There are so many things to see and do in the ancient capital city of Greece, Athens! If you are planning to stay there over a weekend or for a couple days, then this blog post is for you. We have put together Top-5 list of the most important sites and things to do in and near the city.
1. The Acropolis – the one historical and archaeological site you can’t miss
What would a visit to the ancient city of Athens be without going to the Acropolis? It is the one historical and archaeological site no one can miss. Getting up there is easy and the walk uphill is pleasant.
After climbing the steps, you will reach the monumental gateway to the Acropolis, or the Propylaea, which was completed in the 5th century BC, just before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. To your left is the Pinacotheca and a Hellenistic pedestal. To your right is the tiny temple dedicated to the goddess Athena Nike. Nike means “victory” in Greek, and the Athenians worshipped Athena in hopes of a successful outcome in the Peloponnesian War fought against the Spartans.
The Parthenon and other main structures on the Acropolis were built by Pericles in the 5th century BC as monuments to the cultural and political achievements of the Athenians. Acropolis means “upper city”, and note that the Greek city-states back then were built around an acropolis where the inhabitants could go as a place of refuge in times of war. And it was for this reason that the most sacred buildings were usually constructed on the acropolis. It was the most secure place back then.
The Parthenon is one of the most recognizable structures in the world. From a temple it became a church, a mosque and finally a storage facility for gunpowder. In the 17th century AD, the Venetians bombarded the structure from below. A cannon ball hit the storage facility and blew it up. Nowadays, the Parthenon is the most imitated building in the world.
The Erechtheion sits on the most sacred site of the Acropolis where Poseidon and Athena had their contest over who would be the Patron of Athens. Actually it is the Erechtheion that is the real religious temple on the Acropolis. The Parthenon, though we call it a temple, was not a place of worship. It was built as a tribute commemorating the Greek victories over the Persians and it was used as a sort of a bank or treasury to store the tribute paid by the other Greek city-states.
A great spot is the northeast corner of the Acropolis, where the city of Athens stretches out endlessly below. You will be able to see one of the seven hills of Athens, Mount Lycabettus, as well as the ruins of the giant Temple of Olympian Zeus. The Acropolis is a great place to get an understanding of the layout of this ancient city.
Below the Acropolis is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built by the Romans and still used today as a site of music concerts with a capacity of 5,000. Further below is the rock of Areopagos. This is the site from where St. Paul spoke to the Athenians in 51 AD. From there you will be able to see the ancient agora, which was once a vibrant neighborhood, and the small temple known as the Thission. The temple was used as a church dedicated to St. George.
2. Panathenaic Stadium – the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble
The amazing structure of the Panathenaic Stadium is one of the main attractions of Athens, and definitely well worth adding to your travel itinerary if you are visiting the city in a couple days or over a weekend. This breathtaking stadium was first built in the 4th century BC primarily to host the Panathenaic Games, which were held every four years as a religious and athletic festival celebrated in honor of the goddess Athena.
After the rise of Christianity at the end of the 4th century AD, the games ceased entirely. Left abandoned the stadium quickly fell to ruin. However, with archaeological excavations beginning in the early-19th century and rediscovery of the remains of the stadium, Greek benefactor Evangelis Zappas sponsored the reconstruction work. By 1896 the new stadium was complete, ready to host the opening ceremony of the modern Olympic Games.
3. The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion – the southernmost tip of the Balkan Peninsula
To reach the site, you have to leave the coastal suburbs of the city of Athens and pass towns and settlements, mostly in bays, harbors and beaches. Some modern Athenians have built their summer and weekend homes out here and villages have sprung up out of nowhere. The closer you get to Sounion, the less houses there are until finally you come to see the Temple of Poseidon, which sits above the beach on a mountain that juts out into the sea. In the ancient times, the temple was the last thing the Athenians saw as they sailed away from home and the first as they returned. It is hard to imagine a more perfect setting for a temple dedicated to the god of the sea, Poseidon.
On the way to Sounion, you will come across Lake Vouliagmeni, which is truly a miracle of nature. This beautiful place is a mineral spa with many healing properties. The lake is constantly being overflown and replenished by the hot springs beneath it. Its present form was created after the roof of the cave fell due to erosion caused by the high temperature of the running water.
4. The Corinth Canal – the gateway to the Peloponnese
To enter the Peloponnese, you should cross the Isthmus of Corinth, which is the narrow neck of land connecting the peninsula that is the Peloponnese with the mainland of Greece. Since the late-19th century, there is a clear, stark and linear definition of where the Peloponnese starts: the Corinth Canal. A straight cut through the Isthmus has made the Peloponnese technically an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water. So, today, the moment you enter the Peloponnese is defined by crossing one of the bridges across the canal.
The idea of digging a canal was proposed many times throughout history: by the Archaic tyrants of Corinth; by the Roman emperors such as Julius Caesar, Caligula and Nero; by the Venetians; and by the newly-formed Greek state in the early-19th century. It was finally achieved by French and Greek engineers in the late-19th century.
5. Explore two archaeological sites on a day trip to Epidaurus and Mycenae in the Peloponnese
The archaeological site of Epidaurus has a connection with Greek mythology. This was said to have been the birthplace of the god of healing, Asklepios. There were also temples to Artemis, Aphrodite and Themis. Back then, the complex was a healing sanctuary which may have also been a place of pilgrimage in much the same way that Delphi was.
For most visitors to Epidaurus, it is the ancient theater which amazes. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the acoustics here are simply unbelievable. It is possible for a person to stand in the center of the theater and just whisper, but people sitting up high in the theater can still hear every word. And secondly, the positioning of the theater and the views are stunning. In the ancient times, the theater could fit about 14,000 people.
Your next visit should be Mycenae. In Greek mythology, King Agamemnon was the ruler of this powerful citadel, which was also said to have been founded by Perseus. This site was the place from where King Agamemnon launched his war against Troy. Whether you believe King Agamemnon was a real person or not, there is no doubting the real power of the Mycenaeans back then. They dominated the waters of the Mediterranean Sea in terms of trade, with colonies on many Greek islands, and was a political and military force to be reckoned with.
The Mycenaeans were destroyed by drought, famine, mass migrations and a global economic collapse. The dark ages brought society on their knees. With their fall, a small backwater city-state of Athens rose out of the ashes.
The highlights of a visit to Mycenae are seeing the Lion’s Gate, the Palace and the Tombs. The walls of the citadel are very impressive, which were believed to have been built by mythical Cyclops.