Athens, City of Gods

Parthenon ruins in Athens are amazing
Parthenon of Athens

Ask an Athenian and they are bound to tell you that the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens, Greece, is the best museum in Europe. I don’t know how you judge that, especially with such great competition as the Louvre and the British Museum. Nevertheless, the National Museum of Archaeology is a great museum for antiquities and should not be overlooked when in Athens. The subway stop closest to the museum still requires you to walk a little bit to get to it. On the way to the museum by taxi, you’re likely to pass the beautiful Athens University with its Greek-style buildings. It makes for a picture you’ll definitely want to take, even if the buildings are new but in an ancient style.

Besides the museum, Athens has great restaurants and reasonable prices alongside the standard places known to most people. A great way to get an overview of the city is to use a hop-on/hop-off bus. In Athens there are three such competing companies, easily identified by the red, yellow or blue colors of their buses. The buses are double-decker with open air upper seating. They all cover the highlights of Athens in their main route, and all offer other routes as well. Commentary about what you are passing is given in your selection of languages through headphones that they provide. You can board and re-board the bus at any number of designated stops. Take the entire route to learn the layout of the city and make decisions about which places to return to. Buses run frequently, so you never have to wait very long at a stop.

Along with the bus rides the bus companies sell pre-paid admission tickets to a number of the most crowded and popular sites that allow you to skip the line and save a lot of time. These deals are not shown on the internet.

Of course, the Acropolis and Parthenon, the Acropolis Museum, and the shopping districts in the Plaka and off Monastiraki Square, all within close proximity, are high on everyone’s list. Syntagma Square with the changing of the guard and the Olympic Stadium are also on the list.

Acropolis towers over Athens on a hilltop
Acropolis dominates Athens

Piecing together the history of all the ancient monuments in Athens is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, so I thought I’d help. The ruins are roughly from 2,500 years ago. That was before Christianity when people of the world explained things in terms of mythology. There are two levels of comprehension to what you observe. There is the mythology (purely fictional stories) used to explain the world as depicted in sculpture and artifacts.

Then there is the actual history. The CliffNotes version of the history in Athens is as follows: Acropolis stood on a high hill and was the perfect spot for an Athens city-state fortress. Archaeological evidence shows the Acropolis existed as early as the eighth century B.C. and developed into a cult sanctuary to goddess Athena around the sixth century. In 566 B.C., the first Doric temple to Athena was built. The Persians sacked the Acropolis in 480 B.C., but between 447 and 409 B.C., Greek statesman Pericles saw to rebuilding it during the Roman period that lasted until 27 B.C. and the Romans respected the site.

Although it was destroyed by fire and repaired, it stood largely intact until the Byzantines converted the Acropolis to a church in the sixth century and then it served as a Mosque when the Ottoman Turks occupied Athens beginning in 1458. The Acropolis was completely destroyed in 1687 when it exploded during the Turkish-Venetian conflict when the Turks used the Pantheon as a munitions warehouse. The British Ambassador to Constantinople, Lord Elgin, sent major portions of the ruins to the British Museum in the 19th century. Excavation of the area and eventual restoration started once the Greeks gained freedom from the Turks in 1832. So, contrary to popular belief, what we see today only dates from after 1687.

One final note. The Acropolis Museum has a fascinating exhibit below the floor of the museum. Much of the museum floor is glass so you can see into the space from upstairs but take the time to go downstairs to see this. Whenever you build in Athens, you are certain to run into ruins, as they did when they built the museum 10 years ago. Unearthed was an entire neighborhood that existed outside the Acropolis fortress wall from the eight century B.C. You will be astonished to see they had running water and many things we once thought weren’t invented until a lot later in history. If you can’t get to other residential archaeological excavations, this is a really great one right in Athens.

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