A symbol of Western Civilization at its most magnificent, Athens boasts an illustrious history that stretches back more than 3,000 years. The city flourished during classical antiquity and was the birthplace of Socrates, Pericles, and Sophocles. More than just a relic of its glorious past, today Athens is a bustling and modern capital city. A completely different vacation experience from the idyllic Greek islands, Athens can feel hectic and crowded but compensates with amazing cultural attractions. The Acropolis is one of the world's most breathtaking ancient ruins, and the city's exceptional archaeology museums display fascinating artifacts uncovered at local sites. Other hidden charms awaiting discovery are the dazzling Byzantine churches found all over the city and the village-like neighborhoods north of the Acropolis. Tourists will enjoy getting lost in the Plaka district's narrow pedestrian streets, lined with quaint bougainvillea-draped houses and inviting restaurant terraces.
Few sights in the world compare to Athens' Acropolis, with its Parthenon temple perched high on a rocky crag keeping watch over centuries of civilization. A reminder of the glory of ancient Athens, the Acropolis was the center of the ancient city and functioned as a citadel in its protected hilltop location. The most emblematic building is the Parthenon, the largest temple of the classical antiquity period dating from 447 BC to 338 BC. With its monumental rows of Doric columns and stunning sculptural details, the temple is an awe-inspiring sight. In the frieze on the eastern side, reliefs depict the birth of the goddess Athena. Other ruins of the Acropolis include the Erechtheion, a complex of ancient sanctuaries built between 421 BC and 395 BC. The most famous feature of the Erechtheion complex is the Porch of the Caryatids, with six statues of maidens in place of Doric columns.
Be sure to also visit the Acropolis Museum at 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, below the Acropolis hilltop. This museum contains one of the most valuable collections of ancient Greek art in the world. Also nearby are two interesting neighborhoods, Plaka and Anafiotika, charming areas to stop for a meal and stroll around the picturesque pedestrian streets.
Founded in the 19th century, Athens' National Archaeological Museum is the largest archaeological museum in Greece and one of the greatest antiquities museums in the world. The museum is housed in an impressive Neoclassical building with 8,000 square meters of exhibition space. On display are five permanent collections with more than 11,000 exhibits, offering a comprehensive overview of Greek civilization from prehistory through the classical period to late antiquity. The Prehistoric Collection covers the sixth millennium BC to 1050 BC (the Neolithic, Cycladic, and Mycenaean periods) and presents findings from the prehistoric settlement at Thera. The Sculpture Collection exhibits ancient Greek sculptures from the sixth century BC to the fifth century BC, including rare masterpieces. The Vase and Decorative Objects Collection showcases ancient Greek pottery from the 11th century BC all the way until the classical Roman period. The Stathatos Collection features minor objects from a wide range of historical periods. Exquisite little statues and figurines sculpted from metals are on display in the Metallurgy Collection.
The ancient Agora was the marketplace and the center of everyday life in ancient Athens. For an impressive view of the Agora from afar, head to the north wall of the Acropolis or the roads from the Areopagus. The best place to enter the Agora is at the north gate off Adrianoú Street (near the Church of Saint Philip). The Greek word "Agora" means to "gather and orate," indicating that this site was a location of public speaking. The Agora was a place of administration and commerce as well as the meeting place of the Agora tou Dimou, a civic decision-making group. Athletic events and theater performances were also held here. One particularly interesting feature of the Agora is the 18-meter-long Royal Stoa, the seat of the Archon Basileus, who took over the cultic functions of the earlier kings. This sixth-century BC stoa may have been the scene of Socrates' trial in 399 BC.
From the Agora, tourists can take a pleasant walk along the footpath that leads up the Agora Hill (Kolonos Agoraios). On the hilltop at 24 Andrianou Street is an awe-inspiring sight, the Temple of Hephaistos. This fifth-century BC Doric temple is one of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples, thanks to its conversion into a Christian church, which saved it from destruction. The temple was designed on a classical plan with six rows of 13 columns, and the Ionic friezes appear to be modeled on the Parthenon. Across from the Roman Agora, only 16 meters away, is the site of the ancient Library of Hadrian, a complex of buildings founded by Emperor Hadrian after AD 132.
Ancient Athens's largest building, the Panathenaic Stadium, has a capacity for 60,000 spectators. Constructed around 335 BC during the era of Herodes Atticus, the venue hosted the Panathenaic Games where runners competed in races around the track. The 204-meter-long track was designed with four double herms, where runners would turn in the races. Around AD 140, the stadium was updated with new marble seating by Herodes Atticus. The structure that tourists see today is a replica of the original stadium, which was rebuilt for the Olympic Games of 1896. This modern-era Olympic Stadium was created in the identical fashion as the Panathenaic Stadium, with 47 tiers of seating and a rounded southeast end.
Between the northern slopes of the Acropolis and Ermoú Street, the picturesque Pláka neighborhood boasts two important archaeological sites on Pepopida Street: the first-century BC Roman Agora and the second-century Library of Hadrian. However, the main attraction of this historic area is its charming village ambience. Narrow pedestrian streets and the cheerful little squares of the Pláka quarter are lined with lovely bougainvillea-trimmed pastel-painted houses. Tucked away in peaceful corners of the neighborhood are historic churches, such as the Metamórfosis Church in the southwest and the Church of Kapnikaréa in the north. The picturesque setting invites leisurely strolls.
The Plaka quarter has an abundance of authentic Greek restaurants with inviting terrace seating. The area is famous for its Restaurant Staircase on Mnisikleous Street. Many of the restaurants look enticing but most are tourist traps (with aggressive hosts baiting passersby to enter) and should be avoided. Consult a guidebook or ask a local for recommendations before choosing a restaurant in this area, or instead try the quieter streets hidden away on the hillside, which conceal cute little cafés and tavernas. Also nestled into the slopes north of the Acropolis is Anafiotika, another atmospheric village-like neighborhood where tourists can enjoy a traditional Greek meal. The winding medieval streets of this Anafiotika are also a delight to explore.