The name of Athens is enough to conjure up images of gods and goddesses with perfectly chiseled bodies, temples, art, mountains and not to forget, Greek food!
Often referred to as the cradle of western civilization and the birthplace of democracy, with a recorded history of over 3000 years, Athens is a sprawling city located on the Attica Basin of Greece. The city is half surrounded by scenic mountains like the peaks of Aegaleo, Parnitha, Penteli, and Hymettus – at least one of these peaks can be seen from nearly every street in Athens. The Kifisos and the Ilisos rivers flow through the city. Greece’s capital is named after the goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
Since ancient times, Athens has given to the world momentous cultural achievements – classical architecture, monuments, and pieces of art. Much of Athens was rebuilt in the 19th century after Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Athens is the centre of economic, financial, industrial, political and cultural life in Greece much like it was in the olden times – a center of the arts, learning and philosophy, home to Plato and Aristotle, Socrates, Pericles, and Sophocles.
The city still has remnants of its golden years evident through a number of ancient monuments and artworks, the most famous of all being the Parthenon on the Acropolis. Here you will also find many Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman monuments, that take you through the city's history through the centuries.
Athens was the host city of the first modern-day Olympic Games in 1896.
Athens is named after the Greek goddess Athena, the goddess of Wisdom. According to Greek mythology, Zeus, the ruler of the gods, had a contest between Athena and Poseidon to choose a patron for the city, and the residents chose Athena’s gift of an olive tree rather than Poseidon’s gift of a freshwater spring, and they dedicated their city to her and she became the ancient city’s divine protector. The main temple to Athena on the Acropolis, the Parthenon, also served as the city’s treasury and has been around since Neolithic times.
As early as 1400 BC, the Acropolis was fortified which was helpful since there was constant fighting among the Mycenaean Greeks. In the 9th century BC, surrounding areas, including the seaport of Piraeus, was incorporated into the city-state.
The monarchy was replaced by an aristocracy of nobles and the city was controlled by the Areopagus (Council of Elders), who appointed magistrates, or archons, who decided on all matters of the state. However, there was widespread discontent among the people with this system which led to a short-lived dictatorship by Cylon in 632 BC.
Continued political instability led to the imposition of the Draconian Code, named after an Athenian lawgiver Draco. This was a harsh set of laws that eventually brought about the appointment of Solon as chief archon in 594 BC. Solon established a council, a popular assembly, and law courts, encouraged trade, reformed the coinage, and invited foreign business people to the city. Although these reforms were not totally successful, they are considered to be the foundations of democracy.
In 560 BC, Pisistratus gained control of Athens, and he built a new temple of Athena on the Acropolis. He also sponsored many other public events and was very popular with the people.
During the Persian Wars between 490 and 479 BC, the Persian Empire sacked and nearly destroyed Athens. However, their victory was short-lived as the Athenian leader Themistocles defeated the Persian invaders at the decisive naval Battle of Salamis and after the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC the Greeks got back their independence. Themistocles, during his lifetime, tried to restore the city and built circuit walls around Athens and Piraeus. He also began construction of the Long Walls connecting Athens with the port, which was continued by Pericles.
During the time that Pericles was in office, he made great strides in bettering the city and his term is often called the Golden Age of Athens or the Age of Pericles. The Parthenon, the temple of Nike, the Erechtheum, and other great monuments were built during this time. He also developed the agora, which began to display imported goods from around the known world. Cultural advances were also made in the fields of theatre with great tragedies and comedies being produced in the Theater of Dionysus, below the Acropolis. With its democratic constitution and brilliant culture, the city came to be known as the school of Hellas.
The imperial ambitions of Athens, however, brought about the Peloponnesian War in 431BC with Sparta. The Spartans pillaged the surrounding countryside while Athenians held out behind their city’s walls. Athens was defeated and the victors imposed their leadership, and removed most of the city’s fortifications, including the Long Walls. Athens survived the war but had lost its empire and its democracy, and was left weakened.
A democratic coup against the pro-Spartan Thirty Tyrants restored democracy in Athens in 403 BC. However, after the defeat, many citizens saw a need to strengthen moral values and even put the great Greek philosopher Socrates on trial where he was forced to take his own life as he had questioned traditional ideas.
The city still continued to progress and in the 4th century BC, influential schools were founded by the philosophers Plato and Aristotle.
Once again though, Athens came under foreign rule, this time under Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, who won the Battle of Chaeronea and became the master of Greece. Then around 146 BC, Athens fell to the Roman Empire.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, Greece became part of the Byzantine Empire. The Christian Byzantine emperor Justinian I closed all pagan philosophical schools, thereby ending the city’s classical tradition. During this time, many of the city’s artworks were moved to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), and the temples became Christian churches.
Next came the Ottomans who gained complete control of Athens in 1458.
From being one of the wonders of the ancient civilizations, the birthplace of democracy and many philosophers, to being ravaged, captured, and then restored to some of its ancient glory, the city seems to have come a long way, but it has never left its history too far behind.
Every turn of the corner reveals a historical sight and an equally intriguing story behind it. With a history that spans over three millennia, the city has monuments and sights to keep you occupied for a very long time.
Nowhere else in the city will you find a denser collection of ancient history than here…the city’s most famous feature, the Acropolis, literally meaning the ‘edge of the city’ (although some believe it to mean the highest point of the city), which is recognizable almost by everyone. It is a flat-topped hill with the ruins of ancient temples, and monuments dating as far back as the 5th century BC, such as the Parthenon, the Erechtheion (where the contest between Athena and Poseidon is said to have taken place), and the Temple of Athena Nike, as well as the Propylaea (a marble gateway that is the main entrance to the Acropolis). All these ruins are considered a masterpiece of classical Greek architecture. The Temple of Athena Nike, built around 420 BC stands out with a frieze around the top and ionic columns and is an excellent example of the classical temple architecture during those times and was built to honor the goddess of victory. The Acropolis Museum behind the Parthenon familiarizes you with what lies before you.
The southern slope of the Acropolis was once the cultural center of the city and the site of the Theater of Dionysus and other buildings. Here, below the Acropolis, you will also find remains of the agora, the ancient market and public meeting place. Here stands the Temple of Hephaestus, nicely preserved, and an open air mall containing 134 columns of the Doric and Ionic styles. Northwest from here is the Areios pagos (Ares Hill), the site of an ancient court, where Mycenaean kings are buried, and a tablet is embedded here with the inscriptions of the Apostle Paul’s words.
Another major archaeological site is the Kerameikos, named for the Kerameis, or potters, who once inhabited the area on the banks of the river Eridanos. Here you will find the remains of the gateways to the city and the city’s ancient cemetery. Nearby is the road that led to Plato’s Academy where the Greek philosopher instructed his followers.
The Olympieion sanctuary holds the ruins of a number of ancient temples dedicated to the gods, including a temple of Zeus from the Roman era.
Originally a hollow ground between the Agra and Ardettos Hils, it was transformed into the Panathenaic Stadium by Lykourgos in 330 BC, used for athletic competitions during the ancient festival of Panathenaea. It was further worked upon in 140 AD by Herodes Atticus and was said to have a seating capacity of over 50,000. It was once again restored for the first modern Olympic Games held here in 1896.
Among the city’s Roman-period sites are the Monastiraki square, or the little monastery, and in its center is the Abyssinia square that hosts a flea market from where you can pick up some souvenirs. Nearby you will come across Hadrian's Library built in 132 AD; Hadrian's Arch, constructed of marble in 131 AD as part of the wall separating the old and the new city of Athens; and the octagonal Tower of the Winds, representing the eight winds, which once served as a sundial and housed an ancient water clock.
A few medieval churches survive from the Byzantine period. The most notable of these include the Church of Panaghia, the Church of Aghioi Theodoroi, and the Church of Panaghia Gorgoepikoos. The Athens Greek Orthodox Cathedral was constructed in the 19th century using material from demolished medieval churches.
In Athens, eating out is a way of life. The cuisine has been influenced by its many conquerors – Romans, Balkans, Venetians, Slavs and Turks. Start your day with some traditional breakfast of paxamadia, hard crusty bread. If you are invited for a meal by one of your local hosts, be prepared to spend a couple of horse at the table because for the Greeks, a meal is a social affair and they love to relish every bite of it. Start with some hors d’oeuvres like mezedes, move on to appetizers such as horiatiki salata (tomato, cucumber, olives, and feta cheese), taramosalata (caviar spread), or melizanosalata (eggplant puree), kalamarakia (deep fried squid), then continue with some grilled meat, and a wide assortment of seafood. Try the Greek liquor ouzo or the popular wine retsina and end the meal with some pastes (sweet cakes with cream), baklava (syrup cake), loukoumades (fritters with honey or syrup), or pagoto (ice cream).
Getting in: Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport is situated 27 km east of the city center and is a major hub in the Balkan and Mediterranean regions. A wide network of buses connects Athens to other cities in Greece. Athens is also connected by the railways, however the network is not very extensive.
It is fairly easy to get around the city on foot, and is the best way to explore every nook and interesting cranny of the city. However, if you tire easily there easily, you can choose from a variety of public transport like the Athens Metro, the suburban railway, busses, trams and taxi cabs.
Athens enjoys a typical Mediterranean climate, with rain mainly occurring between October and April. Since it is located in a rain shadow, the Athenian climate is comparatively very dry. Winter brings some snowfall, although it is usually not very heavy. Spring and autumn are considered ideal seasons for sightseeing.