If you do nothing else while in Athens, visit the Acropolis, or ‘High City’, a testament to the Golden Age of Greece. Perched atop a rocky outcrop, it dominates the modern city and is Greece’s most famous symbol. Foundations were laid here for a temple honoring Athena in 490 BC but were destroyed by the Persians; following the Susa peace treaty, Pericles undertook reconstruction on a monumental scale. Buildings include the architecturally complex Erechtheion temple, most sacred of the Acropolis shrines, and the Parthenon, built between 447 and 438 BC.
The museum is located by the southeastern slope of the Acropolis hill, on the ancient road that led up to the ‘sacred rock’ in classical times. Opened in 2009 The Acropolis Museum is an archaeological museum focused on the findings of the archaeological site of the Acropolis of Athens. The museum was built to house every artifact found on the rock and on its feet, from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece. It also lies on the archaeological site of Makrygianni and the ruins of a part of Roman and early Byzantine Athens.
This marketplace was the hub of ancient Athens: Here Socrates met with his students while merchants squabbled over the price of olive oil, the Assembly met before moving to the Pnyx, and locals gathered to talk about current events. The Agora first became important under Solon (6th century BC), who founded Athenian democracy; construction continued for almost a millennium. Today, the site’s sprawling confusion of stones, slabs, and foundations is dominated by the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece, the Hephaistion, built during the 5th century BC, and the impressive reconstructed Stoa of Attalos II, which houses the Museum of the Agora Excavations.
Besides an admirable collection of funerary stelae, urns, monuments, and korai, this museum’s prize exhibits include the exquisitely made Piraeus Kouros, probably a cult statue of Apollo from the 6th century BC; a 4th-century bronze of a pensive Athena; and two bronze versions of Artemis.
The only museum in Europe concentrating exclusively on Byzantine art, this collection is housed in the mansion of the Duchess of Plaisance, built from 1840 to 1848 by Kleanthis. Rooms are arranged to look like Greek churches of different eras, and the upper floor contains mostly icons, many quite valuable.
Goulandris Cycladic Museum
The museum has an outstanding collection dating from the Bronze Age, with especially notable slender marble figurines, the primitive Cycladic form of the Great Earth Mother. A new wing for special exhibits opened in 1994 in the gorgeous Stathatos Mansion.
This church snuggles up to the pompous Mitropolis, the ornate Cathedral of Athens. Also called Panayia Gorgoepikoos (the ‘Virgin Who Answers Prayers Quickly’) Little Mitropolis dates to the 12th century; its outer walls are covered with reliefs dating from the Classical to the Byzantine periods. Relief’s of figures and fanciful zodiac signs decorate slabs set above the entrance. Most of the paintings inside have been destroyed, but the famous 13th- to 14th-century Virgin, said to perform miracles, remains.
The most touristic part of the port of Piraeus, old-timers know this graceful small harbor as ‘Turkolimano’. Sitting under the awnings by the sea and watching the gaily-painted fishing boats is the next best thing to hopping a ferry for the islands. During high season, it’s a good idea to have lunch here, as many of the restaurants lining the harbor are packed in the evening.
National Archaeological Museum
Too huge to cover in one day, this magnificent collection extends from Neolithic to Roman times, with sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, and frescoes, to name but a little. The most celebrated finds are in the central Hall of Mycenaean Antiquities, Room 4, the stunning gold treasures from Schliemann’s excavations of Mycenae in 1876.
Plaka and Anafiotika
Plaka is the main residential and tourist district of Athens, inhabited since prehistoric times. The early 1980s witnessed a renewal of the area, which had been taken over by noisy discos and tacky pensions. The section of Plaka known as Anafiotika is the closest thing to a Cycladic village in the city. In the shadow of the Acropolis and still populated by many descendants of the original Anafi islanders who settled here, Anafiotika is an enchanting area of simple stone houses, nestled right into the bedrock, some changed little over the years, others stunningly restored.