ATHENS — Plaka and Monastiraki

These are the oldest and busiest areas of Athens as well as containing a fair number of the tourist sights. The area extends from busy Monastiraki to the lovely old streets of Plaka which is found on the eastern edge of the Acropolis. Plaka is the ancient heart of the city and here you will find narrow streets with restored and some crumbling buildings. The area is also full of ancient sites, museums, churches as well as many restaurants and cafes. When you wander around this area don’t just stay on the main streets make sure you wander off into the side streets to catch a glimpse of days gone by. Monastiraki is an explosion of sights, sounds, noise and chaos seems to reign here but this is an exciting area and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to help you keep up.

The sights found here are:
Church of Kapnikarea
Museum of Traditional Greek Ceramics
Hadrian’s Library
Agora Museum
Museum of Greek Popular Instruments
The Tower of the Winds
The Roman Agora
Church of the Holy Apostles
Areopagus Hill
Kanellopoulos Museum
The Acropolis
Temple of Athena Nike
Statue of Athena Promachos
Erechtheion
Panathenaic Way
The Parthenon
Panagia Hrysospiliotissa
Theatre of Dionysos
Agios Nikolaos Rangavas
Church of Agia Ekaterini
Centre of Folk Art and Tradition
Children’s Museum
Museum of Greek Folk Art
Frissiras Museum of Contemporary Greek and European Painting

Church of Kapnikarea

Church of Kapnikarea
This tiny 11th century Byzantine church is found in the middle of the Ermou shopping mall. It is built on the site of a former temple supposedly dedicated to the goddess Athena or Demeter. The church is dedicated to St Mary. It is built in the cross-in-square style and its dome is supported by four Roman columns. The interior of the church is quite lovely with its icons which are mostly the work of the celebrated Modern Greek artist Fotis Kontoglou. This work was saved from demolition and is now the property of the Athens University.

Museum of Traditional Greek Ceramics
This museum is housed in a former mosque, The Mosque of Tzistarakis which was built in 1759 and is one of the few surviving mosques in Athens. The museum features pottery and hand-painted ceramics from the early 20th century.

Hadrian’s Library

Hadrian’s Library
This magnificent public building is found on the north side of the Acropolis near the Roman Agora. It was built by the Roman emperor Hadrian between 131 and 132 AD but was destroyed by the Herulae in 267 AD and incorporated into the Late Roman fortification wall but in later years was rebuilt. The complex consists of a large, nearly square, walled enclosure, with the entrance on the west side. The walls on the north, south, and east were built of limestone but the western wall was marble. The western side also had a single row of marble Corinthian columns in front of the wall, on either side of the main entrance. Inside the complex was an open air courtyard, with a central pool and garden, surrounded by marble columns which are no longer there. At the eastern end of the colonnade were a series of rooms that housed the library. Books were stored here and it served as reading rooms and lecture halls. Three churches were built on this site and the remains of them can still be seen today. They are the Quatrefoil Building which was an early Christian church dating back to the 5th century AD; a three-aisled basilica built in the 7th century AD and a single-aisled church from the 12th century AD that was the first cathedral of the city. Archaeologists believe that Hadrian’s Library was modelled on the Temple Pacis in Rome.

Agora Museum

Agora Museum
The Ancient Agora Museum is housed in the restored Stoa of Attalos which is a monument dating from 150 BC and was discovered during excavations between 1859 and 1902. It was once a popular shopping precinct and meeting place and was named after the king who built it, Attalos II of Pergamum. The museum was set up to house finds from the excavations in the Ancient Agora. The exhibits found here directly relate to the functions of Athenian democracy and reflect the role that the Ancient Agora had in the life of Ancient Athens. Collections include clay, bronze and glass objects, sculptures, coins and inscriptions from the 7th to the 5th centuries BC. There is also pottery from the Byzantine period and the Turkish occupation. Important exhibits found in the museum include ceramic containers from the 6th century AD especially an aryballos in the form of a kneeling athlete who is tying the victory ribbon around his head; a red-figured drinking cup by Gorgos and a black-figured krater showing a Hermes scene. There are also some magnificent statues such as that of Apollo Patroos, a huge one by Euphranor and that of the female deity in front of the Royal Stoa.
For information about the museum visit the following website at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/1/eh155.jsp?obj_id=3290

Traveller's Tip

It is probably best to visit this museum before visiting the Ancient Agora site because it will help you make sense of the ruins as there are models of how the site would have once looked. These models are found on the upper floor.

Museum of Greek Popular Instruments
The Museum of Popular Instruments which is also the Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (MELMOKE) contains a collection of around 1200 Greek popular musical instruments dating from the 18th century to the present day. The collection came into being from the research and study by the musicologist Fivos Anoyanakis. The Museum is housed in the historical Lassanis Mansion, which was built in 1842 and is found near the Roman Agora. In the museum you can view photographs of musicians and you can listen to recordings of the instruments on display such as tambourines, Cretan lyres, lutes, pottery drums and clarinets. The museum shop has a wide selection of music for sale. There is a courtyard where you may be lucky enough to hear a musical performance if you are here in the summer.
For information about the museum visit the following website at: http://www.instruments-museum.gr

The Tower of the Winds

The Tower of the Winds
This octagonal, white marble tower is over 12 metres high with a diameter of about 8 metres and resting on a base of three steps. It is found immediately east of the Roman Agora. It was designed by a famous astronomer, Andronikos of Kyrrhos to be an elaborate water clock on the inside, a sundial on the outside, and a weather vane of the sea god Triton with the head and torso of a man with the tail of a fish on the top. Triton carried a pointed wand in his hand to indicate the direction from which the wind was blowing. The tower is decorated on each side with a sculpted figure of a wind god with each winged figure personifying the character of its wind direction. These eight figures carved into the eight sides of the tower give it its nickname of ‘Tower of the Winds’. In the early Christian period the Tower of the Winds was used as the bell-tower of a Byzantine church and under the Ottoman rule it was used by whirling dervishes. Over time it became half-buried by earth accumulating until it was excavated around 1840 and restored.

The Roman Agora

The Roman Agora
The Roman Agora of Athens is found on the north side of the Acropolis and a short distance from the Greek Agora that it was connected to via a paved street. The funds for this large building were provided by Julius Caesar and Augustus for its construction between the 19th and 11th centuries BC. The Roman Agora is a large building measuring 111 x 98 metres and consists of a large, open-air courtyard surrounded by colonnades on all four sides. On the eastern side, there were also a series of shops. On the southern side was a fountain. The main entrance which is the Gate of Athena Archegetis is found on the western side, and there was a second entrance (or propylon) on the east, leading up to a public latrine and the Tower of the Winds. The Roman Agora became the main market of the city, taking over many of the commercial functions of the Greek Agora, which had become something of a museum by that time. During the Byzantine period and the Turkish occupation the area was covered with houses, workshops and churches along with the Fethiye Mosque.
For information about the Roman Agora visit the following website at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh355.jsp?obj_id=2402

Church of the Holy Apostles

Church of the Holy Apostles
This church is found at the southern entrance of the Agora. It was built in the early 10th century to commemorate St Paul’s teaching in the Agora. It is the first significant mid-Byzantine church in Athens because of its successful combination of a central plan and a cross-in-square building. The exterior of the church is made of brick with decorative patterns giving it varying colours. The beautiful dome is the oldest example of the Athenian type in the city and the double-light windows on the side of its drum are very rare and of interest. Over time the church has been renovated so that some of its original features had been lost but between 1954 and 1957 it was extensively renovated to bring it back as close to its original state as possible. Inside the church are some notable Byzantine frescoes.

Areopagus Hill

Areopagus Hill
The Areopagus or Mars Hill is a bare marble hill found next to the Acropolis. It is especially popular because it has connections with a speech made by Paul the Apostle at the Areopagus.

According to Greek mythology, Ares (in Roman myths he is known as Mars) who was the god of war was tried here by the gods for the murder of Poseidon’s son Alirrothios. It is this legend that gives the hill its various names. Another legend says that the hill was the site of the trial of Orestes for killing his stepmother and her lover, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

Before the 5th century the Areopagus was the council of elders of the city and its membership derived from those who had held high public office and tenure was for life. Originally they were the central governing body of Athens, but under the democracy, it was a primarily the court with jurisdiction over cases of homicide and certain other serious crimes. A temple was set up at the foot of the Areopagus Hill dedicated to Erinyes where murderers could find sanctuary.

Kanellopoulos Museum
This museum is found in the former grand mansion of the Kanellopoulos family, on the northern slope of the Acropolis. The museum houses the collection of this family which spans the history of Athens from the 3rd century BC to the 19th century. Exhibits include Byzantine icons and Mycenean and Geometric vases and bronzes. A highlight is the painted ceiling on the first floor.
For information about the museum visit the following website at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/1/eh155.jsp?obj_id=3320

The Acropolis

The Acropolis
The magnificent Acropolis is what many people come to Athens to see and because you can see it from many areas of the city there is no escaping its grandeur. It is the most famous acropolis in the world and in recent times was named as the preeminent monument on the European Cultural Heritage list of monuments. It was built in the 5th century BC by Pericles and was used as both a fortified citadel and state sanctuary in the ancient city of Athens. There is a lot of archaeological evidence to prove how important it was over the centuries. In the Bronze Age the Acropolis was surrounded by a huge fortification wall which served as protection for the Acropolis over many centuries. By the middle of the 8th century part of the Acropolis had become a sanctuary of the goddess Athena who was the patron goddess of the city. The original Acropolis was destroyed during a war with the Persians. It was rebuilt on a much grander scale in the second half of the 5th century with the inclusion of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the temple of Athena Nike. The Acropolis was considered to be the safest place in the city and was used as a refuge by the population in times of trouble. Around 150 years ago there were still dwellings found here. Since the 1830s when archaeological excavations began on the Acropolis it has been studied, published about and had a lot of conservation work done on it which still continues. It is easy these days to get to the Acropolis with large avenues bordering the south and west — Apostolou Pavlou in Thission and Dionissiou Areopagitou in Makrianni have been turned into pedestrian streets. Here you will find cafes and restaurants to help you enjoy your walk. From the Plaka and Monastiraki side it has always been car-free and all you have to do is walk uphill from wherever you are and when you get to the top there are woods instead of buildings. There are steps here but once you climb them you will find the entrance. To your left is the Pinacotheca and a Hellenistic pedestal and on the right the tiny temple to Nike Athena or the Athena of Victory which commemorates the Athenians victory over the Persians.
For information about the Acropolis including opening times and costs visit the following website at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh355.jsp?obj_id=2384

Traveller's Tip

A good place to stand so you can can get a great view over the city is at the flag where Athens stretches out endlessly below. You can see the Plaka beneath you, the ruins of the giant Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Olympic stadium in a pine covered hill. To the left of the stadium is the Zappion building and the National Gardens. To the right of the stadium you can see another large patch of green which is the First Cemetery. If you look to the left you will see Mount Lycabettos rising from the neighbourhood of Kolonaki , with the Hilton and the Athens Tower at Ambelokipi in the distance. The large green area is the National gardens. The Acropolis is a great place to get your bearings and get an understanding of the layout of the city and on a clear day you can see out to sea and beyond.
  • If you are travelling to Athens in the summer then the best time to go is in the early morning or late afternoon because it gets too hot in the middle part of the day. In summer it is open from 8am until 8pm.
  • You are not allowed to bring backpacks or day bags on the Acropolis. You have to check them in so if you need to bring a bag with you be sure to have a spare pocket for your valuables.
  • Make sure you look on the website before travelling here as it gives you information about the various tickets that you can buy and some of these are combination tickets with other sights. If you read this information first you can plan your time in Athens better.
    Temple of Athena Nike

    Temple of Athena Nike
    This rather small temple is dedicated to the goddess Athena as the provider of Victory (Nike means Victory) and is found on the south-west edge of the Acropolis. The temple is believed to have been built around 420 BC on the site of a much earlier shrine to Athena. This earlier shrine is accessible via a trapdoor under the present temple and it was used to store gunpowder by the Turks. The temple is located in a prominent position on a rocky outcrop and has stood here relatively intact despite being demolished by the Turks in 1686 and later in 1936 when the platform crumbled and it had to be rebuilt. It is an almost square building of Ionic architecture with four Ionic columns at each end. The frieze above the columns is adorned with mythological scenes on the east and south sides, and battles scenes on the other sides. The majority of the frieze has been destroyed, but some parts, such as the representation of Athena Nike fastening her sandal can be found in the Acropolis museum. The Temple of Athena Nike was the shelter of a statue of the goddess Athena holding a pomegranate, the symbol of fertility, in her right hand and a helmet, the symbol of war, in her left hand. The temple you see today is missing a roof and most of the pediments.

    Statue of Athena Promachos
    Along the Panathenaic Way you will see the foundations of pedestals for the statues that once lined the path. One of these statues was a 9 metre high statue of Athena Promachos which means Champion. The statue of the helmeted goddess held a shield in her left hand and a spear in her right. The statue was taken to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius in 426 AD but in 1203 after the statue lost her spear her hand appeared to be gesturing and some superstitious Christians thought she was beckoning the crusaders who had besieged the city and so they destroyed the statue.

    Erechtheion

    Erechtheion
    The Erechtheion was built on the most sacred part of the Acropolis as a sanctuary and to house all the shrines and rituals that had taken place in a much older temple that had originally stood on this site. The temple that is there today was built between 421 BC and 407 BC. The east end was dedicated to Athena Polias (protector of the earth and fertility) and housed the ultra-sacred Palladion which was a wooden effigy of Athena. The west part of the building was devoted to Poseidon-Erechtheus. The Erechtheion is an intricate temple that was designed to accommodate the uneven ground on the site, and to avoid disturbing sacred shrines like the altars to Poseidon (Erechtheus), and Hephaestus, or the spot where supposedly Poseidon hit the Acropolis with his trident. Other shrines that needed to be accommodated included the sacred olive tree, a well containing sea water (the Erechtheian Sea), the tomb of Cecrops, and the Pandrosion sanctuary. The temple faces east and its entrance is lined with six long Ionic columns. To the north and west the wall of the temple drops dramatically to almost twice the altitude of the front and south sides. One part of the main temple is dedicated to Athena and the other is dedicated to Poseidon. The northern porch of six columns leads to the Temenos of Pandrossos, the place where the sacred gift of Athena to the city, the olive tree, grew. The northern porch of the temple is the most famous, since it is the one with the Caryatids, the six women replacing the columns that support the marble roof. The Caryatids were sculpted after some beautiful young models that were women from Karyes, a village of Lakonia. The Cecropion is found south of the Erechtheion and it is the burial place of King Cecrop who was considered the first true king of Athens although he was a mythical half-man half-serpent. He was supposed to have been around between 1556 and 1506 BC.
    For information about the Erecththeion including opening times and costs visit the following website at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh355.jsp?obj_id=2384

    Traveller's Tip

    One of the original Caryatids was removed by Lord Elgin who sold it to the British Museum in London. The rest of them are displayed in helium-filled glass cases in the Acropolis Museum and what you see at the Erechtheion are exact replicas.
    Panathenaic Way

    Panathenaic Way
    This was the route that was taken by the Panathenaic procession during the festival that was dedicated to Athena. The route led from the Dipylon Gate to the Acropolis and diagonally crossing the Agora. Its total length was around 1050 metres and its width was between 10 and 12 metres. The route was made mainly of gravel that had to be constantly renewed but over time sections of it were paved. In the 6th century BC it became part of the Agora and around this area grandstands were built so that spectators could view the Panathenaic festivities. The route was used also to host athletic events. The Panathenaic Way was one of the most important thoroughfares as it served the needs of the civic and commercial centre of Athens from the 6th century BC through to the first centuries AD. Along the route were important temples and altars as well as public buildings and private houses and shops. Today only parts of this route are visible and a large section of it is now Adrianou Street. The part you can see today is the section that leads from behind the Church of the Holy Apostles to the Acropolis.

    The Parthenon

    The Parthenon
    This is the most famous surviving building of Ancient Greece and is one of the most recognisable icons and popular tourist attractions in the world. It has stood on top of the Acropolis for almost 2,500 years and was dedicated to Athena who was the patron goddess of Athens. As well as its most important function as a temple the Parthenon has been a treasury, a fortress, a church, and a mosque. It was built between 447 BC and 438 BC on the site of an older temple to house a 40-foot-high statue of Athena Parthenos sculpted by Pheidias but this sculpture was looted in the 5th century AD and eventually destroyed.

    Early in the 13th century the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This involved removing the internal columns and some of the walls of the cella, and the creation of an apse at the eastern end. During the conversion some of the sculptures were removed and sent elsewhere especially those that depicted pagan gods which may well have been destroyed.

    In 1456 Athens was taken over by the Ottamans and the Parthenon was converted into a mosque and a minaret was added but not much else changed.

    In 1687 the Venetians attacked Athens and part of the building was destroyed including the internal structures which were demolished and the roof collapsed and some of the pillars, particularly on the southern side, were decapitated. Many of the sculptures fell to the ground and the pieces were later made into souvenirs. After this the building fell into disuse until the late 18th century when there were a lot of European visitors to Athens who enjoyed seeing the Parthenon. In 1801 Lord Elgin collected many of these sculptures and sold them to the British Museum in London where you can still see them today as the ‘Elgin Marbles’. Other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre in Paris and in Copenhagen. Most of the remainder are in the Acropolis Museum which is found a few metres southeast of the Parthenon.

    When independent Greece gained control of Athens in 1832 the minaret was removed from the Parthenon as well as all the medieval and modern buildings on the Acropolis. The area became a historical precinct controlled by the Greek Government and you can now visit the Parthenon by walking up the path at the western end of the Acropolis, through the restored Propylaea (monumental gateway), and up the Panathenaic Way. It is now surrounded by a low fence to prevent damage.

    In its day the Parthenon was considered the finest Doric temple and it is the largest one ever finished in Greece and the only one to be completely built in Pentelic marble except for its wooden roof. At the base of the temple where the columns stand the Parthenon measures 69.5 metres by 30.9 metres. The inner chamber or cella was 29.8 metres long by 19.2 metres wide with internal colonnades in two tiers to support the roof. On the exterior, the Doric columns measure 1.9 metres in diameter and are 10.4 metres high. The corner columns are slightly larger in diameter. The Parthenon had 46 outer pillars and 23 inner pillars in total. The stylobate or base of the temple has an upward curvature towards its centre of 60 millimetres on the east and west ends, and of 110 millimetres on the sides. The roof was covered with large overlapping marble tiles known as imbrices and tegulae. It had highly coloured and decorative stonework with friezes above the exterior colonnade as well as around the upper portion of the walls of the cella or inner chamber. There are a series of marble panels on the exterior walls that originally numbered 92 but some of them can now be found in the British museum in London and some were destroyed. These panels of each side of the building had a different subject but mostly some kind of battle scene. The ones found on the eastern wall show the battle between the Olympian gods and the Giants; the ones on the southern wall show the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs; the ones on the western side are about the invasion of Athens by the Amazons which possibly refers to the Persian Wars and on the northern walls they show scenes from the Trojan War. On the east side of the Parthenon there are sculptures found on the pediment or gable end showing the birth of Athena but only parts of these can still be seen. There are also sculptures on the western side on the pediments found here showing the contest between Athena and Poseidon to become Athen’s patron. The marble panels or metopes together with the pediments, Ionic frieze which runs around the walls of the inner chamber, and the statue of Athena Parthenos contained within the Parthenon, formed an elaborate program of sculptural decoration.
    For information about the Parthenon visit the following website at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/2/eh251.jsp?obj_id=912

    Panagia Hrysospiliotissa

    Panagia Hrysospiliotissa
    This small temple is now the ‘Chapel of our Lady of the Cavern’ and it is found hidden in the side of a cliff face above the Theatre of Dionysos. You will find it by taking the rock-strewn path. This grotto was turned into a temple dedicated to Dionysos in 320 BC but all that you will see of the original temple are the two Ionic columns above the chap. In this tiny chapel you will see some old pictures and icons on the walls.

    Theatre of Dionysos

    Theatre of Dionysos
    This is one of the earliest preserved major open-air theatres in Athens. It was used for festivals in honour of the god Dionysus. During the golden age of Pericles, when Athens was at its peak, one of the major events of the year was the annual Festival of the Great Dionysia. Politicians and the wealthy would sponsor dramas and comedies by theatrical writers such as Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles and visitors would come from other towns to enjoy the plays and the different festivities. The Romans have also used the Theatre of Dionysos for their state events, some ceremonies and even theatrical performances. This theatre was built in the 5th century in stone and marble by Lycourgos. The auditorium had 17,000 seats of which only 20 have survived. The decorative relief at the rear of the stage is from the 2nd century BC and depicts Dionysos life and myths but most of the figures are headless.

    Agios Nikolaos Rangavas

    Agios Nikolaos Rangavas
    The lovely 11th century Church of St Nicholas is found northeast of the Acropolis between Pritaneiou and Epicharmou streets in Anafiotika. It is one of Athen’s most important Byzantine monuments and in more recent years has had extensive renovations. It was first built for private use as part of the palace of the Rangavas family who were a very important family at the time. It is now used as a parish church and has been for many years. The church bell was put here in 1833 after Athen’s liberation from the Turks and was the first to ring to announce the freedom of the Greek people.

    Church of Agia Ekaterini

    Church of Agia Ekaterini
    This 11th to 12th century church is found in the Plaka near the Lysikratous monument at the junction of Lysikratous, Galanou and Goura Streets. Originally the church was dedicated to St Theodore but when it became the parish church of the Sinaï Monastery in 1767 it was rededicated to St Catherine. It was built on the site of a much earlier church and the remains of this church can be seen in the cloister — a column and architrave from the atrium. The church has a mixture of styles due to numerous renovations over time.

    Centre of Folk Art and Tradition
    This museum is housed in the 1920s mansion of folklorist Angeliki Hatzimichalis at the corner of Hatzimichali and Geronta Streets. The interior woodcut decoration was designed by Angeliki Hatzimichalis. Her personal items are displayed throughout the house which recreates the traditional country life. The aim of this museum is to preserve and promote the folklore cultural heritage. Exhibits in the house include regional costumes, embroideries, ceramic vases and family portraits. It has free admission and it is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 1pm amd also from 5 to 9pm Tuesday to Friday. It is closed on Mondays.

    Children’s Museum
    If you are travelling with children then this may be the place for you to visit with them. The museum has lots of interactive activities to encourage children’s imagination and development. One of the highlights is a chocolate-making session. Be aware that the exhibits are in Greek only but some of the activities are suitable for English speakers and most of the staff speak English. It is found at 14 Kydathinaion Street and is open Tuesday to Friday from 10am to 2pm, Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 3pm. Free entrance.

    Museum of Greek Folk Art
    This state-owned museum contains displays of folk art from 1650 to the present day. Exhibits include intricate embroidery, weaving, costumes, shadow-theatre puppets and silverware. Make sure you visit the first floor to see the wall murals by renowned naive artist, Theophilos Hatzimichail.
    For information about the museum visit the following website at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/1/eh155.jsp?obj_id=3319

    Frissiras Museum of Contemporary Greek and European Painting
    This museum which opened in 2007 is the only Museum for Contemporary European Painting in Greece. It is found in the Plaka in two adjacent neoclassical buildings. The collections consist of paintings, drawings, sculptures and engravings by major contemporary European artists after WWII. Among the 3,000 exhibits of the Museum are works by Hockney, Auerbach, Blake, Rustin, Pat Andrea, Dado, Segui, Rego, Velickovic, Arroyo, Adami, Diamantopoulos, Moralis, Theofylaktopoulos, Botsoglou, Dikos Vyzantios, Christoforou and the younger Kirby, Howson, Corpet, Martinelli, Smith, Pasieka, Marrey, Schauwecker, Lappas, Missouras, Manzavinos, Sacaillian, Daskaliakis, Bitsikas.
    For information about the museum visit the website at: http://www.frissirasmuseum.com/english/index.aspx