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Athens: An Archaeologist's Travel Guide*

archaeology travel guide athens sightseeing

Everyone has travelled to that special city which, when they arrive, they never want to leave. For me, this city is Athens. As someone with two degrees in classical archaeology (that is, the material culture of ancient Greece and Rome), it's probably unsurprising that I have such a strong affection for the place. The entire city of Athens is an open-air museum for its history, culture, and heritage, there's something around every corner to immerse you in the distant past. I've visited Athens twice over two consecutive summers and each time, I've fallen a little bit more in love. Previously on my blog, I've shared my other travels across Greece (including an amazing road trip across the Argolid) but Athens deserves a post of its very own. Here are the sites you simply must see if Greece is on your hit list for this summer!

The Acropolis

Naturally, a visit to Athens wouldn't be complete without checking out the Athenian Acropolis. This is the site of the famous Parthenon temple, the sculptures from which form the crowning jewel of the British Museum's Greek archaeology collection, despite many attempts by the Greek government to repatriate them. There's way more than just the Parthenon on the Acropolis, however. The Erectheion is a great temple to visit - it is tiny compared to the Parthenon but there are so many quirky elements from every angle, especially the Caryatids! The Caryatids are enormous sculptures of women which stand in the place of columns in the building. They would have once supported the roof! The Propylaea gate through which you pass when you enter the Acropolis is another interesting piece of history: this once housed a picture gallery where artworks painted by the great masters of Greece were exhibited. The Acropolis hill is also home to the theatre of Dionysos, where tragedy and comedy plays were performed during festivals to honour Dionysos himself, the god of wine and revelry.

athens acropolis sightseeing archaeology parthenon
athens acropolis parthenon temple sculpture  athens acropolis temple caryatids
athens acropolis theatre dionysos

The Temple of Olympian Zeus

If you want to visit a site with an even more colourful history, the Temple of Olympian Zeus has everything you could ask for! Construction began on this enormous temple in the sixth century BC, supposedly under the orders of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos who had seized control of the city before the famous Athenian democracy took over. Building work was abandoned after the Peisistratid dynasty was ousted from Athens and it didn't start again until 131 AD, during the Roman era, when the Emperor Hadrian, who loved all things Greek, finished things off. Of the temple's original 104 columns, only a few remain standing today. These are still enough to give a sense of the sheer scale of the temple, which really has to be seen to be believed. This is definitely an awe-inspiring venue.

athens sightseeing archaeologist travel temple olympian zeus

National Archaeological Museum

Almost every subway station in Athens functions as a mini-museum. Every time the modern city expands, more ancient remains are uncovered and these are often exhibited on the subway platforms! For a fully immersive archaeological experience, however, the National Archaeological Museum is the place to go - it boasts more treasures than you could ever possibly count. It contains all of the major works of Greek sculpture that you see in archaeology textbooks, some of colossal proportions! An artwork that I'd definitely recommend you watch out for is the Sounion Kouros, who you can't really miss, since he stands at over 10 feet tall! He was given as a gift to the god Poseidon at a temple site in Samos, he dates to around 600BC and is truly breathtaking. The Antikythera Mechanism is another must-see: a lot of archaeologists' ink has been spilled over what its function could be. The mechanism looks like something our of sci-fi movie but it was actually discovered on an ancient Greek shipwreck. It is now thought to have been used as a navigation aid for sailors, but who knows?!

athens archaeology guide museum national athens archaeology guide museum national sightseeing
athens archaeology guide museum national sculpture

The Agora

Do you want a glimpse of where regular Athenians spent their days back in the ancient world? Then you need to head to the site of the Agora, or marketplace. The Agora has so much to explore, you can step in and out of the remains of ancient shops, the foundations of which are still preserved. Another fantastic place to visit within the Agora is the reconstructed version of the Stoa of Attalos. Stoas in the ancient world were covered corridors where tired shoppers would take refuge from the sun on hot days. Philosophers and their students would also meet here to discuss ideas, hence the name "stoic philosopher"! The reconstructed Stoa in the Agora is a two-storey building offering gorgeous views, you can even make out the Temple of Hephaistos in the distance from the upper floor. Excavations in the Agora are still ongoing so new discoveries are made on a yearly basis!

athens sightseeing agora archaeology stoa attalos

Mount Lycabettus

For the best views of the city, you need to climb Mount Lycabettus. There are a couple of ways to do this, you can either take the cable car, or you can walk it yourself. I walked the route during my visit to Athens and it certainly was tiring, especially in the blazing sun. If you choose the walking option, I would recommend sensible footwear, a big hat, and plenty of sun cream! Take a bottle of water with you as well, as you'll have to pay a pretty penny to purchase drinks at the summit. All of the hard work was definitely worth it for the amazing panoramic views! You can see across the entire city to the famous Acropolis, and you can even make out the Piraeus port on the horizon. On the summit itself, there is a small church with beautiful wall paintings, as well as a café.

athens sightseeing mount lycabettus cable car
athens sightseeing mount lycabettus church athens sightseeing mount lycabettus view

Top Athens travel tips:

  • Check when the festival weekends are set to take place if travelling in the summer. On these festival weekends, Athenians leave the city in their droves to spend time with their families on the coast, meaning that Athens itself is pretty much deserted. This is great for exploring without any queues but it also means that very few restaurants and shops are open. 
  • Invest in a multipass if you intend on visiting several attractions. A single fixed-price ticket gives you access to the Acropolis as well as six other attractions in the city.
  • Travel via the subway for the best value inter-city transport. An unlimited day metro pass costs just 4.50 Euro, which is a good deal. It's super convenient too, dropping you off right outside most major locations including the Acropolis and Hadrian's Library. Make sure you get your ticket franked before you enter the metro, however, as your ticket isn't valid unless you do so.
  • Watch out for pickpockets! Especially if you travel on the subway, pickpocketing is rife. Keep your wits about you and your valuables safely stowed in your hand luggage.
  • Take your student ID along with you. Entrance to many museums is free for EU students.
  • Book your holiday ASAP! Whether my post has convinced you that Athens is the place to be, or if you're tempted to visit Spain with Holiday Gems instead, booking in the spring for your summer vacation is an essential to ensure that your dream destination isn't sold out!

Do you have any holidays on the cards this year? If so, where are you off to? Let me know in the comments!

Until next time,

A x

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*This is a collaborative post.