Mythology, drama, philosophy and democracy: Athens is the cradle of western thought and civilisation, and its 3,000-year history lives on its architecture and ruins, But the Greek capital is also famous for its more recent achievements, including its millenary Byzantine churches, which sit, plainly, in the middle of streets or atop sloping cliffs. Traces of the Ottoman empire can still be found in the local architecture and food, while nineteenth-century neoclassicism adds an additional feeling of opulence to the city centre.
Athens is bubbling with energy and creativity. Art and enthusiasm manifest themselves in political debates, theatre productions and even on the walls of abandoned buildings, given that it’s one of best places in Europe for mural art. Here, you’ll find creative surprises on practically every street corner, and even on your dinner plate. Read on to find out more about the 30 best things to see in Athens on a Costa Cruise.
- Acropolis of Athens and the Parthenon
- Arch of Hadrian
- Old Parliament House
- Acropolis Museum
- Syntagma Square
- The Erechtheion
- Corinth Canal
- Ancient Corinth
- Plaka District
- The Temple of Athena Nike
- Ancient Agora
- Andrea Syngrou Avenue
- Temple of Olympian Zeus
- Athens National Archaeological Museum
- Mount Lycabettus
- Panathenaic Stadium
- Museum of Cycladic Art
- Benaki Museum
- National Garden and Zappeion Gardens
- Ermou Street
- Monastiraki District
- Philopappos Hill
- Roman Agora
- Temple of Hephaestus
- Gazi District
- Central Market
- Near Athens: Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon
- Near Athens: Mycenae, Epidaurus and Nafplio
- Near Athens: Delphi
Acropolis of Athens and the Parthenon
The Acropolis is perhaps Athens’ most emblematic city attraction. This UNESCO World Heritage site sits on a hill in the capital at 156 metres above sea level and is one of Greece’s most popular places to visit. At the top, you’ll find the Parthenon – one of the Acropolis’ most famous monuments – which is dedicated to the goddess Athena. It’s made entirely of marble and weighs a record-breaking 20,000 tonnes. It was Pericles who originally requested the construction of the Acropolis’ buildings and places of worship back in the fifth century BC, which is also home to the four wonders of classical Greek art. In addition to the Parthenon, you can admire the majestic Propylaea entrances, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike.
This is a wonderfully eye-catching site. Here, you can admire the clever balance between looming buildings and the surrounding landscape. The Acropolis has been damaged many times over the centuries, starting in the Byzantine era, when the temples were transformed into churches and their treasures pilfered. In 1456, the Turks seized Athens and the temple was turned into a mosque, while the Erechtheion was turned into a harem for the Turkish governor.
The Acropolis was seriously damaged in 1687, when the Venetian army blew up the Parthenon, which the Turks had been using as an ammunition dump. The devastation and looting continued into the 1800s, when the ambassador to the King of England, Lord Elgin, decided to purloin a few precious marble statues and transport them back to the UK. You can visit them in the British Museum to this day.
Arch of Hadrian
Also known by its less popular name of Constitution Square, Syntagma Square is the city’s cultural and social beating heart. A setting filled with monuments, charm and the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it’s very conveniently located next to a metro station. It’s also a great place to relax with a coffee while you watch the famous changing of the guards.
Known as evzones, Athens’ majestic guards sport eye-catching uniforms inspired by the armed mountain unit that fought during the war of independence. You can visit most of the city’s attractions and interesting museums from Syntagma Square, including the Benaki Museum of Cycladic Art and the Byzantine Museum. It also has excellent transport links to Athens’ main shopping districts.
The Erechtheion is one of the wonders of the Acropolis and an incredibly interesting one at that. It has an asymmetrical layout and sports both Ionic and Corinthian architecture. The Erechtheion is fairly simple in style and was built to host religious rituals during the Peloponnesian war. The building’s east side pays tribute to Athena Polias, while its west side references Poseidon. You might also be interested to know that the building houses two arcades, one supported by Ionic columns, and the second by six Caryatid statues measuring about six metres tall. The maidens support the structure with the weight of their heads and are copies of the originals, which are now housed in the Acropolis museum.
The Erechtheion temple has had a fairly troubled history, resulting in several reconstruction works over the centuries. It was burnt to the ground in the first century BC. Then, in 600 AD, it was transformed into a Christian basilica and finally into a harem during Ottoman rule, during which time the north porch was walled up.
After all that history, we recommend exploring the lively district of Plaka, just below the Acropolis. Here, you’ll be met with a colourful and vibrant atmosphere, as well as lots of boutiques, and restaurants selling local food. After a decent break, we recommend exploring its winding passages and streets, or perhaps giving in to your shopping impulses on one of the many pedestrianised streets in search of the perfect souvenir.
This particular area is jam-packed with elegant, neoclassical buildings and modern balconies overflowing with jasmine. Plaka was initially a workers’ quarter, but is now one of the most touristic and popular spots in Greece. It’s also home to numerous cultural centres, museums and monuments, including Lisicrate: a Corinthian style temple.
The Temple of Athena Nike
A fairly petite jewel in Acropolis’ crown, the temple of Athena Nike is the smallest building in the complex at just 18 meters wide and 27 metres long. You’ll find it in the southwest corner of the site, and it was the architect Callicrate who constructed it from limestone topped with marble to celebrate the goddess of victory. A number of interesting discoveries have been made here in more recent years. In the temple’s central section, you’ll find friezes depicting battle scenes between the Persians and Greeks while, in the eastern part, you can spot the Olympian gods observing war scenes.
According to historical records, there was once a statue of the goddess Apteros Nike here, who had a very strong symbolic value. The statue was sculpted without wings, so that Apteros could never leave Athens. The statue was seen as a good omen by the locals.
The Agora was once Ancient Greece’s political, administrative, religious and social hub. A place for administering justice and going about daily life next to a town square, which was where the concept of democracy was born. Excavations began at the foot of the Acropolis in 1931 after permission was granted to purchase and subsequently demolish over 400 modern buildings.
Archaeologists unearthed a wonderful opportunity to travel back in time. In fact, citizens once gathered in the Agora to carry out daily social activities, and it was also home to a number of elegant buildings. Its extensive colonnades were used as meeting places, as well as to solve neighbourhood disputes, to negotiate trade deals, or simply for a chat or debate.
The Agora also contained a market area, which was home to numerous crowded shops owned by potters, shoemakers and even sculptors and artists. The Agora’s small temples and shrines also help to shed light on its religious importance, while the library points to its cultural significance. The Agora underwent numerous restoration works over the years: the first of which occurred after Athens was completely destroyed by the Persians.
In the fifth century BC, the Agora’s town square became a key trading place for great statesmen, including Pericles, Demosthenes and Themistocles. However, it was primarily a cultural space used by writers such as Thucydides and Herodotus, poets such as Sophocles and Aristophanes, and debaters and philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
A behemoth: the Temple of Zeus was the largest place of worship in all of ancient Greece, and you’ll find it between the Acropolis and Syntagma Square. Historical accounts suggest that this gigantic white marble structure took almost 700 years to build, but that’s only one theory. Once upon a time, it featured 104 huge Corinthian columns that dazzled the local citizens of Athens. Nowadays, however, only fifteen columns remain intact, after one fell over during a storm in 1852.
Featuring columns measuring 170cm in diameter and 17 metres in height, the temple was originally 96 metres long and 40 metres wide. We recommend taking a trip to admire the remains by the light of the moon, as it’s a truly unique experience in an unparalleled setting.
Athens National Archaeological Museum
A real treasure trove, the National Archaeological Museum houses numerous Greek archaeological riches, which you can admire in a chronological exhibit. The statistics speak for themselves: the museum is home to over 11,000 objects in at least seven different collections. And there are so many treasures to discover while you’re in here, including the Jockey of Artemision, an incredibly realistic bronze statue, and the head of Zeus, which supposedly once belonged to a seven-metre tall statue.
Make sure you also dedicate some time to the Mycenaean treasures, which range from gold masks of Agamemnon found in Mycenae to vases, ceramics and jewellery. You’ll also find information on the Neolithic period and ruins from the Cycladic civilisation, as well as a number of picturesque statues.
Charming, beautiful places often come with fascinating stories and mythical legends. And Mount Lycabettus is a prime example. Legend has it that the goddess Athena wanted her temple in the Acropolis to be as close to heaven as possible. In order to make it a reality, she decided to place a large boulder on top of a hill. As she was carrying the 278-metre boulder, she accidentally dropped it, thereby forming Mount Lycabettus. According to ancient accounts, the area, which is famous for its large pine forest, was once inhabited by wolves, and its name may potentially mean ‘mountain of wolves’ in Greek.
Thousands of years ago, the hill was thick with luxuriant vegetation and was also supposedly home to a temple dedicated to Zeus. Everything changed during the Turkish occupation, when the area was left to fall into disrepair. In 1915, it underwent yet another radical transformation: deforestation, which turned the hill into the mount it is today.
It really doesn’t look as old as it is, but the majestic Panathenaic Stadium was built all the way back in the fourth century BC to host athletics, sports tournaments and numerous artistic competitions as part of the Panathenaic Games, along with religious feasts dedicated to Athena. There is no shortage of legends accompanying its construction. It is said that in 120 AD, more than 1,000 wild animals were sacrificed in the arena to mark the beginning of Emperor Hadrian’s rule. The stadium was later redeveloped, and the original seats were replaced with marble at the behest of Herodes Atticus.
The stadium is located between the Mets and Pangráti neighbourhoods in the middle of a basin surrounded by two verdant hills. The stadium went through years of decline and abandonment, until 1895, when the Greek tycoon Georgios Averof decided to restore it to host the Olympic games, which were the first to take place in modern times. The current stadium is a faithful reproduction of the ancient stadium, including the Pentelic marble seating designed to accommodate 70,000 spectators, as well as a running track.
It’s still frequently used to this day. The stadium hosted both the archery and marathon events during the 2004 Olympic Games. It’s also often used as a venue for public occasions and concerts and maintains strong links with the sporting world, with the Athens marathon ending at the stadium every year.
Museum of Cycladic Art
The Museum of Cycladic Art hosts exhibits on Cyprus, Ancient Greece and the Cyclades and features over 5,000 artefacts split into different themes across four floors. Cycladic art is the star of the show on the first floor, which is where you’ll find images, along with metal, clay and marble objects spanning 1,200 years (from 3200 to 2000 BC). The second floor is dedicated to Ancient Greek art.
In addition to vases, jewellery, pottery, weapons and crystal artefacts, the Cyprus exhibition also features several marble, bronze and silver objects dating all the way back to the Byzantine era. The final section of the museum explores everyday life in Ancient Greece, and features 140 objects.
National Garden and Zappeion Gardens
A neighbourhood that is symbolic of Athens and mostly famous for one thing: its flea market. Monastiraki can satisfy pretty much any need with its pretty boutiques selling clothes, records, tools and even paintings. And if you still can’t find anything that catches your eye, we recommend popping into a jewellery shop, where you can take in the lively atmosphere, colours and even a little bit of healthy confusion.
Monastiraki still embraces its Eastern atmosphere and influence after once representing the Ottoman centre of ancient Athens. If you want to explore its history, we recommend visiting either the bazaars or two local mosques. The neighbourhood owes its name to the tenth-century church located right outside the metro station.
In the district of Plaka, near the Ancient Agora, you’ll find the Roman Agora. But don’t expect the two sites to be anything alike, because this structure is much larger and more substantial. It was Emperor Augustus who started the construction works that were later completed by Hadrian. The original structure occupied an area of 100 square metres and featured public toilets, a market and various shops.
The area was surrounded by an Ionian-style colonnade and marble courtyard, and only a few sections of the original courtyard, colonnade and public toilets remain. In the western area of the Agora, you’ll also find the Tower of the Winds – a polygonal building that once housed a public clock, before being used as a chapel from the sixth century onwards.
Temple of Hephaestus
A lively LGBT-friendly neighbourhood with lots of things to do, the Gazi district was originally named after a gas factory which opened its doors in 1864. The district has undergone several redevelopment projects over the years, including the creation of Technopolis, the city’s largest cultural centre.
The neighbourhood occupies 30,000 square metres and is a great place to attend evening events. The area is home to over 20 theatres and more than 60 restaurants, clubs and bars. You’ll also find no shortage of places to enjoy live music, and there’s even an outdoor cinema.
This is a very popular area of town and a great place to get to know local Athenians. Central market is located in a fascinating early-twentieth-century building and just like any self-respecting market, it has no shortage of folklore surrounding its resident vendors, who often shout at and rail against each other. The market is divided into various different areas selling all sorts of local delicacies, and you’ll find the fishmongers in the central area.
Meat is sold outside, and butchers often prepare cuts of meat with a lot of pizazz. The market is home to an incredible amount of variety, including 100 butchers, 150 fishmongers and at least 80 green grocers.
Near Athens: Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon
Near Athens: Mycenae, Epidaurus and Naupli
Make sure you visit the home town of Agamemnon, who commanded the Greek armed forces during the Trojan war. Mycenae, which is located 120 kilometres from Athens, was a very important, rich and influential city-state in antiquity. In fact, it was the Iliad that led to the discovery of its remains in the late 1800s at the hands of the German archaeologist Schliemann. Today, you can step foot in this mythical city through Lion Gate, before wandering the streets and alleyways that were once home to kings, warriors and maidservants. You can also marvel at the cyclopean walls and remains of Agamennon’s palace and tomb.
While you’re here, we recommend visiting Epidaurus, the birthplace of Apollo, which is famous for its wonderfully preserved theatre and amazing acoustics. You can also stop by the Museum of Epidaurus if you want to learn a bit about ancient medical practices. Nafplio is also worth a mention as it’s a great place for a trip to local bars and restaurants, as well as the historic old town, archaeological ruins and the Fortress of Palamidi.
Near Athens: Delphi
An unbreakable bond: Delphi and the Oracle. This is a must-visit destination thanks to its fascinating history, mysticism and legends. According to ancient beliefs, the Pythia – the high priestess of the temple of Apollo – used to deliver very important yet cryptic prophecies here. At the temple, the Pythia could help you decide whether or not to go to war, how to fight a famine, how to ingratiate yourself with the gods or where to found a new city.
Although you might no longer be able to benefit from the Pythia’s prophecies, you can still enjoy the remains of many mythical buildings in Delphi’s city centre, which is also full of great local businesses and walking routes. We also recommend a visit to the Archaeological museum. Delphi is located a hundred kilometres from Athens.
Explore Athens with Costa
An open-air museum and hotchpotch of archaeological sites and monuments, Athens is a unique city with over 3,000 years of history to its name. But it’s also a forward-thinking place thanks to its dynamism and creativity spanning art, culture and unrivalled gastronomy. There’s also no shortage of markets, scenic settings and opportunities to relax. It’s a special place with very friendly locals, and we thoroughly recommend stopping by for a visit on your next holiday.