When it comes to history, Athens is indisputably the capital of Europe. The cradle of Western civilisation is home to some of the continent’s oldest monuments, with buildings dating back as far as the 5th century BC. There is perhaps no grander testament to the city’s esteemed past than the story behind its new Metro system. Its construction inadvertently led to the excavation of around 30000 artifacts! But those constant reminders of millenia past have forged anything but conservatism. Athens is a city with attitude.
Athens is lively and highly social, with plenty of energy resounding through its streets, galleries and open-air restaurants and bars. Like the ancient city, Greek cuisine is steeped in history, with colourful dishes that emphasise freshness over complexity. Nothing complements the Mediterranean heat like sun-ripened, locally sourced produce. In Greece, dinner time is something to celebrate, whether down by the water or in its bustling squares.
People and Traditions
You’ll generally find the people in Athens to be very hospitable. However, if meeting up with locals, note that punctuality often isn’t much of a priority in the city. It’s best to meet people somewhere where you can keep yourself entertained, like a taverna, and try to exercise a little patience.
For Greeks, Easter is the most significant date of the religious calendar – more so even than Christmas. If visiting at this time, expect lots of sombre rituals in the churches, followed by bell-ringing and fireworks, and more food than anyone can possible be expected to eat, with servings of spit-roasted lamb and tsoureki (Easter cake). Many superstitious Greeks believe that spitting can ward off the devil and misfortune, so don’t be alarmed to see more of this than you’re used to.
Summers in Athens are dry and hot, particularly from June to August when temperatures regularly reach beyond 30ºC. Heat can be trapped by the city’s surrounding hills and the hottest months have been known to reach extremes in the forties (ºC). Fortunately, the public buildings in Athens are extensively air-conditioned. Winters range from cool to mild, with January and February tending to be the coldest months.
The Monastiraki Flea Market is always full of life and your one-stop shop for souvenirs, whether on the lookout for locally crafted goods sold by the artisans themselves or simply some cheap knick-knacks to remember your visit. And if you can’t get enough of the local food, then the Athens Central Market is for you, offering fresh produce, mezze and a host of great tarvenas dotted in and around the market hall.
If visiting Athens at any time from May to August, it’s worth checking the program for the Athens Festival. This annual celebration of the performing arts is one of the most popular festivals in Greece and takes place at the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
Visiting the Acropolis with a good tour guide ought to be a priority during your stay in Athens. Its surviving religious monuments, including the iconic Parthenon, were constructed during the city-state’s Golden Age under the guidance of Pericles in the 5th century BC, but the site had already been inhabited for millenia. However, while the Acropolis may have been the centre of Ancient Athenians’ spiritual life, the day-to-day activities of regular citizens took place at the neighbouring Agora.
While Athens’ ancient history might take centre stage, it isn’t the only player. The Medieval Daphni Monastery was built by the Byzantines and demands a visit if only for its radiant, gold-infused mosaics. For a broader perspective on Athenian history from the Bronze Age to the Second World War, you can’t do better than the Benaki Museum, located on the north border of the National Garden, just two minutes from the Greek Parliament. The range of exhibits is such that there’ll be something of interest to anyone with even the most remote interest in history. If you still haven’t had enough of antiquity, however, visit the National Archaeological Museum.