The city of Athens is an incredibly vibrant destination with much to offer. It is impossible to see everything in a few days – the more you explore, the more there is to discover.
Here are the top five experiences that made my Athens trip unforgettable:
1) New Acropolis Museum and 2) Acropolis
The New Acropolis Museum and famous Acropolis are inseparable. The New Acropolis Museum is a beautiful modern building that houses the precious archaeological remains of the ancient Acropolis site.
The architects thought of everything: the museum is built in such a way that the nearby Acropolis is reflected in the buildings big glass panels; their design incorporates seismic technology to protect the building and its treasures from the region’s earthquakes, and there is even a special exhibition space for the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles, should they be returned by the British Museum one day.
As if there is not enough to see already, ruins of private houses of the early Christian era (AD 400-600) were unearthed at the site where the New Acropolis Museum was built. These ruins are now partly visible at the main entrance and through glass panels in the floor.
The museum itself is very user-friendly with an excellent museum map and visitor’s guide, wonderful multimedia presentations, archaeologist-hosts on standby to answer your questions, a reading lounge where you can browse through books on the Acropolis and the classical world, and a laboratory where you can learn more about ancient technology and the creation of artworks. Furthermore, there is free wifi and a great café with wonderful views of the Acropolis nearby.
I highly recommend a visit to this museum before exploring the Acropolis site. It is fascinating and will really help you understand the incredible value and immense wonder of what you are about to see at the “high city” (the English translation for “acropolis”) so much better. You will also save yourself money (by not having to join an Acropolis tour) and frustration (by not having to follow a big tour group). Visiting a place independently, at your own pace, is so much more enjoyable.
I suggest spending a few hours at the museum and enjoying a late lunch before heading over to the Acropolis hill in the late afternoon. (There is an entrance not far from the museum, which is much less crowded than the Acropolis main entrance). Enjoy the museum’s aircon and only leave around 15h30. It will still be hot, but it will be more bearable and you will still have more than enough time for sightseeing – the Acropolis site only closes at 20h00 (earlier in winter months, so please check.) Remember to fill up your water bottle at the museum, take out your sunhat and put on some sunscreen. There is no shade at the Acropolis!
3) Panathenaic Stadium
Visiting the Panathenaic Stadium was a lot of fun and so interesting. To be honest, I enjoyed it far more than I had initially anticipated. It was extremely hot (again, take your water, hat and sunscreen) but I am so very glad that I went. There is a free audio guide that is great and really makes you relive the wonderful history of this wonderful place. In ancient times, the stadium on this site was used to host the athletic portion of the Panathenaic Games (which was the Athens version of the Olympic Games).
During classical times, the stadium had wooden seating – later it was rebuilt in marble, and enlarged and renovated by Herodes Atticus, giving a seated capacity of 50 000. The remnants of the ancient structure were excavated and refurbished, with funds provided by Evangelos Zappas (a super wealthy Greek benefactor) for the revival of the Olympic Games. The first modern Olympic Games took place at the stadium in 1896.
4) Ancient Agora
The Ancient Agora (Greek for “gathering place” or “assembly”) was the marketplace and civic centre of ancient Athens. It is located to the northwest of the Acropolis, and entry is included with your Acropolis ticket. Apart from serving as a market place, the agora was also the place where people discussed all the important issues of the day: business, politics, current events, or the nature of the universe and the divine. It is here where Greek democracy was born and the famous philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle discussed philosophy and taught their pupils. Among the ruins the Temple of Hephaistos is best preserved. It was built two years before the Parthenon, and was the first temple in Athens to be built from marble.
Opposite the Hephaistos temple, is the Stoa of Attalos, one of the agora’s big market halls. In the 1950s, it was rebuild according to the ancient plans, to house the finds of the Agora excavations and to serve as a museum for the most important artifacts. I am not sure if I like the fact that the Stoa was rebuilt, but it does help to feed the imagination with scenes of an ancient market hall bustling with activity and the exchange of goods and money.
5) Sunset at Cape Sounion
Experience a breathtaking sunset at Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon, about 70km from Athens (1h30 to 2hours by bus). The ancient temple, dedicated to the god of the sea, lies at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula and the views over the Aegean Sea are truly spectacular.
Many companies offer half-day tours to Cape Sounion, but it is much better to do it yourself. You will not only save yourself a lot of money, you will also be able to decide for yourself when you’d like to return to Athens. Many tourists complain that the tour groups don’t allow enough time to explore or leave before the sun has set.
This is an experience you don’t want to rush: sitting at the ruins of the ancient temple, watching the sun set and the moon slowly rising, and listening to the whispers of the wind and ocean, is simply unforgettable.
DIY Cape Sounion
Here’s how you do it yourself: The public bus to Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon departs from the Pedion Areos Park bus terminal near the National Archaeological Museum (which lies to the north of Athens city centre).
The closest metro station is Viktoria. Walk out of the front of the station, cross the street and keep going straight until you see the bus terminal.
Take along a city map or ask someone for directions, if need be (I took a wrong turn as the walk was a bit longer than I had expected).
You can buy your ticket at the terminal. (I think I paid around 10 euros for a return ticket). Make sure you take the coastal bus to Cape Sounion for a very scenic drive (there is also one that goes inland).
If you are early (as I was), take shelter from the heat at the nearby National Archaeological Museum – the bus terminal has very little shade and the adjacent park feels a bit deserted.
I had more than two hours to kill. Luckily, the National Archaeological Museum houses an amazing collection of Greek antiquities to explore. If, however, you don’t want to spend more money, you can relax in the beautiful inner atrium, next to the museum café, and admire some of the ancient sculptures on display.
The bus journey takes about 1h30 to 2 hours and makes numerous stops at small coastal villages along the way.
It is a beautiful trip and I enjoyed chatting to the friendly locals on the bus, especially the lovely elderly Greek lady who kindly pointed out a few interesting sites on the way (including the island of Aegina which is only a few kilometres off the coast) and made the sign of the cross every time we passed a church (there were quite a few).
Once you arrive at the Temple of Poseidon, remember to check with the bus driver when the last bus leaves for Athens. (I arrived about half an hour before sunset and took the last bus back about 90 minutes later. It was more than enough time!)
Enjoy a short leisurely walk up the hill to the temple, find a quiet spot, take a deep breath, and soak up the magical atmosphere that has enchanted people for more than 2 000 years… It does not get better than this.
(All pics by Birgit@Groove Is In The Heart.)