I remember looking down from the airplane window and marvelling at how far Athens stretched between the hills. It shouldn’t have surprised me since it is one of the oldest cities in the world. I was about to set my foot in a city that is 7,000 years old! For us, the best way to spend time in Athens was to discover its past.
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Our time in Athens, the land of Zeus and other Greek gods
Visiting Greece has been on my bucket list for quite some time. I mean, it doesn’t get better for a history junkie like me to end up in a place like this. It was one of those “what took me so long to get here” moments.
We didn’t spend a significant amount of time in Athens before we moved on to see the two famous Greek islands. Like many other European cities, you can see Athens in two days and hit the major spots. It’s an excellent teaser for what to expect and makes you want to return. I can say with certainty that I will be coming back here as soon as possible.
The heart of the ancient world
Despite being fascinated by everything in ancient Greece, it occurred to me that my knowledge about this country after antiquity was minimal. I didn’t know what to expect from Athens other than the Parthenon. It seems silly now as I write this, but I had no real expectations, and it proved to be a great strategy.
Athens’ glory is rooted in the ancient world. The temples and theatres dedicated to the gods date back to the mid-5th century BC. How wild is that? Kingdoms have come and fallen since those glory days. These structures still dominate the landscape, withstanding the centuries gone by. The builders of those days left a spectacular legacy that is unreal. I wonder if they expected them to last this long and play an important role in human history. I like to think that they did and that they would be proud.
Athens after antiquity and contributions to the modern world
After the glory of ancient times, the city didn’t play a prominent role during Byzantine and Ottoman rule. That was something that I didn’t know about Greece. After the Romans defeated the Macedonians, the Byzantine and Turkish empires ruled Greece for centuries. Even the Venetians got their hands on the Greek islands during that time. The Ottoman rule finally ended around the mid-1800s with the Greek rebellion for independence.
I was blown away by that. The Ancient Greek civilization, marked by a golden age of culture, arts and political thinking, has influenced cultures and other civilizations for centuries. Maybe it’s that influence, so prominently intertwined in the fabric of history, that made Greece seem like an ever-present power.
Even though it’s been under the control of others, the ideas and systems created in ancient times have survived. Today, many things we take for granted came from Ancient Greece. Read this if you want to know more about these Greek influences and contributions.
- The Alphabet
- The Library
- The Olympics
- Science and Mathematics
- The Lighthouse
- Standardized Medicine
- Trial by Jury
- The Theater
Today’s Athens is a modern and vibrant city with many beautiful treasures to be discovered. I loved Neoclassical architecture from the 1800s, and it made Athens look much like other European cities. For some reason, that surprised me. I don’t know why, but I imagined Athens full of ancient ruins overlooked by the Parthenon and the Acropolis. Here we found the ruins, but also so much more.
The streets are walkable so you can spend a lot of time in Athens on foot. There are numerous shops, restaurants and bars. It was amazing to see so many people out on patios at all hours of the day. Athens tends to get hot during the summer. I loved that all restaurants offered free water and had these cooling fans for the patrons. I don’t think I would have survived otherwise.
We found our time in Athens enjoyable. We felt safe, and nobody bothered us, but I’ve heard stories from others that weren’t as fortunate. It doesn’t make Athens a bad place, just one that is like any other large city. As such, you should always take precautions when walking around and be aware of your surroundings.
National Archaeological Museum
I am a museum junkie and get very excited when I can visit them no matter where I am in the world. The National Archaeological Museum was no different. Fun fact: the museum opened in 1889, and it became home to many antiquities that were previously stored in various places around the city up to that point.
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The museum’s collection is quite impressive and well worth a visit. Here you will find a great collection of jewellery, pottery, bronzes and sculptures from cultures long gone and forgotten. It is quite a prominent place, and you can easily spend a day here. There is a lovely courtyard where you can enjoy a snack while marvelling at your surroundings.
I watched a fantastic show called Museum Secrets, and I was thrilled when they showed the National Archaeological Museum in one of the episodes. I’m not sure if it’s accessible in all countries, but here is a quick preview of the episode to make you just a tad bit curious.
The marvels of the Acropolis
You can’t spend time in Athens without visiting its oldest and most famous sights. I’ve had the Parthenon and the Acropolis on my list of places to see for as long as I’ve known about them. I wanted to run there from the moment we got there. However, we had to put that visit off till another day due to the extreme heat (for me at least).
The area on top of a massive hill is called the Acropolis, and it is home to the Parthenon and several other historically and architecturally significant temples. The climb up is not the most difficult one I’ve ever done, but it felt like the most challenging journey of my life in the scorching heat. At 6 p.m., the sun wasn’t the strongest, yet it still felt like hell.
Ancient gates and the Temple of Athena Nike
After you get your tickets, you will follow a winding path to the Beule Gate. This was the first entrance to the Acropolis and once you step through it, be ready to be amazed.
Before you are numerous steps that take you to the Propylaia, this entrance was built around 437-432 BC, so essentially you are walking in the footsteps of ancient Greeks, who walked these steps centuries ago. If that is not enough to impress you, the remnants of the Temple of Athena Nike will. The temple was added about a decade after the Propylaia and what remains of it is simply beautiful.
The Porch of the Caryatids
The Caryatids are the sculpted female columns that are holding up the structure. Their use was pretty common in ancient times, including at the Acropolis. Initially, there were six statues until Lord Elgin removed one and brought it to the British Museum. The remaining five are at the Acropolis Museum, where they sit on a unique platform that allows viewers to see them in more detail. There is one empty spot for the statue that was taken to London.
You see plaster replicas at the Acropolis, and you wouldn’t know any different unless someone told you.
Seeing the Parthenon was a very similar experience to what visiting the Colosseum and the Roman Forum felt like. Pure jaw-dropping awe. I’ve seen numerous pictures, documentaries and movies about the Parthenon, and I was still blown away by what is left of it. When you think about it, you are looking at a place that is well over 2,000 years old. Let that sink in. Amazing, right?
The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, patron of Athens. It was ornately decorated with sculptures and columns in the Doric and Ionic styles, making it the most spectacular Greek temple. In addition to the stunning architecture of the building, there was a massive statue of Athena inside. Apparently, it was 12 feet tall and made of ivory and gold around a wooden core. I can’t even imagine what standing in front of it would have been like.
In my earlier blog on time travel, I talked about AR/AV technology and its possibilities for seeing places like this in their original glory. Meanwhile, if you want to get an idea of what the Parthenon was like, there is a replica in Nashville. The building and the statue of Athena inside are full-scale replicas of the Athenian originals. I guess I’ll be going to Nashville in the future.
Other noteworthy sights
The Acropolis is home to many other noteworthy spots. There is the Theatre of Herodes Atticus, which is spectacular. You can also check out the Shrine of Asklepios as well as the Theatre of Dionysos. There is also an excellent viewpoint behind the Parthenon that offers spectacular views of the city.
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Get your shopping on at Monastiraki and Plaka
Monastiraki Square is a great place to shop your heart out. Here you’ll find numerous shops and bazaar-style stalls where you can bargain for souvenirs and other goods. The name Monastiraki means “little monastery” in Greek, and as you can guess, this spot was once home to a large monastery.
The areas of Monastiraki and Plaka are some of Athens’ most charming and lively neighbourhoods. This is the place to sip on drinks and fill up on fantastic food while people-watching. The patio culture is a massive part of the Athenian lifestyle, so why not enjoy it?
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Final thoughts on our time in Athens
While Greece is a popular tourist destination, most people come and go through Athens to go elsewhere. The Greek islands are definitely something to experience, but I think Athens, with its history, offers a more cultural experience. After all, you are in the birthplace of democracy, and that is something to explore.
I plan on spending more time in Athens if I get the chance to revisit Greece. Next time, I would like to avoid the scorching months of summer. Perhaps on an off-season voyage.