Europe’s oldest city, Athens, charms visitors with its relaxed atmosphere, vibrant street life and incredible monuments, museums and sights. The city is like a sprawling archaeological park, with centuries-old structures around seemingly every corner. Today’s Athens effortlessly combines the past with the present, resulting in a sea of cement dotted with ancient beauties where modernity is perfectly juxtaposed with tradition and history.
The crowning glory of the capital is the Acropolis, towering above the city both physically and spiritually. The flat-top limestone outcrop is home to more than 20 ancient structures constructed between 461 and 429 BC. Since then, the buildings have survived many transformations, becoming at various times an Islamic mosque, Florentine Palace and Turkish harem. Today, they still evoke the spirits of the gods and ancient heroes who were once worshiped there, and the sight of the Parthenon temple still stirs the hearts of millions of visitors each year. Other notable sites on the Acropolis include the Temple of Athena Nike, the imposing Propylaea and the Ionic architecture masterpiece of the Erechtheion. Just below the ancient hill is the New Acropolis Museum, featuring five floors of exhibits that offer insight into the structures’ history, designs and legends.
The labyrinthine streets of the Plaka district wind around the base of the Acropolis. Known also as the “Old Town,” the district is marked by Byzantine accents, crowded taverns and peaceful winding lanes that lead to some of the city’s greatest treasures. Don’t miss the Roman Agora, Athens’ 1st century BC commercial center, now home to an eerily beautiful Turkish mosque and the Tower of the Winds, one of the best-preserved Roman monuments in the capital. The area is also home to the Greek Folk Art Museum and the lavish Kanellopoulos Museum, which showcases dazzling Byzantine jewels, vases, bronzes and icons.
The nearby National Archaeological Museum is another must-see in the capital. Many of the greatest masterpieces of Greek painting and sculpture are held there, and the treasure trove features artwork from every period of ancient civilization. The most celebrated collection is the Mycenaean antiquities, where stunning gold treasures sit next to 15th-century silver masterworks and miniature carvings.
The Acropolis may be the most famous hill in Athens, but Mount Lycabettus is the highest, offering stunning panoramic views of the city. A funicular takes visitors to the top of the steep, rocky peak, where a whitewashed chapel looks out over the city. On a cloudless day, you can see all the way to Aegina Island from the peak. It is an unbeatable view, especially at sunset when the lights of Athens blink on and the moon rises over the city in a violet haze.
Other notable sites include the Academy of Athens, the country’s de facto national academy and a tribute to the Academy of Plato, the superb and sprawling oasis of the National Garden, the protest-center of Syntagma Square and the network of ancient temples and ruins at Cape Sounion.
The city is wonderfully impressive during the day, but it really rocks at night. Many districts are enjoying an entertainment renaissance, leaving visitors with an almost overwhelming amount of options spanning from world-class theaters and restaurants to eclectic galleries and underground clubs. Spend your evenings like the locals, sipping ouzo and dancing until the sun comes up over the Acropolis.