Athens, Greece. Photo by Spencer Davis, Unsplash

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Athens, the capital of Greece, swirls with millions of visitors each year, most of whom come to explore and experience the cradle of Western democracy, art, and culture. Millennia’s old iconic temples, ancient ruins, and treasures – a visit to Athens is akin to taking a step back in time. The city’s history is more than 3400 years old. The first known democracy was considered to have been established here in the 6th century B. C.

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Athens, Greece. Photo by Arthur Yeti Unsplash
Athens, Greece. Photo by Arthur Yeti Unsplash

The Must-Sees of Athens

Thus it can be easy to get bogged down trying to perfect the list of attractions to visit and relish especially on a short trip to Athens. And so, here is a list of things to definitely see and do when you get to this city of glorious historical landmarks.

The Unforgettable Acropolis

A sightseeing trip in Athens must start on an ancient, rocky plateau that towers over the city. This is the Acropolis from the fifth century BC, dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war, and handicrafts and protector of the city. The Acropolis has been populated since the Neolithic Age of 4000 BC, according to experts who discovered pottery shards.

Admire the ruins of the fortification walls that were built around 1300 BC during the Mycenaean era. It was in the eighth century BC that the Acropolis became a sacred site when the first temple for Athena was built in a corner of the hill.

The Acropolis of the fifth century BC, from the golden age of Perikles, is the superlative expression of the grandeur and wealth of Athens at its greatest peak. The buildings built during this period are what attracts hordes of tourists from around the world.

You will start at one of the two gates built during a later era of the third century AD and head to the Propylaea, the gargantuan ceremonial gateway into the Acropolis.

This noteworthy classical period structure heralded the rebuilding of the Acropolis at the end of the Persian Wars in 449 BC. Nearby note the temple of Athena Nike, on the southern side of the Propylaea, a small temple, magnificent in its Ionic colonnaded structure, first completed in 420 BC and then reconstructed many, many times.

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Acropolis Athens, Greece. Photo by Constantinos Kollias, Unsplash
Acropolis Athens, Greece. Photo by Constantinos Kollias, Unsplash

The Awe-Inspiring Parthenon

Once you are at the Acropolis and walking among the splendid ruins, you will realize easily that the Parthenon is undoubtedly the most dramatic of all the ruins, the peerless hallmark of Greek civilization. Dedicated to the goddess Athena-Parthenos, it is a singular specimen of the Doric order, the simplest of the Classical Greek architectural styles.

Our first glimpse of the Parthenon happened to be from our taxi as we craned our collective necks upwards to spot the ethereal temple high above the modern city of Athens.

Completed in 438 BC, the Parthenon is extraordinary in its architectural refinement. Though as we all know it is now missing many of its important sculptures (chiefly the Elgin marbles that reside at the British Museum in London), it still will not diminish your viewing pleasure.

Ancient Artifacts at the Acropolis Museum

Not far from the Parthenon is the Acropolis Museum, which houses the artifacts of the Acropolis. The modern museum building is a reflection of its hallowed namesake in its architectural style. Along with the riches of the site of Acropolis, you can also view an excavation of a bygone area with its drainage systems, bathhouses, and intricate mosaics.

The Beauty of Plaka

A neighborhood located in the shadows of the Acropolis, Plaka is the oldest part of Athens. It is a large, mainly pedestrian area reaching almost into Syntagma Square. For short-term vacationers to Greece, like we were, Plaka with its tree-lined cobblestoned streets, offering wonderful views and a village-like aura brings the experience of being on one of those fabled Greek Islands which throng with tourists in the summer months.

Head here to walk amongst unique stores and boutiques selling local ceramics, (we loved the ones showing those fabled Greek Island Street views), clothing, and jewelry. Sip Greek coffee at one of the many sidewalk cafes or sample local food and wine at the tavernas. Stop by to look at more ancient sites like the Ancient Agora which also houses a museum or the Lysicrates Monument from 334 B. C.

Flowers in Corfu Greece. Photo by Bert Bohemian, Unsplash
Flowers in Corfu Greece. Photo by Bert Bohemian, Unsplash

The Busy Syntagma Square

Located in the center of Athens, Syntagma Square, also known as Constitution Square is a must-visit to get a feel of present-day Athens. A very busy spot where many roads intersect and also a transportation hub, the square is pretty important with regard to modern Greek politics.

This is where you will find the Greek Parliament which is located in the erstwhile Royal Palace that was built by King Otto, the first king of Greece in 1834. This is also where regular Athenians rose up in revolt against King Otto in 1843 to demand a constitution thus giving the square its name.

Note the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the parliament building honoring all the Greek soldiers lost in various conflicts and wars. You might catch the changing of the guard ceremony done every hour by two Presidential Guards or “Evzones” dressed in finery.

National Archeological Museum

If you’re a history enthusiast, you must visit the National Archeological Museum to get your fill of Ancient Greek art. Established at the end of the 19th century, the museum situated in central Athens is a treasure trove of artifacts housed in a striking building of neo-classical design.

As you walk through the extensive collections that range from prehistoric-era ceramics and jewelry to Cycladic and Mycenaean figurines, objects, carvings, and jewels to a vast Egyptian and Cypriot art collection, you will quickly realize the need to focus on a few important exhibits.

My favorite was the Poseidon of Melos statue from the 2nd century B.C. It is an awe-inspiringly imposing marble sculpture that towered in the room. Equally impressive is the magnificent bronze sculpture of perhaps Poseidon or Zeus from 460 B.C. in the Classical period. Do not miss the Mask of Agamemnon, a gold death mask from the Greek Bronze Age or the gorgeous gold cup known as Nestor’s cup from around 1600 B.C.

Church located inside Old Venetian Fortress, Corfu, Greece. Photo by Christopher Alvarenga, Unsplash
Church located inside Old Venetian Fortress, Corfu, Greece. Photo by Christopher Alvarenga, Unsplash

Museum of Cycladic Art

Cycladic art was an inspiration for many notable 20th-century modern art masters like Picasso, Henry Moore, Giacometti, and Modigliani. They were influenced by the pure and simplified prehistoric art forms, of 3000 B.C. from the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea.

The Museum of Cycladic Art, located in central Athens has a pre-eminent collection of Cycladic art as well as ancient Greek and ancient Cypriot art and artifacts. Admire the exquisite marble figurines that highlight the daily lives of the Cycladic people from the Bronze Age era. Also, enjoy the temporary exhibitions of the artworks of modern artists that offer a nice contrast to the iconic ancient art on display.

Funicular to Mount Lycabettus

For a short, fun experience, the Lycabettus Hill cable car is a must-do. Travel to the highest spot in Athens, Mount Lycabettus at 900 feet to enjoy a panoramic view of the city. While you can reach the summit on foot or by car, the funicular is certainly the most exciting. The three-minute journey is entirely through a tunnel and it runs throughout the year until midnight.

Once at the top, you can grab a bite to eat, enjoy nature, visit the chapels or if you are there in the summer months, take in a show at the theater constructed on the site of an old quarry.

Find out more information on visiting Athens here.

When To Visit

The weather can be scorchingly hot in Athens during July – August though the city gets packed with tourists even though temperatures can touch 104F. The ideal time to visit would be between the months of March – May and September – November when the Mediterranean climate is pleasant and comfortable. As it gets closer to winter, tourists’ numbers dwindle making it a pleasure to visit popular sites.

Roman Theatre in Athens. Photo by Enric Domas, Unsplash
Roman Theatre in Athens. Photo by Enric Domas, Unsplash

A Few Easy Day Trips

Though Athens is filled with places to see, a bit of diversion in the form of day trips outside the city can add extra pizazz to your vacation. We fitted in one excursion out of Athens due to our time-constrained vacation and it was totally worth it. But if you are on a leisurely holiday, Athens offers a variety of outings from the city. Here are a few excellent day tours:

Temple of Poseidon

Our choice of day trip, the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion was an easy 4-hour guided round trip by bus where we were picked up from our hotel as we selected that option. After a scenic route bus ride, we arrived at the archeologically significant Cape Sounion. Be ready to hike up steep hills to reach the 5th-century B.C. Temple of Poseidon, dedicated to the Sea God of Greek mythology. Walk among the ruins of white marble Doric-style columns and also enjoy the spectacular vista of the Saronic Gulf ocean.

Along with the magnificent temple, the site is also home to wall, port, and ship shed ruins as Cape Sounion was of vital importance to the ancient city-state of Athens.

Find more information here.

Delphi

A trip to Delphi is a must for lovers of ancient Greek history. At a distance of about 3 hours by road, Delphi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is definitely an unmissable day tour if you have the time.

You will see the Temple of Apollo, now a ruin of incredible Doric-style columns that overlook a spectacular landscape of the Parnassus mountain range. A little further up the slopes from the temple is the ancient theater along with other impressive ruins, all dating from the 6th – 4th century BC.

Find more information here.

Athens, Greece. Photo by Andrés Dallimonti, Unsplash
Athens, Greece. Photo by Andrés Dallimonti, Unsplash

Mycenae and Epidaurus

For those interested in both history and nature, a day tour of Mycenae and Epidaurus is the ideal choice. It will be an absolute delight for fans of Ancient Greece as you will see two UNESCO World Heritage sites.

It was from Mycenae that King Agamemnon declared war on the kingdom of Troy. Walk among the famous ruins and excavations to see the circular burial chambers, the tomb of Clytemnestra, the famous Lion Gate, and also the museum where you can find out more about the Mycenaean civilization which was at its peak from 1600 BC – 1100 BC.

The UNESCO site at Epidaurus consists of a theater which is an architectural marvel because of perfect acoustics and a temple to Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. Together with these spectacular ruins, you will also see other exemplary monuments from the 4th century BC, all laid out over a breathtaking natural vista.

Find more information here.

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Author Bio: Susmita Sengupta, an architect by background, from New York City, loves to travel with her family. She writes frequently for Go World Travel and other online travel magazines such as GoNomad, Matador Network, Travel thru History, In the Know Traveler and others.

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