The flight from London to Athens took about four hours. It was the super early 5am flight so after waking up at 2am, it wasn’t a surprise that I managed to sleep the entire time on the plane! Coincidentally Luke, Vero, Miles and Phillip were on the same flight as me so we all hopped on the metro together and made our way into the city. I was staying in a slightly different area from those guys so I jumped off at the Omonia Metro station and made my way across to my accommodation for the night – the Soho hotel. Safe to say this place was definitely on the, erm, budget end of the hotel spectrum but it was a perfect location with lovely staff, even if it was a little (a lot) rough around the edges!
I dumped my stuff and decided, as I only had one day in the city, I would get straight out and start exploring.
I wandered through the winding streets around my hotel down to the lively neighbourhood of Monasthraki where I got my first glimpse of the iconic Acropolis in the distance.
This area is home to the ancient flea market and is one of the principle shopping areas in the city. It’s jam packed with ancient ruins which are pretty cool to see contrasted against the modern buildings. I wandered into the flea market taking in all the sights and sounds – there’s some super cool antique shops with the old and obscure all laid out on the cobbled streets. You could spend hours just walking around here taking it all in.
From the market I wandered up past the street of bustling cafes lining the old railway and up towards the impressive Roman Agora.
The Roman Agora (aka – the Market of Caesar and Augustus) is located on the north side of the Acropolis, a stone’s throw from the main square in Monasthraki. An inscription (IG II2 3174) on the architrave of the monumental Gate of Athena Archegetis (“Athena the Leader”) details that Julius Caesar and Augustus provided the funds for its construction in the 1st century B.C – I find that MIND BOGGLING.
The Roman Agora consists of a large, open-air courtyard surrounded by colonnades on all four sides. Archaeologists have discovered that on the eastern side there was series of shops and, on the southern side a fountain. The Roman Agora apparently became the main market of the city, taking over many of the commercial functions of the Greek Agora. This site really was the central hub for the ancient Greeks in Athens and therefore the perfect spot for me to begin my exploring. I was in awe!
From here, I wandered up around the Agora and towards the beautiful neighbourhood of Plaka. Plaka is a must do for anyone visiting the city, the narrow streets are lined with stunning old buildings; shops and cafes spill out onto the cobbles and there’s a great atmosphere ringing from the countless musicians singing and strumming away on every corner. I strolled around for a little while, resisted every urge to spend all my money on beautiful fabrics, before checking out the imposing Mitropoleos Cathedral in the centre of the square.
By this stage the lure of the restaurants was too much so I decided it was time for a well deserved break. I stopped off at Styl Lounge where I had the most delicious meal of dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) and an obligatory portion of tszatziki. This was all accompanied by a large glass of Greek white wine – obvs.
After a very leisurely lunch, mostly spent people watching, I headed back to the hotel for a shower and to get ready for the evening ahead. I took a little detour on my walk back via the markets on Athinas which were super interesting.
When I was researching how best to spend one day in Athens the recommendation that kept surfacing was the ‘Athens free walking tour’ – the reviews were amazing and it seemed to me to be the best way to see the main sites and learn a bit about the history of the city in a short space of time. I booked the tour before I arrived in the city and I couldn’t wait for 7pm for it to get started!
At around about 6.45 I hopped in a taxi and my way across to the National Library where I met the rest of the group and our tour guide, Euphrosyne (whose namesake was none other than Zeus’ daughter). There were about 15 of us in the group which was a good number – once everyone had arrived we set of for our three hours of exploring.
We made our first stop outside the University of Athens to admire the imposing statues of Plato, Aristotle and Athena; the protector of the city. Euphrosyne asked whether any of us knew anything about Plato or Aristotle – I decided it was best to keep it quiet that I had a philosophy degree… probably sensible, my memories of their theories have become a bit rusty since I was at Uni. I was, therefore, more than happy for Euphrosyne to summarise the basic fundamentals of Ancient Greek philosophy into a nutshell – shame she wasn’t there whilst I was writing my thesis, hey…?
Philosophy knowledge refreshed, we walked past the Academy of Arts and up towards the Parliament building. This impressive building used to be the palace of Athens but nowadays houses the government officials. It’s guarded every day by two soldiers wearing their traditional uniforms. Apparently the soldiers work on one hour rotations – which is probably long enough in the boiling heat of Athens! Euphrosyne explained that the there are 400 pleats in the soldiers skirts and 400 stitches connecting the Pom Poms to their shoes. This is a direct reference to the 400 years in which the Greeks were ruled by ‘the evil Turkish…’
Having admired the parliament building we wandered up towards the National Gardens. These gardens were, apparently, the first school in Athens. Socrates would walk around with his students, teaching and promoting thought, whilst they admired the beauty and nature of the gardens. It’s a pretty cool way to be educated! The gardens were absolutely beautiful with gorgeous pagoda’s, ponds, amazing wildlife and even a little farm complete with tortoises.
Euphrosyne pointed out the abundance of Cypress trees in the gardens and recounted the myth behind these trees. Legend has it that Cyparissus was a mortal boy man who was a lover of the Greek God Apollo. He had a pet deer, whom he adored more than anything else in the world. One day, while in the forest, Cyparissus accidentally discharged his bow, mortally wounding his pet. Consumed with grief, remorse, and guilt, he threw his body over the suffering companion as the pet died, transforming himself into what we now call the Cypress tree. This is why many cultures around the world still regard a Cypress tree as a symbol of mourning, and why you often find Cypress trees in cemeteries. Interesting stuff!
On the far side of the gardens Euphrosyne took us to see the ancient ruins of a Roman house dating back to the second century AD. The inscription on the middle stone apparently translates as ‘power to’. It’s crazy that you can wander round a public park in this city and still stumble across these amazing historic artefacts.
Whilst we wandered around the gardens Euphrosyne took great pride in telling us about how many of the words we use nowadays originate from the Greek language. If you’ve ever seen ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ she started to sound decidedly like the father… So – did you know the word ‘Barbarian’ apparently originates from the phrase meaning ‘to not be talking Greek’ – if you weren’t talking Greek you sounded, apparently, like you were saying ‘barbarbar’. The Greeks believed that the education in Athens was far superior to anywhere else, so if you didn’t get your education in Athens you were a Barbarian. Definitely not biased at all….
After leaving the tranquillity of the park we walked up to the Zappeion building which in Athens terms is still a fairly new building having only been built in 1896. This building apparently is used for conferences and for big events such as Athens Fashion Week. It was a super pretty building!
The next stop on the tour was one of Athens most famous landmarks – the Temple of Olympian Zeus. ‘Prepared to be underwhelmed’ Euphrosyne warned… I, clearly the ultimate history geek, still found it pretty fascinating.
The temple was dedicated to Olympian Zeus; head of the Olympian Gods. Construction began in the 6th century BC during the rule of the Athenian tyrants, who envisaged building the greatest temple in the ancient world, but it was not completed until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD, some 638 years after the project had begun. During the Roman period the temple – which included 104 colossal columns – was renowned as the largest temple in Greece and housed one of the largest cult statuses in the ancient world. Today, unfortunately, there is not a great deal of the temple left standing but, if you use your imagination, you can picture the grandeur of the temple all those years ago.
Directly opposite the temple of Zeus stands the imposing Arch of Hadrian, which was constructed in honour of the Emperor following the completion of the Temple of Zeus. Hadrian himself walked through the arch to attend the dedication of the temple in 131C.E. The arch spanned an ancient road in Athens and, on the western side of the arch (toward the old city) carries the inscription “This is Athens, the city of Theseus.” The inscription on the eastern side of the arch facing the temple (and toward a section of Athens that had been newly renovated by Hadrian) states, “This is the city of Harrian and not of Theseus.”
After admiring the monument we crossed the road to quickly take a peek at the statue of Melina Mercouri. We were reassured that it wasn’t Michael Jackson – even though I was convinced it was more of a ringer for David Bowie… A strong political activist, Mercouri was famously a major advocate for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens which are displayed in the British Museum. You could tell from the way that Euphrosyne spoke about the marbles that this subject was still a bit of a sore point in the city even today. I can’t say I blame them…
We were now officially back in the neighbourhood of Plaka and now that evening was drawing in, the restaurants were heaving and there was a real buzz about. We continued to walk up the street through the neighbourhood past the New Acropolis Museum and up the hill a little before turning round and admiring the views up towards the Acropolis. Acropolis means ‘high city’ and, also called the sacred rock, this iconic citadel is where people in ancient times sought refuge when the city below was threatened.
The first temples of the Acropolis were built in Mycenaean times. Reduced to ashes after a battle with the Persians in 480 BC, the Acropolis was then rebuilt by Pericles, an Athenian statesman, to what we are familiar with today.
Pericles’ ambitious rebuilding program was brought to fruition by Pheidias, a great Athenian sculptor, and Ictinus and Callicrates, two famous architects. Together, they transformed the Acropolis into a city of temples and centre for thought and the arts. No expense was spared and soon the Acropolis became a showcase of grandiose statues and colossal buildings.
When most people think of the Acropolis, the first monument to come to mind is the Parthenon. The largest Doric temple to be completed in Greece – the Parthenon encapsulates ancient Greece’s glory.
The Parthenon was built completely of Pentelic marble except for its wooden roof. The ceiling was painted blue with gold stars, similar to that of the Propylaea. Eight doric columns made up the facade and 17 columns lined each side of the temple.
Built in 15 years, the Parthenon was to serve two purposes- to act as the new treasury and to house a great 12 metre high, golden, statue of Athena, the Athena Polias (Athena of the City).
This magnificent statue of the armed Goddess was taken to Constantinople in AD 426, where it unfortunately disappeared…
It really is difficult when looking up at the Acropolis to get your head around just how old the temples are – it is amazing. You learn so much about the ancient Greeks growing up and the Acropolis together with the Parthenon are central to the images you recognise. I, for one, was super excited about seeing it in front of me in real life.
The steep path up from this point takes you up to the base of the Philopappou Hill where sits the Church of Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris. This 16th-century church is the site of a reported miracle in 1648. The Turks, ensconced on the Acropolis, prepared to fire a cannon on worshippers gathered in the church, but the gunner was killed by lightning, saving the congregation. Hence its name, Loumbardiaris (‘of the cannon’).
After admiring the church for a little while we continued up the hill until we found ourselves at the magnificent Pnyx. Greece is well-known as the birthplace of democracy, and you can visit the literal epicentre of it all at this incredible lookout spot. Pnyx literally translates as ”tightly packed together” which makes sense here as this was where Ancient Athenians held their public assemblies. It was on this spot that famous figures such as Pericles delivered some of history’s most important speeches. This area is super fascinating to wander round, the walls are ancient microphones (designed in such a way that when you speak at them, your voice is amplified) and, of course, the views out across the city are breathtaking.
My favourite part of being up on this hill was however, strangely, time spent looking down at the ground…. ‘see all the orange coloured rocks on the floor?’ asked Euphrosyne, ‘those are not actually rocks, but ancient pieces of pottery from the area’. At first, I may have been a little sceptical at this thought – that was however until Euphrosyne picked one random piece and was able to show us the glaze and ancient grooves on the small piece of terracotta. It was amazing. So cool to be in a place where it’s ancient history is literally right in front of you… or under you Adidas sliders at least…
After spending some time up on the hill, we began to wander back down to ground level. We did take a quick stop off at the edge of the Pnyx where Euphrosyne pointed out to us the craftsmanship of the construction of the ancient walls ‘see how they all fit together like a jigsaw?’. It was interesting to hear a little about the plight of the slaves who were tasked with the erection of these sorts of buildings such a long time ago. I for one am pleased I wasn’t tasked with such a laboursome task in the suffocating heat of Athens…
After walking back down the hill we found ourselves in vibrant Thiseio, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Athens. Today, Thiseio is the busiest of the three neighbourhoods surrounding Philopappou Hill. This area of the city, amongst a number of archaeological gems, famously houses the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an open air stone theatre dating back to 161 AD. Nowadays there are still theatre shows and film screenings at the theatre – I would have loved to have visited if I had enough time… next time!
Interestingly, the neighbourhood denotes its name from the legend of the mythical king and hero founder of Athens; Theseus.
Greek mythology dictates that every year seven men and women from ancient Athens were sent to the island of Crete to become sacrifices to the minotaur, the half human, half bull which inhabited a labyrinth of such complex construction, that no one could ever escape alive. One year Theseus, son of the current King, Aegeus decided to be one of the seven young men that would go to Crete. King Aegeus tried to make him change his mind but Theseus was determined to slay the Minotaur. Theseus promised his father that he would put up white sails coming back from Crete, allowing him to know in advance that he was coming back alive. The boat would return with the black sails if Theseus was killed… Now on the island, at the foot of the labyrinth, Theseus met Princess Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, who fell madly in love with him and decided to help him with his mission. She gave him a spool of thread and told him to unravel it as he ventured deeper and deeper into the Labyrinth, so that he knows the way out when he kills the monster. Theseus followed her suggestion and entered the labyrinth with the thread. Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur and save the Athenians, and with Ariadne’s thread he managed to retrace his way out. On the journey in the boat back to Athens, Theseus and his new love Ariadne fell asleep and Theseus forgot to adorn the ship with white sails. King Aegeus was waiting at Cape Sounion to see the sails of the boat. He saw the black sails from afar and presumed his son was dead. He dropped himself to the waters, committing suicide and since then, this sea is called the Aegean Sea….
After wandering through the centre of Thiseio, the sun had started to set and we were treated to amazing views out across the Temple of Hephaestus. This temple is apparently the best preserved ancient temple in the whole of Greece. It was dedicated to Hephaestus, the ancient god of fire and Athena, goddess of pottery and crafts. According to the archaeologists, the temple was built around 450 B.C. at the western edge of the city, on top of Agoreos Koronos hill, and it is a classical example of Dorian architecture. The temple was designed by Iktinus, one of the talented architects who also worked on Parthenon. It was pretty stunning, I still find it difficult to get my head around dates which are BC!
From here we wandered back down into Monasthraki where our tour came to an end. I had been in this area earlier in day but Euphrosyne still managed to point out something super cool which I had completely failed to notice on my own. Back in 2003 when the metro was being constructed, a major archaeological find was discovered. Deep under the ground parts of the ancient city were found including a stream that was not known to be in existence. It’s pretty incredible to think that even in recent years we are still making these discoveries. The city have preserved these findings by covering them with glass to make them viewable to the public – it really is fascinating. Apparently The biggest excavation programme ever accomplished in Greece was during the construction of Athens metropolitan railway during the period of 1993-2000. More than 50.000 findings came to light during the metro underground digging works!
After saying goodbye to Euphrosyne and the rest of the group me and two Canadian girls I met on the tour had a little wander down the lovely streets teaming with bars and restaurants. After a little while we all went our separate ways and I started to make my way back across to the hotel. I couldn’t resist stopping off for a late dinner however, and everyone said to me ‘you must try a Gyros in Athens’ – ok then, Gyros it was! I stopped off at Savvas for a chicken gyros and a beer – I think it cost me about three euros total. Bargain.
Now pretty exhausted from the day, I headed back to the hotel for a good night sleep! Catriona arrived at about 2am and only two hours later at 4am we were up and about ready to get a taxi to Pireaus Port for our ferry across to the island of Foleghandros – wedding time!
After a stunning few days on Foleghandros celebrating Ryan and Noell’s amazing wedding, I found myself back in Athens (in the blistering 42 degree heat) for the day before my flight left late evening. I hopped in a taxi from the port into the city and spent the entire half an hour journey with my driver, Costadinos, trying to persuade me that I should let him take me out for dinner…. I politely declined and asked if he would drop me off at the New Acropolis Museum instead…
I had heard amazing things about the New Acropolis Museum, so after not having the time to make a visit on my first day in the city, I was super excited about paying it a visit now. As you approach the entrance to the museum, below your feet you will see the archaeological excavation of an ancient Athenian neighbourhood through both an open area and glass floor. Clearly visible are the remains of streets and houses, bathhouses and workshops. Although much of what you can see today dates to the late antiquity and early Byzantine periods (7th – 9th century AD), there are still traces of Athens from the fifth century BC. Pretty cool stuff!
Inside the museum, the exhibits are cleverly arranged in the order they are naturally found. As you enter in the main level you see an incline to the second level. This slope simulates the walk up the Acropolis and every day artefacts uncovered on the slopes are displayed here. The second level displays finds from the archaic period which preceded the building of the Parthenon. The airy gallery holds an amazing collection of marble statues which I find almost impossible to believe could date as far back as 5th century BC – lots of them still had colour detailing to them!
The fourth level contains the Parthenon Gallery, exhibiting marbles (statues) from the pediments, the frieze and the metopes. This was my favourite floor as the exhibits were laid out in the exact way they would have appeared on the Parthenon which gave you a great idea of the scale and layout. Even better, this floor has an absolutely amazing view out across the Acropolis.
I spent about three hours in total wandering around the museum, probably a little more time than I had intended… With only a couple of hours until I had to head back to the airport, I left the confines of the air conditioned galleries and braved the sweltering heat of the city. I didn’t venture too far however, and settled on a little restaurant called Adnuai Bistro which had lovely views out across to the Acropolis in the distance. For my last meal in Greece I thought it would be rude not to have one final portion of tzatziki along with the most delicious moussaka. The wine was obviously obligatory before hopping back on the metro and making my way to Athens Airport.
Athens was such an amazingly interesting city, I’d love to spend some more time exploring but having little more than 24 hours in the city, I feel I managed to cram as much in as humanely possible.