A few of my good friends just returned from Greece. Talking with them and hearing them recount their travels reminded me of our trip to Athens several years ago. The historical sites there are foundational elements of western civilization. The city is rife with insights into our shared past. If you’re wondering what things to see in Athens, here are my top three “can’t miss” sites for you to roam to the next time you are in Greece.
Acropolis—Since pictures generally show the stone Parthenon with rocks strewn everywhere, it may surprise you how lush and green the Acropolis is. Trees and bushes line the pathway going up to the top of the hill. The walkway is at a gentle slope, with the exception of some rather large rocks to climb closer to the top. In fact, I didn’t even realize how far up we were until I looked back and realized that we were only halfway and already Athens was unveiling itself to us.
After a leisurely walk along the tree-lined path (replete with friendly random dogs), we finally approached the steps to the Propylaea—the monumental gateway to the Acropolis and the majestic monuments on the hill. Depending on crowds, you will likely have to do the “tourist-shuffle” up the stairs hewn out of the rock. On the right is a temple to Nike built in the 5th century BC to commemorate Greek victories over the Persians.
Travel tip: this is a place where it would behoove the history buff to buy a detailed guidebook—there are a lot of important ruins that can easily be overlooked without one.
Once you enter the gate, ancient ruins span before you. On the north side is the Erechtheion with some of the most sacred relics of ancient Athens. Part of the Erechtheion (caryatid, column, and part of entablature along with frieze and pedimental sculptures from Parthenon) was removed by Lord Elgin and later sold to the British Museum. Remaining on the south side of the structure are six statues of Korai (maidens); these beautiful caryatides show the skill and outstanding craftsmanship of the ancient Greeks.
Looming large on the hill, in all its splendor, is the Parthenon. Since 438 BC, this temple has stood the test of time. Built on the highest part of the Acropolis, the colossal structure is one of the most important creations of the Golden Age of Greek history. Doric marble columns form a rectangular structure. The Parthenon’s interior is divided into two sections. Greeks worshiped Athena and other gods there and, in the surrounding areas of the Acropolis, they contemplated philosophy, debated Athenian democracy, watched plays in the theater, celebrated special days, and enjoyed the culture of their society.
Looking down the southern side of the hill, you can see the Theatre of Dionysus (built 6th-4th century BC) where the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were first performed. Holding up to 17,000 people, it was also used for public functions and festivals related to the god Dionysus. Next to the theatre is a newer theater, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (built 2nd century AD), which could hold 5000 spectators and was primarily used for music.
Plaka—This historical neighborhood is a tourist’s heaven. Located behind the Acropolis in the shadow of that great hill, the Plaka region boasts winding narrow roads of shops and restaurants. Hordes of tourists crowd the area. Souvlaki vendors offer morsels of meat cut from huge pressed hunks of lamb and chicken. Fuchsia flowers hang from balcony boxes and bright bougainvillea cascades down the plaster walls of the area’s buildings making a picturesque place to part with one’s money.
Souvenir shops are filled to the brim with trinkets. I found the claims of cheaper ceramics stamped “made in Greece” dubious at best, but there were plenty of artisan stores with quality goods. I bought a beautiful replicate of marble Cycladic statuette. Tee shirts were offered at many stores causing me to wonder who was buying all these tees. Maybe no one? Maybe the store owners bought them years ago (and it certainly looked like it) and then couldn’t unload them?
Tasty gyros can also be found in the Plaka. We were surprised to find that the meat inside the pillowy pita was pork instead of the lamb we usually get at home. Since we have a fairly large and active Greek population in our hometown—we even have an annual Greekfest—I was surprised to find out that we hadn’t been eating authentically all these years. The waiter explained that when Greeks first emigrated to the States they frequently lived in neighborhoods populated with pork-eschewing peoples. Wanting to be able to get as many customers as possible, restaurateurs acclimated their dishes. Out with pork, in with lamb.
Temple of Hephaestus—This temple is so well-preserved that one can easily imagine walking inside to worship Hephaestus (the god of metallurgists and fire) and Athena (the goddess of pottery and craftsmanship). Like the Parthenon, the temple is rectangular with a series of Doric columns creating the exterior shell (six columns each on the east and west sides and thirteen columns each on the north and south). The Temple of Hephaestus was started around 450 BC making it a little older than the Parthenon, but is in better shape because it served as an Orthodox church from around 700 AD until 1834. Many of the friezes remain, too, showing the labors of Hercules and also those of Theseus. Additionally, battle scenes from the Battle of Theseus and the Pallantides and from the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs are featured.
These three historical sites are emblematic of the rich heritage of Greece and indeed of all western civilization. If you are looking for the best things to see in Athens, I highly encourage you to visit these important aspects of Athens history and world culture.
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