There is probably no better place to plan a museum day than Athens. Discover the city’s most captivating museums and learn about the Greek capital’s rich history and culture.
History buffs can bask in Greek heritage in the form of priceless artefacts from distant eras, while those looking for something unusual will delight in quirky exhibits. From ancient sculptures and Medieval churches to modern art and optical illusions, the Athens museum scene has it all.
Housed in a Neoclassical building, the National Archaeological Museum is one of the most important in the world when it comes to ancient art. It details the civilisations that prospered on the territory of what is now modern Greece, from prehistoric times until the end of the Roman era, through five permanent collections of more than 11,000 objects. Among these are Ancient Greek sculptures, ceramics and figurines, as well as an extensive Egyptian and Eastern antiquities collection. The museum itself has a remarkable history: the invaluable artefacts survived World War II only thanks to its employees, who literally buried them underground until the end of the war.
Never has a museum looked so minimal (design-wise) yet so imposing at the same time. Facing the Acropolis Hill, the eponymous museum displays all things Acropolis-related. Functional everyday objects used by Ancient Greeks, elaborate sculptures from the golden age of statesman and orator Pericles, and even an Athenian neighbourhood dating to the fourth millennium BC (set on the museum’s underground level), are only some of the exhibits reviving the city’s impressive history before your eyes. In the Parthenon Gallery, the Acropolis Museum’s pinnacle, the narrative of the Panathenaic Procession unfolds piece by piece.
The National Historical Museum is situated in the former Greek parliament building | Courtesy of National Historical Museum
Closer to modern Greece, the National Historical Museum covers the events that followed the fall of Constantinople, all the way through to World War II, with an emphasis on the period preceding the Greek War of Independence. Housed in the country’s former parliament building, with its historic assembly hall still intact, the museum features an extensive collection of personal items belonging to famous politicians, kings and leaders of the Greek Revolution. “Visitors flock to see [general and revolution hero] Theodoros Kolokotronis’s famed helmet,” says curator and communications manager Giorgos Nikolaou. The chest containing chief naval officer Konstantinos Kanaris’s actual heart doesn’t go unnoticed either.
Formerly the Duchess of Plaisance’s palace, the Byzantine and Christian Museum features more than 25,000 artefacts documenting religion, art and everyday life in the early Christian, Byzantine, Medieval and post-Byzantine eras. The only one covering Medieval Greece in such detail, the museum opens a true window into the Byzantine Empire. “We know a lot about Medieval Europe, but not about Medieval Greece, which is why this museum is important,” says theologian Constantinos Filippakopoulos, who specialises in Byzantine culture. “It documents Byzantine life, through exhibits features textiles and papyri, and even entire churches and twin tombs that are housed on its premises.”
If you want to marvel at one of the largest coin collections in the world, pass by the Numismatic Museum, which showcases 500,000 numismatic items – mostly coins and medals from the 14th century BC up until today. Coins from the sixth and fifth century BC belonging to Roman emperors or Greek kings and rulers are sure to astonish you, as you follow the history of coinage, room by room. Adding to the experience is architect Ernst Ziller’s Neoclassical building, which was once the home of pioneering archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.
The four main museums that comprise Benaki are an undeniable must-see. Visit the Museum of Greek Culture for art and culture pieces dating from prehistory to the 20th century, and the newest Benaki on Pireos Street for photography and modern art exhibitions. The museum’s 2019 Weavings exhibition, which drew links between painting and tapestry, was a particular highlight. “It unveiled the magnificent and fairly unknown, until now, Greek handiwork production that flourished from the 1960s to the 1980s, displaying outstanding tapestry and hand-tufted rugs next to the paintings that inspired them,” says Xenia Politou, curator of modern Greek culture at Benaki.
Over 3,000 artefacts of Cycladic, Ancient Greek and Cypriot art are on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art. Of course, the main focus is placed on the former, with the museum boasting one of the most important collections of Cycladic art in the world. The bronze tools, gold ornaments, marble figurines, plates and zoomorphic vessels showcase distinct artistic techniques, which convey the evolution of the Cycladic island culture that developed in the central Aegean during the third millennium BC.
Art connoisseurs Basil and Elise Goulandris had a vision: to someday house their precious collection of artworks in one single building. In 2019 their dream came true, taking the form of a 1920s Neoclassical mansion displaying 180 works, carefully chosen by the couple themselves. One of the greatest private collections to be assembled in the course of the second half of the 20th century, theirs features modern and contemporary artists, covering the period between 1880 and 1980: Cézanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Picasso, Miró, Giacometti and Chagall, to name a few. End your visit with a delicacy from the museum’s charming café on the mezzanine floor.
Forget about those annoying ‘do not touch’ signs. A different type of museum, one of just five of its kind worldwide, allows visitors to experience history and art in a new way: through their sense of touch. Founded by non-profit organisation the Lighthouse for the Blind of Greece, the Tactual Museum features exact, tangible replicas of prominent Greek artefacts found in other national or international museums (such as the Venus de Milo), thus bringing the country’s heritage closer to people with sight problems. “Everyone needs the beauty and serenity that a work of art can offer,” says social care administrator Georgia Mila. “And thanks to this museum, everyone can access it.” Admission is free for the blind and visually impaired.
If optical illusions and mind tricks are your idea of fun, then the Museum of Illusions should be high on your Athens to-do list. Stand in a room that’s upside down, shrink in size or become a giant, or play a game of cards with yourself. “There are lots of fascinating exhibits, like the chair that doesn’t look like a chair until you take a photo of it from the right angle,” says museum manager Panagiotis Papanikolaou. “My personal favourite, though, are the holograms behind the glass, especially the one who’s ‘shooting’ at you and you see that bullet almost passing through.”