TV, and I admit that it is so much more majestic in reality. It is a shame that it suffered so much throughout the war and had to be restored and reconstructed consecutively. This means that what we can see today is pretty ‘new’ and the original elements have mostly been damaged. Still, considering what turbulent past it had, we should be grateful to Zeus (and all the brave and committed people who helped save it) that we are still able to appreciate its beauty and experience it.
The temple was dedicated to the Olympian god Zeus and had as many as 108 columns. The statue of the god was situated right inside, in the middle, and was created by the famous Phidias. The construction works began in 6th century B.C. and were repeatedly suspended over the years. Then, work resumed and was completed by 2nd century B.C. Unfortunately, it was heavily damaged in 3rd century A.D. during a barbarian invasion and never properly repaired. Many of its parts were used to help construct other buildings and lots of its treasures simply stolen. Nowadays, it has only 15 of the original set of 108 columns. The 16th column that survived until modern times suffered a lot during a gale in 1858 and collapsed. It has never been re-erected.
Ticket to see: €6*
If you continue from the temple, you will arrive at the Arch of Hadrian or, like many say, Hadrian’s Gate. This monumental gateway that served as a triumphal arch for the Roman Emperor – Hadrian. The Gate was supposed to divide the new part of Athens from the old one, which were to be further developed.
Both sides of the Gate name two emperors, Theseus and Hadrian, as founders of the city. The construction is 18 metres high and completely symmetrical. The whole monument is made of Pentelic marble which was also used in the construction of the Partheon – it is impossible to miss it.
It pleases my heart to see that both these monuments have survived until now. Losing them would be an unimaginable loss of not only art but also such a long and important part of history.
Ticket to see: Free
After we had visited the Temple of Zeus, where I shot endless photos, we directed our steps to the Acropolis. For me, it is the true heart of Athens and a ‘Mecca’ for all visiting the city. 😊 And even though you do not need to be an Olympic athlete to manage the many, many stairs leading to the top, I would recommend a pair of comfy shoes and putting on light clothes because the path is rocky, uneven and dusty. On the way up you can have a sneak peek at many ongoing excavations, which is fun. The whole hill is additionally covered with gorgeous statues and sculptures. Still, the biggest prize awaits you at the top – it is the stunning, simply breathtaking view of the multi-levelled tiny white houses gathered at the foot of the hill. Athens. To me, it is one of the most beautiful cityscapes ever. And when you look at all there is below, you have the impression the city never ends but goes far beyond the mountains that surround it. Unforgettable.
The ancient paths and stone stairs take you directly to the top of the hill or, more precisely, to the monumental old gate Propylaea built sometime between 421 and 406 B.C. Its mere size was supposed to prove to those ascending the Acropolis hill that they were entering a holy place and I confirm – it makes exactly that impression. 😊
Not all of the Acropolis buildings have been lucky to survive until today. Sadly, some have only remained as elements of foundations or even single stones.
The most important part of the Acropolis that we can still see today is, of course, the Parthenon – the house of the goddess Athena, guardian of the capital. The construction began as early as 447 B.C. and completed in 438 B.C. The decorative works as well as the statue of Athena Parthenos (or Athena the Virgin) were created by the most acclaimed sculptor of ancient Greece – Phidias. The history of the temple was, as with many similar constructions, not an easy one. It suffered a lot during various destructions, fires and wars, and changed hands a good couple of times. In 1458 it was even taken over by the Turkish reign and transformed into a Mosque! While in the seventeenth century the place was used like a munitions warehouse, which exploded later. Unfortunately, the explosion destroyed the central part of the temple. Most of the survived sculptures or monuments were transported to England (you can admire them in the British Museum), as well as to the Louvre. Like you see, it has gone through a lot and has been pretty much under constant reconstruction since 1975 when it was officially given protection as national treasure. Since 1987 the Acropolis has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
At the Acropolis you can also find the ancient temple Erechtheion that was built between 421 and 406 B.C. and dedicated to Athena and Poseidon. The whole construcion was built of marble, also from Mount Pentelikon, with Ionic colums, and (what can we see till today), famous 6 caryatids- female figures as supporting columns. Unfotunately, the famous ladies have been repleaced with careful copiec. The five oryginal caryatids have been transferred to the Museum of the Acropolis, and the sixth is located in the British Museum.
Right from the Propylaea there is a small but also nice temple dedicated to the goddess Athena Nike – built around 429 B.C. As a curiosity, I can tell you that during the invasion of Turish and the occupation of the Acropolis, the temple was completely undressed, and its parts were used to build the bastion. In 1835, using original elements, it was rebuilt again. In 90´s the Temple was onces again undressed and more accurately than before, reconstructed.
Last time I was there, I did not bought the so-called Audio Tour and I paid €20 for a ticket. I know it is not cheap, but it is really worth it.
Also, a small piece of advice from me – go and see the Acropolis early in the morning when the heat is not so strong and there are moderately few tourists around. You will thank me. 😉
Ticket to see: €20*
The Theatre is situated on the southern slope of the Acropolis and is a major theatre in Athens, considered to be the birthplace of Greek tragedy. It was built in 6th century B.C. and dedicated to the god of plays and wine – Dionysus. It is large and majestic, with the main stage surrounded by marble seats wandering by the walls of the Acropolis, and the stage backdrop is nothing less than the city of Athens itself. What I find most amazing about it is the fact it still hosts plays and performs its functions. I was lucky enough to watch a performance of the famous Moscow Ballet exactly there. A truly unforgettable experience – to sit on one of its marble benches older than time itself, with all of the Acropolis right behind, the city of Athens in front and enjoy a beautiful ballet play. Truly a dream…
My most beloved spot in all of Athens is certainly the Greek Agora. It is a place that used to be full of life. Athenians came to relax, shop and watch performances right here. It was also full of temples and monuments dedicated to gods and heroes who looked after the city, listened to the prayers and welcomed gifts from their humble believers.
Despite it being a very popular tourist site, we actually had a lot of luck and could visit it with perhaps a handful of other people. Which is extremely rare. We could move among the buildings without rush and simply enjoy our time. We relaxed in the shade of a tree and just chilled and admired the buildings and the view of the nearby Acropolis.
But what exactly can you still find at Agora? Similarly to the Acropolis, lots of its beauty has faded due to wars and conflicts. There are currently a lot of excavations going on and fortunately, not all has been lost. The Odeon of Agrippa which was built in 15 B.C. used to host local theatre plays and concerts, and can still be admired in its more-or-less true glory. The Stoa of Attalos built and named after King Attalos II who ruled Athens between 159 and 138 B.C. was reconstructed in XX century. It is now the Museum of Ancient Agora and showcases many diverse and beautiful collections of art. The Temple of Hephaestus, dedicated to the god of metal working, craftsmanship and fire, is still there and located at the north-west site of the Agora, right on top of the hill. The Place is really nice and worth to see.
The Statue of Emperor Hadrian has also been extremely blessed to make it until today for us to admire.
Again, if you plan to visit Agora, do not forget to take comfortable shoes. It is a large space and considering it is mostly protruding stones, pebbles, very uneven steps and lots of dust, I do not recommend trying to challenge it in flip-flops. 😉
Ticket to see: €8 *
There is also the Roman Agora which is situated east of the Ancient Agora. It was created under the reign of Emperor Augustus, approx. 10 B.C. and constituted the functions of the new central square during the Roman dominion. East and West of the square are two large gates that lead to the centre. One of them still has the original inscriptions. The first is devoted by Emperor Augustus to the goddess Athena and the other contains the regulation by Emperor Hadrian concerning oil trade. The Roman Agora also has the famous Tower of the Winds which features a combination of sundials, a water clock and a wind vane. The 12 metre-tall structure was built around 1st and 2nd century B.C. and owns its name to the reliefs depicting the eight winds, placed on the respective sides of the tower and reading: Boreas (N), Kaikias (NE), Apeliotes (E), Eurus (SE), Notus (S), Lips (SW), Zephyrus (W) and Skiron (NW).
Except for the Tower of Winds, the square is also home to the famous Hadrian’s library and many smaller or larger foundations and remains of ancient structures.
*All ticket prices quoted by me date from 2017 and 2018 when I visited Athens. Please keep in mind that their prices may have changed.