In my last Athens blog, I talked about the architectural and archaeological wonders that make up the Acropolis, unquestionably Athens’ finest and most famous offering. And yet, move beyond the hilltop temples and gates and you’ll uncover a plethora of additional treasures, both ancient and modern, which, mixed together, make Athens such a fascinating city break destination.
Symbolically the political, administrative, commercial and social heart of ancient Athens, the Agora represented the epicentre of daily activity in the city, where market traders and merchants once mixed with politicians and philosophers. Indeed, Socrates was said to have extolled his philosophic ideas and values here in the Stoa of Attalos, in ancient times an early shopping arcade and today home to the Museum of Agora, containing a wide range of varied objects uncovered during the excavation of the site. You’ll also find here the Temple of Haephaistos (also known as Hephaisteion) dating back to the 5th century BC, dedicated to the Gods of Hephaistos (God of Metalworkers) and Athena. Today listed as a national monument, the Hephaisteion is considered the best-preserved ancient temple in all of Greece and is arguably as impressive as the Pantheon.
Whilst the Hephaisteion may claim to be the best-preserved temple in Greece, it is the Temple of Olympian Zeus that holds the title of being the largest temple not only in Greece but amongst the ancient world. Taking almost seven centuries to complete, construction on this massive temple devoted to the God of Gods began in the 6th century BC and was finally completed in 132 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Today only 15 of the original 104 marble columns, reaching 17 metres high, have survived the ravages of time and together with Hadrian’s Arch at the edge of the archaeological site, make for an impressive sight, particularly on summer evenings.
Set on the southern slopes of the Acropolis Hill, the Theatre of Dionysus (the patron God of Theatre) represents the birthplace of European theatre for it was here as early as 534 BC that the legendary Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Euripedes and Aeschylus and the comedies of Aristophanes were performed. As prominent in Roman times when gladiatorial duals and fights with wild animals were held, the temple is currently undergoing lengthy restoration works yet remains open to the public.
If you haven’t quite had your fill of archaeological ruins and remains, then a trip to the National Archaeological Museum is definitely a tick-box essential, for not only is it the largest and most important museum in Greece, it is also considered to hold, perhaps unsurprisingly, the world’s finest collection of Greek antiquities. With a portfolio contains sculptures, pottery, jewellery, frescoes and artefacts dating from the Neolithic era through to classical Antiquity, a visit here could easily take a full day as you wander amongst the countless treasures bringing to light century upon century of Greek history.
For a taste of a more modern Athens, head for Syntagma Square, the modern-day hub of Athens overlooked by the Hellenic Parliament Building, once known as the Royal Palace, on its eastern side. Originally called Palace Square, the square was rechristened Syntagma (meaning Constitution) Square following the uprising of 1843. Today it boasts statues, a fountain and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Parliament Building where, on the hour, the Changing of the Guard ceremony is always a big draw. Leading off from Syntagma Square is Ermou Street, Athens’ most prominent shopping thoroughfare leading west towards Monastiraki Square where, on the Plateia Avissynias, you’ll find a lively flea market selling all manner of antiques, handicrafts, bric-a-brac and handicrafts. The Central Market on Athinas meanwhile is also worth checking out for its fresh produce include countless varieties of olives.
Athens is renowned for its nightlife and there’s certainly no shortage of bars, tavernas and clubs across the city catering for all tastes and budgets. By day and by night, Athens will without fail delight!