According to ancient Greek myth, there once was a great city on the edge of the Aegean Sea—a city in desperate need of a patron god. The people’s prayers made it all the way to Mt. Olympus, leading both Poseidon and Athena to appear before the city and ask for its favor. So the king, a half-man, half-serpent named Cecrops, declared a competition. The god who gave the city the greatest gift would become its patron.
Poseidon—the brother of Zeus and god of the sea—went first, striking his trident into the ground to reveal a spring of streaming water. The awestruck people rushed to the spring, but the water was salty and unfit for drinking. Athena—the daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom—then touched the ground and revealed an olive tree, a gift of food, oil, firewood, peace, and prosperity.
We know from Athens’ name which gift Cecrops favored, and perhaps it was Athena’s wisdom that transformed the city into the cradle of western civilization. Yet despite its magnificent history, modern-day Athens has earned the reputation of a chaotic, polluted capital—a city to be merely tolerated en route to the more alluring Greek isles. But even if you only have one day, you’ll find that Athens’ beautiful museums and ruins can take you on a thrilling journey through the ages.
So pack your bags. Before you board the next ferry to Mykonos, we’re going back in time for one exciting day.
Sweet Home Athens
Although Athens and its environs blanket an area of nearly 160 square miles, the city’s most captivating monuments are conveniently clustered around the Acropolis, the most famous architectural complex of ancient Greece. So you’d be well-served to make your home base a few blocks north in Plaka, a serene and scenic pocket of 19th century charm. Tucked away in Plaka’s maze of narrow streets, Sweet Home Hotel offers shockingly affordable, stylish rooms—and a scrumptious homemade breakfast each morning (Patroou 5).
A Shining City Upon A Hill
The golden age of Athens began in the fifth century B.C., as the Greeks basked in victory over the Persian Empire of Xerxes I. It was the era of Socrates, of the playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, and of the great historians Herodotus and Thucydides. And as democracy was established and the city-state flourished, Athens’ hilltop citadel, the Acropolis, became an awe-inspiring monument to artistic and intellectual achievement.
At the heart of the Acropolis is the Parthenon, conceived by the statesman Pericles and constructed by Pheidias between 447 and 438 B.C. With an early start, you’ll enjoy this masterful temple of Athena without the suffocating crowds. Just don’t neglect the nearby Erechtheion—a graceful Ionic temple that marks the site (and still bears the trident scars) of Athena and Poseidon’s competition.
And as the mid-morning crowds and temperatures begin to intensify, head indoors to the Acropolis Museum at the southeastern base of the hill. Since 2009, this cutting-edge space has given new vitality to the Acropolis’ ancient treasures—and made a compelling case for the repatriation of many more (Dionysiou Areopagitou 15).
That’s A Good Meatball, That’s A Good Meatball
A quick cab ride past the Panathenaic Stadium will lead you to Sunday lunch at Karavitis, beloved among locals, politicians, and visitors for its classic Greek dishes. Grab a table in the garden courtyard, where you’ll enjoy thick, garlicky tzatziki and the most irresistible fried meatballs in Athens (Arktinou 35).
Blood And Agora
It’s back to antiquity after lunch, a journey you’ll make by strolling through the Ancient Agora at the northwestern base of the Acropolis. As the center of political and public life in ancient Athens, the Agora’s open expanse played host to everything from merchants’ stalls to public forums. Today, the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos II—the building where Socrates once lectured to the city’s youth—houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora. And perched on a small hill to the west, the Hephaisteion—a beautifully preserved temple of Hephaestus, god of metalworking—outdates even the Parthenon (enter near Monastiraki Square on Adrianou).
As the sun begins to set, consider taking a short hike to the summit of Filopappou Hill, where a breathtaking eye-level view of the Acropolis awaits. Or head across town to Athens’ highest point, the peak of Mt. Lycabettus, where the city’s most celebrated sunset vista is a funicular ride away.
The Gazi Strip
West of the Acropolis, the Gazi district was for decades home to Athens’ old gasworks—as well as the soot that came with it. But the last few years have seen Gazi transform into an epicenter of Athenian art, culture, and nightlife. Soak in the neighborhood’s atmosphere with a late dinner at Skoufias, where you’ll enjoy the house specialty of honey-roasted pork shank in the shadow of the neighborhood church (Vasileiou Megalou 50).
A Few Notes
Does this seem like too much to tackle in one day? Fear not. Many of Athens’ most important historical sites are connected by the 2.5-mile Unification of Archaeological Sites promenade. And your ticket includes entry to the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, the Museum of the Ancient Agora, and much, much more.
TITLE: The Erechtheion | SUNDAY: The sprawling city of Athens; the Plaka district; the Parthenon; the Acropolis Museum; the Ancient Agora and the Hephaisteion; Filopappou Hill.