Athens, a quick highlight guide

Athens Travel Blog

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My Grandparents are going to Athens for three days and asked for some suggestions of things to see, so I wrote this up, and I thought I'd post it to the blog while I was at it. 

I am assuming you’ve already seen the standard ‘Parthenon, Akropolis, Agora, Plaka and the Archeological Museum’.  So I’ll write about some other things, but if you want info about the aforementioned places, just let me know. 

Kerameikos Cemetery

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerameikos

The cemetery is a very attractive one, with lots of poppy flowers and wildlife (like turtles) scattered between ancient tombstones.  They took the good tombstones and put them into a little museum which is onsite.  The museum is small but really has some good sculpture.  There is also a Byzantine Church on site…I don’t remember much about it, except I think its like ‘Holy Trinity’ or something, and it has an ancient temple below it. 

The gates to the cemetery are the ‘Dipylon Gates’ which was the starting point for the ‘Panathanaic Procession’ which would occur in Athens once every four years.  Athenians would gather and proceed from the gates, through the Agora up to the Akropolis to present the cult statue of Athena, which was housed in the Parthenon, with a new robe.  The robe was carried by the ‘vestal virgins’.  This holiday was a huge deal – the procession is depicted on the inner freeze of the Parthenon, which has been the greatest work of ancient art.  Unfortunately, you have to go to the British Museum to see it.  You can still part of the Panathenaic road in the Agora and walk on it. 

It was called Kerameikos (like ceramics) because the cemetery was in the “potters quarter” of the city, where all of the amphorae and other Greek vases were made, including the giant ‘dipylon amphora’ – a monumental pot used as a grave marker from the Geometric Period, which you can see in the National Archeological Museum.

This site isn’t really a highlight for most tourists, but for me, it is a critical site for really getting a taste of ancient Greece. 

Stoa of Attalos

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoa_of_Attalos

While you’re in the Agora be sure to visit the Stoa of Attalos, which holds the Ancient Agora Museum.  The original stoa was built in the Hellenistic Age out of pentellic marble, and was a very impressive building.  Unfortunately it was destroyed by barbarians, so a new one was reconstructed in its place.  It is controversial whether it is an accurate rebuild.  The museum holds many of the treasures that have been dug up in the Agora, interesting things like Roman busts, or clay voting ballots and some pottery.  The stoa is a really nice shady spot to rest when it gets too hot. 

Temple to Hephaestus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Hephaestus

The Agora is an interesting site, which I found really hard to decipher.  My favorite part of it however is the Hephaisteion or the Theseion.  (It is unclear if the temple belonged to Hephaestus, the paralyzed god of metal work, or Theseus, the slayer of the Minotaur and king of Athens).  The temple was built under the Periclean building project, at the same time as the Parthenon, and designed by the same Architect, Ikitinos.  This Doric style temple is one of the best preserved temples today. It isn’t the most impressive or the largest, but it is in the best condition.  The architectural sculpture is no longer on the building unfortunately.   In early Christian times it was converted to a church dedicated to Saint George.  It is also riddled with bullet holes when it took some fire during the Greek war of independence.  It sits on a hill in the agora and has an amazing photogenic view of the Akropolis. 

Sytagma Square Metro Station

http://www.athensinfoguide.com/wtssyntagma.htm

I don’t know if you were in Athens since the Olympics were held there, but the metro stations have been converted into mini museums.  The best one is the station at Syntagma Square, where you can see the layers of the foundation of the city.  It is very cool and archeological, although I have heard it is reconstructed, not natural. 

Also, in Syntagma square, there are a few little restaurants with patio seating.  Greek dining is pretty consistent – wherever you go, you can usually find the same basics with comparable prices, The places in the Square are nice and cool and shady, with good people watching – a very nice place to have lunch. 

New Akropolis Museum

http://www.newacropolismuseum.gr/

This place has FINALLY just opened after a very lengthy construction.  It was closed when I was there, so I never got to see it.  It is a brand new state of the art facility that holds all the archeological ruins from the Akropolis, including parts of the ‘pre parthenon’ which was the temple to Athena which resided in the place of the now Parthenon, before it was destroyed by the Persians when they sacked the city in 480BC.  The top floor of the museum is dedicated to the Elgin Marbles, constructed in the hope that they would be returned when the building was completed.  I’m not sure if it is an empty room or if they have plaster casts of the marbles.  Supposedly that gallery is all glass so that you can look up and see the Parthenon while simultaneously seeing the architectural sculpture which was once part of the building.  You must go here and tell me all about it! 

Benaki Museum

http://www.benaki.gr/index.asp?lang=en

The Benaki Museum displays a very wealthy private collection of Greek art and antiquities, along with a few other specialized collections.  This museum is state of the art and really fancy, and is much smaller and more manageable than a larger museum like the National Archeological Museum.  They don’t have any of the iconic ‘don’t miss’ pieces, but they do have a really good collection which would be worth visiting. 

War Museum

http://www.greeka.com/attica/athens/athens-museums/athens-war-museum.htm

This is one of the few air-conditioned buildings in Athens – so it’s a great place to visit on a hot afternoon!  The building is huge, it was originally intended to be the national gallery, but somehow came to hold all of the war paraphernalia instead.  The museum basically has an exhibit for every single war that Greece has ever been involved in, from ancient days to modern times.  Although war stuff does not particularly interest me, the exhibits were really impressive and informative.  They also have a good collection of war planes.  I think this museum will give you a great crash course lesson in Greek history. 

Lykavittos Hill

http://www.athensinfoguide.com/wtslykavittos.htm

Lykavittos is the giant hill opposite the Acropolis, from the top of which you can see all of Athens.  It is incredibly beautiful - so I would definitely recommend going before you leave. The best time to go is at sunset.  Make sure you leave yourself enough time to get to the top before then.  There is a church on the very top, along with a restaurant and a theater a little bit lower on the hill. 

 

 (Make sure, by the way, that you follow the path on your map up to the church, not to the theater)  You can either climb the hill (I'm not going to lie, it's a significant climb), or take the funicular/tram.  It is 6 euro round trip, and you just go into the little office at the base of the hill and it takes you right up.  Then you can use the same ticket to get back down.

 

Once you get to the top, my recommendation is as follows:  first, don't get stuck on the first level - go all the way up near the church.  So many tourists stop by the cafe, when the best view is really from next to the church.  Then, watch the sunset, and enjoy the amazing panoramic view of the whole city, and see them light up the Parthenon.  When the sun finally sets, you can go into the cafe to eat, I think it is a pretty nice restaurant, however I did not have the chance to eat there.  When you come back out, it will be completely dark and you can see the city all lit up.  It’s the one thing I would say you absolutely have to do before you leave Athens.

 

Aegina

http://realtravel.com/b-180241-greece_blog-aegina

I think a really lovely thing to do is spend a day in Aegina.  It is technically an island, but people treat it like a suburb of Athens.  Take the metro to Piraeus, the port and you can get a cheap ferry ticket to Aegina.  They leave about every hour or so.  It’s a really nice ferry ride to the island.  The port is a little bit touristy, but they have lots of pistachios!  There is a small bus station that will take you to the other side of the island.  One of the stops on the way is the Temple to Ephia.  I highly recommend stopping there, because it is an awesome archeological site, that probably wont be as crowded or regulated, so you can really crawl around and explore.  There is a small archeological museum on site that has some of the architectural sculpture from the temple.  The temple had been destroyed, but archeologists reconstructed it from original parts, so its fairly authentic. 

You can get back on the bus and go to Agia Marina, which is an adorable beach village.  There isn’t too much to see, but an EXCELLENT beach, (the only sand beach I found in Greece) and some really nice restaurants.  There is one in particular which is out on a rock that extends out to the ocean.  They have it all lit up with small lights.  You can eat dinner while listening to the waves crash, it really was an amazing ambience, and could be a really romantic dinner place.  It is really easy to find, Agia Marina is really small so just walk to the waterfront and look for the restaurant on the rock.  

Funny Greek things:

Don’t show the palm of your hand (it is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger) so wave with the back of your hand. 

You can’t flush the toilet paper,

You have to tell the cab drivers where you want to go before you get in the car, and they will decide if they want to take you or not.  Of course they nod their head down for yes, and nod up for no.  Very confusing. 

Many restaurants are set up to eat ‘family style’ so get dishes to share.

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photo by: Johnpro