While Athens may be famous for its historic scene, there are plenty of other, more modern sites to discover. From colourful flea markets in the Thissio neighbourhood to a green getaway with panoramic views over Athens from Lycabettus mountain. Follow US-based traveller Saul Schwartz, as he discovers modern Athens and shows us where to go to discover all the capital of Greece has to offer.
By Saul Schwartz
My wife Fern and I spent five nights in Athens, the capital of Greece. The sites of antiquity are not to be missed, but there were plenty of more modern sites to enjoy. The guide book Top Ten Athens was useful for our trip. English language signage is good and, in addition, most locals spoke English. Since November is not peak tourist season, sites were not very crowded, but the weather was still quite pleasant with temperatures around 21°C / 70°F.
Athens Walking Tour
When we first tour a new city, we like to get oriented by going on a “free” walking tour. Our guide on the free walking tour provided by Athens Free Walking Tour was especially knowledgeable and he did not hesitate to answer our questions.
The tour is about two hours long and normally starts at 10 a.m. These tours are free, but tips are provided to show appreciation and we gave tips of 10 Euros each. Our guide was very fluent in English and the tour began in the peaceful Thissio neighbourhood. To get energized, we stopped at a Thissio café for a snack before our walk started.
We met just outside the small Ekklisia Agii Asomati ke Agious Georgios Church. This Greek Orthodox Church is located several minutes from the Thissio green line metro station on Ermou Street. The church dates back to the 11th century.
With its characteristic four-columned domed cross in square form, this church is typical of Athens Byzantine churches of this period. The exterior is of sculpted stone surrounded by bricks and outside we saw lit candles and a decorative bell. Because a religious service was taking place, we did not go inside.
While in the Thissio neighbourhood, we briefly strolled through the Flea Market on Ermou Street at Plateia Avissynias. On Sunday mornings, the colourful flea market fills the space of this plaza and it spills out to the streets around it. We stopped at the sculpture of Theseus just outside the metro station. Theseus is the mythical king of Athens and our guide told us one of the many myths where he battled and overcame foes. Short version: He slayed the scary creature and got the girl!
We wandered briefly through the Plaka neighbourhood with its winding alleyways and cobblestone streets. Our tour did a quick stop near a café where we purchased a snack. This area is full of shops and restaurants, some of which have nice views of the ancient sites.
The tour ended in Monastiraki Square. There is an interesting excavation near the metro stop which reveals an underground river running beneath the city. The square is full of shops and restaurants. We determined that the tour was a worthwhile way to learn about these neighbourhoods.
Parliament, the Evzones and Syntagma Square
..or Constitution Square is the central square of Athens. A fountain sits in the center of the square and is nicely lit at night. Dating back to 1930, the luxurious King George Hotel takes up one side of the square.
We stopped in the hotel’s elegant lobby several times to view the bright marbles and the Murano chandeliers, as well as to use the posh bathrooms. The square is a very busy area.
The Hellenic Parliament
..takes up one side of the square. This imposing neo-classical building was constructed in 1842 as a palace for Greece’s king after independence. After the return of parliamentary government in 1926, it was renovated as a single chamber legislature.
The interior is not open to the public for tours during most of the year. Nevertheless, it is an architectural jewel of the Greek capital.
..are soldiers in front of the Parliament that stand sentry. The Presidential guards march back and forth in short pleated white skirts, red caps and red pom pommed shoes. The colourful traditional attire dates back to the rebels who won the Greek war of independence.
The changing of the guard takes place every thirty minutes where the soldiers perform a dramatic high kick dance. They are selected from among the tallest and best looking men in the Greek military service.
A slightly different uniform is worn at night with black skirts, black shoes and white tights.
The tomb of the unknown soldier
..sits at the base of the Parliament. A replica of a dying soldier was carved in 1930 in front of the Parliament building. The tomb commemorates Greek war casualties since the war of independence. There is a lit cross beneath the carving.
To get a great view of Athens, we took the funicular at Asistppou Street to the top of the hill. The round trip cost of the funicular is 7.50 Euros, cash only. The funicular goes through a closed tunnel, so there are no views on the way up or down. The ride leaves every thirty minutes.
Alternatively there are steep paved paths to travel to the top on foot. These paths begin after you go up a very inclined walk up to Asistppou Street, so we opted for the funicular. The mountain is not extremely close to any metro stop but there is a small restaurant at the top. We did buy drinks from a vendor but did not go into the restaurant.
Chapel of St. George
Lycabettus mountain is one of the city’s landmarks. It offers a unique view of the urban landscape. At the top, the small Chapel of St. George can be entered without an additional charge.
The chapel is beautifully decorated with frescoes and icons dedicated to St. George and the white washed exterior is very pretty. The current Orthodox Church dates back to 1870 an it can be viewed from afar due to its high location on top of the mountain. We spent some time sitting outside the church to take in the wide panoramic views all the way to the sea. This mountain is the highest point in Athens.
National Gardens, the Olympic Stadium and Olympic Sites
Near Constitution Square, the National Gardens are an unexpected green refuge in central Athens. These gardens were originally planted as royal gardens in 1839 but were opened to the public in 1923. We did take some care walking through the gardens when we saw many youth loitering around. There is no fee to enter the gardens.
The Zappeion conference center
..borders the southern end of the gardens. The 19th century Zappeion now hosts international conferences and exhibits. It is also famous for being the site of the Olympic village, Olympic competitions and the Olympic press centre in the 1896, 1906 and 2004 Olympics. We were able to view portions of the first floor of the building without charge. We thought that it is one of the most beautiful buildings in modern Athens. To us, this seemed to be a more modern version of classical Greek architecture. Indeed this building is often used as a backdrop for government speeches. The Zappeion was built to be part of the revival of the modern Olympic Games in 1896.
This building is arranged according to a symmetrical plan around a circular atrium. The front façade has a three part layout with the main two story building with a Corinthian portico and two side wings. Inside we saw beautiful flowers and a fountain on the first floor inside the atrium. Outside the building are two large statues of the Zappas cousins, the building’s benefactors.
The Panathenaic Olympic Stadium
..nearby, is one of Athens’ most significant modern monuments. It is also associated with the revival of the Olympics in 1896 . The stadium was used again for the 2004 Olympic Games. This structure is the only stadium in the world built of entirely of marble. Today it is used as the finishing point for the Athens marathon. We briefly walked around the stadium to gauge its enormous size. The normal capacity is 50.000 spectators and it borders the National Gardens.
The Jewish Museum of Greece
The Museum was founded in 1977. In 1997, it moved to its current premises on 39 Nikis Street and is now housed in a four storey neo-classical home in the centre of Athens, not far from the Syntagma Metro and Syntagma Square.
The Jewish Museum is focused upon the cultural heritage and history of the Greek Jews. The museum cooperates with Greek Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, which are slowly disappearing as a result of the population decrease of the Jewish community in Greece.
Sadly, the Jewish population was decimated by the Nazis during World War 2 and has not recovered. The highlight of our stay at this museum was an extremely interesting video with English subtitles which explained the plight of the Jews in Greece on the mainland and in Crete during World War 2.
The permanent exhibit traces the Jewish culture in Greece, which dates back nearly two and a half centuries. The first floor contains reconstructed interiors from former Greek synagogues. On another level, the exhibits display the devastating consequences of World War 2 on the Jewish population of Greece when more than 80% of the population was killed. Other parts of the museum show items related to Jewish holidays, costumes, life cycle events and art. The collection includes approximately 15.000 objects, not all of which are on display.
English language signage is more than adequate. There are no guided tours or audio guides. The cost is 6 Euros, cash only. The hours of operation are limited and should be checked out.
The metro operates using paper tickets (called the Athena ticket) which are used for both entry and exit at each station. The machines at each station have English language purchase options. With only three lines, the system is very easy to navigate. Signage is in both Greek and English.
A special 10 Euro fare ticket is required to go to or from the airport. Although this is the second oldest underground transit system, the cars have been brought up to date. On weekends and non-rush hours, the service is much slower. The system is both clean and safe to use. The multiple day tickets are the best value.
We had no problems using this metro system to get around to almost all sites and activities.
Where to Eat informally
For a more informal meal, we enjoyed lunch at the top floor of the Hondos Center Department Store. The cafeteria style self-service restaurant had extensive offerings at reasonable prices.
From the windows, we had an excellent view of the Acropolis and Lycabettus Mountain. This was a nice opportunity to mingle with locals. The store is located right at the Omonia metro stop.
At the airport, we had lunch at Gregory’s. Established in 1972, the informal restaurant offers salads, breads and other quick bites. For an airport café, the prices were reasonable and the salads were both tasty and substantial.
There were additional charges for minor items, such as an additional portion of salad dressing. There is plenty of seating available.
Where to Stay
We really enjoyed our stay at the Hilton Athens on 46 Vassillissis Sofias. The staff was extremely helpful with directions and suggestions. Our spacious room provided us with a stunning view of the Acropolis day and night!
The hotel was refurbished in 2003 and sits within a few minutes of the Evangelismos metro stop on the blue line. Many attractions are a twenty minute walk away. The fitness centre was more than adequate, including cardio machines, weights and fitness class rooms. One evening we even attended an amazing yoga class.
The hotel restaurant featured local delicacies and Mediterranean favorites. The breakfast buffet was extremely extensive. The executive lounge provided a wide variety of appetizers during dinner hour. Upon our request, the hotel added vegetarian items to the executive room buffet. The executive room looks out at a wonderful city skyline and the Parthenon view.
Right across from the Hilton, there is a dramatic black and white sculpture called “The Runner”. It is made out of individual pieces of glass stacked atop each other. The sculpture is huge and the blurred effect of a runner in motion is dramatic! Thousands of sharp pieces of glass were used by Cortas Varotsos to form the sculpture. He finished it in 1994. The location of this innovative sculpture makes sense because the Hilton Athens is the official hotel of the Athens Marathon.
Finally, I’d pass on these tips:
- The Athens City Pass did not work out well for us. The Turbopass was sent to us with expired dates and we had to get a refund.
- The Hop-on Hop-off bus did not provide us with sufficient information in the audio commentary to be worthwhile. We started and ended our route at Syntagma Square in the center of Athens. We took the Gray Line “Athens Open Tour,” but there are several other competing companies. We took the ninety minute route. There were alternative sixty minute routes available. The two level buses with open tops were comfortable, but we did not consider the two day pass (19 Euros) to be a good value.
- The Port of Piraeus is not particularly pedestrian friendly. We took the metro to the end of the line but did not find a nice café with a water view and could not find good places to walk around. This is the gateway for ferries to the islands.
Although the classic sites of Athens should not be missed, Fern and I really enjoyed spending about half of our trip on the more modern sites.
About Saul Schwartz
Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country.