No visit to Athens is complete without checking out the plethora of historical sites for which the city is known. While the hill of the Acropolis is home to many of these, there are hidden gems throughout the Greek capital. Here’s our pick of must-see historical sites in Athens ranging from the iconic Parthenon to pristine examples of Ottoman-era architecture.
Dedicated to the goddess of victory, the Temple of Athena Nike is a smaller temple on the Acropolis and was built in 420BCE. Built in the Ionic order, the elegant columns feature fluted grooves in homage to the feminine elements of the goddess, while a continuous frieze around the temple depicts victorious narratives. It was designed by the architect Callicrates and is a beautiful example of designs from the High Classical Period.
Located in downtown Athens, a short walk away from larger attractions such as the Acropolis, Kerameikos cemetery is a must-visit historical site. The area was named after the potters who originally lived in the area before it was turned into a cemetery, yet the ancient site was only discovered in 1861 when archeologists were excavating around the area. As well an ancient graves, the site includes the remains of a city wall built in 479BCE and the ruins of a road which once was used in the Panathenaic Procession.
Perched on top of the Lycabettus Hill, the whitewashed chapel of Agios Georgios can be seen from much of central Athens and from it visitors can survey the whole city. While the Greek Orthodox chapel that stands today was built in the 18th century, traces of a temple dedicated to Zeus have been found on the site, while a Byzantine church dedicated to the prophet Elias also preceded today’s chapel. The chapel is accessible either by foot or funicular.
Situated in the heart of Athens, this historical treasure is easy to miss. The Byzantine-era Little Metropolis Church sits next to its more imposing neighbour, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens. The Little Metropolis (also known as Agios Eleftherios Church) measures only 25ft by 40ft (7.6m by 12.2m) and its walls are built entirely of marble, an unusual feature for Byzantine architecture of the period. Only one of the original interior frescoes has survived: an image of the Panagia over the entrance space.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus (also known as the Herodeon) was constructed during the Roman period, between 160-174CE and fully restored in the 1950s. The design was once said by Roman emperor Marcus Arelius to be the finest of its kind, reflecting the traditional style of open air theatres of the time. The staggeringly steep and majestic space continues to host captivating performances to this day and has a capacity of 5,000 spectators.
Built in the 1st century BCE during the reigns of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, the Roman Agora sits east of Athens’s Ancient Agora. While the Ancient Agora served primarily as a place for political gatherings, the Roman Agora was an open marketplace. During Byzantine and Ottoman rule, the site was populated with houses, churches, workshops and mosques, among which is the surviving Fethiye Mosque. This 17th-century Ottoman mosque is currently used for cultural exhibitions. When visiting the Roman Agora, look out for the Tower of the Winds – this octagonal marble clocktower, considered to be the world’s first meteorological station, was built with a sundial and a weathervane.
Combine history with an urban hike on a visit to Philopappos Hill, set southwest of the Acropolis. In addition to the park – which offers excellent views of the Acropolis and the rest of Athens – here you will find a number of significant historical monuments. These include the Philopappos Monument, a mausoleum completed in 119CE in honour of Roman consul and senator Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos, who lived a considerable part of his life in Athens. In addition, a cave-like structure carved into the side of the hill is said (in local legend at least) to have been the place where Socrates was imprisoned before his trial in 399BCE.
When it comes to history in Athens, it’s not all ancient ruins. The tiny neighbourhood of Anafiotika, set on the northeastern side of Acropolis Hill and part of the larger Plaka neighbourhood, was built in the 1860s on the orders of King Otto I. Anafiotika, meaning ‘little Anafi’ is a fine homage to the workers from the Cycladic island of Anafi who heeded King Otto I’s call to come and turn Athens into a modern metropolis. While archaeological digs in the 1950s saw many of the houses destroyed, 45 of the original Cycladic-style houses remain, offering a taste of island life in the centre of Athens.
The central square of Athens, Syntagma Square is home to the Hellenic Parliament. This Neoclassical building previously served as the Royal Palace, where Otto, the first King of Greece, and his wife Amalia, lived from 1843 to 1862. The parliament is perhaps best known for the ‘Evzones’ guards who stand guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Presidential Palace, recognisable for their traditional uniforms. Also on the edge of the square are the historic Grande Bretagne and George II hotels.
Benizelos Mansion is a rare example of Ottoman-era architecture in Athens. While the building predominantly dates to the first half of the 18th century, the remains of a house from the 15th and 16th centuries also lie on the site. Now a museum, the mansion previously belonged to the prominent Benizelos family and is the last surviving example in Athens of a konaki – a walled compound typical of the 18th century.