There are few cities in the world that can rival Athens for its wealth of ancient historical sites. While the Acropolis might be the most instantly recognisable symbol of the city there are several sites well worth exploring and for a short visit to the Greek capital it’s worth getting organised in advance to make the most of your time.
What is there to see?
Perhaps the first port of call should be the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. You could spend a week exploring this enormous collection of artefacts from across the Greek world and still not cover everything. The items gathered from the Greek islands and mainland help tell a story of invasion, conquest, development and destruction that will both educate and complicate. We came to Athens having visited Santorini and Delos and found items here that had been shown only in posters or by replicas at their original sites.
At the moment the museum is holding a special exhibition of the Antikythera Collection. These are items found at the wreck of a ship near the island of Antikythera, including the elaborate mechanism of what is being called the world’s first computer – an analogue device designed to calculate astronomical events (such as solar and lunar eclipses). It’s a remarkable story and even if you’ve been to the museum before, it’s well worth visiting again just to see this temporary display.
The Acropolis, built as a sanctuary to Athena, has withstood attacks, looting and over two thousand years of wear and continues to dominate the Athens skyline. Wander around the hilltop site and try to imagine how it must have looked 2500 years ago when it was in everyday use as a sacred site. Today it is the place where the largest tourist crowds will congregate so plan to get to the site very early or in the late afternoon (many of the crowds come from cruise ships and so will by default arrive in the middle part of the day). A better reason still to arrive away from midday is the intense heat – as with most of the ancient sites, there is no real shelter and the strength of the summer sun in Athens should not be underestimated.
When you buy a ticket for the Acropolis (standard price €12), you also get entry to several other sites: the Ancient Agora (the centre of civic life in ancient Athens and the place where Socrates would argue with his fellow citizens); Kerameikos (the cemetery of ancient Athens); the Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library and the Temple of Zeus. It’s excellent value for money but be aware of the short opening hours – most sites shut at 3pm (of the main sites only the Acropolis stays open till 8pm).
The recently opened Acropolis museum, at the foot of the ancient site, offers an excellent introduction to the site and is well worth exploring (admission is extra). You’ll see artefacts from the Acropolis and videos describing the history of Athens, depictions of life in ancient times, and a look at the painstaking restoration work taking place to keep the monument open for visitors in future generations.
It’s well worth making your way out to the south-east of the city to explore the Panathenaic Stadium. It was here that the first Panathenaic Games took place in the 6th century BC, and it was regularly used during the Roman era. Wander around the site with the audio-guide provided with your admission ticket and step back into the days of the early Greek athletes.
One final piece of advice based on my own recent visit to Athens. It’s possible to see all of these sites in three days, but to do this you will need to adopt a rushed approach and you might well find your memory of each site merging into the next. Better to take a couple of days more and take in no more than two sites a day, stopping to absorb the many stories associated with each one. After all, thousands of years of history can’t really be condensed into such a short time.
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