Visiting Athens is like visiting three cities at once. There’s the modern city with its block-like buildings jammed up to one another and with little difference between them other than color. Then you see the Roman city scattered about; the Temple of Zeus, Hadrian’s Gate and the Roman Agora. But what most visitors, ourselves included, want to see is the ancient Greek city; The Agora, the Odeon of Dionysus and of course the Acropolis with the Parthenon on top. We visited all three aspects of Athens, but this post is primarily about the ancient city.
We stayed at the Royal Olympic Hotel which is ideally situated across the street from the Temple of Zeus and a short walk from the Plaka; the old historical neighborhood of Athens. The hotel is also a short walk from the Acropolis Museum, Syntagma Square (where the Greek parliament and the Presidential Guards are located) and most other Athens attractions. However, our favorite thing about the Royal Olympic is the rooftop restaurant where you can relax sipping Greek Retsina wine, munching on warm almonds and enjoying the incredible views of the Temple of Zeus and the Parthenon. This is where we ended each of our days in Athens.
Athens is centered around the Acropolis, a fortified butte towering 500 above the city. On top of the Acropolis is a clutter of ancient wonders, most notably the Parthenon; arguably one of the most recognized ancient monuments in the world. First on our agenda was a guided tour of this wonder!
We entered through the Propylaia with its huge Doric columns and ceiling tiles that weighed tons. Then we saw the Temple of Athena Nike which is so delicate in comparison and which seemed almost new even though it was built around 430 BC! Then you crest the hill and there it is…the Parthenon! Even though it’s surrounded by cranes and scaffolding it is still breathtaking. Its massive yet delicate Doric columns are majestic and the entire building is simply magical. Our guide tells us of the Parthenon’s history: completed in 438 BC and serving as a temple to Athena for almost a thousand years. Since then it has been a treasury, a Christian church, an Islamic mosque and a fortress. It’s been damaged many times over the years; most significantly when a gunpowder magazine inside was blown up by Venetian mortar in 1687. All that history adds up to making the Parthenon magnificent!
Our tour of the Acropolis lasted about two hours with overviews of all the temples and ruins. It included a walk through “gardens” of ruins where there were stacks upon stacks of carved stones, waiting their turn to be put back into the giant puzzle of the ancient ruins. The tour was great, but we barely had time to digest what we were seeing and we were hungry for more.
Two days later we took our own tour of the Acropolis. We started from our hotel, first stopping at the Theater of Dionysis, built in the 4th century BC at the base of the Acropolis. Here, up to 17,000 ancient Greeks gathered at the foot of the Acropolis to watch dramas written by the likes of Sophocles and Euripides. At floor level were carved stone chairs for the rich and powerful. Higher up were the cheap seats; bleachers carved from stone yet still providing a great view of the stage below.
We continued to climb the site of the Acropolis following a gently curving and inclining path up the side. Almost at the top we came across another ancient theater: the Odeon of Herodes Atticus built in the second century, seating about 5000 people and still in use today!
Finally, we were back at the top of the Acropolis! This time we had all the time we wanted to wander around and marvel at the Parthenon, the Porch of the Caryatids, the hundreds of carved and engraved stones and the incredible views of Athens below. This was one of my favorite days of my traveling life!
Of course there’s more to Athens than just the Acropolis. There are Roman and Greek ruins scattered around the city. There’s the amazing changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Also not to be missed is the Acropolis Museum. And you can’t visit the city without visiting the National Archeological Museum to take in sights such as the golden mask of Agamemnon. There’s so much to see that you might forget to relax, but of course you won’t forget because you’ll be drawn to the Plaka.
Ahhh…the Plaka. This is the ancient city in the shadow of the Acropolis. Here most streets are closed to traffic and you’ll find restaurants, cafes, music and every kind of Greek souvenir you can imagine! We spent much of each day and most evenings here…wandering, tasting, listening and visiting. I can’t count the number of Greek dishes we tried…nor can I count the number of times we were given food that we didn’t order…just so we could try it! Most times our order consisted of a carafe of retsina (Greek wine with a taste of pine) and a selection of meze: Greek appetizers which ranged from olives drizzled in olive oil, to saganaki (fried cheese), to Greek salad, and of course the ever present tzatziki made from yogurt, cucumbers and olive oil.
I’m still not sure what I liked most about Athens; was it the incredible ancient architecture, the wonderfully hospitable people or the awesome food? No matter, the sum of all these parts made Athens one of our favorite cities we’ve ever visited.