Athens, so much to explore
Last summer we ended a week of island-hopping around Greece with a day in the Greek capital, Athens. With centuries of ancient history, Athens offers so much to explore. Enjoy our one-day itinerary on how to spend a day in Athens.
Use this link to see our Greek Island Hopping Itinerary for inspiration on planning your own island hopping adventure.
The Acropolis of Athens
Often, people are confused about the difference between The Acropolis and The Pantheon. The Acropolis is actually the hill you climb to reach the Parthenon, which is the most famous temple at the top. This climb is full of history, ruins and a glimpse into ancient Grecian life.
Entering the Acropolis
The entrance to the Acropolis is a short walk from the Akropoli metro station. Once there, the entrance fee to the Acropolis is about 20 euros. Additionally, you can purchase a skip-the-line ticket with a downloadable audio guide for 9 euros more with this link. By mid-afternoon, you will likely wait in line. Despite the line, we didn’t experience difficulty viewing the sights inside the gates. The crowds are spread out among the paths and all over the hillside which makes touring easy. We immediately began snapping pictures as we took in our first glances of the Acropolis.
Very few places give you the kind of rush you get when visiting the Acropolis. It’s difficult to describe climbing the hill of the Acropolis, but each step you take you’re filled with more wonder. Starting on the southern slope, we began our hike in immediate amazement. The southern slope gets the most daytime sun and was favored by the ancient Greeks. It also has naturally better terrain, protection, and fresh drinking water. Because of this, you’ll find many of the theatrical, spiritual and cultural buildings of significance on the southern slope.
Athens: Highlights of the Acropolis
Theatre of Dionysus
Upon entering the Acropolis, you are transported to ancient Athens. On the southern slope is the Theatre of Dionysis, one of the first sites you see. This is a theatre and festival ground laid to honor the Greek god of wine and drama. According to archeological records, this open-air theatre dates back to the 5th century BCE. Throughout the centuries, the theatre underwent several restorations. Today, you can still see the remains of a theatre that was redesigned and renovated by the Romans. This includes 67 marble thrones for Roman dignitaries that were redesigned to mimic the original thrones from Hellenistic times. In its prime, the theatre could hold 17,000 patrons across 64 tiers of seating, Today, about 20 rows remain and it is still an amazing sight.
Stoa of Eumenes
Beyond the Theatre of Dionysus lays the Stoa of Eumenes. To reach the stoa, continue on the path uphill. Completed in 159 BCE, this promenade was built as a shelter for theatre attendees. Named for its builder, Eumenes II, King of Pergamum, the stoa is a nice stop for a photo opportunity.
The Temple of Asclepion
Next, you’ll approach the Asclepion, a temple built into the hillside along an ancient and sacred spring. Above the stoa, this temple was built for the worship of Asclepius, son of Apollo. Starting in 429 BCE, he was worshipped here as a physician and healing god. During this period, plague was destroying the populous of Athens and they turned to Asclepion and his temple for healing.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
As you continue the path uphill, you will find the mammoth amphitheater, Odeon of Herodes Atticus. This Roman structure was built by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy Greek aristocrat who served as a Roman Senator. In 161 AD, he commissioned the amphitheater in memory of his wife, Regilla. In 1950 the amphitheater was renovated and restored. Today the Herodes Atticus is one of the worlds premier locations for top musical performances. The ancient structure is still a masterpiece and can hold almost 5,000 patrons.
These Roman ruins reminded us of a trip we took to Pompeii the previous September. Check out those highlights here: Napoli, Italy Part 2
Finally, you will reach the peak of the rocky hill. Atop the Acropolis, you will cross the Beulé Gate into the hilltop plaza. The gate is named after Ernest Beulé. He is the French archaeologist who unearthed the main entrance of the Acropolis site in 1852. Once inside, make your way down the Panathenaic Way through the Propylaea towards the main attraction.
After crossing Beulé Gate you reach the monumental entrance to hilltop Acropolis. With a central hall and two wings, one on each side, this entryway is impressive in any age of history. Once you’ve crossed through, you will see the Temple of Athena Nike to the right of the opening. Beginning along the Panathenaic Way, you will see the foundations of pedestals that once supported statues leading to the Parthenon.
The Erechtheion and Temple of Poseidon
According to the ancient Greek legends, Poseidon and Athena fought to become the patron God of Athens. While Athena won the battle and the city is named in her honor, Poseidon was still worshipped atop the Acropolis. The Erechtheion is an ornate temple which housed the cults of Athena and Poseidon. Poseidon was worshipped on the northern side of the building, . While visiting this building, make sure to view the opposite side, where the Porch of the Caryatids displays gorgeous female sculptures.
Once up close, seeing The Parthenon in person is magical. While much of the building is in ruins, the main structure is impressive and holds up to time. Nothing compares to the gorgeous fluted Doric columns. Even though much of the frieze (carvings) is missing, you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately some of the friezes were damaged after a gunpowder explosion. During Turkish occupation, The Parthenon was used to store ammunition – bad idea. Much of the frieze can be seen in the Acropolis Museum. When possible they are in their original form and they are replicas where necessary.
When it was built, The Parthenon housed a large statue of Athena and was built on top of an existing temple to Athena. Secondarily, the building served as the treasury of Athens. Amazingly, the ancient Greeks built the wondrous structure in only eight or nine years. Unfortunately, the restoration has been going on for decades, but despite scaffolding, the beauty of the building remains.
The Acropolis Museum of Athens
After touring the Acropolis, make your way to one of the world’s best museums, The Acropolis Museum of Athens. Located in the shadow of the Acropolis, the entrance is below the southern slope. When we visited, we had a quick snack at the ground-floor cafe and bought tickets for the skip-the-line guided tour.
Once inside this modernist museum, you can look down to see the ruins of an ancient Greek neighborhood below plexiglass the floor. In the Foyer Gallery, other artifacts are displayed as you walk up a ramp that mimics the climb of the Acropolis. Our favorite part of the guided tour was the Parthenon Gallery. In this gallery, you will bear witness to the 160-meter frieze of the temple.
After spending the afternoon climbing the hill of the Acropolis, the evening tour was perfect. The exhibit information was in English, but we still think the money spent for the guided tour was worth every penny. The volume of artifacts was overwhelming. We also walked and climbed all day, so we would have paid double for the guided tour.
Walking the Plaka neighborhood
Before we planned out trip, several friends and bloggers advised us to see the Plaka neighborhood of Athens. In the Plaka, cobblestone streets wind around a neighborhood that feels more like an ancient village. After leaving the museum, we wandered the Plaka and visited some local shops for souvenirs and stopped at a taverna for an evening beer. We returned for dinner that night because we were so enchanted with the area. Sitting on a slopping cobblestone walkway, we dined al fresco and sat for several after-dinner drinks. With late-closing restaurants and taverns, this neighborhood was perfect to enjoy the last evening of our trip.
Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch
While the Acropolis stands out above the Athenian skyline, other ancient sites seem to pop out of nowhere. Along the Ancient Promenade are two examples of this; the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch.
Located at the end of the Grand Promenade (Dionysiou Areopagiou), Hadrian’s Arch is near the Akropoli metro station. In 132 AD, the Roman emperor Hadrian built this famous marble arch. Between the ancient city of Athens and the Roman-built zone of the city, Hadrian intended the arch as a divider. The inscription that faces northwest reads “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus.” In contrast, the southeast inscription reads, “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus.”
Temple of Olympian Zeus
In the center of Athens lays Greece’s largest temple, Temple of Olympian Zeus. While it took over seven centuries to complete the temple, Hadrian had the honor of finally opening the temple. Before Hadrian, previous Greek and Roman rulers attempted to finish the project but ran out of money along the way. Finally, Hadrian was successful in 131 AD but today the temple is in ruins with only 15 of 104 columns remaining. The temple’s entry comes with a fee, but because it is in ruins, we can’t suggest paying for the entry with so much more to see in the area. Despite the fencing, it is very easy to view and photograph this temple from outside.
The Tastes of Athens
In Greece, dinner is late but the delicious tastes of traditional Greek food make waiting worthwhile. Due to the warm Mediterranean climate, we often ate lunch around 3 pm and had dinner around 9 pm or later.
One of our favorite dishes was the Greek salad. While it seems an obvious choice, it was special in Athens. Because Greeks don’t use lettuce in their Greek salad, the vegetables and feta cheese were the stars of each meal.
Another favorite was Tirokafteri, a spicy blend of feta, chili, and yogurt. While on the islands and in Athens, we ordered this dish at most meals for dipping bread or vegetables.
Finally, no Greek meal is complete without Saganaki. Saganaki is a fried cheese dish served as an appetizer. Each island we visited prepares saganaki slightly differently and the same was true of Athens.
For the ultimate foodie experience, try an Athens Food Tour and fit in all of these favorites and more.
Athens in Conclusion
Although our goals were to island-hop, enjoy the beaches and party atmosphere of the islands, Athens was a complete treasure. Even though we only had a day in Athens, we made the most of our time. Athens blends history, culinary delights, modern amenities and living culture maintained by beautiful locals. We are already planning our return but in the meantime, enjoy our 24-hour itinerary. There are our must-see recommendations for Athens, Greece.
Have you been to Athens? What are your favorite tips? If you are planning a trip to Athens, what are you looking forward to the most? Let us know below: