Exploring Athens' Historical Sites: 10 Ways to Soak Up Ancient (And Not-So-Ancient) Greek Culture
If you’re looking to geek out on Greek history, or see some rocks that’ll rock your world (they’re actually more like immaculately sculpted marble blocks than just rocks, but go off) then Athens is the place to be. We asked our friends Andreas and Kyriakos—local residents of Athens, certified history buffs, and EF Ultimate Break Tour Directors—for their top recs in the city that started it all (Western philosophy, democracy, the Olympic Games, and clock towers, that is). Stick with us and get your fill of must-see historical sites in Athens that will have you this close to jumping in the pit and playing archaeologist yourself.
by Reid Flynn
November 20, 2020
BRB visiting the birthplace of democracy
If you're like me, you've always wished you had a time machine. Zap back to high school algebra class and ace that one test, ensuring your admission to an Ivy League school and finally living up to your parents' expectations (uh, speaking hypothetically, of course). The only problem? They may or may not actually exist. So what’s the next best option? For travel buffs, it's going to Athens, Greece. No, you can’t go back and untext your ex or invent Instagram. But you can immerse yourself in Greek history and literally walk among the past.
Is there a better, more prominent collection of ancient ruins in one place than the historical sites of Athens? My gut says no. Is there a better way to climb the Acropolis, wander the National Archaeological Museum, or stroll the Agora than simply doing it all yourself? Yes, actually.
EF Ultimate Break is the best way to take in Athens' history. Our trips to Greece are fully planned out and include stops at all of Athens' most famous historical landmarks—with plenty of local, off-the-beaten-path recommendations tossed in. So you don’t have to worry about which bus takes you to Anafiotika or wishing you had a local guide telling you the Parthenon’s secrets. We have all of that covered for you. All in one epic Greece trip. Plus, we let you pay over time, interest-free. So you just book your trip, pay monthly, and show up. The best part? The group of new travel BFFs experiencing it all with you. Somehow sharing these experiences for 9 days or 11 days or shoot, even 35 days always forges unforgettable new friendships.
So let’s hop in that time machine (AKA the airplane that's included in the cost of your EF Ultimate Break trip) and take in the greatest hits of Athens’ history—from sort of old to straight up ancient.
The Propylaea is the gateway to the Acropolis. Photo: Constantinos Kollias/Unsplash
1. Greet the Propylaea as you ascend to the Acropolis
First things first, you’re going to want to hit the Acropolis, and the Propylaea is the Gateway to the Acropolis. Literally. It’s an ancient welcome center. Built in the 430s BC, the imposing marble columns are prime ancient Athens—certain to get you amped for the rest of the Acropolis.
As for what can be said about the Acropolis: it will take your breath away. Our friend, local Athenian, and EF Ultimate Break Tour Director Kyriakos (one of the many amazing people who lead these Greece trips, explains: “The Acropolis is the high hill in Athens that the Parthenon (and Propylaea) sits on. A lot of people are confused and think it’s the same.” So as you walk through the Propylaea (ancient cleansing rituals not necessary these days), don’t forget that you’re at the Acropolis, but not yet at the Parthenon.
Good to know: Kyriakos says to wear comfortable shoes, as the marble rocks are very slippery, and be sure to have a hat and plenty of water with you. Especially in the summer. Your hard work hiking up the Acropolis will pay off, but best to be safe and prepared.
Posing at the Parthenon. Photo: EF Ultimate Break
2. Pick your jaw off the ground at the Parthenon
It’s time. The big feta. The piece de resistance. Hope you brought your nice toga, ‘cause you will never forget seeing the Parthenon for the first time (and you wanna look good in those memories, duh). What is this hunk of rocks, you may be asking? (Aside from being Athens' most famous landmark.) As Tour Director Kyriakos explains: “The Parthenon started out as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena. Then, it was taken over by Christians and converted into a church, and later on, by the Turks, who turned it into a mosque with a minaret erected over it.”
Athena, huh, where have you heard that name before? Oh yeah, she’s the namesake of the whole freakin’ city of Athens. Certainly, the Parthenon is one of the most famous historical sites anywhere in the world, and for good reason. You can’t picture Athens without picturing the Parthenon’s marble columns.
Good to know: The Parthenon was somehow built as an optical illusion. If you were to look at perfectly-straight, perfectly-arranged columns, they would appear to the naked eye to be bulging and misaligned. It’s true! The ancient Greeks knew this—though to this day we aren’t sure how—and they purposefully constructed and arranged the columns slightly, but precisely imperfectly, thus creating something that looks perfect to our eyes. Pretty neat!
The Acropolis Museum. Photo: Alexandros Michalidis/Shutterstock
3. Wander the Acropolis Museum
Can’t get enough of the Acropolis? Good! There’s an entire museum for it. It contains every artifact found on the rock of the Acropolis and its surrounding slopes since antiquity. It also lies on top of an excavation site, and its glass floors in certain areas allow you to look directly into the history of Athens. Or, as Kyriakos puts it: “It feels like you are floating over 2,500 years of history.”
One of the coolest things about the Acropolis Museum is that it helps you visualize that the statues of the Parthenon weren’t always plain white marble. They were once painted in a slew of every color imaginable. Pretty pretty, if you ask me.
Good to know: Kyriakos recommends starting on the 3rd floor, with a video that explains the history of the Parthenon and then making your way down to the ground floor at your own pace.
Featured Trip: Italy & The Greek Islands
15 days. 5 cities.
Pros: See Michelangelo’s David up close and personal in Florence, pretend you're a Gladiator in the Roman Colosseum, and travel back in time to where Western Civilization began on the Acropolis of Athens. Then it's time to unwind on a white sand beach, drink in hand, on two of Greece’s most iconic islands.
Cons: You'll have to put your keto diet on hold. Say it with us: Homemade. Italian. Pasta.
National Archaeological Museum. Photo: Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock
4. Dig deeper at the National Archaeological Museum
If you want to see more than just the treasures of the Acropolis, look no further than the National Archaeological Museum. This sprawling collection houses almost 9,000 years of Greek history. From the Neolithic, to the Trojan War, to Roman rule, and beyond. You could spend all day here, if that’s what you’re into.
Our pal Andreas, an EF Ultimate Break Tour Director and local Athenian, says this: “You can admire works of art as well as small, everyday things like golden jewelry that women used to wear 2,500 years ago! Surprisingly some of those earrings or wristbands could easily make the cover of a top fashion magazine today!”
Still want more museum time? You’re going to want to check out our Ultimate Greek Islands trip and add on the Knossos and Heraklion Archaeological Museum excursion. This museum, on the storied island of Crete, houses the treasures of Europe’s very first city—and it’s very cool.
Good to know: Andreas recommends avoiding visiting the National Archaeological Museum in the early morning—that’s when local school children visit on field trips. Better to show up a little later in the day and have a more relaxing learning experience.
The Agora of Athens. Photo: Anastasios71/Shutterstock
5. Take a stroll through the ancient Agora
The ancient Greeks, much like their modern descendants, loved public parks. Nearly every city under Zeus’s skies had a gathering space, known as an agora. A place where regular folk could barter, gab, or get down to brass tacks and really talk tzatziki. Lucky for you, Athens’ Agora has been dutifully excavated for your enjoyment.
Get out of the city and surround yourself with the architecture of the ancient world with a stroll through the Athens Agora. You’ll feel like you’re back in time (until you check your texts).
Good to know: Once you’ve had your fill of ruins and relaxation, Andreas suggests walking all the way through the Agora to Apostolou Pavlou Street, and from there, onward to the hip Thyseion neighborhood to hit a café or taverna. Speaking of tavernas, we’ve got Athens food and drink recs for you, too.
The quaint, colorful, and absurdly charming village of Anafiotika. Top: Andrii Marushchynets/Shutterstock. Bottom: Milan Gonda/Shutterstock
6. Climb Anafiotika for all of the views
Not all historical sites in Athens are ancient. In the 1840s when Greece coalesced into the modern country that it is today, the king put out a call for Greeks of all walks of life to come to Athens to restore ancient treasures and help build Athens into the metropolis it is today. Tour Director Andreas explains, “Anafiotika is an area in Athens just below the Acropolis. It’s a neighborhood that resembles a Greek island village, and was built when all the stone masons from Anafi island (next to Santorini) came to Athens.”
So yeah, it looks like you’re on a tranquil island, even when you’re right near the center of Athens. Tour Director Kyriakos adds: “The workers built their houses to resemble the architecture of the Cycladic islands—whitewashed buildings made of stone with flat roofs and colorful shutters. When you walk around the little alley ways of this neighborhood you will think you are on an island, away from all the hustle and bustle of the big city.”
Ancient? No. Old AF? Yep. Pack a picnic and walk to the higher points of the neighborhood for sweeping views of all of Athens.
Good to know: Andreas says to head here midday to avoid crowds—the locals will being having their midday nap. A Greek siesta, if you will. That said, make sure to keep the noise down or you’re for the scolding of a lifetime, courtesy of a little Greek grandma.
Featured Trip: The Greek Islands
11 days. 4 cities. White, turquoise & tzatziki sauce all over.
Pros: beaches: black, houses: white, the Aegean Sea, Greek sky, & the iconic domes of Santorini: So. Very. Blue.
Cons: still working on a single pair of shoes for dancing in the clubs of Mykonos, hiking ancient ruins in Athens, and wearing down to the beach in Paros.
Panathenaic Stadium. Photo: Andronos Haris/Shutterstock
7. Take your place on the podium at Panathenaic Stadium
Ready to channel your inner-Simone Biles? Head to Athens’ stunning Panathenaic Stadium, home of the first modern Olympic Games. No, Simone Biles didn’t actually compete here—she was born 101 years after its 1896 inception. But that doesn’t have to stop you from entering and posing for pics on the actual podium, complete with an Olympic ring backdrop.
Fun fact: Panathenaic Stadium is built on the same spot as an ancient Greek horse racing track. It’s also the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble (this is where I would insert a joke about playing for all the marbles). Show up, run some laps, and go for gold!
Good to know: EF Ultimate Break Tour Director Andreas points out that there’s a beautiful park around the stadium where you can chill out, enjoy a snack, and watch the soldiers of the Presidential Guard work out. Shoot, maybe even go ask them if you can join in on their next set of squats.
Brettos Bar, home to Athens' oldest distillery. Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock
8. Sip history at Brettos Bar
If all this learning has your brain needing a little break, slip into Brettos Bar to step into Athens’ past. Open since 1909, Brettos is home to Athens’ oldest distillery. Tour Director Kyriakos explains his own love for Brettos due to its décor and deep-rooted traditions. “The colorful bottles that decorate its walls are its trademark. Its founder, Michail Brettos, produced ouzo in the distillery, as well as brandy, sherry, peppermint, mastic, and citron liqueur, faithfully following ancestral recipes from the ancient Greek city of Smyrna.”
What is ouzo? You simply can’t leave Greece without trying ouzo. It’s a traditional liqueur beloved across the country, distilled from anise. It tastes a little like licorice, and you can find it just about anywhere. You can even buy a souvenir bottle at Brettos! If you don’t get a chance to sample it in Athens, there will be plenty of opportunities to try it on Santorini or Mykonos.
Good to know: There’s an entire culture behind ouzo. For example, sip it—don’t take it as a shot. Add a few cubes of ice to watch it turn a milky color and go down easier. And always, ALWAYS accompany it with mezedes (Greek tapas). Nobody drinks this stuff on an empty stomach—and it’s rare to drink it with a full entrée. The richness that comes with the cheeses and olive oils and breads of mezedes are the appropriate partner for this very strong alcoholic drink.
Changing of the guard in Syntagma Square. Photo: Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock
9. Catch the Changing of the Guard
Speaking of soldiers, catch them at their day job—guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Greek Parliament at Syntagma Square. Dressed in traditional military garb, they swap spots every hour on the hour.
Kyriakos highly recommends showing up to catch the beautifully choreographed ceremony. Admire their pleated skirts, leg tassels, and pompom shoes—and remember to be respectful. The jury is still out on if they’re as stoic as their British brethren in front of Buckingham Palace, so best to not test them.
Good to know: Show up 10 minutes early. It gets really crowded and you’ll want a good spot where you can see the whole she-bang.
Top: Palm trees stand tall at the Athens National Gardens (Photo: vivoo/Shutterstock). Bottom: Athens' Zappeion Hall (Photo: trabantos/Shutterstock).
10. Bask in the National Gardens and peek in the Zappeion
The National Gardens is just a quick stroll from the Greek Parliament. Take in some sunshine in this idyllic respite from the big city hustle and bustle.
Check out the iconic Greek foliage—including the famous 80-foot high palm trees personally planted in the 1840s by Queen Amalia. On your way out of the Gardens, swing by the ancient ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, you won’t be disappointed.
Good to know: On your way from the National Gardens to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Kyriakos says to swing by the massive, bright yellow Zappeion Hall. "It's a beautiful, neoclassic building that was built in the 1870s. It’s used for events and conferences but if there’s no planned event you can take a peek in the majestic round hall.” Pretty cool.
Also good to know: our EF Ultimate Break trips to Greece offer you the perfect balance of structured sightseeing time to cram in all the highlights, and plenty of free time to explore these historical haunts on your own. Take the guesswork out of your vacation and step into Athens’ history with a little help from the experts. That’s us. We’re the experts. And we look forward to showing you all of these breathtaking sites.
by Reid Flynn
Reid is a copywriter at EF Ultimate Break. He loves cheese, playing guitar, and speaking loudly about indie rock to anyone who will listen. His favorite place in the world is Amsterdam.
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