Greece’s ancient capital may have dominated headlines this year, but it’s worth remembering that Athens was shaping the fate of the continent a thousand years before Europe was a glint in Napoleon’s eye. From Persian hordes to Roman conquerors, the city and its culture have endured through worse calamities – and as the Eurozone crisis betrays the fragility of institutions and bodies politic left, right and centre, now is the perfect time to witness the real Athens, as solid as the rock of the Acropolis, as stoic as Zeno and his gang.
And as a visitor (welcome in the city now perhaps more than ever), amid all the things to do in Athens, you’re being bounced between the millennia – whether you’re straining past a Segway tour to absorb the ancient architecture, admiring the anarchistic street art of Exarchia or strolling between marketplaces ancient and not-so in Monastiraki with an iced espresso in hand. Ancient history is anything but here, and to navigate the overwhelming display see our guide to ancient Athens.
Even if you manage to see past its classical-era underlay, wherever you look the city is threaded through with a sense of the venerable, the grandiose. Icon-filled churches dating back to the dawn of Christianity sit proudly on the city’s streets; the first Olympic stadium of the modern era, the Panathenaic Stadium, built in 1896, is a marvel of marble and geometry; the clean neoclassical eminence of 19th-century Athens – on spectacular show in and around the Academy of Athens and in the imposing Zappeion palace inside the National Gardens – is a tasteful complement to the crumbling columns of Pericles’s day.
Meanwhile, museums cluster the central districts. The National Archaeological Museum houses untold numbers of relics and priceless artefacts, while the relatively new Acropolis Museum (it opened in 2009) competes with its own exhibits for visitor-jolting wow-factor (don’t miss the glass-floored courtyard that suspends you over , or the stunning views from the fourth-floor Acropolis Gallery). In Athens there’s inspiration to be found in the widely known and the little seen, and there’s really only one question: in a storehouse of wonders accumulated over two-and-a-half thousand years, how much time have you got?
Panathenaic Stadium Vasileos Konstantinou Anevue. +30 210 75 22 9846.
Academy of Athens Leoforos Eleftheriou Venizelou 28. +30 21 0366 4700.
Zappeion National Gardens. +30 210 322 3509.
National Archaeological Museum 28is Oktoviou 44. +30 21 3214 4890.
Acropolis Museum Dionysiou Areopagitou 15. +30 21 0900 0900.
From the giddy heights of the Acropolis to the Socratic delights of the ancient marketplace – follow our guide to the archaeological highlights of classical Athens.
More sights and attractions in Athens
All of the above is essential viewing for the first-time visitor – but that’s only scratching the surface. Athens is a place that beautifully marries the classical and the eclectic, and nowhere is this more evident than the Kunsthalle Athena art centre, which exhibits contemporary oeuvres in a charmingly rustic building with neoclassical touches.
The Greek Parliament building in Syntagma Square is a sight worth seeing in itself, but more interesting is the local equivalent of the Queen’s Guard, the Evzones – a unit of stern-looking troops in distinctive regalia who stand motionless before the building, occasionally springing into synchronised routines. They make for a great photo op.
No trip to Athens would be complete without a jaunt around its oldest and most dynamic neighbourhood: Plaka. Its maze-like streets, which are a joy to get lost in on a sun-drenched day, are home to some of the city’s finest neoclassical architecture; but they double up as a kind of art gallery, their walls adorned with all manner of diverting graffiti – a nuisance elsewhere, a visual feast here.
Part of Plaka, often unexplored due to the intimidating gradients of its streets, is the cluster of steep steps, alleyways and residences called Anafiotika. This tiny neighbourhood in the shadow of the Acropolis is a little slice of the Aegean in the midst of the polis. It’s an isle of tranquility in the chaos, with its winding, sun-dappled streets, gardens in bloom and cute white-stoned chapel – a real haven where you’d least expect it.