What is the first thing you must do as soon as you arrive in Athens? The only answer is to visit these gems. Miss them and you’ve missed it all. They’re the epitome of architectural grace on the grandest of scales.
The world-famous Acropolis, or Sacred Rock, is a fortified hill towering 156 meters high in the heart of Athens, its summit home to one of the most important historical building complexes ever constructed by man. The awe-inspiring symbol reminds us that Greek civilisation has thrived here since the prehistoric era. Used regularly by the ancient Athenians since the third millennium BC, finds dating as far back as the Mycenaean era, as well as traces of archaic-era temples have been uncovered here.
Today, visitors can admire amazing 5th century architecture like the Parthenon (the most visited sight in Greece), the Erechteion, the Propylaea and the Temple of Nike Apteros. The Acropolis was used during later years for religious, administrative and even defense purposes. Although these incredible monuments have suffered substantial damage from a number of wars, the stunning beauty and cultural significance of the Acropolis is still a unique marvel.
The marathon race has its origins in the epic Battle of Marathon, which took place in 490 BC. At the battle’s conclusion, Pheidippides, the heroic soldier and messenger, is said to have run 42,195 metres non-stop from the battlefield to Athens with news of the victory. Upon his arrival he declared his famous last words, “we won”, and promptly died. The legend showcases the greatness of human will, and led to the creation of an event like no other, one that inspires athletes the world over to this day. The concept of the marathon race as a sporting event is credited to the French philologist Michel Bréal, a friend of the French educator and historian who founded the International Olympic Committee and became the father of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin.
Bréal’s suggestion was to organize a race where athletes would cover the same distance as the brave Pheidippides during the revival of the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens. So began the modern marathon race, on March 10th 1896, in the qualifying races that determined which six athletes would represent Greece in the first modern Olympic Games.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, or the Irodeion as it is called today, was built on the south-western slope of the rock of the Acropolis during the Roman era, by the Athenian magnate Herod Atticus. Following the city’s decline in the Byzantine era, the Odeon became derelict and was buried under tons of debris. During Ottoman occupation, foreign visitors gave the scant remains various names, most of them invented. In 1764, the British archaeologist Chandler revived interest in the Odeon but it wasn’t until the 19th century that ruins of the ancient theatre came to light. The Odeon was refurbished in the 1950s and has since been used for cultural events, such as the Athens Festival.
National Archaeological Museum
Located in the heart of Athens, the National Archaeological Museum on Patission Street houses important artefacts from the Neolithic Era to the late Roman period. The Antikythera mechanism, Agamemnon’s death mask, the wall paintings of Thera, the Artemision Bronze, the Antikythera Ephebe, Nestor’s Cup, and the Marathon Boy are but a few of the treasures on display. The Epigraphical Museum in the southern annex safeguards the world’s largest collection of ancient Greek inscriptions. With so much to see, it’s no surprise that this massive neoclassical complex takes up an entire city block. A walk around the artefacts and collections is, quite simply, awe-inspiring. At day’s end, take a stroll around the large, neoclassic garden that flank the museum. Next door is the National Technical University of Athens.
The Greek National Opera
The Greek National Opera (GNO) is Greece’s sole opera house. Founded in 1939, the company had been preceded by a 150-year history of a flourishing opera tradition on the Ionian Islands and half a century of activity by the Hellenic Melodrama, an opera company which ran in various forms from 1888 to 1938. From the outset, the GNO repertory comprised operas, operettas and ballets. The opera company operated initially as part of the National Theatre and gave performances in its historic neoclassical building on central Aghiou Constantinou Street, designed by the famous German architect Ernst Ziller, while in 1958 the newly-built Olympia Theatre, which hosted the GNO’s productions for the following 59 years.
In March 2017, the Greek National Opera relocated to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), designed by the renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano. Covering an area of 28,000 m2, the new GNO premises can only be compared with the most modern opera houses in the world. The high aesthetics, state-of-the-art acoustics and technological capacity, combined with a high-calibre artistic programme, offer to the audience a unique operatic experience.
The productions are hosted at two stages, the Stavros Niarchos Hall (1400 seats) and the Alternative Stage (400 seats), as well as at the open-air Odeon of Herodes Atticus Theatre during the summer, while various programmes are presented in other locations inside and outside its premises.
The Greek National Opera’s mission is to offer Greek and foreign audiences performances of opera, ballet, operetta, opera for children, musical, concerts, among others, and to commission new works to today’s leading opera composers. Moreover, GNO has already collaborated with numerous renowned Greek and foreign artists and counts many co-productions with the most prestigious European opera houses. In the field of education, GNO has developed two lines of action: artist training (Professional School of Dance, Children’s Choir, Youth Opera, among others), and educational / social programmes (GNO Learning / Participation), open to everyone, regardless of age, cultural and social background, knowledge or skills.
The Aegina Fistiki Fest
Summer never ends in Aegina, one of the Saronic Gulf’s most beautiful islands. With mild weather throughout the autumn, you have the chance to enjoy swimming and sunbathing at any of its exceptional beaches, as well as fresh seafood in the island’s water-side ouzo bars.
The heart of the Aegina Fistiki Fest is at the island’s port, where visitors will find more than 60 booths along the pier serving pistachios in countless forms. Taste fresh, roasted, salted or unsalted, and sweetened pistachios, as well as a variety of pastries, spoon sweets, chocolate creations, etc. There will also be a number of local products for sale, such as honey and cheeses, clay artefacts, handmade jewellery, and much more. The Aegina Fistiki Fest is now a tradition, organized by the Municipality of Aegina, under the auspices of the Regional Unit of the Saronic Islands. Its success depends heavily on the cooperation between pistachio and other local producers, as well as on the contribution of the artists and volunteers coordinated by its organizing committee.
The Festival features traditional singing and dancing, theatrical shows, seminars and guided tours of local museums and archaeological sites. Gastronomy will also be taking centre-stage, with famous chefs cooking incredible culinary dishes right before your eyes. Many of these dishes feature pistachios, which are a PDO product. In the Gastronomy Corner you will find the famous Aegina pistachios and various delectable recipes.
Cape Sounio: overlooking the Aegean Sea!
If you ever visit Sounio, you will soon realize the true meaning of expressions like “outstanding beauty”, “majestic panoramic view”, “breathtaking sunset”. These words are totally truthful! So, when in Attica, do not miss this spot; travel to the southernmost tip of Attica peninsula and visit one of the most impressive and most photographed sights of Greece. It is no exaggeration to say that you will be utterly struck with awe!
According to Homer, Sounio was “the sacred cape of the Athenians”. These outstanding columns, were known in the past as “Kavokolones” (i.e. cape columns). On the highest point of the steep, rocky cape lies the temple of Poseidon. The impressive Doric temple was built of local marble in around 450-440 B.C., on the ruins of an archaic temple that was destroyed by the Persians. Some of the temple’s columns remain standing, while not far from Poseidon’s sanctuary one can also see the ruins of the temple of Athena Sounias, the walls of the site fortress and the old settlement within the fortress, as well as the small naval base, along with a ship shed for warships. According to the myth, the Athenian King Aegeus was waiting at Sounio for his son’s -Theseus-, arrival. Young Theseus, who had sailed to Crete to kill the “Minotaur”, had promised his father that if he was to return victorious, he would have replaced his ships’ black sails with white ones. But he forgot. So, when Aegeus saw the black sails on the ship, he thought his son had been killed and jumped off the cliff, killing himself. To commemorate King Aegeus, the sea was named after him and therefore known as the Aegean Sea.
Since the 17th century, foreign travelers have been visiting Sounio, marveling at the beauty of the site and its exceptional temple. Included among the early visitors was none other than the famous British poet and politician Lord Byron, in 1810.
Athens Riviera – Attica’s amazing coastline
The Athens Riviera, Attica’s amazing coastline to the south of Athens, resembles the lacy edge of an embroidered doily 60 kilometres long that begins in Piraeus and ends at the tip of Cape Sounion. Along the winding road are pockets of bays, coves, cliffs, caves and beaches: some sandy, other pebbled. The fact that these beaches are just 20-40 minutes from the centre of Athens explains why the Attica coastline is so popular with Athenians and visitors. Many of the beaches are open to the public, while several beach clubs are charging an entrance fee.
The seaside area between Neo Faliro and Paleo Faliro is about to being transformed into a recreational and cultural complex featuring a variety of cultural centres, marinas, leisure parks, sports arenas, museums and an aquarium. Heading south along the coast, after Faliron, the area near Agios Kosmas is home to a large seaside park. The suburb of Glyfada attracts visitors with great shopping and dining, whereas posh Vouliagmeni stands out for its exclusive resort hotels and the unique Vouliagmeni Lake known for its therapeutic waters.
Armata Festival in Spetses island
The re-enactment of the burning of the Turkish flagship, in memory of the historic naval battle in 1822 during the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. The evocative revival of the battle climaxing in the burning of the Turkish flagship makes this event an unforgettable spectacle. The celebration culminates in a firework extravaganza. The ‘Armata Festival’, as it is called, is a major annual event for the island, perfect for a weekend getaway. The unique atmosphere brings thousands of loyal tourists back to the island every year on the second weekend of September. Spetses is one of eight European cities participating in the European Network of Historical Reconstructions, along with Brussels in Belgium, Dublin and Cork in Ireland, Bailen in Spain, Slavkov in the Czech Republic, Tewksbury in the UK and Hydra in Greece.
For more information and this year’s activities calendar please visit www.spetses.gr.
Steeped in war and intrigue, culture and myth through the ages, it’s easy to see how Attica & Athens became the heart of the civilised world. Their rich history is very much evident today as you take in the sights and sounds of Athens, one of the many key cities in the region. No other area can lay claim to so many historical events and important cities as Attica. Indeed, it is in cities such as Eleusis, Megara and Marathon that democracy, philosophy and poetry (all Greek words, by the way) originated. War was also commonplace, and it is at Salamis and Plateai that the fate of the free world was determined when the Athenians met the Persians and emerged victorious. Having inspired many Hollywood blockbusters – including 300, the epic about the Battle of Marathon and its prequel Xerxes – this era of Greek history is one that cannot but spark interest.
The Athenians fought Darius and his invading forces without the help of Spartan reinforcements. The Persian defeat was so decisive that for many years no further attempts were made to invade Greece. In fact Miltiades’ brilliant strategy, known as The Battle of Marathon, is still the foundation of a great deal of modern warfare. The Battle of Salamis, which preceded that of Plateai, was fought between the Persian fleet and the Greek Navy. More than 300 Persian vessels were sunk or captured as a result of the Athenian ambush on the formidable Persian force in the straits of Salamis. As with the famous story of the 300 Spartans, the few beat the many and the strategy of the Athenian general Themistocles proved effective.
Every step made and every stone turned depicts a conflict between Gods and humans, Greeks and invaders, or Athenians and other Greeks. In its history one can also see giant leaps forward for the sciences, literature and the arts, all rooted in Attica, which was once united under the command of King Theseus. Although Attica’s architecture is impressive, its buildings are overshadowed by the Acropolis, the ancient citadel that became the foundation of the civilised world and still rules the skyline to this day.