Home Destination Guides Accommodation 19th October 2019



(ATHINA in Greek)


      Whilst the mainland and islands may be the body of Greece, Athens, is the very heart of Greece.  This capital city was named after Athina, the Goddess of Wisdom and the Protectoress of Cities.  The ancient Athenians chose the owl of wisdom as their symbol; it was imprinted on all their coins and featured on brooches and many other jewellery items.  In fact this Athenian symbol is still very popular today and is often seen in modern pieces.  Athens’ rich historical pedigree stretches back over 3,000 years and the City has a worldwide reputation for being one of the top destinations for sightseeing.  This powerful, vibrant city literally sucks you in to a maelstrom of noise, traffic, smart boutiques, buzzing restaurants, charming tavernas and chic café culture, all peppered with the most spectacular archaeological sights and monuments, creating a cultural blend that even the most committed philistine cannot help but admire.
      The land upon which Athens was built has been occupied since Neolithic times.  It was during the Mycenaean period that the Acropolis was fortified, enabling the City to repulse attacks and since then the city has remained a power base.  In the 5th Century BC Athens succeeded in defending itself against the Persian Empire, during the key battles of Marathon in 490 BC and Salamis in 480 BC.  Athens went on to become the spearhead of European civilization, giving the West their first real taste of culture, with theatres, drama, philosophy, art and sport. The Olympic Games originated here and when the Games were held in Athens during 2004, they took place on the site where the first stadium was built in 330 BC.
     In ancient times Athens’ economy was bolstered by a rich source of income from the nearby silver mines at Lavrion.  This income enabled the Athenians to construct a powerful naval fleet in an effort to protect the coastline around Pireaus from invasion.  However, the cities of Sparta and Corinth united against Athens dominance and the Peloponnesian War raged for three decades until Athens finally admitted defeat in 404BC.  In 338 BC Athens was conquered by Philip of Macedon, then in the 2nd Century BC by the Romans and was reduced to the status of a relatively minor town during the Byzantine era.  Always a prized city however, Athens was then successively ruled by the Franks, the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks until Greece finally gained its independence in 1833.
      Today the modern city of Athens is located approximately 6 kilometres from the coast, with the famous Acropolis situated at its very centre.  The capital sits on a plain, encircled by mountains. This situation tends to shelter the city from the welcome summer breezes that would otherwise tend to keep temperatures at an acceptable level in the mid-summer heat. In addition, it has to be noted that for many years the surrounding mountains trapped the increasing pollution from factories and vehicular traffic, and this led to an almost permanent pall of pollutants over the city, so much so that the Greeks dubbed it ‘to nefos’ (the cloud). However, the Greek government took steps to tackle this problem and in the build-up to the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 these included a substantial investment in the city’s infrastructure. This produced new roads and transport systems, including the completion of many new modern additions to the underground metro system.  In fact a trip to Syntagma Metro Station is almost as good as a visit to a Museum, with classical artefacts on show behind glass cases and beautiful mosaic flooring - a far cry from some other capital city tube stations!  In my view, whilst Athens continues to become more and more commercialised, it still manages to retain its charisma and authenticity - not least in the unique remnants of classical times that it contains, representing as they do, the culture and learning that began in ancient Greece and became the cradle for the civilisation that spread across Europe, from which we now all benefit.
     The most famous landmark in Athens is the small mountain of rock in the middle of the city called the Acropolis, meaning ‘the city on the rock.’ The rock stands approximately 90 metres above the surrounding plain and from Neolithic times it served as a residential area. The most imposing and archaeologically significant building on the Acropolis site is the Parthenon, which dominates the Athens skyline.  Built from 447 to 432 BC, this ornately decorated temple was dedicated to Athena Parthenos (the Virgin Athena), patron goddess of the City. It was from the Parthenon, that Lord Elgin took the marble frieze and other sculptures, which are now on display in the British Museum – this fact being the subject of great controversy.  During this Classical period the monumental ceremonial entrance to the site, the Propylaea, was also constructed.  In addition to the Parthenon, two more temples of great importance were erected, namely the Erechtheion, a marvellous complex of shrines built around 420 BC - and the smaller but just as appealing, Temple of Athena Nike (Nike meaning Victory), built around 427 BC.  The Acropolis Museum is set in a rock hollow, almost hidden behind the Parthenon, with 9 rooms of artefacts and sculptures on show, including the wonderful ‘Caryatid pillars’ - columns carved in the shape of Greek maidens.
    Through the centuries these monuments have suffered as a result of successive conflicts, with some being converted into Christian churches and others taken over by invaders for use as private houses.  It was only after the liberation of Athens from the Turks and the formation of an independent Greek state that the government spearheaded a large-scale restoration and preservation project. That project continues to this very day, with the ultimate ambition of turning the whole area into an archaeological park.
     From April to mid October there is a son et lumiere show on the Acropolis that usually starts around 9 pm and is often held in English.  The lights bathe the Parthenon in a golden glow giving the site an ethereal quality and most of the local hotels will have information on this, plus other festivals of interest.  The entrance ticket to the Acropolis is also valid for entry to a selection of other notable sites.
      To the north east of the Acropolis is the ancient Agora (market place), which was originally an open square lined by the city’s administrative buildings.  The Turks built houses over this site during their occupation but these were demolished when the site was excavated in the 1930’s.   It is a fascinating mix of temples, statues, ancient architecture and leafy trees offering an oasis of calm from the dusty streets of modern Athens. 
Personal note:  Take care on some of the marble steps around the sites as these have been polished by millions of feet and are slippery (especially if they become wet or it rains)..Also, I preferred sight seeing early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat and the crowds, especially in summertime.
     Just below the Acropolis is the Plaka District or Old Town of Athens, an impressive maze of narrow streets crammed with old buildings from the 17th and 18th Century, with Byzantine churches and small shaded squares.  This charismatic quarter of the city is just brimming with atmosphere both day and night and hides some really excellent sites of interest. At its centre is the intriguing Roman Agora built in the 1st Century BC, its gateways and columns standing intact - defying time, as do the remains of a communal Roman Latrine where many a Roman has sat.  Next to the Roman Agora stands the glinting marble ‘Tower of the Winds’, a marvellous eight sided tower built in the 2nd Century BC, believed to act as a sundial, weather vane and water clock.  Close by and a short walk from the Monastiraki Metro Station is the 2nd Century AD Hadrian’s Library, where all manner of manuscripts were stored.
     Another major archaeological site located in the Plaka is the Kerameikos, an ancient Athenian cemetery.  This site includes the remains of the Sacred Gate and the Diplyon Gate, two of the ancient city gates, together with the remains of the Pompeion building.
     The Plaka district is also full of a great variety of tavernas, restaurants, café bars and souvenir shops where some of the owners can be annoyingly persistent when plying for trade, but if you haven’t been to the Plaka then you haven’t been to Athens!  At night the Plaka really comes alive and is a buzzing hub of clubs, bars and noisy restaurants.  Open-air rooftop cinemas are also popular and can be found in most districts, some even serve dinner while you watch the latest film! As with all major city centres during peak times, especially in the jostle of narrow streets, unsuspecting tourists make easy prey for pickpockets and care should be taken when carrying handbags and wallets.
     From the Plaka District it is a short walk to Sintagma (Constitution) Square, a pleasant square offering a taste of café culture in the centre of present day Athens and an excellent starting point for sightseeing in the City.  On one side of Syntagma Square, on Amalias Avenue, is the Greek Parliament where skirted soldiers, called Evzones, perform the traditional changing-of-the-guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.   This is taken very seriously by the Evzones who are permanently on guard outside the Parliament and are not allowed to speak whilst they are on duty.  A short stroll from Syntagma along Amalias Avenue are the National Gardens, an island of greenery, flowers and trees in the centre of the City, where residents relax on park benches, reading newspapers or catching up on local gossip.  Walking on past the National Gardens brings you to the Arch of Hadrian, a gateway of marble built in the 2nd Century AD and next to it, the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
     Athens is a mecca for museum lovers and a short stroll from Syntagma is the oldest private museum in Athens, the Benaki Museum, a lovely, stylish building full of Athenian artefacts including traditional costumes, wedding dresses, coins, and jewellery as well as an artists gallery.  On the top floor there is a coffee bar which is one of the ‘in’ places for coffee and gossip, particularly in the summer months when the roof top is open and the hustle of the city streets recedes beneath you.
     However, if there is not enough time to do all the sights, the ‘must-do’ museum of them all has to be the National Archaeological Museum, which houses the most awesome collection of priceless historical treasures.  The main entrance leads into the Mycenaean Hall, where an amazing collection of gold pieces unearthed from Mycenae on the Peloponnese are on show.  The renowned archaeologist Schliemann conducted the excavations at Mycenae and amongst his discoveries was the breathtaking golden Mask of Agamemnon, which is the focal point of this section.  Other great exhibits include the Minoan Frescoes from Santorini, the Flying Fish Frescoes from Milos, the beautiful bronze statues of the God Poseidon and the Horse and Jockey of Artemision, in addition to sculptures and pottery from just about every major archaeological site in Greece.  In their fight to have the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece, this museum underwent a massive refurbishment with the installation of upgraded temperature, humidity and filter controls, as one of the reasons given for the Marbles remaining in London was because of the inadequacies of the proposed housing for the sculptures.  Whilst it was recognized that traffic pollution and acid rain in the capital was of detriment to the beautiful sculptures, the improvements made to the Archaeological Museum mean that this is now no longer the case and the Marbles could be safely preserved in Athens.  Whilst in office, the former actress Melina Mercuri, did much to raise the profile of the Elgin Marbles during her time as Minister for Culture and lobbied tirelessly for their return to Greece.  Unfortunately, lung cancer brought about Ms Mercuri’s untimely death and she never saw her dream of the Marbles return to Athens realized.  But, the debate rages on…
     The Museum of Cycladic and Ancient Greek Art brings to light the essence of the Greek islands and has a large number of Cycladic idols on display.  For fashion aficionados a trip to the unique Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum on Kalisperi Street is well worth a visit.  Lalaounis has a world wide reputation for imaginative design and is considered among the world’s best.  In one area jewellery students display their latest creations and in another, the museum shop will beguile you with some stunning pieces on sale.  If you have enough time there are numerous other smaller museums and galleries to delight, each with their own merits.
     Modern Athens is much in evidence in the chic Kolonaki shopping area, full of new shops and designer boutiques and close to Syntagma Square.  Syntagma is also linked to two other central squares, Monastiraki and Omonia.  The main street leading to Monastiraki is Ermou, which is similar to Oxford Street in London and is the answer to the shopaholics’ prayer.   Monastiraki Square has a Byzantine Church at its centre and is also renowned for its local Flea market, especially good on Sundays, where Greeks and tourists alike jostle for a bargain.  There is an underground station at Monastiraki from which it is only a short walk to Harian’s Library and the Roman Agora mentioned previously.
     In addition to the Acropolis there are several other significant hills around the city of Athens.  The Hill of the Muses, also known as Philopapou Hill, with its polished marble rock and pine trees has beautiful views over the City and the Acropolis.  There is a Monument to Philopapos dating from 114 Century AD and a few remaining ruins from the old City Wall.  It is from the side of the Hill of the Muses that the son et lumiere shows take place.  Another hill with good views is the nearby Aeropagus or Hill of Justice, so called because in ancient times it was home to the City’s Supreme Court.  However, my favourite is Mount Lycavittos, which has sweeping views of the Acropolis and Athens and is another prominent landmark on the skyline of the City.  You can take a taxi up the winding road to the top or better still take the cable car, have dinner at one of the posh restaurants there and sip wine as the sun goes down over the City.  Great! 
     There are various ways of getting out and about around the City.  Athens public transport system consists of buses, trolleys, the Metro (tube), taxis and more recently a new tram system.  Bus tickets should be purchased from the ticket kiosks before you board the bus/trolley.  Travelling on the new Metro, which operates from 05.30 until 24.00, is definitely a better option than going by car or fighting your way on to the overcrowded buses.  Car hire would be madness in a busy city like Athens, where parking is virtually impossible and most of the sites are within walking distance.  In fact the latest Government initiative to encourage pollution free sightseeing is the construction of a wide, circular, pedestrian Walkway, which is made of great marble paving slabs and encompasses the Acropolis and the city centre.  This is a great way to see the City on foot and you can complete the walk in stages, taking time out to see the sites.
     The taxis in Athens are yellow with a red number plate.  Faint heart ne’er won a taxi driver over and you need to raise your arm in the air and shout out your destination as the taxi slows alongside.  It is common to share taxis, and if the fare your driver is already carrying is heading in roughly the same direction as you want to go, the taxi will stop and pick you up.  If not the taxi driver will raise his head with an upward ‘nod’ (meaning no) and will carry on driving.  So you will need to repeat the process again.  Alternatively, when you do find a cab, your driver may stop to pick someone else up if he has spare seats in his taxi.  This can get quite convivial during peak times when everyone is looking for a ride but is a good way for Greeks to exchange views on anything from politics to foreign affairs.  It needs to be noted that each person pays the full price for their taxi journey even if they have to share! After midnight and to/from the airport, taxi fares are doubled.  If the driver has to carry luggage you will be charged an amount additional to the fare - and during Easter, Christmas and New Year periods an extra amount is added to the fare (set out in government guidelines) as an official holiday bonus that the majority of Greek workers receive.
     For the serious sightseer, no one should attempt to negotiate the sites without a good guidebook of Athens, which will have maps, history, and explanations of individual sites.  A lot of information and a city street plan are available free of charge from the numerous Tourist Information Offices dotted around Athens (there is one in Syntagma Square). At some sites there are professional guides, who will take you on a private tour for a fee and should be able to give you invaluable information.  Alternatively join an organized tour with a professional guide and re visit the site on your own at a quieter time if you feel you want to spend more time there.
     Most of the larger hotels in Athens have roof top swimming pools, but if you want to take a break from the sights the nearest beaches are to the south of the City.  There is approximately 70 kilometres of coastline stretching from the Athens port of Piraeus to the tip of the cape at Sounion, enclosing the western side of the Saronic Gulf.  This stretch of coast is known as the Apollo Coast or Akti Apollonia.  The nearest beaches are a short bus or taxi ride from the City along the Apollo coast coming first to Neo Faliro, then the popular resorts of Glyfada, Voula, Kavouri and on to Vouliagmeni and Lagonissi.  There is also a beach at Agios Kosmas, opposite the entrance to Helliniko airport - one of the two main Athens’ airports, but this beach does get noisy with flights taking off and landing close by. Neo (new) Faliro, being the closest beach to the City, is a hot favourite with Athenians and next door in Palio (old) Faliro is Flisvos marina where you can take a one day cruise to the Saronic islands of Aegina, Hydra or Poros in high season.  The modern resorts of Glyfada, Voula, Kavouri, Vouliagmeni and Lagonissi all have great facilities with large numbers of hotels, modern shopping centres and a good variety of restaurants, coffee bars, pubs and discos.  During the day you can chill out on the beaches - most are pay beaches run by the Greek National Tourist Organization (GNTO), but they are well managed and clean with sun beds and umbrellas.  Glyfada has both a yacht and a golf club; Vouliagmeni has a yacht club, water skiing school, a marina and an inland lake with a natural mineral water spa renowned for its health giving properties.  A variety of water sports facilities are available at most of the beaches along the Apollo coast.
      Piraeus is the main port of Athens and is the nerve centre for all the main Greek ferries and merchant shipping, both international and domestic.  It is located approximately 8 kilometres south west of Athens and has been the most important Greek port for centuries. Piraeus is an extremely busy commercial centre, with modern apartment blocks and offices set out in a grid system (designed by the great city planner, Hippodamos). Once distinctly separate from Athens, Piraeus has become almost engulfed by the capital with the spread of the Athenian suburbs further and further outwards.  Piraeus tends to be a ‘transit’ town for people arriving or departing by ferry and does not have much to recommend itself as a tourist destination.  However, if you do find you have a few hours to spare in Piraeus, both the Archaeological Museum and the Panos Aravantinos Museum are well worth a visit.
      Piraeus has several harbours, the main one and the largest of them all, being the Great Harbour where most of the international ferries, car ferries and inter-island passenger ferries berth.  Here you will find the ferries to Crete, the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, Samos, Ikaria, Chios, the Northern Aegean and the Saronic Gulf, hydrofoils to Aegina and water taxis to Salamis.  The underground Metro station to/from Athens is located on the north eastern side of the Great Harbour, close to the railway station for Corinth and the Peloponnese.  On the same side of the harbour, a short walk away, is the Domestic passenger terminal, the bus station and the Athens Airport bus stop.  On the north western side of the Great Harbour is the railway station for trains serving Northern Greece.  International ferries normally berth on the southern side of the harbour, close to the Customs clearing sheds.  Due to the numbers of ferries arriving and departing, particularly mornings and early evenings, Piraeus can be chaotic at the best of times, and it is advisable to arrive in plenty of time before the scheduled departure of your ferry. As with all Greek ferries, the existence of ferry services and scheduling can be chaotic and you need to be ready for anything, despite what you may have seen advertised!
     A short distance away from the Great Harbour is the smaller, more attractive Zea Harbour and yacht marina, where most of the hydrofoils, catamarans and fast craft going to the Saronic islands and the Peloponnese ports, leave from.  If you have time to spare, there is an interesting Maritime Museum on the waterfront worth visiting.
     The third harbour is located approximately 7 kilometres to the east of Zea at Flisvos, where most of the excursion boats leave from.  These tend to be more costly than the ferries and hydrofoils, but this does depend on how flexible you wish to be.
     Taking the road west from Athens city centre, past the new Airport, you come to the harbour town of Rafina on the western coast of Attica.  Situated approximately 27 kilometres from the City, Rafina was until recently a fishing port supplying Athenian restaurants, and having a limited ferry service to Evia and the northern Cyclades.   However with the growth in ferry services and the opening of the new Venizelos airport in 2001, just a short distance from Rafina, the town has now become a popular departure point from Athens to many of the islands, including Mykonos, Paros, Lesvos, Andros, Tinos, Amorgos and Santorini, to name but a few.  Whilst these ferry services may not be as frequent as those departing from Piraeus, Rafina is a much nicer town with a central square above the harbour and is reputed to have a good choice of excellent restaurants specializing in fish.  In addition there is a good bus network to and from Athens to the port. You now therefore have a choice between Piraeus and Rafina for many destinations, so the choice is yours……
D A Y  T R I P S  F R O M  A T H E N S
     Travelling south from Athens, Sounion is situated at the southern end of the Apollo coast, right on the tip of the Cape.  It is a scenic drive by bus from Athens, taking approximately 2 hours to reach Cape Sounion - known as the ‘Holy Cape’ in ancient times.  It is here that the ancient Athenians decided to build a Temple dedicated to the God of the Sea - Poseidon.  This is an excellent site, built in 444 BC, where 15 grand Doric pillars, bleached by the sun still remain standing on the hillside, looking out to sea.  Poseidon’s Temple is made of Parian marble and has a marvellous sculpted frieze depicting scenes from the mythical battle between the Giants and the Centaurs.  The frieze also portrays scenes from the exploits of Theseus.   There are magnificent views from the Temple across the sea, particularly at sunset and sailors used this landmark as a guide when sailing up the coast to Piraeus.  Close by, there are also the ruins of the Temple of Athena of Sounion.
     On the eastern side of the Cape, a short drive from Sounion, is another archaeological site worthy of note. Thoricos, close to Lavrion was an ancient walled city built on a hill and has a unique theatre dating from the 4th Century BC. The theatre is still in very good condition.
     A third archaeological site lies further north at Vravrona, where excavations have unearthed a shrine to Artemis, several beautiful columns from the ‘parthenon of the bears’ and many more artefacts on display in the Museum there. 
     Located on the hillside of Mount Parnassos above the Gulf of Corinth, the beautiful site of Delphi is one of the most important Classical sites in Greece.  In Mycenaean times it was at the small settlement of Delphi that the Goddess of the Earth was worshipped. During the 8th Century BC Delphi became a sanctuary and the site of the renowned ‘oracle’ under the cult of Apollo.
     In 1893 the French Archaeological School started excavating at Delphi, having first moved the local village of Kastri further along the hillside to make way for the excavations!  The archaeologists were rewarded for their efforts when they unearthed the ruins of two wonderful sanctuaries, one dedicated to Apollo and the other to Athena Pronaea.  Alongside the sanctuaries was a treasure trove of antiquities, from ornate architecture and statues to unique pieces of art.  In addition, a Stadium, gymnasium and cemeteries were discovered outside the sanctuaries.
     There is so much to see at Delphi, but amongst the most notable monuments are; the Temple of Apollo, dating from the 4th Century BC and partially restored between 1938 and 1941; the amazing Treasury of the Athenians, dating from 6th Century BC – the best preserved structure and the only one which was rebuilt from remnants found on site, between 1903 and 1906; the Altar of the Chians dating from 5th Century BC; the Stoa of the Athenians whose magnificent fluted columns are each made from a single piece of stone; the great Theatre of the sanctuary; the Stadium; the Gymnasium and the Tholos - a small circular Doric structure of excellent craftsmanship with striking carvings.  The many artefacts, sculptures and works of art unearthed at the site are all on display in the fascinating Archaeological Museum of Delphi.
     Wandering through the ruins along the Sacred Way the stunning panoramic views stretching across the unspoilt Greek landscape towards Corinth will take your breath away.  Finally, visit the sacred spring of Delphi, which is tucked away in the ravine of the Phaedriades and was named after the nymph Castalia.
     The best time to visit the site is early in the morning before it gets too hot or too crowded and make sure you have a good pair of walking shoes, a sun hat and some water.  If you are a real early bird the site opens at 07.30 am!
      A short drive from the site (approximately 2-3 miles) is the modern village of Delphi with some good restaurants and tavernas for lunch and yet more great views across the Corinthian Gulf.
     The site is very accessible from Athens.  There are national coaches which leave several times a day en route from Athens to Patras, stopping at Delphi on the way, there are buses leaving from Athens going directly to Delphi, or you can join an organized tour group that can be booked in Athens (do check the guide speaks English).  Alternatively you can hire a car and either take the national road along the southern coast of the Corinthian Gulf and cross the new bridge to the northern coast, or drive north from Athens and west along the northern coast of the Corinthian Gulf to Delphi.  Either way should take at least 2 hours depending on traffic, but this is a day out that should definitely not be missed.
    The Saronic islands of Aegina, Poros, Hydra, Spetses and Salamis are easily accessed from the Athens port of Pireaus.  Ferries and hydrofoils run several times a day to the above islands.  Ferries take approximately 1 hour 10 minutes from Pireaus to Aegina and some travel onwards to other islands.  See our information on individual islands for more information.  Alternatively take a ferry from Rafina to the Cyclades to spend a few days island hopping.


    Package holidays and city breaks are available from a few Greek specialist tour companies with charter flights to Athens.  However, Athens is an easy city to book a do-it-yourself holiday as there are many low cost airlines as well as scheduled airlines flying to Athens from most of the large UK airports.  There are two international airport serving Athens.  The Hellinikon Airport (or Old Airport) is located a short drive south of Athens on the coastal road and this is the airport terminal for all Olympic Airways flights, with both an international terminal and a domestic terminal where all the flights to the Greek islands and mainland airports such as Thessalonika, Volos, Kavala, depart from.  The New Airport, named after the great statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, is situated further away from Athens to the west on the way to the port of Rafina.  Taxis are readily available at both airports and taxi prices are metered so check that the driver sets the ‘meter’ when leaving the airport.  There is also a good bus service to both airports to/from the centre of Athens.  For those having a holiday based in the Athens area, tour boats run every day from Piraeus throughout the summer, for day trippers wishing to spend the day in Aegina returning in the evening.  However it is wise to book your return ticket as soon as you arrive on Aegina as the ferries can get fully booked.   From central Athens there are buses and the new underground (metro) to Piraeus as well as taxis.     For those seeking to island hop around the Saronic Gulf, there are daily ferries and hydrofoils from Aegina to the other Saronic islands of Hydra, Spetses and Poros.

The foregoing information was last reviewed in November 2006. Things change, and whilst we are often travelling in Greece we do rely to some extent upon others to provide updates in order to keep the site as current and accurate as possible!  If you have any updates or information that you think should be included here, please do mail the webmaster@aguide2greece.com  - thank you.


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