The World's Historical Treasure
The biggest city in Greece, Athens has a population of about four million...and a past dating back to at least 800 B.C. It is the birthplace of the Olympics and hosted the 2004 games. Named for Athena, the revered goddess of Greek mythology, the city is for the most part surrounded by mountains, though it has a port—Pireas—that is one of the largest in the Mediterranean Sea.
Athens became a great naval power in the 7th and 8th Centuries B.C. The result? The Golden Age of Pericles, as it is known, in the 5th Century B.C., an era in which culture, democracy, and philosophy flourished. The period produced such great thinkers as philosophers Plato and Socrates, the mathematician Pythagoras, and the physician Hippocrates. The most well-known remain of the time is the ancient monument of Parthenon, a temple to the goddess Athena, among the monuments of the Acropolis.
In 146 B.C., all of Greece was occupied by the Romans. Though they were the conquerors, they essentially left the city intact and maintained Athens' vibrant personality. In the first years A.D., however, Gothic tribes invaded with much destruction and looting. Gradually, the city was integrated into the Byzantine Empire, resulting in the shutdown of Greece's renowned Philosophic Schools and the modification of the shrines to Christian temples. In the year 1214, Constantinople was occupied by the French, and the city of Athens was given to French dukes. Their successors were the Catalans, Neapolitans, and—in 1456—the Turks.
Greece did not regain its independence until 1833. At that time, Athens was considered little more than a city of ruins. However, the Greeks were determined to give their capital city a rebirth. They built new buildings in the same style as the old. In addition, the Acropolis and the other ancient monuments were restored to their previous glory.
Today's Athens is considered one of the safest and least expensive capitals in Europe. If you visit, you won't, of course, want to miss the Acropolis. The natural fortress can be seen peeking through the modern downtown buildings. It's amazing to think that the monument still stands after 2,500 years of weather, barbarians, politics, and pollution. The statues and frescoes that have survived have been moved inside the Acropolis Museum. The views from the Acropolis are stunning and panoramic.
In downtown Athens, you also will not want to miss the chapel of St. George, which crowns Lycabettus Hill. Up on the hill, on a clear day, you can see all the way across the city to nearby Greek islands. But this is some hill—about 900 feet, to be exact! You need to be fairly fit to make the climb...or you can take the funicular railway.
Shoppers will want to look into one of Athens' most popular areas—the Kolonaki, named for the small ancient column in its main square and located at the base of the railway that climbs Lycabettus Hill. This district contains not just some of the toniest boutiques in town, but many of Athens' best restaurants, as well. Quaint coffee shops line two sides of the square, making this a great spot for people watching.
The most famous shopping street in Athens, however, is Ermou. Located off Syntagma (the main square) and opposite the Parliament building, Ermou is the place to go if you're in search of clothes by the world's top designers.
On Sunday, especially, take a jaunt to the Flea Market at Monastiraki square, where you'll find everything from cheap souvenirs to old coins to neo-classic antiques.
Other Not-to-Miss Sites
After the Flea Market, take a stroll through the nearby Keramikos cemetery, so ancient that it contains funeral monuments of Athenian aristocrats dating back to the 5th Century B.C.
Once outside the Monastiraki area, check out the Plaka, directly below the Acropolis. A fascinating, restored part of the ancient city, Plaka is distinctive for its extremely narrow winding streets. The pastel-painted architecture, which includes lots of small churches, taverns, and shops, makes for a charming afternoon. Climb higher in Plaka to Anafiotika, a whitewashed village built in the 1800s and clinging to the slopes of a rock. Anafiotika was built by two immigrants from the island of Anafi. They gouged their homes from the walls of the rock in a style similar to the homes they left behind on Anafi.
If you have more time in Athens, there are more than 40 museums to choose from. The most renowned is the National Archaeological Museum. Like the Smithsonian, you could spend days in this museum, exploring the enormous collection of ancient artifacts.
Finally, two more stops you might want to make before you leave Athens are to the Roman Agora and the Marble Olympic Stadium. The former is believed to have been built in the early years A.D. and financed by Julius and Augustus Caesar. Once a covered market with colonnades, some still stand. The Marble Olympic Stadium was the site of the first Olympic Games of modern times in 1896.
Of course, Athens has its share of modern conveniences and first-class accommodations, too, making any trip to the city a pleasing mix of the old and the new.