The mythic past is omnipresent in Athens. The Acropolis towers at its center, a rocky hill capped by stone walls enfolding three great classical temples: the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion, with its famous Porch of the Caryatids. The city and surrounding countryside abound in relics of Greece’s antique history, accompanied by state-of-the-art museums that bring this distant world to life for modern visitors. There is much more to Greece than ruins — its beautiful islands and Athens’ vibrant contemporary arts scene, for starters — but every traveler should take time to connect with its ancient soul.
The city’s most sacred place
Begin at the Acropolis Museum (about $6, theacropolismuseum.gr/en), which provides context for the monuments in a comprehensive collection dating back to Neolithic times. Domestic objects from settlements on the Acropolis slopes and an ancient Athenian neighborhood excavated beneath the museum (visible through glass floors) evoke daily life; art and architectural elements from the temples that rose and fell over the centuries on the Acropolis hilltop attest to the site’s long history as Athens’ most sacred place.
The Acropolis itself is best visited in late afternoon, when the crowds diminish. The majestic skeletons of the three great temples radiate the ancients’ epic pride, a faith in human civilization and public order that remains moving. The South Slope below contains the Theater of Dionysus, the world’s oldest, where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first performed; and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a second-century Roman theater.
The Acropolis and South Slope are a single admission (about $23, must be purchased on site), but it’s worthwhile to buy the unified ticket (about $35) for access to six additional ancient sites. Foremost among them is the haunting Kerameikos Cemetery. History is palpable here in physical remains. The Street of Tombs, lined with stone walls topped by huge grave statuaries, leads to the Sacred Way; once a year, initiates walked this road to Eleusis to participate in the secret rites known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Strollers on the Sacred Way today still pass through portions of the Long Walls, built after the Persian War to protect the city from invasion. Kerameikos’ small, lovely museum (included in admission) contains evocative and poignant objects from the graves.
Two other major museums take visitors to new areas in Athens and in Greek history. A few blocks north of the bustling Athens Central Market is the National Archaeological Museum (www.namuseum.gr/wellcome-en.html, about $11.50), established in the late 19th century but thoroughly up-to-date in its lucid presentation of a magnificent collection of Greek antiquities. The museum sweeps across millennia and throughout the Greek world: from Minoan Crete and the Cycladic islands to the golden treasures of Mycenae (including the dazzling mask of Agamemnon) and the classic statues of the Golden Age.
In the chic Kolonaki neighborhood, the superbly organized Byzantine and Christian Museum (http://www.byzantinemuseum.gr/en/, about $9.25) winds through 1,500 years, from the establishment of Christianity as the state religion under the Romans to the Orthodox Church’s role in the Greek war for independence from the Ottoman Empire. It’s fascinating to see pagan imagery quietly incorporated into Christian iconography, and the Byzantine Empire’s multicultural nature is evident in the varied styles of the gorgeous 13th- and 14th-century icons.
No exploration of ancient Greece would be complete without seeing the oracle at Delphi; the legendary citadel of Mycenae; and the best-preserved of all classical Greek theaters at Epidavros. All three are relatively close to Athens; Chat Tours (http://www.chatours.gr) offers a one-day bus tour to Delphi and another to Mycenae and nearby Epidavros (each from about $100). At Delphi, the imposing Sanctuary of Apollo (where the oracle was consulted) stands at the center of a vast complex that also includes a theater, a stadium, a row of shops where supplicants could buy gifts for the god, and treasuries constructed by city-states to ostentatiously proclaim their gratitude (and wealth). It’s oddly charming to see that the sacred “navel of the world,” as the Greeks called Delphi, was also a site for commerce and status-mongering.
Awe is the only response possible to Mycenae’s grand vaulted tombs, the massive Lion’s Gate (displaying the first carved sculptures in Europe, circa 1250 BCE) and the mighty, ruined palace of mainland Greece’s first great kingdom. A short drive away, the theater at Epidavros boasts acoustics so perfect you can hear people whispering onstage from the uppermost of the rows that seat 14,000 people. Classic Greek drama is performed here during an annual festival in July and August—one of the many ways modern Greece invites visitors to participate in its fabled heritage.