If you’re like us then coming to the cradle of civilisation is like being a child in a candy shop. There’s no limit to the amount of Doric and Ionic temples, statues, vases and Archaic figurines we could devour before we get tired.
In museums you can see the ballot disks from Ancient Greek courts, and you can step into the Theatre of Dionysus, the very place where Euripides and Aristophanes staged their plays, or walk the Agora, knowing that your path will be the same once trodden by Plato and Socrates.
But Athens is far more than an archaeological site, from the jungle of concrete towers in the modern city to Plaka, a warren of alleys built over ancient Athens residential quarters. Punctuating the cityscape are hills like Mount Lycabettus and Philopappos Hill where you can get the lie of the land and see the Acropolis on its rocky throne.
The Best Things to do in Athens:
There’s nothing we can tell you that hasn’t been said many times about Athens’ ancient citadel.
The Acropolis is on an abrupt rocky outcrop above the city and has world-renowned Classical landmarks that people spend whole lifetimes waiting to see in the flesh.
The pinnacle of these is of course the Parthenon, but The Propylea, the Erectheion and the Temple of Athena Nike are indispensible, and you can skip the queues and get enthralling inside facts and titbits about ancient Greek democracy and philosophy with a registered guide.
The going is steep and slippery on timeworn marble, until you reach the flat summit, and be prepared for cranes and scaffolding, which are an understandable necessity for a World Heritage Site.
The work of Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, the Acropolis Museum in on the southeast slope and was unveiled in 2009 to present the many thousands of artefacts discovered on the archaeological site of the Acropolis.
Smartly oriented to give you constant views of the Parthenon, the museum is built over ancient ruins and much of the ground floor has glass panels and open spaces, showing the foundations below.
On three levels visitors are sent on a chronological trip through the centuries, starting with the hill’s archaic discoveries in a large trapezoidal hall that also has findings from the Erechtheion, the Propylaea gateway and the Temple of Athena Nike.
After this you go up to wonder at the marbles from the frieze (including metopes) and the pediments of the Parthenon in a hall with the same dimensions, column spacing and orientation as the temple.
The tour then continues back down, through Roman and early Christian Athens.
3.National Archaeological Museum
A veritable wonderland of ancient art, it’s fitting that Athens’ National Archaeological Museum should be one of the largest and richest in the world.
The galleries are jammed with star exhibits that have been beguiling scholars for generations.
Take the finds from the Atikythera wreck, identified in 1900 and dating back to the 4th century BC. This yielded the Atikythera Mechanism, the world’s oldest analogue computer and the contemplative Philosopher’s Head.
Then there’s the Mask of Agamemnon, a gold funerary mask from the 16th century BC , most likely made for Mycenaean royalty, though too early for Agamemnon.
See also the Eleusinian relief from the 5th century BC, as well as Bronze Age frescoes from the islands of Santorini and Thera and the Jockey of Artemision, a beguiling statue of a racehorse from 150-140 BC.
4.Temple of Hephaestus
Atop the 65-metre Agoraios Kolonos hill on the northwest side of the Agora of Athens, the Temple of Hephaestus is a Doric peripteral temple in an amazing state of preservation.
It was built in the second half of the 5th century BC and construction was delayed for three decades because funds and labour were redirected towards the Parthenon.
Designed by Ictinus, the temple was dedicated to Athena and Hephaestus who was the ancient god of fire, metalworking, forges, sculpture and stonemasonry, and has six fluted columns on its west side and 13 on its north and south.
You can also make out plenty of sculpted elements, from the Labour of Hercules on the
5.Temple of Athena Nike
In a commanding position, raised on a bastion on the southeast slope of the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Nike is from 420 BC and was the first complete Ionic Order temple on the hill.
It’s the most recent of a number of temples dedicated to Athena Nike at the Acropolis, the previous of which was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. Conceived by Callicrates, this edifice is a tetrastyle Ionic temple with four elegantly narrow columns on its front and rear porticos that have the hallmark Ionic volutes or scrolls.
Fragments of the frieze and relief around the parapet below are on display at the Acropolis Museum, including the sublime wet drapery sculpture of the goddess fixing her sandal.
An antidote to both the silent ancient temples and traffic-heavy modern city, Plaka lies on top of ancient Athens’s residential quarters in the shadow of the Acropolis.
It’s a district of tight, twisting alleys with 19th-century facades garlanded with flowering bougainvillea in summer.
Plaka is jam-packed with family-run shops, each with something alluring, from ceramics, musical instruments, handmade jewellery to specialty food shops stacked high with olives and spices.
And whether you want to pick up a gyro or sit down to a meze Plaka is a go-to for dining and nightlife.
Below the rocky noth eastern slope of the Acropolis is Anafiotika, a steep whitewashed neighbourhood settled in the 19th-century reign of Otto of Greece when workers moved here during the renovation of King Othon’s Palace.
7.Temple of Olympian Zeus
Now, not much of this temple east of the Acropolis has been left standing, but what remains is more than enough to tell you that it used to be vast.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus had an extremely long construction period, started in the 6th century BC but not completed until the rule of Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd Century AD. In that time the prevalent order had switched to Corinthian, and the 15 surviving columns of an original 104 have scrolls and acanthus patterns.
The temple was pulled down during the Herulian sack of Athens in 267, little more than a century after it was completed , and its stone was quarried for other buildings around the city.
8.Ancient Agora of Athens
Reserved for trade and public gatherings, the Agora was the centre of Classical Athens and is cushioned by the Acropolis to the southeast and the Agoraios Kolonos hill to the south.
It was drawn up in the 6th century BC and is a wide-ranging site with the ruins of more than 30 buildings and monuments.
Download a map, go slow and let you imagination wander.
Or hire a guide who will explain the ancient customs that once took place where you stand, like ostracism, in which potential threats to the state were preemptively forced into exile.
9.Museum of the Ancient Agora
One of the monuments in the Agora, the Stoa of Attalos, was totally reconstructed in the 1950s.
This covered walkway was first built by Attalos II in the mid-2nd century BC but was wrecked by the Herules in 267. The new building was as faithful as possible to the archaeological knowledge of the day and hosts the Museum of the Ancient Agora, showing off the artefacts brought to light during excavations in the area by the American School of Classical Studies.
Awaiting you are Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Geometric period figurines, weapons and vases recovered from tombs and wells.
You can also see some thrilling pieces relating to Athenian democracy in the Classical and Late Classical periods, like an official bronze weight, shards of pottery used in ostracism ballots (ostracons), clay measuring devices, bronze and lead ballot disks once used in trials.
Unlike Athens’ most famous summit, Mount Lycabettus is free to climb on foot, but you can also take a funicular to the summit.
Northeast of the city centre, this cretaceous limestone peak rises to 300 metres and its lower slopes are decked in pine trees, which become sparser as you approach the rocky summit.
The walk is best saved for winter and not the searing Athens summer, while the funicular runs on the hour and half-hour.
At the top you’ll be bowled over by the best panorama of the city and can take your time to pick out the Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Piraeus Coast and peaks like Pentelicus, which yielded the marble for the Acropolis, and the soaring Parnitha in the north.