Cities in the Spotlight: Athens, Greece
Updated: Dec 26, 2022
Today marks the beginning of a new series. Back in 2019 I did a series called A-Z Around the World in which I highlighted a different country for each letter of the alphabet. For this series I will be doing roughly the same thing but instead of the country I am focusing on the cities. I will be sharing where the city is located, why you should travel there, the historical significance, must see sites, must see food and drink, travel guides to check out as well as any cool facts that I can find. If I can find videos I will be sharing those as well.
Athens City Information
Athens is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, with its recorded history spanning over 3,400 years and its earliest human presence starting somewhere between the 11th and 7th millennium BC.
Classical Athens was a powerful city-state. It was a center for the arts, learning and philosophy, and the home of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. It is widely referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy, largely because of its cultural and political impact on the European continent—particularly Ancient Rome. In modern times, Athens is a large cosmopolitan metropolis and central to economic, financial, industrial, maritime, political and cultural life in Greece. In 2021, Athens' urban area hosted more than three and a half million people, which is around 35% of the entire population of Greece.
Athens is a Beta global city according to the Globalization and World Cities Research Network, and is one of the biggest economic centers in southeastern Europe. It has a large financial sector, and its port Piraeus is both the largest passenger port in Europe, and the second largest in the world. The Municipality of Athens (also City of Athens), which actually constitutes a small administrative unit of the entire city, had a population of 664,046 (in 2011)within its official limits, and a land area of 38.96 km2 (15.04 sq mi). The Athens Urban Area or Greater Athens extends beyond its administrative municipal city limits, with a population of 3,090,508 (in 2011) over an area of 412 km2 (159 sq mi). According to Eurostat in 2011, the functional urban area of Athens was the 9th most populous in the European Union (the 6th most populous capital city of the EU), with a population of 3.8 million people. Athens is also the southernmost capital on the European mainland and the warmest major city in Europe.
Athens Historical Significance
The heritage of the classical era is still evident in the city, represented by ancient monuments and works of art, the most famous of all being the Parthenon, considered a key landmark of early Western civilization. The city also retains Roman and Byzantine monuments, as well as a smaller number of Ottoman monuments, while its historical urban core features elements of continuity through its millennia of history. Athens is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Acropolis of Athens and the medieval Daphni Monastery. Landmarks of the modern era, dating back to the establishment of Athens as the capital of the independent Greek state in 1834, include the Hellenic Parliament and the so-called "architectural trilogy of Athens", consisting of the National Library of Greece, the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Academy of Athens. Athens is also home to several museums and cultural institutions, such as the National Archeological Museum, featuring the world's largest collection of ancient Greek antiquities, the Acropolis Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Benaki Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum. Athens was the host city of the first modern-day Olympic Games in 1896, and 108 years later it hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics, making it one of the few cities to have hosted the Olympics more than once.
Travel to Athens
*taken from Lonely Planet*
With equal measures of grunge and grace, Athens is a heady mix of ancient history and contemporary cool.
The magnificent Acropolis, visible from almost every part of the city, is the hub around which Athens still revolves. This temple city, built in the 5th century BC, serves as a daily reminder to Greeks of their heritage and the city's many transformations. All over the urban basin, rooftops and balconies angle toward the landmark, a block of milky marble atop a steep-sided hill. Pull up your own chair, settle in and allow time to appreciate the Acropolis' many moods, as the light shifts and the clouds cast their shifting shadows. The cultural and social life of Athens plays out amid, around and in landmarks that are centuries old, if not millennia. The remnants of Ancient Greece get the most attention, of course, thanks to a little thing called democracy. Oh, and mythology, and drama, and philosophy. But don't overlook the 'later' years: thousand-year-old Byzantine churches, for instance, which squat, unruffled in the middle of streets and attached to hillsides. Ottoman traces can be seen in architecture and in food. And the neoclassical style of the 19th century adds elegance all over the centre. Although Athenians have endured difficult circumstances since the start of the economic crisis in 2009, the city as a whole crackles with energy in art shows, political debates and even on the walls of derelict buildings, as Athens has become one of Europe's most noted spots for street art. Creative surprises lie around nearly every corner, so be sure to leave room in your schedule for spontaneous discovery: buy a ticket to that dance show that's just starting as you walk by, or sit down at the restaurant where the musicians are setting up. You'll be rewarded. Beyond Athens, down the Attica peninsula, are more spectacular antiquities, such as the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion and the site of Ancient Eleusis, as well as very good beaches, such as those near historical Marathon. Sure, you could zip across, west to east, in less than an hour, but it's far more fun to take a leisurely road trip to a thermally heated lake, say, or a monastery with dazzling Byzantine mosaics. If you'd rather not drive, most of these surprise sights (including great beaches) can be reached on public transport.
Must See Sites
This dazzling museum at the foot of the Acropolis' southern slope showcases its surviving treasures. The collection covers the Archaic period to the Roman one, but the emphasis is on the Acropolis of the 5th century BC, considered the apotheosis of Greece's artistic achievement. The museum reveals layers of history – from ancient ruins beneath the building, to the Acropolis itself, always visible above through floor-to-ceiling windows. The good-value restaurant has superb views.
Designed to be the pre-eminent monument of the Acropolis, the Parthenon epitomises the glory of Ancient Greece. Meaning 'virgin's apartment', it's dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess embodying the power and prestige of the city. The largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, the Parthenon took 15 years to build. It was designed by Iktinos and Kallicrates and completed in time for the Great Panathenaic Festival of 438 BC. Built on its highest ground of the Acropolis, the Parthenon had a dual purpose: to house the great statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles and to serve as the new treasury. It was built on the site of at least three earlier temples dedicated to Athena.
The Acropolis is the most important ancient site in the Western world. Crowned by the Parthenon, it stands sentinel over Athens, visible from almost everywhere within the city. Its monuments and sanctuaries of white Pentelic marble gleam in the midday sun and gradually take on a honey hue as the sun sinks, while at night they stand brilliantly illuminated above the city. A glimpse of this magnificent sight cannot fail to exalt your spirit. Inspiring as these monuments are, they are but faded remnants of the city of Pericles, who spared no expense – only the best materials, architects, sculptors and artists were good enough for a city dedicated to the cult of Athena. It was a showcase of lavishly coloured buildings and gargantuan statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones. The Acropolis was first inhabited in Neolithic times (4000–3000 BC). The earliest monumental buildings were constructed here during the Mycenaean era. People lived on the Acropolis until the late 6th century BC, but in 510 BC the Delphic oracle declared it the sole province of the gods. After all the buildings on the Acropolis were reduced to ashes by the Persians on the eve of the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), Pericles set about his ambitious rebuilding program. He transformed the Acropolis into a city of temples, which has come to be regarded as the zenith of Classical Greece.
The Agora was ancient Athens' heart, the lively hub of administrative, commercial, political and social activity. Socrates expounded his philosophy here; in AD 49 St Paul came here to win converts to Christianity. The site today is a lush respite, home to the grand Temple of Hephaistos, a good museum and the 11th-century Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles, trimmed in brick patterns that mimic Arabic calligraphy. The greenery harbours birds and lizards. Allow about two hours to see everything.
National Archaeological Museum
Housing the world's finest collection of Greek antiquities in an enormous neoclassical building, this museum is one of Athens' top attractions. Treasures offering a view of Greek art and history – dating from the Neolithic era to Classical periods, including the Ptolemaic era in Egypt – include exquisite sculptures, pottery, jewellery, frescoes and artefacts found throughout Greece. The beautifully presented exhibits are displayed mainly thematically. It could take several visits to appreciate the museum's vast holdings, but it's possible to see the highlights in a couple of hours. The museum also hosts world-class temporary exhibitions.
These are just some of the top choices of sites to visit. You can find more at Lonely Planet.
Must Try Food & Drink
Tzatziki; A great complement to fish and grilled meat – especially during sunny days – tzatziki is a savoury sauce made of Greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic, olive oil and herbs (mint, dill, parsley and thyme being common), with a generous splash of lemon juice or white wine vinegar.
Souvlaki; Arguably the most famous Greek fast food in the country, souvlaki or kalamaki is as ‘classic’ as the architecture in Athens. Souvlaki is a simple, tasty dish consists of small chunks of meat (and sometimes vegetables) grilled on a skewer. It can be eaten straight from the skewer or served with potatoes and pita bread.
Gyro; The difference between a gyro and souvlaki is how the meat is prepared. Souvlaki has pieces of meat on a skewer and cooked over a grill. Gyro, on the other hand, is like a kebab and made with meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie. In Athens, the meat used in this delectable dish is usually pork or chicken (as opposed to lamb) and is served in a pita wrap alongside vegetables, potatoes, tzatziki and lemon.
Spanakopita; For visitors who love a savoury pastry treat, spanakopita (spinach pie) is a must-try. Encased in a lovely and flaky phyllo dough, spanakopita delivers a surprisingly refreshing taste thanks to a combination of spinach, herbs and feta cheese. This melt-in-your-mouth dish can be enjoyed as a main, as a side, or as a takeaway snack. Careful though, if you like flaky pastry with a savoury cheese and spinach filling, you can get addicted to this.
Loukoumades; Loukoumades are small doughs deep-fried to crispy, drenched in honey syrup, and sprinkled with a range of toppings from ground cinnamon, sesame seeds to chocolate source. While they look a lot like profiteroles in size, many consider them to be the ‘Greek doughnuts’ – but a wise Greek may very well point out that doughnuts are like loukoumades (and not the other way around) as loukoumades are one of the oldest pastries in the world.
Amygdalota; Amygdalota is a lovely almond cookie often made with a splash of orange or rose water. Crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, these cookies symbolise new beginnings and are often served in weddings and baptisms.
Ouzo; If there is one thing the world knows about Greece, it is ouzo. Thanks to films such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, ouzo is now enshrined in popular culture. This delicious anise-flavoured alcohol is often consumed as an accompaniment to a meze platter (a large tray consisting of Greek yogurt, cold cuts, fresh vegetables and pita) among friends.
Frappé; Accidentally invented in the 1950s by a representative of Nescafé in Greece, frappé took the country by storm during the country’s economic ‘golden age’ in the 1960s. The drink is made from instant coffee, sugar, milk and ice, blended together to create a smooth mixture. Sometimes whipped cream is also added.
Travel Guide Books
Interesting Athens Facts
Athens is Europe’s oldest capital.
Records show the city’s origins go back to around 3,400 years ago, also making it one of the oldest cities in the world.
Athens has experienced almost every form of government.
Having been inhabited for over 4,000 years, Athens has been submitted to nearly every form of government known to this day: monarchy, democracy, socialism, capitalism, even communism.
If it weren’t for an olive tree, Poseidon might have been the city’s patron.
According to mythology, Athena and Poseidon competed for the title of the guardian of the city. They each offered a gift to gain favor of its people and the gods, but Athena’s olive tree was deemed more valuable than the salt water spring given by Poseidon, so her name was given to the city-state.
The ancient Olympic games were never held in Athens.
The first Olympic Games were held in 776 B.C. in Olympia, in Peloponnese, but the city-state of Athens also had its own games, called the Panathenaic Games, since 566 B.C.
Athens is home to the first known democracy.
Democracy was established in Athens around 500 B.C. It was based on a direct democracy system, in which eligible citizens directly voted on laws.
Athens has the most theatrical stages in the world.
It’s understandable that the Greeks take theater very seriously, as the tradition of theater dates back to the time of Athens’ first democracy – so much so that Athens is home to 148 theater stages, more than the West End and Broadway combined.
Athens hasn’t always been the capital of Greece.
Athens is Greece’s second capital city. During and after the War of Independence, the capital of the new Greek State was Nafplio, 1821–1834.
I absolutely love Rick Steves and his episodes are always full of valuable information.
I hope you enjoyed today's post, and I will see you next time.