Common wisdom holds Athens as a single-day destination, with one must-see sight and little else beyond that which is exceptional. Its abundance of ancient ruins may allow a true connoisseur to stretch the stay to a couple of days, but we are far from such connoisseurs. We made Athens the base for the last segment of our itinerary, which included two drives to the country (with other famous ruins as targets). As a result, we gave little more than one full day to exploring the capital. The guide on our walking tour seemingly took us by all major points of interest in the matter of a few hours, which further reinforced the aforementioned common wisdom.
All of the ancient sights in town are open to visitors, but their open-air nature means that you can admire practically every one of them without making formal stops. The walk-by exploration may seem too shallow for some and yet it is invaluable if your children are fast approaching the limit of what they can enjoy in terms of seeing ancient ruins. We took advantage of various perspectives on our walk around town. This, for instance, is the Temple of Hephaestus, a well-preserved Doric temple dating to the 5th century BC.
As recently as the early 19th century, the building was still in active use – albeit as a Greek Orthodox church.
Much less preserved is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, whose early construction, between 520-510 BC, intended to eclipse one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
The few remaining Corinthian columns are from a later, relatively more modest design that was completed only in 132 AD, under the Roman emperor Hadrian, six and a half centuries after construction had first begun. And then, the temple managed to survive just 135 years before it was significantly damaged when Athens fell to invaders, and was never repaired afterwards.
Stoa of Attalos, destroyed in the same invasion, has been not only repaired but almost entirely reconstructed in the mid-20th century. Originally dating to the 2nd century BC, this was the covered part of the ancient agora and now houses the museum dedicated to it.
The Tower of the Winds at the edge of the Roman agora (most people are more familiar with the corresponding Latin word – forum) was constructed in either 1st or 2nd century BC.
Each of its eight sides depicts the wind deity of the corresponding direction. This one is Apeliotes, the god of the east wind that was associated with rains that brought prosperity to the farmers. Appropriately, he wears boots and carries a basket full of fruit.
Acropolis appropriately provides an elevated backdrop to most of the ancient sites.
This triumphal arch-like structure is Hadrian’s Gate, built to honor the emperor Hadrian around the same time as the completion of the Temple of Zeus.
Acropolis is prominent in this perspective as well.
Among ancient ruins there stand occasionally relatively younger edifices, such as Byzantine churches. This is the Church of All Apostols.
And this is a remnant of a much later period in history, that of the Ottoman occupation of Greece. First the Islamic school and then a prison stood behind this gate.
A few fragments of Anafiotika – a tiny neighborhood on the slope of the Acropolis hill that looks like an Aegean village. The skilled laborers from the island of Anafi arrived here in mid-19th century to work on the construction of a royal palace. They built their houses and shaped their settlement to resemble the island villages that they had left behind.
The view across town from a terrace above Anafiotika. The hill in front of us is Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in modern Athens (which means that it was outside the boundaries of the city in ancient times, given that Acropolis was purposefully constructed above everything in the city).
Graffiti is ever-present in the city.
An abandoned grand house at the edge of the Roman Forum.
Another Byzantine church on the lively central square of the bustling Monastiraki neighborhood.
And yet another perspective towards Acropolis, this one fronted by the eye-catching former mosque on Monastiraki Square that is now used as the Museum of Ceramics.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens is just over 150 years old – practically a baby when compared to the ancient sites in the city.
The main square of Athens, Syntagma, with the Greek Parliament building.
In front of the Parliament, there is a relatively understated Monument to the Unknown Soldier. The hourly changing of the guard ceremony here is among the most elaborate and fascinating in all of Europe.
Each pair of guards spends an hour standing absolutely still – only eye blinks are allowed. The slow and exaggerated maneuvers that they perform when being relieved (and during a short interlude at the half-hour mark of their shift) is purportedly meant to help with restoring blood circulation.
A look across town away from the center, taken from the crest of Philopappos Hill at dawn.
Hardly anything catches the eye in this perspective, which is sort of symbolic of the overall impression of Athens: full of ancient history, but with not too much to offer beyond that.