7 Archaeological Sites & Museums in Athens That You Can’t Leave Greece Without Seeing
Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world, and is sometimes referred to as the cradle of Western civilization. The arts and philosophy thrived here, it is steeped in culture and ancient history, and its landscape is dominated by the stunning Acropolis. Like most things in Greece, there is a tale behind how the city got its name and the myth goes something like this: the city was prosperous and beautiful, but did not have a patron god that it paid tribute to. Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the sea, both contended for the title by offering a gift to the citizens; Athena gifted an olive tree and Poseidon offered a salt water spring. The citizens chose to accept the olive tree and so the city was named after Athena.
We knew that a trip to Greece wouldn’t be complete without exploring the city of Athens, so it was our first stop in Greece before heading onward to Olympia, Meteora and Delphi (a road trip itinerary is in the works – stay tuned!). Because of my obsession with Greek mythology, I had always dreamed of standing in front of the Parthenon, wandering through the National Archaeology Museum and admiring the Olympieio. During our short 48 hours in Athens, I went HAM reciting Greek mythology tidbits to my extremely patient boyfriend who had to listen to me ramble on and on about the 12 labors of Herakles, Aphrodite’s saucy affair with Ares behind Hephaestus’ back, crazy Dionysus-worshipping maenads and other tantalizing tales. I don’t regret it for a minute!
If you get a chance to spend a few days in Athens, make it happen!
The best time to visit
The best time to visit is in late spring or autumn when the crowds are less hectic. The crowds are at its worst during July and August – however, we were there in mid-July and while it was sweltering hot, it was still manageable (although it did feel like the entire population of Europe was at the Acropolis with us).
Getting to Athens and getting around
Most airlines fly into Athens International Airport, and from the airport you have a multitude of ways to get into the city. You can take the metro, buses or a taxi, but make sure you do a quick check to see if there are any metro strikes during your trip. We took the X95 express bus from the arrivals level to Syntagma Square and the journey took about an hour. These buses get packed during the peak season so make sure you position yourself in front of one of the doors – don’t expect orderly queues! We actually opted to wait for the next bus so that we could get seats.
Once you are in the city, it is easy to get around on foot or by metro/bus. If you plan to take public transportation you can look into getting a 3 day pass (which includes your fare to/from the airport) or 5 day pass (which does not include airport transportation). More information on transportation here.
Must-see sights in Athens
An “Acropolis” is a sanctuary or complex built high up on a mountain or hill, and the Acropolis of Athens is undoubtedly the most famous one of them all. When you visit the Acropolis, you actually get to see half a dozen or so sites within the complex: the Propylaea (the entrance to the site), the Theatre of Dionysos, the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike and of course, the Parthenon.
The iconic Parthenon is dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, Athena, and has survived fires, an explosion, earthquakes and lootings – it was still undergoing decades-long restoration when we were there last summer. Did you know that over the centuries the Parthenon has been a temple, a Christian church and an Islamic mosque?
- The Acropolis can be reached from Monastiraki Square. Follow the footpath to the left of the train station, past Hadrian’s Library and head up the stairs. You will reach the main ticket booth in about 5 minutes’ time.
- Purchase a special ticket (€30 for adults, €15 for children) that will grant you access to multiple sites including a few of the ones I have listed below. You’ll get more bang for your buck as 1) the special ticket is valid for 5 days, and 2) the cheaper ticket will only grant you access to the Acropolis and its slopes. If the queue is unbearable, you can purchase the unified ticket at one of the other sites. The special ticket will get you into these sites: Acropolis of Athens, Ancient Agora, Archaeological Museum of Kerameikos, Archaeological Site of Lykeion, Hadrian’s Library, Kerameikos, Museum of the Ancient Agora, north/south slopes of the Acropolis, Olympieio (Temple of Zeus) and the Roman Agora.
- Give yourself a minimum of 2-3 hours to wander around the entire Acropolis complex.
- The Acropolis is open from 8 am to 5 pm (last admission at 4:30 pm), closed certain days of the year.
Photography tip: Head to the Areopagus Rock on the way up to the Acropolis site for amazing views across the city!
2. Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum houses more than 4,000 finds from the archaeological excavation such as pediments, statues, votives as well as objects that Athenians used in everyday life. The ultra-minimalistic architecture of the museum creates a bright and airy exhibition space spread over a few different levels, and there is also a spacious cafe if you need a cup of joe and rest your feet. It is about 300 meters away from the Acropolis and even has in-house archaeologists scattered around the museum for you to ask questions about the exhibits.
5 out of 6 of the original Caryatids are located in this museum – the ones at the Erechtheion are copies! The 6th Caryatid is in the British Museum – there is an old legend that says that the 5 Caryatids can be heard wailing for their lost sister at night.
- Entrance to the museum is not covered by your unified Acropolis ticket. You will need to buy a separate ticket for €5.
- Give yourself at least an hour or two at this museum.
- The museum’s opening hours vary depending on the day of the week as well as season. It tends to open at 8/9 am and close early on Mondays (4/5 pm).
3. Hadrian’s Arch / Hadrian’s Gate
This roadside structure was dedicated Roman Emperor Hadrian and was once thought to mark the divide between the old and new parts of the city. Because it is not behind a walled complex, there is no admission fee to see Hadrian’s Arch. Plus, it is on the way to the next complex!
4. Temple of Olympian Zeus
This picture perfect temple is also known as the Olympieio – it is dedicated to the ruler of the Olympian gods (and notorious philanderer), Zeus. It was once one of the most majestic temples in Greece but was destroyed over the years: today, it only has about one fifth of the number of columns it had during its heyday. The best part about this site is that unlike the Acropolis, it is not crawling with people! It is relatively easy to get a shot of the temple (with the Acropolis in the background) without a single person in the picture!
- Entrance to the museum is covered by your unified Acropolis ticket.
- The temple is open from 8 am to 6:30 pm, give yourself 30 minutes or so to soak up the magnificence of the Temple.
5. Ancient Agora (not the same as the Roman Agora)
The Ancient Agora was the commercial, political and religious centre of ancient Athens. The citizens of Athens would gather here and discuss politics, make and hear announcements, buy and sell goods, and just chill in general. While the site is mostly rubble now (with the exception of the Temple of Hephaestus),
- Entrance to the museum is covered by your unified Acropolis ticket.
- The entrance to the Ancient Agora is a 5 minute walk away from Monastiraki Square, just follow the path to the right of the train station for a few hundred meters .
- The temple is open from 8/8:30 am to approximately 7 pm in the summer and much earlier in the winter.
6. Temple of Hephaestus
You know that guy Aphrodite cheated on? Yeah that was Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, fire, metallurgy and volcanoes (among others). It is said that he helped forge Zeus’ thunderbolt, armor for Achilles and even Pandora herself. The Temple of Hephaestus is preserved extremely well and is located on a small hill at the Ancient Agora (which means entrance is covered by the unified Acropolis ticket). Like the Temple of Zeus, you don’t have to fight your way through crowds of people to get a good look at this stunning structure.
Hell hath no fury like a scorned god – when Hephaestus found out that Aphrodite was cheating on him with Ares, the god of war, he built an unbreakable net and used it to catch them in the act mid-tryst. Hephaestus then invited the other gods to laugh at the naked goddess and god, both trapped under his net of shame!
The National Archaeology Museum is the largest museum in Greece and considered one of the best in the world, so please I beg of you, don’t miss this museum. It’s an easy 20-30 minute walk away from Plaka/Monastiraki Square and is home to more than 11,000 exhibits. The permanent exhibits are divided up into a few different categories including Egyptian antiquities, sculptures, metalwork: my favorite was this statue of Zeus hurling his thunderbolt (but I’m absolutely livid that these people are in the shot!)
- Entrance to the museum is not covered by your unified Acropolis ticket. The ticket is €7 and reduced during the winter months.
- Hours vary across different days of the week and seasons, so check this website for more information.
Where to stay and eat in Athens
A for Athens Hotel + Bar: Look no further than centrally-located A for Athens if you want to make the most of your trip. The room was enormous for European standards and bright & airy, the staff are incredibly helpful and did I mention that this was the view from our room? Yes – that’s an unobstructed view of the Acropolis! A for Athens was the perfect base for us to explore all the historic and archaeological sites in the city, I just wish we could have stayed longer.
This website isn’t called Yoga, Wine & Travel for nothing – A for Athens is also home to one of the best rooftop bars in the city! Their menu is chock full of unique cocktails and is the perfect view point to stare in awe at the sunset and changing colours.
Enastron: If you want authentic Greek fare, head to Enastron. The hotel recommended this restaurant to us, and we ended up having 3 meals there. It is a 5 minute walk away from A for Athens and the food is incredible – try their delicious homemade sausage!
Miso Pithari Monastiraki: This little hole-in-the-wall serves mouthwatering gyros just around the corner from A for Athens – head here for a cheap, cheerful and quick meal!
360: Athens has tons of amazing rooftop bars and restaurants, and this has to be one of the best in the city. Also in Plaka/Monastiraki Square, 360 is the place to go if you want to treat yourself to something special while you’re in Athens. Like the rooftop bar at A for Athens, 360 also offers a view of the Acropolis from their massive open-air terrace. The food is outstanding and it’s the perfect way to spend your last night in the city. The restaurant is extremely popular, so make sure you book your table online ahead of time.
Have you been to Athens yet? Am I missing anything from this list? Tell me all about it in the comments section!
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