The Greek capital of Athens is quite simply the very cradle of Western civilisation, an oasis awash with mind-blowing historic Greek and Roman sites. It’s essential to visit at least once in a lifetime. Stand overlooking the spectacular heart of Ancient Greece from the mighty Acropolis and you savour a panorama alive with coliseums, arenas and churches. Each helps you delve deeper and deeper into the charming, irresistible urban jigsaw of Athens.
The Acropolis itself has an unmistakable presence as it hangs high above the city, rearing into view at the end of seemingly every street with its landmark building, the Parthenon. It is equally spectacular in the clear light of a bright Athenian day and even better when floodlit by night. This dramatic construction looks different from every angle and approach, but never disappoints.
The Acropolis site encompasses the Temple of Athena Nike, the Statue of Athena Promachos, the Theatre of Dionysos and nearby - the newly revamped Acropolis Museum. It is the Parthenon that really catches the eye though. This vast Doric temple is made entirely of marble and was built to house a grand statue of the god Athena. With its construction beginning in 447BC, it took a whopping nine years to finish. Some of its treasures – like the ‘Elgin Marbles’ (now housed in the British Museum in London) may be gone - but it is a stunning monument that rewards repeat visits.
The Areopagus, just below the Acropolis, may look like a stubble of rugged rock. It is far more significant than that as St Paul is said to have visited the site. It also has Greek mythical significance as is said to have been where Ares was tried by the Gods for the murder of Halirrhothius. Even seeing just the views from the outcrop is worth a visit.
The historic treasures of Athens do not end at the Acropolis and often it seems there is a striking hulk of history at the end of every street. Exploring Roman Athens is intriguing as the city spent centuries being ruled from Rome after it was captured in 31BC. The remains of the old Roman Agora are visible at the heart of the city, with the Tower of the Winds particularly alluring. This romantically named first century BC tower had an equally colourful role, no mere monument but working as both a functional sundial and weathervane.
Even more impressive is the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Once the largest temple in Greece, only 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns remain, yet they remind us of its original epic scale when construction was completed in 102AD. Athens abounds with historic treasures like this – you could spend a year here and not fully dig through them all.
Olympic Games In The Panathenaic Arena
Athens is, of course, also the home to the modern Olympic Games. When it was announced it would hold the world’s biggest sporting event again in 2004 there were whisperings from some quarters that this sprawling city could not manage the organisation and massive building programme required to stage this mega event.
Those naysayers were forgetting that the Olympic spirit still burns within many Athenians. They rallied behind the cause in a massive upheaval that has revamped the city’s underground railway system, provided a new airport and transformed its sporting stadium. Whole areas of the city were reborn. Faliro, for example, went from a rundown old waterfront resort, into the home to the beach volleyball, handball, taekwando and boxing events.
The Local Food & Culture
As the saying goes it really is ‘All Greek to Me’ as the Greek language is a tricky one for first timers. That isn’t to say Athens is hard to navigate and enjoy, it’s quite the opposite as the locals are welcoming and the charms of the traditional bars, tavernas and restaurants need little translation.
While Athens boasts plenty to keep culture vultures busy for a year, the city is also a very relaxed oasis when it comes to eating and drinking. Its idyllic climate is perfect for outdoor living and Athens is awash with pavement cafes, small bars and al fresco restaurants.
Greek food revolves around that which is fresh, local and traditional. Traditional dishes like moussaka and souvlaki are always excellent. The waters around the city also dish up plenty of fresh seafood with highlights being snapper, red mullet, octopus and lobster.
There are also a number of good Greek wines and, of course, the fiery Retsina to finish off a long, lazy meal in the shadow of the Acropolis. The Athenians love their food and often a quick lunch can turn into a lazy afternoon and a light dinner can end up as a multi-course feast.
A Gateway To The Greek Islands
On hot summer days another great way of relaxing is on one of the myriad of islands that Greece is justifiably famous for. Getting out to an island is easy from Athens as regular ferries leave from the port of Piraeus, just south of the city. There is a rich necklace of islands to choose from. All beautiful – they look more like tropical escapes than somewhere you would expect to find in Europe.
One of the most intriguing islands is Aegina, only a half hour hydrofoil ride away. Aegina Town is a relaxing venue for a seafood meal with a lively market where diners can view the local catch before tucking in. A short drive east is the Temple of Aphaia, an immaculately preserved Doric temple, dating back to 480BC. It is spectacularly located on a pine-shrouded bluff overlooking the Saronic Gulf.
Athens is a city and a destination built on so many layers. There are those idyllic islands that are like the ultimate city parks, the Olympic heritage and the city’s lively eating and drinking scene. What makes Athens so compelling is that underpinning all its multitude of attractions is the epic Roman and Greek legacy that lives in all the monuments and ruins you walk amongst as you explore the City. Letting visitors enjoy the truly unique, joyful experience of strolling around what is the cradle of Western civilisation as we know it today.
Written by Robin Mckelvie
Photography by André Graver