An Exploration of Ancient Athens in the Modern Day

 

A stone church sits in the entryway to a modern building
A skyscraper was built around this small church

With sections untouched for centuries, Athens, Greece is a blend of ancient and new. Modern skyscrapers sit across the squares from centuries-old churches. This is not terribly uncommon in old cities, but in some cases here, the new is built literally around the old. While the city once boasted the latest innovations, today the infrastructure is really old. The sewers can’t handle paper of any sort (trashcans are next to every toilet), something that many Americans will find discomfiting, and streets are very narrow (we invented a game, “Street or Sidewalk” — to try to guess the purpose of the stone paths we saw). But none of the negatives took away from the appeal of the city, which provides many reasons for travelers to visit.

Built on a mountain, everything in Athens is uphill. I say this not to be facetious or to complain, but to warn those who have trouble walking on uneven surfaces that the hills in Athens are everywhere (and many paths are uneven stones), making it nearly impossible to not have an uphill climb somewhere on your journey. While I hear Athens has a good public transportation system, we only made use of the bus to and from the airport, choosing to walk everywhere else. The city is sprawling, but pleasant to explore on foot.

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Leading up to our Greece trip I did some research to help determine what our “must sees” would be and how much time we could expect to spend at various places. I repeatedly saw the recommendation to spend no more than three days in Athens, that this would be sufficient to see everything. Many articles reassured me that we wouldn’t want any more time than that. While this may be true for some people, after five days in the city, there was still so much we hadn’t experienced.

The other falsehood I saw stated repeatedly was that the city is dirty. This led me to expect trash on the streets or smog in the air like many major American cities. Instead I stepped around residents sweeping and even scrubbing the sidewalk outside their homes. While it’s true that there were some odiferous areas and graffiti is common, the city was far from what I would refer to as dirty.

 

Language Is Not an Issue

While Americans are frequently told to not worry about language barriers while traveling to major cities, since “Everyone speaks English,” this is mostly true in Athens. It is possible to spend a week in the city and hear virtually no Greek spoken. However, that is not the attitude I generally take. I enjoy learning and strive to make attempts when traveling to communicate in the host tongue. (I also consider this a sign of respect.)

Most languages don’t intimidate me, but having no experience with the Greek alphabet, I felt woefully unprepared and completely unable to even try to sound out words on signs or menus. This was compounded by the fact that most people in the city spoke English. I’m embarrassed to admit that though I learned some of the basics (hello, thank you), I often forgot to use them. Though my constant use of English made me uncomfortable, the Greeks are kind – unlike other European centers, one does not get the sense of being judged for a lack of worldliness for not speaking the language.

The Acropolis can be seen from every point in the city

A Focus on Ancient Athens

We arrived in Athens on a Saturday evening. The next morning was one of our must sees: the changing of the guard ceremony. While crowded, this impressive display was worthwhile. We spent the remainder of the day casually exploring Syntagma and Monastiraki and sampling delicious Greek food.

The modern Panathenaic Stadium stands in stark contrast to the ruins nearby

Already several days into our trip (we arrived in Athens on day 4), we spent the following day relaxing and exploring the area close to “home, which was just behind the Panathenaic, or Olympic, stadium. (In fact we could see into the stadium from our balcony). We walked through the stadium and surrounding park, enjoying the shade afforded by the trees and the spray of sprinklers in the sweltering heat.

A marble base supports a red balloon presumably held down by a black steel chain
One of many sites I wish I knew more about

By this point, I regretted not signing up for an Athens tour. (This would have been a good first day activity.) I had found several free walking tours online, but we didn’t plan in advance and upon arrival, chose to simply head out and “wing it.” It would have been advantageous to know more about what we were seeing. While many sites had placards to identify what was in front of us, I was left curious about the neighborhoods and architecture as well as the history of some public art.

On day 3, we purchased the Acropolis combo ticket that includes admission to seven archaeological sites within 5 days (we managed to visit all but one).  One thing you should know before visiting these sites: Greeks are serious about their antiquities.  The staff watches carefully to make sure visitors do not touch or climb on the pillars or foundations that remain. If you want to sit, seek out a bench. What appears to be a boulder next to the path may be an antiquity.

A collection of stone columns to the right with a dap where more should be with a single column at the far left
Temple of Zeus in Athens
A narrow path with a white wall on one side and hedges on the other. A house with a blue door is off to the right
Anafiotika’s narrow paths have pops of color

We started with the Temple of Zeus, closest to our rented apartment) then went on to explore the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library, passing through Anafiotika’s narrow paths on the way.

Tower of the Winds at the Roman Agora

 

 

The Parthenon

The Acropolis

Since the Ancient Agora closed early that day, (it’s important to note that hours of operation are sometimes arbitrary in Greece) after a brief lunch, we made the hike up to the Acropolis. The complex can be seen from every point in modern-day Athens and from the top you can see the city sprawl in every direction. While the natural fortress dates back to 6800 BC, it is impossible to not be in awe of the Athenians who built the oversized ornate temples to their gods sometime around 400 to 450 BC. Tired and thirsty, we concluded our day in true touristy fashion – watching the sun set and drinking fancy, NYC-priced cocktails from the rooftop bar A Is for Athens.

Lycabettus Hill is the highest point in Athens

We got a late start on exploring the next day, arriving at the Ancient Agora shortly before closing time. Since we had so little time there, an employee kindly marked our tickets to allow us admission the following day. With time to spare, we decided to check out the view from Lycabettus Hill and set off in search of the funicular. Having missed the nondescript building that houses the railcar (we walked right past it), we found ourselves at the top and spent some time taking in the sights and resting a bit before taking the funicular back down. (This was still a considerable distance up the “hill,” but the walk down took less than half the time we took to walk up.)

 

Our final day in Athens, we spent the morning at the Ancient Agora, then walked through the Kerameikos, an ancient cemetery with paved and dirt paths guiding visitors past tombs dating to the Early Bronze Age (2700 to 2000 BC). The cemetery seems to have been in use through the early Christian period (up to the 6th century AD). A small museum on site houses statuary, pottery and vases excavated from the site.

We left Athens for Santorini, which though opposite of many recommendations, was exactly the relaxing weekend we needed after so much walking. (One day I recorded nearly 32,000 steps!) With so much more of Greece to explore, I’m not sure we’d spend much time in Athens, but there is certainly more to see.