The Greek capital Athens is one of the most interesting cities to visit if you love learning about the ancient world, but there is also a lot more to this southernmost capital city of the European mainland than you might think.
As well as being the birthplace of western civilization, Athens ranks as one of the most continuously inhabited cities in the world and one of Europe’s favorite holiday destinations Athens is also full of charm, history, spirituality, and swathes of cultural heritage that are still reflected in Greek culture today.
Join me as we answer the question – what is Athens known for? Taking into account everything from the ancient Greeks to the buzzing city that it is today.
The Acropolis is probably the main thing anyone thinks about when they contemplate Ancient Athens and for good reason. The Athens Acropolis is probably one of the most significant sites of history in the entire world but it’s not the only Acropolis in the world.
Acropolis means the highest point in any city which is often the place where monuments are built, but when one hears the word Acropolis, one thinks of Athens first.
The Athens Acropolis is therefore a series of monuments along a plateau that rises up out of the Plaka area of Ancient Athens and from the city today. At the Acropolis of Athens, you’ll find several temples including the Erechtheion and the largest temple, the Temple of Athena Nike which was dedicated to the goddess Athena.
The most famous monument on the Athens Acropolis is the Parthenon and along with it comes the Ancient Greek gate of Propylaia.
All of these structures were built at the Acropolis during the Golden Age when Pericles was ruler between 460-430 BC. Inside the Parthenon, you’ll find a huge statue called “Athena Parthenos” and the famous marbles of the Parthenon frieze. You can find a few of these marbles in the British Museum as they were removed by Lord Elgin in the 19th century.
The Acropolis and particularly the Parthenon was a sacred place for ancient Athenians and continued to be so after the demise of Ancient Athens and Ancient Greece. The Parthenon became a Christian church in the Byzantine Era, then the Parthenon turned into the Cathedral of Athens around 1205, and in the 15th century, the Ottomans made the Parthenon a mosque.
There is no better way of understanding the daily life of ancient Athenians than by visiting the Ancient Agora in Athens, Greece. An Agora is a Greek word for a site with an open space where Athenians could come and meet in ancient times to engage in discussions and activities.
They are featured in almost every Greek city and walking around the old Agora in Athens is something you have to do. The grounds are not only beautiful but you’ll also stumble upon things every Athenian used in ancient times from a water clock to the gymnasium as well as a temple or two.
The most famous of the temples at the Ancient Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus or Thisseon, the patron god of fire and metalworking. The temple overlooks the rest of the Agora and was surrounded by metal workers and other craftsmen alike.
Another Ancient Greek site Athens is known for and famous for is the amazing temple of Olympian Zeus. This temple is extremely old and dates back to almost the 6th century BC but it took over 600 years to complete and wasn’t finished until the reign of Hadrian, the famous Roman Emperor.
You’ll find this famous Greek temple in the National Gardens of Athens. It was made up of some 100 or more gigantic columns that made it the largest temple in entire Greece and one of the biggest temples in the entire world.
Today there are still enough columns of the temple to give you a sense of just how big it was which leads to understanding why it took so long to build.
Did you know that the direct democracy system we use today is an evolved Athenian democracy system? Athenian democracy was created in Athens around the 6th Century BC.
The actual word democracy is derived from two ancient Greek words, Demos meaning the body of citizens, and Kratos meaning rule, and today it means government. Thus, democracy literally means the rule or government of the people in ancient Greek.
Democracy wasn’t quite the same back in Ancient Greece as it is today though. Only eligible citizens directly voted and by eligible citizens, I mean men who weren’t slaves. Slaves and women were removed from voting and one’s vote counted more or less depending on how wealthy one was. So, while old Athenian Democracy wasn’t the best, it was a solid starting point.
Democracy is said to be the birth child of the statesman Solon but the original democracy was later improved by Cleisthenes. He changed the voting weight of democracy to be about where the citizens lived, not about their wealth.
The word Philosophy literally comes from the Greek words Philos (love) and Sophia (wisdom) and if there is anything that Athenians and Athens are famous or known for its philosophizing.
When you walk down the streets of Athens or anywhere in Greece for that matter, you can tell that great conversations are a deep part of their culture and this dates way back to the great philosopher Plato and of course Aristotle.
It’s quite incredible that such amazing minds of the world lived in the old city of Athens around the same time – and they came up with concepts that we still live by today.
Philosophy Schools were created in Athens, Greece and the oldest and most famous is the Academy of Plato which began in 397 BC in a fitting olive grove, a spot dedicated to the goddess Athena.
It was at Plato’s academy where Aristotle studied and then went on to live on the Greek Island of Lesvos to study nature, and then to be the tutor of Alexander the Great’s son after which he came back to Athens to start his own school in the Lyceum.
A Greek Tavern is pretty much a small restaurant. The oldest Greek Tavern was discovered in Athens and it’s something that Athens is both famous and known for.
While excavating the site of the Ancient Agora, archeologists stumbled upon the ruins of a tavern, and visiting a Greek tavern was a huge part of old Greek culture and today’s Greek and Athenian culture too.
Around the site of the taverna, archeologists found old fish bones and a wine shop, showing that the ancient Greeks had a similar menu to the Greeks today. Fish, oysters, bread, pork, beef, salad, and wine were all thought to have been served at the taverns in old Greece and it’s quite amazing that the same diet continues today.
Another thing Athens and Greece are known and famous for around the world is Ouzo pronounced Uzo. Ouzo is pretty much the Greek version of an aperitif that is made from anise and it’s not just Greek and Athens that love it, many countries in the world have their own versions.
Anise is a flowering plant that is found all over the Mediterranean coastline and southwest Asia, hence why it has been used by so many different nations to create a little tipple for after dinner.
In Turkey it’s called raki, in Italy, it’s called sambuca and in France pastis. It’s quite a strong spirit with a heavy aniseed taste that is akin to licorice, fennel, and star anise.
In Greece, it’s traditionally drunk after dinner as a digestive but it’s equally as good for a long night of drinking while philosophizing the world’s issues and by the end of the bottle, probably solving them.
While you’re in Athens or anywhere in Greece for that matter, make sure to order some Ouzo after dinner at a taverna. It’ll certainly help your food go down and make your evening a little bit more fun.
We all know what a marathon is right?! That really long race of some 26 miles that is featured in the modern Olympic Games and that almost every city in the world has its own one such as The London Marathon.
Did you know that the Marathon originated in (or ended as the story goes) in Athens? The story of how a Marathon came to be is a great one and it doesn’t date back to Greek Mythology, it’s actually a story that happened.
To us, a Marathon is a race of a certain length but it actually refers to a place from the story, the town of Marathon in the Attica Region where the first “marathon” began. During the 5th century BC, the Persians attempted to invade Greece and the Battle of Marathon was one of their first assaults of the war on mainland Greece, not far from Athens.
The Athenian army managed to fight back the Persians thanks to the skills of their leader General Miltiades and once the war was won, word had to be quickly sent back to Athens of Athenians victory.
The task was given to the Greek soldier Pheidippides who ran all the way from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news that the Athenian army had won. Legend has it that the news were the last words out of Pheidippides’ mouth as he fell victim to exhaustion afterward.
The Olympics, which as we know was a Greek invention was reborn in 1896 at the same place where it started in Greece and they were held in the Panathenaic Stadium.
The Panathenaic Stadium was first built in 330 BC to hold the Panathenaic Games and rebuilt, again in 144 AD by Herodes Atticus but in marble this time, and was again beautifully restored for the first of the “new” Olympics.
Just 14 nations participated in the first of the new Olympic games which were organized by the International Olympic Committee run by a French historian called Pierre de Coubertin. It was Pierre’s idea to hold a race as part of the games to commemorate the Marathon run done by Pheidippide and by using the same original route.
The first-ever marathon race in the new Olympic Games started in Marathon and ended in Athens. And guess what, it was won by a Greek!
Athens is also famous for its notorious Plaka District that sits like an island in the city just below the Acropolis. In the old days, Athens wasn’t such a big city and the first developments happened close to the Acropolis which became the Plaka D.
Over time, Athens city grew to hold what it is today with a total population of just over 3 million. This development slowly surrounded the Plaka D. and ended up turning it into a kind of island village in the middle of the city of Athens.
If you want to experience real Greek culture while you’re in Athens, there is no better place than the Plaka D. in entire Greece. It’s about as romantic as Athens gets with stone walkways, ancient trees, leafy canopies, restaurants, and cafes, all with a view of the Acropolis on one side and the rest of Athens surrounding it.
While most people who visit Athens and Greece tend to go to the endless Greek islands and coastline to spend their holiday time, you can hang out by the sea in Athens itself.
Athens might be a huge sprawling city today but it’s also its own immaculate coastline which is referred to as the Athenian Riviera.
It’s a stunning bit of coast with beaches that are almost too perfect plus all the benefits of a large city including amazing restaurants, cafes, great bars, plus all the water sports on offer you could ever want to partake in.
It’s worth driving down the coast to Sounion, just an hour or so from the Athenian Riviera where you’ll find the Temple of Poseidon, a very dramatic coastline and one of the most beautiful and famous sunsets in the country.
While Athens is a marvel of Ancient sites and beautiful architecture, life today still continues. One of the best places to immerse yourself in the daily Athenian life of today is in the many markets of Athens.
The largest and most famous market in Athens is in the ancient and historical district of Monastiraki. This market lives two lives as during the week it’s home to the kind of market you’d expect that has shops selling souvenirs and anything Greek worth taking home with you.
On the weekend, the market completely transforms into a huge flea market with stalls that sell absolutely everything you might want to get your hands on. You’ll find antiques, carpets and lots more.
While you’re probably not going to go and buy some flea market antiques, it’s worth visiting the market on the weekend just for the atmosphere.
Athens is home to many stunning gardens which were once private but are not available for the public to enjoy. There is nothing better than sitting under the shade of a tree in the middle of Athens watching the world go by as the ancient philosophers once did.
If there is one garden you should visit in Athens, it is the Royal Gardens which were once the gardens of the Royal Palace in Athens which is now the city’s parliament building.
The Royal Gardens were made public in 1923 and seeing them is one of the most popular things for tourists to do in Athens, so I’d recommend visiting them early before the crowds collect thereafter their parliament tour.
They are beautiful gardens full of trees and flowers and the perfect place to enjoy some peace and quiet away from the buzz of the city.
Another thing Athens is famous for that you might have guessed is Art Museums and if you’re an art lover, you’ll be entertained for weeks in the city.
One of the best art museums to visit in Athens is the National Archaeological Museum where their exhibitions show off art that dates back all the way to the Neolithic Age, and they have one of the largest collections in the world. If you have wanted to see how the artists of ancient Athens looked at the world, there is no better way than seeing their paintings.
Another art museum you should visit in Athens is the Benaki Museum which sits in the former mansion of the Benaki Family. It showcases an art collection that represents many stages of the evolution of Greek culture and is home to 120,000 pieces that run from today all the way back to prehistoric times.
Along with art museums, there is also a load of museums that showcase the history of Athens and one of the best ones to visit is the New Acropolis Museum.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!